Why a Man Avoids Relationship

Mom is usually our first relationship, and until a boy reaches about three years of age, his relationship with his mother is very similar to that of a girl with her mother. Then, sons and mothers begin to relate to each other in a different way than do daughters and mothers, and the vulnerable feelings that arise around this disconnection may have very profound implications for the rest of male relational development.

American culture in general supports this disconnection, which researchers refer to as normative developmental trauma, which a girl isn’t required to experience.

A boy is pressured to disconnect from his mother – usually through shaming by other boys and men. In addition, his mom is expected to support his turning away from her, even if she feels it is wrong to do so. He must be declared different from her, compares himself to others, tries to be unique, and feels bad when he is unsuccessful.

Perhaps as a consequence of her own misunderstanding of men, a boy’s mom is usually the one to fit him with his first “gender straitjacket” through emotional shaping that begins at birth and continues throughout the life span. In the process of attachment and (frequently traumatic) separation, she actively (though often unwittingly) participates in the hardening process that shames boys into suppressing their empathic and vulnerable sides. One of the first things a mother wants to know is whether the child is a boy or a girl. As soon as she knows, the process begins.

Dr. Stephen Bergman also noted,

“Often the boy is taught not to listen to his mother trying to maintain connection, or to listen with a certain suspicion, and if he does listen, not to respond to her.”

As a result, he may become paralyzed both emotionally and relationally by his own ambivalence – his intense longing for close emotional connection and the fear of his vulnerability at the same time. Very confusing and sad … and very, very lonely.

At this point, he needs to identify with someone – ideally, with a caring, available father. However, his father may also be encouraging the mother-son disconnection, be recovering from his own relational trauma, and be unable to provide him with the empathic relationship he so desperately needs.

Consequently, the boy moves from a mother connection to a father disconnection.

Rather than learning to maintain the emotional ties essential for development, he learns to disconnect from the process of relationship, and may never learn how to be emotionally close with another person.

Thus, not having learned to deal with unpleasant emotions in relationship when he was a boy, a man may continue to feel intensely afraid of conflict, as well as connection. Bergman labeled this emotional experience using a highly descriptive term: male relational dread. A man’s fear is characterized by a sense of inevitable, never-ending disaster and an expectation of immense and irreparable damage. And often the closer a man feels to a woman, the more intense his dread. He feels unsafe, guilty, incompetent, and ashamed in this uncharted territory.

Under the pressure of needing to fix things, he is overcome by an ever-increasing sense of dread. Although a man may want connection desperately, he may withdraw, strike out, tune out, change the subject, joke, make nice, or simply fall silent in an effort to deal with his anxiety.

Gordon MacDonald put it this way:

Among the first private thoughts in the male are ones that center on the issue of feelings, which most of us are taught, should rarely, if ever, be acknowledged. The don’t-cry-act- like-a-man message comes early in life. And a boy learns to master his tear ducts and force his face into an expression that would make a stoic proud. The feeling may be unbearable, he thinks, but there’s no way I’m doing to let you know it. From that point forward in the male life feelings and emotions are increasingly stuffed somewhere. Fear, sadness, anxiety, smugness, anger, joy, loneliness, disappointment: don’t let them be seen, deep-six them, make them disappear, so far away, so deep, so buried that no one, even I, will ever know they were around. (p. xix)

It’s indeed most unfortunate that many men have sufficient evidence from their own relationships with women that disconnection may actually be the better, safer way to go. Men – no doubt with good reason – do not trust women to let go of their false images of men, and to accept and appreciate their vulnerability as human beings.

However … the good news is that you have the power to change that experience for your man – starting today! Simply learn the Truth about how to be a safe person for him. And if you don’t know what that looks like, find a knowledgeable counselor who can help you develop the understanding and skill required. You will both be the better for it.

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