'Men Aren't As Limited As You Think!'
Can't we create more good men - and good people in general - by speaking them into existence?
Abstraction Blue (1927) by Georgia O’Keeffe
Long-time reader, first time writer. Your column has saved my sanity, and probably my life, multiple times. I’m very grateful for you.
I will preface all of this by saying that there is a really good chance you already know what I say below, that you’ve done something about it and I’ve missed it, and/or that I’m completely full of shit. But I really don’t think I’m full of shit, and I wanted to say something just in case it ended up mattering somehow.
I am a lot like many of your readers: a smart, sensitive, opinionated, empathetic, creative, recovering perfectionist. I have a very good, very smart therapist, some pretty decent friends, a stable job that I love, and a slowly blossoming voice as a musician. I exercise and feel my feelings and have a lot of fun. A precise combination of extensive childhood trauma, neurodivergence, and a seemingly-unending sense that it just *has* to get better around the next corner has made me what I am today. What makes me different than many of the people who write in like this is that I am a man.
Because I am a beautiful curio cabinet of horror-treasures, I am like and seek out EXACTLY the kinds of women who often write to you. I really do want to be around women who are smart as fuck, strong, who raise hell, who care deeply, who help move our society forward without apology. And I am in perhaps the best city in the world to find the near-ideal type of exactly that kind of women. I am quite successful at finding them, and they initially like me quite a bit.
But I have the same problem, over and over: as they get to know me, all of these very smart, very open-minded women (and we are firmly into double digits of attempts now) start to, in their own words, disbelieve I am real. They think there must be a catch, and attempt to apply the same oversimplified and unambitious routines to me that they do to other men. Somewhat confusingly to me, they become agitated rather than excited when these routines don’t fit me, and often abruptly leave. This has been true regardless of age, romantic history, etc; I’ve had a surprisingly wide range of variance within this pretty narrow type.
I am not asking you to help me figure out how to keep these women around. I hope and imagine I’ll find one someday who finally believes me. Instead, after extensive discussions with several therapists, professional social scientists, and a wide range of women, I am increasingly sure that the core problem is that women’s expectations for men are simply so low that my mere existence creates unsolvable cognitive dissonance for the vast majority of them.
This makes me sad, because I think women are just lovely, and deserve much better. So, I am hoping that instead of giving me advice, you might be willing to write better men going forward. Especially given your position as a woman, and your particular audience, can you help me collectively raise the bar for us penis-havers?
I can give you examples of the kind of thing that nags me. In a one of your Substack columns you described men like this:
“If you might marry a man someday, you should know that they’re all unbelievably defensive, they all shut down when you tell them they’re wrong about something, and sometimes they’re even the most stubborn and dickish when they’re THE MOST WRONG! I mean how broken is that?”
“A woman in turmoil might find sustenance and shelter in a man, but a man in turmoil tends to turn that turmoil against a woman. This is really about vulnerability, and how our crappy culture rejects fragility in men. Men know this so they get defensive when they’re tossed around by complicated emotions, and then they like to decide that you’re the problem instead.”
I am aware that there are at least some slightly more generous takes on men throughout your canon, but many read more like the quote: how we're dumb and numb and simple and stubborn. And I think the situation is dire enough that every word counts these days.
To be clear: nearly every man is some combination of uncreative and aggressive. When you call them on either, they get more aggressive. This is both stupid and wrong. It’s worth saying all of that every time we talk about men. But there are exceedingly rare men who live their lives in direct contradiction to all of this every day. They do exist, right now. (Almost never in Nebraska or Arkansas, though.)
Since I am aware I am now formally crossing the “not all men” line, I’ll say their actual existence doesn’t even matter, because this society shit is all made up anyway. So we can create more Actually Good Men, slowly but surely, by speaking them into existence now. By saying and acting like they should and do exist. I want that for everyone, and I’m trying to do everything I can to make it happen. Will you help me?
a BRO: Bar-Raising Optimist
I agree with you. I need to change my stories about men.
I think there was a time when my convictions about How Men Usually Are were helpful to a lot of single cis-het women in particular who were struggling to understand why they kept falling into the same heartbreaking romantic traps. The culture and the mood of 2012 were very different than they are today. All of our conventional and often very limiting ideas and feelings around gender are being challenged and reshaped.
But that’s not all. The language around emotional health has shifted radically. Preteens talk like clinical psychologists now. We all have access to an endless flood of strong opinions, bone-rattling treatises, insightful theories, inspirational messages, paradigm shifts, and of course, hilarious books by absolute geniuses about trying to find joy and connection within the confines of long-term monogamy.
To be completely honest with you, sometimes I don’t love acknowledging how much things have changed because it makes me feel like I used to make something rare and special and now I just do a job that countless other people are also doing. And sometimes I don’t like moving beyond binary equations because it makes me feel like I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about — um, because I usually don’t.
I think a lot of people resist the brand new world blossoming in front of their faces for this reason. We withdraw from things that make us feel stupid and useless.
That said, some of the best Ask Polly columns and I would argue even the best eras of Ask Polly – and yes, these are a thing, I mean it’s been a decade – sprouted forth from my having entered a severely humbled state where I was forced to acknowledge that I knew nothing and had no answers. I had to show up and crawl into a deep hole and start digging to see what I could find.
Digging in the dark turns out to be my favorite thing in the world. I don’t think I would’ve figured that out, though, if writing this column for a living hadn’t forced me to do it. And as often as I’ve tried to convince myself that my ignorance or avoidance or knee-jerk attempts to take an easier, less vulnerable path to getting the job done around here were signs that I should quit, almost every time I’ve approached a column empty-handed, feeling stupid and useless, armed only with an open heart, I’ve crawled my way toward some new ideas that not only worked on the page but worked in my life.
All of this is relevant to your question because I think that, like me, you like to have a thorough, well-supported argument at the ready to back up every strong opinion you have. And there’s nothing worse for someone like you or me than admitting that we’re just as uncertain and lost as everyone else alive.
But is there anything better than standing in the middle of the shifting tides of your own bewilderment, barely able to touch ground, knowing that soon, you’re going to have to swim or float on your back or make some major adjustment just to keep breathing? I don’t think so. I think that underneath all of our pointiest, best-supported opinions, what we both love more than anything else is having our feet knocked out from under us by a huge wave. We love to be tossed around and ground into the sand. We get up out of the foam and the seaweed with a giant grin on our faces, pulling our bathing suits back on and laughing like crazy.
So here’s where I’ll start, I guess: I like cis-het men in general more than I ever have. I view them as more flexible and interesting and I’m also noticing, more than ever, that I trust men easily. There are lots of really sad reasons for this, honestly, but that doesn’t make it less true, and instead of trying to coach my way out of it I’d like to just enjoy where I am for a minute.
So this is probably a good time to admit that my interest in painting men as rigid is probably emotional. A lot of the men I’ve known over the course of my life have been pretty rigid. Some of them became more flexible because that’s what living past age 40 does to you. Some of them became more rigid. But beyond that, I think I used to have a preference for avoidant people. Even when I was encouraging everyone to be more vulnerable a decade ago, I wasn’t necessarily surrounding myself with sensitive, emotionally expressive men in real life.
I used to have a real toughness fetish, born of self-hatred honestly, and it took me so many years to shake it off. So much of my language is packed with artifacts that bear this out: the self-deprecation, the swearing, the defensive jokes, the asides. I still use that stuff because those are the tools in my fucked up tool box now. But my experience of myself and the world has shifted dramatically. I’m openly emotional and I’m drawn to other openly emotional people in a way I never was before. But I also love strong opinions, openly expressed, even when I disagree. I love it when people say “You know what I fucking hate?” or “Here’s what I love the most of all.”
And I just love softness and vulnerability so much. When someone wants to go there, when they understand the value of it and they’re not afraid to show you who they are: YOW! So delicious, so perfect, so irresistible, so completely life-altering.
So I want to exert a tiny bit of pressure on your story that women can’t believe you’re real. I think a lot of smart, intense women (and sensitive emotional people of all genders) are probably like me. We’ve spent a good chunk of our lives noticing that our softness and vulnerability aren’t all that appreciated in our dull action hero world (or in our tedious hot-mystery-lady-always-just-out-of-reach romcom world).
And even though preteens talk like clinical psychologists now, our whole culture still has a toughness fetish. Softness is more accepted, sure, but it doesn’t make you super cool. Tears on a first date don’t typically mean you’ve won yourself a second date. The pervasive and corrosive notion that women who express their emotions will drag you into a psycho-chick nightmare realm is still repeated and reused and recycled in the year of our lord 2022.
For this reason, a lot of smart, intense, and high-functioning people develop a deep-seated suspicion towards emotionally expressive people. It’s an aversion that’s boiled into our work culture, our entertainment sources, our political discourse, our education system. We’re coaxed into a state of believing that toughness is cooler and easier and better, and vulnerability means a person might be incapable of living in the real world.
And again, even though I was preaching about the value of vulnerability back in 2012, I hadn’t moved through my own shame and self-hatred enough to truly welcome it in other people. And I specifically rejected it in cis-het men in spite of my intention not to. I found it unattractive, in fact.
Now you can say “Well but you’re a fossil” and then I’ll send you a photo of my ass to shut you up forever, but in the search for an accurate enough photo of my ass that it will for sure control your mind henceforth, I’ll forget my point. Ha ha, I suck. Where were we? Oh yeah things have changed, sure they have, but don’t underestimate how common and pervasive and resistant to years of therapy our deepest wells of self-loathing and shame can be. (Case in point: This entire paragraph.)
I mean, look, even sending me a letter that says, essentially, “There’s nothing wrong with me, it’s the women I meet who can’t see me clearly at all that are the problem!” suggests that you have shame and fear and self-loathing to process, even now. (I mean fuck, who doesn’t, right?)
Any letter that lays out an argument that might be reduced to EVERYONE IS FUCKED OUT THERE BUT I’M GREAT is going to elicit this reaction from me. My first response is: Yes, absolutely, most people are fucked out there. And my second response is: Empty your hands and open your heart and let this feeling humble you until you learn something new.
Notice that my “most men are terrible” statements spring from this approach. People write to me about terrible cis-het men all the time, and I consider it my first job to support some of their assessments if they resonate with me, to stand up for their emotions even when I don’t feel the same way, and to give them some reassurance that they’re not alone out there, not at all. My second job is to say: Here’s how we ask for more — not just from others, but from ourselves, too.
But let’s point a fat finger of blame at me while we’re here. I’ve spent my whole life telling myself self-protective stories about what men were and weren’t capable of in order to keep myself from feeling dissatisfied or from asking for more. And listen, right now? I’m all about dissatisfaction and asking for more.
That’s humbling and it’s also bewildering. It’s hard to say “I think I’ve been selling myself short” and “I want more feeling in my life” and “I need weirder, wilder people around me.” It’s a lot to expect these things from a world that hasn’t always delivered them in the past. And it’s a lot to expect yourself to become flexible enough and worthy enough to enter a new paradigm, a new era of discovery, without fear.
It’s a lot to move forward with empty hands and an open heart, not knowing what you’ll find.
But you do it anyway because the more you do it, the more you notice HOW MUCH YOU CARE. How deeply you want love. How deeply you crave connection. How much more you want to feel.
And it is extremely hard to care about your own needs and desires. We’re taught, every day, to do the opposite. It’s hard to stand up for caring too much in a world that’s allergic to it. And even ALL OF THAT WORK — to care, to invest, to want more — only gets you to the very edge of the cliff that you’re required to dive off if you want to really feel where you are. It’s not just about identity or belief or values or communion. It’s about welcoming the scary gifts that the world is bringing you.
This morning I woke up feeling a tiny bit sad, and then I thought: Throughout my whole life, I’ve always been given exactly what I needed when I needed it. Always. I mean, you know there’s trouble brewing when you start sounding like an evangelical christian preacher. No offense to true believers of all stripes, seriously. I just don’t have the greatest track record with belief. I have always preferred doubt to faith.
On the surface, that is. But under the surface, I prefer faith. I want to leap, and fall, even if I break something doing it.
So I’m going to accept your challenge and work harder to bring my ever-evolving and more expansive understanding of men into all of my writing. I’m also going to try to move away from gender binaries more because I think that’s good for all of us. But I also need to remind myself that it’s okay to start where the LW is, in a world they perceive as binary or in a world they perceive as completely fucked (or both). I don’t have to throw out disclaimers and explanations constantly. That said, the movement of every column needs to be from a limited place that acknowledges our more fearful views of reality towards an optimistic, open, empty space where everyone is encouraged to be whoever they fucking are naturally, and nothing is pathetic or ugly, and no feeling is wrong or final.
But I want to challenge you, too. There are tinges of fear in your letter. I want to suggest that you continue to move toward your biggest questions and anxieties with an open heart, knowing of course that you are already good enough, you are already lovable, and you do deserve love.
You deserve love but you’re a person who is hard to see clearly when you’re not leaping enough. Does that make sense? And I would argue that people like you and me really need to take frightening leaps if we want to live passionate lives.
Let me add that I don’t agree with you that “nearly every man is some combination of uncreative and aggressive.” I know so many men who are yes, a little rigid at times, but they aren’t aggressive and they are creative.
And I guess if I’m really going to challenge you, I should ask why you can say that most men are uncreative and aggressive but I can’t say that most men respond to turmoil by pinning the blame on the nearest woman. We should both challenge our assumptions, right? Or is there some subconscious part of you that still believes, in spite of your best intentions, that men have the right to define the world and women don’t?
I’m not saying you believe this consciously. But you might have some subterranean beliefs that you haven’t interrogated fully yet. So I’m asking you to move toward the things you’re the MOST ADAMANT AND CONVICTED ABOUT and to look more closely at them, in order to discover the rivulets of vulnerability and fear that might be hiding in the foundations of your most gorgeously designed intellectual fortresses.
Most humans tell easy, reductive stories and make sweeping generalizations in order to sort out their feelings about the world. But even once we break down those bad stories, we’re still building elaborate walls around what we fear the most all the damn time. And smart, intense, sensitive people are the most industrious builders! We never stop protecting ourselves from our gigantic emotions. We want to be right. We want to be informed. We want to be useful. We want to be deeply loved.
Sometimes the best way to love yourself is to stop building. Drop your best tools on the ground, take off your clothes, walk straight into the ocean, and wait for a wave to knock you off your feet and grind you into the sand.
I don’t want you to feel misunderstood. I really don’t. But in my experience, people who can’t risk being misunderstood are often still sorting out exactly who they are. This is a description of you and a description of me. Sometimes I can risk being misunderstood, and other times I want to fucking DEFINE exactly what you’re looking at, give it pretty words, make excuses for my failings, rationalize my tendency to back away slowly instead of moving closer, cover up my fear and longing and worries, make my soft heart seem attractive and triumphant instead of unsure.
I think we should both just be unsure instead.
You don’t know why you arrived here, and neither do I. All we can do is look at where we’ve been and where we are now and ask ourselves if we’re welcoming this terrifying, humiliating, exciting day into our hearts with as much love and gratitude as possible. All we can do is say that we’re going to welcome the gift of retiring words like most, all, and almost every and embracing words like:
Tell me what you are.
Tell me how you want me to see you and feel you and make space for you.
I don’t know why I’m here but for some reason I trust it.
I don’t know what I want so I’m going to sit with this feeling until it shows me something new.
Thank you for writing to me. Your curio cabinet of horror-treasures was such a gift to discover this morning. It seems like you’re learning at light speed right now, too. So maybe instead of telling a story about how you’re doing your best but everyone else is backing away — and also maybe telling a private story that you’re unlovable and lonely and lost — you need to surrender to the idea that you’re getting exactly what you need when you need it.
Maybe this sad hour is sacred and unfathomable. You’re getting dragged and it hurts and you want to be loved instead. I’m getting dragged and it’s humiliating and I feel stupid and useless. Heaven loves to see us crumpled and undone, waking up to the mysterious horrors and treasures of this day, with a thirst for passion and belief and surrender on our tongues. Heaven loves to watch us walk straight into the waves, fearful and alone but intent on welcoming the tide’s divine interventions.
Thank you for reading Ask Polly! Send letters to askpolly at protonmail.com.