In recent months I have come to realise that one of the most important questions to ask a male client could also be one of the riskiest: How many male friends do you have? Not drinking buddies, or sports mates but real friends? Friends with whom you speak about the joys and sadnesses of life, the successes and the failures?
I find the question so important because it can lead to an exploration of connections, of support networks, of possible loneliness (which is of course different from being alone). It also allows for a charting of openness, vulnerability, and authenticity: what sustains you, what challenges you in a constructive way? And: what are the hindrances in a man’s life to connect to a fellow male? The responses provide a lot of insight into how a man relates not just to other men, but also how he relates to himself, and to significant others in his life.
The question about friendships among men is important, I believe, because it leads the way to better understanding how individual men interpret the world around them, and how they see their own place in it. It leads to a better understanding of difficulties men might have with romantic love, with intimacy (sexual and otherwise), with conflicts at work, and even how they engage with their own depression or anxiety, sadness, and their own joy and contentment.
The key, for me, is intimacy.
Intimacy is sometimes confused with sexuality because the word is often used as a euphemism. Relationship experts, however, distinguish between physical intimacy and two other types: self-intimacy and conflict intimacy. Conflict intimacy describes our ability to interact without aggression or defensiveness.
In the setting of this blog I’m most interested in self-intimacy.
How content am I in my own skin? How capable am I to explore and experience the whole gamut of my emotions and thoughts, without needing to run away and hide? How well do I really know myself, and the stories I tell myself about myself?
There’s a beautiful piece on men and intimacy on the blog of the Good Men Project where the author writes: Intimacy is based on being able to show ourselves to another person, warts and all. Men are very reluctant to do this because they fear that they might be judged or put down.
Relationships of any type are bound to confront us with aspects of ourselves we don’t particularly like. A good relationship (be it a sibling, a colleague, a friend or a romantic partner) will hold up mirrors, and we will see things we don’t appreciate.
Contemporary demands on romance require a broadening of how many of us still see masculinity. In an interview with GOOP, Terry Real said this about the modern-day demands of and on men: The things you were taught as a boy—be strong, don’t feel, be independent - will ensure that by today’s standards you’ll be seen as a lousy husband.
Self-intimacy is the way to seeing what’s in the mirror, confronting what isn’t particularly helpful in the lives we want to live, and finding the courage to accept what needs accepting. Self-intimacy also means exploring who it is I am as a man, from deep within. What is my mission and my vision, what are my values and how do I want to engage with the world around me? What are my truths, and how do I speak them?
Therapist Terry Real calls this fierce intimacy: radical truth-telling. The ability to talk your walk, and walk your talk. But to be able to tell a radical truth, one needs to know 'I' first. This is where refined, new perceptions of strength are needed: the courage to be ruthlessly and compassionately honest with self, to explore the shadows within; the courage and strength to touch the pain within and heal.
Being intimate with others requires being intimate with ourselves first. The ideals of olden days – to be stoic, to be aggressive, to be “a rock” – are no longer sufficient. Strength and courage in our day and age are being redefined to mean different things.
Good, deep and lasting connections of men among men are ideal testing grounds for this openness, this vulnerability; testing grounds for this courageous entry into authenticity and integrity.
A pathway towards fierce intimacy.
Aernout has worked with the theme of modern day masculinity since 2001, originally as a writer / journalist. He published the book Spots of a Leopard in 2009 based on his encounters with men in Africa about what it means to be a man today.
Subsequently trained as a counsellor / psychologist, Aernout works one-on-one with men in his private practise near Nyon.
Aernout was born in Zambia, raised in the Netherlands and has lived in numerous African countries between 1997 and 2016. In July 2016 he moved to Geneva with his wife, Käbi.