As a therapist and mentor helping men grow their relationship muscles, I’ve come to see a pattern.
The #1 complaint from female partners (who often reach out for help first) is the same as what most men wish for when they see me privately:
“to become more present”
This longing to be “here and f*cking now” as one of my clients Frank is fond of saying, comes with a second and even more heartfelt wish:
“to feel more authentically connected”
These are not just words.
Both the yearning and the pain of it’s absence are real.
And the insight makes sense — mapping onto the 5 regrets of the dying (read more here)
But, HOW do we become more present and connected as men?!
It involves as trait which is not inherent but learned.
More about that soon.
But I do need to inform you that there are many well worn and trusted paths which lead to this sacred land of presence and connection.
Two I recommend to every man.
One is Mindfulness — a deep and winding path in wilderness that is endless.
The other is a more direct path, involving learning love habits based on attachment science. See Stan Tatkin’s work on the Couple Bubble as an example.
But, however essential and foundational love habits are, it’s still a slow lane…
If you want to speed up and get there sooner...
There is one path that is a super highway.
To travel on this road, you need a certain vehicle, a trait which few men possess but which allows us to get “here and f*cking now” and connect more deeply and quickly.
Can you guess what it is, yet?
Yes, I am intentionally teasing and withholding, but you’ll see soon enough that it’s part of the trait itself. : )
As a husband and father, I forget it all the time.
It took a recent conversation to remind me and wake me up to it’s full power.
So, here I am with my good friend, Mike Andre, a full time working dad, a committed husband, and a stand up comedian.
Our intention is to have a deep dive about this trait but the conversation (listen to the full episode here) did not start where I imagined, as Mike launched into,
“I’ve been thinking about misery a lot because I am miserable… “
He mentioned reading this Medium article about The 6 Habits of Deeply Miserable People and identified with it, saying…
“My grandma used to say, ‘You know boy, you’re miserable…’ And it made me wonder ‘Was I just being a regular kid… or was she peering into my soul?’”
Mike went on to list out the 6 traits, concluding that “Yes” he had 4 and a half of them.
I had to make fun of the article, which I genuinely think was written as fluffy click bait. Hence my own cheeky title, in response.
Back to Mike and I. As a friend, I felt his misery and so I looked for a way to help us both to hold that and to move forward in our conversation.
“Mike. Listening to you being miserable, I’m thinking about the art of clowning. Where you wear the thing that is real but make it bigger.”
I started hamming it up, making dramatic gestures… “Look at my clothes… My thinking is bad… I’m miserable!”
Glad he trusts me and knows I was not mocking him.
“You know this Mike from your experiences that there is power in exaggerating the truth, to be able to more fully own it. And the more you externalize it the more I hope you realize it’s just an act. There’s a miserable guy inside you but it is just a shtick. It’s not who you really are… “
I felt relieved to hear Mike agree and to see his face light up.
“Right. Yes, And what I struggle with and what many comedians struggle with as we get older… If I start to get better as a person, If I start to separate myself from the misery, take medication or seek counselling, will I be less funny…? Which is almost like choosing between life and life. What is life beyond being funny? If I am happier but not funny, will I be really happy. Like the two couldn’t co-exist.”
I try not to be preachy but share my sense of it,
“I think life is complex and challenging enough that if I take my own suffering out of it, life becomes more interesting. If I’m less caught up in my own sense of being a victim and life sucks. There’s so much going on for everybody.”
Mike takes my invite.
“There it lies, the core of playfulness for me is connection.”
Now we’re cookin’!
Do you get it yet?
“Yeah. Right on… and once before we spoke about types of play that are just mocking people, putting ourselves down or minimizing the reality of something troubling… So, let’s define what is real playfulness. The kind of play that is soulful and transformative… Do you have an example?”
This next part is where Mike really demonstrates how powerful playfulness can be and how deeply connected and present it made him.
“Yesterday. Another just normal difficult day of both of us working from home. Cleaning and cooking and all that stuff. My wife said she was going to Target to get groceries… And then she came back with nerf guns and a note which said… ‘Hey Love, first one with three shots gets to decide bedtime tonight.’ And she already had her nerf gun out. Wait! It was on. It was on immediately. I mean went from I went from kinda zoning out on the couch, watching TV, angrily stewing over my day, to immediately trying to stuff this dart into a nerf before I got shot! That’s how quickly it happened. That was a true injection of playfulness.”
Putting myself in his shoes, I was burning to know, “Did you have a moment of choice there or did the playfulness just take you over…?”
“Totally a moment of choice. Absolutely! There was a moment of like, “What do you want?” (serious tone)
I was reminded of so many times my wife or daughter getting playful and me with my arms crossed being as I he was demonstrating. “Mr. serious. What is this?!”
“But as I read it… There was a nerf gun and note on a napkin… a love note… ‘First one to get three shots at the other person…’ I was like, ‘Oh, This is a CHALLENGE!’ And then it was on. We were running around the house, hiding behind doors… Shots getting fired. And she said at the end, ‘I knew you could not resist the opportunity to shoot something at me.’ I was like ‘You’re totally right!’”
I love this example and I had to analyze it with Mike a bit more.
“Your wife is so smart and wise… It’s so beautiful because she’s working with reality… In any couple, you have real moments of aggression.. “Arr, you are so annoying!” And to take that and make that playful… Not to be like “lets be happy!” trying to be “positive”. Instead it’s “You want to take a shot? Here it is!”
Mike summed it up clearly,
“Yes! You’re right, she dealt with the truth. You want to take a shot at me. I want to do that too. And here is a safe way to do so.”
This made me think about how true play is to speak the unspeakable, to touch the untouchable. And how play is so damn essential to basic health. I heard it said that in a traditional culture, when someone gets sick, the healer would ask them,
“When did you stop playing? To diagnose them. What happened? When did life become so serious and painful that you could no longer play with it? So they assume playing with stuff is part of being healthy. Playing with death, with betrayal, with anger, with whatever comes up is part of being healthy and human. [It’s necessary to] digest life.
And when we stop being able to do that, something’s wrong…”
At this point, 13 minutes into our interview, I get really vulnerable and share a situation that is really bugging me around a moment with a family member; someone whom I love dearly but also wanted to punch in the face.
Mike and I spend the rest of the time wrestling with my dilemma. It was painful and awkward at first. Yet, in our back and forth, we discover new ways to be more playful and powerful in such a situation. I could transcribe it here, but you’d miss the magic of hearing it unfold in a live way between us.
Our playful conversation left me practically armed with several ideas for playing with violence, racism and offensive moments. It also made me deeply grateful for our friendship and the power of play!
LISTEN here to the full interview.
In terms of playfulness, I would love your honest feedback in comments below. Despite my cheeky title, I value writing here as a way to start genuine and perhaps even playful conversation with you, dear readers and fellow authors.
More REFERENCES and REFLECTIONS on PLAY
I have come to see play as a secret weapon, which helps to disarm tension, release aggression and ultimately to transform the hearts and minds of our “opponents”.
It is also a key to actually learning stuff. According to science, engaging in play improves us both on the inside (mental functioning, emotional regulation and growing brain connections) and on the outside (performance in tasks, ability to socialize, solve complex problems).
In the bedroom, playfulness is a magic elixer which our lovers crave from us to relax, trust and open up to ecstatic expression (sex and joy). More thoughts and research on play and intimacy here and here.
Furthermore, play is a gateway to making people trust and listen to us.
There’s a tonne of research out there for those who are curious to seek it.