If I were to ask you, “Hey man, how are you showing up in your intimate relationship?”
Would you know how to answer? And would your partner agree with how you see yourself?
Many of my closest, most articulate and self-aware male friends fumble around with this question. As did I, until I started to see clear patterns (which this article aspires to highlight).
Knowing ourselves — who we are and how we show up in our most intimate spaces — is a most vital question to answer. Sure, relationships are a two way street and a co-creation. Even so, when we find the most awesome partner, we have the power to either passively sabotage or actively take lead to help create the most passionate, intimate and satisfying bond.
Blind spots abound! Intimate relationships can be all encompassing. When things are going well, we enjoy the euphoria and simply hope it lasts. When things are devolving, we wonder what happened, narrowing our focus on the negative: how bad we feel, what we’re missing and who’s to blame. Because of the close proximity and the constant immersion, it’s very hard to see clearly what is really going on.
Understanding this bias, a few years ago, when the negativity reached it’s crazy zenith in my own marriage, I started looking for ways to get to a more objective and accurate perspective. Wanting to own my shit, I started to note where my attention went most often and how I actually behaved in my marriage. Doing so was like a splash of cold water to my face.
It revealed to me a pattern which showed me to be a very different man than the one I was intending to be.
Wondering if I was the only man struggling in this way, I started talking to a lot of other men who were in relationships. A set of patterns emerged, revealing in stark contrast, the four most common ways as men we tend to show up in our relationships. And, when I looked further, searching for men who were in deeply fulfilling long term relationships, I saw a much more rare fifth type of man, who embodied the way I wished to become more in my marriage.
Seeing which of these 5 men I was being — at different stages of my marriage — has led to many breakthroughs in my marriage. Often it’s been painful to fess up to at first, flooding me with doses of guilt and shame. Yet, whenever I take 100% ownership of the man I am being, I tend to feel paradoxically both an increase in vulnerability (being found at) and relief that I don’t need to hide or deny it. The pay off I have come to trust is that such naked honesty always leads to more intimacy and connection with my wife.
I hope that as you read below you may have a wake up call, as well. And that any awareness you gain — even if it is painful at first — ultimately leads you to grow in your relationship and to feel more genuinely connected and satisfied with your partner.
1. The MAN on FIRE
There are two types of fires that can consume you in a relationship. The first is to be swept up and in love. This happens when your heart is consumed with a deep longing for a certain type of love that you have not fully received, yet. With this deep yearning is the promise of it’s fulfillment — if you can just continue to be around this one special person.
The second type of fire is to be in lust. This is when you are literally hot, carnally craving to be with another in the most intense, sensual and sexual way. It’s a deep itch that needs satisfying! You know what I’m talking about, right?
Both of these fires have enormous power to captivate your imagination, flood your nervous system with hormones and to keep your emotional brain doped up on a rollercoaster of incredible highs and intense moments of desperate craving.
The only choice I recall perceiving to have when I was a Man on Fire, was whether to step towards the object of my lust and infatuation— risking rejection and hurt — or whether to step away and try to cool down the fire — losing the potential for deeper satisfaction!
Stepping back can be safer, but also moves you away from growth. Sure, some people are not good for us. Meanwhile others may hold the key to our healing and evolution as men. The dilemma is that when you are a Man on Fire, it is incredibly hard to suss out which is which.
One danger of letting yourself surrender to the fire of being in lust and/or in love is that you become temporarily blind. You may be satisfying your immediate desires yet the love and desire you feel is not — yet — grounded. Your perceptions are almost entirely based on a projection of your deepest longing that this person will scratch a deeper itch. That’s why when you are in love, it is referred to as an “infatuation” (based on fantasy) that is intoxicating (physiologically euphoric and potentially addictive).
The other thing to be aware of when you are a Man on Fire is that the fires themselves are unsustainable on their own in a long term relationship. Passionate desire, as well as, feeling in love, both fade with time and the routine of day to day living together — unless there is courage, creativity and ongoing effort to keep tending the fire. Esther Perel, an expert on passion and sexuality in relationships, speaks to why this is and what we can do it about it more here.
The invitation I make to you if you are a Man on Fire is this: because the fire comes on it’s own and may even seem out of your control, the vast majority of men do not actively learn how to spark, contain and sustain it.
2. The MAN on AUTO PILOT
You are a Man on Auto Pilot if you’ve been coupled for a while and are acting like you have always acted in other relationships. Being on automatic mode may not seem so bad. Especially if your default setting as a man is to be kind, considerate, funny, dependable, etc. Your partner may love such good habits.
But, even under the best circumstances, eventually, if you stay in this mode, you and your partner will discover three big problems with it.
One. Your relationship starts to lose the spark of spontaneity and freedom that fueled romance and passion before. The way you interact gets old. How you see yourself as a man feels less inspired and how you are seen by your partner becomes more and more two dimensional.
Two. Without the daring needed to step out of the box, one or both of you start to feel trapped. You feel type cast and stuck in your role. Over time, with the same partner, you both start to feel the limitations of the way you interact together. Stan Tatkin (a relationship expert I trust) explains why that happens to all of us here. You feel frustrated and cycle through the few limited roles you can play: funny guy, good guy, hard worker, etc. Eventually you start to feel suffocated — often blaming it on your partner, who plays along with the stock roles you are trapped in. It feels hard to break out and to change the way you are both relating. I call that the Relational Spell, which is unconscious for most men.
Three. You actually suck at relationships and don’t even know it. Ouch. I hate to break it to you. Relationships are living organisms that need to grow and evolve. If you and your partner are not growing together, you may be growing apart. Or worst yet, you may be stuck together, emotionally and relationally stunted. This may be hard to swallow, but know that it’s not your fault.
Being asleep in our relationship and on autopilot is a deep spell. Powerful but untrue messages keep us asleep and afraid to step out, like: Just be nice. Keep giving. Avoid conflict. To break out of the spell of previous programming is not as easy as changing your thoughts (though many “thought” leaders claim just that). As soon as you step out of line and off script, you trigger your defences , which are trying to protect you. If you dare continue to break out of the mold, your worst fears and hurts will bubble up to the surface. This is the cost of being authentic and free. It does get easier with time, once you commit to healing and growth, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
Are you up for a wake up call?
3. The MAN on the Fence
You’re a Man on the Fence whenever you feel like something fundamental is missing and so you start questioning whether you are with the right one or not. If you stay in this state long enough you start to feel torn between staying and going.
If we are a caring type of dude, you feel enormous guilt about not being fully committed. You become genuinely torn in two and in agony about it. Terrified of leaving and hurting your partner, of disappointing and failing at making it work, and of the pain and loss that will come if you separate. On the other hand, you feel deeply unsettled and wretchedly uncomfortable about staying — something just does not feel right.
Being a man who is questioning is not wrong or bad. It’s a sign of distress, a warning and an invitation.
The distress is the real pain we all experience once the honeymoon fades, the rose coloured glasses come off, and reality sinks in. It’s a pain that is multiplied by trying to love within the limits of of what Tony Porter calls the Man Box (expectations set for us as men by society) and to live up to the lies of the Relational Spell (ways we have learned to relate that are not so healthy). Both types of limitations set us up to fail as men in the arena of intimacy, never able to fulfill our longing to love and be loved fully.
In addition, every relationship has natural limitations arising out of the blind spots and misunderstandings of two people with genuine differences. But without understanding or skills, we devolve into stupid fights and giving each other cold shoulders which exacerbates our struggle to feel certain and confident about our bond. The warning here is if you don’t actively learn to work through conflicts and accept yourself and your partner as they are, the pain of resentment, disappointment and hurt will just pile on and corrode any intimacy that is still there.
And finally, the invitation is neither to run nor to stay and settle. Walking out without awareness and growth leads to repeating the same cycle with another lover. Staying put without change is another trap. Time alone does not heal wounds. In fact, most marriages seem to settle into what Nate Bagley calls out as a type of “mediocrity” (listen here), where you avoid real intimacy, walk on egg shells and you are just one nasty fight away from imploding the bond.
The invitation is to first embrace the truth of where your relationship is really at. For me it meant realizing how deeply disconnected my wife and I were, all the ways I contributed to that and how there were layers of hurt, loss, resentment, disappointment and fear to patiently acknowledge and heal to be able to see each other more clearly and with a feeling of genuine love again.
I was a Man on the Fence for a big chunk of my marriage. Torn, guilty and afraid… I am so glad I got off that fence to really discover how amazing my wife really is and to open my heart to her fully.
Whether you stay or go, as a Man on the Fence, the calling here it is to do whatever it takes to evolve your attitude towards your current partner and your relationship. Doing so, is an investment in yourself and in whoever you will love going forward.
You ready to get off the fence?
4. The MAN who is Trying to FIX
Do you feel like you are exerting a lot of effort on trying to improve your relationship? Does it feel like endless work?
Being a man intent on fixing what is wrong in his relationship is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it can create and intensify conflict between you and your partner. Who likes being told how they need to change? Terry Crews speaks most eloquently to this when he says…
“It’s impossible to love someone and control them at the same time.”
On the other hand, exerting effort to improve our bond can lead us to make necessary breakthroughs and changes that need to happen for the relationship to grow. Paradoxically, one key for making marriages work (especially for us guys) is to learn to accept the influence of our partners.
There are also times when you are trying way too hard to fix your partner and the bond, believing both to broken.
When you start to see your partner as a project and someone who needs your expertise — who cannot grow without you — it’s a sign you are going too far.
See this humorous video about a man doing the fixing thing if you need to step back and have a good chuckle about the absurdity of the endeavour.
Another danger here is that you can become hyper invested in self-improvement, trying so hard to fix yourself as you come to believe that you are in your core deeply flawed and utterly unprepared and unskilled at relationships.
Being a Man who is Trying to Fix may feel like firmer ground than being on Auto Pilot, on Fire, or on the Fence — however, the paradigm of trying to fix our relationship (or ourselves) is still inherently flawed and bound to fail.
The good news. When your focus is put on how to make your bond stronger, more passionate, more fulfilling— while accepting yourself and your partner as belonging to the race of fellow imperfect human beings— the drive to try and fix becomes more skillful, more subtle and more impactful. You start to see your relationship problems more clearly in terms of behaviours that lack skill, habits that need to be cultivated and emotions that need healing. You start to become what I consider to be the most rare type of man…
5. The POWERFUL And LOVING MAN
Martin Luther King Jr. once said,
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
Are you as inspired as I am to embody that paradox?
As a man who is both powerful and loving, you embrace ambiguity and feeling pulled in many directions — on a daily basis — and yet you fiercely commit to loving your partner fully while being true to yourself each and every day. It’s your discipline, your craft, and your purpose to learn how to love your partner better over time, while equally putting in the sweat and blood to realize your full potential as a man. Some days the journey is perilous and gut wrenching while other times it is ecstatic, mind-blowing and heart warming.
You don’t entertain escaping your relationship because you have come to realize and trust three relationship truths that slice through your fears and doubts.
The grass is greener wherever you water it.
Wherever you go and who ever you connect with, you always find yourself.
The greatest adventure you could ever dare to go on as a man is — not some middle aged thrill seeking out there, but— the inner journey that takes you from your head to your heart.
It’s a short but profoundly life changing trip every time, which always brings you back to loving the one you are with and have chosen, again and again.
Making the choice to be a Powerful And Loving Man is both aspirational and deeply practical. There is no finish line or place of perfection. It’s a constant practice that invigorates and kicks your ass. The dojo is the relationship and it is open 24/7. It demands that you constantly look at what needs adjusting, daring to love beyond your previous conditioning. It also means pivoting suddenly from being in the mode of effortful doing to the utter stillness of receptivity. One second you are doing the dishes. The next you are fully facing and embracing intense, “crazy” and unreasonable emotions (like crankiness, grief, insecurity, jealousy and hurt). You respond with courage and compassion so that you and your partner can heal with a bit together each time, coming to expect and anticipate this as part of the ride through life together.
Can you imagine yourself being a Powerful And Loving Man yet? It means being regularly un-moored and challenged, where you learn to develop sea legs, not clinging to any shores of certainty. As a consequence, you end up evolving and changing with your partner. You take as your central operating system, the growth mindset, letting go of fixed notions of who you thought you were and what relationships should be like. As a leader in your relationship, you lean in to help your partner (and they learn to do the same for you)— with humour, love and daring — to courageously shake out of auto pilot’s fixed mindset or the frozen stasis and analysis paralysis of questioning your relationship.
Over time, the “couple bubble” you create with your partner becomes intensely nourishing and very strong, yet you are wise enough to not stand alone. You know it takes a village to rock any relationship. So, you have an army of friends, mentors, and allies who help you and your partner when one of you are down or low.
My QUESTION to YOU:
What type of man are you being in your relationship right now?
To help the truth go down…
As you seek to find your most honest answer, I hope that doing so brings you clarity and freedom. And — because the truth can be hard to own and swallow — I want to add a dose of compassion by saying…
I have spent most of my adult life being the first 4 types of man in a relationship: on fire, on autopilot, on the fence, and trying too much to fix. I get how easy it is to fall into those pre-conditioned modes. I also know the pain of realizing how much staying in any of those modes cost me and my past relationships.
If you can’t forgive yourself, I hope you can at least come to understand why you got stuck in one of these modes and recognize how common and human that is.
What else can you do about it…?
Awareness is a start, but knowledge is not power — it is the seed of power. To actually change, we must take new and inspired action, consistently and gradually growing a new way of being in relationships.
Relationship growth is damn hard, for two reasons. One, we have the inertia, comfort, and protection of established habits (from the Relational Spell and Man Box) to break free from. Second, we become so enmeshed with being a certain type of guy (On Fire, Questioning, Fixing, Auto Pilot) believing it to be our core identity as a man.
That being said, growth is critical in order to become more deeply fulfilled in a relationship to another human being.
The good news is that we don’t have to give up being a powerful man nor a loving partner. In fact, the opposite is true.
We need to be brave enough to strip off everything else.
What is left is an authentic and compassionate, committed and free, reliable and ever-evolving, courageous and wise, fully present and deeply ambitious partner and man!
To summon the courage and to help me to stay on this path, I founded a caring and daring community of men who are equally committed to this bold endeavour. It’s called Powerful and Loving (PAL).
Our mission is simple: to encourage and support one another to do whatever it takes to become more powerful and loving.
Dare to know more?
You can find us here.
Related readings from David…
MEN and RELATIONSHIPS →
MASTERING CONFLICT (3 part series) →
- The 3 SHAPES of CONFLICT: how do you fight with your partner?
- The 5 Elements of Masting Conflict
- WHERE can we learn to do conflicts better?