The Link Between Male Self-Image, Romantic Relationships, and Mental Health
Everyone has seen THE WALK before—a man strutting around bursting with swagger and confidence because something has changed in his life. This adjustment is often connected to a relationship that makes him feel like the superhero he always imagined himself to be. Relationships, regardless of type, inform how we see ourselves and operate in the world. Feeling secure in our most important relationships can inspire a person to strive for goals previously believed unattainable and persist through challenges seemingly unconquerable.
In adulthood, our most important relationship is often with our life partner. How this relationship is managed has implications for both partners’ mental health—as anyone who has sat between a couple’s war of words during a public dinner can attest. (Forgive me if I’m making it too personal…I just wanted to eat my food.) For men, managing romantic relationships is often tied to perceptions of masculinity and expectations for how men should operate in relationships. When a healthy understanding of masculinity is coupled with rewarding relationships it can substantially enhance a man’s mental health.
To identify key aspects of healthy masculinity that men can develop in relationships to bolster their mental health, I connected with Kimberly Blackshear, a couple’s therapist and trauma expert. We explore three questions and give practical tips for men to use their relationships to become men’s men (read: men who are emotionally self-aware and able to express their needs…in case you were confused).
How does a healthy concept of masculinity enhance romantic relationships and mental health?
“Saying what you mean and meaning what you say” is an unwritten creed of manhood—implying that lack of definitiveness in words or actions reflects a little less masculinity. While having the integrity to stand behind your words is important, the pressure of having your emotions and thoughts completely sorted before discussing stressful issues can take its toll emotionally. This is particularly burdensome when men feel unable to be emotionally expressive in their romantic relationship—arguably their closest relationship—because it counters their perceptions of masculinity.
Kimberly says, “It is important for both parties in a relationship to be comfortable with who they are and their own masculinity/femininity. This prevents unhealthy expectations from both partners such as believing the other partner will enhance or bolster your sense of masculinity or expect you to play out societal stereotypes. Healthy relationships are based on both parties being their true selves.” Part of using a healthy concept of masculinity to bolster mental health and relationships involves setting realistic expectations about masculinity.
Below are a few tips to get the process started:
Write down all your expectations about being a man in a relationship without judging your list
For each expectation, answer the question, “What would happen if I didn’t meet this expectation?”
Identify two or three of the expectations that you have the strongest feelings about (even if they are mixed feelings) and write down what makes you feel uncomfortable about these expectations
Find someone you trust, preferably your romantic partner, and share that you are trying to become a healthier man by practicing how to better express your thoughts and feelings. You can read or share what you wrote about the expectations for being a man in a relationship. Regardless of the response from your partner, you will likely experience more comfort expressing your true thoughts and feelings because you are practicing sharing with someone else.
Pro Tip: Practice sharing ambivalent feelings because it will lighten the mental weight of figuring out the solutions to problems and give you someone to share the burden.
What is the role of romantic relationships in building a healthy self-image for men?
Relationships are healthiest when partners strive for interdependence, otherwise known as being responsive to one another’s needs. Recent findings from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University studying 163 married couples found that professional success was partially contingent on the support of partners at important decision points such as deciding to pursue a professional goal or persisting through professional challenges.
Part of achieving interdependence involves becoming more aware of one’s needs and developing a self-image that balances a sense of independence with a willingness to rely on one’s partner. For men, we are socialized to be independent but relying on others, particularly emotionally, is less of an expectation. Yet, the benefits of approaching a relationship with the expectation of interdependence, and actions to back it up, provide men with one of the best tools for managing stress by reshaping their approach to the problem from “Me against the world” to “Us figuring it out.”
Based on her work with couples, Kimberly notes that part of being able to use relationships to build one’s mental health involves taking time to start in a healthy place and assess one’s self-image prior to entering the relationship.
She emphasizes, "It is important that both partners enter a relationship healthy. Healthy people attract healthy people. So if men feel like they are constantly dating people who end up ‘crazy’ it may be time to take a break from dating and focus on one’s mental health."
This work will not only improve romantic relationships but also quality of life. Research indicates that men are often happier and healthier in marriages and long-term relationships than unattached men for a number of reasons. A primary reason is that men cultivate an enhanced quality of life sparked by a connection that brings additional self-confidence and provides positive validation and reassurance.
Some tips for self-assessing one’s image prior to a relationship and maximizing how the relationship will enhance one’s self-image include:
Consider which statements and compliments make you feel most confident about yourself
Identify which part of your identity these statements and compliments are connected with. For instance, if you feel most confident when someone says that you did a good job at work then it is connected with your professional identity and possibly feeling effective as a man.
Find healthy ways to recharge this part of your identity. When this part of your identity feels drained or neglected you can feel stressed, annoyed, and/or depressed
Learn how to communicate which parts of your identity are important with your partner and work together to find ways to recharge this aspect of your identity
Pro Tip: Ask your partner what you can do to help him or her feel recharged then volunteer ways your partner can help you feel recharged. Sometimes people don’t know unless we tell them.
How should men manage conflict in romantic relationships to bolster mental health?
Effectively managing conflict in any relationship is a feat, but having the ability to navigate conflict in our closest relationships most significantly effects our mental health because these relationships have the deepest emotional impact. When men are able to identify triggers for upsetting feelings and communicate ways their partner can help manage potential conflict, both partners are better positioned to emerge from battle with fewer scars and more lessons for growth.
Kimberly highlights the importance of conflict management by explaining, “The key to success and health of relationships comes down to RESPECT. In a healthy relationship both parties must remember during times of intense passion and frustration that the person you are engaging with is one of the most important people in the world to you and the same level of respect should be maintained even in times of conflict. When conflict arises, first get a hold of your emotions. If you are reactive—yell, scream, name-call, etc.— it will only intensify the situation.”
Emotions are difficult to control, but our reactions to emotions are fully in our sphere of influence. Creating a routine for resetting oneself before engaging in an escalating conflict and reconnecting with your partner to debrief after the conflict provides a foundation for mental stability regardless of the chaos surrounding a situation.
As Kimberly notes, “After you are calm, process and address your feelings internally. This does not immediately need to occur with friends or family—this is a conflict between two partners and does not necessarily need to include others. When you are ready to address the situation calmly, speak to your partner with respect and express openly how actions and words have affected you. It is okay to be vulnerable—this is the person you should be most vulnerable toward, and in a healthy relationship, your partner will treat your heart and emotions with care.”
Some strategies for men to manage conflict in relationships include:
Identify what thoughts, actions, and events happened just before your conflict to better understand triggers for conflict
Make a plan with yourself and your partner to use when triggered that involves taking a break or using a coping strategy before conflict escalates out of control. Agree that both partners will give permission for the other partner to use this when triggered without penalizing the other with hurtful words or actions.
Use self-soothing techniques that calm your stress response such as picking up ice, rubbing one’s forehead, or smelling a fragrance such as lotion or lavender
Practice stating affirming phrases daily about healthy ways men handle conflict such as,“Real men let their emotions inform them so they can express themselves, not control them so they can hurt others.”
Pro Tip: After a conflict, complete another activity like journaling that can help you reflect on how you handled the situation and think through better solutions with your partner before the next conflict.
When harnessed well, the power that men possess can extend far beyond their physical attributes and lay the foundation for a masculinity that encompasses a deep understanding of self and others. These are the men who are the healthiest and whose walk truly matches their talk.