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The Stone Shirt: Some Issues for Men in Relationship

by John Mariner, L.C.S.W., CWP

Last issue, Fall ’98, Dr. Mary Simon focused on women’s growth edges in relationship-the development of a sense of self and being able to hold onto one’s own truth. As she noted, women are inclined to be influenced by another’s reality to the point of losing touch with themselves and their own truth. One of the major growth edges for men in intimate relationships, on the other hand, is to allow their partners to deeply influence and connect with them. Sadly, according to recent research on couples, only 30% of men in intimate relationships allow their partners to so influence them.

Why is this? What’s going on here? It seems it’s as if most men wear a “stone shirt” that barricades their hearts and, they believe, protects them from being “taken over”. In order to allow a partner to influence him, a man needs to permit this shirt to crack open and eventually to dissolve. This is difficult, and often terrifying, because this shell was developed by the young boy as a protection against the pain of the disconnection he experiences around the age of 3 or 4 years. At that young age, the boy is pushed by our culture to disconnect from Mom in order to “become a man”. His role model for this is usually a dad who is not connected to himself or to anybody else.

The prospect of letting go of this protection often elicits a profound sense of dread in a man. Frequently, asking a man the question, “What are you afraid of?” brings up great anger –if he allows himself to get beyond, “I’m not afraid of anything!” The anger is about starting to get in touch with the pain of having to live disconnected for so long.

For many men the stone shirt walls them off even from the part of themselves that longs for connection because this is considered “unmanly” in our culture. However, if a man can move through the fear and anger and allow the stone shirt to loosen and fall away, he can begin to experience his whole, true self. From this deepening center he can “allow influence” and connect with another in new and wonderful, though sometimes painful, ways. Intimate relationships offer men one of the most powerful opportunities to make this journey back to wholeness and connection. Both the Getting the Love You Want couples’ workshop and the Men’s Relational Journey offered by RRC support men in making the changes that can allow love to truly begin to work in their lives.