A Few Good Men
January 1, 1970I want to make a plug for good men. I've been traveling the country on book tour lately, talking about the curse of eating disorders and the realities of recovery, and each audience includes among the many wonderful women a few truly good men. Some are caring dads, some devoted husbands or partners or friends. One was actually a concerned boss of an employee just out of treatment! These men have no idea how important they are to the women they are supporting, and most of the women appreciate them more than they have the power to show. But if more men were brave enough to show this kind of concern and connection to their daughters, wives, and colleagues, I'm willing to bet that girls and women would suffer a lot fewer eating disorders -- and a lot less anxiety and depression.
Violent dads, abusive boyfriends, overbearing bosses, alcoholic husbands – cruel men without doubt do abound in the lives of women who turn to self-punishing behaviors such as eating disorders, cutting, and substance abuse. And these men usually are part of the problem. But that does not mean that “men are the problem.” On the contrary! The best antidote to a cruel man’s influence may well be a good man.
But too many good men are scared of the women in their lives – especially their daughters. Researchers are belatedly beginning to study the critical role that fathers play in their daughters’ developing self-esteem and sexual identity. Not surprisingly, they are finding that men often back away as their little girls enter puberty. Dads often feel awkward, unsure how to react to their daughters’ emerging sexuality. They may feel jealous, overly protective, or they may simply leave the parenting to their wives at this point. But what may seem like the “responsible” course to Dad may feel like rejection or abandonment to his daughter. Girls need their fathers to teach them that intimacy is about affection, respect, and compassion, and not just physical sexuality. Girls need their fathers to help them learn how and when to trust men. This is doubly true when the girl has experienced some abuse by a boy or other male figure in her life.
The good men I have met in recent weeks are not afraid to cry when their concern for the women in their lives overwhelms them. I’ve seen tears brim in the eyes of an investment banker as he told me of his attempt to talk about trust with his anorexic daughter. I’ve seen unbearable sadness in the face of a husband describing his attempts to help his wife through bi-polar disorder. I’ve met a filmmaker whose casual acquaintance with a family struggling with eating disorders has turned into an all-out campaign to get that family’s daughter the treatment that will restore her to full health. And I’ve met dozens of women who credit their boyfriends or husbands with loving them so wholeheartedly and unflaggingly that the women finally began to understand: by punishing their own bodies they were dishonoring not only themselves but also the good men who loved them.
Sadly, not all wives are able or willing to understand. And even men with deep compassion have their limits. Like this man, who wrote to me, “Being married to someone who can't enter into intimacy is really, really tough and I often think about divorce..not because I don't love her, but because she won't let me be her husband and she won't let herself be my wife.. Essentially, we aren't married together..I find myself reaching out for her only to be rejected with a blank stare. She has gradually pulled further and further away from any form of intimacy.” His wife has a history of anorexia nervosa, which has at its root the instinctive tendency to pull inward, to withdraw from exposure, to restrict all appetites – even the appetite for intimacy.
Not even the best of men can save us from ourselves, but the good ones can help us to help ourselves – if we will only meet them halfway.
I would like to say thank you to these men and to all the others who are willing to show their compassion for the women in their lives as real and complex human beings -- and in the process to reveal their own sweetness and generosity of spirit.
A salute to you, Good Men!