Your Boat Needs A Crew

What are you most fearful of or what stops you from bringing every part of yourself to a relationship and sharing your whole heart, warts and all, with your partner?

I’m a newish member of a Men’s Circle, a group of guys who meet every fortnight to listen (and talk). We also drink tea and eat biscuits, but mainly we listen (and talk).

Every meeting is an inspiration — not because we all sit around patting ourselves on the back, but because everyone, every week, has So. Much. Going. Down.

No one’s behaviour is perfect all the time, of course, but the circle leaves me feeling that it’s outright miraculous how generous, loving and, well, functional everyone is most of the time, given what’s going down in our lives and in our heads all the time.

And the people around this circle aren’t special (no offence). Every person I meet on the street, in the library or at the sauna will also be wrestling with just as many demons, internal and external, I’m sure.

The circle changes the way I see the world:

  • Someone’s rude? Wow, sorry. You’ve got a lot going down right now. (Probably needs a circle…)
  • Someone’s kind, despite everything that’s going down right now? Double wow — thank you. (Probably needs a circle…)

Everyone — in the circle and beyond — is doing their best and, transcending the banality of the motivational poster, we really are all in this together.

Popping The Question

The question at the top was a prompt brought to this week’s circle by one of the men.

But it wasn’t his question. It was a question he’d been given after asking several women another question:

If you could put just one question to a whole group of guys, what would you ask?

Unanimously, every time, this was their answer:

What are you most fearful of or what stops you from bringing every part of yourself to a relationship and sharing your whole heart, warts and all, with your partner?

Big question, huh?

But what was really interesting was the unanimous response from men around the circle. We threw the question right back:

Wait a second — are you sure you’re ready to hold space for me to be vulnerable with you?

Depth Or Distrust?

It’s not that men didn’t also want a deeper level of connection in their relationships, but I think it’s fair to say that we all shared past experiences where our partners haven’t always welcomed male vulnerability or seen it as a strength.

Without breaking any confidences, many of us had been burned in the past when we have tried to share wholeheartedly and found our vulnerability rejected or pushed back, a shaming experience that contributed to the breakdown of several relationships.

Hence the distrust around the circle: if we feel that we’ve been punished for showing vulnerability in the past, what makes you different? Why should we trust you when you ask us for wholeheartedness?

I refuse to conclude from this apparent impasse that our partners might be saying they want one thing when they secretly want another — that sounds pretty patronising to me.

I reckon there’s something much more interesting going on here.

You’ll Need A Surgeon For Open Heart Surgery

(Note: I’ll be talking in terms of ‘men’ and ‘women’ in the context of heterosexual relationships here because that’s how it was framed in our discussion and, as a cis heterosexual male, I don’t feel qualified to talk across the whole rainbow of humanity’s wonderful combinations and pollinations.

I’d be super interested to hear how it plays out from your perspective if you fancy replying to this email.)

I think it’s perfectly possible that a woman can desire more wholeheartedness from their partner, while, at exactly the same time, the man in this relationship finds that his wholeheartedness isn’t always positively received.

These two experiences are not incompatible.

One of the distinctive traits of Man Sloth Mode is that men, particularly those in relationships, become increasingly dependent on their partner — another experience that was echoed around the circle.

It’s more than likely that your partner really does want you to be more vulnerable with them. It’s also highly likely that it’s neither healthy nor possible for them to carry the weight of being your only emotional support network.

It’s one thing to open up to your partner, it’s quite another to tear into your flesh, rip out your ribcage and spill blood and guts in the hope that they can perform open heart surgery.

(Note to self: you’ll need a surgeon for that.)

Shooting Ourselves In The Face (As Per)

In general, women survive relationship breakdown much better than men, primarily because, well, for example:

The analyses reveal that women have larger networks and receive supports from multiple sources, while men tend to rely on their spouses exclusively.

Once again, the support systems that men fail to put in place around themselves, in combination with an overreliance on one (let’s be honest) caregiver, is shooting ourselves in the face.

(I say face rather than foot here because, frankly, I’ve always wanted to start a new idiom. But it’s also a more graphic reflection of the damage we’re doing to ourselves, not to mention the messy clean up job required of other people.)

Women want more vulnerability from their men, but men don’t trust that they will be held, most probably based on past experiences where they have become overreliant on a single partner.

It’s a heartbreaking cycle that will only be broken when men find emotional support from outside the pair bond.

Your Boat Needs A Crew

Reluctance to share wholehearted vulnerability comes from a deep-rooted fear of rejection.

In answer to your question, women, that’s what we’re most afraid of.

But — but but but — that fear only looms so large for us because, most often, you and you alone represent at least, ooh, 80 percent of our entire emotional support network.

No wonder we’re petrified of rejection. Your acceptance is (almost) everything to us.

And that, my friends, is an INSANE way to live our lives.

It’s totally unrealistic to expect one person to carry such pivotal weight in someone else’s life — no wonder sometimes our vulnerability is rejected. It’s too much to bear.

The solution is to create an independent emotional support network — like a Men’s Circle — that can nourish us with the affirmation, acceptance and assurance that we need to feel heard.

(Hint: a network is not one person. Shoot for twelve and you might get six.)

High up in the rigging of love, with that net beneath to catch us, the rejection of one person, however important they may have once been, is not the be-all and end-all.

It’s just one person who couldn’t accept your wholehearted beingness.

In the words of shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown: if you miss the boat, it wasn’t your boat.

And that’s a muuuuuch easier lesson to accept if you’ve got your whole crew beside you on the harbourside, friends and comrades who’ll buy you fish and chips, help re-pack your sea chest, and wait with you until your ship finally comes in.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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