Are we truly ready to shed toxic masculinity? I think we are. Here’s how.

As a vulnerability coach and podcast host, I’ve been interviewing men on the topic of masculinity for about six years. Part of my life’s work is to de-stigmatize the word “vulnerability” for men, and if there’s been one gift of the last year, it’s that the pandemic has highlighted the fact that there are a lot of guys struggling, and they are now more willing to talk about and normalize it.

That’s a big deal, especially here in North America, where “real men” are supposed to solve problems themselves, never ask for help, and refrain from displaying emotion. As a result, we rarely admit we don’t have the answers, but when men do start to reach out and say, “I’m struggling,” other men are empowered to say, “Me, too.”

I too have come a long way in terms of my willingness to show vulnerability, but having recently started to wade back into the dating pool, I’ve started to wonder if that’s what women truly want. Many people I’ve dated say they want a man who is willing to show their emotions. Yet every time I’ve tested the waters, I’ve found that women have almost been put off by it. The unspoken message seems to be: “I want men to show more vulnerability, but not really, because I’m not sure if I can handle that.”

A lot of this stems from toxic masculinity and its impact—the type of masculinity that basically says there’s only one way to be a man.

I prefer to call it “unhealthy masculinity,” and it does a disservice to both men and women. Almost all of the men I’ve interviewed felt that if they showed vulnerability, they would be viewed as “less than” or weak. This is the type of messaging we’ve received from media, sports, and yes, even some women.

Part of the challenge is that we don’t know how to have these conversations. Men need to do the work and have non-judgmental conversations with women to ask, “How can we be ourselves in a way that feels comfortable and collectively accept each other?” And women can start walking the talk: if you say you want a more sensitive man, make a safe space for him, and don’t make him feel wrong for opening up. 

Here’s how all of us can show up differently and start changing the conversation around toxic masculinity—and take a more empowered approach to dating.

Get clear on what’s important to you.

Many of the dating profiles I’ve seen spend a lot of time and space on sharing what they don’t want, instead of what they do. A lot of these non-negotiable, “If you like X, swipe left” lists are a mile long—not only setting a nearly impossible standard, but only vaguely hinting at what the person does want. If you aren’t clear on what you want, it’s hard for the other person to know if they may be a potential connection. 

Just like you wouldn’t start building a house without blueprints, it’s crucial to take time to define what you’re seeking in a potential partner; after all, you may be building a life together.

As you start to understand what matters most to you, it can help you spend less time with those with whom you don’t align, and instead invest in the ones with whom you do. Look for what’s important in your values, beliefs, interests, and life goals. Also, re-examine your deal-breakers—are any of them rooted in upholding toxic masculinity?

Keep an open mind.

Popular sites like Female Dating Strategy categorize men as either Low Value Men and High Value Men. I have a problem with this “either/or” mentality; it’s black or white, with no room for nuance or growth. For instance, “High Value Men” are expected to pay for dates and the majority of expenses, and should also display “mate guarding instinct”—but doesn’t this reinforce dated (and constraining) gender norms about what “real men” should do?

Making space for the proverbial gray area and making your own determinations about what you value in a partner will ultimately serve you more than blanket stereotypes.

And on that note, while this isn’t a #notallmen thing, it’s important to remember that many men do not conform to or uphold ideals of toxic masculinity. Having started to date again after ending a two-year relationship, I’ve had to continually demonstrate that I’m not “that” version of masculinity. This dynamic has made me want to hold back from dialogue—and even dating itself—altogether.

There almost seems to be a “guilty until proven innocent” mindset when it comes to initial impressions (although I do understand issues of personal safety). But in order to engage fully, it’s important to clear the slate and create a dynamic where both partners can be vulnerable.

Do your own work to combat toxic masculinity.

Most of the time, we focus on what we want in a partner. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important that we also spend time working on ourselves. Take time to assess yourself honestly as a potential partner for someone. What do you bring to the table that adds value to the relationship? Where do you have room to improve? I’ve never met anyone who has it all together. We all have room to grow. 

Once you identify those things, invest in improving yourself. I strive to be the kind of person that I’d like to be around; when I am, this attitude and outlook will attract similar people. For men, this means evaluating the areas where you may be conforming to ideas of toxic masculinity. For women, it may be the areas where you are consciously or unconsciously doing the same. Then focus your work on shifting behaviors that promote and support a healthier version of masculinity that empowers both men and women.

Improvise and adapt.

When I served on active duty in the Marine Corps, we had a saying: “Improvise, adapt, and overcome.” I use the same approach in dating by creating a plan for how I want to date and how I can be flexible. Nothing will ever go exactly as planned, but when you’re open to changes that come your way—or opportunities you may not have originally considered—you will often find your results are far better than anticipated. 

When we hold too rigidly to how we think life is “supposed to be,” we can miss that amazing person in our peripheral vision whom we might see if we just soften our gaze a little. Remember that life doesn’t always follow the plans we create. Being open to shifting and adjusting, as well as to feedback from others, can help you move more toward being the kind of person who appeals to your ideal partner.