Sink or Swim: Men, Relationships and Recovery

By Dan Griffin, MA

person drowning with hand out of water

As I have been looking at the intersection of masculinity, trauma, addiction, and recovery over the past two decades I have arrived at some interesting conclusions. In essence, something happens through the process of recovery in how men express themselves at the foundation of their identity – gender. This has a dramatic effect on our relationships. Many of us are unaware of this process simply because it happens in the context of our recovery – not our gender identity. That was certainly what I found interviewing men almost twenty years ago for my master’s research as well as the sixty-plus men I interviewed for both of my books. This phenomenon – this lack of awareness – is what I refer to as: The Water. “The Water” refers to the parable of the two fish who are at the bottom of the ocean when another fish swims up to them and says, “Howdy fellas, how is the water?” The fish smiles and then swims away.

The two fish look at one another and say, “What the hell is water?” My experience is that is exactly how gender shows up for most of us: an invisible force that controls and impacts more of our lives than we could ever imagine. Mostly because we can’t see it. Seeing the Water When I wrote my first book (and my master’s thesis) the most common responses from men to my question, “How have your ideas of being a man changed since getting into recovery?” was that they hadn’t. I was shocked by this. I thought it was obvious but I have come to realize that was primarily because I had the fairly unique experience of getting into recovery at the same time that I was “discovering” gender. So, when a man walked up to me and wanted to hug me at my first recovery meeting – I was taken aback to say the least. Then I heard men talking about being afraid and sad and sharing other information about their lives – their inner lives – that men are not supposed to share. I knew that men were expressing themselves differently than they did in larger society.

This is one of the core ideas behind my work: how the ideas that we have had forced upon us by various social agents (family, school, media, etc.), is what I have come to refer to as The Man Rules™, which are in almost complete contradiction to the principles of recovery. See the chart below.

The Man Rules™

• Always be in Control
• Don’t Cry
• Don’t ask for help
• Don’t show emotion
• Be a sexual superman
• Don’t show weakness
• Be a protector
• Know everything
• Be a provider

The Principles of Recovery/ Therapeutic Change

• Show vulnerability
• Ask for help
• Admit powerlessness
• Let go of control
• Be responsible
• Be of service
• Express emotion
• Humility
• Sobriety

Some of the key elements of the Man Rules™ are:

• The anti-female typified through the “don’t be a girl” exhortation that is hidden in the admonitions to not be weak, not be vulnerable, not ask for help, etc. – all traits commonly associated with girls and women.

• The anti-relational through a focus on self-sufficiency, nonemotionality, hyper sexuality, and independence.

• The non-identity based upon the significant number of “don’ts” in the Rules that tell men who they are not rather than who they might be.

While not inherently bad or wrong or unhealthy, when taken to an extreme the Man Rules™ can be severely damaging to a man and his relationships. You can find a much more thorough discussion of the Man Rules™ in my latest book A Man’s Way through Relationships: Learning to Love and Be Loved in Chapter 1.

The tension between the two sets of expectations – the Man Rules and the Principles of Recovery – is obvious. However, this dichotomy is rarely acknowledged, let alone addressed, in men’s treatment or ongoing recovery. As a result many men do not have a lot of awareness about this tension or understand how it is affecting their relationships. And it is often affecting us and our relationships much more than you might think. This is an incredibly important part of “The Water” of men’s recovery. It deeply affects our ability to engage in intimate relationships.

The reason many men do not see the tension inherent in this dichotomy is because when they first get into recovery or are introduced to the concepts in treatment or in the recovery community they are adopting these new values for one reason: to save their lives. They are willing to go against any number of common behaviors or ideas if it will save their lives and offer them a glimmer of happiness and peace. The challenge is that when men do not completely see the Rules, those Rules tend to operate in a more insidious way – driving much more of men’s behavior, especially in their most intimate relationships, than they know. Look again at those Rules above – very few of them are behaviors or expectations that allow men to have healthy and successful relationships!

Let’s also think about why men follow the Rules. For one primary reason: safety. Contrary to popular opinion that men are trying to be assholes or act like cavemen when we act certain ways. We come by it naturally. It is how many of us were raised. Boys learn very quickly that they will not get made fun of, ostracized, beat up, or abused if they follow the Rules. All men follow them to varying degrees. Few men realize how much they have internalized the Rules. I firmly believe that almost all men simply want to love and be loved. The Rules make it hard. Really hard sometimes. The fact that the behaviors required for men to create intimate relationships are very similar to the recovery principle and also mainly goes against the Rules.

Navigating our relationships is difficult. So why is there so little conversation about men’s relationships that seeks to honor men and support us in finding meaningful connection? Why, until now, have there been zero books written just for men in creating healthy relationships in recovery – when all we have is relationships? Why has our attention to men’s trauma been such an epic failure? It is ALL part of the water. The question I have to ask you is very simple: Are you going to sink or swim?

Dan Griffin, MA, has worked in the mental health and addictions fields for over two decades. Griffin is the author of three groundbreaking trauma-informed resources for professionals working with men – A Man’s Way through the 12 Steps and A Man’s Way through Relationships: Learning to Love and Be Loved and co-author of Helping Men Recover with Dr. Stephanie Covington and Rick Dauer. Griffin travels internationally educating and training clinicians and other professionals about how to more effectively work with, intervene on and treat men. In early 2010, he started a consulting, training, and speaking business, Griffin Recovery Enterprises. He served as the state drug court coordinator for the Minnesota Drug Court Initiative from 2002 to 2010, and was also the judicial branch’s expert on addiction and recovery. He is a highly sought after speaker and trainer who has presented to thousands of people from around the world.