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  • Writer's pictureQuique Autrey

The Key as Gift: A Relational Perspective on Iron John

Savage Man vs Wild Man

I'm looking forward to a conversation with Kent Dobson on the sacred masculine. Our conversation will be centered around Robert Bly's book Iron John: A Book About Men.

In this book, Bly uses the Brothers Grimm fairytale Iron Hans as a way to explore some of the fractures present in contemporary masculinity. Even though written in the early 1990s, I think much of what he says is applicable today. Bly makes a careful distinction between the savage man and the wild man.

The savage man is the embodiment of what many today would call toxic masculinity. The savage man is one who is angry, aggressive and destructive. He takes out his inner turmoil on women and wrecks the environment. He is not connected with his sacred depths.

Before looking at the wild man, it's important to explore what Bly calls the contemporary "soft male" who has reacted against the savage man but in the process lost his connection to his soul. The soft male sounds a lot like what my clients call their struggle with the Mr. Nice Guy syndrome.

Here are some of the characteristics of the Mr. Nice Guy Syndrome:

  • Putting the needs of others before your own

  • Assuming that niceness entitles you to romance or sex

  • Becoming angry when niceness is not reciprocated

  • Passive aggressive behavior as a strategy to meet needs

  • Lying and deception as a way to win people's affection

Bly interprets the emergence of the soft male (simp) or nice guy syndrome as an overreaction to the corrective force of feminism. If the savage man attacked the feminine, the soft male incorporated the feminine but in the process lost touch with his own masculine power.

For Bly, the wild man is the epitome of healthy, empowered masculinity. The wild man is connected to his depths, effective in the world and has learned to integrate the feminine without diluting the masculine.

Male Dread

In addition to the archetypal perspective of Jung and Bly, I am also drawn to the relational paradigm in psychology of Relational-Cultural Theory. Within this paradigm, one of the obstacles men face is what Stephen Bergman calls male dread. According to Bergman, male dread is an emotional process that emerges within men when they are in relationship with women. For Bergman:

The process of dread is relational, not only intrapsychic. While there is, as always, a transferential component, relational dread is not merely a “maternal transference.” Dread arises not from the woman reminding a man of his mother, but from his being in a relational process where things are happening fast and complexly on both sides, a dynamic where one relational style is meeting another, quite different one. At issue is the process of relationship, not the person, real or transferential. A man’s dread is the result of “negative learnings” about the process of relationship, over and over again.

Bergman highlights ten aspects of male dread:

  1. Inevitability of disaster: A man's sense that nothing good can come from vulnerable, intimate connection with a woman.

  2. Timelessness: A sense that the man will be stuck in this negative state forever.

  3. Damage: A belief that the damage done by staying in connection with a woman will be overwhelming, and irreparable.

  4. Closeness: The closer a man feels to the woman, the more intense the male dread can be.

  5. Precariousness: Even if these feelings dissipate, they can resurface at the drop of a hat.

  6. Process: Being in connection with a woman feels like uncharted territory. There's no rule book or guidance on how to move forward. Masculinity feels more at home in stasis than an evolutionary process.

  7. Guilt: Men feel like they are not enough in relationships. Men see this as their fault.

  8. Denial of and fear of aggression: This aspect is connected to the Mr. Nice Guy syndrome. Afraid of being pushed too far or panicking due to the closeness of the relationship, men play it safe and become the nice guy so they don't blow up and hurt someone.

  9. Incompetence and Shame: Men feel like they are not good at relationships and this creates feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.

  10. Paralysis: These aspects compound and leave the man feeling helpless and hopeless.

Separation From The Feminine

Where Robert Bly's analysis of the masculine intersects with Stephen Bergman's relational cultural approach is around the issue of the young man needing to separate from his mother or the feminine. While the two approaches at first seem opposed to each other, I think there's a way to bring them into an integrated whole.

In the fairly tale Iron Hans, the wild man (representing a primal, empowered masculinity) lives in the bottom of pond in the middle of a mysterious forest. In the story he is taken out of the pond by the King's men and locked away in a cage. There's a young man in the story (representing young uninitiated men) and his golden ball rolls into the cage of the wild man. The only way for the boy to recover his ball is to steal the key from underneath his mother's pillow.

Bly makes a big deal of the symbolism of the key (representing future access to healthy, adult manhood) being underneath the mother's pillow. Bly interprets this as the mother (or feminine) representing a barrier to the young man's full development.

Here is Bly: "mothers are intuitively, aware of what would happen if he got the key: they would lose their boys. The possessiveness that mothers typically exercise on sons... can never be underestimated."

We've all heard the stereotypical trope of the mama's boy. Throughout the history of psychoanalysis, much ink has been spilled over a boy's enmeshed relationship to his mother. Whether that's Freud and the Oedipus complex or Jung and the Mother complex, there's been a clear thread tying an unhealthy attachment to the mother/feminine and a man's stunted psychological development.

It's not just psychoanalysis that has highlighted the need to separate from the mother. Bly and others point out primitive cultures and their rites of passage helping young men transition into adulthood. Most (if not all) these rites of passage include an older man (or group of older men) separating the young boy from his mother and guiding him through a rigorous process of initiation into manhood.

It's at this juncture that Stephen Bergman takes issue with Bly and others who emphasize the young man's separation from mother. Bergman and other relational psychologists want to underscore the importance of two-way, mutual relationships as the core of healthy growth.

While differentiation from mother is essential to a young man's development, have Bly and others sufficiently emphasized the need to help men cultivate emotional resilience while staying connected in relationship to the feminine? I don't think they have.

Niobe Way describes the crisis of connection for young men in our society. In her book, Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, she traces the trajectory of disconnection that young boys undergo when they are bullied out of vulnerability and intimate connection. This happens because those relational modes of existing are gender coded as feminine rather than human.

I want to be careful not to caricature Bly and those interested in a depth psychological approach to masculinity. That said, from a relational lens, I think separation from the feminine may not be the right image. Stealing the key from mother may not be the best metaphor. I know Bly underscores the necessity of a sharp separation and the need to steal the key. Nothing else will propel the young boy to come in contact with the wild man.

Bly mentions a "new age" audience member at one of his talks who didn't like the idea of stealing and wondered if the boy could have asked his mother for the key. Bly responds that this is not possible. Bly writes, "No mother worth her salt would give the key anyway. If a son can't steal it, he doesn't deserve it. "

I wonder if Bly and other Jungian authors are describing an unhealthy, co-dependent mother when they should distinguish healthy from unhealthy mothers.

As a psychotherapist, I'm the first to admit there are unhealthy mothers who do embody the engulfing traits of the mother that Bly describes. That said, I also know plenty of healthy mothers who want their sons to develop into their authentic self while still remaining in relationship to them.

In a toxic relationship between a mother and son, I think Bly is right to express skepticism about the son's ability to communicate effectively with his mother. In those cases, he may need to steal the key from his mother in order to express his individuation.

Most of the enmeshed relationships I see between mothers and sons are usually the result of one of three factors:

  1. The mother's unprocessed trauma.

  2. Serious executive functioning deficits that are present with the son's developmental disability (e.g., ADHD, ASD).

  3. The father is emotionally vacuous and the mother unconsciously looks for emotional sustenance through her relationship with her son.

In a healthy relationship, I think it's possible for the mother to encourage her son to differentiate from her while still staying connected in relationship. In fact, some would argue that genuine freedom and power only emerge in the context of mutually empathic relationships.

Integrating Depth Psychology and Relational Cultural Therapy

If you've accessed any of my work you've probably picked up on the fact that I love putting different theoretical orientations into conversation with each other. I'm definitely not a one theory guy; I see myself as a bricoleur or theoretically promiscuous.

At the surface level, I could see how the depth tradition is incompatible with Relational-Cultural Theory. Depth psychology focuses on our intrapsychic connection to our unconscious, archetypal depths. It's an approach that focuses on interpreting dreams and encouraging the process of individuation.

Relational-Cultural Therapy (RCT) is an orientation that focuses on the central importance of interpersonal relationships. The goal of RCT is to help people experience greater zest and vitality through the experience of mutual vulnerability and empathy.

While I want to honor the important tensions between these two traditions, I have a few ideas on how to bring them together.

An Individual Journey, Together

My Jungian psychotherapist would always remind me, channeling Joseph Campbell, that my journey of individuation was something that only I could do alone, yet it was something that I could never do alone. There is an important paradox here. With the depth psychological tradition, I agree that I am ultimately called to reconnect with my soul and the numinous. With RCT, I believe this process can only be facilitated and sustained by the healthy relationships in my life. It's a both and, not either or.

Robert Bly's analysis of the Iron Hans myth incorporates this paradox. At one point, he identifies the wild man as a type of mentor that can help men grow into spiritual maturity. I don't think Bly or others are opposed to the importance of healthy relationships in the process of individuation.

The Key as Gift

The tension comes with the relationship between the young boy and his mother (feminine). I do think Bly and others underscore the necessity of a sharp split from the feminine (stealing the key) as a necessary precursor to healthy masculinity.

Instead of stealing the key, I have a fantasy of a mother who gives the key away to her son as a gift. She wants her son to individuate into a powerful and emotionally intelligent young man. She acknowledges that she will have to encourage him to differentiate, which will entail a transformation of the current relationship. But the goal is not to sever connection with the boy.

By helping her son learn how to communicate with females and respect their differences, she can empower him to find his soul in a way that honors the sacred ties that bring life joy and vitality. Instead of feeling dread when close to the feminine, the boy will feel competent in meeting his and others' needs through loving relationship.

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