I grew up in a pretty traditional household. My father, who was a colonel in the Army, was the breadwinner, and my mother was the caretaker. He was responsible for putting food on the table and keeping us safe; she cooked, cleaned, and nurtured us. When my dad wasn't around, my brother and I were the de facto men of the house. We learned to repair the VCR, to change the oil in the car, to lock the doors at night. If there was a tornado coming, or if there had been robberies in the neighborhood, it was up to us males to make sure our family was secure.
I took this role to heart when I was young and feeling my way around my relationship with my wife-to-be, Desiree. I wanted to be her rock, her protector. If she had a problem, I wanted to solve it. I thought that's what was expected of me.
One evening 14 years ago, when we were engaged to be married, Desiree and I went out for the night. On the way back, driving on the dark roads toward our home in the Hollywood Hills, she began to talk to me about a heavy issue in her life. She was venting, and I, as usual, interjected with a series of solutions.
In her patient way, she turned to me, put her hand on my arm, and looked me straight in the eye. "Baby, I don't need you to fix it," she said. "I just need you to listen to me."
As a man, it can be confusing to know what role to play. There I was, with the woman I would soon marry, trying to jockey for position in her life. What did it mean to be her significant other? That night, I understood that it meant I needed to hear her when she spoke to me. Trying to come up with ways to solve her problems gave me a false sense of control, and when I offered up unsolicited advice, I was disrespecting a strong woman who knew how to handle her own life. I was relieved as well; she didn't expect me to always have an answer for her. She wasn't coming to me for a repair. She just needed a shoulder to cry on.
From then on, my relationship with my wife, with my mother, female friends, sisters, has opened up. They have become more honest, and we've gotten to know one another better. I'm no longer afraid to not know. But if they ask for my advice? Then I give it to them.
I've also seen shifts in my parents' relationship. As they've grown older, my mother has become ill with multiple sclerosis. Now my father, formerly the strict military man, cares for her. He cooks for her, helps her with daily chores. I've seen their willingness to make changes as life demands.
From my parents, I thought I learned how to be a man—to be a fixer, as I interpreted the role. Later on, I understood that there needs to be flexibility in a relationship. And driving home that night, my wife taught me what it means to be a man in my relationship with her. Fourteen years of marriage and three kids later, I'm still listening.
— As told to Justine van der Leun