'I Used to Be a Toxic Man'

Growing up, I didn't have a father around. Instead, I had my grandfather and my uncles. I loved my grandfather dearly. We spent time together and he made me feel safe. And, he always told me that he loved me. Daddy, as I called him, was the closest thing I ever had to a father. But he wasn't the only man in my life; my three uncles were the dominant influence. They were respected and feared in our Bay Area neighborhood. They could fight, and they made a name for themselves in the streets. People left them alone.

My uncles were charismatic and physically fit. Women liked them, and they liked women. They modeled that it was okay to date several at one time; in fact, that made you a man. Falling in love? Now that was weak. Trusting women? That was dangerous.

My uncles defined masculinity for me. They taught me how to "man up." And it took having my own son to begin to unlearn those lessons.

Looking back now, I know that my uncles believed that they were teaching me how to survive. To "man up" must have seemed, to them, the only way to survive. Life was about surviving, not thriving. If you had talked to them about happiness, or peace of mind, or thriving, they would have thought you sounded unrealistic and weak.

The kind of masculinity I was taught growing up has very rigid boundaries. It is defined as physical strength, mental toughness, sexual prowess, and hard work. I didn't have a name for it back then, but it's what we call toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity, to me, doesn't grant you permission to feel anything other than angry. Toxic masculinity is selfish and seeks to make other people feel less than based on a toxic sense of self-importance.

As I entered adulthood, I tried to distinguish myself from my uncles in a few key ways. I saw the use of drugs and alcohol just about daily. And, I saw what those choices did to their lives, so I never used drugs and seldom drank.

On the surface, my life as a young adult looked very different from the lives of my uncles. I left the Bay Area at 16, went to college and graduate school, and I became professionally successful and financially stable. I traveled the world.

Beyond that, however, my behavior was textbook toxic masculinity. I was emotionally distant and guarded. I dated from time to time, but I was not faithful. I wanted to love someone and be loved, but a loop played and replayed in my mind: women can't be trusted; falling in love is dangerous. So I looked for signs of distrust and weakness in women I dated, and the moment I saw anything that looked like disloyalty, I'd withdraw.

These beliefs—that love isn't real, and people can't be trusted—became a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that left me lonely and alone.

Romal Tune Says He Was Toxic
Romal Tune says that he was a toxic male, but eventually learned how to overcome those behaviors and traits. Romal Tune

I was in my mid-thirties before I realized that everything I had learned about what it means to be a man was wrong. It was a slow learning curve. At first, I learned through observation. I began cultivating friendships with men who had different values—men who had learned from men in their lives how to respect women. I listened to what they said about manhood, and I watched how they treated women, and I began to change.

Then I started going to therapy. I've been in therapy for over a decade now. By revisiting my upbringing and taking a serious look at how it shaped who I became in the world, I started to redefine my identity and gain a healthier sense of self. Sharing stories from my childhood with a professional therapist continues to open my eyes to new ways of freeing myself up from life-limiting beliefs.

I also began to seek out strong, confident women to be my mentors. In many ways, that has been the easy part. I think that comes from being around my grandmother, who played a significant role in my life during the years my mom was battling addiction. My grandmother had often guided me to make decisions that literally saved my life.
And, at the age of 29, I had become a father.

I wish I could say I immediately became the father that I didn't have, but that's not what happened either. I wish I could say that I unlearned toxic masculinity in one fell swoop, but that's not what happened. I became a father long before I fully understood that the version of masculinity I had developed is not healthy. I already had a hunch that in trying to "man up" we as men let our sons down. But I still had so much to learn.

So I ended up handing down the pain of my trauma to my son, Jordan. I wasn't present for his childhood. That's a painful truth of my life. I'm grateful that, by the grace of God, he had healthy father figures who stepped in, due to my absence and failures.

Sometimes people think that having a father around automatically makes life better for children or puts sons at less risk of imbibing toxic masculinity. But having a father is one thing. Having a good, emotionally healthy father with solid values? That is totally different.

Sure, if I had had a dad who spent time with me, told me that he loved me, hugged me when I needed to be comforted and gave me permission to express all my emotions without judgment: then yes, maybe my relationships would not have been so difficult.

Maybe I wouldn't have had my guard up, or felt so alone in the world, or gone through life thinking that people can't be trusted. I might have loved myself rather than believing love was something I had to earn or buy. I might not have wasted so much time trying to prove to people that I was worthy. Yet if my father had been present, but just like my uncles, I still would have had a lot—and maybe more—to unlearn.

And maybe if I had been more present for my son when he was young, I'd have saved him some pain. I wish I had been there. Then again, knowing who I was then, I realize that, had I been present, it may very well have been to his detriment.

My son is a young adult now, in his twenties. Now, when I talk to him or observe how he treats people, he is the one helping me to unlearn the messages about being a man that I learned growing up. He has become an honorable man who values and respects women. He knows how to talk about his feelings, and he is not scared to be vulnerable with his friends. My son has a great deal of respect for women and sees them as leaders.

Being raised by his mom and growing up alongside his sister, he has experienced strong and brilliant women first hand. He understands that making the people proud who love him isn't just about accomplishments and accolades but in treating people with respect and dignity. I'm pretty sure that I've learned more from him about healthy masculinity than he ever learned from me.

I am 52 now, and I've forgiven myself for who I was when my son was young, and I've asked my son to forgive me, too. I'm grateful that my story is not over. My hope is that the work that I am doing to heal and share my story of change will encourage other men to do the same.

The books that I write and stories that I tell don't mean I've figured it out—far from it. Healing and becoming the best iteration of yourself is a lifelong journey.

We overcome toxic masculinity when we admit that we have wounds that need to be healed, ghosts that need to be confronted, and work to be done to become better men. We offer our sons a vision of healthy manhood when we go to therapy and respect the women in our lives and nurture vulnerable friendships with other men.

And sometimes, our sons teach us what it means to be a man. In fact, maybe that's what it means to "man up." To accept the truth of who you've been, take responsibility for your actions, seek forgiveness and learn the skills needed to become a better person.

Romal is a highly sought-after speaker, author, social impact entrepreneur, and the author of I Wish My Dad: The Power of Vulnerable Conversations between Fathers and Sons. Tune is a graduate of Howard University and Duke University School of Divinity.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.