Marriage For Men

Articles by: Henry Sawatzky

MA; RCC and Director

Bruce Willis Syndrome

Bruce Willis is one of my all-time favorite actors. I know, he’s never won an Oscar, and lots of his films are super cliché.

But really, who doesn’t love Bruce Willis?

He’s been in close to 90 movies and how many times has he saved the day? Or the world for that matter? And he does it with such calm and confidence. Without hardly breaking a sweat. The odds may be against him, everything may be falling apart, or on fire, but he gets the job done. And he never needs help, always knows just what to do, and he’s never afraid. It’s quite the billing to live up to right?

No-one can live up to the hero scene on the silver screen.

But I think that as men, it’s easy to feel an expectation to just be able to handle whatever comes up with no sign of doubt or weakness. I’ve come to call it “Bruce Willis Syndrome.” Never show fear, always know what to do, and never need help. Toughness is revered while emotion and dependence upon others are seen as a weakness.

We see it not only on the big screen but in all different walks of life.

The sporting arena, on the job site, and even politics. We feel the expectation to win, to come out on top. Not only to best the opposition but to not flinch or show a hint of fear. To not need help. To do it like Bruce Willis.

The problem is that our inner reality is quite a bit different.

Last week my wife missed a signal I was trying to send her and it ended up bruising my feelings. It was nothing catastrophic. Just a normal marital hiccup. We were quickly able to talk about it and repair the damage in a way that left me feeling deeply cared for. I felt it. The emotion ran deep. But at that moment something froze inside of me. The idea of being cared for and having my hurt simply held and then expressing my emotion, felt uncomfortable, vulnerable.

Something inside of me didn’t want to show that kind of dependence.

It made me feel exposed. Weak. Suddenly I was channeling my inner Bruce as I quietly gathered my emotion up. It wasn’t until much later in the day that I was able to tell her how deeply I had felt cared for.

She loved it when I finally got around to opening myself up.

But what happened that took me so long? What was it that had me swallowing my softness and prevented me from simply letting myself into her loving care? I think the answer to that question is more than just one dimensional.

A really big part of it is what I am calling “Bruce Willis Syndrome”.

I see it in men all the time. I see it in me. Most of us have been taught from the time we were little boys that the thing to do when we get hurt is to “Suck it up” or “Man up” or “Cowboy up”. We have lots of slogans for this. It starts early. Picture a father teaching his 4-year-old girl to ride her bike. She falls and skins her knee. He rushes to her, gathers her up in his loving arms and gently kisses her tears away. He comforts her until she’s ready to get back on and try again. Now picture the same loving father having the same experience with his 4 your old son? Something shifts right? Can you see it? The kisses and comfort quickly give way to “C’ mon son. Get back on. You’ve got this”. The message may be subtle but it isn’t missed.

I am not negating the fact that there are times we need to be tough.

When we need to endure pain and push through hardship. To indeed, “Cowboy up”. Without that nothing would ever get done. What I am saying is that we also need a place to lay that toughness down, to just be held and cared for.

That’s what “Bruce Willis Syndrome” doesn’t allow for.

It says you have to be tough all the time. Never be afraid, Always know what to do, Never need comfort. It isolates men because it leaves us with nowhere to turn when normal life injuries are inflicted upon us. Let alone when our soul gets deeply battered. Bruce Willis doesn’t need anywhere to turn. And that’s the measure many of us feel compelled to live up to.

But what if we didn’t have to be tough all the time?

What if there were a place we could lay it all down. A place that when we get injured, we could be safe. Cared for. Weak. A place we could admit our fear, where it was OK to feel lost, and needing emotional support was the norm. Is that a dream? A fantasy? I think for many men it seems like one. I’ve been lucky enough to come across a few places in my life where I have felt truly safe. But I didn’t grow up with it. And I believe that plenty of men go through their entire life without ever really experiencing it.

What’s been your experience with Bruce Willis Syndrome?

Do you have a safe place in your life? A place to express your confusion, your fear, to ask for emotional support? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the feedback forum.


  1. dwbrown1951

    I am very familiar with this syndrome throughout my life although I referred to it in terms of john Wayne, the forerunner to Bruce! I had the additional factor of having a career military dad who was also a war hero. The quintessential John Wayne, in the flesh, every day during my growing up years. Even when he was away, his spirit remained a powerful force at home. I was watching a Brene Brown video from Netflix last night. As in others of her Ted Talks, books and Utube videos, her focus is on the association between vulnerability and courage as an antidote to shame, fear and self-doubt. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to watch a movie where Bruce allows himself to be vulnerability in the face of a challenge and show uncertainty, fear, confusion etc. I wonder if that would break any box office records? Naaaaaaaa!

    One of my favourite movies is Paul Newman in “The Verdict”. I love his portrayal of the dilemma of a man who has lost all sense of self esteem, is an ambulance chaser kind of lawyer and has plunged into alcoholism to escape his demons, self-doubt and shame. If you want to view a portrayal of a man trying to show his vulnerability and the response of his mentor and friend vs the woman he is trying to establish a relationship with, this is a great movie to view.

    Thanks for your efforts Henry to heighten the profile of this cultural issue. Well worth it.

    • Henry Sawatzky

      It seem’s every generation has its own version of “Bruce”. To his credit he did appear as the vulnerable husband at least once in “The Story of Us”. Worth watching. Thanks for the Paul Newman movie tip.

  2. Anonymous

    I meant to say vulnerable, not vulnerability. Also, did you know there is a weekly group for men in Kelowna (part of an international movement) called “The Okanagan Men’s Circle”. Some of your male readers might find it of interest.

    • Henry Sawatzky

      Thanks for your comment! I have not heard of the Okanagan’s Men’s circle. I would love to get connected with it.


Leave a Reply

Subscribe to blog updates

Couples Workshop
%d bloggers like this: