That’s Rough, Buddy
Why is there an emotional disconnect between men and women? For me, it goes back to my parents.
There’s a prevailing cultural narrative that men are closed off from their emotions, that they need to learn to open up and display them like women do. To the extent that anyone thinks to look for a cause for this beyond men simply being flawed, defective creatures, it tends to be chalked up to being shamed for having feelings by their fathers or male peers or otherwise victimized by the patriarchy.
Jason Stauffer writes about the “emotional illiteracy” of the mental health community toward men in The Emotional Male. Thomas P Seager, PhD tackles the topic from the perspective of mate selection in On Men and Emotional Expressiveness, advising women who happen upon an emotionally expressive man to hold onto him hard.
They’re onto something here, but they go straight to the “what” without stopping off at the “why.”
I need to understand the male relationship to emotions better, because I’ve been processing some pretty powerful emotions since my Dad told me that he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer. As I’ve reconnected with him after a troubled adolescence and young adulthood, I’ve realized how my strategies for processing difficult emotions has been shaped by him for the better. Yet, the way I reveal my emotions to the women in my life has been shaped by my Mother, and I’m rethinking whether these dual role models have prepared me well to become the person I’m striving to be.
Mom and Dad have been divorced for over fifteen years, so Mom didn’t know about his cancer until I left her house announcing that I was heading to the hospital. She had a moment of panic before I explained that it was Dad and that it was a planned surgery, not an emergency.
A few days later I asked her, “Mom, has anyone told you what Dad’s surgery was about?” By this point she must have talked to one of my sisters, because she replied that, yes, she knows it’s prostate cancer.
I tell her, “I’m a little messed up over it to be honest. I’ll be fine, but if I seem a little quiet or withdrawn, that’s why. Having a close relative with it means I’m at a higher risk for it.”
Mom says, “But it’s really common, isn’t it? Almost all men get it sooner or later, if they live long enough.”
Mom was exaggerating — something like 1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime — but that’s still often enough to be “common”.
I tell her, “Yeah, and that doesn’t exactly make it fun to contemplate.”
I think about telling her what exactly I’ve been contemplating. The things that the articles gloss over when you Google the disease, that you only find out when you get it or talk to somebody who has it. That when a man has his prostate taken out, he can pretty much kiss his sex life goodbye. That it’s not much different from being castrated. I decide against telling her that. She isn’t showing herself to be a good sounding board for my deepest fears in this moment.
She falls silent for a moment, then says, “I haven’t done the research, but I don’t think you’re at a higher risk.”
I’m becoming mildly frustrated. I hadn’t been looking for sympathy or solace, just letting her know what was going on with me. But I hadn’t expected this dismissive reaction either. I tell her, “I have done the research. I am at a higher risk.”
I’m pleased that my voice comes out calm and even.
She says, “I just meant — it’s an old man’s disease, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I tell her, “and I plan to be one of those someday.” I haven’t exactly raised my voice, but it comes out with a sharper edge.
I walk away.
She comes to find me a few minutes later, in tears, apologizing for minimizing my feelings. I hug her, and as I do I realize: In my hour of emotional need, I have found myself comforting her.
When my mother reveals her emotions to me, she receives comfort.
When she is vulnerable with me, she receives comfort.
When I reveal the fact that I HAVE emotions and needs, she rationalizes them away.
I never expected to have to defend the fact that I have feelings about my Dad getting cancer. I imagine one of her daughters sharing that she is afraid because a close female relative has breast cancer, and I can’t imagine the conversation going anything like this one.
The standard narrative — that men should learn to display their emotions like women do — is shit advice.
Sooner or later, men learn that we will be punished for revealing our emotions. If not by other men, then certainly by women.
Like it or not, men and women are different. The way we express emotions is different, and the way our emotional expressiveness is received by others — especially others of the opposite sex — is different.
While it’s a regular theme on Medium to argue that women are expected to perform “emotional labor” for men, it is rarely recognized that men pay dearly for the service.
There is a park a few miles down the road from me with a small lake. Every morning I wake up before dawn and drive down to the park with my dog and watch the sun rise. Sometimes I bring a weighted mace and work out with it until I am exhausted.
Mostly, I just enjoy the sunrise and the fresh air and the sound of birds. But the lake is stocked with fish, and sometimes I strike up a conversation with one of the retired old men who come out there to cast their lines into the water.
What I realized is that it’s rare today for a man like me to have access to older men with whom he can talk about scary things like prostate cancer and the potential loss of a parent.
I can talk about my feelings, but the talk always comes later. First comes the solitude and the reflection in nature. One of the things I’ve been reflecting on is: when did I learn this? Where did I learn that this is what I need to help me work through my feelings?
My father volunteers for CASA, an organization that works with neglected and abused children. Their website shows smiling, cherubic faces, but of course the reality of the kids Dad works with is very different. They’re mostly foul-mouthed wannabe gang-bangers. They’re also mostly being raised by single mothers, taught by predominantly female school teachers, and handled by predominantly female social workers. When Dad talks about them, he despairs over whether he’s actually doing them any good.
When he shared that with me, I told him about how I’ve been watching the sunrise every morning and how much that’s helped me. And I told him, “Remember all those camping trips we took when I was a kid? When I was dealing with the sort of thing that seems like the end of the world when you’re eleven years old, sooner or later you’d take us out camping, and after dinner I’d wander off away from the campfire and be by myself for a while and think things over, and that would help me.
“I don’t think you took me on those trips because you were trying to teach me important life lessons about how to deal with my emotions. You did it because it was fun. But you DID teach me important life lessons. I bet you’re doing the same thing for these kids now, even if most of them won’t realize it for another five or ten or twenty years.”
I don’t think men are incapable of expressing their emotions. I think many men are selective about to whom they choose to express their emotions.
I could give more examples of times in my life when I’ve attempted to share my feelings — or just the fact that I have feelings — and been met with rationalizations, indifference, shame, or mockery. And the common thread in all those experiences is that it’s been women, not men, who have reacted that way.
A man might give me no more than this:
…but he’ll at least acknowledge the validity of my feelings.
While “not all [men/women/people] are like that” may be a cliche, I know not all women are my mother. I can think of plenty of women in my life who have reacted more-or-less like Mom has, but I can think of counterexamples, too.
In How I Learned to Lead My Family, I wrote about about how I broke down crying in the car with my then-girlfriend, driving home after my brother’s funeral. She didn’t minimize or rationalize my feelings. She accepted them and gave me what comfort she could.
When men dare to be vulnerable, women often recoil with fear, disappointment, and disgust, sending men the clear message that they better “man up.” One of Brené’s mentors said, “Men know what women really want. They want us to pretend to be vulnerable. We get really good at pretending.” — Lissy Rankin, MD in ‘Women, Please Stop Shaming Men’, Psychology Today, 22 Aug 2014.
I wasn’t “pretending” to be vulnerable in that moment, any more than my then-girlfriend reacted with fear, disappointment, or disgust. At the same time, though, I remember feeling something like an out-of-body experience. Part of me could observe that I wasn’t going to be able to get my car all the way to our destination. That part of me pulled the car off the highway at the nearest exit, then guided it off of the busy street and into a quiet neighborhood, pulled over to the side of the road, put the car in park, and cut the engine.
Only then did I allow the tears to come.
And between the sobs? Some part of me was still there, weighing whether it was an acceptable risk to be this vulnerable in front of my girlfriend.
Would she shame me?
Would she react with disgust?
Would she lose attraction for me?
I decided this was an acceptable risk. I needed to experience these emotions in that moment more than I needed her in my life.
She did not shame me. She did not react with disgust. She did not lose attraction for me. I don’t think she ever fully understood how much gratitude she earned from me for that.
The question isn’t, “Why can’t men learn to open up like women do?” The better question is two-fold.
First, for women: “Given the fact men tend to be very selective about who they choose to display their emotions to, and given that they’re right to be choosy considering the risks, what can women do to prove themselves worthy of men’s emotions?”
The bare minimum is just: don’t do what my Mom did. Don’t punish him for having emotions. Don’t minimize them. Don’t rationalize them. Better still, do what my then-girlfriend did for me: validate his right to have feelings. Give him comfort in the moment, and give him space to work through his emotions in his own way when the time for comfort is done. Show him with your actions that you still respect him and you’re still attracted to him.
It sounds easy when I write it out like that. It probably won’t be quite that easy in practice. Women’s disgust response to what they perceive as male weakness didn’t come out of nowhere. Humans evolved in an environment where a man’s ability to control his emotions in difficult circumstances could mean the difference between life and death for his mate and their children when she is physically vulnerable during pregnancy.
A woman’s evolved, rational fore brain knows the difference between an understandable display of grief at a brother’s death, and a contemptible display of weakness that could leave her and her children in danger. Her hind brain might have trouble with the distinction.
Which brings me to my next question, this one for men: “Given that women often have trouble accepting male displays of emotion and vulnerability, how do you know who it’s safe to be vulnerable with?”
I haven’t found a good answer to that one. The best solution I’ve found, as a man, is to show them a little bit of vulnerability and see how they react. To recognize the women in my life who handle it badly and react by withdrawing it from them. And to recognize the exceptional women in my life who handle it well, and react with gratitude.
And to remember that it’s not a woman’s job to teach me how to process my emotions. That’s for the male role models in my life to do.