Expressing Emotions: Men’s Double Bind

It’s a common complaint: Men need to be more sensitive, why can’t they talk about their emotions? It’s Henry Higgins reincarnated as a woman: Why can’t a man be more like a woman?

Men are all too familiar with this double-bind:

Men are shamed by women and men alike when expressing their hurts and articulating their needs, but once shamed into silence men are again shamed for their failure to communicate.

Knowing he’ll be shamed either way, a man chooses the lesser of two evils. Heather Gray writes, “As a therapist, I sit and talk with men all the time and what I most often hear is that when they try to talk to their wives about their upset, they are met with defensiveness”.

Dr Barbara Markway puts it like this: “Women tell men to express their feelings, but when they do, women are often petrified, if not horrified. Women want men to show their feelings, but only certain feelings, and only in doses they can handle”.

Tom Golden is the most insightful, though. The author of The Way Men Heal, he points out that the question “Why don’t men talk about their grief”? assumes that talking is the only way of dealing with grief. In a Youtube talk, Golden says, “In general, men will tend to heal themselves through an action or an inaction (pulling back and being quiet) that uses honoring and pulls them into the future”. Further, “men do honoring and action shoulder to shoulder.” That is, men often focus on a shared activity where there may not be much talking, but there is much communication.

Golden notes that it took him 30 years as a counsellor to realize this. Why so long? He gives four reasons:

  1. A man’s pain is invisible because a man’s pain is taboo”. Because no one wants to talk about men’s pain, men are not willing to make themselves vulnerable without support – especially because women and men often see a man’s weakness as an opportunity to attack him. Golden gives an example: One sees a woman alone in a restaurant crying, and one feels compassion; but one sees a man crying and feels disgusted with him. “Men know this. They know it. They know no one wants to hear this crap”.
  1. Men’s duty to provide and protect. But who’s protecting him? Nobody. Golden’s example is this: It’s late at night and there’s a loud noise. The wife could choose to go check it out, and she’s a strong woman for doing so. Or she could ask her husband to do it, and that would be perfectly fine. A husband who goes to investigate is just doing his job, however, but he’s pathetic if he says he doesn’t want to. A man who can’t or won’t protect others isn’t a real man and is unworthy of help. The double-bind, then, is that “by being in need of help, men forfeit their right to it”.
  1. The dominance hierarchy. Animals compete for higher rank for better reproductive opportunities. Humans are similar. Status for women is mostly about physical attractiveness. But for men it’s more complex. Status for a man is about being the best at what he does, whatever that might be, so it isn’t always about male dominance in the traditional sense. A hippie will seek to be the hippest of the hip. A broker seeks to make more money than anyone else. A professor seeks to publish more papers than other professors. But for almost all men, emoting in public decreases his status (unless he’s a New Age man, but frankly there aren’t many women who want that in a man).
  1. Physical differences. Most research on stress and the fight or flight response has been done on men. The research on women shows that they “tend and befriend”. The reason may be that estrogen amplifies oxytocin (the “cuddle hormone”) while testosterone negates it. Golden notes that these are generalizations: about 17% of men and 17% of women don’t follow these patterns.

Everyone knows that society teaches men not to express their emotions, but understanding the dynamics behind it goes a long way toward allowing men greater gender role flexibility.

However, it’s unrealistic to expect men to become like women. As such, it is critical for men to honour women’s ways of dealing with emotions, and for women to do the same for men.

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