He isn’t being vulnerable, he’s crying

As a child, I grew up in a culture defined by rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia. While I now realize many of the people around me were gay, they were invisible to me at the time. At least, their sexuality was invisible to me. As a teenager, I made an intellectual decision that everyone had a right to equal dignity and expression. Living in a seemingly homogeneous society, though, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience my own implicit biases until later.

I strongly defended the rights of gay people to live, work, love, and express their lovepublicly, but my reaction to actual gay lives was untested. I was probably a bit too comfortable with myself and my choice for equality, for the first time I saw two men kissing, I was horrified to find that I looked away with feelings of discomfort and perhaps even disgust. I was then filled with shame for the latent feelings I obviously had, but I did my best to not turn away.

Over time, I was lucky enough to find many gay friends and to experience their love and affection in ways that seemed perfectly natural because they were perfectly natural. I’m sure I still have many implicit biases, and I keep trying to overcome them all, but at least now I can usually deal with people kissing with no internal conflict. (As I age, I have become painfully aware that many young people feel the same disgust when they see older people kissing.)

Unfortunately, many people react to a man crying in the same way I initially reacted to men kissing men—they turn away in discomfort or even disgust. It is widely assumed that it is men who are disgusted by other men crying (and I’m sure some are), but famed vulnerability researcher Brene Brown found that it is more often women who can’t accept men’s vulnerability. Obviously, being vulnerable means much more than just crying, but I would like to say that I think crying is really the single behavior that sets people stomachs to churning.

We find crying so shameful, in fact, that we often call it “being vulnerable” in order to avoid saying the word “crying.” I don’t mean this to be a criticism of researchers’ use of the word “vulnerability” while they discuss men’s emotional health. Rather, I mean to suggest that the rest of us have adopted the word “vulnerability” as a way of avoiding discussion of crying. Often we will only say that a man “was vulnerable,” because to say that he was “openly sobbing” would be to rob him of his dignity and bring shame to him. Paradoxically, by trying to protect him from judgment, we reinforce the judgment that all men face for being weak, sad, or emotional.

I should qualify that last statement. We don’t judge men so much for being emotional as we judge them for what particular emotions they express. Crying is acceptable for women and girls, but anger is reserved for boys and men. If a man loses his son or father, for example, he may seek revenge in various ways, and he is often honored for doing so, especially if the death was caused by malice or negligence.

Historically, revenge frequently took the form of actual violence, and vengeful violence has certainly not disappeared, but revenge can also take the form of lawsuits, public shaming campaigns, and other legal and socially acceptable forms. But the man who falls into a deep depression or cries uncontrollably for an extended period will face criticism. I once talked to a father who was told he needed to “get it together” at his own son’s funeral.

We pretend that men aren’t in touch with their feelings or that men are incapable of expressing their feelings. If these things are true, it is only because we have conditioned men to suppress their feelings through our own reactions of disgust. Boys are taught in their first months out of the womb that crying is unacceptable. The result is that men must either destroy themselves or destroy those around them in order to process their own feelings.

The price we pay is that the men we are around are emotionally drained, stressed to the breaking point, and prone to anger and destruction over empathy and connection. Of course, this is an oversimplification and is an exaggerated statement of what happens. We all know well-balanced men who are nurturing and emotionally connected. Some men are lucky that their lives have not burdened them with too much grief and sadness. Other men have, in spite of social programming, been lucky to find people who accept them and their emotions. And, finally, some men have the fortitude to find effective means of self-care.

Still, we can and should work to remove the shame and stigma from male weakness, and that begins with removing disgust from the sight of male tears. How do we do it?

  1. Don’t turn away. If a man is crying in your presence, do not avert your gaze. Continue to look at him and let him know that you are with him, free from judgment.
  2. If you are a man, openly discuss your own tears with both women and men. When we remove our own shame, the disgust of others cannot affect us.
  3. Stop saying, “boys don’t cry” to anyone, especially a child. Boys hear this almost as soon as people start talking to them. Support the full emotional range of boys.
  4. Stop mocking male tears. Some feminists seem to feel that making fun of male emotions is an acceptable response to centuries of male tyranny, but mocking male tears is a sure way to help perpetuate misogyny and the oppression of women.
  5. Create safe spaces for men. Men need opportunities to talk to other men about crying and weakness. Men need to let one another know that crying is not weakness. You can take care of your family, be a protector, or be a warrior and still take time to cry.
  6. Recognize the varied experiences of men. Adult men are often victims of childhood abuse whether it be physical, emotional, or sexual. Men are victims of domestic violence and abuse. While physical violence is a reality for many men, emotional battery is even more common. The victimization of men is not a joke, so please stop laughing at it.

Many men will reject my suggestions as being absurd and will suggest I should just “man up.” I ask those men to remember those words the next time, and it will happen, they are struggling to force back the knot forming in their throats as they build a dam against the tears threatening to break forth. Whether we choke the tears back successfully or not, the damage is done. We still feel the shame and disgust. We feel devalued and demoralized by our own natural emotions. We can be free and we can be whole. We just have to come out and be honest about what and who we are.

Business man blowing his nose

Tom Digby on Militarism, Sexuality, and Romance

In a post on how men can be better feminist allies, Emma Cueto advises men to avoid the temptation to put men’s issues first. She sums up the problem of “toxic masculinity” by noting, “is not fun for anyone and often limits men’s choices in terms of interests or self-expression, and it means that many men are never really given the tools to properly deal with their own emotions.”  She goes on to say that men are not sexually assaulted at the same rate as women, are not victims of domestic violence as often as women, are not victims of pay disparities or sexual discrimination as often as women, and aren’t confronted by laws designed to control their bodies. She is right on all counts, but Tom Digby’s book, Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance , helps show why it is impossible to separate culturally programmed masculinity from sexual assault, reproductive regulation, domestic violence, and job discrimination and why feminists must deal with how sexism affects both men and women simultaneously.

His thesis is that militaristic societies establish values and goals that require men to cut off their feelings of care for others and for themselves, see women’s freedom as a threat, and rely on violence to solve their problems. In order to achieve military objectives, subject both boys and girls with intense cultural programming from birth to encourage strength in boys and passivity in girls. With this thesis, he flips the script from what many assume: that men are violent and cut off from their feelings by biological programming. Early in the book, he offers two pieces of evidence that this assumption is faulty. First, men and women in some societies do not show the differences that are so prevalent in militaristic societies. Second, he shows that men often fight against their own biology to retain the appearance of stoicism. Indeed, almost all men have been cruelly taunted for their failure to maintain their composure (choking back tears) even before reaching adolescence. If biology prevented boys from crying, no one would have to keeping telling boys not to cry. The conditioning is relentless and severe.

War dependent societies must maintain ample supplies of expendable men as well as childbearing women who will provide future generations of warriors. This requires shutting down empathy in men, glorifying risk and violence, and valuing women according to sexual availability and passivity. To the extent that maintaining near constant war was the goal, this model worked for centuries, but things have changed. I wish I could say we are no longer reliant on war, but that is sadly not driving the change. Digby points out that while war is still with us, the need for individual warriors who do one-on-one combat, relying on brute strength, has greatly diminished. Combat is now highly mechanized, and what physical differences may exist between men and women often offer no benefit to either side or may even give an advantage to women (he notes the case of jet fighters).

As a result, most men do not experience direct combat, or any kind of combat, in their lives. Our warriors must find other outlets for their masculinity. They may do it through aggressive sports, war games such as paintball, or even through violent video games. Digby points out that while women may be attracted to warriors, the guy who dominates video games doesn’t get quite the accolades of war combatants.

Another change is the material relationship between men and women. In the past, women were materially dependent on men and would comply with men’s wishes in order to avoid poverty. As women have entered the workforce, many are now the primary wage earners for their families. As women earn college degrees and professional credentials at higher rates than men, it is inevitable that men will become increasingly dependent on women for material support. These social changes leave our masculine warrior with an identity crisis. One option is for him to change his identity, which requires becoming more dependent and empathetic. This would be to become more “feminine” (a horror to the warrior). Or, the second option is for him to become more strident and militant, which may account for increased attacks against feminism and women these days.

When we observe the vitriol in attacks against feminist women online, graphic violence against women in video games and movies, and actual physical brutality and murder of women, it is easy to see the desperation of the warriors who refuse to go down without a fight. The fact that their opponents wish them no real harm seems to be of no consolation. It took me awhile to read this book because I assumed I would agree with it, and I did. I already knew that men were programmed to cut off their empathy, to expect women to be passive, to have the greatest disdain for “feminine” men, and so on. This book does bring a new analysis to these facts, though. It gives a new understanding of how things have gotten where they are and how they may be different.

I have only one minor quibble with one claim in the book. In chapter two, Digby quotes Sandra Bartky to explain the transactional nature of heterosexual relationships. He quotes Bartky as saying, “He shows his love for her by bringing home the bacon, she by securing for him a certain quality of nurturance and concern.” The claim is that men are emotionally unavailable or unsuited for empathy and emotional nurturance. On the other hand, women are expected to provide comfort and emotional support for men. I do think it is true that men are more likely to seek emotional support from women than from men, but I do not think this transaction is so readily accepted in heterosexual relationships.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to both men and women in grief. Many men are so conditioned to “be strong” that they will never ask for support from the women in their lives for fear of appearing weak. Also, many feel they must suppress their emotional needs for the good of the family. Because they succeed in appearing strong, the women around them believe they are strong and do not need emotional support. As a result, men too often face grief and depression in complete isolation. When they finally crumble under the pressure, many will say, “I had no idea things were so bad.” This may help explain why men commit suicide at higher rates than women. Sadly, I’ve heard too many women say that they, also, do not feel supported by other women. Increasingly, at least in the United States, I feel grief is becoming a solitary activity for both men and women.

I hope we can all begin to support one another by offering each other protection, emotional support, material support, and just human kindness.

Therapy: The Poison of the Phrase “Usually the Man”

When Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, he never bothered to make mention of the race or religion of any of the characters, except one. Throughout most of the novel, Fagin is referred to as “The Jew” with occasional variations on the theme. You may think his choice of words was simply standard at the time, but he was challenged on this choice. When criticized, he seemed surprised, and said, “It unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that the class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew”. He said he wasn’t biased against the Jews but was merely reflecting a simple truth about the nature of certain criminals. He even exclaimed, “I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them…”

He really couldn’t see that any of this was his fault, but he eventually did change his ways. 11163694886_802d9911b7_zHe did have actual Jewish friends, and as hard as it was for him to see the problem, he didn’t want to offend them. He explained, “There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard and to whom I would not willfully have given an offence.” In the last chapters of the book and in subsequent readings, he deleted the offending appellation in the way you might finally discard a favored but hopelessly stained garment.

Dickens wasn’t unique by any means. We all have biases that we feel certain are nothing but statements of fact, supported by our frequent observations. In my interactions with therapists, I often hear the phrase “usually the man” sprinkling their descriptions of couples with marriage difficulties. Something like this: “When one partner has difficult expressing emotion (usually the man) . . .).” Or, “When one partner struggles with monogamy (usually the man . . .). Or, “When one person is addicted to porn (usually the man . . .). I’ve asked a few therapists about this construction, and the response is always some variation of, “What am I supposed to say when I’ve observed this time after time in my office?”

The fact is, of course, when we believe something is true, we tend only to take note of that occurrence in our observations. Even when we are aware of our own confirmation bias, it is exceedingly difficult to diagnose our own blind spots.

Some examples:

  • Dr. Gerald Stein, listing several kinds of unhealthy sexual activities, describes “selfish sex” as “a cousin to Obligatory Sex. However, in this example, it is usually the man who satisfies himself quickly, not out of duty, but simply because his needs are all that matter to him.” Note that it is usually the woman who has sex out of a sense of obligation, or so Dr. Stein believes.
  • In a paper by Barry McCarthy on marital sex, he says, “A realistic expectation is forty to fifty percent of sexual experiences will be satisfying for both people, twenty to twenty-five percent are very good for one partner (usually the man) and good for the other.” He begins the paragraph by saying the data is empirical, but only cites a study on sexual dysfunction that occurs before the statistics about satisfaction, which is not cited. I’m sure his experience confirms his claims to his satisfaction.
  • An article on domestic violence in Psychology Today by Neil S. Jacobson and John M. Gottman says, “In many unhappy marriages, when one partner (usually the woman) requests change, the other one (usually the man) resists change, and eventually the woman’s requests become demands, and the man’s avoidance becomes withdrawal.”  Again, if asked, I am sure these therapists/researchers would insist that their statements are supported by many hours of clinical observation, and they probably are; however, it is likely that men who are victims of domestic violence are much less inclined to seek therapy because they know they will not be taken seriously as victims or because they also refuse to see themselves as victims.

I could go on and on with examples, but you can do it yourself. If you want to see how pervasive this phrase is, just Google “psychotherapy” and “usually the man” or “marriage counseling” and “usually the man.” I promise, you will have plenty of examples.

What I would like to point out is that these “empirical” claims about what men do in relationships always conform to negative stereotypes about men. Men are selfish lovers. Men are abusive partners. Men are kinky. Men are more easily satisfied sexually than women. This thinking eliminates the opportunity for men to be abused, neglected, unloved, and unfulfilled. It denies women the opportunity to be the partner who is more sexual, more liberated, or more powerful. I once sat through a panel discussion by three male therapists, and one of them admitted that his sympathy just naturally went to the women when he saw heterosexual couples.

A couple of things to consider:

First, it may be correct that in some cases men are more likely to exhibit certain behaviors or attributes than women, but assuming they do makes it extremely difficult for you to see the men who are atypical. Second, it may be that men and women are not as you perceive them to be at all. Rather than interpreting data as it appears, you may be constructing data from your own biases.

A final note:

If you wonder whether your statements may reflect a bias or stereotype, try the Dickens test: Substitute “usually the Jew” or other racial term for “usually the man,” and see how it sounds. If you aren’t comfortable with the racial term, consider revising both your words and your expectations of your clients.

Performing masculinity and grief: A death of my own

When I was fifteen years old, my 25-year-old uncle died in a fire

While some older adults had feared for his well being for some time, his death was sudden, unexpected, and extremely traumatic for me. In times of grief, we all experience mixed emotions, but I was overwhelmed by feelings of confusion and isolation.

In the days following his death, my time was spent among both close and distant relatives in the home of my grandparents. When people interacted with me at all, it was generally to tell me to give comfort to someone else (“Go hug your grandfather.” “Hold your grandmother’s hand.”). I did my best, and I got through it. I had been to funerals before, but this was the first time I was so close to the deceased and so aware of the judgments of the people attending the funeral and receptions at the home later. Someone, usually a woman, didn’t cry enough or dared to wear pants to a funeral. Someone else, usually a man, fell to pieces and couldn’t keep it together. Certain friends should not have dared to show their faces, and others had no excuse for not coming. Or so it was stated by the chorus of judgment and scorn.

I tried my best to assimilate funeral normativity, but it really didn’t make sense to me. Years later, I cried at my grandfather’s funeral. This seemed a reasonable to me, and I didn’t predict being judged for it. After the funeral, one of my relatives asked me what I did for a living. I told her I was a writer. She said, “I knew you must be some kind of sensitive artist or something.” So much for the freedom to openly grieve for a close relative at his funeral. Do women face this kind of judgment?

But men who do not express emotions openly aren’t free from judgment or consequences, either. Kenneth Doka, an expert of grief counseling, said in an interview, ‘We do a strange thing with grieving styles. I always say we disenfranchise instrumental grievers early in the process. “What’s wrong with this person? Why isn’t he crying?”’ The man who manages his grief by working through it with projects, helping others, and so on is ignored. The man who emotes openly is criticized. Doka points out that more emotive grievers are penalized later (Why isn’t she over it yet?).

My uncle’s funeral may be when I first developed my revulsion at smug hypocrisy and self-righteous pity. I can remember one aunt declaring, loudly, “Well, if his death had anything to do with drugs, I just don’t want to know about it. That is not what is important now.” And this may also be when I first became aware of paradox. If she believed what she said, she would not have said it, and if she said it, she obviously didn’t believe it. (And a lifelong love of philosophy is born.) Anyway, I also developed my own sense of righteous indignation toward people who couldn’t offer condolences without poking people with daggers in the process.

In my first experience with traumatic grief, the people I would normally turn to for emotional support were all overwhelmed emotionally and intellectually. I don’t blame or resent anyone for it, but I was alone with my grief and my first experiences with this kind of loss. Shortly thereafter, an acquaintance was killed in a motorcycle accident, and I just never took the continued existence of anyone for granted again. I also accepted grieving as a solitary activity.

The next traumatic loss I experienced was described in an earlier post. My niece and nephew drowned on Mother’s Day (May 10) in 1992. The single most striking feature of this grief experience for me is the memory of many friends, coworkers, and family members coming to me to express their condolences and sincere concern for the suffering and recovery of my ex-wife. People lamented that it must be extremely hard on my wife, and I was admonished to take good care of her, as her suffering must be immense. I tried to do those things, of course, as I tried to manage my own emotions and continue to care for my children (I was an at-home dad at the time) and maintain a functioning household.

During this time, I had thoughts that terrified me and flooded me with shame. I began daydreaming, almost longing, for the death of someone who would be important to no one but me. A death that would bring me the kind of comfort and concern that had been reserved for my ex-wife during what was certainly the most challenging and traumatic event of my life to that point. I was horrified to think that I could wish anyone dead. Of course, no one in the world is important only to me. Everyone I love is loved by others as well. Further, I wouldn’t trade any of my loved ones for “good grieving.” (I will add that one friend in particular stood by me and cared for me throughout.)

The true fantasy, of course, was that someone would step in to help me through my current grief, not that I wanted anyone to die. Still, these thoughts became pervasive and persistent enough to plague me with guilt and interfere even more with my recovery. What I really wanted was to receive the same support I was expected to give. I don’t really want to be the only person in the world being cared for; I just want a reciprocal arrangement. I don’t know whether every man feels the same way, but I know I’m not the only one.

Why is it that being a man is to be sentenced to a life bereft of emotional support? When women say they want to meet a sensitive man, they generally mean they want to meet a man who attends to their emotional needs, not a man who openly expresses his own emotional needs let alone a man openly expresses his emotional frailty.

I dream of a world where grief is not gendered and where masculinity is not marked by solitary sorrow.