Recently I was angrily accused by someone important to me of being “yet another emotionally unavailable male.” They might be surprised to know I had a lot of feelings about that – shock and surprise, for starters. But before I go into what was going on in my body and in my heart, because I’m a typical guy, I want to back up and work down from my head.
In graduate school I had a psychology professor who looked around the room one day and declared: “There’s not a man in here who would stick around if the Gestapo showed up at our classroom door.” Well, duh. While at the time I thought this was a personal indictment of me and the two other men in the class, I later realized that as the lone family survivor of the Holocaust, this professor was essentially expressing anger, pain and resentment at a horribly traumatic event that took a collection of nations and a few atomic bombs to bring to an end. Still, this unskillful expression of ungrieved loss did not feel like a warm fuzzy invitation for me to vulnerably express myself, thank you.
Snipping and Sniping
I had another graduate professor, Kathy Speeth, later make what I thought was a very valid point in response: “Ladies,” she said, “if you want your partners to be emotionally available to you, you can’t cut their balls off every time they show some vulnerability.” To me, this is the crux of the matter. (For alternative relationships, where emotional availability can also be an issue, “balls” can be considered metaphorically).
Growing up male in a patriarchal culture brings certain emotional limitations with it. Just as there’s “no crying in baseball,” additionally, there’s no crying in basketball, stock trading or house building – all things that I’ve spent a large part of my life engaged in. The outward expression of feelings – anger often exempted, of course – is not socially acceptable for men in 2010 America. It’s not acceptable to other men, and it’s not acceptable to women, either. Nor has it ever been. In my experience, emotionally vulnerable men might be an intellectually bonne ideé, but the reality is many women want a Georges St-Pierre or a Hans Marrero when the rubber meets the road. They want a Worthy Contender, someone who can send the Gestapo packing … when he’s done crying during chick flicks. Such men go a long way towards keeping women’s limbic systems from being easily hijacked by threatening life events. In other words, what women really want is someone who can consistently answer the Big Brain Question, “Yes.”
Feelings versus Emotions
Nevertheless, so that we’re all on the same page, let’s be clear now about the difference between feelings and emotions. Researchers of these topics identify emotions as outwardly directed and public, whereas feelings are inwardly directed and private. One reason this distinction is important is that just because a man doesn’t express his feelings, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any. (Unless, of course, he has the clinical condition known as alexithymia, thought to be caused by the left brain not knowing what the right brain is feeling).
Additionally, not only are men culturally conditioned not to express vulnerable feelings, but they are neurologically handicapped as well – recall that women are fortunate in that they have roughly three times as many speech and language neurons available to enable them to use words to express emotion. So, if it’s emotional availability we’re looking for, we need to collaboratively create a balanced environment for safe expression – women need to practice toning down the verbal expression and men need to practice stepping it up.
Only the Emotionally Repressed Die Young
The average lifespan for women is five years longer than for men the world over. While lots of research shows up intended to explain this difference, I’m pretty convinced that Secret Saying 70 in the Gnostic Gospels lies its heart: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Dr. Gabor Mate, author of When the Body Says No, would very likely argue that men need to structure their lives and relationships in ways that allow for them to bring forth what they have long been conditioned to keep within. And they can undoubtedly use more than a little help from women, like Eve Ensler who encourages men and women to bring forth and embrace our Inner Girl. (And vice versa, of course. Relationships are extremely complex creations).
If I was the father of a young boy these days I would do three things to help in this regard. First, I would do my best to encourage him to learn where feelings live in the heart, mind, and body, to become intimate with what they actually feel like. And then I would make it safe for him to use words to express the emotions generated from those feelings. Next, I would also do my best to model that process. Finally, I would enroll him in the most rigorous martial arts class I could find, and I would support every inclination he might have for perfecting his ability to assertively defend himself whenever life required it. In other words, I would teach him how and provide him the tools to skillfully act in ways that safeguard his right to make his feelings freely known for the whole world to see and hear. If you’re going to be a crybaby, it’s good to know how to kick some ass.