Men Have Emotions, Too

“Men seem to have a mental file drawer where they can store unpleasant experience. Open it up, drop it in, slam it shut. Done.” One of my friends was talking about her own experience in her marriage, and wondered if I agreed.

Well, it’s complicated. I do think that in western culture, men are expected to be problem solvers: movers, shakers, thinkers. This is what it takes to succeed in a market economy, where competition for work and other resources parallels the competition for food, shelter and safety of our earliest human ancestors. This ability to compartmentalize their lives? I see it as a psychological defense. Men are taught early in life that boys don’t cry, that when in pain they should shake it off, and that they need to be prepared to bring themselves, if not their families, and their communities to the front lines of life’s battles every day. And if their life battle isn’t a literal one, it certainly is core male metaphor.

That old saw, biology is destiny, is rather real. Men don’t bear children; women do. And women’s bodies and brains have for tens of thousands of years shaped women’s experiences of themselves as child bearer, child protector and nurturer. Women’s brains (recent fMRI imaging bears this out) have been primed to first see the world through relationship and emotional perspective. Men have brains that have developed to give a stronger preference to problem solving.

No wonder we can have trouble talking to and with each other. Women complain that their men don’t listen to them; that they simply hear every conversation with their partner as a plea for information, solution or fix. Men complain that they don’t know what their women partners want from them, if it isn’t what they are naturally good at.

I see this difference in my work as a therapist, but I see it as much through a cultural and family lens as I do a biological or neurological one. Yes, human beings have had gendered roles around children and family life as long as we have recorded history. Yes, we inherit strong personality traits from our parents, who themselves have inherited similar traits from their families. Yes, our culture has deep, anxiously held gender meanings for men (witness the current chaos that transgendered or gender-queer youth have when trying to play high school sport of their gender preference, not their biology) and you will begin to understand how hard it is for men to be really comfortable with their emotional lives.

But men, like women, are people. And we human beings all have these biological responses to the world called emotions that give us information and neurological action split seconds BEFORE our brains kick in to gear with thinking. Men are just taught to rush through them to get to their preferred way of being, thinking. Women are encouraged by biology and culture to notice emotion and better integrate it into their thought.

How can we get through this gendered issue to a better, more satisfying way of being with each other? I teach my clients to reach for their emotional reactions first. I ask men to think about looking for their female partner’s emotional experience, to respond to that, before they begin to problem solve. “Empathy first,” I intone, time and time again. And for women, I teach them tolerance for their partner’s (perceived) emotional dismissal, and patience as they must ask time and time again for their husband to listen and understand them first before they tell them what they ought to do.

We are in this together, men and women. We are all emotional beings, whose preferences with those experiences seem to differ fundamentally. But we are also creative, plastic, changeable beings, too. We can learn to better dance together. Couples who have adjusted to one another in this fundamental way can find a continuous, subtle joy in talking with and sharing life with each other.

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College Mom: I’m Trying, But It’s Hard

We dropped our first born off at university this week. We have spent the last year plus supporting him as he got ready. From taking AP classes and exams, to doing half of his senior year of high school at our community college, our son was looking forward. We thought frequently about how the transition to college would be for us all, and he and I often would tell each other that we would certainly miss one another and that it would, yes, feel very weird.

Well, it does. I didn’t even shed a tear until I walked into the house after we drove home without him. Our house, minus one of our children, just doesn’t feel like our home. Walking into his bedroom brought me to tears. The boy is gone, at least until Thanksgiving break, and I have to get used to the change.

We left him seeming excited and confident, and for that, I am deeply grateful. He is competent to meet the academic challenges ahead, and has support for everything else.

I’ve been comforted by the texts we have sent back and forth a couple of times a day since we separated. Does that qualify for a helicopter parent? I don’t think so. I have told my husband that I think my/our job continues to be to love and support our son. As for decisions and problems? They now belong to him. And he needs to confront them so he can develop his individual skills with people and their strange, strange ways.

Of course, sharing space with others is always a challenge. I want him to be able to get his own needs met, live with compromise, and assert himself. This is what I am struggling with. He is a really, really nice guy, and doesn’t always speak up for himself. I’d love to swoop in and solve an issue or two, like a therapist could. But I. Must. Not. Interfere.

He knows where we are. He knows how to speak his mind. He knows what he needs. As my friends who have traveled this road before are good at reminding me, we have taught and modeled problem solving all his life. He has a set of values that are worth defending. I need to let him figure out his own boundaries, and how he is going to manage them. He’s just getting started.

Just so you know: it’s a lot easier to say than to feel. I think I have more to learn about this change than my son does. I used to know what being his mother meant. It’s something very different now. It’s pretty hard to stop being his champion, defender, provider and comforter just like that. But just like that, that is exactly what my life is asking of me now.

Thank you, God. Help us all.

The Adolescent Effect: Part 2

Parents of adolescents don’t have much fun.

Fun, for many parents of teenagers, is something they watch their children have. Fun at school, fun at the mall, fun on the playing field, fun at parties. What used to be happy times as a family with pre- and elementary school children has transitioned into good timesĀ  for the teens, and being the ones who not only pay for those, but also drive the kids to and from these teen-centered events. Having given up weekend after weekend, night after night, to manage my children’s sports, music, church, school and friend events, I feel like an event planner. Always making things happen, invisible to the guests, never getting to sit at the head table or get out on the dance floor.

This is what many middle aged parents find when they get to the second decade of their children’s lives. A child centered life, but with no emotional reward. No smiling toddler looking back at you as they climb up the slide. No proud 10 year old eager to show you off to their teacher or coach. Instead, the parent must now watch their child’s back as they saunter, without a second glance, into the gym, store, house or ball field. The parent ready to drive, wait, and pick that child up when the event is through.

Do I sound resentful?

I have been thinking about my emotions around the lack of fun adult time in my life. Perhaps it has something to do with where we live, a suburb full of families in some stage of doing what we’re doing. Years back, when I lived in a small town, adults made time for one another and the kids were expected to come along. One of my closest friends, having moved to Alaska, regularly reports her time spent with other adults in her small town, running, eating, fund raising, skiing, church building. What happened back in our shiny suburb?

I know for my husband and me, these years of chauffeuring came on slowly, incrementally, at the same time we had to manage some serious work and health issues. It was like an emotional tossed salad, trying to keep it all together. We managed to keep the whole one piece, but the pleasure in parenting? the joy in the week? I’m looking, but it’s not so obvious anymore.

For families that don’t have the funds to finance big vacation cruises, or a second home on the lake, these adolescent days are hard. There is no natural escape. Add into these adolescent effects a divorce, or an elderly parent, a job loss or a health or financial crisis and you see why most of the families I see in therapy are families with teens. We are adults without the focus of small children, adults without the freedom of retirement or the adjustment of an empty nest. We are hobbled, and stressed, and under-appreciated.

We are struggling to re-define ourselves and what brings us joy. If we look chronically worn to you, don’t ask us to explain. Just give us a hand, and invite us to dinner. Without our kids.