by Norman M. Brown Ph.D. |
But here is where the emotional problems between men and women are so clear and easy to understand. Boys learn to stop themselves from crying with a few terribly shaming experiences in the early years of elementary school. But the more general basis of distress/anguish, as observed among babies, females and people at weddings, funerals and moving ceremonies, is an overabundance of emotion—often of all kinds mixed together. But men in the toxic masculine strait jacket will try to avoid feeling “too much” at all costs because to show that much feeling has been shameful since middle childhood. And all the many moments of blocked harmony and thwarted expectations in love relations are automatically suppressed from consciousness by men because these shame moments are too much to bear. They are red-flag warnings that harmony is in danger, but such hurtful momentsmust be pushed aside because boys have already done that since their early years. As a result they don’t learn what to do to about them.
Since boys and men are likely to be unused to coping consciously and carefully with either relationship hurt when the connection is disrupted or distress and its burden of overabundant emotion, they don’t develop good ways of acting on the “negative” half of love emotions. So they don’t develop the skills to bring back the “positive” love emotions of excitement and joy, and therefore the love in their partnership doesn’t grow the way it would if both sexes could be conscious and careful with all four of these emotions. Since men are more likely than women to suppress incidents of the shame and distress emotions, these negative experiences are more likely to fester inside of them, instead of lending greater joy to their relief when expressed and worked out with their partners.
What men and boys do when they are avoiding their uncomfortable hurt and distress can be mapped onto four-different types of responses. We will explore each one a bit, along with some probable responses from women affected by them and some potential outcomes. By mapping out some likely scenarios involving both partners we also aim to emphasize the humanity in both sexes’ defensive behavior during relational disharmony. We’ll begin most scenarios with a typical male response; but similar outcomes could follow if a woman made the same initial response. And in real life these scenarios become so habituated that they will turn out the same every time, unless one participant interrupts the flow and tries to raise awareness so the patterns can be changed. These are the four types:
Withdraw is the primary response to social danger, from which a man may pull back from interaction with the partner to any more moments of embarrassment or hurt along with expressing any emotions that might be unmasculine. A typical female reaction to her man’s closing down and leaving the scene would hurt, since their connection has been ended. If this outcome happens often, she may conclude that she can’t get any intimacy unless she stops whatever words or actions she thinks he is leaving to avoid. It she is brave enough she might say, “We have to talk.” Since they expect she’ll be coming from her moral high ground, many men cringe at these words and look for ways to avoid impeachment for bad character.
Attack-Self would be blaming oneself for shame moments, which is more common for women than men and observed in girls at 18 months1. Since they blame themselves, women are more motivated to try to improve the uncomfortable situation for both themselves and others. So they may grow up to be more skilled at repairing disrupted connections, which allows men and boys to remain ignorant that anything uncomfortable has happened. Yet many boys and men do still compare themselves to the more socially successful girls and feel inadequate. Later in dating relations men can attack-self by getting depressed while they’re withdrawing and sad because of their felt isolation and lack of training in how to repair damaged scenes.
Avoidance can be accomplished by distracting from one’s hurt and/or sadness by engaging in something else that generates excitement and/or enjoyment. Thus a man could avoid relationship pain by making himself feel good about doing something else—like working long hours, athletics, or high intensity entertainment. But the old-fashioned absent husband role of striving for success at work and providing for the family is no longer accepted by women to excuse their man’s inability to deal with close relationship issues. Today women can neglect relationship maintenance too, if they’re highly ambitious. And they don’t want to be responsible for both “emotional work” and making a living too.
Attack-Other projects the fault onto someone else, with the partner as nearest target. Since women are inclined to self-blame from early childhood, this defensive move is convenient for men. But It also leads to a great many fights in which a blaming or hurtful statement or action or an outburst of overwhelming emotion by each partner triggers a similarly shaming or distressing response from the other.
All four of these paths can lead to downward spirals in love relationships. Couple counseling has developed many strategies for managing the turbulence these conflicts cause. But in their eagerness to make both sexes feel they’re being treated fairly in counseling, professionals usually avoid pointing out that men are likely to be less competent in dealing with shame and distress. So it would be very helpful for love relationships if training in coping more consciously with distress and shame and how to reconvert them into excitement and enjoyment were widely offered to men. But men would need to realize the value of such training and embrace the vulnerable experience involved.
1. Olesker,, W. (1990). Sex differences during the4 early separation-individuation process. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 38(2), 325-346.