Fixing Families

Tools for walking the intergenerational tightrope

Fragile men

Another reason some men don't like to talk

It’s almost a stereotype – the silent guys who may never run from a fight but will sprint away from a conversation especially if it involves their emotions. Men who do the Mars man-cave thing – hole up for weeks at a time before suddenly stomping out and announcing that they are quitting their job or that the family is moving to Arizona, tomorrow. Men who reflexively make jokes when serious issues arise, stay on a steady diet of drugs or drink to maintain various stages of numbness, or men who simply learned long ago how to cut off emotions, all to the frustration of partners who want to understand and connect with their men more. 

While sometimes it is true that some of these guys mean it when they say that they don’t really know how they feel, there are some who know how they feel all too well, and are susceptible to felt-bouts of fragileness and emotionally vulnerability. They don’t want to talk because right now they don’t want to stir the pot; they’re afraid to go there, wherever “there” may be at the moment. Sometimes the fear is they will only wind up feeling worse than they already do, or that they will wind up saying hurtful things they don’t want to say, or that talking will reignite long-buried wounds. 

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I see this fragility particularly when doing therapy, probably the most vulnerable and frightening of places for men like this. They keep me at arm’s length in couple or family sessions with mumbled one-liners about a “rough childhood” that’s “in the past and there’s no sense in going back there, ” or guys who look visibly upset yet deny anything is wrong – “No, I’m fine, it’s just my allergies acting up.” I’ve learned not to push but to not ignore and gently say what I see – “You’re looking a bit sad,” – just so they know that I know, to send the message that here we can talk about this when they are ready, even if they are not ready right now. The antidote to fragility and vulnerability is trust and safety. That’s the only way the once-kid who learned to protect himself by closing up like a turtle can eventually try to stick his head out the shell. 

The challenge for all those frustrated partners and friends on the other side of the relational fence is the same – to be a steady presence and to make talking safe. Gently and periodically ask “How are you doing?” with a quiet sincere voice and touch on the back or knee. If you get the nondescript “Okay” ask one or two leading questions – “How did the conversation go with your boss?” “How are you feeling about your dad’s surgery?” but then back off. No pumping, no interrogations, let him know what is safe to talk about and then give him room to stick his head out. And if he ever begins to talk, make it safe by being emotionally calm, and saying nothing more than grunts and shaking of the head – no opinions, no barrage of questions, no advice unless he asks for it -- these will only close him up. Let him go as far as he can, and make sure you then thank him later for letting you in. 

And pat yourself on the back for doing a good job.

 

Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.

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