Men and Matters of the Heart

Rediscovering emotions in mid-life.

Are Men More Vulnerable?

Men are so sensitive they literally unplug from their emotional lives.

Jim was referred to me by his marital therapist. According to his wife, he was passive aggressive--almost consistently failing to follow through on promises and agreements with her. He reported to the therapist that he "forgot" things, and felt he had a memory problem. The therapist recognized the selectivity of his memory, and referred him to me.

Jim succeeds in his work as a manager of a software company, he even trains and competes in triathlons. Though he is bright, he is endlessly approval seeking. That may be partly because he is the middle child of 10 kids, organized into older and younger cohorts, in effect two families, neither of which he felt included in.

He reported an almost paralyzing loneliness throughout his life. One early memory was of him staring out the window, watching others play, feeling emotionally flooded, disconnected, as if he didn't exist. He seemed so emotionally pained and traumatized right at that moment, I sensed he dissociated from his own being.

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I recognized his experience as an extreme version of what I've heard many men describe: An emotionally overwhelming childhood of desperate loneliness. Without deep, early connection, men find their inner vulnerability intolerable, substituting outer activity for feelings. Or "doing" in place of being.

Jim told me of his "memory" issue. Its selectivity was almost exclusively reserved for his wife. He accepts this insight, genuinely unaware how it may stem from reactivity to her. His forgetfulness was his way to make up for his inability to negotiate, in even the most basic manner, with his wife's wishes and expectations. Her disagreement so overwhelmed him with frightening abandonment, he felt paralyzed. He presents her with this persistent false smile and agrees to her every request.

Men are more vulnerable to loneliness than women, they have a greater need for belonging and connection. Maybe because women come from women, whereas men don't come from men. Perhaps boys start out more constitutionally adrift than girls. Thereby needing more connection, more deeply and consistently. Otherwise, they may find their feelings intolerable and run from them.

In addition, men are caught in a terrible, vicious cycle: they adhere to societal expectations that emotions matter less to men, so their emotions are not attended to. Yet men are, in fact, so sensitive they literally unplug from their emotional lives. Imagine a world where boys emotional needs were accepted as requiring more attention; and men, despite appearances, are recognized as painfully sensitive.

Jim is frozen in time, unable to be emotionally present to allow his emotional intelligence to sufficiently develop through exchange with others. He is the Lost Boy who must be retrieved. We do it together, allowing him to safely experience the fear and vulnerability of his aloneness, and insist that he fully show up in his relationships, however "immature" he is when he begins.

Wayne Giancaterino, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Honolulu.

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