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Anger, Men, and Love

Is male love like an old, worn sock?

At the beginning of our boot camps for couples suffering from chronic resentment, anger, or emotional abuse, participants assess two fundamental elements of their core value. First they judge how deserving of love (defined as affection, passion, and emotional support) they feel. Then they rate the value of the love they give.

Of the more than 1200 men who have gone through the boot camp, most rate themselves worthy of love, while almost all consider the love they give to be insufficient. In other words, they overestimate how worthy of love they feel (you can't truly feel deserving of love when you're not giving it) and underestimate the importance of their love to their families.

On the surface, this tension between feeling lovable but unable to meet the emotional desires of loved ones can make men seem entitled, as if they expect to get love without giving it. On a deeper level, it explains why so many men are emotionally withholding in relationships. If you think of your love is a da Vinci painting, it's a wonderful gift to give someone. But if you see it as an old sock, you wouldn't want to bother her with it. Instead, you might try to compensate for the perceived deficiencies of your emotional support with some kind of financial or service-oriented behavior. And you're likely to get resentful or angry when your family considers these inadequate compensation.

Most male anger comes from feeling like a failure as a protector, provider, lover. These acute vulnerabilities can be stimulated by the mere unhappiness or displeasure of his wife, even if her distress or negative states have nothing to do with him. And he is likely to blame his sense of failure and the feelings of inadequacy it stimulates on her. Blame gives him status as a victim. Victimhood gives him a temporary sense of self-righteousness, along with a retaliation impulse, which, in turn, stimulates anger.

The adrenalin rush of anger, like any other amphetamine-effect, always crashes into some level of depression, at least in the form of self-doubt and energy depletion. He then uses a low-grade resentment to militate out of depressed mood — to gain temporary confidence and energy. Resentment keeps him partially aroused most of the time and highly susceptible to angry outbursts. The excess adrenalin and cortisol in his bloodstream make it hard for him to sleep and more difficult to concentrate when awake. Often tired and distracted, he needs more anger for energy, focus, and motivation. He gets caught on a recurring roller-coaster of resentment-anger-depression-resentment-anger-depression. Chronic blame keeps him mired in victim-identity, which continually reignites the cycle. If he allows himself to realize that he may be a victimizer, he sinks lower, possibly into thoughts of suicide.

Think Habit, Not "Childhood Issues"

Once this pattern becomes habituated, the content — what makes him angry — is no longer important, as he will look for anything to give him the adrenalin shot he needs. He becomes a kind of anger-junkie, in search of blame to get his fix. He lives predominantly in two emotional states, either buzzing along with some form of low-grade anger or plodding ahead in mildly depressed mood. His life becomes a joyless drive to get things done.

The man who feels inadequate at love doesn't need insight about the past. He doesn't feel bad because of the way he was treated as a child; he feels bad because of the way he fails his family now. His childhood experiences may have caused him to feel vulnerable in the first place, but the habit of blaming his vulnerable feelings on those closest to him makes him feel ever more vulnerable as it causes untold misery to him and his family. Once a habit is etched in the brain, it cannot be reversed by resolving whatever issue may have given rise to it. That is why therapies that focus on childhood wounds, though they might be interesting for self-discovery, are all but useless at changing habits. Habits are conditioned responses that must be reconditioned in the present.

Inadequacy Is Motivation

Men in our culture are especially vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy and especially prone to misinterpret them as punishment to be avoided rather than motivation to change behavior. Feelings of inadequacy are motivations, not punishments. Before we know how to do anything, we feel inadequate at doing it. The unpleasant feeling of inadequacy is a motivation to learn how to do the task at hand. Everything important we do stimulated feelings of inadequacy before we learned how to do it. That includes maintaining intimate relationships in a complex modern world.

For a man to be successful in a modern marriage, he must develop the habit of acting on his sense of inadequacy as motivation to improve his relationship. He must clearly understand that his bad feelings are not punishment; they are motivation to be more protective and loving. By developing new habits of connecting-by-protecting, he will realize that he feels far more valuable and powerful when compassionate than when angry. He will realize that compassion for loved ones is power.


More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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