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A Man and His Feelings

Who takes out the dead mouse in your house?

Ricardo Liberato -- Flickr
Source: Ricardo Liberato -- Flickr

It’s almost a cliché to speak or write about men and their need to get in touch with their feelings. About how men are socialized to maintain a stiff upper lip, to override fear and to put on a brave front. And about how much that costs men and the people who love them.

I think this line of reasoning, correct and important as it ultimately is, doesn’t get very far with men themselves. It aims too high – “Tell me about your fears” or “let me see your vulnerability.” If we really believe what we say – that men have been socialized since birth to do the opposite of that – how exactly are they supposed to flip a switch and suddenly open up? Who among us is able to undo years of training and habits in anything just by being told it’s good for us? So why are we so impatient and sometimes so downright unsympathetic toward men who aren’t able to change things they themselves agree are not good for them? It becomes yet one more thing a man is told he isn’t doing right, or well enough. And frankly, men are often punished for doing the very things we are asking them to do.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Who takes out the dead mouse in your house?

You have been smelling something funky in your kitchen for a number of days and can’t locate the source of the smell. You’ve emptied the garbage, looked under the stove, changed the litter box, and still the smell persists. In desperation, you and your spouse pull the refrigerator away from the wall. There you discover the source, a partially decomposed mouse with tiny ants swarming over it.

Now, who exactly is going to have to get rid of that thing? If you are the typical heterosexual couple, it’s clear to both of you who that will be — the man. Each of you will retire to your respective roles: The female will turn her head away until that thing is gone. The male will get something to pick it up with so they can dispose of it.

If you are the man in this scenario, what are you feeling at each step of the way? I want you to slow down the action, taking this frame by frame. Let me make some suggestions:

Frame 1/the discovery. You are very likely as disgusted by what you’ve uncovered as your partner is. You may have a few extra layers of anxiety: Does this mean there’s something wrong that will have to be fixed or figured out and that you’re not sure what to do about?

Frame 2/the decision. Now we have to figure out who gets rid of this thing. You know it’s your job and it wouldn’t be manly to argue over it. Can you pause just long enough to feel how much you really don’t want to do it? Can you let yourself experience how grossed out you are by what you’ve just seen? Can you let yourself, in short, feel your true feelings? My guess is probably not, because you have been schooled to override them, because you don’t want to appear weak before your partner, and because you don’t want to impose this awful task on anyone else. This cocktail probably means that you are already scurrying about to get rid of it before your partner has left the room.

Frame 3/the removal. Let’s say you’ve gotten a paper towel to pick it up with. Did you let yourself look at it before you enclosed it in your grip? Can you let yourself feel the weight of it in your hand? Are you internally clenching your nose as you make your way outside to dump it? As you drop it in the garbage bin, do you have any conflicted feelings of something once alive, and now dead? Do you wonder about how it came to meet this particular end?

Frame 4/the return. You’re back in your kitchen and your partner is busy cleaning the floor. This is her particular role in the division of disgusting duties because she tells you that you wouldn’t do a thorough enough job of it. Her look is determined, as if she’s angry. Did you do something wrong? “That was disgusting,” you let out. “Don’t be such a baby,” she responds through clenched teeth. Angry (but underneath ashamed), you silently go into the next room and turn on the football game.

Men are often punished for expressing their vulnerability unless it’s along socially sanctioned lines. It’s not that the woman in this scenario is being intentionally cruel. She is just playing out the same script we have all been conditioned by. The man is supposed to be strong and not feel his feelings, even though we also want him to be vulnerable when it comes to understanding his partner and her feelings. For her to be open to his true feelings means she would have to experience the discomfort of knowing he did something he didn’t want to do any more than she, simply so that she wouldn’t have to.

There are a thousand other ways this can play itself out, and there is certainly the woman who would say “I’m sorry you had to do that and I thank you for it.” But the point I’m trying to make here is: a) a man feels he cannot let himself feel all that he really feels and function in the socially sanctioned roles he has to play, whether it’s working a ridiculous number of hours to support a family, or driving when he’s tired because his wife is asleep in the passenger seat, b) there is a huge cost to this “dead mouse” scenario, which is played out daily in myriad ways. The biggest cost is that a man loses connection to his own feelings and loses his ability to language them, and c) a man trying to emerge from this script is not guaranteed a safe haven, not only by other men but also by women who send conflicting messages from what they want in a man. Women can also sometimes be so wrapped up in their own pain and sense of victimization that they are insensitive to the man’s struggles.

To men I say the following: There is a difference between feeling your feelings and acting on them. You can let yourself feel how disgusted you are by the dead mouse, or how tired you are by working 80 hours a week, and still take out the dead mouse and still work 80 hours a week. It’s better to feel your feelings and decide to press on because of your noble desire to sacrifice for something larger than it is to override your feelings and be grumpy doing something you believe in anyway.

And I say this to women and others who love men but are frustrated when they won’t express themselves: Look at them with compassion, even when they’re acting their worst. Wonder what feelings are percolating beneath that man’s awareness that makes him so grumpy, abrupt or absent. They aren’t this way because they’re stupid or evil or Neanderthals. They’re this way, in part, because they have to take out the dead mice of the world and pretend they don’t mind.