The test of a man is how well he is able to feel about what he thinks. The test of a woman is how well she is able to think about what she feels. -- Mary Mcdowell, D. 1936, Labor Organizer
Most people probably believe that women are, always have been, and always will be more naturally adept at the emotional life than men. Indeed, many studies have shown that women's brains are wired differently from men's so they can both feel and recall both positive and negative emotions more strongly than men.
The crucial point to understand here is that just because women seem to be more comfortable in the emotional realm, does not mean that men don't, can't, or shouldn't thrive in it. There is a man's way to do it. It's just sometimes not the same as a woman's way. In place of being judged as deficient, let us merely be understood as different.
Men Learning Useful Emotional Skills
The differences between us have been, in fact, part of our problem. For the most part, we've been trying to learn from teachers with only part of the information we need: women—our mothers, sisters, wives, partners, and friends. It's not that we can't learn feelings from women; I believe we can.
I also believe we cannot learn everything we need to know from women, which is understandable because of our differences. It's certainly not their fault; they teach what they know. But too often we learn skills that don't serve us well, so we abandon them, along with an attempt to find our own. In addition, our fathers were often not there to teach us more useful skills; nor were their fathers. This has been going on for a long time.
What brings about these differences between men and women? Do we learn them from our experience (nurture)? Or are they inborn (nature)? Or, the position of most people, is it a combination of both? Now this is a very tricky area, and I will try to resist strict definitions and conclusions. Who, after all, can really understand these differences?
But having said that, I believe there are certain ways we tend to differ, generally speaking, from women in our emotional life.
The Differences in Men & Women’s Expected (Stereotypical) Roles
To attempt to understand the differences in the ways men and women feel, we have to understand the importance of their learned roles. Here I use the word role to mean what society expects, stereotypically, from men and women and, especially, what society does not expect.
We might describe a man's role as rational, aggressive, and practical. Men take care of "Thinking," "War," and "Fixing Things." We have different expectations of a woman. Traditionally, her role could be described as emotional, nurturing, and creative. Women take care of "Feeling," "Kids," and "Decorating." So the expression of feelings will flow from these roles that we receive from our culture and will carry the culture's changing and tension-filled biases and preferences as they are expressed—generally speaking.
Carried to an extreme, which it sometimes is, these exclusive roles produce both men and women who live a sad half-life; the woman does no thinking; the man, no feeling.
Something to note about these roles: The differences between the sexes are important and necessary. To ignore them would be folly. As the French remind us, Vive la difference! however large or small those differences may be. It's the exclusiveness of the roles and their exaggeration that are troublesome. The roles are stereotypes, oversimplifications, so they are not hard and fast; there are many exceptions and reversals. To act as if only women are nurturing and only men are aggressive, or only women are good at decorating and only men can fix things is nonsense.
Men and Women Are Not The Same
So men and women are not the same. Thinking that we are the same—that there are no differences at all, even general and stereotypical ones—gets us into problems of communication and getting along. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, as John Grey's popular book of the same name reminds us.
However, as Gray is careful to point out, there is a problem when you speak in terms of being from different planets. It can lead you into a popular misconception: Men and women are polar opposites. This attitude leads us too frequently into blame: Women are wonderful; men are jerks! Or men have it all together; it's women who cause the problems!
In his book Real Men Have Feelings, Too, psychologist Gary Oliver talks about a third way: "Are men and women different? Most definitely! Are all of those differences genetic? No. Are many of the differences cultural? Yes. Are men and women opposites? No."
So we don't have to be better or worse. We don't have to be polar opposites. We are just often very different from one another, and some of our differences are not based on gender, but simply on the fact that we are different people.
Flooding: A Feeling of Being Overwhelmed by Feelings
Daniel Goleman cites research by John Gottman that says men get to a "flooding" stage—a feeling of being overwhelmed by feelings—much more quickly than do women. And once men are flooded, they secrete more adrenaline into their bloodstream, and unlike women, it then takes very little negativity on the part of someone they're arguing with, for example, to greatly increase the adrenaline and thus reinforce the overwhelmed feeling. It also takes us longer to recover from this feeling. Goleman suggests perhaps "the stoic, Clint Eastwood type of male imperturbability may represent a defense against feeling emotionally overwhelmed."
This may well be why men are often accused of "stone-walling," or withdrawing and becoming unresponsive in the face of strong emotions by others. It prevents the flooding from happening so we can move on more easily and take care of what ever practical needs we have to deal with.
Another Difference: Wanting to Talk About It Or Not Wanting to Talk About It
A study in the Washington Post says that women have better verbal skills than men. I just want to say to the authors of that study: "Duh." -- CONAN O'BRIEN, TALK-SHOW HOST
One of the specific differences that I want to mention is "talking about it." Often, women want to talk about feelings, hers as well as ours, and, well, often we'd really rather not talk about it. This, of course, is also based on the physiology of the brain. Girls develop a facility with language earlier and stronger than boys. They tend to keep that edge throughout life. Conan O'Brien's glib comment above says it all.
A man's response to a woman's talking about it is often to "fix it," that is to do or say something that will take care of the feeling, when all she wants is to be heard and accepted. From a woman's point of view, it can feel like you are cutting her off; avoiding her feelings, and jumping to solutions something she's not interested in yet.
When this happens, try to remember three things: First, women are more comfortable with conflict than we are; their brains are made that way. So we almost always think their emotion—anger, upset, fear, frustration, whatever—is worse than it really is. Second, they get over it more quickly than we do. So just hang in there a while and it will pass. Third, and most important, don't think you have to help her stop the feeling or offer her a solution to any feeling; simply listen and somehow show that you understand (even if you don't really) and accept that that's what she's feeling.
Then, after the accepting, let your skills with answers and solutions have their day. The acceptance of a feeling can be as simple as saying, "Yes, I can understand that you feel that way."
Lastly, at these moments of noticing and talking, don't forget to breathe. Two or three deep breaths will help, probably a lot more than you'd expect.
From the Gut: A Man's Way to Feel
While we can deceive ourselves (by mislabeling what we are feeling and downplaying the intensity of the emotion), basically we tend to be the expert of what we are feeling. -- D. BRADFORD AND M. HUCKABAY, STANFORD BUSINESS SCHOOL
Author Deborah Tannen makes an important point in her book Please Understand Me: "What may be the subtlest yet deepest source of frustration and puzzlement arising from the different ways that women and men approach the world is that we [all] feel we know how the world is, and we look to others to reinforce that conviction. When we see others acting as if the world were an entirely different place from the one we inhabit, we are shaken."
So what does all this mean? How does a man feel? I believe it comes down to this: The way a man feels is the way you feel right now, in this situation, with your background and your experience. That's how a man feels. If it's different from a women, fine. If it's similar, fine. That is not important. It's what you are in fact feeling that's important.
Masculinity is a Fraud: It's Impossible to Live Up to "What It Means to be a Man"
Robert Jensen, writing in the September/October 2002 issue of Clamor magazine, seems to have this idea in mind when he says, "I have never met a man who didn't feel uneasy about masculinity, who didn't feel that in some way he wasn't living up to what it means to be a man. There's a reason for that: Masculinity is a fraud; it's a trap. None of us are man enough." In other words, the popular idea of masculinity is not based on reality, but on, perhaps, a collective and oversimplified wish or an unrealistic and historically influenced dream.
There is no hidden and predetermined form of masculinity waiting in some dark corner for us to find it. There is no "secret way" out there that you need to discover, or an "eternal practice" somewhere that you must constantly seek in order to know how to feel like a man. No. What you feel is what and how a man feels! Just how you express what you are feeling is, of course, going to be affected by many influences, such as your personal preferences, your style, experiences, and history.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
Nothing's Wrong: A Man's Guide to Managing His Feelings
by David Kundtz.
Written in a matter-of-fact, non-touchy-feely style, Nothing's Wrong helps men manage their feelings to build rich, emotional lives and find more satisfying relationships, improved health, and successful careers. Here's a book that truly acknowledges the bewildering effects strong emotions have on men and how men can learn to deal with them.
Info/Order this book.
About the Author
David Kundtz holds graduate degrees in psychology and theology and a doctoral degree in pastoral psychology. Ordained in the 1960s, he worked as an editor and pastor until he left the ministry in 1982. He is currently a licensed family therapist and the director of Berkeley California-based Inside Track Seminars, which specializes in stress management for the helping professions. He lives in Kensington, California and Vancouver, British Columbia. Web site: www.stopping.com.