Author’s note: I’m beginning a series of blog posts on the inner lives of men. The following is adapted from my newest book, What Your Husband Isn’t Telling You.
Men are trained from a young age to deny their true feelings. Complete this phrase: “Big boys don’t __________.” We enforce this rule with our boys from an early age.
Five-year-old Patrick falls off his bicycle and skins his knee. The pain is so intense tears well up in his eyes. His friends gather around him and start taunting. “Crybaby!” they yell. Patrick learns to keep his true feelings inside.
At age 9, a bully begins picking on Patrick. The more emotional Patrick becomes, the more taunting the bully dishes out. Patrick learns to suffer in silence.
At age 12, Patrick goes out for the baseball team – but is not chosen. He becomes emotional. His dad tells him to, “Buck up, and take it like a man.” Patrick learns to keep his true feelings inside.
At age 15, Patrick is sitting with friends in the school cafeteria. He says, “Hey guys, I’m struggling with some fears. Can I share my heart with you?” Patrick is quickly laughed out of the room. He learns to keep is true feelings inside.
At age of 19, Patrick is feeling overwhelmed by college, the demands of his fraternity and his part-time job. His girlfriend just dumped him and his bank account is overdrawn. When he shares his anxieties with one of his frat brothers he’s dismissed as a “navel-gazer.” He learns to keep his true feelings inside.
Every time Patrick opens up and shares his true feelings and emotions, there’s a man who tells him to stop. Or he pays a penalty for opening up. Patrick gets the message: to be a man is to deny your true feelings.
Contrast this to his sister Edie, who cries freely when she skins her knee, who’s allowed to mourn when she feels rejected, and who easily shares her emotions with her friends. Why are women allowed to share their innermost feelings but men are not?
For thousands of years men have been hunters and warriors. Hunters had to project an air of strength and confidence at all times. If a hunter were to complain about the cold, a lack of food or his fear of being mauled by a saber-tooth tiger, he could bring down the morale of the rest of the hunting party. If a solder were to speak openly of his fear of death or injury (or worse yet dissolve into tears) he could spook his entire platoon.
Men also had to swallow their fears at home. If a hunter were to admit the possibility of an unsuccessful hunt might cause the tribe to panic. Same with war – if a soldier were to admit to his wife he was afraid of defeat, morale at home would suffer.
Meanwhile, women were free to share their fears and emotions back at camp. In fact, this sharing was therapeutic and healthy for the women and the tribe.
This is what gave rise to the double standard. Women have been free to share emotion because it’s beneficial, but men have had to keep their sorrows private because it could lead to disaster.
Thus, societies have trained boys from a young age to keep their emotions in check. This prepares boys for the day they may someday be called upon to project an image of confidence in the face of danger.
So we have yet another societal adaptation that has served humans well in the past, but has failed to keep up with the times. Today most American men don’t go to war. They don’t face imminent starvation. Sure, men still deal with bad news, unemployment and setbacks. But modern men rarely face the life-and-death situations that made emotional aloofness so important to our ancestors’ survival.
The church can help men get in touch with their emotions – but it must walk a tightrope. It must provide forums for men to be real with one another, without pushing men too hard to fast.
Most men’s ministry consists of Bible studies. We are focused on the acquisition of knowledge, which is a good thing. But we never get around to sharing from the heart because the format is wrong.
On the other hand, some men’s groups are too focused on emotions. Some leaders press their men to share intimate details of their personal lives. Most men will not go there during an initial meeting; it takes time and familiarity before a man can trust others.
True story: My friend Brian was invited to a men’s group at his church. At the first meeting group leader pulled out a towel and basin and washed the men’s feet. The next week only one man showed up. This was too much intimacy too soon. (Remember, Jesus didn’t wash his disciples’ feet until he’d walked with them daily for three years).
One other reason men have a hard time opening up in a small group: if I am completely honest about my struggles, I am handing you a weapon you can use to destroy me. For example, if I tell you I’m using pornography, you now have the power to wreck my reputation in the church, to destroy my family, and maybe even get me fired from work.
So yes, we want men to open up and be real. But the road that takes us there is a long one. A man must overcome the weight of society’s expectations and a boatload of fear before he can let another man see into their heart.
In next week’s post, we’ll examine the other big reason men don’t share their feelings: women punish men who are honest with them.