This article is the first in a series of articles geared to help women get closer to the men and boys they love. If you want more info on this topic you can see Tom’s new kindle book The Way Men Heal now available at amazon. Articles to follow will focus on the reasons men’s emotional pain is invisible, tips for getting close to men, getting close to young boys, and getting close to adolescent boys.
The first thing to know is that there are a multitude of ways we deal with emotions. What we want to guard against is the idea that “our” way is the “only” way. If we get stuck in that sort of thinking we are in danger of not seeing the many ways that others might use.
What sorts of things help us when we have emotions? How do we help ourselves find balance? Many people, especially women, find talking about their emotions to be a top strategy, others see talking as something to be avoided. We know about the origins of this difference from the research of Shelly Taylor, PhD of UCLA. Taylor has helped us greatly in understanding that men and women have very different ways to deal with stress. She found in 2003 that nearly all of the previous research on stress had been done using male subjects. Given this obvious bias, Taylor decided to find if women might have a different way from the standard “fight or flight” mode. What Taylor found was that when stressed women don’t usually fight or flight, they instead, will “tend and befriend.” When stressed, women are much more likely to move towards people and towards interaction. This is a remarkable difference and starts off our understanding of how men and women might have different ways to process emotions. Taylor helps us see that women will be more likely to talk while men will be less likely to do so.
Why is it that talking and interaction helps many women heal? The bottom line is that this is where they feel safe. Those people who use the tend and befriend mode will usually find help in talking and interacting because this is where they feel safe. Think of your way. When you are upset, do you look towards others for support? Are there certain people who help you feel safer and more likely to open up? Are there certain places that help you feel safer and open up with that person? The more you feel safe the more likely you will feel free to open up, right? You will be sensitive to your own safety and seek interactions that fit your safety needs. When you find that safety you will talk about your problems and difficulties. This is a win.
Men are no different but their safe places are indeed different. Most men simply don’t find the interactive tend and befriend mode to be so safe.
In the late 1970’s when I first started working at a counseling center my clients were mostly men. I started finding that the things that helped women didn’t seem to go over so well with men. I was taught in grad school to sit and face my clients and make good eye contact. Worked like a charm with women. It seemed to help them feel safe. With men? Not so much. Rather then help them feel safe it seemed to be making them more tense. It was only later that I found that eye contact for men (especially with another man) had the tendency to increase tension rather then help them feel safe. Eye contact for men means something very different. For men eye contact often means competition or confrontation. Think about it. Hockey has a “faceoff,” boxers face each other, when men compete they “face” the other team. it took me some time to realize this and also to see that men feel considerably safer not in a face to face mode but by being shoulder to shoulder.
Before we go a step farther we need to back up a bit. The differences that Taylor found and others that we will discuss in just a minute are not black and white. For many reasons, including both social and biological ones, there are some men who process things more like women and some women who process more like men. We are called to not pigeonhole either. We are all very different and each person needs to be understood for their own unique paths. I have found that about 20% of men are going to process things more like women (tend and befriend) and about 20% of women will likely process things more like the men. There are, of course, many people who are a blend of the two. It’s not a simple split.
With that said, it is more likely for women to tend and befriend but what about men? Where do men find safety? If we knew that we would find it much easier to enter into their safe space, right? After working with grieving and traumatized men for over 30 years I have slowly come to see some of these differences.
Exercise one — Think of the man you love. Where do you think he finds safety? There are three basic places that people will find safety, Interaction, Action, and Inaction. Most of us will use all three of those but one will usually be primary and be more helpful than the other two. When he is stressed does he want to talk about things? (interaction) Does he move towards doing something? (action) Or does he isolate himself and get quiet? (inaction) Think of his way. You may want to talk with him about this when you see him. Just ask him where he feels safe and see what he says. You could even tell him what you do and where you fell safe when you feel stressed and ask him if that sort of thing works for him. It could prove to be a valuable conversation.
Men move towards action
In general, men tend to move more toward action or inaction but each man (and each woman) will be different and have different ways to find safety. We also know that men will find being shoulder to shoulder to bring more safety then being face to face. Men tend to get close to one another when they are on the same team and working towards a common goal. This is where men tend to relax and develop friendships especially if the situation is somewhat dangerous. Think of men who become close to each other, war time buddies, policemen who are partners, firemen who are at the same firehouse, players on the same team or even fishing together in a fishing boat all day. These are all places where men are shoulder to shoulder and taking part in an action together with a common goal. This is where men begin to feel close and it gives us a powerful clue about how we can get closer to them.
Once someone finds safety what is the next step? Think of what happens when you find your close friend, you have a safe place and you have time to interact. What happens? It’s obvious. You tell your story. There is something about telling the story that is healing and fulfilling. When you can get that story out and someone hears it you feel differently. Often we feel affirmed. These are the basic elements of healing that can be seen clearly in therapy or even a support group. Both therapy and support groups are built to help people feel safe and to then tell their stories.
These two elements are the basics to how people heal from very strong grief and trauma. It has been my experience that these elements are also used for everyday sorts of emotional bumps and bruises but on a smaller scale. The human mind is built to listen to and tell stories and this is for good reason. Doing this helps us stabilize and find our center. People find safety and then they tell their story within that safety. When I first started working with men I assumed that everyone felt safe sitting face to face and that everyone would benefit from verbally telling their story. I was wrong. It took me quite some time to realize that the basics of safety and story were the same for both men and women but the specifics of safe places and the way the stories were told were very, very different. I began to realize that men often found safety in their action and then would use that action to tell their story. It was right there for me to see but I missed it due to my assumption that everyone healed in the same manner.
I can hear you now saying, “Wait a minute. How can anyone tell their story through their action? How does that work?” I can really understand this question since I struggled to understand it for years. Let’s take an example.
I worked with a man once who experienced the death of his teen son in a car crash. The man was stunned and reeling. What he eventually did to deal with the chaos of such a massive loss, was to begin to write a book about his son. He interviewed his son’s girlfriends, ex- girlfriends, teachers, friends, religious leaders, coaches and anyone he could think of that had contact with him. After interviewing each person he would write up the interview as a section for his book. The conversations the man had with his interviewees were not unlike what some others might have in a support group, or in therapy, but this man had the conversations as a part of his action, the action of writing the book. The project was meant to honor his son and his son’s life. The project also pulled the man into the future: should he have an index? How will he get it printed? Distributed? Who should he interview next? The entire project became a way for this man to tell his story of his son, and his loss. But rather then simply talking about it, he told his story through his action, the action of writing the book. it was an action that honored his son and pulled the man into the future. During this action and interviewing his sons’ friends and talking about his son’s life how could he not experience the emotions of this loss? By honoring his son with his action he was telling his son’s story and his own story and experiencing the emotions that were a part of that loss. How could he not?
Now, imagine you are this man’s wife. How do you get emotionally close to him? Would it work to simply sit with him face to face and say, “Honey, how are you feeling about our son?” Probably not. Much better to simply ask how the book is going. It’s a very good bet that he will be very willing and even interested in talking about the book. The latest thing he had discovered about his son from the son’s friends etc. Better yet, how can you help him with the book? “Honey, maybe I can round up some pictures that you could use in the book? Would that help?” Men sometimes deeply appreciate someone taking an interest in their healing actions and working with them shoulder to shoulder. That is where men tend to feel safe.
I can hear you saying, “Well Tom, my husband does not write books.” And you would be correct. However, it is likely that your husband uses some type of action to tell his story and if you know how he does it you will be in a much better position to both understand him and connect with him. But how does he do it?
Exercise 2 – Think of the man you love and remember where he finds safety. Now think of what he does once he finds that safety. It is likely that he will move into one of four spheres, creative action, practical action, thinking action or inaction. The men I have worked with will generally have one of those that is their primary path to tell their story.
Let’s take just a second to observe these four types of healing action. It’s easiest to start seeing these by observing what men tend to do following a very strong loss. Here are some examples:
PRACTICAL ACTION – This is probably the most common path where men use some practical action as a vehicle to tell their story. Some men might dedicate their work, others might build a memorial or start a trust fund, still others might dedicate themselves to better parenting. Think of the NFL when a player on a team dies. What do these men do naturally and without direction? They honor their fallen comrade with an insignia or patch on their uniform and they dedicate their season (their action) in honor of the lost friend. Their play is now connected to their loss and the future becomes a way to remember this friend and to tell your story. But all of this happens through action, not just sitting in a circle and talking.
CREATIVE ACTION – Many people use creative action to tell their story. You can see this in men who use actions like painting, singing, sculpting, writing music, listening to music, and a host of other creative paths. How many symphonies have been written by men that were in honor of a loss?
THINKING ACTION – Some men write like the man in our example. Some journal, some study grief, some dedicate their learning, some philosophize.
INACTION – This is simply telling the story internally, in our own heads, by ourselves. Some will do this before going to sleep, others while driving, and some others while taking a walk. It can happen anyplace. You simply won’t see it unless they tell you about it. They are likely telling this story over and over again in their heads. Like the other three types of action this one is basically invisible. You can’t see it.
It is this invisibility that kept me from seeing the way men used action in order to heal. Men are very good at making their healing paths invisible. It is likely that you don’t know the first thing about how he does this. The next article will be on how men try to keep their healing invisible and the reasons they do this. When we can understand this basic idea we will be in much better position to see more clearly the healing actions they are taking.
Here is a summary of what we have done thus far:
1. Men feel safer in a shoulder to shoulder mode on the same team
2. Rather than interaction, men often use action or inaction to tell their story
3. Rather than the past, men use the future to tell their story
4. Honoring and rebuilding are the tools that are used
Tom Golden, LCSW has written two books on the way men heal and has co-authored a third. Tom’s work has been featured in CBS Evening News, CNN, ESPN, The NFL Channel and many others. His latest book “The Way Men Heal” is available now at amazon as a kindle book. He offers online consults for women seeking to get closer to the men they love. [email protected]