In the last few months, I’ve realized something about men and women and why we often struggle with each other. It might not be THE problem, but I would venture to say that it’s certainly been A problem. And figuring this out has been really helpful to me, so I thought I’d pass it on to y’all. It all has to do with the way we express our pain.
Generally speaking, there are two ways we experience the emotion of being hurt – through anger or sorrow. They look very different, but they are basically the same thing. So a person who is raging and lashing out at the world is essentially the equivalent of someone who is wailing with grief. This is really obvious for some of you, but I suspect that I am not the only person for whom this is a bit of an eye opener.
Most of us are trained – usually unwittingly – to express our hurt in a gender acceptable way. If you are man, you are allowed to get angry. If you are a woman, you are allowed to cry. It’s not universal, of course. But it’s common enough that it’s true more often than not.
We’re all familiar with people telling little boys not to cry. It’s a bad habit. It cuts them off from a legitimate and necessary means of experiencing and expressing his pain. On the other hand, some room is made to allow the boy to be angry. He can kick the dirt and throw down his helmet after losing a game, but can not sit down and sob.
It’s not talked about nearly as much, but little girls are often punished and disciplined when they get angry. Anger from a girl tends not to be seen as an expression of pain, but as a sign that she is out of control. And that’s not allowed. A good little girl is always in control of herself, willing to submit to what is expected of her. If she is hurting, she can cry in her room or to mom until she gets over it. But if she complains, throws something or has a temper tantrum, she is swiftly punished. Refusing to allow a girl to get angry cuts her off from a legitimate and necessary means of experiencing and expressing her pain.
So. men tend to get angry and women tend to cry. Again, it’s hardly universal, but it’s common enough. Now let’s go back to how many of us see anger and sorrow working in the real world. Many parents rely on anger to discipline and control their kids. And, of course, angry people frequently say and do things that cause harm to those around them.
Both men and women grow up with this model of anger, but we experience it very differently.Men often find anger empowering. Women find it frightening. Women find crying emotionally cathartic – a way to move through negative emotions. Men may feel helpless, irritated and embarrassed when someone is crying.
For a woman, anger is often very frightening. This makes sense because for women anger is associated with being controlled by someone who may be willing to hurt you. We may even go out of our way to avoid situations in which anger is expressed. For example, research has found that women are much less comfortable with disagreement in regular conversations than men. We prefer to sit around and talk about what we agree on and may keep our disagreements to ourselves, even when it would be helpful and appropriate for us to voice them.
Boys don’t appreciate being controlled and hurt by an angry person any more than girls, I’m sure. But since boys are allowed some experience with anger, he will often learn to see it as a legitimate tool for exerting control. The fact that in anger he may hurt someone he loves may be a source of shame and guilt. But without the ability to express hurt through sorrow, the best many men can do is suppress hurt so as to reduce the likelihood of hurting someone in anger.
On the other hand, sorrow tends to be a pretty private emotion. Even small girls will go off by themselves to cry. Many kids can go their whole childhood hardly ever seeing an adult cry. When a woman cries in front of a man, it’s because she’s in pain and she trusts him enough allow him to see that. Her expectation is that he will do what other women do and offer expressions of concern and comfort to her while she is obviously in pain. However, a lot of men have little or no experience with crying people who aren’t children. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, but he knows the woman is going to get angry with him if he doesn’t respond well. Often he feels that a woman who is crying in front of him is trying to manipulate or control him. (Interestingly, researchers have found that in the presence of a woman’s tears, men’s testosterone levels drop. A crying women literally makes a man feel less “manly”.)
Odds are good that I’m describing things that most of you have experienced and observed yourselves. And no doubt some of you figured out long ago how to navigate this difference between men and women. But I do tend to be a bit slow to catch on, so realizing that anger is essentially the same thing as sorrow has been eye opening for me.
Although I’m pretty dang tough (for a girl ;) ), anger has always made me uncomfortable. Being able to tell myself that anger is no different than sorrow, from an emotional perspective, has helped enormously. It has allowed me to make wiser choices about how to deal with and respond to anger. I’m less likely to get emotional or defensive. If someone’s really angry, I see them as someone who is really hurting rather than just as someone who is really scary. I don’t know what to do about anger except try to protect myself. But hurt? I know how to deal with someone who is hurting.
If my husband listened to anything I said, he might be able to tell me what this looks like from the male perspective. But I would imagine that it might be helpful for a man to see a crying woman as kind of the female equivalent of a buddy who’s letting off steam. Which might make it easier to realize when she just needs someone to be present, listen and maybe offer some encouragement.
Undoing this whole knot is a bigger task than I can take on here, obviously. But I do think it’s an important issue. Problems between the genders go back to the Garden of Eden. But we were made to live together as a whole, not in conflict with each other as warring factions.
A friend of mine recently told me that she had a revelation that there is a serious imbalance between male and female which is causing serious problems for humanity. I think that this area is a great example of that imbalance. When men can only get angry and women can only be sad, that’s an imbalance. It affects individuals, couples, families and even communities and cultures. Heck, world history and current events probably make more sense when you consider that everything has basically been run by people whose only tool for dealing with harm done is anger.
Clearly, world events are well beyond most of our control. But perhaps finding more balance, understanding and empathy within the context of our intimate relationships is as good a place as any for change to start.