Angry Men and Crying Women

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.

“Masculine Christianity” and Men

My husband has often remarked to me that the heart of the problems we have in understanding God is one of translation. No matter how we try, the words we use to express spiritual truths can’t fully capture the reality they describe. Especially for “people of the book” such as we are, words are the medium through which we explain God to ourselves and each other. But as powerful as words are, it is exceedingly difficult to translate the spiritual into the spoken (or read) without flattening what is being described – sometimes to the point of obliteration. It’s a bit like explaining sex to a 9 year old – you can explain how it works, but they will walk away with no concept of why anyone would want to do such a thing. Descriptions don’t always illuminate reality.

When it comes to our Christian/Hebrew attempt at translation, scripture relies heavily on that good writing maxim: “show, don’t tell”. So we have a book filled with stories, poetry, a couple of books of rules, genealogies and some letters of exhortation. Its more like giving a 9 year old a Danielle Steel novel in lieu of explaining the mechanisms of sexual intercourse. They may come away a bit fuzzy on the details, but with a better grasp of what it is they have to look forward to.  Better, but still not complete.

One of the oddities of Hebrew and Christian texts is the extent to which they avoid describing the spiritual at all. There is no attempt to really discuss the nature or substance of God. Very little is said of where we come from or where we are going to outside of this physical realm. Questions such as the relationship between the physical world and spiritual world are vague at best. While our stories and poetry help to flesh out the relationship between God and mankind, the reality of the spiritual is something we must seek to experience for ourselves. Christianity has always hinged on experience rather than belief. Few people come to a life-altering Christian faith because they got to know the bible and theology and decided to follow it. At some point, most people must have a spiritual experience of love or connection to bring the whole thing to life. Even the most lurid erotica is a poor substitute for the real thing, after all.

So, what does all of this have to do with “Masculine Christianity” and men? Continue reading

Technology only a man could love

When my hubby told me about BMW’s new technology which allows a car to park itself, I was pretty impressed. Until I read about how it actually worked. Turns out this technology only works if you’re parking your car in the garage. And you have to stand next to the car and hold down buttons on the key fob while the car parks it’s self. Hmmmm . . . How very useful. I know plenty of people hate parallel parking or having to drive around a parking garage looking for a spot or even fitting their car into a tiny spot in a parking lot. I can’t say, however, that I’ve ever heard anyone say, “I wish there was a way I could get out of my car by the garage door and stand there holding buttons down while it parked itself. Having to actually pilot the darn thing into the garage just drives me nuts!” I suppose if you were one of those people who either runs the car into the back wall or leaves the tail end hanging out, such a device might be useful, but I’m thinking hanging a tennis ball from the ceiling would be cheaper.
Now if they really wanted to make something useful, they’d put in bottons which allowed you to smack an obnoxious child in the back of the head remotely while driving. HaHa – just kidding. That’d be silly – a fly swatter on the front seat works just fine! I’m just kidding. Really. ;p

My brain is going to explode

A few minutes ago, I sat down to read an article on slate.com criticizing some column David Brooks wrote about the Duke lacrosse team scandal (don’t really care about it, but the headline writers at slate are so good, they make you want to see what an article’s about). Apparently David Brooks had been complaining about the race/class lens being used to look at the story and he thought it should be looked at as a moral issue and a sign of the lack of any attempt by our culture or schools to indoctrinate our youth in morality and chivalry. One Stephen Metcalf at slate didn’t care for the column and as part of his response wrote this:
When a sociologist—someone like C. Wright Mills, for example—hears the word “chivalry,” he doesn’t hear the language of personal responsibility but its dark underside, the language of self-blame. There was a time—surprisingly coterminous with the heyday of Brooks’ chivalry—when a black stripper who had been raped by white college boys would never think of going to the cops. Totally unaddressed by Brooks’ nostalgia for “the 1920s,” when “you can actually see college presidents exhorting their students to battle the beast within” is whether the best aspects of that bygone era (decency in public manners) could be resurrected without the social apparatus that sustained it (white Anglo-Saxon hereditary elitism). Brooks doesn’t mention it, but one way to return university presidents to the language of inner beasts is to once again exclude women, blacks, and Jews from universities.
So chivalry and a moral education cannot exist withracismcism, religious bigotry and the oppression of women? And returning to the days of such things would be a prerequisite to a return to chivalry and morality?
As I sat at my computer, mouth agape trying to figure out if I read that right, the NPR program I had turned on early crept into my consciousness. The father of John Lindh (the American young male picked up with the Taliban back in 2001) was speaking. He was telling the story about how his son had been mistreated, not given a fair shot at justice, blah, blah blah. Someone asked if he thought his son had done anything wrong. His dad responded (paraphrasing here): “not at all. Going back to the 80’s Reagan called these people freedom fighters. John just got caught in the crosshairs when America switched sides, rather suddenly in the wake of 9/11, and began backing the Northern Alliance. What John was doing was admirable. We want our kids to go to other countries, lenewnewe things, learn about other cultures, get involved.” HELLO – your son was hanging out and “learning” with people who cut off women’s breasts, killed their husbands, dropped boulders on the heads of suspected homosexuals, made women prisoners in their homes, left widows to starve, cut off people’s hands, wouldn’t allow little girls to go to school, ripped out the fingernails of women for wearing nail polish and on and on and on. But we’re suppose to think he was just off learning about other cultures like some sort of exchange student? What was he going to do – come home and share the proper technique for whipping a woman in the street with a cat-o-nine tails?
Two displays of such reality-free immoral thinking so close together is just too much for me. I think my brain is going to explode.