Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015 12:11 am
The alone ranger
Sometimes when my boyfriend is upset he wants comforting, just like I would. He’ll vent or lay his head in my lap, and I stroke his hair. But sometimes he just sits on the couch and says nothing. How do I know what he needs, and how do I feel better about it when it isn’t me? –Man Cave Confusion
Just like women, men often verbalize complex emotions – for example, “I want sausage and pepperoni on that.”
The truth is, men have feelings; they just don’t hang them out to dry on the balcony railing like big cotton granny panties. Developmental psychologist Joyce Benenson, who studies sex differences, notes in Warriors and Worriers that men, who evolved to be the warriors of the species, typically express emotions less often and with less intensity than women. Men are especially likely to put a lid on fear and sadness, emotions that reflect vulnerability – though it’s also the rare man you’ll hear chirp to his buddy, “OMG, those are, like, the cutest wingtips!”
Men’s emotional coolness is an evolved survival tactic, Benenson explains. “Emotions communicate feelings to others. They also affect our own behavior.” In battle, “a person who loses control of his emotions cannot think clearly about what is happening around him. Revealing to the enemy that one feels scared or sad would be even worse.”
Women, on the other hand, bond through sharing “personal vulnerabilities,” Benenson notes. Men and women do have numerous similarities – like having the adrenaline-infused fight-or-flight reaction as our primary physiological response to stress. However, psychologist Shelley Taylor finds that women also have an alternate stress response, which she named “tend-and-befriend.” “Tending” involves self-soothing through caring for others, and “befriending” describes “the creation of and maintenance of social networks” to turn to for comforting. (And no, she isn’t talking about Facebook or Instagram.)
So, as a woman, you may long to snuggle up to somebody for a restorative boohoo, but for a man, opening up about his feelings can make him feel worse – and even threatened. The problem is, we have a tendency to assume other people are emotionally wired just like us. Being mindful of that and of the evolutionary reasons a guy might need to go off in a corner to lick his wounds might help you avoid taking it personally: “I’m upset about how you’re upset!” (Great! And now his problem has a problem.)
It would be helpful if an upset man would hang a “Do not disturb” sign on his face when he just wants to drink a beer (or four) and watch “South Park.” You could try to read his body language – like crossed arms and stiff posture saying “go away.” But if his body isn’t speaking up all that clearly, you could say, “I’m here if you wanna talk – or if you don’t.” If it’s the latter, stock the fridge; make him a sandwich; make him some sex. In other words, comfort him in the way a clammed-up guy needs to be comforted. It beats being the girlfriend version of the enthusiastic good Samaritan who, on a slow day, forces little old ladies across the street at gunpoint.
©2015, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email AdviceAmy@aol.com (advicegoddess.com). Weekly radio show: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon. Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).