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Divorce Recovery and Cultural Obstacles: Debunking the Myth That Men Can’t Express Their Feelings

Jerald W. Young, Ph.D.

This article answers the question, “Is it true that men really cannot express their feelings?” The belief that men can’t express their feelings is a well-accepted part of our culture. This belief permeates efforts to help men recover from the emotionally shattering experience of divorce. If it is in fact true, the prognosis for a full and complete recovery from divorce by men is discouraging at best. If it turns out to be just an unsubstantiated myth, the prognosis for divorce recovery by men is extremely hopeful. The question becomes, is it actually true?

 What It Sounds Like: “Good.” “Bad.” “I Don’t know.”

How often have you thought or heard someone say, “Men can’t express their feelings?”

Guy walks into a bar. Bartender says, “Hey, I heard you got divorced. How are you feeling?”

Guy says, “Great!” or “I’m pissed off!” or “I don’t know.”

Guy’s parents call and say, “How are you feeling now that you divorced?”

Guy says, “Great!” or “I’m pissed off!” or “I don’t know.”

Guy is on a date and his date asks, “How are you feeling now that your divorced?”

Guy says, “Great!” or “I’m pissed off!” or “I don’t know.”

Conclusion: Guys can’t express their feelings.

In fact, it is treated as a “given” in our culture.

Why Is the Myth Important?

If it is true that guys can’t express their feelings, divorced men are truly screwed and are doomed to repeated visits to divorce court.

The divorce recovery process requires divorced people, men and women, to acknowledge the trauma by fully discussing their emotional reactions to their divorce and their ex. If they can’t do this, their hopes of having a full and complete recovery from divorce are severely hampered. You can talk to many divorce lawyers that have worked many cases, and they will be able to tell you, divorce affects men emotionally severely. So, yes, this myth that “men cannot express their feelings” is a big deal if it turns out to be no myth at all, but the truth.

Where did the myth come from?

For decades boys and men have been told to “stifle your feelings.”

Starting early in life, father figures, coaches, male teachers, even peers, provide a model of stoicism for boys to strive. They are told to “suck it up,” “don’t complain,” or “don’t be a whiner or a sissy” when wanting to express their feelings. The one exception is the expression of anger. It is OK to register the fact that something made you mad.

But pity the poor man who says he feels sad, lonely, hurt, and rejected or announcing he feels ashamed, humiliated, guilt-ridden, and embarrassed. Let alone should he tell folks he feels joyful, peaceful, content, and giddy with excitement. Men just do not do that.

So men are left with answering the question, “How do you feel?” with the tried and true alternatives: “good,” or “bad,” or “angry,” or “OK,” or the old faithful choice, “I don’t know.”

How does the myth get perpetuated?

Our culture perpetuates it.

People observe men “hem and haw” when asked how they feel, and people simply assume it must be true that “men cannot express their feelings.” Girlfriends and spouses observe their male partner’s refusal to express their feelings as “that’s just how men are” and let it drop.

Also, in a funny way, believing “men can’t express their feelings” actually “solves” some communication problems for men. It prevents men from feeling pressure to disclose their feelings. If people don’t believe men can, they don’t ask them to express their feelings.

But is it really true that men can’t express their feelings or is there a more useful and truthful explanation of their ineptness in trying to do so?

What Is Really Going On Here?

OK, so “Good,” “Bad,” and “I don’t know” are common responses to the question, “How do you feel?” The question is “Why?”

The most common explanation is it is in their DNA. By virtue of being a male, they can’t do it.

But there are other possible explanations including:

(1) Is it their desire to avoid embarrassment?

(2) Is it their desire not to appear incompetent?

(3) Is it something else?

The embarrassment explanation. Perhaps men balk at expressing their feelings for fear it will result in a raw, gut-wrenching, uncontrolled discharge of emotions, the display of which is incompatible with the behavior of a well-respected, literate, socially appropriate man.

Or perhaps men balk at the possibility others might think he is being “effeminate,” whatever that might mean to him.

The incompetence explanation. Who wants to be thought of as being stupid? How dumb are you if your vocabulary is so limited that you cannot give a coherent, thoughtful response to such a simple question as, “How do you feel?” Well, that is exactly what men have been trained to be unable to do! Having only an elementary school level grasp of the vocabulary of feelings words in an adult world is humiliating. No one, male or female, wants that to be seen as being that incompetent..

The “something else” explanation. What I strongly suspect is going on is a combination of the two. Expressing your feelings means exposing your vulnerability to embarrassment and exposing your verbal incompetence at only having a child-like “feelings vocabulary.” No wonder men do not answer when asked, “How do you feel?”

How do we know it is not true?

I have witnessed men express their feelings without hesitation and in-depth for the last 25 years.

Using a tool I initially developed to help folks dissolve resistance to change, I have observed men identify their feelings, disclose what they are feeling, and then discuss at length and in-depth why they are having the emotional reactions they are having.

The first divorced man who used this tool identified 86 specific feelings about his life after divorce and his ex. Most were negative, some were positive. Then we spent the next four hours working through each of the 86 words, exploring just why each particular emotion got triggered by that particular situation. This response is typical. Over 90% of men and women who use this tool identify and discuss on average from 45 to 100 feeling words.

The men I have observed ranged from 22 to 76 years old, from CEO’s to janitors, from actors to lawyers. They demonstrated to me that men not only can, but want to, express their feelings as long as the circumstances were right.

So, What’s the Point?

It is only a myth that men can’t express their feelings.

Men can and will talk about their feelings. However, they require a safe, private place to do it. Plus they need a non-threatening way to help them identify the names of the feelings they are experiencing.

The problem men face is not “I can’t express my feelings.” The problem is “Don’t make me embarrass myself and don’t make me appear INCOMPETENT!”

Remove their fear of embarrassment and vocabulary incompetence and men will express their feelings willingly