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Men - Emotional Absence

Excerpted from

If Men Could Talk: Unlocking the Secret Language of Men


"Perhaps things are changing," I was thinking, as the third consecutive male "customer" walked into the office. Contrary to what the subject matter of this book may suggest, I generally do not divide the world into men and women. But subconsciously, I must have still expected women, not men, to come see me in the plush but sterile, up-in-the-sky Wall Street office which was mine for that one grim day.

A couple of days earlier I had received a call from one of the partners of this investment firm. He was wondering if I could come and spend a few hours in his office in case people in the firm wanted to talk to someone. They had just received terrible news: one of the firm's most beloved employees, a veteran executive secretary, had been killed in a car accident.

When I arrived at the firm, the partner briefed me and then showed me to his office. "Why don't you hang out here," he suggested. "I told everyone you're here, and I also told them we got these." He pointed to a large assortment of cookies and coffee on his huge mahogany desk. "I thought it might entice people to come by," he explained. I said nothing - about the cookies - but I was privately skeptical. (This is something you might do with children, I thought, but with adults?)

It turned out that this investment banker was a better psychologist than I was, or perhaps he just knew his buddies better. To my amazement, the first person to peek into the office - a full hour after I first seated myself and just when I had begun to contemplate leaving - was a tall, bespectacled man wearing an elegant Italian suit, inquiring about the... cookies. When I invited him to sit down and talk, he said, "No, I really just came for the cookies, but maybe I'll have some coffee too. Talk? What's there to talk about? We all go at the end, don't we?" He then sat down and we spent the next fifteen minutes talking about life and death. He had lost his father when he was twenty-three and his mother just two years ago.

The second man who came in had lost a brother at a young age. He did not come for the cookies but he also didn't think there was much to talk about. Yet he stayed for half an hour. When leaving, he looked me up and down and said, "This is the first time... I mean, I've never seen a psychologist before." "Must have been pretty traumatic," I joked. "I guess you don't look that scary," he said, laughing, on his way out.

The third man was also there just for the cookies. He stated flat-out that he was "one of those men who internalize things and deal with them on their own." With him, the conversation somehow drifted into his and his wife's struggle with infertility in the past five years. He was factual and philosophical about it, but the topic of our dialogue remained strangely close to what brought me to that office - notwithstanding its incongruent panoramic views of the New York Harbor or the cookies - the loss of life.

I do not know what the statistics are, but anecdotally it seems that more and more men are willing to open up - that's the new news. The old news is that how men talk hasn't changed much. These three men, the only employees of that firm to stop by to discuss their feelings about the sudden loss of a coworker, did not talk about their feelings after all. Rather, they talked about the facts of their own losses, their own mortality, and the meaning of life - all thoughts, not feelings. Yet, I was strangely moved. Having done this many times before, I had expected an outpouring of emotions, which is usually the case with the more traditional female mourner. But interestingly, the men's more intellectual approach left me full of emotions, as if I myself had lost someone close. By comparison, women's open emotions in similar circumstances had tended to evoke in me more thoughts and ideas - as if their feelings needed to be structured and contained.

The Dreadful Dead

The notion that men react to loss intellectually is not new. Nor is it inherently unappealing. One of Tolstoy's most moving characters, Prince Andrew, in War and Peace, reacts to the death of his wife in childbirth with what can be described as an intellectualized depression. In his complex articulation of rather simple psychology, Tolstoy describes not a conscious grieving process, in which one feels loss, sadness, and anger, but rather, a change in Prince Andrew's personality. From a heroic, idealistic man he turns into a selfish cynic. He logically and thoughtfully expounds the view that education and medicine are bad for the poor. Medicine is generally bad, he explains - it doesn't really cure anybody, only kills, or at best only prolongs everybody's sufferings.

When he discusses these ideas with his friend Pierre, there is no mention of the obvious connection to the loss he has suffered. And strangely, as he argues his position he becomes more lively and engaged. "His glance [becomes] more animated as his conclusions become hopeless," we are told. Yet the reader feels the poignancy of the underlying loss. And so does the prince's friend, Pierre, who responds with, "Oh, that is dreadful, dreadful!...I don't understand how you can live with such ideas."

It is precisely because of the absence of simple, straightforward emotions that we end up feeling for the intellectualized, emotionally absent man. Of course, it is not that Prince Andrew is actually not feeling the loss - the truth is almost the opposite. He is so devastated by it that he must mount a powerful, all-consuming defense against his feelings. He'd rather change his deeply held convictions about life than allow his emotional pain to take the lead. In that respect, to the extent that women can tolerate more painful emotions, they are psychologically stronger than men. The latter, fearful of psychic pain, turn their sufferings into philosophies or activities. Or sometimes into a big joke.

In the movie Life Is Beautiful Italian filmmaker Roberto Benigni did all that by approaching the emotionally unapproachable - the Holocaust - with the psychology and art of the tragicomic. In the movie, in order to protect his young son from the horrors of the concentration camp, the Chaplinesque protagonist, a funny, naive waiter, pretends that the camp, indeed the entire war, is a huge cops-and-robbers kind of game for children. In one of the most dramatic moments of the movie, his son breaks down. He is ready to quit the game and wants to go home. The father, using "reverse psychology," acquiesces. He starts walking out of the barracks, disparaging the game and devaluing the prize they'd get for "winning" (actually, surviving). It's a huge gamble: not only can he be shot by the guards, but what if it doesn't work and the child still wants to leave? To our relief, of course, it does work, and they stay (alive).

It might take a genius to pull off this kind of movie. But I also think it probably takes a man to think of such a scheme in the first place. In addition, it's hard to imagine a woman acting in such a "dissociated" way - Benigni is also the actor. Interestingly, the father ends up saving the child, but not himself. The mother, on the other hand - who acts on pure emotions, choosing to join the two of them on the train to the concentration camp - survives.

Tags: Personal Growth