A teacher of mine once said, “If I had to put in a one-liner the most pervasive and chronic psychoemotional handicaps of the genders, I would still say, even after all these years since Freud, Feminism, and the Men’s Movement: men can’t cry, and women can’t get pissed.”
The moment she said it I knew it was true. And, 37 years later, this preponderant truth is still preponderantly true. Day by day, week by week, the struggles of men and grief and the struggles of women and anger play themselves out in my office.
I can’t recall the last time I met a man with anger issues who wasn’t using rage and sometimes violence to keep grief at bay. The most glaring example of this in memory was that L.A. street gang who made infamous one or more descending tattoos of tears streaming down one cheek. Some police “gang expert” told me these gang members added a tattoo tear for every person they had killed. I remember thinking, “Oh my. These violent youth have no idea what they have just admitted to the world. To wit: For every tear they cannot or will not ‘own,’ someone has to die.”
Likewise depressed men. They come into my office and speak of misery, malaise, loss of vitality, erectile dysfunction, moodiness, irritability. And sooner or later, if they stay with it, find a loss beneath the symptoms of depression. Specifically, a loss unacknowledged and unexpressed.
I watch men begin to cry, and even as they go on talking, they will reach with their fingertips and swab the tears, then stare quizzically at the moisture glistening on their fingertips, as if to ask, “What is this? Why is water coming out of my eyes?”
I listen to men describe, with analysis and linear objectivity, the circumstances of loss, without any apparent awareness that it is indeed loss they are describing. These men ask the incredulous question: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” And I’ll say, like it were some genius, profound insight on my part, “Maybe you’re really really sad.” And their eyes will widen. “That’s … IT!,” as if together we have solved a Mensa Puzzle.
Sad men who don’t yet know they are sad are erratic, unpredictable, ‘brittle,’ and one-dimensional. In some, thankfully rare cases, dangerous men. Their rejection of sadness is argued as strength, but I’m here to tell you the exact opposite is true. Men who can’t cry are the most fragile men I’ve ever known.
It’s somewhat harder to convince people how often modern western women struggle to ‘own’ their anger. “Oh, I have no problem being angry,” women tell me. But here I need to make a fine distinction, and I do so meaning NO disrespect. Condescension, chronic criticism, impatience, scolding, sniping, scattered emotional escalation (the archetypal “Critical Bitch”) is not the same as owning anger.
Authentic anger comes from a stronger, deeper place. I mean more “outrage.” Her eyes blaze, her voice deepens, and the anger comes to a laser point, delineating the injustice and setting firm, clear, consistent boundaries. Boundaries with teeth and therefore meaning.
I can’t remember the last time I met a woman riddled with resentment at her husband whose resentment wasn’t the result of her not having a voice for her anger.
Likewise depression. Whereas depressed men are often sitting on grief, I find that depressed women are sitting on anger. Anger they can’t or won’t ‘own.’
Show me a wife that says “I just don’t know what happened to my sex drive,” or a wife that passively stonewalls sexual courtship or deliberately and contemptuously withholds sex, and I will often show you a wife that is angry.
I know a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. She tells me that a useful metaphor for some women chronically overweight is that they are “swallowing anger.”
A woman’s rejection of anger is often argued as “I don’t want to hurt people,” or “It’s not a loving way to treat people. These women are afraid of hurting, that is, not being loving to the people with whom they are angry. But I’m here to tell you the exact opposite is true. An angry women who does not yet know she is angry must hurt you. And will. Sooner or later. Sometimes by hurting herself.
Grief and anger are the names of two crucial intimacies. Until we are willing to be intimate with those emotions in ourselves, we will always be impeded in our ability to be intimate with others.
(Steven Kalas is a therapist, an author and an Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)