The vulnerability of men in love relationships is profound. Awesome to behold. Trouble is, few people know that, because a man’s vulnerability is so rarely seen. The average man will do whatever is necessary to make sure you never see it.
But I’ve spent my life studying men, which means studying me, too. And I’m here to tell you that men are ever-so sensitive. More than you know. Often, more than they know.
Just because someone is analytical and linear, as most men tend to be, does not mean he has fewer emotions. It just means that the masculine tendency is to understand the emotion, with only a distant secondary importance to feeling the emotion. This isn’t a bad thing. The ability to think through feelings is an important indicator of maturity. Cognitive abilities can guide the emotional life, harvest its meaning and value, and in some cases restrain an emotion’s dark, destructive side.
The problems arise when men use their analytical ways not to understand their emotions, but to deny and ignore them. Because, there is something equally important about being willing to feel feelings. To be overjoyed. To be in love. To be enraged. To be sad. To be afraid. To feel every bit of the remorse rightly his. Uncensored access to emotional reality is equally an indicator of maturity.
So, let me share a “man secret” with women: Few things are more savage, terrifying and painful to a modern man with a narcissistic wound (uh, that would be every man I know) than the criticism of the woman he loves. The agony of failing her. The awareness that he is not her hero. This pain is compounded if the criticism comes in the form of the Dark Feminine — belittling, humiliating, complaining, accusing. You guessed it, bitching.
Now, the moral of that story is not, in fact, that women should never criticize men. Because we’ll never grow up unless you have good boundaries, and good boundaries include at least occasional criticism. No, the moral of the story is, ladies, you’d better know what you’re up against.
Because we will rarely tell you how painful it is for us.
Yes, great love affairs regularly require naked emotional honesty, and because they do, naked emotional vulnerability. But the preferred language of modern men feeling great vulnerability with a woman is almost never tears, and rarely first words.
It’s withdrawal. Nobody can flat disappear in a relationship faster than a man. Oh, I didn’t say break up. I said disappear. With his wedding ring still on. Standing right there next to you in the kitchen. You can still see him. Maybe even hear him breathing and talking. But he’s not there. Men don’t require a cave to disappear into the Man Cave.
He’ll tell you he’s withdrawing, if he admits it at all, because he’s trying to “keep the peace” or “to protect myself.” But he’s also punishing the woman. Because men aren’t stupid. Withdrawal is the ultimate passive-aggression. He knows that the average woman finds few things more savage, terrifying and painful than her man’s withdrawal and silence.
Now, if he tires of withdrawal, the man might next try the always effective “All or Nothing.” Imagine that the love relationship is a basket of 100 bright, shiny, delicious apples. If the woman comes into the kitchen, and says in a warm, pleasant voice, “Honey, when you have time, I’d like to talk to you about a tiny brown spot on one of the apples,” then the man erupts: “So! You’re saying all the apples suck, and you’re going to turn the basket upside down and run off with a firefighter!”
It’s actually amazing to me how many women buy this little ploy. Makes ’em shut right up.
Or how about the defensive, pleading “Don’t I Get Credit For Something?” Yes, he’ll explain his motives. He’ll take on the “you never appreciate me” posture. Or, the trump card, “I just can’t ever please you.”
If none of this works, men can always move to DEFCON 1: irritability, disdain, contempt, misogynist metaphors. In some cases, actual violence.
No, ladies, I’m not telling you never to confront a man’s shoddy behavior. I’m just asking for a bit of charity. Remember how much we hate failing you. Remember how sick we feel inside when we fail you.
Bring your grievance, hold us accountable, let us hear your anger. But, please, in mercy, leave us a path to redemption and your good graces.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.