Men’s Greatest Fear

I just finished an hour with a patient I have been seeing for some time. Andy (let’s call him Andy) has what I call the “typical male disease.” He is afraid of female disapproval. We spent much of the hour dealing with how he can honorably and gracefully deal with the disapproval he regularly gets from his girlfriend. He admits that he never had any kind of role model from men who knew how to deal with women, to say nothing of dealing effectively with their disapproval. But Andy’s difficulty is not atypical. Most men are afraid of female disapproval, and many are desperately afraid of it. Andy, like most men, didn’t present the situation as a fear of disapproval, but like most men, talked quite a bit how Sherry tends to criticize, challenge, and sometimes verbally assault him. His was a rather typical desire to “figure out” what to say and how to debate with Sherry about the things she says to him. His desire was to find out how he could combat her arguments, make sense of what she was saying, and render an appropriate response to her attacks. No such luck. Responding to female criticism with rational and facts never works.

Now I admit that Andy is a bit of an extreme form of “typical male” because he developed an unfortunate capacity of lying and fabricating that is not all that uncommon with men. Lying is one of the typical ways men deal with female disapproval. Perhaps “lying” is a bit strong because sometimes it is just not telling the entire truth, or saying something that the man hopes will be true in the future. Lying is just one of the ways men tend to have for avoiding dealing with female disapproval. Other ways include what amount to excesses: excesses in things like alcohol, eating, working, playing, watching TV, and sleeping. And very often men tend to fly right off the handle when they hear some kind of criticism from the women in their lives. Or they avoid conversation entirely and hole up in their man caves. Many of these typical male-like avoidances develop because men don’t really know how to talk, especially about feelings, and especially about feelings to women.

Talking to women can be very different than talking to men. I often tell men, like I did with Andy and with another man I saw today, that they have not had enough (female) disapproval to learn how to handle it. For the most part women experience a great deal of disapproval during their adolescent years, largely verbal, while we men usually experience disapproval with what they have done, like sports and academics. Our relationships with people, particularly men, are not word-based, but rather action-based. We can hear criticisms and challenges about the things we do (or don’t do), but we rarely hear criticisms or gossip about who we are, how we look, how much we weigh, and who we happen to be going with. So we men do not come into adulthood ready for criticism about what we say and what we don’t say, and generally are quite ill-prepared for dealing with women who have had much more experience with criticism that is word-based and person-based rather than action-based.

This lack of experience with being criticized, or analyzed, or “helped” by females does not serve us well in our romantic relationships. Men are quite ill prepared for being challenged. It very often hits a man like a thousand of brick when his girlfriend, lover, or wife challenges him about what he has said, what he has not said. For a woman, I think, it is just a matter of course to challenge the man in her life and expect some kind of discussion or debate like she may have had with her girlfriends growing up. It seems to the man that when a woman comes after him with some kind of challenge or criticism, that she is “finding fault with him” or criticizing him unfairly whereas she is simply done what she has done with her girlfriends…and enemies.

The results of this bad mix of a person (the male) who has lived a life mostly oriented towards things physical and factual to be confronted by a person (the female) who likely has spent more time in the realm of talking, discussing, challenging, and exploring…and of course, feeling. When a man hears that his wife, partner, or girlfriend is “hurt,” he usually doesn’t know what to do. First, men try to “fix” what happened; then they try to explain what happened or what was said; and then they avoid the discussion altogether. Eventually, men get angry and say something crude to the woman, which only makes matters worse. The situation is something like this: Female: “I am just trying to help you (by telling you what is wrong with you),” but the man hears “what is wrong with him,” and certainly doesn’t understand that the woman is trying to “help” him. So he goes into fixing, explaining, avoiding, or angering. And when he reaches this last place, he is in real trouble because he will be louder, likely use more swear words, possibly throw something, and maybe make some outlandish statement. I think the man has no clue what has happened, and the woman equally has no clue to how she actually started this arrange. The man is hurt but doesn’t know it. The woman has, indeed, been critical, but doesn’t know it.

When I see women in my office, I usually immediately hear all kinds of feelings together with all kinds of diagnoses. A woman I just saw for the purposes of a Social Security disability assessment told me that she suffers from ADD, PTSD, OCD, depression, and anxiety. There is also this unfortunate propensity to find a psychological diagnosis to explain life’s difficulties in the culture at large, but women are much more inclined to use such diagnostic terms to “understand” themselves and others. Men tend to be much less so inclined. So when a woman kindly says to her boyfriend that he suffers from OCD or something, she thinks that this helps the man. It does no such thing. It only makes him defensive. How many men have been diagnosed as alcoholic…when they were truly alcoholic…only to defend their drinking as normal? Diagnoses of all kinds rarely help an individual understand him/herself. Diagnoses only put people in boxes…and keep them in boxes with minimal chance of growing.

So what is to be done? Let me offer some simple suggestions, largely oriented towards the man as he encounters a female that he likes, loves, or lives with:
–Realize that the woman is truly trying to help when she criticizes.
–Realize that when she “helps” you with some criticism or diagnosis, this “help” hurts you. It is very important to know that criticism always hurts. And “hurt” is not a word that is in most men’s vocabulary. It should be. Women do not have any monopoly on hurt, and we men need to nudge ourselves into the hurt arena.
–Remember whenever you have become angry, you have been hurt. This is no easy task, and you might have to do it post hoc.
–Do your best to slow the conversation down. We men just don’t go as fast and furious with feeling words of any kind…except for anger, unfortunately.
–Acknowledge the woman’s superiority in feelings and in words. While you may be better at other things, the woman is almost certainly better at words and feelings.
–You may need to slow down the conversation as you try to find “hurt” and such in place of anger, defense, avoidance, or fixing. Your female friend will not understand this need to slow down the conversation. You might say, “Just give me a second to get my thoughts and words together. I don’t want to blow off what you are saying. And I am trying hard to find what I really feel so we can communicate.
–Note that the previous suggestions will take months to learn to do