It’s a well-worn riff of Rom-coms and standup comedians. The deer-in-the-headlights look when a guy hears the woman he’s in relationship say, “We need to talk”. Well-worn, but not yet irrelevant. The results of a January, 2019 Center for Disease Control (CDC) study conducted in 32 of our 50 states found that most men interviewed felt that ‘stoicism’ was preferable to sharing feelings. More ‘manly’, as many respondents put it. Less of a struggle. This wasn’t news to me, having frustrated my share of men, over the years, by initiating The Talk. Or just by wanting to engage. Often. Constantly?
What was new to me was the purpose behind this recent CDC study. As a result of suicide rates in the United States now exceeding all other kinds of “violent deaths”, the CDC chose to refine its investigation further by looking at vocations and suicide rates. Then it analyzed data results by gender.
I’d been married for almost 10 years, and was well-adjusted to the fact (but not quite ‘over it’) that my husband was the basic model. His were Factory Default Settings, when it came to sharing emotion. Not all emotion, just the kind that had the potential to rock his world. I learned, as most married people do, to pick my battles when encouraging / provoking him to talk about uncomfortable stuff. The trouble was, a lot of the topics I considered really important weren’t high on his list of concerns.
But it wasn’t only about problem-solving for me. Much of the time I hoped that talking together (not me, doing a monologue) would bring us closer. The neuroscience of women’s brain functioning shows that this is actually hardwired in us. No need to guilt-trip ourselves. (Just published, “The XX Brain”, by Lisa Mosconi, PhD.)
At the 10-year mark, my husband’s father (a lifelong smoker) had developed an aggressive cancer that would have killed him eventually. But chronic emphysema took control first. Although my husband’s grief and stress was intense, he refused to talk about it. From his perspective, he was “handling” it. Never mind that he was moody, irritable, and usually sleepless. It was a major achievement when he finally admitted that he might – just might — be depressed. Still, when the final moments of my father in law’s life drew near, my husband shut-down. He totally rebuffed my desire to be present at the hospice vigil. Only much later, he told me that he didn’t want me to see him cry.
What I find really interesting, in hindsight (where a lot of my learning takes place, it seems), is the fact that my husband’s career was one several that the CDC recently identified as the most likely to produce depression leading to suicide. Male-dominated industries – and construction in particular, according to the CDC — tend to perpetuate a culture of tough-guy stoicism. These men are more likely to have high blood pressure, and to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs to ease emotional pain.
Most importantly, the CDC study found, these men – even though they didn’t lack personal support – reported being unwilling or unable to share feelings that might be interpreted as vulnerability or even weakness. This held true for a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and for a man working on an oil rig out in the middle of the ocean.
As I climbed the Leadership ladder, in a career of mostly men, the number of women at my level fell away considerably. It was no coincidence, in my view at the time, that those who persevered and survived had grown children, or no children; precarious marriages, or were committed singles. There were exceptions, of course, but many women – as we know from brain research – seek leadership roles to ‘make a difference’; which requires connection and relationship. Their male counterparts become leaders to accumulate more power. They consider relationships purely transactional.
It might be a chicken-egg thing. Do stoic men gravitate to careers with hyper-masculine cultures? Or, does survival in certain careers demand that men detach from inner feelings that might derail their success?
Bottom line, I don’t think that’s what matters. Finding a way to ask for help, even if that’s the only thing said in the beginning, is what does matter. I was hesitant, in the beginning, to ask my partner– for fear of a smackdown. I’m braver now. “Need to talk…?” Best-case scenario, I get a “yes”.