Wednesday, June 20, 2012

EMOTIONAL WITHHOLDING: THE SILENT CRIPPLER


Facilitating a cancer caregivers' support group yesterday, I was struck by a particular theme. Every female participant lamented that her husband wasn’t skillful at expressing emotion. "I've been trying to draw his feelings out of him for thirty-five years now," said one.

This rang a bell for me, as my wife could've said that at some point. I am, after all, a guy, and guys are, shall we say, challenged in this field. It's not that we don't have emotions, just that we follow unwritten cultural prohibitions against expressing them.

I remember the moment I learned this, during my first week in junior high school. Following a classmate down a corridor, I noticed, in capital letters, that HE WALKED LIKE A MAN, his hips tight and his shoulders raised and swinging, as though he'd just moved fifty bales of hay. Compared to his gait, mine was sissified. I figured that if I didn't want to be considered a wimp--or worse, a homo, as we said then--I'd better adopt masculine behaviors across the board, such as stolidity and impressive cool.

I succeeded all too well. Pretend imperturbability for a few decades, and it becomes you…and there you are finally, an example to the next generation of boys. Your emotions are as present as anyone’s, but failing expression, they roil about amorphously, without nuance, beyond your understanding and control. No wonder so many men confuse sex with violence. But even short of that, unawareness of our anger or sadness or stress aims us toward hypertension, heart disease, and a host of other sorrows, and when we finally get sick, we unduly burden our caregivers.

The women in our group yesterday called their task frustrating, infuriating, and depressing. “He won’t tell me when he’s hurting. He just clams up.” “He refuses to speak to me or the kids, and we don’t know why.” “All the work I do, and no appreciation from him.” The problem in these households is less cancer than an astonishingly common kind of inadequate communication.

Over the years, I’ve learned to be more expressive, mainly because my wife convinced me it’d make my life easier. She was right: imprisoning feelings takes a lot of energy, and besides, once you’re at long last comfortable with your sexuality, there’s nothing at all to be gained from it. But many caregivers either decline to intervene for a variety of reasons, or have utterly given up. I’d like to encourage them anyway, since while emotional withholding isn't violent, overtly harsh, or malevolent, it breeds enough frustration to make for unnecessarily miserable lives.

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