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The Psychology of Men and Boys

The Psychology of Men and Boys

     Mars & Venus

     Doing more than talking

     Raising Cain

     Psychotherapy for Men

     I Don’t Want to Talk About It

     NFI

 

Deborah Tannen in her 1990 book, You Just Don’t Understand, pointed out that men and women have different, but equally valid, communication styles. It is almost impossible to read her book without recognizing familiar relationship experiences being discussed. By learning more about how males and females communicate, misunderstandings and arguments can be reduced, and relationships enhanced. Dr. Tannen’s books contain a lot of deep insights into communication.

Mars and Venus

Another book with deep insights is Dr. John Gray’s popular book from the 1990’s, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Dr. Gray wrote that men and women often handle problems very differently. When a woman is upset, she usually likes to talk about it, simply to be heard and understood. When men have a problem, they often feel the need to withdraw and work their problems out by themselves. Talking  about problems as a way of feeling better, usually just doesn’t compute with a man. As the woman in his life wants to discuss what is going on with him, the man becomes frustrated and distances more; she, in turn, becomes frustrated and feels both abandoned and unappreciated.

Dr. Gray points out that feeling strong and competent is a key issue for men, thus the felt need to withdraw and solve the problem himself. Someone making a suggestion to him  is often felt as if he were being told he is incompetent! This, in turn, does not compute for the woman.

While competence and strength are key issues for men, closeness and intimacy are key for women (obviously both are important to both, it is a matter of emphasis). Dr. Gray describes men as “rubber bands,” meaning that, after a period of closeness and intimacy, the man often needs to withdraw into his “cave,” to reinforce his sense of boundaries and autonomy. This is perfectly normal to him, but feels like abandonment to the woman. If she understands the process, however, and can respect his alone time, he will come out of his “cave,” ready to interact again.

Dr. Gray strongly cautions women not to try to invade the cave when the man is in there, feeling the need for his space: otherwise, she is likely to be “burned by the dragon!” By this, he means that males can be very protective of their space when they are feeling the need for space.

Dr. Gray also asserts that men and women are motivated by different things. While women are motivated by being cherished, men are motivated by being needed. So males are likely to spring into action when help is needed on a project they can contribute to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Almost anyone who reads Dr. Gray’s book will also find his or her own relationship issues being discussed there; it can be quite beneficial to learn the patterns and strategies he describes.

Doing, more than Talking

These two books from the 1990’s taught a lot about these kinds of relationship and communication issues. We learned that males tend to show their love by doing things, a point which may be missed by women, who value talking about feelings. If the husband spends an entire day putting a deck on the house, and the wife is inside feeling neglected and ignored, she does not realize that this is one way that he uses to show love. Similarly, when the husband is often late coming home from work, again the wife may be feeling lonely, angry and neglected, not realizing that, in his mind, he is doing this for her, perhaps even more than for himself, making extra money for their family.

Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson: Raising Cain

This idea of doing things leads to the recommendation made by psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson in their book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. They assert that it is vital to keep a connection with adolescent sons; to do this, they suggest finding a mutual interest that father and son can pursue together, and interact around. Many are already doing this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kindlon and Thompson point out that fathers parent their children differently than mothers would do, and this needs to be respected. Their way of interacting might be more likely to take the form of teaching a skill, playing or attending sports, for example. It is important for mom to give the space for the men and boys in the family to interact in the way that works for them.

Kindlon and Thompson have a lot of valuable things to say in Raising Cain. It is a must-read for anyone who cares about boys.

Dr. Ron Levant: Psychotherapy for Men

The stereotype of males is that they are less emotional than women, less in touch with their feelings, and less able to express feelings than women.  Of course this is not true of all males; many men are very warm and expressive people. However, the traditional male is still brought up to maintain a stoic, invulnerable attitude. This message may come from the media, from peers, or from parents, and it does lead to the suppression of emotions and difficulty with expressing them.

Suppose you were to learn that, contrary to what one might expect, studies consistently show that boy infants are more emotional than female infants, and this trend continues through the first six months to a year. They startle more easily, cry more easily, and fluctuate more from one emotion to another than girls do. Mothers spend more time calming their more emotional male infants, and work harder to avoid upsetting them. What this tells us is that the apparent unemotionality of men is not inborn, but is a product of their upbringing.

When a boy or man comes in for counseling or psychotherapy, this can be a problem, because they are not in touch with their feelings enough to work on them. Dr. Levant has devised a new type of psychotherapy for men, to solve this problem. The technique involves first learning to recognize and label feelings in self and others, in the non-threatening setting of the therapist’s office. Learning to acknowledge and talk about feelings is framed as learning a new skill, which most men can relate to very well. From there, they work up to expressing and dealing with various types of emotions. This approach has shown a lot of success.

I Don’t Want to Talk About It

Another good source of information and help for males is  I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Legacy of Male Depression by Terence Real. Because men and boys are often reluctant to appear vulnerable, they may not be able to admit when they are depressed. This book examines the issue very closely with many examples, to help people to understand what male depression is like and what it is all about.

NFI: National Fatherhood Initiative

Roland C. Warren has founded the National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org) whose mission is to increase involvement of fathers in their children’s lives. Their programs strive to equip fathers with the skills and confidence they need to become the fathers they can be. Programs like this raise awareness of the importance of fathers in their children’s lives, and provide a way for those who do not have the skills, to develop them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

The point has been made throughout this article that men in many cases handle things differently than women. As our understanding of different styles grows, these differences can be respected and even celebrated. As the French say, “Vive la difference!”

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

Gray, John, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (1992) New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Kindlon, Dan and Thompson, Michael, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys(1999) Ballantine Books, New York, New York.

Levant, R. F. (1997) “Desperately seeking language: Understanding, assessing and treating normative male alexithymia.” In Pollack, W., & Levant, T. F. (Eds). New Psychotherapy for Men. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Real, Terence I Don’t Want to Talk About It Overcoming the Legacy of Male Depression (1997) New York, New York: Scribner.

Tannen, Deborah, You Just Don’t Understand (1990) New York, New York, William Morrow and Company.