A college boyfriend once asked me the following question: What does every person on earth need to survive?
He liked to quiz me like this every so often. His tone made it clear that there was only one correct answer.
“Love,” I said instantly, 100% confident my answer was right.
“Water,” he corrected, smugly, 100% confident I was wrong. He was proud that he had contributed to my education about life.
He had – but the revelation that day was the deep chasm between men and women. Or at least the ways in which we express ourselves, our experiences in life, and our values. It was my own personal chapter of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”
Since that eye-opening Q&A session 25 years ago, I’ve taken plenty of advanced education classes that explore the differences between men and women’s abilities to emote. However, in my bafflement, I failed to wonder about the deeper conundrum. How and why do men become so different from women emotionally?
Then fifteen years ago, I had a son. In the course of raising him, I started pondering male communication with increasingly perturbation. Because, as much as I love the men in my life, I don’t want to raise a boy with the limited emotional range of most of the guys I know.
Turns out there is a new book, Deep Secrets: Boys and the Crisis of Connection explaining why, and how, and when, boys are schooled in the grand American “Boys Don’t Cry” tradition of manhood. New York University psychology Professor Niobe Way has devoted her career to exploring boys’ emotions, bonds, and development. There are many surprises in her book.
Turns out that until early adolescence (14 years old or so), boys are arguably better than girls at expressing their feelings, including their love for their closest male friends. But around 15 or 16, boys face widespread peer and adult pressure to withdraw from their close friends and shut down their emotional selves. Part of the pressure stems from our culture’s homophobia. But largely, the culprit is our society’s lack of comfort with male closeness and dependence of any form.
As they grow up, boys face pressure to become impossibly strong, independent, and resilient. Boys’ suicide rate after age 15 is five times as frequent as girls.’ Men join gangs, evidence shows, primarily for male companionship. Along the way they lose – or never develop – their ability to form close relationships with women. I can attest to the fact that most of the problems I have faced in my relationships with men stem from their great difficulty expressing love, emotional interdependence, and complex feelings such as anger, guilt, fear and grief.
It’s obvious that boys, men and our culture overall lose a great deal from shutting down boys and men emotionally.
But what do we gain? In other words, what motivates us – parents, teachers, role models, scholars – to subtly and overtly shame, belittle, and misunderstand boys’ friendships and their feelings? Why is intimacy and vulnerability in men unacceptable in our society?
The obvious answer is that we fear violence – the angry end of the emotional spectrum – in boys and men. Rightly so, we worry about bullying, dominance, racism, sexism and all forms of physical aggression perpetrated by men. However our cultural mandate – men must shut down 100% of their emotions – is a crude and ineffective overreaction that brings about many of the negatives it purports to avoid.
Other cultures do not seem to constrict male closeness to such an extreme. On a recent trip to India I was struck by how physically affectionate boys and men are with each other. I repeatedly saw groups of two, three, four boys and grown men walking down the street with arms flung casually around each other. I’ve never seen this in any city, town or living room in America.
My hope for my son, and the boys of his generation, is that we adults can accept that boys need to have close male friendships throughout their lives. That boys do cry.
We need to realize that boys need each other as much as I’ve always needed my girlfriends.
Perhaps then we will witness a reduction in men’s anger, violence, coercion, rape, date rape, racism and sexism. Lower rates of teen suicide among boys. A dissolution of male gangs. More men at playgroups and in therapy and tearing up at chic flicks.
It sounds ridiculously clichéd, right? Sentimental, stereotypically impractical and feminine in its folly? But it sure would be nice.