Creating The Intimate Connection By Daniel Beaver

Men in our culture are taught not to be vulnerable. Because they have received this training, most men hear certain phrases repeated over and over in their minds, like a broken record that turns on anytime they feel hurt, frightened, or insecure: “Be strong. Don’t cry. Be aggressive so people won’t think you’re weak. Don’t let your guard down. Don’t be emotional. Stay on top. Be in control.” These messages come from numerous sources, but the ultimate message is pretty universal: It’s not manly to be vulnerable.

In elementary school, I once cried after my team lost a baseball game. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Suddenly my own teammates were calling me names and saying, “Don’t be such a crybaby. Dan’s a sissy.” And I even received the worst insult of all for a boy that age: “Only girls cry.” The message was clear. I had to learn to control my feelings. In junior high school, I learned that being a man meant being “cool.” I was not supposed to let anything bother me emotionally. Then came high school, where the competition for grades, making the team, or getting a date, forced one to develop a mask of invulnerability. I can remember dating in high school and how hard I worked to appear “cool and sophisticated,” while on the inside I was a nervous wreck. I was so out of touch with my emotions that I would sometimes lose touch with what was going on around me. I would drive through red lights and never even know it until my date told me what I’d done. It’s too bad I wasn’t secure enough then to open up and tell my date how I really felt. She probably would have openly accepted it, and we both could have relaxed and been ourselves.

After high school, some men go into military service, while the majority enters the business world directly or via college. By its nature, the military teaches men to live by the doctrine of no vulnerability. It would be difficult to run an army on the basis of emotional awareness and self-knowledge. Emotions get in the way of the business of protecting a country or destroying an enemy. Make no mistake about it; military training really does prepare people to kill—and killing necessitates blocking some extremely basic feelings. The former sales slogan of the U.S. Marine Corps, “join the Marines and let us make you a man,” best illustrates the point, although no branch of the service has a monopoly on dehumanizing people.

Similarly, the ardent competitiveness of the business world hardly encourages vulnerability. Sometimes this point is made in obvious ways. Take, for example, the C.Y.A. (“Cover Your Ass”) classes mentioned earlier. From these classes, management personnel can learn such things as, “Don’t let down and be yourself—it isn’t safe. Protect yourself. Otherwise, you will get your throat cut.” Because, in the cutthroat world of business, vulnerability can truly become a dangerous thing. And the business world is not going to become more humanistic for a long time—if ever. People working in business need to accept this reality. But though a person may have little control over his or her work environment, he or she still can form more meaningful personal relationships at home.

The rigors of the work ethic affect different people in different ways, of course. Some find business an exciting creative outlet, while others feel beaten down by it. We do know, however, that people in the business world tend to suffer from tensions that carry over into their lives away from work. Although many corporations are now offering workshops to employees who want to avoid the dangers of their lifestyle, the stereotypical hard-driving businessman still exists.

Although a heart attack or bleeding ulcer may seem to appear suddenly one day, the disintegration of the individual’s health always starts years earlier. Medical experts tell us that stress-related diseases begin when a person learns to be invulnerable, when he or she learns that it is not advantageous to communicate his or her real feelings to other people. Men especially keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves, and thereby take on an additional burden of stress over and above that imposed by the challenges of everyday life. Being “manly” in this way is a kind of work in itself that consumes energy.

As we have already learned, feelings are a reality, and contrary to popular belief, they don’t go away unless they get expressed. Whereas unexpressed feelings may cause resentment in marriage, they can cause quite another set of problems in the business world. Let us consider the example of a man we’ll call Sam Hughes.

Sam works in a high-pressure job, eight hours a day, and five days a week. While at work, he experiences many different emotions, some of which are pretty intense. One emotion he feels in particular is anxiety. But although Sam feels anxious, he does not allow himself to tell people at work about his feelings. He believes that he needs to keep up his front, to appear to have his emotions under control at all times. He comes home from work and doesn’t want to tell his wife about his feelings either—maybe because he doesn’t want to appear “weak” in her eyes, maybe because he wants to protect her from worry.

Being a good husband, Sam won’t allow himself to express the great many feelings he feels anywhere. He represses them, thinking he can put his feelings out of his mind. He can, too, but only out of his conscious mind. They continue to live—at a subconscious level. And emotions do not like to be ignored. When the gentle taps of emotion are ignored, they start to knock a little louder to get that person to acknowledge their existence. Each time that knocking is ignored, it gets a little harder, then harder and harder until it is quite intense.

Sam begins to have indigestion. He starts taking antacids to relieve the problem, but his discomfort persists because the reasons for his anxiety are not going away. As time goes by, the upset stomach happens more often and hurts increasingly. But still Sam ignores the feelings that are trying to get his attention. He takes more antacids. The anxiety knocks a little harder. Sam finally gets physically sick and goes to the doctor for help. He finds out he is developing an ulcer. Now maybe Sam will decide to take a look at his life, and perhaps his difficulties will end there. But that’s not the typical pattern. The typical pattern is that the doctor puts Sam on a special diet and the causes of his stress go unchanged.

People who hold their emotions back may develop what is commonly known as a nervous condition. Their hands shake, they’re jittery, and maybe they have trouble sleeping. Instead of talking to other people about the situations that are making them tense, they ask their doctors for tranquilizers or they have a drink so they can relax. Again, they are ignoring their feelings. Yes, they may feel better after taking a couple of pills or having a couple of drinks, but the next day the nervousness returns. Some men anesthetize themselves until they are no longer aware of what they feel physically. They live in a state of constant tension and their acquaintances call them “uptight.” After a while, this constant state of physical tightness can cause circulatory problems, high blood pressure, severe headaches, constipation, and many more ailments. If the tension continues indefinitely, the man’s emotions knock so hard on his body that they literally knock him down. It is hard to ignore the seriousness of a heart attack. At this point, Sam may finally acknowledge or listen to his feelings if it isn’t already too late.

The psychological state we call depression, with its characteristic side effect of lack of energy, may also be related to the male’s inability to be vulnerable. It takes mental energy to hold back emotions. The greater the feeling, the greater the amount of energy that will be required to hold that feeling back. When mental energy is expended in this manner, it is no wonder that one feels tired, depressed, or unmotivated. The old advice to “get it off your chest” is actually quite descriptive because when people express their feelings, they often report sensations of being lighter, as if a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders. They feel that way because they are suddenly getting the benefit of energy that was being used to hold back their feelings.

Many good husbands who try to control their work-related emotions come home tired at the end of the day. But is this tiredness only because they have worked hard, or might it also be related to their inability to be vulnerable with their wives? More often than not the answer is the latter. Not that their work isn’t a drain on their energy—it is. But when they also hold their feelings back, they may use up any reserves of energy that might have gone into their relationships. Instead of talking to their wives and sharing life experiences, they sit in front of the television and become very boring people.

Another problem that can grow from the good husband’s fear of being vulnerable is alcoholism and/or drug abuse. Whether he prefers a couple of martinis, a six-pack of beer or a joint when he comes home from work, the motive is the same: escape from the anxiety, resentment, frustration, and pressure he may be experiencing. He doesn’t intend to get drunk or stoned—he just wants to “take the edge off.” He wants to relax. The problem is that alcohol and drugs really do take the edge off. A person becomes increasingly dependent on these anesthetizing substances as his or her feelings of conflict go unresolved—and they go unresolved, in part, because that individual thinks he or she has found an effective way of making them disappear. In time, the drinking or the use of drugs can become a habit, developing into a physical need as the body chemistry adjusts to build a tolerance of these foreign substances.

When the good husband anesthetizes himself, he creates a psychological barrier between himself and his wife. He may start out consuming only small amounts of alcohol or drugs, but after a while a personality change occurs that makes meaningful communication between him and his wife impossible. In counseling, many wives complain about being “turned off” by their husbands after a few drinks. These wives are not turned off because their husbands are getting drunk (which they usually aren’t doing), but by something the drinking represents to them. Usually it represents personal rejection—the good husband cutting his wife off from his emotional life—and that is what hurts. The use of alcohol and drugs is a blatant emotional wall, something that seems even more threatening to the wife than her husband’s refusal to communicate verbally or to allow himself to be vulnerable. The wife becomes acutely aware that she is being left out of her husband’s emotional life. In addition, she may lose respect for her husband, believing that he is not facing up to his feelings or is using a crutch to escape from them.

Invulnerability, the basic plan for becoming a man in our culture, is a blueprint for self-destruction. It is so deeply embedded in the male consciousness, however, that becoming aware of it and admitting to its dead ends, is a truly momentous task, one that men don’t take lightly. Many experts observe that, indeed, living up to the masculine ideal often overshadows the instinct to survive.

The good husband’s inability to be vulnerable kills or handicaps his ability to form any intimate relationship, particularly with his wife. As a result, he has no real place to be himself. He feels compelled to keep up his wall, so that no one really knows him, and he thus becomes the architect of his own loneliness and alienation. He doesn’t want to become aware of himself. It’s too threatening, and so he seeks a place to hide. As Sidney Journal states in his book, Transparent Self, “If a man is reluctant to make himself known to another person, even to his spouse, because it is not manly, thus to be psychologically naked, then it follows that men will be difficult to love. That is, it will be difficult for a woman or another man to know the immediate present state of man’s self, and his needs will thereby go unmet. Some men are so skilled at dissembling, at ’seeming,’ that even their wives will not know when they are lonely, anxious, or hungering for affection. And the men, blocked by pride, dare not disclose their despair or need.”

Some men run from their feelings by keeping busy all the time. Such a man has a hard time relaxing and “doing nothing.” To not have a project or goal would mean that he would have to sit still. Then he might start to think and become aware of his feelings, and that’s too uncomfortable.

One of the good husband’s favorite ways of escaping from himself, and from being intimate with his wife, is watching television. How many wives in America want to blow up their television sets because they feel that they are in competition with them for their husbands’ attention? In the United States, television is truly the opiate of marriage, but it is especially the opiate for the good husband.

Eventually, the good husband may be forced to look at himself and the emotional vacuum that he has created for himself. But all too often, he has to be “up against the wall” before he does anything about it. When his wife leaves him, or when he finds out that she is having an affair with another man or has filed for divorce, he wakes up. For some men, just having their wives go back to school or work, or show any interest in becoming more independent, can threaten them enough to shake them awake.

Once the good husband’s barrier to being vulnerable starts to break down, he has a chance for real growth and change. Usually though, this change begins with depression, insecurity, and wild accusations. He may blame his wife for rocking the boat. He thinks he is no longer “a man” when he becomes vulnerable, and he has no cultural support system to tell him otherwise. It is no wonder that he panics and sometimes resorts to juvenile behavior before he finally grows up and begins to enjoy his newly found life.

This article is an excerpt from pg. 75-81 of Creating the Intimate Connection by Daniel Beaver. Copyright © 2011 Cognella, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

About the author

A licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Daniel Beaver started his private practice in 1973 in Walnut Creek, California, and continues providing individual and couples therapy today. He co-founded the Relationship Counseling Center of Walnut Creek in 1974.

He is the author of three books: Creating the Intimate Connection, More Than Just Sex, and Love Yourself.

Visit www.danielbeaver.com to know more about Dan.

Please check the links below to order the books.

Creating the Intimate Connection 

Love Yourself 

More Than Just Sex – Coming Soon!

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