Sunday, July 24, 2011

Advantages of Life Inside the Cave

Men do not, as the ridiculous stereotype suggests, go “into their caves” when they are experiencing negative emotions. Men single-mindedly work their shit out. We don’t need to talk to anybody. We just need to determine for ourselves what went wrong and how to stop this from happening again. When we’ve done this, we’ll return to our normal, happy selves and get on with our busy days. Simple – and very effective.

Mind you, this is not the same as avoiding or repressing negative emotions. That would be a psychological catastrophe. But not communicating about emotions and not dealing with them are two different things. Men deal with negative emotions by internalizing them. They become part of our life experiences, and therefore, contain important lessons about how to avoid screwing things up in the future.

Contrary to the prevailing political landscape of the day, it is women who do not handle their negative emotions particularly well. Don’t believe me? Let’s check out the medical evidence. Women experience more fear, more sadness, more worry, more stress, more guilt, more shame, and more disgust than men. About the only negative emotions where men prevail are boredom and anger (though even this depends on the target of the anger).

And when it comes to chronic negative emotions, the numbers aren’t even close. Women are more likely to diagnose themselves as being depressed from adolescence all the way into old age. Clinical diagnoses of unipolar depression are far more prevalent for women compared to men, and women are more likely to think about and attempt suicide, though men are more likely to actually get the job done.

Now I’m perfectly willing to accept the argument that many of these “diagnoses” reflect a biased, patriarchical psychiatric profession just looking for a reason to classify women as fragile, emotional weaklings. We covered that earlier in Why Men Stigmatize Menstruation (February) and That’s Hysterical! (February), and I’ll be the first to suggest that it applies here as well. But much of the research involves self-diagnosis. No psychiatric patriarchy to blame for these results. This is women describing their own state of affairs.

When we look at research addressing how men and women react to negative emotions we get an even clearer picture of which gender struggles the most. Research indicates that women ruminate over negative emotional experiences longer than men. Rumination reflects the inability to stop thinking about something troubling, and is viewed as a precursor to clinical depression. This suggests why women need to communicate their negative emotions – they can’t stop thinking about them! By contrast, men do not ruminate. They get over it. That cave is starting to look pretty good after all.

We’ve heard an awful lot about how important it is to communicate negative emotions to others, and of course, about how much better women are at doing this. But why communicate? What’s the point? Women talk about their negative emotions with those close to them (more often than not with other women) because they want sympathy. Now let’s closely consider what sympathy is.

When you sympathize with somebody who’s feeling bad you are essentially communicating that “I know just how you feel!” That’s the catch phrase for sympathy isn’t it? But if that other person is feeling bad to start with, then knowing just how they feel entails feeling kind of bad about the same thing, though perhaps not to the same degree. And the net effect of all this sympathising is that the person who initially felt bad feels a little better, as if some of the negative emotion has been passed along to the sympathizer.

Women don’t deal with their negative emotions so much as pass them off to the people they feel close to. How does this constitute a more sophisticated and noble approach to handling negative emotions? I’ll take the man cave every time. And when it comes to romantic relationships, things get even worse. Women detest when their men give them the “silent treatment”. How many men have heard something like “Can’t we just talk about it?”

But men don’t want to talk about it; they want to determine, by themselves, what went wrong and how to fix it. And contrary to what to women might think, once men have worked out a decent solution, we’ll be more than happy to chat all day long about it, even welcoming your input to improve the remedy further. We just don’t want to talk while we’re feeling bad. There’s no point because we haven’t worked out what to do about it.

Moreover, some women (and let me emphasize the word some), view their romantic partners in terms of the very simple principles: (a) I’m unhappy, (b) it is his fault, and (c) he has to change so I can be happy again. Let’s get this straight. The person in the relationship who is unhappy is the one with the problem. They are the one who needs to change, presuming of course, that they want to be happy, an assumption many married men have no doubt questioned from time to time.

Requiring your partner to change because you’re unhappy is the ultimate example of denying responsibility for your negative emotions. It’s passing the responsibility for how you feel to your partner! So, once again, give me the cave every time, provided of course, that a nice, pleasant conversation will eventually ensue about how to prevent all the unhappiness in the future.

Just to reiterate the point about not all women being the same, when my partner is upset about something, including something I said or did, she often goes days without speaking to me. Though not a word is spoken, I understand her completely. Women, you can use our cave any time you like.

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