By Amy Alkon
Q: Sometimes, when my boyfriend is upset, he wants comforting, just like I would. He’ll vent or lay his head in my lap, and I stroke his hair. But sometimes, he just sits on the couch and says nothing. How do I know what he needs, and how do I feel better about it when it isn’t me?—Man Cave Confusion
A: Just like women, men often verbalize complex emotions—for example, “I want sausage and pepperoni on that.”
The truth is, men have feelings; they just don’t hang them out to dry on the balcony railing like big cotton granny panties. Developmental psychologist Joyce Benenson, who studies sex differences, notes in Warriors and Worriers that men, who evolved to be the warriors of the species, typically express emotions less often and with less intensity than women. Men are especially likely to put a lid on fear and sadness, emotions that reflect vulnerability—though it’s also the rare man you’ll hear chirp to his buddy, “OMG, those are, like, the cutest wingtips!”
Men’s emotional coolness is an evolved survival tactic, Benenson explains. “Emotions communicate feelings to others. They also affect our own behavior.” In battle, “a person who loses control of his emotions cannot think clearly about what is happening around him. Revealing to the enemy that one feels scared or sad would be even worse.”
Women, on the other hand, bond through sharing “personal vulnerabilities,” Benenson notes. Men and women do have numerous similarities—like having the adrenaline-infused fight-or-flight reaction as our primary physiological response to stress. However, psychologist Shelley Taylor finds that women also have an alternate stress response, which she named “tend-and-befriend.” “Tending” involves self-soothing through caring for others, and “befriending” describes “the creation of and maintenance of social networks” to turn to for comforting. (And no, she isn’t talking about Facebook or Instagram.)
So, as a woman, you may long to snuggle up to somebody for a restorative boohoo, but for a man, opening up about his feelings can make him feel worse—and even threatened. The problem is we have a tendency to assume that other people are emotionally wired just like us. Being mindful of that and of the evolutionary reasons a guy might need to go off in a corner to lick his wounds might help you avoid taking it personally: “I’m upset about how you’re upset!” (Great! And now his problem has a problem.)
It would be helpful if an upset man would hang a “Do not disturb” sign on his face when he just wants to drink a beer (or four) and watch South Park. You could try to read his body language—like crossed arms and stiff posture saying “go away.” But if his body isn’t speaking up all that clearly, you could say, “I’m here if you wanna talk—or if you don’t.” If it’s the latter, stock the fridge; make him a sandwich; make him some sex. In other words, comfort him in the way a clammed-up guy needs to be comforted. It beats being the girlfriend version of the enthusiastic Good Samaritan who, on a slow day, forces little old ladies across the street at gunpoint.
Q: My girlfriend loves to “spoon” when we sleep. She says it makes her feel safe and loved. I have recently developed spinal problems and have to sleep on my back like a corpse with this weird neck pillow. I’ll put my hand on her thigh to make her feel connected, but it’s not really cutting it. I suspect this reminds her of her marriage falling apart and her now ex-husband sleeping on the other side of the bed with a bunch of pillows between them.—Ouch
A: Sometimes a person’s need to feel safe and loved has to be forgone for the other person’s need to not be an Oxy-addicted hunchback at 45.
You can surely understand where she’s coming from. Nothing like going from sleeping lovingly intertwined with somebody to feeling as if you’re sleeping next to an open casket. This may feel even worse for your girlfriend if she does associate physical distance with emotional distance, having had an ex who built a Berlin Wall of pillows between them and would only have been farther away in bed if he’d slept on the floor.
What you can do is promise to make it up to her with extra affection when you’re out of bed—and do that: Go to cuddlesville when you’re watching TV together; shower with her; put your arms around her and kiss her head while she’s washing a mug. (P.S. This is also a smart practice for men who don’t sleep on a foam log.) Love does involve making sacrifices, but one of them probably shouldn’t be no longer being able to feel your toes.