Stop expecting dogs to meow

In his best selling book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, John Gray uses the metaphor of the two sexes being from different planets to explain the differences between the way men and women communicate. He says that understanding the differences can help us create stronger, more successful relationships with the opposite sex and I would highly recommend the book to anyone wanting to gain an insight into how the opposite sex think.

In the past I’ve analogised the difference between men and women to be similar to that of dogs and cats. Like with dogs, men are full of energy and enthusiasm, they are loyal and fiercely protective of their loved ones and they are pack animals that compete for hierarchical status.

Cats and dogs both have tails, but it means something very different when a cat flicks its tail, signalling annoyance compared to when a dog wags it’s tail, displaying excitement and happiness.

Vive La Difference

In recent years, the idea that men and women are different, yet equally valuable has become unfashionable and replaced with one of men and women being entirely interchangeable pieces and whilst the thought process is well meaning, the result has been many men becoming unhappy because their natural inclinations are deemed superfluous, and women have become unhappy as they discover suppressing their natural instincts has actually made them feel less fulfilled and more stressed rather than liberated.

I believe we need to go back to celebrating, appreciating and understanding these differences instead of being afraid of them, vive la difference!

One area where I believe the differences are particularly important is in relation to mental health, and more specifically suicide. Suicide is the number one killer of men under the age of 45.

Shifting Attitudes

The good news is that attitudes are shifting and that we are now recognising that this is an issue. That has not always been the case. Going back even 10 years, and you’d witness a denial that men had such issues or a defensive riposte about women self harming more when the issue was brought up.

But not much better

Unfortunately what has replaced the denialism is still little more empathetic or understanding of men. Now society acknowledges there is an issue, but it still blames men for their struggle and determines that the solution should be the same as what helps women in times of need.

Indeed, even the American Psychological Association released a paper essentially blaming the suicide epidemic on “toxic masculinity”. In their report, they stated that characteristics such as stoicism and aggression are bad qualities that men have that leads them to bad behaviour.

Sex characteristics are not bad

I beg to differ. For a start, I don’t believe that any characteristic typical of either sex can be labelled as inherently bad. If you’re in the middle of a war battlefield, for example, you need a certain amount of stoicism in order to assess the situation calmly, make rational decisions and survive.

Of course, the same characteristics that are very useful in some situations can be unhelpful in others. An equivalent version for women could be their tendency to be agreeable. That’s a really helpful trait to have in a domestic context, but sometimes a little bit more assertiveness is needed when negotiating business deals, for example.

Men are more aggressive?

The second objection I have is the assertion that aggression is a masculine trait. This idea has its origins in the discovery of sex hormones.

In 1849, Arnold Berthold, a German scientist removed the testes of four cockerals and transplanted the testes onto two hens. He noted that the hens became more aggressive and the castrated capons did not develop aggressive traits. This gave him the idea that something produced by the testes was responsible for the different behaviours, an idea taken further by Ernest Starling.

However, more recent research links testosterone to striving for status, which is often miss-characterised as aggression. In fact, some researchers have discovered evidence that females are actually slightly more aggressive than men in relationships.

Let’s Talk?

I digress, other than presenting the idea that “toxic masculinity” is to blame for the fact that men make up at least two thirds of suicides, many groups believe that the answer to the issue is for men to talk about their feelings more and to cry more.

This advice is very helpful for the majority of women. For women, expressing their feelings is incredibly therapeutic and it can also be so for a minority of men but it is a fundamental misunderstanding of masculine behaviour to expect men to process their emotions the same way as women typically prefer.

Women talk and men act

For me, the light bulb moment came when I read Tom Golden’s book, The way men heal. In the book, Tom describes how men respond to loss by honouring their loved ones. A bereaved son may honour his fathers memory by going on a fishing trip his father had once taken him on. He gives the example of musician Eric Clapton, whom following the death of his son, locked himself away and wrote the songs “Tears in heaven” and “In my fathers eyes”.

Instead of telling men to talk, we should let them process their feelings in the way that they feel comfortable. If that happens to be talking, then that’s fine, but for most men, it won’t be.

Stories, not feelings

Two years ago, I attended the Second Annual Male Psychology Network conference where Dr Kevin Wright gave a presentation on his experience helping men with post traumatic stress disorder recover. He never asked his patients to talk about their feelings. Instead, he asked his patients to tell him their stories.

Through telling their stories, the men opened up and the emotions came with it but it created a safe environment for them to do so. To men, the important thing is not how they feel but having their story heard and understood and finding a solution to their problems. He also encouraged his patients to write letters about what they wanted to say to people.

Chuck out that couch

If we really want to help men then we need to stop asking them to change and instead ask ourselves how we can meet their needs. Chuck out the couch for a start, eye to eye contact for women is a sign of empathy but for men, eye to eye contact means conflict, men bond shoulder to shoulder. Few words are needed to be shared to express understanding to other men.

We also need to stop deflecting away from the reasons that lead men to the conclusion that they have nothing left to live for. The risk of suicide for men rises tenfold after a divorce. They often find themselves alienated from their children, and at risk of losing their homes (homelessness is another big issue for men), their friends and even sometimes their families.

I imagine that if mothers were denied access to their children at a similar rate to that of men then the female suicide rate would skyrocket too!

Then there are issues such as intimate partner violence, sexual assault (did you know that in the UK men that have been forced into sex by a woman are not classified as rape victims?), false allegations, educational disadvantage, infant male genital mutilation,
a lack of male role models in the home and at school and the constant stigmatising of male behaviour and collectivising responsibility for a minority of bad actors.

A note of caution

Even if we lived in a perfect world where all the issues mentioned above were addressed, I still believe that more men would choose to take their own lives than women.

It is completely irrational to expect the outcomes for men and women to be exactly equal when their are so many differences between them. It’s not realistic to eradicate suicide and I don’t believe that we have a right to take that choice away from men or women, for that matter, but I do believe that too many men are taking their own lives and it is us as a society that needs to change, we’ve tried pretending the issue doesn’t exist, we’ve tried telling men they need to be more like women, neither approach has done anything to change the situation.

Now we need to learn how to listen to men, how to meet them on their own terms, embrace the beauty of masculinity instead of treating men as defective girls.

That dog isn’t going to meow for you, but it might just be your best friend if you learn how to understand it!

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