Confusion about male depression abounds. Undoubtedly, you will be relieved to know that you are not crazy. The signs you have observed in your husband are probably evident in the majority of men who suffer from depression. He acts so different from the way he did when he was happy. He seems depressed, yet he doggedly denies being depressed. In fact, he angrily tells you to back off and leave him alone. What is going on?
[Differences in Symptoms of Depression] Most current researchers believe that male depression is underdiagnosed because of secrecy and shame. Dr. Archibald Hart, Professor of Psychology and former dean of the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, is the author of Unmasking Male Depression. He notes some of the significant differences between male and female depression. He says, “Angry outbursts, becoming easily annoyed, increased sexual activity, workaholism, emotional and social withdrawal, coldness, aloofness, and even forms of family violence are nearer the depression mark than the crying and hopelessness of female depression.” Perhaps some of the following descriptions will sound familiar to you.
Hart says that women tend to blame themselves. Women are generally willing to accept responsibility for problems in themselves and their families. By contrast, men tend to blame others. They use rationalizations, excuses, and other defenses to avoid accepting responsibility for their actions.
In my counseling experience, women tend to express the classic symptoms of depression, including sadness, apathy, and worthlessness. Women are willing to feel their vulnerabilities while men—are you ready?—tend to project the problem outward.
Men tend to feel anger much more easily than sadness. They don’t want to feel sadness, perhaps because of what society in general and fathers in particular have taught them: Men don’t feel sad—they get mad, and then they get even.
Anxiety and Fear
Feeling sad is not the only emotional challenge for men. They have trouble with many other emotions as well, including anxiety and fear. Women tend not only to feel these emotions but also to share them with others. They are not ashamed to say they have a tendency to be nervous about things.
Because of distrust, men tend to be isolated from other people. This isolation begins early in life. In their seminal book on boys, Real Boys Workbook, William Pollack and Kathleen Cushman state that boys tend to develop a vicious circle of loneliness. They assert that boys learn early to be fearful of showing any feelings of vulnerability. Hiding behind a mask, they believe that no one understands them and slip into feelings of despair.
This issue is huge. Relationships cannot survive with too much conflict, and men—bless their hearts—tend to create more conflict than they resolve. This is certainly a generaliza-tion, but women tend to avoid conflict (or internalize it), and men tend to create conflict (by externalizing their distress). Dr. Hart suggests that men tend to act out their inner turmoil, and women will turn their emotions inward—feeling them.
Attack or Withdraw When Hurt
Men and women deal with hurt in entirely different ways. According to Dr. Hart, women tend to withdraw when they are hurt. A woman may wait for months before telling a man about what he did to hurt her feelings. Men rarely understand the pain they are causing, in part because they tend to deny it.
Men, on the other hand, are inclined to attack when they are hurt. They often cannot or will not label their pain as “hurt,” but they will let you know that they are upset. They tend to transform various feelings into anger, and hurt is certainly of those feelings. When under duress, men tend to go on the offensive.
A woman can help her man to recognize his hurt, much as she might do with a young child. Of course, she would do well not to patronize him or make him feel like a child. Rather, she can simply say, “I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings. I am sorry.” These simple words often go a long way toward diffusing his anger.
You may notice your man becomes incredibly rigid when he tells you what he will and won’t do. He may “take a stand” when such rigidity is actually unnecessary. He may feel as if you are attacking his boundaries when you are simply trying to negotiate. He is telling you, indirectly, that he does not fully trust himself or others.
Again, gentle assurance that you understand his needs and will not violate his boundaries, assuming they are realistic, will go a long way toward easing his mind. You can gently point out to him his black-or-white position, showing him that many other possibilities exist. “Is it possible . . .” is often a nice way to approach these kinds of issues. Also, he will need to do some work within himself so that he does not feel so fragile and vulnerable.
Top Dog vs. Blending In
Another burden carried by many men is the “alpha male” syndrome. Men feel a strong need to be competitive and in charge. They are reluctant to share their dark feelings because they need to be in command of their situation. Like Tim, the men feel as if they are in a military situation even when they are not. Letting another man take the “top” position, by providing psychological help, for example, is a real challenge for most men. Reaching out for nurturance or guidance from women is equally challenging for many men.
Women, on the other hand, are usually comfortable with blending in. In fact, they feel an innate need to belong. They feel far less compulsion to be competitive or to come out on top of others. Men try to maintain a strong male image, but women may disintegrate at the slightest failure. This is partially what makes women inclined to ask for help.
Women feel distressed as often as do men. They often have their own maladies, including depression and low self-esteem. Women, however, are much more likely than men to seek counseling for their depression. Women also are inclined to develop destructive coping strategies that include using food, friends, and “love” to self-medicate. Becoming excessively codependent on friends, to the detriment of their own understanding and values, can be very damaging to their self-esteem.
Men use numerous destructive vices to cope with their discouragement:
• use alcohol excessively
• watch too much television
• engage too much in sports, either actively or
• demand too much sexual activity
• gamble too much
• work excessively
Do you hear your man use any of these rationalizations?
• A few beers help me unwind.
• It’s just my way of blowing off some steam.
• I just need to zone out in front of the tube.
• It’s not hurting anybody.
• I am just like every other man I know.
And the list could continue. He offers explanations for and defenses against any perceived criticism. He doesn’t want anyone to challenge his lifestyle. Why? Because he needs these things and activities to self-medicate against inner pain. If you attack him for these weaknesses, you will awaken the sleeping giant, and it may not be pretty.
But what is “excessive” behavior? He says it is not too much, and you say it is. Who is right? As a general rule I suggest to couples that if something is a problem for one partner, it is a problem. Let me illustrate. If the wife feels that the husband is spending too much time on the river fishing with his buddies, their relationship has a problem. Likewise, if the husband feels that his wife is spending too much money buying clothes, they have a relational issue that they must address. If something is a problem for one, it is a problem for both. Don’t be dissuaded from feeling uncomfortable about any particular issue.
Am I Lovable?
Both sexes struggle with doubts about feeling loved. Women tend to wonder if they are loveable enough. They question whether they have performed or conformed enough to meet the expectations of the man in their life. The question is different with men, however.
Men constantly wonder if they are being loved enough. They wonder if they are getting the love they deserve or if they are with the right woman—the one who can give them everything they are entitled to. Men often learn the hard way that the relief they seek must come from their own hard work and by placing their trust in God alone.
A Clearer Idea
Are men from Mars and women from Venus? I am not so sure about that, but they are certainly different, and we had best come to terms with those differences if we are to build and maintain healthy relationships.
[Adapted from Does Your Man Have The Blues? By Dr. David Hawkins. Copyright © 2004 by David Hawkins. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR 97402. Used by Permission.]
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