Big Boys Don’t Cry — and Other Myths About Men and Their Emotions

The truth about men, their emotions, and ways men can become more emotionally expressive.

By Dianne Hales from Reader's Digest | October 2005

The first time that Robert Westover, 41, of Washington, D.C., saw his dad cry was the day he graduated from the same Marine Corps boot camp where his father and grandfather had trained. “A little tear ran down his cheek,” he says. “I was shocked.” Growing up in a military family with three brothers, Westover learned to eat fast, talk loud, compete ferociously and keep his feelings under guard. “Showing emotion,” he declares, “is a no-can-do among men.”

Boys learn this lesson early. By age one, they make less eye contact than girls and pay more attention to moving objects like cars than to human faces. Both mothers and fathers talk less about feelings (except anger) to sons than daughters, and boys’ vocabularies include fewer “feeling” words. In the playground, if not at home, boys learn to choke back tears and show no fear. Their faces, once as openly emotional as those of girls, become less expressive as they move through the elementary school years.

As adults, men use fewer words, and they talk, at least in public, as a means of putting themselves in a one-up situation — unlike women, who talk to draw others closer. Even with friends, men mainly swap information as they talk shop, sports, cars, computers. “Women talk to clear their heads, but men think before they talk,” says psychiatrist Mark Goulston, MD, co-author of The 6 Secrets of a Lasting Relationship. “If they didn’t, they’d risk saying something stupid and being humiliated or offending another man and getting beaten up. They’re safer not saying anything.”

What lurks behind a man’s silent, stoic mask? Vulnerability. Most men, experts agree, are far more insecure than they like to admit, and than their wives ever guess. “Inside every man is a secret fear that he lacks competence and courage, that he’s not as manly as he should be,” says Goulston. “A man knows he is supposed to take a bullet for his family. A man knows he is supposed to fix whatever gets broken. When he’s feeling powerless, when everything he says seems to be the wrong thing, he shuts down and withdraws.”

As gender roles and rules have loosened, some men — dubbed Sensitive New Age Guys (SNAGs) — have dared to let their softer side show. But many men remain confused about how much they can dare to share. “In one breath a woman says she wants us to be emotionally open,” says Westover, who is divorced. “In the next she wants us to be her rock. Women are asking us to perform these incredible emotional gymnastics, and it is messing with our heads. Men don’t have a road map or a role model to show us how to be both emotional and strong.”

Why Men Explode
Although women get angry just as often as men, rage remains the prototypical male emotion. “My kids still talk about my ‘freak-outs,’” says Kim Garretson, 54, a corporate strategist in Minneapolis, who once erupted into volcanic fury in a restaurant when served a still-frozen entrée. “I didn’t express much of anything, but once in a while, I’d just blow.”

Why do so many men lose their tempers? “The rage comes because there’s so much frustration when you cut off something that is you. Yet that’s what men do, because they’re afraid that if you give emotions an inch, they’ll take a mile,” says psychologist Kenneth W. Christian, PhD, author of Your Own Worst Enemy. “If you don’t develop all of yourself in some way, if you don’t learn how to work with your emotions, you’re a shadow figure, a small truncated version of yourself. It’s only a matter of time until the house of cards that you are falls apart.”

For Kim Garretson that day came four years ago when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As often happens when illness strikes men, he realized he had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by letting himself feel. “I’m no longer afraid of expressing almost any emotion, ” he says. “I get anger out with my quick, sharp tongue and move on. I use humor as an outlet. I’ve reconnected with old friends. I talk about the big questions of life. I search for spiritual meaning. I am so full of exuberance and joy that my wife describes me as giddy.”

Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

Sending Message
how we use your e-mail