When I was in junior high, sleepovers with girlfriends meant sharing secrets. Conversation was the main activity, and nothing was off limits. I could reveal my father’s alcoholism, weep over the “boyfriend” of one week who had dumped me, and angst over the upcoming student council election. It was a safe place.
My entire life I have enjoyed the luxury of women friends who would listen at any hour and for as many hours as I needed to pour out my heart about everything from mean words from one husband to the impending death of another. I was never alone, and I had decades of experience in how to talk about my heartbreaks, worries, and fears.
Men experiencing divorce may not have the practice at opening their fearful hearts to others. While I was talking into the wee hours with my friends, boys my age were working hard trying to get a beer, a ballgame going, or, under a girl’s bra.
Men being vulnerable about their feelings can fly in the face of a culture which to this day still sets strong gender boundaries throughout our lifetime. Pink is for girls. Boys don’t cry. Man up. The messages are sometimes blatant, sometimes, subtle, but pervasively ever present.
So what can sometimes happen for men when they are punched in the gut by divorce? Many turn to what they have learned throughout a lifetime of following society’s rules about what it means to be a man. They act tough. It can look like this:
He denies any emotion. Claiming his divorce is merely a business transaction, he claims to want to “just get it over with”, feigning bravado in the face of a broken heart.
He tries to keep control. From attempting to micromanage the lawyer’s role in the litigation to refusing to compromise on the smallest issue, he holds on tight when it feels like everything is falling apart.
Bullying. He makes unreasonable demands of everyone involved in the divorce from the receptionist at the law office to his spouse.
These divorce survival tactics are not limited to men, of course. All of us resort to our fight or flight mode when we are scared. But without the practice of letting in support, divorce can be an especially lonely place for men. If their buddies are uncomfortable expressing concern or inexperienced in listening well, they are at risk for not sharing at all.
If you know a man going through divorce, remember that what you see on the outside may not be what is occurring on the inside. It may take something more than a “How’s it going?” for the space to feel safe enough to share all of the feelings of failure, disappointment, and heartbreak that a person experiences when a marriage is ending.
If you are that man, find those people who can give you the support you need. When others express their concern, don’t let your answer stop with “I’m doing okay” or “I’m signing papers on Tuesday.” Be that risk taker the world has told you should be and share what it feels like to miss tucking in your two year old or to worry that you’ll never find love again.
Divorce is too big to take on alone.
Few things demand more courage than being willing to be vulnerable. You’ve practiced being brave your entire life. Be brave now. Be vulnerable.