Rage can be a defense against feeling needy or helpless in a society that shames men for showing emotional vulnerability.
You’ve probably experienced your partner looking sullen or low-energy. Maybe this mood goes on for a couple of weeks.
You are used to having pleasant conversations that begin, “How are you?” but now you’re treading on eggshells around him, not sure how it will go. I hope to explain this situation to you here because this can be confusing and feel frustrating.
Symptoms of depression in men can manifest as low energy, hopelessness, and despair, of course. But, in some people, the defense against depression can be anger and aggression. Why is this? And why does it tend to be true for men?
Men get a lot of family and relationship praise for being the producer and provider. The role is centuries old and we grow up with it.
Being depressed is the opposite of male conditioning. Instead of powerful, we feel weak. Instead of productive, we are confused and unable to focus.
It is tough to admit when we are off our game and may need support. When our partner senses this and asks questions, we push her away. We resist help when we need it the most because we don’t want to appear needy.
Our partners can feel our resistance and have their own reactions to it. Giving advice or pulling away are common.
Here is an example of what this situation can look like.
In my counseling office, Jane describes a presenting problem in her marriage, “Charles and I have had lots of communication challenges and breakthroughs in our marriage. I love him, but something has changed in the last six months. I feel fearful a lot, like I want to connect, but suddenly don’t know how he will respond.
Charles, a mid-thirties Insurance executive, says, “I really don’t know what she is talking about. Sure work is hard, but they pay me to make the hard decisions and I have done well.”
“How is your connection with Jane?” I ask. Jane is crumpling a linen handkerchief in her hands, and I can feel her tension.
“Inside I feel connected to Jane. She comes at me all the time, how am I feeling, do I love her? Of course, I get tense and react.”
It’s common in couples that patterns of reaction can emerge. It’s hard to know who starts the fight. And often, as in Charles’ case, he blames her for the start of the tension.
From my experience with couples, I tell them that it is better to imagine that each one of them has ‘co-created’ the patterns of conflict that persist. Each person is bringing to the relationship their reactivity, their vulnerability, and their communication styles. It’s the collision of these unconscious forces that create the repetitive conflicts.
Changes in mood, like Charles is probably experiencing, can create or re-create painful exchanges that have troubled the relationship for years.
After a few sessions, I ask Charles about how he has been doing the last six months and if there have been any major changes in his life.
“Well I was on quite a roll at work until about nine months ago,” he says. “I got passed over for a promotion I wanted and my new boss really isn’t qualified. I may have leaked my judgments to him.”
“Uh oh,” I said.
“Yeah. It didn’t endear me to him. And yes, I was pissed off at the whole company. Not just him.” Charles drank from his glass of water and swallowed a few times. “Okay, my great career plan is damaged. And we are in debt, due to our kid is sick, so Jane gave up her job.”
“Wait, slow down. I didn’t know your kid was sick.”
“Yeah, she fell and hit her head and she’s been in the concussion protocol for six months. She has terrible headaches all the time,” Jane said. “I had to quit my job.”
“So, you’ve got multiple stresses at work, ” I summarized, looking at Charles. “And at home.”
Charles swallowed again. “I am a big f*ck up. None of this would have happened if I had gotten the promotions I was due.”
“Man, you sound angry,” I said.
Charles took a deep breath. “Mostly I just feel incredibly crappy that Jane had to give up her job and we are sliding into debt. Not to mention Franny’s headaches.”
“I thought you were mad at me,” Jane said, still twisting her handkerchief.
“No, no, I’d never want you to think that. You are the best mother and partner I could ever imagine.” Now Charles was leaking tears. “I haven’t been the best husband. I know it.”
Look at the things that Charles has experienced, that are difficult for a man to talk about:
- He is deeply worried about his sick child. (Of course!)
- His wife had to quit her job, so now he is the sole provider in an expensive lifestyle.
- Not only was he passed over for a job he wanted, but he doesn’t feel like his new boss is competent. What a toxic situation for him!
- Maybe most important but he is suddenly not sure he is a good partner. He knows Jane is upset with him, and he feels insecure.
Charles is used to success, productivity and, accomplishment. He is used to carrying on, in the face of all setbacks, exactly as he was trained to do. This is the public persona he presents, even to Jane.
And she relies on his stability, his determination, and his work discipline. (When he doesn’t perform as well as he expects, Jane has her own emotional reactions.)
After a few more sessions, Charles can see how his self-esteem is tied to his productivity. He lets Jane love him and care for him He learns that love and relationship are actually more sure ways to feel good than productivity.
First Charles’ angry mood lifts, then his depression.
What is most important about this story is that Charles still has a tough job and his child still needs a lot of care. The internal changes in Charles’ mood have come from his awareness of his own needs, and from letting in his partner’s love and attention.
Research shows that relationships are one of the truest indicators of happiness. Not money or prestige. Charles is learning this lesson, as he works through his anger and depression.
He is more than a production machine in a suit; he is a complex human, with doubts, fears, and anger, and with a lot of love in his life.
Image via shutterstock.com.
If you liked this story, read more like it on Yourtango.com:
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