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Behind the Masks of Emotionally Distant Men and How to Deal with Them, Grace Intact

As an Italian-American woman who has lived in several international locations, I’ve accepted that American men are much more emotionally distant than males from other cultures.

I’m not alone in this.  Throngs of women have confessed to feeling neglected by their aloof, workaholic husbands.  Several of my closest girlfriends have admitted that their relationships are steeped in loneliness.  Google “emotionally distant men” and you’ll find whole discussion groups dedicated solely to women complaining that their lives are loveless and sexless, thanks to the devotion many American men have to their careers.  Numerous therapists have confirmed it.  In our brilliant, beloved country, a significant number of men spend more time and energy on their professions than their personal relationships.

Is this a delicate topic?  Certainly.  Some women say, “I just don’t understand it,” but is this an inexplicable phenomenon?  Not necessarily.

Americans work more hours.  They take fewer vacations.  Revealing one’s weaknesses is frowned upon, particularly when it comes to men.  Leisure is often defined by distractions, like television, which can heighten anxiety and depression—both of which are prevalent in our society, along with higher rates of obesity and heart disease.

History is one of the greatest teachers, and if we look back to the beginning of the 19th century, we can begin to understand why some American men have retreated into their shells, only to emerge every once in a good, long while.

Michael Kimmel, one of the most well-known researchers on men and masculinity and the author of several influential books, including Manhood in America and The History of Men, traced the origins of manhood from the emergence of the Self-Made Man concept in the mid-1800s.  He explored the evolution of males and their transformation in the wake of two wars, the end of slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and the advent of Feminism.  His conclusions rest on the notion that men in America have long struggled to prove themselves to women; moreover, he claims, their masculinity cannot be separated from the cultural and historical changes that ultimately defined them.

Reportedly, it all began with the separation from the British, when America took on the role of ruling itself.  One could argue that this could be a metaphor for a child’s departure from their parents.  Man’s desire for confidence and autonomy was found through action and a serious attachment to work, much in the way our children have discovered self-sufficiency through education and employment.  At the turn of the century, however, forces worked against the working American man: the end of slavery, immigration, and feminism altered the landscape of the workforce and challenged masculinity.  Support for women’s rights and opposition to slavery brought their manhood into question, as Kimmel reports in Manhood in America:

“Rapid industrialization, technological transformation, capital concentration, urbanization and immigration…created a new sense of oppressively crowded, depersonalized, and often emasculated life. Manhood had meant autonomy and self-control, but fewer American men…controlled their own labor, owned their own farms.”

In response, Kimmel argues, the American man pursued racism and antifeminism—by excluding others, it was believed, gender identity could be preserved.  According to Kimmel, the reassertion of this version of masculinity was simply a reaction to the threats posed on the anxious Self-Made Man.  He says: “Middle class men and…white collared salaried employees were particularly hard hit by these newly gendered anxieties” (Manhood in America, p. 71).

What I find especially intriguing is Kimmel’s question: Where would a sense of masculinity come from for the worker who sat at a desk all day?

Which forces me to ask an uncomfortable question: When the emotionally distant men in our lives aren’t at work, where can they be found?  In many cases, two words: The.  Gym.

We must again revisit history to understand this.  Men became so afraid of losing their manhood that they “developed various strategies to ensure that others would continue to see them as manly, thus they invented the gym, a place where men could pump up their bodies.  At once thousands of American men trooped off to gyms and athletic fields as part of a national health craze.  America was then renamed, at the turn of the century, as the new outdoor.  Sports developed courage, steadiness of nerve…resourcefulness…self-reliance…readiness to subordinate selfish impulses, personal desires…” claimed Frances Walker, president of M.I.T.  Basically, sports allowed men to see themselves as such, at least physically, and prove that they had the ability to change their destiny (and the way they looked).

When millions of families immigrated to America in hopes of securing better futures, they ensured that their sons and daughters worked hard, and relentlessly, in pursuit of what had stealthily been denied or challenging-to-obtain in their country of origin.  These sons and daughters were not allowed to speak their parents’ native languages, they were not to indulge in useless complaining and, most importantly, they were to portray an image of fortitude and resilience, carried on with pride and self-assurance.  These factors, coupled with the historical and social background information provided by Kimmel (and many others like him), contributed to the creation of the contemporary American man.

Whereas in other cultures men had thousands of years to prove and test their manliness, to fail and succeed, to engage in wars and victories, Americans had only a couple of hundred years to do so.  As my old boss used to say: “Americans are like the tribes in Africa who go from living in dirt huts and walking barefoot to confronting glitzy skyscrapers with elevators and electronic gadgets.  They remain young at heart, joke constantly, but continue to spit their sunflower seeds on the ground while all dressed up in suit and ties.”

It could be argued that since the family of origin came from places older and more experienced than America, their wisdom was genetically-wired and embedded in the fabric of their off-spring at birth, regardless of environment and circumstance.  In the case of emotionally distant men, however, that wisdom is confronted, and lost, in our culture.  The emotional maturity that has taken our ancestors centuries to develop and hone is eclipsed by man’s drive to prove himself.

While I’ve been blessed to live in the United States for many years, I first and foremost identify myself as an Italian, and I’ve long been troubled and fascinated by this.  A relationship with a European is characterized by passion.  They involve screaming matches followed by effusive interludes. A relationship with an American man is much more…careful.  Gentle.  Reserved.  American men, I’ve come to learn, would rather wear a mask with a perennial smile than reveal their true emotions.  When I was eight months pregnant and working in the tech industry, I was forced to carry ten boxes of heavy equipment up several floors, and while I passed many men who offered me a nod or a smile, not one of them asked if I needed help!  It was heartbreaking.  It was unnerving.  It also suggested to me that “my state” provoked in them feelings they didn’t know how to handle, let alone accept, perpetuating my vague distaste for the emotionally reserved.

I didn’t ask for help then, but today, when I’m confronted with men who tune out and back away, when I note that they’re devoting more time than necessary to work ,sports, the gym, or television, I’m inclined to voice my concerns.  I’m prone to making demands, and longing for men who are more aligned with my past, my culture.  At the same time, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become aware of their cultural limitations and individual trials.  The Italian in me wants to yell and stomp her feet; the American in me listens, observes, and searches for an explanation on why we are the way we are.

As saintly as this might sound, I still desire intimacy.  I want to be just as important as my husband’s job, the Giants game on at seven tomorrow night, his workout routine.  I want physical and spiritual closeness, and I’ve learned that this can be obtained and dealt with by following these practices:

            —Understand the factors that contribute to emotional distance.  Share these concerns with your partner.

            —Know that the means by which your partner’s love is expressed oftentimes goes beyond what they’re capable of on a daily basis.  It’s my understanding that men love their partners more than they can say or show, due in large part to the standards set forth by their families and social groups.

            —Utilize compassion, even empathy, and refrain from judging others, particularly the person with whom you share a bed.  You love this person for many reasons, and keep in mind that you, too, are just as likely to withdraw from others when you’re preoccupied with work and stress.  Give them time.  Give them space.  Give them a backrub.

            —Remember that we are here to learn and to create.  Life is not easy; life is, at times, tremendously difficult.  But it offers rewards in due time, and showing our partners patience and sensitivity and a willingness to detach from work to nurture relationships will encourage them to remove their masks and do the same—for you, and for themselves.

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