This is the third in a series of articles I am writing on the male perspective and how it might impact relationships. Today's posting looks at the question of male compassion.
Think of a compassionate person. Who or what comes to mind? How do they behave?
No matter the gender of the person, I bet the way they behave looks something like this in your imagination: soft voice, understanding gaze, gentle, soothing, nurturing.
I think this is a wonderful version of compassion. I have been the grateful recipient of it often in my life, and I hope I continue to be so.
But I use the word "version" advisedly, because I think this but one of many ways to be compassionate. It has become the mainstream, dominant version of what it means to be perceived as caring. There is nothing wrong with it, but if you are a man, or a woman with strong male energy, you may need to express your compassion differently and not feel it is legitimate to do so.
It's a little difficult for me to describe what male compassion looks like without resorting to caricatures. In the broadest brushstrokes, I would suggest that female compassion is about feeling together for comfort; male compassion is about doing together for comfort. That's a bit of a false dichotomy because there can be much doing in feeling and much feeling in doing.
Perhaps an illustration will clarify better. I corresponded with a woman about my ideas on male compassion. This person has lived with cancer for a number of years and she sent me this reply: "My mother came prior to my mastectomy and said something like, 'Well you just got to do this and move on.' She was the first person to have said anything like that to me- so straightforward and pragmatic. I hadn't realized until the moment she said that how parched I was for this kind of response. The other touchy feely responses required something different of me- that I 'emote' with the other person. I didn't generally want to do that unless it was a very close friend. Perhaps had my mom's response come from a man I would have thought it insensitive, I don't know. The point is, it is not a culturally acceptable side of compassion and I can see now that our cultural norm has allowed the female version to become the gold standard. That seems wrong."
I have seen men say to each other "Suck it up" and the recipient feel absolutely cared for and understood. It feels deeply respectful to be expected to cope with a difficult situation. The underlying message is that you are competent and capable and yes, you may be hurting for whatever reason, but you can deal with it. It is reassuring. It provides context and containment. Of course there are instances when the more female kind of compassion is the right one. My point is only that that is not always the case, and we should all -- men and women -- not expect that of ourselves.
Parenthetically, I needed to learn this as a male in training to become a therapist. Just as there is a predominately female way to be compassionate, so too is there a female way to be "therapeutic." It looks much like the female way of compassion: a good therapist is one who is kind and understanding and supportive. That is true, and I also have to tell you that a good therapist knows how to confront as well as to comfort, to challenge as well as to console, to deal with the concrete and the present day as well as the past and the emotional baggage that often comes with it.
It is not that one method is right and the other wrong. It is that one method seems to be the dominant version and we all -- men and women -- need to have equal access to all ways of responding to our friends, family and partners when they're in pain. If we allow the dominant version to be the "right" version, we unnecessarily twist ourselves into pretzels and the person we're supposed to be comforting will not feel comforted.
Next week: Men and Relationships, Part IV: a feeling is not an “F” word.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.