May 28, 2010
As I posted earlier this month, I’m going through a divorce. One of the interesting corollaries to my divorce is that, in general, it’s brought me closer to male acquaintances, friends, and siblings, while further from their female counterparts. My male friends seemed to get how to behave naturally, while I’ve wanted, at times, to knock on woman-skulls to see if anybody was home. Here’s what men seem to know that women don’t about how to treat a man going through a divorce:
1) You have to choose us. Right after my wife and I separated, my male friend J. told me, over a beer, without any prompting, the two of us not looking each other in the eyes, that he was on my side not hers, and that none of the ways in which I was likely to fuck up in the impending months was going to change that. J. was acquainted with my wife and liked her, but had both a friendship and a professional relationship with me, and while he would be cordial with her when he saw her, he wasn’t going to do her any favors. I don’t care what you do, he said, fuck my female friends, get drunk and puke on my doorstep, have a raging fit and call me an asshole, I knew you before this happened and know you’re a bang-up guy. That’s not exactly how he said it, but I got the message: I had a temporary reprieve from judgment. “That’s cool,” I said, as if what he’d said was no big deal. Then he bought me another beer.
2) When we say we’re OK, we’re lying. In The Nervous Breakdown essay I wrote a few weeks ago, there is a line where I say “I’m doing great, the kids are happier, and my new girlfriend blows my fucking mind.” The first three words of this are a complete fabrication, and my male friends, knowing how men must be, immediately saw through it—the tenor of our conversations about sports, with the occasional drunken dip into my sorrows, did not change a beat. I’m not doing great, and they know it. My female friend R., however, who, like J., is a professional friend who became acquainted with my wife through me, asked my wife to a party that I was also invited too, calling my wife to see if it was OK. When I questioned her way of going about it, she said to me, “you seem to be just fine, like you’re moving on, but it seems like she needs a friend.” Filled with rage and wanting to cry, Fine? You think I’m fine? I’m a single dad with two kids and no job and no money and you think I’m fine. I said, “Oh, OK, I get it now. It’s cool.”
3) Women cry. Men break things. A mere 20 minutes after the phone call to my female friend R., I sent “the email.” I’m in a writing group dominated by women, and in a writing group dominated by women, there is occasionally gossip. Being the least gossipy of the gossipers, I had been irked recently when one of the members accused me, in a subtle and perhaps unaware way, of causing her problems for having gossiped. Enraged from my conversation with R., I sent an email to P., one of the members of my group, copying A. and R. In it, I accused her of being as gossipy as other gossipers. While I was at it, I decided to tell her all the things I would gossip about her were I a gossiper. This was not done very nicely, as you might imagine. The response to this email was very unified and Heathers: you’ve ruined relationships, don’t you dare come to my party, don’t you dare come back to the group. I knew I was wrong, but still, I felt surrounded by moms who don’t get why boys throw balls through windows.
4) We don’t hate women, but we need to temporarily vent on the gender. Obviously, this is harder for female friends than for male ones. Here’s the thing, though. It’s not about you. When we criticize “women,” it’s a way of being critical without being specific, without getting into the personal ugliness of specific relationships. When men look at each other and shake their heads and roll their eyes about women, it’s a mask for some truth, something about our partners that drives us nuts but that we don’t want to talk about, because we love them and don’t want them hurt. So we use a plural instead.
5) And thus the real and subtle truth: Men are more emotional than women. Tread lightly. Men know this about each other instinctively. We do business together, play basketball, take camping trips, have beers, pretend it’s all about getting laid. But below it we know about the lies: we know about the turmoil and oversensitivity that boils beneath the surface. We can see it in each other’s eyes, standing poker-faced while women speak of their dramas. When we get around to talking about it, it’s low and subtle and put in practical terms. Or it’s an explosion. But either way it’s thousands and thousands and thousands of years of built-in cultural toughness cracking the surface: cryogenically frozen life forms thawing. Respect it. We’re trying.