(From the Storied Mind Newsletter Archive. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can sign up by using the form in the sidebar or the one on the newsletter page.)
Over the past 15 years or so, there’s been a lot written about a specifically male type of depression. It’s always hard to discuss gender differences since it’s easy to fall into stereotypes and to reinforce discrimination. But my own experience and the stories of dozens of women who have written to Storied Mind lead me to believe there is a pattern of depression that more men than women exhibit.
It’s not the neurobiology of illness but rather the behavior that seems to differ.
David Wexler, a psychotherapist who has written several books about depression in men, describes “male depression syndrome” as consisting of four main patterns.
1. Discontent with Self: Profoundly unhappy with themselves, these men are harshly self-critical and also deeply ashamed at being hobbled and weakened, though they often don’t want to talk about it. They may not be aware of depression or have any words to describe what they’re going through but feel ashamed at not making it. They feel they can’t do the things that men are supposed to do – take action, be successful at work, be in control of their feelings, command respect.
2. Antagonism and Blame: Feeling ineffectual and hurt but not able or willing to discuss what they feel, men turn outward. Sometimes, they demand the respect from others they no longer feel for themselves and get furiously angry if they believe they’re not being listened to. They can also avoid feeling worse about themselves by making others – especially their partners – to blame for their problems.
Wexler believes it’s part of an avoidance strategy to limit the inner damage or risk that they could be hurt even worse. That can lead to fending off intimacy, getting angry at emotional “demands” and denying they feel any love for their partners at all.
3. Exaggerated Behavior: Especially when men are unaware of their own depression and unwilling to look at their feelings, they may overcompensate for feeling less strong, less “manly” than they believe they should be. They might start drinking more heavily or craving more sex or blow up in anger and rage at little or no provocation. They want to prove that they’re still “strong” and full of feeling and drive.
4. Avoidance and Escape: To protect themselves psychologically, men may try to avoid all situations that could deepen emotional pain. The most common thing is to refuse to talk about feelings at all. Instead, they try to create emotional distance whenever their partners want to bring up anything that sounds like fear, sadness, grief or hurt.
As I think about my own actions and read the stories so many women tell, one thing stands out. Men will go to extraordinary lengths to reorganize their entire lives to avoid dealing with depression.
I believe this has to with the expectation that men should be powerful. They need to be able to perform, to get the job done, to be in control, to provide, to protect those who depend on them. In depression, they can’t. They have to deal with vulnerabilities that feel like shameful failures, and they have a hard time doing that.
They may admit they can’t handle things anymore and hate themselves, but at the same time refuse therapy and turn away from their intimate partners. Getting help and being intimate would only put them right in the midst of the feelings they want to avoid.
Avoiding can’t seem like running away, however. It has to be a solution to a problem, and most men are comfortable thinking of themselves as problem-solvers.
The problem is the partner who is the cause of the hurt in the first place. Cutting off communication or leaving is a solution to the pain, and it is also a punishment for the “offender.”
Since they aren’t “sick,” they don’t need doctors or therapists. They would only worsen the problem, not solve it.
One man could see the strangeness of his actions, but had a contorted way of explaining them. He knew his wife dreaded his coming home because he was so angry and abusive to her, and he knew he was bringing one problem after another on himself at work. But this too was a kind of solution to the problem.
He saw himself as trying to bring everything crashing down on him in order that someone might finally rush in and tell him he really mattered. No one had done that yet, so he would go on messing everything up. Of course, his wife had been telling him he mattered a lot, but he couldn’t hear what she was saying. She had been pushed aside as a cause of depression. It all made a twisted sort of sense.
Another man avoided the emotional closeness of his partner and looking at his own feelings by leaving the relationship, but he explained it as the solution in this way. “The problem is that I am too horrible to live with and will bring everyone else down with me, so I’m leaving to spare them the pain.” He took on all the guilt and shame but still avoided facing his own feelings or trying to do anything about his depression.
Any kind of self-destructive and hurtful behavior can be explained as a necessary step if you are willing and able to exclude everything from your world that would contradict it.
When I lived in one of those worlds, I knew I was right about everything, and no one could reach me. It may be possible to get through the barriers into these self-contained worlds of avoidance, but generally men have trouble opening up until the structure they’ve created starts collapsing. Some men can keep it going for years. Others, like me, are luckier because the cracks appear fairly soon.
I was blessed to be able to see that my whole explanation was a delusion. Most of the men I hear about are less fortunate – and their partners have to suffer just as much as they do.