A Sob Story About Guys Who Cry

Katie Young
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Wednesday - September 06, 2006
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In college, my friend Emily had a boyfriend who cried all the time. We affectionately referred to him as “The Sobber.”

It started about two months after they were dating. Up until this point, The Sobber appeared to be a typical macho male. He told Emily he didn’t really want a big commitment - he’d like to just “hang out” and see where things went. He wasn’t outwardly romantic and didn’t whisper many sweet nothings in her ear.

But somewhere along the way, The Sobber’s true feelings began to surface, and in a tearful confession one Friday evening, he began to unload all the hopes and dreams he had for his and Emily’s future.

“What?!” Emily said, completely surprised. “I thought you just wanted to keep it casual.”

“That’s what I thought too,” The Sobber sobbed. “But you’re just too good to let go.”

“OK ...” Emily said, still confused, but at the same time touched that this man felt so strongly about her. “Here’s a real man who isn’t afraid to show his deep emotions. How refreshing.”

But then the sobbing continued. The Sobber began to cry at everything. Every time they had a fight, every time they were intimate, every time Ross and Rachel broke up on Friends.

“Isn’t that so sad?!” The Sobber said during Thursday night TV, reaching for a Kleenex and blowing his nose. “Why can’t Ross and Rachel ever seem to work it out?”

“All right, that’s it!” Emily thought to herself as she rolled her eyes. “Why can’t he just be a man?!”

What had once seemed like a sweet gesture of emotion was now really dampening Emily’s ability to see this guy as anything but a complete mess. She thought she wanted a really sensitive man, but Emily was beginning to think that the “macho male” was not such a bad thing after all.

“He cries more than I do!” Emily told me in frustration. “I could understand if it were a national catastrophe or the loss of a family member. But I don’t think I can handle all this sobbing! He even cried in front of my parents the other day.”

“Ross and Rachel again?” I asked.

“No, worse,” said Emily. “Steel Magnolias.”

I think most women can admit that they’d like a guy to be sensitive, but not too sensitive. Why there are unspoken rules as to when men can cry or not, I don’t know. Is it unfair? Yes. Aren’t men human too? Of course.

I always told myself that if I had a son I would allow him to cry and express his emotions freely. I would never tell him that men don’t cry because I would-n’t want pent-up frustration manifesting itself in more negative emotions like anger.

For Emily, all she wanted was for The Sobber to have a little more control over his emotions.

Dr. Stephanie Shields, professor of psychology and women’s studies at Penn State University, recently conducted research with Leah Warner, doctoral candidate, on gender and perception of crying in adults, both male and female.

“Our research shows that what counts as ‘good tears’ really depends on how a person cries, what they are crying about, and who they are,” says Shields. “‘Good tears’ are tears under control - the moist eye, the almost-tears that show that a person feels very deeply, but still is in control of his or her emotions.”

Shields says that men in public life have been tearing up more frequently in the United States since the 1980s “when Ronald Reagan, the ‘Great Communicator,’ used tears in quite strategic ways. Since then, every U.S. president (and numerous male military leaders, sports stars and celebrities) have teared up in public.

And what is OK to cry about? According to Shields’ research, people’s tears are viewed more positively when the event that elicits tears is serious and one over which they have no direct control.

“So losing your job for no good reason is more likely to be viewed as an OK reason for tears, but crying because your computer crashed is not.”

These days I think emotion is valued, whether expressed by a man or a woman.

“Tears show an incredibly powerful emotion,” says Shields. “They’re the kind of emotional expression that happens where obviously no words are available.”

Emily became too frustrated with The Sobber to continue their relationship. But what she learned from her experience is this: Every man has a heart, and every woman wants him to be able to express it - in a controlled way.

For more discussion of men, women and crying, see Sheilds’ book Speaking from the Heart: Gender and the Social Meaning of Emotion (Cambridge University Press).

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