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Breaking up is hard to do: why men still have a lot to learn

The breakdown of a relationship is always difficult, but even with the stigma of publicly expressed emotion out of the way, many men are still failing to deal with their feelings properly - and that can impinge on mental and physical health.

The question is: why are men unable to talk about their feelings? Does it make other men uncomfortable? Is there too much pressure to conform to a woman's approach? What can be done to help?

It is a readily acknowledged truth these days that dealing with your emotions is a better and more effective way of going through life than bottling them up and continuing as if nothing happened.

But while most events in life are easily dealt with and major situations such as funerals or weddings have their own social rules and rituals, the break-up of a relationship is an intensely personal and emotional experience and very hard to deal with if you have no support.

The crying game

But while women readily open up to friends and express their emotions, men continue to find hugging and crying distinctly unnerving. The director of the Men's Health Forum, Peter Baker, explains, "Men still have enormous difficulties talking about how they feel, they are still very reluctant to seek help."

It doesn't help, he says, that consulting services are set up to deal with women. "A lot of the services on offer are not skilled at working with men. Their models are based on expressing feelings."

Relationship counsellor Denise Knowles from Relate agrees. "Men don't like to be asked how they 'feel'. It's makes them panic. You need to use language they feel more comfortable with."

Instead, she advises going for a less direct route. "I find that men like to talk about other things first, and then I ask them to tell me about a time they felt happy or angry - that helps give them some way of measuring how they feel."

Peter Baker accepts that many men remain unable to express what they feel but says they are getting better at dealing with emotional issues. "That's not to say there isn't a long way to go."

Avoiding the breakdown

However, he sees the solution not so much in teaching men how to deal with the shockwave of emotion that comes from a bad break-up but in stopping them from even getting to that point. "Men need to acquire the skills to stop a relationship going wrong in the first place," he explains.

"Or at least to make a break-up go as smoothly as possible. A lot more relationships would work better if men and women found a way to communicate during the relationship."

But does it really matter if men bottle up emotions? Can it do any real harm to someone used to keeping themselves to themselves? Yes, says Denise. "Not acknowledging the emotions you are going through can cause problems. You can become depressed and then there can be physical symptoms stemming from stress and anxiety."

Peter says: "There is a huge amount of evidence that talking about what upsets you makes you feel better, certainly better than drinking, smoking or taking drugs."

So if men need to talk about how they feel but find it difficult to express themselves in terms of emotions - and if counselling services still rely on getting people to talk about their feelings - what possible solutions are there?

"Men are more solution-focused," says Denise. "They need to find a way of making it right." This, she suggests, could be anything from throwing themselves into their work to getting to the top of the squash league.

Dear diary, I feel better...

But what about feelings and emotions? "Writing how you feel in a diary is often enough," says Peter. "It enables men to come to terms with their feelings but they don't have to do it in a public way."

He also points to new counselling services aimed at men. "There are now online services where men can receive counselling by email. That's a good alternative."

Perhaps another important aspect is to recognise that "men" can never be defined as a single group when it comes to something as complex as behaviour.

It's not just a case of emotionally stunted blokes moaning on about how much they loved their first car. "There are many men who go on about how they can't cope and their world is falling apart," says Denise. "They tend to be hanging onto the pain because it reminds them of a relationship and they fear letting that go and having nothing to do."

While women as a whole are undoubtedly better at dealing with relationship break-ups, men are improving with time. Perhaps the next step is finding the male equivalent of white wine and chocolate.

Further information:
Men's Health Forum -
Relate -

Link to this story on Discovery Health

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