A guy wearing a tool belt had just delivered a certified threat from the electric company. With deep foreboding, I took the envelope to my husband at his desk. He slit it open and stared at the contents. The red print bled through so that I could make out the numbers, even from the other side of the desk. Our eyes met. He looked at me intently, in a peculiar way, as though he was torn between crushing me to his chest or hiding behind his desk.
Then, the strangest thing happened.
My husband fell forward; his forehead to his arms, and wept. And wept. And wept.
“Good heavens! My big, burly, confident, fix-anything, know-everything-man is scared!” I thought. “He’s really, really scared!”
And suddenly I comprehended, like never before, the immense burden my husband carried—just because he was a man, and a family man, at that.
That eye-opener (after I got over the scare) established a new empathetic undergirding in my relationships with men—especially my husband, of course. It also spurred me into another of my research projects: What are men afraid of? I wanted to understand that vulnerable part of my husband, a part I knew he would never, could never, verbalize to me.
Thus, here are the four things that neuro-biologists, psychologists, psychologists, social observers, and family professionals taught me frightens men the most:
- The yearning for success and recognition is so deep-seated, so biologically and culturally ingrained, that a man’s sense of self is completely tied up in demonstrations of strength, physical or mental. Any contest of strength is potentially hazardous to the ego, however, because the possibility of failure is a real and present danger. Behind all the bravado, you can bet there is a boy who cringes when he’s laughed at, trembles when he’s bullied, and shrivels when he’s scolded.
- That dread of inadequacy, when combined with another fear, relinquishing independence keeps many men from progressing in their relationships—even with their wife. Independence is a crucial form of male confidence—a belief in himself that he’s fought hard for: that he can and will be just exactly who he is or who he wants to be, no matter who or what is against him. To replace that precious autonomy and courage with the prospect of confinement and cowardice at the hands of a woman, especially the woman he loves, is abhorrent to him.
- That being said, as much as he may shun over-attachment, he’s also scared to death of feeling alone. Most men paradoxically need and fear emotional connectedness, meaning he may feel uncomfortable whenever you focus on a person or project other than him for any significant period of time. If you are unavailable or drifting from him, anxiety sets in because, unlike a woman, a man cannot easily communicate his neediness without feeling ashamed of it.
- Closely associated with feeling neglected, a man may feel unneeded. His compulsion to prove himself plays into his hunger to be useful and needed; it helps us to understand his long hours at work, his relish for problem solving. Your man is saying to everyone, but especially to you, his wife, “Do you still need me?” If he thinks the answer is no, a man will lose momentum, becoming increasingly passive and depressed.
Now, don’t let the revelation that he’s as scared as you are, push you over the edge. Clueing into my husband’s heart all those years ago actually empowered me and still does. Though our insecurities differ somewhat (feeling unwanted as opposed to feeling useless, for instance), my four decade effort to soothe his worries rather than stir them up, has been well worth it. Just like that electric bill from long ago, this wife has been paid-in-full many times over by a grateful man who has matured into his best, most loving, most courageous self.