After the love is gone ... Big boys don't cry.
"At night when I cry, all she can do is hold me and try to console me," says John, who works for an area newspaper and asked that his last name not be used. "She said that she still loves me but she worships the other guy. At this point in her life she said, the other man is what she needs."
In 1969, John completed his stint as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam and in the same year, after returning home, he met and married the girl of his dreams. Nearly 18 years later John thought he had all the amenities of a happy home: nice cars, house in the suburbs, three kids and a loving wife. He knew his nuptial bliss would last forever. Unfortunately, forever came last March for the 41-year-old journeyman when he confronted his wife with his suspicions of her being involved in an extramarital affair. To his astonishment and dismay, she didn't deny the claim. Rather than have her walk out of his life for good, they agreed that she would spend equal time with both men.
"I cry a lot these days," says John. "As a matter of fact, I cried today. I kept hoping and praying that this hell I'm in is just a nightmare and at any moment I'm going to wake up from it. The reality of the situation is at some point, she's going to be gone and I still love her."
The prevailing myth over the years has been that men tend to mask their grief and pain more effectively than women when what appears to be a good relationship ends. Professional counselors who help those people who are experiencing difficulties with their partners, say it's just that -- a myth.
"The number of men that come to my office and emotionally disrobe has increased," says family therapist and relations consultant Audrey B. Chapman. "I believe it is partly attributed to the women's movement in the '70s and the attempt to get men to openly express their emotions and true feelings. Men basically have the same feelings as women, but women always have believed that men didn't."
Al Baraff, clinical psychologist from the MenCenter in Georgetown, says he has noticed a shift in the male and female clients he sees: "Ten years ago, 30 percent of my patients were males and 70 percent were females. Now 70 percent of the people who come to my office are males and 30 percent are females."
"These figures aren't coincidental and may not be a trend everywhere," he continues. "I think the proportions have changed at the MenCenter because I am out there in the public discussing men's issues and telling them it's okay to express their feelings."
Male outward expressions of sensitivity often are viewed as signs of weakness, especially by other men. The attentive male is apt to express his devotion by giving and doing little things for his companion as opposed to verbally communicating his true feelings.
"I was never the type to bring flowers home or go camping," says John. "This other guy does all the things that maybe I should have been doing all along."
Chapman believes the behavioral patterns, in terms of the way men and women handle such tragedies, are formed early in life.
"When male children cry, they are often scolded and the parents tell them to shut up, 'little boys don't cry,' and he has to suck back the tears and all that pain," says Chapman. "Whereas little girls are expected to cry, to be soft, fragile and expressive. Boys are supposed to be tough, enduring and able to handle the problem alone."
The loss of a loved one, be it through death or the severence of a relationship, often triggers the symptoms accompanying grieving and the healing process:
First comes the denial that something is wrong. Business is conducted as usual. You rationalize and make excuses for the one who broke off the relationship should they stop calling or become less available.
Next comes the depression and the anger. Finally, it starts surfacing that something is wrong. Your daily routine is completely out of sync because your loved one has caused a void in your life, as you see it. The depression is turned inward, erupting into anger and you ask yourself, "How could she do this to me?"
Guilt and bargaining. You believe that a counselor could be your salvation. Maybe you pressured her into leaving. If only you had the chance to do it all again. ...
Finally, the reality sets in that the relationship has run aground and nothing can be salvaged from the wreckage.
Splitting up often brings on physical ailments. Some physicians believe this is prevalent in men because of the way they have been trained to keep their feelings bottled up inside.
Juan Johnson, who specializes in internal medicine in Birmingham, Ala., says complaints of head and abdominal pains are the most common form of stress-related physiological problems. If the cause of the discomfort is not dealt with effectively, he asserts, it could result in "organic disorders."
"Usually," says Johnson, "something is going on in the patient's life that makes him or her feel bad, such as a mother having a problem with the kid or husband and wife having disagreements. The symptoms won't abate until the problem is solved."
Johnson also says that once the patient learns that he has "worried himself sick," instead of experiencing headaches, he now may suffer from stomach ailments. He adds that persistent stress possibly could precipitate into clinical diseases, such as slight elevation in blood pressure, anxiety, depression, coronary artery blockage, maybe even heart attack.
"Sometimes you can spend anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 on tests and still find nothing is physically wrong with these people," Johnson says.
Counselors Chapman and Baraff say that women who have experienced breakups are more than willing to talk about the pain and grief to all who will listen. Men, on the other hand, will discuss the problem with the bartender or a buddie, but seldom show their grief openly. In the privacy of the home, they will cry their eyes out, but once they get away from the house, there is the appearance of having everything under control.
"The man usually is the one who feels responsible and guilty for the breakup and blames himself for the inability to have a serious committed relationship," says Baraff. "If he is grieving he may experience impotence. Then he will start feeling guilty about not being a good sex partner. Because of the impotence, he then may develop a real fear of getting involved in an intimate relationship. He may avoid intimate contact for a very long time."
There are no quick-fix potions in helping bruised egos wade through the perils of a breakup and the agony that follows. Experts say that upon realizing that it's all over, a few men will resort to violence, while others might go home and destroy their hard-earned goods or proceed in giving things away, things they may want back after a time.
In cases like John's, where the man is grieving heavily, Baraff says that if he would seek professional therapy, he probably would get through the loss stages more quickly and with less pain.
There are ways men can forestall the grieving process. Most men, after a loss, get involved too quickly in another relationship, travel or become totally immersed in their work. But at some point they will have to deal with the loss.
"The stress is inside and you can't escape from yourself," says Chapman.
Professionals in this field agree that grieving is the best way to deal with the stress after a relationship has turned sour. Chapman says that it is essential for both men and women who are hurting to go through each phase of grieving. If at any point the sequence is interrupted, and they are not permitted to get the loss completely out of their system, the chances are that from that point on, they might face difficulties managing an intimate committed relationship.
"Now I am faced with the most difficult decision of my life," says John. "I've been sharing her for a half year and now it's time for her to go. If she ever wants to come back, maybe we can talk about it, but I'm not going to make any promises."
Len Cooper is a Washington writer.