The male voice, lets call him Robert, in the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry sounds devastated that the person he loves has left him, even though Robert admits to pushing them away. With no chance of getting them back he says it is pointless crying. For Robert tears are only shed if there is a possibility they will provide a mechanism for reconciliation. Crying has no intrinsic value for him. Rather than externalize his inner pain through tears, Robert chooses to mask his difficult feelings with laughter and lies. This adaption to suffering seems consistent with the stereotypical image of the stoic male who is out of touch with his feelings. While boys may start out in life crying more than girls, by age 11 the frequency of their crying decreases in comparison to girls. Robert’s claim that boys don’t cry is in part a command reinforced through social and cultural conditioning.
This pattern carries forward into adult life, resulting in the common observation that woman cry more often and more intensely than men. Yet, evidence suggests that men have intense feelings that move them to tears, but unlike woman they do not shed their tears due to a fear of appearing weak. Both men and woman perceive this control as a positive male virtue. When men do cry they are judged favourably if they can express intense emotions in a controlled manner. One place men achieve the fine balance of hyper masculinity and emotional vulnerability is in sports. In moments such as wins or losses it is appropriate for a player to cry, as long as they are in control of their emotion, rather than the emotion being in control of them.
So counter to popular belief boys do cry, but in a different way to girls. The main characteristic of this difference is the element of control. For men, one of the primary functions of this control is to separate themselves from woman who they may perceive as being emotionally out of control. But what is the cost for men in maintaining this control? For one, it becomes very difficult to stay in relationship with someone who you are attempting to not identify with. If a man’s sense of self is contingent on being different to woman, then he must devalue them. For example, “you throw like a girl” is a standard insult boys receive from other boys on the playing field. In this scenario the young boy’s identity is being formed from an external representation of what he must not be, rather than from an affirming support of how he feels inside. Also, controlling emotions takes large amounts of energy. If this energy is available we can respond to the emotional events of life in a more spontaneous and creative manner. If not, we risk becoming rigid and guarded in our attitudes, emotions and body, which restricts our capacity for loving and playful relationships.
There is conflicting evidence whether crying is emotionally, or physically beneficial. With that in mind I am not suggesting men should cry more. Rather crying is one aspect of a man’s emotional repertoire that can be affected by social conditioning that encourages us to control our emotions. We may therefore benefit from thinking about those mechanisms of control.