The Isolation Principle*

By Sylvia Cary
As printed in Men’s Fitness – October 1993

Nobody ever told John Wayne to get in touch with his feelings. Why are they telling you?

For every man who says he’s evolved into a sensitive, caring being since the women’s movement rolled across the land, there are nine others who cringe at the very idea. When it comes to plumbing the depths of their emotions, most guys aren’t good at it, aren’t interested in it, and aren’t too keen to change. No matter what pop-psych books and well-meaning partners may say, these men prefer to keep their feelings right where they are, thanks, safe from prying eyes.

The current charge against the average guy is “You isolate yourself.” He hears that and has visions of himself all alone in a trapper’s cabin up in Alaska for the winter Ñ which doesn’t sound like such a bad thing; on some days it even seems a little appealing. The accusation says to him, “I’m a lone wolf. I’m a rugged individualist. I’m John Wayne.” But that’s not what the accuser means. Underlying the statement is a criticism: “You’re withdrawn. You’re disconnected from your emotions. You can’t relate. You’re wrecking our relationship.” There are even psychotherapists out there, especially female psychotherapists, who would agree that any man who “emotionally isolates” probably isn’t a good candidate for a relationship of any duration.

In recent years, though, men of all ages have been reevaluating this issue of man-as-island, and as a result many are beginning to ask themselves if maybe John Wayne, the epitome of the self-contained guy, wasn’t right: Not only does male isolation turn out to be normal, but there are some damn good reasons for it.

Every Man Is An Island

If you trace male behavior back 40,000 years to the cave, it’s easier to see why men are the way they are. “Throughout history, it has served an anthropological function for men not to get hung up on feelings,” says Mark Mitchell, a clinical anthropologist and marriage and family counselor in Playa del Rey, California. “It has helped advance civilization because when men go off and remove themselves from the emotional climate of women, they can get more strategic. They can think, plan, take action and discover things.”

Men isolate themselves in big ways (by physically going off and exploring the world) and in small ways (by not talking). “Men need to move around,” says Stephen Johnson, Ph.D., founder and director of the Los Angeles Men’s Center in Woodland Hills, California. “They need to go out, hunt, bring something back and then unwind in peace. What a man doesn’t need is to relate. There are plenty of times he needs to not relate. Women don’t understand this because women think that talking is what siphons off stress. Not so for men. For them, talking after a hard day at the office might even make things worse.”

Johnson goes on: “It’s said that women speak over 100,000 words a day and men only 50,000. When a man gets home, he’s used up his 50,000, but a woman has 50,000 left.”

Basically, men see talking as a tool for problem-solving, not getting close. “For a guy,” says Mitchell, “language is all about hierarchy and order. I won’t say anything unless I’ve already made a decision. Why else would I talk?” Most men are perfectly comfortable letting things ride. They can leave problems at work, come home, putter around the garage, dial-flip the TV and happily isolate for hours.

Feelings Can Be Hazardous

As many a cop, foreman, or emergency room physician will tell you, there are times where emotions are more than just uncomfortable; they’re dangerous. “It’s not always in men’s best interest to be ‘in touch with feelings,'” says Mitchell. “If you’re out building a skyscraper or fighting a war and you’re in touch with your feelings, you’re a dead duck. It’s not a smart thing to do.”

“When a man is in his survival mode, he has to cut off his emotions,” Johnson comments. “He does this so he can focus on the problem, determine what’s wrong, figure out if it’s a threat that has to be dealt with, and then find a way to deal with it. He doesn’t want to be caught with his back to the door. He wants to stay free and have a clear view so he can determine what moves he has to make.”

No matter how disturbed a man gets, he’ll refuse to fall apart in front of anyone else. Ask him how he’s doing; he’ll say, “I’m fine.” “If a man says he’s not fine, I immediately don’t trust him,” says Lance Wolstrup, a computer programmer and former professional soccer player in his late forties. “I don’t want him there feeling feelings. I want to know I can count on him. If he says, ‘I’m fine,’ then I trust him.” Now we can go off and fight wars together because I know he’s not going to sit in a foxhole next to me and crack up.”

Men have good “cave” reasons for keeping the lid on their feelings. It’s face-saving as well as protective of others: most times, there’s no need to get everybody scared. “If I put out that I have fears or problems, it diminishes me in front of my wife and other men, and then none of us can get the job done,” Wolstrup adds. “If I have fears or problems, I’ll deal with them on my own.”

Adds Johnson, “A man will isolate himself rather than show feelings that could shame him and cause him to lose face with others. He’ll go off and lick his wounds, then resurface when he feels presentable.”

Code Of Silence

Johnson reminds us that in the movie The Prince of Tides, the adult son says to his superisolated, alcoholic father, “You know, I love you,” to which his father, without even looking up, replies, “The Padres beat the Dodgers last night. Did you know that?” Women hearing that line say, “He’s unable to communicate with his son.” But men hearing that line see through the disguise. They know the father is really saying, “I love you, too.”

What men know and women are only beginning to appreciate, it seems, is the fact that even when men are talking about sports, or beating each other up on the soccer field or battlefield, they’re also “sharing feelings.” They just do it in code or by taking actions.

Take love, for example. Women want to hear the words, “I love you,” but men show love: A man will die to protect his mother, his wife, his children,” says Wolstrup. “You can’t show any more love than that.”

Men also show warmth, friendship and respect through action. “You have a couple of hockey players out there on the ice beating each other’s brains out to the point where they’re both kicked out of the game,” Wolstrup explains. “Two weeks later they’ll meet in a bar, have a beer and talk about what a great game it was. They have something in common, because they were worthwhile opponents and they respect each other. You always respect the guy who beats the hell out of you because he drew the line. That’s how men relate and share feelings.”

The Man In The Bubble

Most human traits Ñ including emotional isolation Ñ can get us into trouble when they’re practiced in excess. Some guys have an isolating style that, instead of helping them get their “men’s work” done, ends up interfering with it.

“The typical overisolator is the man who goes to work, comes home, spends 10 minutes with his kids, watches TV or goes to his computer, maybe works out, sleeps, gets up, and starts it all over again,” says Johnson. “There’s not much happening there. His wife complains that he ‘works too much.’ Ultimately his marriage, which is probably his second, breaks up.

“What finally gets him into therapy is when his supervisor notices that his work is slipping. As long as a man’s work is okay, the man presses on, but when it begins to affect his job, that’s when it gets his attention.”

Other symptoms an overisolated guy might suffer include the classics, like sleep problems, work problems, erection problems, addiction problems. Or maybe he’s got some other vague mental or emotional symptoms like negativity, teeth gritting, jaw clenching, low energy, irritability, body armor (tight muscles and robot-like movements), inappropriate displays of anger, “boundary” problems, (butting into other people’s business, or letting other people butt into his), suicidal musing or a general lack of passion for the daily business of living.

So what brings a he-man to his knees? In a word, pain. Suffering the consequences of his own behavior is what usually makes a guy see the light.

“A man has to be motivated to change,” Johnson explains. “The best motivator is loss. If a man knows he’s going to lose something or have to give something up, like a job or a marriage, maybe then he’ll take an action. Unfortunately, it takes some men two or three divorces before the message gets through.”

If his job or marriage is on the line and his pain is severe, therapy is the treatment of choice. Sometimes you have to revisit the scene of the crime to unearth and resolve long-buried reasons for maintaining an emotional distance. Johnson, who for years has been a leader in what’s loosely called the men’s movement, believes that in addition to one-on-one counseling, men’s therapy groups are also very effective. Once there, most guys enjoy the camaraderie, and start looking to other men, rather than to women (which is what so many have always done), to define what it means to be a man.

Alone Again, Naturally

But traditional therapy isn’t the only way for the overisolator to go. “Most men aren’t therapy animals,” says Mitchell. “A man isn’t going to sit across the desk from me and start describing is internal experiences, even if he’s dying inside. Maybe he’ll complain about feeling ‘kinda down,’ Maybe he’ll admit he’s ‘a little worried about work.,’ but that’s the extent of it. So I try to do therapy that’s more user-friendly to men, the problem-solving approach that men understand. I ask what actions he’s going to take to solve his problem.”

Mitchell continues, “In fact, I know it’s very controversial to say this, but I’m not sure that being in touch with feelings ever accomplishes much for most men. Maybe the kind of guy who has n problem showing anger also needs to know how to feel grief over his father abandoning him. But your average, educated male doesn’t usually need to get in touch with feelings. He needs to get a life! He needs a clear vision of what and where he wants to go, and a plan of attack about how to get there.”

And then, being a man, he’ll have to go off and carry out the plan.

The Man Who Comes In From The Cold

For good “cave” reasons, men and feelings don’t always mix. Just knowing this can save you a lot of grief. Don’t knock it. Don’t let women “shame” you about it. Appreciate it.

But if you have repetitive problems and worries in your life, maybe you’re overdoing your coolness. Pain is your clue to take action and make changes. Group or individual therapy is one way to go. Here are some other suggestions:

  • If you’re an overisolator, start building up your relationships with your family, neighbors, and coworkers. Begin to develop a network of men around you with whom you can do things: shoot pool, play cards, go to a ball game. Small things like this can help thaw you out.
  • Join clubs, organizations and professional societies to further build up your network of relationships. ¥ Do community service and volunteer work. Join political groups, church groups, charities. Get involved in doing things, working on projects and events with other men.
  • Connect with a mentoring program, such as Big Brothers. According to some sources, half of all boys in the US now grow up without a male role model. You have a lot to offer.
  • Take risks. As therapist Stephen Johnson points out, “The year Babe Ruth hit the greatest number of home runs, he also had the most strikeouts.” You can’t get the rewards without taking the risks.

Sylvia Cary is a psychotherapist and a member of the Men’s Fitness Advisory Board.