Feature

Do men deserve the rap that they're emotional blunderbusses who can't communicate to save their lives, especially with female partners?

Yes and no, said speakers at APA's 2001 Annual Convention session, "Are males really emotional mummies? What do the data indicate?"

On one side of the equation, Mark S. Kiselica, PhD, of The College of New Jersey, asserted that men are the unfair targets of a false stereotype. Most men, he contended, are emotionally healthy; the "mummies" are the exceptions.

On the other side, Ronald F. Levant, EdD, of Nova Southeastern University, argued that many guys are in fact emotionally shut off, at least to some degree. He's coined the term "normative male alexithymia" to describe this phenomenon, which unlike true clinical alexithymia, is not drastically pathological. It does, however, affect the quality of men's lives and that of people around them, he believes.

"Do I think it's normative? Yes," said Levant. "Do I think it's normal? No."

The two psychologists framed their points through research findings on attachment and socialization and in light of recent popular publications about the psychology of boys. For example, in his popular writings and conference presentations on male development. Harvard psychologist William S. Pollack, PhD, suggests that most men display what amounts to a full-blown case of alexithymia, the result of a gender-specific rearing and socialization process. According to Kiselica, many psychologists have bought into his view without examining it in the light of actual data.

Pollack makes two claims about boys' emotions that are open to challenge, Kiselica asserted. One is that boys typically undergo a severe developmental trauma in the form of a forced, premature separation from their mothers, which in turn leads to deficits in intimacy, empathy and the ability to commit to a partner. The second is that this trauma is exacerbated by a socialization process that teaches boys to suppress and deny feelings of vulnerability and tenderness.

Contrary to Pollack's argument, the attachment research finds that these experiences are not the norm for males, Kiselica argued. Rather, two-thirds of all infants--male and female alike--demonstrate secure attachment styles, characterized by parents who give their infants a secure and loving base from which to explore the world.

Other research demonstrates no gender differences in secure attachment styles among adults.

"In short," Kiselica said, "the normative, standard, ordinary developmental experience of boys and men is one of security and trust."

However, research suggests that Pollack's view may have merit where insecure attachment styles are concerned, Kiselica continued. Studies show that one type of insecure attachment--the "anxious avoidant" style--is more common in men than women. That style, the result of a rejecting caregiver, can result in adults who deny their attachment to significant others and dismiss their dependency needs--much like Pollack's portrait of men, he said.

The observation is somewhat confounded by the fact that women can be anxious avoiders too, though other research suggests that they may act out differently than men, becoming overly compliant rather than overly aggressive, for example.

Kiselica likewise took aim at Pollack's suggestion that males are more likely to be alexithymic than women. In a survey of research in the area, four studies showed no major gender differences in the rates of clinical alexithymia in the general population, while two found a higher rate in men. These mixed findings make claims on this topic premature and possibly inaccurate, he asserted.

Levant took a more "pro-mummy" stance. While men on average may not be clinically alexithymic, he said, a body of research suggests they do tend toward a subclinical version, that is, normative male alexithymia.

There's a big caveat at this point regarding the presence of such a condition, however, he cautioned: No research has directly tackled it because there's no valid instrument to test it. He and colleague Glenn Good, PhD, of the University of Missouri, are currently developing a scale to close the gap, he noted.

Research does, however, make a good case for the presence of low-level alexithymia in most boys, Levant asserted. For starters, it shows that while boys begin life more emotionally expressive than girls, that tendency wanes as they get older. By age 2, they're less verbally expressive than girls, and by 4, they're less expressive facially.

Research on children from infancy through the school years shows how this can happen, he said. Mothers, for instance, expose baby girls to a wider range of emotions than baby boys, and work harder to control their sons' emotional volatility. Fathers step in to socialize their toddlers along gender lines at around 13 months, verbally rough-housing their sons and talking in more emotional terms with daughters. As kids get older, both parents foster this rift by discouraging sons from expressing vulnerable emotions and encouraging such expression in daughters.

Finally, Levant said, peer-group interactions cement boys' unhealthy emotional development by promoting structured group activities that foster toughness, teamwork, stoicism and competition. And "boy culture is notoriously cruel to boys who violate male norms," he said.

The emergence of the subclinical alexithymia scale--which Levant and Good hope to validate this year--should help clarify some of this murkiness, Kiselica and Levant agreed. It will be particularly interesting to use the scale to test generational differences among men, Kiselica commented. He suspects that younger men brought up with more androgynous gender roles will score lower in normative male alexithymia, while older men raised in more traditional ways will score higher.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.