by Mary J. Simon, Psy.D. and John Mariner, L.C.S.W.
Josh is a 35-year old alcoholic who came into therapy after is wife, Melanie, took a stand: unless he went into treatment for his addiction and for their relationship difficulties, she would leave the marriage. Faced with disaster, Josh enrolled in an addiction treatment program and began couples counseling with Melanie. In their second couple’s session, Melanie, at the therapist’s suggestion, made the simple connecting move of telling Josh that what he was saying made sense to her.
As he heard this validation, Josh began to tear up. The therapist helped Josh realize that in his family of origin, he had never experienced this kind of connection. In fact, he had experienced little connection at all. Now crying openly, Josh found himself in touch with deep pain and depression that stemmed from his having felt so alone and disconnected form others since early childhood.
He realized that he had begun drinking in his early teens to escape the pain. Yet never in a million years would Josh or anyone around him have recognized that he was depressed. He was successful in his career and outwardly cheerful and sociable. His wife was the only one aware of his alcohol addiction and his lack of relationship with her and the children. Now that he can contact and begin to heal the hidden depression, his chances of recovery from addiction and his chances of building happy, satisfying relationships with his wife and children have skyrocketed.
Josh’s story is one of many examples of what Terrence Real, in his book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, identifies as “covert depression” in men in our culture. Dr. Real postulates that the only reason women are more often seen as depressed than men is that depression looks different in men. Most often women’s overt depression shows up in the more easily recognized symptoms of sadness, lack of energy, difficulty eating or sleeping, weepiness, and depressed mood. However, men’s covert depression shows up as addiction, unreasonable or abusive anger, walled-off emotions and/or being blind to or uncaring about the impact of their behavior on others.
Almost all men in our culture are depressed to some degree, Dr. Real suggests. He believes this is because the culture pressures little boys to give up their connection with mother and become little men. To do so, they must shut down the part of them that yearns to – and knows how to – connect. This happens at such an early age (three to five years), that the boys have no way to understand, let alone put into words, the pain this causes them.
The culture also teaches men not to discuss their pain. “Big boys don’t cry.” Thus, at the same time their male programming causes them pain, it also deprives men of one of the most helpful ways of working through the pain: that is, talking about it.
What seems to happen is that boys and men develop a “false self” that covers this deep depression. Patriarchal societal structures continue to reinforce this rupture and loss of connection. Men are rewarded for being strong and for seeming not to need anyone. The false self looks strong and independent, but it often covers a great deal of pain for men and for those in relationships with them. You might say men become addicted to the patriarchy and women are co-dependent (unconsciously over-connected) with patriarchal men.
Thus another warning sign that a man may be covertly depressed is that the woman he lives with is overtly depressed. The woman’s depression may come from living with and trying to connect with a covertly depressed man. Because addictions, abusive anger, walled-off emotions and insensitivity to one’s impact on others make a person impossible to connect with, the woman experiences unrelenting failure in her efforts. She gradually becomes overtly depressed.
Because the pain of a man’s depression is more likely to be experienced by those around him, the man generally will not get help unless his partner is no longer willing to live with the pain. That was the case in Josh’s marriage. While on the surface it may seem harsh and uncaring, taking a “bottom-line position” as Melanie did, may be the most loving thing a woman can do for the covertly depressed man in her life.