The Real Purpose of Tears

I often ask people why they hate their tears as much as they do. Sometimes they apologize; at other times they might scrape them viciously from their faces. There are a thousand frustrated reactions.

Culturally, we don’t like to experience any kind of crying. We’re embarrassed, and when asked why, many say that it’s a “sign of weakness.” At the same time, working to stop tears can take a massive amount of energy.

But what are tears for, anyway? My experience suggests that tears tell us when we’ve found where grief and gratitude meet.

I reach this conclusion because of the ways in which tears come to us. Obviously, sadness brings them forward. But so does enormous joy. People cry at weddings, or when they win a significant sporting event, or when they see a family member they haven’t seen in decades. These aren’t sad occasions, but in each one, the joyful event evokes strong emotions.

Imagine an 80-year-old man who attends his grandson’s wedding. He watches the ceremony with interest, amazed at how such a young man could be entering into a marriage. Did I look that young? He sees the couple’s nervous anticipation, hears their laughter. And as they recite their vows and near the point at which they will be linked, the older man notes a tear tracking down his face.

Maybe he sees this ceremony through the lens of a 50-year marriage of his own. In that case, he would know the enormous highs and lows of the experience – the effort it has taken to traverse 50 years and somehow grow closer to the woman who stands next to him. He sees a brand-new couple and knows the challenges they’ll face, though he can’t possibly communicate those obstacles before the couple experience them for themselves.

Maybe he sees the ceremony through the lens of a life in which he had never married. In that moment, he may compare his own experience to the one the couple will now have – one that is less lonely than the one he’s lived.

Or perhaps his own wife has died, leaving him inevitably to remember her death even as the ceremony before him is in itself a birth.

In all of these cases, there is a powerful contrast between the positive event that’s occurring and some kind of struggle that the man knows specifically from his own life. I believe that it’s this contrast that creates tears – gratitude at the scene before him and grief in response to his history.

Tears are what’s squeezed out of us when these two powerful emotions meet. And when we don’t allow the tears, we’re trying to deny the presence of one or the other.

The reverse happens when we experience a tragedy. I’ll explain more in a later post.


Married? Or “Not Really”?

Several weeks ago, comedienne Janeane Garofalo acknowledged that she had been married for 20 years and never knew it. Apparently, even the knowledge that you’re married, when it happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

While Ms. Garofalo was undoubtedly not constrained by a marriage she never knew she had, individuals and couples who bring their marriage concerns to us are in a very different situation: They consider themselves married, when in fact their marriages “stopped” some time ago. Partners grow into a state of chilly, occasional conversation punctuated by major arguments. This arrangement is highly constraining, as partners feel trapped in patterns of relating that seem impossible to change.

As therapists, our task is to understand how couples create these patterns. This goes beyond the usual “help with communication” that many cite as their primary need. It’s convenient to identify communication issues as the core problems in a couple’s relationship. But it rarely tells the entire story, because communication often isn’t the biggest issue. Spouses tend to benefit from their patterns, often without realizing it.

Maybe the emotional distance between spouses keeps them from facing deeper issues. Maybe the husband believes that if he cares for his wife differently, she will want more of his time, and he doesn’t want to give that up. Or perhaps the wife is more comfortable talking about how her husband doesn’t relate well with her than actually doing the relating.

Each couple has unique ways of developing their relationship, and it may require unique, and at times, surprising changes to move forward into something more fulfilling. The focus for each partner is on changing what he/she can change rather than on what the other can change. I’ve not interacted with a couple in which both partners didn’t have significant opportunities to create changes, as long as there is courage to do so.


Becoming a Man

It’s startling to watch as an increasing percentage of men attempt to engage life without a sense of what it means to be men.

In many cultures, boys participate in highly intentional ceremonies that mark their transition into adulthood. But for most males in the U.S., it isn’t clear when they’re assumed to have become men. Is it when they’ve left high school? Reached drinking age? Earned a college degree? Become married? It must not be, because many men still don’t feel like men even after reaching these kinds of landmarks. In fact, even when they have kids of their own, men wonder how they got there and how to get on with life as fathers when they aren’t sure they’re fully grown up themselves.

Part of the dilemma is a lack of awareness of what it feels like to be a man. Nowhere have they been taught that there’s more to it than casual stereotypes. Men who rest on their physical prowess or their ability to initiate and take risks have difficulty translating their boldness to human relationships, and thus find themselves oddly lonely. Men who gravitate toward others and excel in relationship often shun their own physicality and find themselves deferring to others constantly–in an effort to be “nice.”

I don’t think that masculinity involves a choice between these two extremes. They both can exist in a single person, and each gives the other meaning. But embracing both usually means giving something up that seems very valuable. I’ll flesh this out more in a later post.


The Awkwardness of Entering Counseling

“I’m not sure how this works; I’ve never been to counseling before.”

My clients have lots of ways of letting me know that they’re uncomfortable entering the counseling process, but many tell me on the phone before their first appointment or within moments of sitting down in my office.

I have admiration for anyone willing to say that therapy seems intimidating. Why wouldn’t it be? You’re entering a situation with a person you don’t know at all, trying to decide whether it’s going to be okay to talk about what’s really important to you. For many, having a close friend with whom they share significant details of their lives seems like a fairy tale. Doing it with a state-licensed stranger can seem even more bizarre.

But when a person begins to acknowledge that it feels a bit out of control to enter counseling, I know that there’s hope for a good therapeutic relationship. The person has already stepped into a position of vulnerability by saying that it isn’t comfortable.

It can seem odd, but vulnerability – choosing to reveal what’s going on internally even when there’s a chance the other won’t respond in a helpful way – ultimately offers rest for a client. By letting the therapist in on what’s happening, the person now isn’t carrying that particular emotional burden alone. So there’s relief simply in saying where there’s discomfort. Most importantly, there’s much more relief when the therapist responds with understanding that’s respectful, not patronizing.

– Matt


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