Gender role socialization is such that men have traditionally been raised to consider themselves self-reliant. Those who’ve married women often expect that their wives would be their confidants if and when they choose to share vulnerable parts of themselves; and this pattern holds true for gay men, as well. So what happens then for the man who finds himself grieving the loss of perhaps the only relationship in which he got to be vulnerable? This week, I’ll share healing strategies for single men who’ve experienced relationship betrayal, as well as provide some practical ways that friends can help.
The issue of single men and betrayal grief was brought home to me last month when I attended a university presentation about the unburdening that comes with sharing one’s secrets. Toward the end of the presentation, audience members were invited to share one secret on an open mic. A 20ish year-old male presented his story, which went something like, “My secret is that I haven’t been able to trust anyone ever since she left me and broke my heart.”
After speaking, he paced about slightly, strode back to his seat, grabbed his things, and moved to the back of the room. I could sense the desperation of feeling raw and exposed and not knowing what to do with the overwhelming feelings of vulnerability.
I looked for him after the event, but it was a large and crowded room. The young women who had shared were congregating, hugging each other and giving words of encouragement that were no doubt only the beginning of long, affirming discussions that would continue into the night.
What happened to our young single man, though?
As a counselor who’s worked with grief and loss, I can certainly testify to the intensity of male grief that centers around betrayal stories. When a man chooses a partner and moves deep into the relationship, he brings in his vulnerability (as we all do). The problem is that partner bonds are often the only place where men are vulnerable. When the person he trusts most and with whom he’s intensely shared himself elects to leave him, a man often mistakes the sense of betrayal as revealing that he’s unworthy of love or that he gave up too much of himself. As he sees it, someone’s seen him in his most naked truth and rejected him.
The challenge here is that grief over a relationship loss feels extremely vulnerable, and yet the one person who may have been there to hold his vulnerability with him is at the center of what he’s grieving.
So what can a) single men do when they’re hurting the most? b) the rest of us do when we have a friend in this situation?
I’ll actually start with letter b, because that’s how I like to roll sometimes. If you sense that a friend is hurting, the best thing to do is simply be accessible. You don’t have to name the breakup or anything about it. It’s great to just offer up friendship, “Hey, if you’d like some company this weekend, we’d love to have you….” If he says no, leave the door open with something like, “If you change your mind last minute, give me a buzz. Or just call whenever. I’ll be around.” He may or may not take you up, but you’ve offered friendship in the most accessible way you could.
In these instances, it’s generally best to avoid the platitudes: “There are plenty of other girls/guys,” “It’ll get easier,” that sort of thing.
Remember that many men can get overwhelmed if their feelings are given a lot of attention, so it’s best to be open and patient, allowing the grieving male to select how and what he wants to bring to the table. He may just need a fun evening to distract him from his grief; and this can provide an impetus for him getting back into his social life if he’s been particularly isolated. Maybe he’ll decide to talk about what’s going on, in which case, it’s your responsibility as his friend to listen (because this is why you invited him over in the first place, right?)
Okay, now to the question of what men can do who are grieving a breakup:
Know that your friends and family care about what’s happened and may not know how to approach you. If they proffer an invitation, accept it. Really, even if you have to force yourself out of the house, it’s doing you a favor. Don’t be angry if they seem awkward or ask personal questions. They’re trying to help and may not know what to say. If someone asks you something you’re not ready to discuss, you can just say that. This may be someone you decide you’d like to speak to later.
Avoid the tendency to withdraw. This kind of atrophy can lead to depression, and it will suck the life out of you. Sure, quiet time with games or movies works for a weekend, but beyond that, you need to get out of the house.
Know that sex and dating may seem like a great way to distract you. Anyone who tells you, “The best way to get over someone is to get under someone,” is dead wrong. It complicates your own emotions and may be unfair to the other person if they’re looking for more from you. You’re not going to feel great afterward, I promise.
The most important thing to know is that your grief is legitimate, and it’s easy to understand how and why you’re struggling with trust. Relationship betrayals are extraordinarily painful because they confuse all of the messages we have about ourselves. You’re not unlovable though simply because someone made a different choice for their own life. The likelihood is that, unless your ex is truly an uncaring or mentally unwell person, the vulnerable parts about you were probably the hardest parts to betray because these tend to be things that each of us loves the most about another human being. Vulnerability is, after all, at the heart of true intimacy.
This means that your potential to love and be loves is quite alive so long as you give yourself time to heal from this breakup, learn whatever lessons it taught you, and trust in your power to give yourself in vulnerability to someone who is ready to respond to it. Opening yourself to your friends and the people who care about you already is the first step in healing from betrayal.