Let’s Hear it for the Boys: Helping Single Men Heal After Betrayal

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When the person he trusts most and with whom he’s shared himself intensely 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.

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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.

 

 

Getting Over Fear of the Dentist

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Don’t read too much into your fear. Some procedures are painful, but not as painful as chronic tooth problems that go untreated. Also, even pain that’s associated with extensive surgeries has a beginning, a middle, and an end; like a book or movie. Any pain is temporary.

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Dental visits strike extraordinary fear into the lives of rational and clear-thinking people, leading many of us to avoid the dentist for years or even decades. While a common occurrence, many of us have difficulty pinpointing how and when we came to experience this fear. Mouth trauma, or even simply a lot of nervous emotions it, causes people to avoid dentists even when they are having pain from major tooth problems. Here’s an explanation of why you may fear the dentist and some strategies to help you address this.

To start, we’ll break the dentist avoiders into two groups: those who have had mouth trauma and those who have not.

The mouth trauma group may be broken into two subgroups:

Those who have undergone painful procedures at the dentist office: Probably only a handful of people who avoid the dentist do so because of bad experiences in prior visits. Sure, the scraping of plaque off the teeth, having cavities filled, and any type of mouth surgery and orthodontia are unpleasant, even painful experiences that are no doubt making many of you wince in just reading these words. Avoiding the dentist keeps us at a distance from these types of procedures, if temporarily. If you truly had a bad dentist, you should know that the vast majority are quite good and many are great. Yelp is a useful resource for finding a gentle dentist near you because the reviews were probably written by people who had fears similar to yours.

Those who have had oral sexual trauma: A large number of people whose truths are told not nearly enough are survivors of oral sexual trauma. Child and adult survivors of sexual abuse maintain physical memories which can last a lifetime and that can be instantly triggered decades after an event. I probably don’t need to take us further down this road to clarify how and why a dental visit could be re-traumatizing to a survivor. If this is your story, know that a therapist who is trained in sexual abuse trauma can help. If you contact me through my website or media, I’ll assist you in locating the resources you need.

 

Our second group are those who have had no physical trauma.

Those who were scared by proxy:  Perhaps the largest group are those whose fear of the dentist was delivered via older siblings, kids at school, and people surrounding a young child or adolescent ahead of a first dentist visit. Children often frighten each other by telling exaggerated or completely fictitious horror stories. Good-natured ribbing (if ribbing is ever really good-natured) may have become part of your expectation so that you arrived at the dentist’s office with an exaggerated fear. If the visit involved painful procedures, this in some ways delivered on your expectation and remained big and scary in your memory as childhood fears are wont to do. As such, the dentist became associated with bad experiences and anxiety about future visits; thus cementing a lifetime of worry that far surpasses the relative ease of more routine visits.

Those who were scared by dentists in movies: A fourth group, one my hygienist told me about during my last visit, saw movies like “Little Shop of Horrors,” maybe had nightmares about them, and over time developed a progressive state of dental fear through the mechanisms of their own imaginations. (it’s not entirely hard for me to imagine this, recalling as I do how seeing “Jaws” the summer after I was in Kindergarten led to a freak-out in a saltwater pool nearly 10 years later.)

Even people who have had no real oral trauma can still have a memory network that’s triggered as if the fear was based on real-life events, creating very real anxiety that can be crippling at times. If this is the case for you, consider the following strategies to help you get back in the dentist chair and get your teeth cared for:

  • Separate fact from fiction: Read the reviews and see what people are saying. These are real accounts. The childhood stories and silly movies are not.
  • Talk to the staff about your fears ahead of your first visit. They deal with dentist anxiety all the time. They can tell you a lot about what to expect from your visit and reassure you that you’re making the right decision in choosing that particular dentist.
  • Don’t read too much into your fear. Some procedures are painful, but not as painful as chronic tooth problems that go untreated. Also, even pain that’s associated with extensive surgeries has a beginning, a middle, and an end; like a book or movie. Any pain is temporary.
  • On the day of the visit and even before, don’t let your blood pressure skyrocket. Whenever you start noticing intrusive thoughts or elevated fear, take three deep breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth) to clear your head. Use the three deep breaths method to punctuate your actions throughout the day: as you open your closet to get clothes to wear, as you grasp the doorknob to leave for the day, as you turn on your laptop . This intentional effort will slow you down and allow you to be mindful and present.
  • Have a trusted friend drive or accompany you to the dentist.

Dental hygiene isn’t something that most of us look forward to (although I happen to have liked my dentists over the years and enjoy visiting with the staff people every few months). Nonetheless, it’s essential to maintaining good health for our mouths, as well as for general digestion and other related physical needs. Once you’re on a routine maintenance schedule, the fear will be much less severe as the bad associations are replaced with positive experiences of interactions with friendly people who are devoted to your dental health.