A Broad View: The men who suck the oxygen from the room and the women who love them

Posted inCreative Voices

“Maybe I just wanted to read meaning into his inability to show up and be a good man. And isn’t that just an extension of women’s work too? The excavation and analysis of men’s trauma, unpaid work they won’t do themselves. The ascription to them of some deeper reasoning so that we may explain away the ways they mistreat us. How generous we are with context.”
Nina Renata Aron, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls

The other team’s Little League coach screamed into the boy’s face after he fielded the grounder and threw it unsuccessfully to first base instead of second, which would’ve been the easy out.

From my view, standing next to the chain-link fence along the third baseline, I could see the boy wince and push his chin toward his chest as the large man yelled, inches from his face. The chatter of parents in the stands and players in both dugouts stopped. The normally busy baseball field was as silent as time. The coach, oblivious to the scene he was making, continued to shout at the boy who instinctively put his hands up near his face, palms out, either to shield himself from the verbal assault or in actual fear of physical repercussion.

Still, other than the coach’s angry shouts, the baseball field that blustery Monday as the sun eased itself down behind the trees remained quiet. Nobody said anything.

My adrenaline was jacked, my heart pounding, blood pumping. My hands began to shake.

This is my trauma. Male anger. There is a dark violence that floods men’s voices when they’re raised in anger that immediately triggers me. My amygdala flashes red and flips all my limbic system switches without me intellectually understanding what is taking place.

ITEM: The amygdala is a part of the brain that constantly scans our environment assessing whether we are safe against memories of what we have experienced before. If it senses we may not be safe it activates. It is important to think of this reaction as part of the limbic system as the limbic system on its own does not have cognitive or logical thought attached to it. When we feel threatened, the link breaks between the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex (the rational, decision-making part of the brain). The brain’s aim is to keep us alive so when the amygdala fires up, it stops all activity that is not necessary, including the thought process. We lose the ability to assess the situation and make rational decisions. There is a cascade system that our brains use to decide what is the best way to survive something threatening. It is primitive and is the same system in all mammals. This is where the 5 different trauma responses come in.

FIGHT: I am bigger, stronger and can win against the person. I will stand my ground and win.

FLIGHT: I am smaller and will not win, I can get away though so I’m going to run.

FREEZE: I can’t get away and I can’t win, I’ll freeze because if I don’t respond they may lose interest and go away.

FLOP: They aren’t going away, if I stay frozen it’s going to hurt more so I’ll flop and play dead, then it will be over and they’ll go away.

FRIEND: I can’t stop it, maybe if I keep them on my side and keep them happy they won’t hurt me as much.

Unfortunately, I often stall out at the fight stage. Because I am so tired of navigating the emotional landmines buried within the mercurial moods of anger-prone men, I lash out. Something along the lines of “I’ll see your anger, motherfucker, and raise you my wrath.”

“HE’S ONLY EIGHT, COACH!” I shouted and fiercely gripped the corrugated yellow pipe that covers the top of the chain-link fence surrounding the baseball field. I felt ready to vault the fucker and storm the field and would’ve if he screamed at my son like that.

The moment ended as the teams traded places and the ball field chatter picked back up as if nothing had happened. But, the evening was ruined for me. My body remained on high alert and my mind whirled with outrage for what this man inflicted on not just the little boy, but the entire field. He had taken us all hostage with his anger.

It’s that kind of angry shouting – infused with a macho menace – that triggers fight, flight, or freeze responses in women who have been conditioned to constantly monitor the emotional temperatures of men to mitigate the likelihood of violence.

You can watch it play out perfectly as Will Smith yelled, “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth” at the Academy Awards in the way Lupita Nyong’o froze. Seated just behind him, forever captured in the atrocious moment, her eyes widened as she metabolized the unchecked rage that nearly shreds the final two words in the sentence.

I’m not interested in whether you think Will Smith’s angry outburst was justified or in glorifying a broken version of masculinity that advertises “defending your woman.” I only use the example because the tone in his voice illustrates the vocal violence I’m talking about (particularly the second time he shouts the sentence) and what it does to the women in the room, though it is worth contemplating how a man can feel so entitled that he unleashes violent rage in front of the world on a live, global television broadcast. I guess the award he won and the standing ovation he received a few moments later answers that question. (The video of director David O’ Russell losing his shit on Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees is another good example of male violence and the women who are forced to absorb it.)

I sickly watched the video from the Academy Awards several times, not for the moment everyone was talking about, but to see Lupita’s reaction. The moment (:59 seconds) she tiredly realizes, “Oh, this shit.” Then she experiences the fear. She appears almost nauseous for a split second, blinks then freezes and stares straight ahead in a way that makes me want to cry. To hug her. To throw a chair through the fucking window for all the women who have been made to feel that way and forced to accommodate.

The man is mad, everyone!

(Wo)man your battle stations!

The battle stations include some of the five trauma responses mentioned above. Fighting back: Not advisable. You can leave. You can freeze and make yourself as small and unoffending as possible as his tantrum plays out. Or you can become his emotional thermostat, de-escalating his anger with fearful yet stoic calm. That was always my typical response. My personality contracts, and withdraws into a deadly calm to counterbalance the bubbling anger; like putting ice on a stovetop burn. Numbness. TV static. Absorb his pain, to prevent further violence of the vocal or physical kind, especially if children are around.

That was my response last month when I was visiting my brother’s house in Utah for an evening with family that I went into with great trepidation warranted by decades of history. It is rare to escape a gathering of my family unscathed. Yet it was an uncharacteristically pleasant night, likely due to the presence of my children who were meeting some of their cross-country cousins for the first time.

I was proud of us. At one point I looked around the room at my brothers telling stories of their wild childhoods that lasted well into adulthood in their trademark one-upmanship style; the cousins playing video games or imitating TikTok dances as they crowded around someone’s cell phone and I felt good. I should’ve called it an evening then. Leave on a high note we could all remember for years to come.

Alas, as the night progressed one brother, fueled by vodka, began revving like an old hot rod. His rage sputtered to life and he put pedal to metal. Even though he had sent me numerous offensive texts when I legally changed my last name to my middle name after my divorce instead of returning to my birth surname, he felt the need to angrily reiterate his disapproval, which naturally flowed into an unflattering audit of my entire personality and position in the family. No questions about why I don’t want to use my birth last name or how I feel, just shouting his feelings regarding my life decisions.

I could feel his rage building in that old familiar way as he paced around the room, slamming things and shouting in an increasingly loud tone with my children in the same house. This was my childhood. He would enter a room and I would immediately leave to pre-empt his almost certain anger or violence.

My adrenaline spiked, my hands shook and TV static filled my head.

He ignored my attempts to calm him down and screamed that I was a “pussy” and a “fucking bitch” when I got up to remove my children from the home before they got a taste of my childhood, reincarnated in my brother’s kitchen.

A contagion that passes from man to man, it insinuates itself in the host body, lying dormant until triggered by fear, alcohol or some territorial instinct. It flares up in school playgrounds, outside nightclubs and on raucous holidays to Crete. Sometimes it’s about status, sometimes plain rage. Motivated by some deeply buried injustice, it compels him to lash out, blind to the consequences not only to his victims but also to himself. He is smart enough to see it ripping his friends apart, whether transferred to new schools as children or keeping their distance as adults, but he is too lacking in awareness to do anything about it. His play is less atonement than journey of self-discovery.

Mark Fisher, The Guardian

That unashamed anger. The need to inflict it on everyone in the vicinity; you can hear it in Will Smith’s voice; in my brother’s voice; in the baseball coach’s voice.

I’m fucking sick of it.

Sick. Of. It and the men who brandish mood swings like nunchucks, sending the nervous systems of everyone around them into a panicked, army crawl around them as they navigate the landmines of their moods.

Their routine is always the same.

The stressful build-up. Their engines revving in warning: Something banged down on a counter. An angry sentence strategially tossed into the air like a grenade. They need you to know they are angry. A door slammed. You know it’s coming. You try to diffuse. But they seem to enjoy inflicting their dark moods and anger on innocent bystanders. They seem to get off on sucking the oxygen from the room. Your attempts at mitigation often fuel the fire. “Oh, look at you,” they mock. “You think you’re so calm. You think you’re better than me?” There will be much more in the way of them clarifying all the ways you are most definitely not better than them.

Your fear of their anger makes them feel powerful even though it’s not something they could ever articulate to you. Entitled anger. Dare I say, romanticized anger. Aggression is manly, they must secretly think. Controlling a room makes them feel powerful even as they may experience shame.

Have you ever been to the emergency room and the doctor asks you your pain level on a scale of one to ten? That’s what you unconsciously do every time you’re in the vicinity of the man who likes sucking the oxygen from rooms with his moods, especially if you grew up with a parent or immediate family member with a hair-trigger temper. You constantly assess their mood like a poker player trying to ascertain a bluff so you know what hand to play. You’re good at it and you don’t even know you do it. Your body knows, though.

They’re in bed reading a book so your system relaxes a little because that’s a three. They slam the door behind them when they walk in from work; a seven that’s probably going to be a nine if you don’t passively work to diffuse the situation. They’re road raging so you must sit quietly as they scream if you want to continue going where you’re going. If you tell them to calm down, you’re asking for trouble that will likely lead to a ten when they hiss “Fuck this, we’re going home.”

Your personality slowly disappears until your entire system is mostly about responding to their moods. You constantly evaluate their mood with Terminator vision to know how you feel. Because their mood usually becomes your problem.

My partner, Cory, is the kindest, gentlest man I’ve ever known and I think it is this quality, above all others, that I find most attractive about him. I didn’t realize the full extent of the trauma I carry in response to male anger until I started clocking the way my body responds when Cory, who never yells in anger, does this thing where he shouts “COME ON” to himself if something isn’t going his way. It’s his way of venting if he’s, say, changing a tire and the lug nut won’t budge or the toilet clogs and he’s plungering madly in a desperate race against rising water. “Come ON,” he might yell in frustration.

When I hear him yell like that, even though I intellectually know it’s completely harmless, my entire nervous system freezes and stress hormones flood my body. At first, it wasn’t a thing I consciously acknowledged. I’d be cooking dinner and hear “Come on!” as he worked on the leaky shower faucet and I’d continue doing my thing without realizing that my mood had instantly changed from contentment to feeling anxious and unsafe. My amygdala processes that sound and scans it against memories of what I’ve experienced before. Assessing I am unsafe, it activates. Psychologist John Gottman called this automatic physical and mental response to an unexpected negative reaction by another person we perceive as a threat “emotional flooding.”

Arther C. Brooks wrote about it for The Atlantic in an article called “How To Stop Freaking Out.” “When strongly stimulated, the amygdala takes control of your mental processes, for good (you outrun a tiger) or ill (you get yourself arrested on an airplane). That can lead you to do and say things that surprise you, which the author Daniel Goleman calls “amygdala hijack” in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence. The phenomenon is observable in fMRI scans; when someone is exposed to stressful stimuli, their amygdala “lights up like a Christmas tree.”

Emotional flooding impairs rational thinking. It takes a powerful awareness to activate your prefrontal cortex during an amygdala hijack which can make it nearly impossible to engage in any rational communication with the person who triggered you because their amygdala is also firing on all cylinders.

After months of therapy with a psychologist who urges me to pay attention to the way my body responds to various scenarios – your brain can lead you astray but your body never lies – I realized that after a lifetime of dealing with and trying to mitigate the anger of men my entire system floods with adrenaline and I feel sick and afraid when I hear men vocalize anger with that specific threat of violence.

Is their anger a choice? A weapon wielded to intimidate? Or a sickness? A virus picked up during childhood that continues to ravage their minds and bodies? Lives ruled and ruined by unstoppable aggression. No ability to regulate and they don’t even want to regulate. They want us to know they’re mad. They need us to know they’re mad. It’s almost soothing, our meekness and fear is Calamine on the poison ivy of their rage.

Truth is, I’m not looking for answers anymore. I’m tired of exhuming a man’s childhood or adolescence to explain and condone his bad behavior. We all have our shit, yet women are constantly doing the emotional work for men. Every single woman in my life – from the mothers and mothers-in-law to the girlfriends and daughters – has shared with me the stories of the work they do to not just mitigate moods and placate tantrums but the endless analysis of the possible reasons behind why the men in their lives behave badly. The archaeological dig through his past to excuse his present. Mothers afraid of sons, wives afraid of husbands and ex-husbands, daughters scared of dads, brothers and even the goddamn Little League coach. “He had a rough childhood,” or “He’s been depressed ever since blah blah blah.” As Nina Renata Aron says in her book which I quoted up top, “The excavation and analysis of men’s trauma, unpaid work they won’t do themselves. The ascription to them of some deeper reasoning so that we may explain away the ways they mistreat us. How generous we are with context.”

I have spent a lifetime slogging in those trenches and I will not invest another second tolerating or excusing an angry man’s bullshit. All you can do is shut it down by walking away. Deny them the audience. Because even though their entitled anger may inspire your own rage at their emotional hijacking of so many situations, an angry response gives them even further license to lose their minds, gaslight you later about why they’re mad and then abdicate all responsibility by blaming you.

Heather Platt astutely noted in an article on her experiences with angry men that “Women have learned to be the shock absorbers for men’s pain. We are masterful at absorbing the intensity of it and diffusing it so that it won’t cause further damage. This is a story of a whole lifetime and a thousand lifetimes before mine. It’s a story of generation after generation – a story we carry in our DNA. It’s a story of a whole lineage of shock absorbers showing up in my instinctual need and ability to keep that man from exploding.”

This isn’t about hating men. I love men, my god, do I love them. The bad behavior of angry men highlights the incredible beauty of the many gentlemen I am lucky to know who don’t hold people hostage with unchecked emotions. Men who are calm and kind and actively work to create safe spaces for those around them. This is about a specific kind of man I’m tired of experiencing against my will. As Platt notes, “We simply want to stop being shock absorbers. We want men to learn how to diffuse their own pain without throwing it, like hand grenades, into someone else’s yard.”

Sing it, sister.

Not to mention the fact that all the angry men I have known and loved do not seem happy. They appear to live at a tortured baseline they often romanticize while regularly exploding into a performative firework of rage around those they profess to love most (Hi, Johnny Depp!) in an overreaction to the regular happenings within a life. Their anger is a pilot light, constantly charring their guts and flaming out of control at the least provocation.

I fervently long for a new model of manhood I like to believe I see slowly blooming in a society where the gender line is more blessedly blurred than ever. Where we stop enabling and celebrating an outdated masculinity in favor of a new model of manhood where kindness, gentleness and the ability to be vulnerable are considered manly.

Famous ancient Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, who was emperor of Rome during the height of its power, tackled anger and masculinity with thoughts far ahead of his time.The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength,” he recorded in his personal notes known today as Meditations. “And when you do become angry, be ready to apply this thought, that to fly into a passion is not a sign of manliness, but rather, to be kind and gentle. For insofar as these qualities are more human, they are also more manly. It is the man who possesses such virtues who has strength, nerve, and fortitude, and not one who is ill-humored and discontented.”

Now Reading/Watching/Listening:

Matrix by Lauren Groff.

“How To Stop Freaking Out” by Arthur C. Brooks for The Atlantic.

Better Things series finale on Hulu written and directed by the inimitable Pamela Adlon. For me, this show is the best depiction of motherhood and womanhood I’ve ever seen on a TV show.

Corpses off the Shape of Silence album by Saint Sister.

This essay was originally published on Monica Danielle’s blog, A Broad View, a real-time memoir about starting over in mid-life. You can keep up with her work here, or join her community at Substack.

Header photo by Belladonna Wild.