October 13, 2005
Sense and Sensitivity
If you spend much time looking at online dating profiles -- and admit it, you do -- you'll notice that the No. 1 characteristic men seem to be seeking in a potential match is "attractive." We women (attractive or not) are overwhelmingly in search of "sensitive." For us, Mr. Right is Mr. Sensitive.
And we mean it.
Self-described sensitive men, though, will tell you that we're full of it. My guy friends come armed with dating war stories about being dumped after crying too many times in front of their girlfriends -- although the girlfriends invariably say it's not because of the crying, it's just that "something's missing."
Usually my guy friend starts tearing up when he gets to this part of the story.
"I just don't understand what's missing," he'll say, his voice cracking, his face reddening, his nose beginning to run into that little crevice above his lip.
Hello? What's missing is your masculinity!
You see, the problem lies not in women misrepresenting what they want, but in the gender-specific definition of the word "sensitive." Sensitive women cry. Sensitive women are emotional. Sensitive women have lots and lots (and lots) of feelings.
A sensitive man, on the other hand? He doesn't have feelings ... he understands our feelings. He doesn't act emotional. He empathizes with our emotions. He doesn't crank up Sarah McLachlan and spill tears onto his journal. He sucks it up and goes out to shoot hoops with the guys. He's stoic in the face of our meltdowns. He listens, he soothes, he assures us everything will be OK. Heck, he'll even give us an extra-long backrub.
Women don't want to play this role for men very often. Seeing our boyfriend cry is creepy. It's like walking in on your parents during sex: We're aware they do these things, but please do them when we're at sleep-away camp.
Granted, we'll watch our man cry. We won't sprint out of the room. We may even feel flattered that, if push comes to shove, he feels close enough to be vulnerable with us. But we'll only do it once a year or so. Like a birthday. (Only our birthday wish is, "Please God, not for another 364 days.") Because vulnerable can turn into pathetic if he becomes a blubbering mass of tears as often as we do.
It's OK for me to cry if my boss yells at me. But it's just ... icky ... for him to cry if he gets fired. He can yell, he can scream, he can curse the heavens, he can blow things up in his video games, he can pop an extra Prozac. But he shouldn't break down and cry. Double standard? You betcha. Men don't want dumpy women and women don't want wimpy men.
Take Carrie Bradshaw's boyfriend Aidan on "Sex and the City." Mr. Sensitive, right? Lasted a season and a half. But the stoic Mr. Big -- who caused Carrie to cry instead -- made cameos from the beginning to the very end.
Women, on the other hand, usually get the guy because they're crying. In "When Harry Met Sally," Meg Ryan's a balling mess -- snot pouring out of her nose, mascara trickling down her face -- when she calls Billy Crystal to come over to comfort her.
"It's not that Joe didn't want to get married," she whimpers through hiccups about her ex. "It's that he didn't want to marry me!"
They kiss, they make love, they (eventually) live happily ever after. Had Billy Crystal's character been the gushing faucet, would Meg Ryan have slept with him that night? Not a chance.
There's only one time when a woman likes -- in fact, desperately wants -- to see a man cry: after they break up. She wants to know that he cares, that he misses her, that he has feelings for her. She wants to know that he hurts as much as she does.
She'll call him late at night (sobbing, of course), and when he betrays no emotion about the breakup, she'll ask indignantly, "How come you're not crying? Didn't I mean anything to you?"
"Um, I gotta go," he'll say in a neutral tone, which only makes her cry harder. Then she'll tell her friends what a heartless jerk he is. And when she finally comes up for air, she'll emphatically declare that next time, dammit, she's going to make sure she finds a sensitive guy.
Lori Gottlieb is author of the memoir, "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self" (Simon and Schuster, 2000), and has an essay in "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt" (Dutton, 2005). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.