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What My Husband Has Never Seen Me Do

He's held his tongue and accepted it.

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illustration of husband hugging crying wife by allegra lockstadt
Allegra Lockstadt
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A few years ago, my husband, Jack, was working with a woman who cried a lot at work. One day, Jack came home from work, gave me a funny look and said something struck him while talking with this woman. Embarrassed at crying all the time, she asked him if his wife cried a lot. “I stopped and thought for a minute,” Jack said. “And then it hit me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cry.”

At that point we'd been married 20 years. Jack dropped the subject quickly, but I immediately flashed back to a scene from when I was in kindergarten. “That one never cries at all. It's very strange, especially since — well, you know.”

I was at my desk and, as usual, my head was down. I likely seemed engrossed in whatever I was reading but I was very aware of everything around me. It was a habit I had learned as a survival instinct. I overheard my teacher whispering to another woman about me. The other woman nodded. “Yep, we noticed that. When you look at her face it’s like she’s just locked herself up in there.”

This happened right after my father had been arrested (again). It could have been the time he busted my brother’s head open — with a tuna fish can, ironically — for complaining he was hungry. Or one of the many times he beat up my mother. By that point the school staff was aware of my home situation. Or, at least, what they imagined it was like based on the public reports and official records.

At home, I was surrounded by lots of startling emotions and actions that signaled them: my father’s swearing and accompanying violence; my mother’s crying and futile attempts to protect herself from inevitable blows.

Occasionally one of my siblings or I would yell or cry — which was sure only to provoke my father, escalating the yelling and violence. It didn’t take me long to realize I was better off keeping my mouth shut and my feelings to myself. But once you adopt that sort of habit as a means of survival, it tends to become part of your nature. It’s like a faucet you’ve turned off really tight, and years later discover it’s now rusted shut.

A few years ago, one of my sons was getting evaluated for Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. A psychologist noted he had several of the hallmark signs, like a flat expression and the tendency to not show apparent outward emotion. Hey, so do I, it struck me. Or at least that’s what people have told me. Do I have Asperger’s? No. (Well, I don’t think so — I suppose it’s possible, but I suspect one of the many court-ordered doctors and therapists who tried to analyze the inner workings of my brain as a child would have noticed that.)

I think I actually had an environment-induced version. A man-made strain of Asperger’s, you might say. Through some twist of fate, I ended up married to a man whose approach to showing emotions was the complete opposite of mine. Jack wears his heart on his sleeve, and is quick to display tears — and anger, love, impatience and lots of other things all over the emotional spectrum. He has cried over his own failings and mistakes, over loss and frustration and even over joy and happiness.

Through the years, my lack of outward emotion didn’t go unnoticed by him, even before he put it into words after the encounter with his coworker. My mother-in-law once called me “cold,” while others have been more diplomatic and marveled at my ability to stay calm and levelheaded during stressful times.

As for Jack, I’m sure he found it odd, but he held his tongue and accepted it — even if he didn’t totally understand it. At times when I’d analyze our relationship and the dynamic that made it work, I realized we were the total opposite of the stereotypical gender roles: He was the one prone to outward displays of emotion, while I was the stoic, seemingly unemotional one.

That flip-flop of assumed gender traits was something that made us both a bit uncomfortable. Probably he more than I, because as the man he was supposed to be strong and stoic. Whereas, frankly, I didn’t think about it much. It was the way I’d always been, and just seemed normal to me.

A funny thing happened over the past couple of years, though. I can’t say for sure whether it was Jack’s workplace-inspired epiphany, but somehow I realized that it wasn’t normal to lock away my emotions. Not only wasn’t it normal, but — more importantly — it was no longer necessary.

Gone were the days when any sign of tears or even a quivering lip would be met by my father’s inevitable retort: “You want to cry? I’ll give you something to cry about.” Now there was nothing to fear (save for a little discomfort and embarrassment). If my husband felt comfortable enough to cry when it seemed warranted, I knew I could, as well. And so, ever so gradually, I began trying to force down my walls, coaxing my tears to come out of whatever hiding spot they had retreated to all those years ago.

At first, granted, it wasn’t much of a stretch. I cried publicly at a funeral for the teenage son of close family friends — an occasion when even the most macho of attendees let loose with the tears. But, with the precedent set, it ever so slowly led to a few subsequent displays of emotion.

It was still at a point that for most people would be considered infrequent — nowhere near becoming a habit. But it was a start. With patience, love and a good example to follow, my husband had taught me it was OK to cry. It still may not feel totally comfortable, but it is safe.