When patients come into the therapist Lori Gottlieb’s office and start off a session by saying “I’ve never told anyone else this before,” male and female patients, Gottlieb has found, often mean very different things. When her female patients say it, they usually mean they’ve never told anyone but their “mother, sister, and best friend”—in other words, “they’ve already told between one and three people, but to them that feels like nobody knows.” Her male patients, meanwhile, often mean they’ve quite literally never told anyone. (And, for men, the thing that inevitably comes next, she added, is always “so mild. To me it feels like, That was your big secret?”)
Speaking on Wednesday at the Atlantic Festival in Washington, D.C., Gottlieb observed that despite this difference in communication, men and women tend to struggle with the same things: parenthood, their relationships with their own parents, success, self-esteem, “what it means to be loved.” But she views the divergent meanings of “I’ve never told anyone this before” as a reflection of how few people men feel they can talk to about their personal lives. “I think that speaks volumes about how isolated men can be, how isolated in their struggles,” said Gottlieb, the author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone and The Atlantic’s Dear Therapist advice column.
Gottlieb’s personal observations align with what research has found over the past few decades about gender and what psychologists like to call “self-disclosure,” or the act of revealing new personal information to someone else. In 1992, a Psychological Bulletin review of 205 studies that took note of gender differences in self-disclosure found that overall, women opened up to other people slightly more than men. And a smaller 1980 study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that men were more likely to reveal things about themselves to strangers and acquaintances, while women were more likely to reveal things about themselves to intimate friends. “The results suggest a tendency for men to avoid emotional intimacy with one another,” the authors of the study wrote.
Gottlieb attributes men’s hesitance to open up to the fear that doing so can make someone look weak. “It just shows how much shame there is for men around talking about anything that feels vulnerable to them,” she said.
Michael Slepian, a professor at Columbia University’s business school who has researched secrets and secrecy, thinks that many men are reluctant to open up because doing so goes against stereotypically masculine values. “One of the main reasons people confide a secret is to get help,” Slepian told me. “And confiding a secret in another person, it’s also an act of intimacy … That kind of warmth and sociality and intimacy is also stereotypically more feminine.” Stereotypes about men, meanwhile, emphasize “agency, independence, autonomy,” Slepian said—essentially, the absence of a need for help.
But regardless of what stereotypes dictate, Slepian emphasized that, as his research has found, being able to confide secrets in someone is just as important for men’s psychological health as it is for women’s. Sharing a secret with anyone, Slepian told me—even if it’s not the main person the secret would be relevant to—“reduces how much you ruminate on the secret. It reduces how much you repetitively return to thoughts of the secret, and that’s related to improvements in well-being.”
At the end of Gottlieb’s Atlantic Festival session, one audience member asked how therapists can go about reducing the stigma around men going to therapy, especially within minority communities with more rigid stereotypes about masculinity. Gottlieb responded that the benefits of therapy have to often be seen, in others or in oneself, to be believed—and that it’s at least partly on service providers to ensure that people see those results. “I think part of it is access,” she said, “and part of it is just seeing other people you know be open about it—like, ‘Yeah, I go to therapy’—and making that a normal thing.”