Men and Emotions (Part 1)

Posted on April 18, 2013


Back around the turn of the century (it sounds like a long time ago when you say it like that), there was an email circulating of “The Man Rules.”  Basically, it poked fun at the differences between how men and women view things.  One item on the list talked about how men understood color.  Men view color like the 16 bit default setting on Windows (remember this was a while ago).  Salmon is a fish.  Peach is a color.  We have no idea what mauve is.  Let me begin with my usual disclaimer when we discuss gender differences.  Though these observations might apply to most people, they don’t apply to everyone.  There are as many differences within genders as between genders.

In my clinical experience, I often find that men have an emotional experience similar to our discernment of color.  We are pretty good at identifying two emotions.  If I feel good, I am happy.  If I feel bad, I am angry.  Whether this is biological or socially constructed is open to some debate.  I suspect it is both.  We tend to live more from our heads than our hearts.  As a gender, we are not that tuned in to emotional subtlety on the whole.

In many situations, it is adaptive for men to not go deep into our emotional experience.  Careers in military, law enforcement, or firefighting are not conducive to tapping into our fear.  In business situations, it is generally not in one’s best interest to tell the boss that “you really hurt my feelings.”  We have trained ourselves to put a lid on the pain (and may have been doing this through so much of our lives we can’t really identify the hurt anymore).  Then there is the fear of “not being good enough.”  On some level, it is always there even if we have shoved it down for so long.  Often this is the fear that underlies job stress and marital distress.  But fear is not a socially acceptable emotion for men (and we don’t want to appear weak), so we go with anger.  It fits our persona better.

So if closing off those “softer” emotions is adaptive, what’s the problem?  It is two-fold.  First, the pain, fear, sadness, and loneliness can surface in other ways.  From ulcers to depression to addiction, the denied emotions take their toll on our physical and mental health.  Second, closing off emotions gets in the way of connecting with your wife.  Conflicts can escalate or take longer to resolve.  A man’s default setting is that “the problem is the problem” and a problem is something to be solved.  That is generally helpful in work situations, but decidedly less so in a marriage.  What initially drew you to your wife and made you at some point decide you could spend the rest of your life with this woman was an emotional connection.  What keeps you close is also an emotional connection.  The cause of your conflicts: you guessed it, an emotional reaction.  The way you reconnect after an argument, an emotional experience.  The way you find healing when an emotional wound happens in the relationship is through emotion.

Do you ever feel like you are having the same argument over and over with no new information entering the discussion?  Do ostensibly small things turn into big arguments?  I am going to tell you a secret so lean in close to the computer.  The fight isn’t about what you think it is about.  The reason she is repeating the same information is that she doesn’t feel like you heard her.  You got the data, but there was an emotional experience happening that you either missed or she thinks you missed.  You see the anger coming at you (we know anger when we see it), but there was something else there that we missed.  Chances are that under the anger, she was feeling sad, hurt, lonely, or afraid.  So try this experiment.  Try responding to the emotion you think she might be experiencing and see where it goes.  It might sound like this, “it seems like you were really hurt when I said _____________ (fill in the blank).”  Then listen.  Don’t defend.  Don’t explain.  Don’t even apologize (yet).  This is a time to understand her experience.  If you guess wrong on the emotion, it is okay.  She will correct you.  If you say, “You seem sad,” and she is really hurt, she will tell you.  And one little point of subtlety, try to avoid, “I understand.”  You want to understand, but the way you communicate understanding is by reflecting back what you perceive she is experiencing.  Try it and let me know how it goes.

A note to the ladies.  When you ask your husband what he is thinking and he says “nothing,” there is a decent chance that he is telling the truth.  He may have been pondering whether the Lakers would make the playoffs this year or how long it has been since the car last had an oil change.  If it was anything deeper than that and it doesn’t feel safe to share it with you, he probably won’t.  It generally works better to be soft with him rather than probing.

A further note to the men.  When you ask your wife what is wrong and she says “nothing,” she is probably not telling the truth.  Return to the above instructions and send up a trial balloon such as, “You seem sad.”  Then just listen to the response.