Men and Emotions (Part 2)

Posted on April 25, 2013


I labeled the last post “Part 1” as I had more to offer on the subject but not the time to complete everything I wanted to say on the topic.[1]  It is interesting to me which posts draw the most comments and likes and from whom the comments originate.  The last post was intended to be primarily directed to men to help introduce the idea that there is more to our emotional experience than “happy” and “angry.”  The comments and likes came entirely from women.[2]  I am glad it was helpful though my intent was less to provide women with an understanding of their partner’s experience if he is not emotionally available, but rather to suggest that we men should be aware of our own experience and allow ourselves to be emotionally available in intimate relationships.  To that end, let us push on.

My basic assertion in the last post was that men can readily identify two emotional experiences.  If I feel good, I am happy.  If I feel bad, I am angry.  In many areas of our lives, it operates in our favor to be able to regulate (and even suppress) our emotional experience.  That is to say that in most circumstances it goes better for a man to not show emotion unless it is helpful to his ends at the time.  The two most common ways of doing this are 1) regulate your reaction so that others won’t see your vulnerability, or 2) numb out to your emotional experience so that you tune out any hurt, fear, or sadness.  From “big boys don’t cry” to “never let them see you sweat,” these tend to be the rules of engagement that we learned, and we violate these rules at our own peril.

The opposite is true in marriage.  True intimacy requires vulnerability.  Here we are speaking of vulnerability in the truest sense of the word.  If I show you where it hurts, it tells you exactly how you can hurt me at will.  This makes me vulnerable.  There is now a potential for emotional pain that did not exist when I kept a lid on my emotional experience.  Secure attachment accepts that your partner has your back.  Even in the midst of an argument, the assumption is that your partner still loves you and will be responsive to you.

Anger is generally secondary and gets in the way of connection and closeness.  When couples argue, each individual usually sees his or her partner’s anger.  What often passes unnoticed (and perhaps even unrecognized by the partner who is feeling it) are the softer, more vulnerable, emotions of sadness, hurt, loneliness, and fear.  Historically, boys grow up in a culture that continually asks the question, “Are you good enough?”[3]  As adults, we often remain sensitive to messages that suggest that the answer to this question is “no.”  A perceived criticism from a wife is received as the message that he is, in fact, not good enough.  As Alicia Keys sang, “I used to look at you and see the possibilities.  Now I see you for who you are.  Boy, you’ve disappointed me.”   Ouch.  This taps into one of our deepest fear, not being good enough and the resultant shame.  A man can be hugely successful in his career.  But if he feels like he is always in trouble with his wife, it is painful.  It is sad.  It is lonely.  Further, if other areas of our lives are not going well, the distress can be overwhelming.  But we have learned not to even acknowledge those feelings to ourselves.  We certainly don’t want to show weakness when we feel under attack.  We go with our default response, anger, or as an alternative, defensiveness.

Therein is a description of the problem, but what is the solution?  I am glad you asked that.  The answer is tricky as not all couples are the same.  Each partner brings their own experience of trauma and past attachment injuries into the relationship.  Additionally, hurts may have accumulated over the course of the relationship that get in the way of connection.  In brief, here are some possibilities to consider.  First, in conflicted couples each partner often sees their partner as the problem (or even the enemy).  Generally, the conflicts you get into are failed attempts to get your needs met in the relationship.  The patterns that develop are negative cycles that are the enemy of connection and the relationship.  If you can give your partner the benefit of the doubt and recognize that the negative cycle in which you are stuck is the enemy and that your partner is not the enemy, this is a step toward being able to reconnect and heal.  Second is being able to recognize those needs in yourself for connection and acceptance.  What is it you most want in this relationship?  Often for men it is to feel admired and respected, i.e. good enough.  Third, we need to learn to express empathy.  If I could make one wish for husbands that could be transforming to the relationship, empathy is it.  When we feel attacked our natural reaction is to defend, but this only fuels the cycle.[4]  My coaching here is to try guessing what she is feeling at that moment and reflect it back.  Underneath her anger are probably some more vulnerable feelings like sadness, hurt, loneliness, and fear.  Fourth (and this is the scary one), respond from those softer emotions and ask for your needs to be met.  The risk here (which is why we call it vulnerability) is that she might not respond favorably.  If you want to test the waters first, you might start with something that it not about her (e.g. a work situation).  It eliminates defensiveness as a possible response and makes empathy easier.

If you really are stuck in negative cycles, it does not mean the relationship is doomed.  Couples do recover and are able to find closeness and acceptance in the relationship again.  Sometimes this involves getting counseling.  If both of you are willing to go, this speaks volumes about the importance of the relationship and your partner’s commitment to you.  In conflicted couples, wives often experience the fear that I am not important to him.  If he is willing to come to therapy, that speaks to how much the relationship matters to him.

[1] Additionally, I generally try to keep a post short enough that it can be read in 5 minutes.

[2] I am appreciative of all of the comments and likes I receive.

[3] Girls deal with this as well, but often in different ways.  That is a topic for a different blog.

[4] Additionally, both criticism and defensiveness are really damaging to the relationship.  See the post on the 4 Horsemen.