Is he emotionally unavailable or are you shutting him down?
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of talk from women about their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and other men in their lives being emotionally “unavailable.” It’s a cultural norm for women to complain about this problem, and I do understand. It's painful to feel lonely and frustrated in your relationships.
In my office, however, I’ve seen something different that I believe contributes to the problem.
Repeatedly, I’ve seen women complain about their husband’s 'emotional unavailability' only to see those very same women totally ignore the emotions their men present. I suspect this is because women expect men to express their emotions in the same way women do. Just a hint — men don't express emotion that way.
So, how DO men express emotions?
Men express their feelings in a more subtle way than women do.
So, if you're expecting an outpourings of tears or flashes of pain verbalized with articulate words … you're setting yourself up for disappoint, ladies.
Most men do not express emotions that way (not to say some don’t, and I’ll get into how we react when they do later on). Often, men share their feelings more softly and with less dramatics than women, but have no doubt, his feelings are there and he is expressing them. We, as women, just haven't learned to recognize this form of expression in men, nor how to best respond to it.
What you need to realize is that men, from an early age, are conditioned socially to stuff their feelings and not express them.
They're taught that it’s not “manly” to cry or to show and express emotions. They are NOT taught words to effectively express how they feel. In fact, the opposite — boys and men are shown the tools they need to hide what they feel, and taught that it's wrong for them to need anything (or anyone) emotionally. Boys are also rarely given physical affection after about the age of six.
What nurturing and affection are for girls, “toughening up” is for boys.
Does this mean men aren't sensitive at all ?
Oddly enough, the evidence suggests that boys are actually MORE sensitive than girls. They have, from birth, a more pronounced startle reflex, they cry more often than girls, and are more demanding of a mother’s attention (in general). The research even indicates that males are more vulnerable than females from the moment they are conceived, and parents should treat them far more sensitively than they do.
Sebastian Kraemer, author of The Fragile Male, published in the British Medical Journal, told ABC, "People are still ignorant of the biological and social disadvantages faced by the supposedly stronger sex. The attitude still is that if he is a boy then he will be a bit tougher."
Here is what women still need to (admit, and) understand about men and their emotions:
Women have to become more conscious of how men express emotion, and then respond more sensitively to their particular way of expressing themselves. We can better lead the men in our lives into expressing their emotions by respecting their sensitivity and helping them develop an emotional vocabulary (that we've spoken fluently since early childhood).
It means paying more attention to the emotions men do express and responding positively to them.
Most of the time, because we are adjacently culturalized to disdain emotional expression by our men, we actually discourage them from giving us the emotional availability we claim to desire!
If we truly want what we say we want in our relationships with men, we must face the uncomfortable truth that we are complicit in keeping men from expressing themselves emotionally.
How can women create space for men to express their emotions?
Our first task is to work through our own aversion to men expressing feelings. Write out what you think it means when a man cries or shows pain. Then, ask yourself if that assumption is really true.
Why should emotional expression be different for a man than for a woman?
Why do we allow ourselves these kinds of prejudices toward men when we would be appalled by someone expressing this kind of injustice toward a person of a different race?
We have to redefine what it means to be a strong male in our society. After all, facing hard feelings takes a special kind of courage and strength. By re-framing our thoughts about emotional expression, we can begin to help our men become the whole individuals they're meant to be.
Without access to our emotions, we lose ourselves. It's what we choose, based on our likes and dislikes (which come from our connection to our feelings) that define who we are. Helping the men in our lives discover who they are can guarantee we no longer feel so alone.
Opening your heart and mind to how men in your life express emotion makes YOUR life better ... and their's.
So, the next time you're in a heated discussion with a man in your life, slow down and look deeper. Check for moist eyes, reddening of his cheeks, tightening of his jaw, slowing or speeding up of breath, tension in his voice. These cues may be all the emotion he can muster.
Feed him some words to help him express what he's feeling. He has not been trained (as you have your whole life), so, in short, be there for him.