We continue to see a shift away from enforcing strict gender roles but nevertheless male stereotypes are still being enforced. Men continue to be socialized and discouraged from emotionally expressing themselves to others from an early age, which creates a pattern throughout their lifetime. Men often have the idea that they should be tough, stable, never cry, and always show strength. Although being strong and stable are laudable goals, downplaying, or minimizing, emotions isn’t good in the long-term.
Due to this, men tend to have less emotional intelligence than women. Which is often a major complaint of our female clients in heterosexual relationships. Emotional Intelligence is defined by “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically”.
The image of a traditional masculinity can be harmful for my client’s relationship with themselves and also greatly impacts the relationships they have with others. Many men I see for individual therapy have grown up adapting to traditional male gender norms without learning how to express emotions. This makes it difficult for many of them to express and define what they feel. I spend a lot of time with my male clients creating a space where they feel comfortable expressing their feelings, and many do so for the first time in our sessions. Several of my male clients have expressed that therapy is one of the only places where they feel “ok” to share and be vulnerable.
For many men, expressing feelings evokes a negative self–image because doing so is not seen as masculine. Sitting on my couch, they are often unaware that they routinely brush their feelings aside until issues often highly correlated to their inability to express and share emotions have impacted their interpersonal relationships amongst other things.
How does not sharing emotions impact romantic relationships?
From my experience as a therapist, I would argue that an individual’s lack of emotional expression also influences their ability to handle their partner’s emotional expression. After all, how can someone handle their partner being vulnerable if they themselves are so unfamiliar with their own feelings? Several of my male clients find themselves confused and uncomfortable, even frustrated at times when faced with their partner’s emotions. Males often first become aware that there may be an issue when they experience difficulties in the context of a romantic relationship, but they are unsure of their origin. Initially, my male client might not be able to define the source of unrest within his relationship. After multiple therapy sessions spent exploring, many start to realize that keeping their feelings to themselves is impacting their relationship.
But how exactly is not sharing emotions impacting relationships? Feeling out of touch with one’s own emotions can lead us to feel overwhelmed when our partner shares their feelings with us. Many of my male clients react to this feeling of being overwhelmed by trying to “fix” things for their partner. By doing so, they frequently run the risk of falsely assuming what their partner needs, thus creating more tension and unhappiness. Their partners often complain of not being heard and many partners also sense that their feelings have been minimized or even invalidated.
Men feel less inclined to share their feelings if they perceive their partner is “overwhelmed” by them. Leaning forward on my therapist couch, my client assesses that sharing will burden his partner and that he should be able to handle his concerns himself. By continuously reframing from sharing, they start to feel emotionally neglected and feel that their needs are not being met. This can lead to frustration and even resentment, as they start to perceive their partner as “selfish and uncaring.” In addition, they might turn their anger inward, feeling that there is something wrong with them for being unable to handle how they feel.
So what can men do differently?
As a therapist I tell all my male clients to start allowing themselves to feel. I know this sounds basic, but it is essential for emotional expression. Starting to create awareness of how you feel will help define your needs. Defining your needs will help you set healthy boundaries with your partner. In return, healthy boundaries will help you to allow for your partner’s emotional expression without feeling compelled to come up with solutions. I am not arguing that starting to express your emotions will be easy, but it will provide you with more insight within yourself and in your relationships with those around you. Emotional expression within interpersonal relationships is a necessary ingredient to form close bonds with the people you care about.
Knowing how we feel, and being able to communicate with others about how we feel, is an essential part of being a healthy person. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in working on, my couch is ready for you.