Patricia O’Laughlin, Marriage and Family Therapist, encourages couples to embrace the male’s emotional self.
There is a dynamic I see over and over in my Los Angeles based psychotherapy office. Couples come in and almost instantly the female partner tells me that she is discouraged by her male partner’s lack of emotional expression. She feels it’s either less than it should be, hidden from her, or “inappropriately” expressed. While these things might certainly be true in some men, it isn’t true in many.
Since men typically cope with emotions by minimizing them or having them in isolation, it can seem like they aren’t having them at all. It is a very frustrating experience for most women, since in our society women are given more permission to be emotional and thus express them very differently than men. A dynamic develops in many relationships where the woman is blamed for being “overly” emotional and the male is blamed for being “distant” or not being emotional at all, both statements being untrue.
What is true is that many relationships are unbalanced, giving the female all of the space to have her feelings and giving the male little room, if any at all. This skewed dynamic rightfully upsets both parties involved, defenses and blame arise. The woman’s vocalization in wanting her male partner to be more expressive is an unconscious desire to not have all the weight of being the emotional expresser. This position is challenging for a person and can increase anxiety and depression.
In fact research by Shiri Cohen, PhD, and Robert J. Waldinger, PhD, both of Harvard Medical School, in conjunction with Marc S. Schulz, PhD, and Emily Weiss of Bryn Mawr College published in the Journal of Family Psychology shows that females are happier in life and relationships when they see their partner’s emotions, even if they are negative ones. Emotions seem to make a woman feel closer to her partner, and I believe also takes off the heat of her carrying the emotional load. The males discomfort at the female being “overly” expressive is a statement on his need to have more room for his feelings and needs, and to have these heard in the way he naturally expresses them.
Men are emotional. Research has shown that some men do struggle with communicating emotions because they don’t know how to identify their feelings. I have certainly seen this phenomenon in my practice, however there are plenty of times where the male is expressing his emotion, it’s just not being heard by his female partner. Far too often men are told the correct way to be emotive.
This judgment is part of the reason men withdrawal their expressions away from others. Letting men express the way they do and understanding what those expressions mean is very important to the woman’s happiness and the health of the couple. Both members of the relationship need to hold onto the thought that the man is emotional, and while the man needs to take a risk by showing his emotions in front of his partner, the woman also needs to take a step back and allow for this to be done in the way that particular man does it.
Dr. Amanda J. Rose, associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia, recently published results showing male’s tendency to keep their feelings and problems to themselves is less about embarrassment and more about not valuing the act of verbal sharing. While this devaluing is certainly learned at an early age, it might be recapitulating itself in the relationship dynamic. Often males are given less opportunity to be fully heard when taking the risk to talk about their problems. Many women unknowingly engage in verbal communication patterns that interfere with this process. Co-rumination, frequently discussing and obsessing over a problem, is a coping strategy frequently used by most women. This way of managing anxiety means that women often pull the conversation back to themselves. This not only disengages their partner and their chance to hear what is happening to the person they love, but might actually increase anxiety and depression in the female herself.
Breaking the pattern and making more room for the man’s emotional expression so he can own his emotional self is not easy. But it can be done, here are six things a couple can do to balance out the emotive expression:
- Without judgment, recognize that one person is over functioning emotionally and one is under functioning. Don’t be hard on yourself or your partner when you notice, self-blame has little impact here but knowledge does. Talk about how this is impacting the relationship negatively and agree to make changes.
- Review your relationship for the past two years and write down the times where the man felt his emotions were accepted and heard by his partner. Discuss these times in detail; make notes on what verbal and nonverbal cues were presented by the man and the woman.
- Dissect the successful times. Notice what was different about these situations versus others, and examine them to understand why they felt successful. What specifics made them successful, was it a decrease in stress from the beginning of the discussion, the type of topic, the time of day, were other relationships impacting the way you heard each other, or what situational events were present at the time?
- Look out for defenses such as blaming, criticism, and withdrawal. These defenses make continuing a conversation impossible. If they appear call them out and stop the conversation, then take a break. Rejoin and try again once you both feel ready.
- Have each person review their complete emotional history and then share it with their partner. A pattern of over emotional functioning and under emotional functioning is typically established for reasons reaching back into each person’s family of origin dynamics. Consider how emotion was expressed in your family. Did your mother cry a lot or little at all? Do you remember seeing your father emotions? How was anger expressed? When upset at your siblings how was this conflict resolved? Were emotions accepted or feared in your family? What role did you play specifically when your mother or father was upset? Were alcohol or drugs used in your family to mask emotions?
- Remember it’s a process of exploration and understanding. Having arguments doesn’t mean you are stuck. You need to understand what emotions mean to you, how you learned to express them, and to have patience learning about your partner. With patience your relationship dynamics can change.
Emotions can feel balanced in a relationship, and when they are, men gain a large amount of relief and women feel more connected with their partner. This ownership not only helps individual men and couples, but also helps us as a society as a whole. Emotional men are important role models to the newest generation of boys and in moving our entire society towards accepting our humanity without judgment and with more tolerance.
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