“It’d be really nice if I didn’t have to wait for my birthday or Valentine’s Day for him to compliment me.”
“I don’t get why he has to get all silent like that after a bad day. Can’t he just talk about it?”
“Why does it always have to be me who brings up things we need to talk about? Why can’t he ever do it?”
Here’s the thing, ladies. We’ve underestimated men’s ability to connect their thoughts to their feelings all along. It hasn’t ever really been true that men don’t have feelings or that they don’t know how they feel. That stereotype is getting busted more and more every day.
Ladies, hold on because I am not sure you’re ready.
Sure, we can all talk about helping to raise boys with emotional intelligence. After all, sitting with a boy crying because he didn’t make the team doesn’t threaten us. The experience can change when sitting with your husband who is worried that he might not be employable.
If you really want a husband, or man in your life, to start sharing and expressing himself more, here’s what you need to do to get ready:
Be Prepared to Listen Without Defensiveness
Whenever I hear a woman talk about wanting to understand a man more, one of the first questions I ask is: “Are you prepared for the answers to your questions?” Of course you can listen and be present for someone sharing compliments or affection but what happens when you hear “I was upset that after putting the kids to bed you didn’t want to spend time with me and instead called your girlfriend”?
As a therapist, I sit and talk with men all the time and what I most often hear is that when they try to talk to their wives about their upset, they are met with defensiveness. They’re more likely to hear “What do you mean I can’t call a girlfriend? Didn’t you get to talk to the guys when you were out golfing for six hours?” The wife misses the point entirely. It’s not about the husband not wanting her to call a girlfriend every once in a while. It’s about this night. This instance. He wanted to spend time with her and he was disappointed when her preference was different.
It’s hard for both men and women to hear that our partners are disappointed without assuming blame. However, that’s exactly what we need to do. If we want to understand one another’s experiences more, we have to be more understanding. That means putting down our protective shields and allowing ourselves to hear when we’ve let the other down.
Validate and Express Empathy
I know what you’re thinking. This one seems like a no-brainer. After all, the stereotype for women is that we’re nothing, if not empathic. Yet validating a feeling and expressing empathy when we are at the center of the hurt is entirely different. It can be hard to say “I understand that you were bummed when I didn’t want to spend free time with you. I am sorry to have hurt your feelings.” After all, we didn’t intend to cause the hurt or disappointment so apologizing can feel like taking blame for something we didn’t do.
This is a dynamic that men and women fight about all the time and both genders experience this frustration. However, whether we intended it or not, a hurt happened and it needs to get acknowledged.
There’s No Such Thing as “If You Loved Me, You Could Read My Mind”
A lot of times when women are crying to be understood, they daydream about having a husband who just “gets it” without some long, drawn-out explanation. This is a myth and a fantasy and the faster you let go of it, the better.
Insight is not the same as mind-reading.
It’s not a substitute for you having to explain yourself. If you need your husband to be more understanding, you have to talk more and explain yourself in such a way that he can understand. His job is to ask questions, seek clarification, and make sure he’s getting it right. It’s not to speak for you when it’s time to talk about difficult or vulnerable things.
You Have to Still See Strength in the Absence of Confidence
Sometimes, when women talk to me about their husband’s crying or sharing difficult things, the first impression I get of the women is that they’re nervous and uncomfortable. It’s an understandable reaction, of course. Sometimes, it can just be nervousness about “wanting to do it right.” They want to provide their husbands with a positive experience while they share vulnerability.
Other times, the nervousness comes from a fear about what this worry translates into in terms of the family’s future. We all can get triggered by someone else’s anxiety and this is especially the case with spouses. We have to hear our spouse’s worries for what they are. Just worries and being worried, sad, or scared, does not imply an absence of strength but sometimes, we forget that when we are sitting with real fear, pain, or angst.
This means we have to be honest with ourselves about the prejudices that we still might hold, despite our best intentions. We have to do our own work on changing any internal stories we might have about men, vulnerability, and their expression of emotion. If we don’t check our prejudices and assumptions at the door, we risk having them show up in our body language, word choice, or vocal tone. Then, the damage to our ability to communicate with the men who are important to us could be irrevocable.
When Men Connect to Their Feelings, They Sometimes Find Darkness
We all experience feelings differently. Men have been culturally programmed forever to connect more to anger and rage than women have. This sometimes means that this is their go-to feeling when they are first connecting and sharing their experiences. Anger comes with a side of pessimism at times and this can be hard to sit with.
Separating the man from the feeling is crucial for understanding and connecting with his expression. When you define a man with anger as an “angry man” or you listen to his expressions of doubt and call him “pessimistic”, you’re shutting him down. Instead of questioning the need for the feeling, get curious. Ask questions. Beneath the anger and doubt, you will often find the softer feelings like sadness and insecurity but those feelings only come out when it feels safe to do so.
Accept Needs Without Belittling
The more men connect to their thoughts and feelings, the easier it is for them to connect with their needs. Emotional intelligence and insight is not the same things as talking about it. Men and women alike can connect with their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and still not want to talk about it.
So, when men say they “need to go to the gym” or “playing video games helps them”, don’t be so quick to shut them down, roll your eyes, or mock them. There is no one-size fits all model for emotional intelligence and needs identification. Simply put, we all need different things and some of us will never be interested in talking about it.
In her book, Daring Greatly, Brenè Brown, shares her experience of working with men as they try to connect and share their emotional experiences. She tells the story of a gentleman who approached her after a lecture: “My wife and daughters…they’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but c’mon. You can’t stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that.”
If we want men to know their feelings and experience are safe with us, we have to tell them so and back it up with our actions. We have to remove defensiveness and judgment from our reactions and replace them with curiosity and acceptance, even at times when their expressions confuse or startle us.
So, while some men have work to do on learning to connect and open up more, they’re not alone. Women do, too.
Photo: Arne Halvorsen/Flickr