Bryce Mathern has six strategies for being present when a man is opening up.
Recently, I was enjoying lunch with a friend and we were talking about how hard it is for men to attend couple’s therapy. He was saying that often times he doesn’t really feel safe exploring his softer side in this context. He believes the reason men are afraid is the experience they have with women when they do show vulnerability. In his experience, he didn’t feel like his vulnerability was met with an open, safe tenderness. Instead, he noticed the woman was unable to hold his discomfort and he then responded by pulling back.
Here’s the painful pattern that emerged from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it.- Brené Brown
Brené Brown speaks to this issue really well. I have seen this in my own life. I have gotten to that point of opening my vulnerable parts and instead of being met with tenderness I was met with solutions, judgment, and withdrawal. The woman wanted desperately to connect with me and failed to show up when the moment happened. I was left hanging out to dry.
In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust. And men are very smart. They know the risks, and they see the look in our eyes when we’re thinking, C’mon! Pull it together. Man up. – Brené Brown
Women want to engage with a man in those vulnerable places but when it comes to actually going there themselves, sometimes, they can’t handle it.
I realized after the conversation with my friend how little I read about women’s struggle with their own emotional issues. So often I read about men not showing up in relationship and women’s frustration with this. That is the most common meta-narrative I see in our culture; men have been repressing their emotions and the woman’s job is to help him open and become the emotional support she wants and needs. The woman begins to demand more intimacy and connection. The man shuts down and withdraws. She gets frustrated by this and then demands he goes to therapy with her.
This can be such a predictable process. The problem with the narrative is that the issue is all on the man. In all of this I think what gets missed is how the woman is relating in a way that doesn’t get her needs met. This is not to set up some men against women argument or say that women are really the problem. What I would like to see is more balance out there. Men don’t show up sometimes but the way women are attempting to “help” men is not working very well either.
There’s a better way for women to relate to men:
In order for a man to share some of his softer, emotional parts he needs to make the decision on his own. Demanding emotional support is only going to shut the man down.
Show your own vulnerability.
You want someone to be vulnerable you need to take the lead and show your soft parts. In so many of my relationships, I have been told that I wasn’t expressing my emotions enough. However, the women I have been with were not willing to show their vulnerable side to. In some ways, their demanding of my vulnerable side was a way of avoiding their own issues. You want the man to be more available you need to be willing to express your fear and anxiety.
Hold your seat.
When a man does finally start to express things – slow down and listen. Don’t provide anything towards solutions, ideas, or interruptions. Just listen. Listening means hearing the words, noticing how you are feeling and being present in your body. If you are thinking about your rebuttal, planning a grocery list, or judging what your man is saying, he will know this and he will shut down.
For most men in our culture, we are told over and over that showing emotion is weak. Men don’t want to feel weak. When you get a man to show you his vulnerable side help change this message. Tell your man that you appreciate his willingness to be vulnerable. Let him know how much courage it takes to share his feelings.
Take up Less space.
When one person is holding all of the emotions in the relationship it actually allows the other member of the relationship to get off the hook. So women, stop doing all of the work in the relationship. Take responsibility for your feelings but don’t take responsibility for your man’s feelings. If he doesn’t want to express how his day was or be in togetherness time then let him have his space. I think you’ll find that if you step back and give your man more space he’ll find it easier to take on some of the emotional relating.
Some women believe that the man doesn’t want to connect. However, as couples therapist Brent Atkinson points out, much of this struggle is just about differences. Atkinson says that some people have a nervous system wired for independence first and some people are wired for togetherness first. If a man is wired for independence first he usually just needs time alone to stabilize his system before he can talk about what is happening in the relationship. Both of these relationship strategies are legitimate. If your man needs some time to process what is going on allow him that time.
The truth is that being vulnerable is really hard. It’s hard for both men and women. When we step into a vulnerable part of ourselves, our biological survival instincts kick in. Every instinct we have is telling us not to be vulnerable. It is a process that we learn over time.
In a perfect world, boys would not be raised to stifle their emotional experience. Those same boys would grow up to be engaged, curious, emotionally intelligent men. The reality, as we all know, is very different. In attempting to support men, women need to look at ways they show up in relationships to make sure they are doing it in the most helpful way.
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