Guys tend not to share their feelings, even with close friends. As a result, we miss out on the mental and physical health benefits that come with expressing emotion.
I have a buddy who I have counted among my closest friends for the last 17 years. We’ve done a lot, watched sports, gone on vacation, and celebrated far too many birthdays, Christmases, and other moments together to count.
Recently, I was talking to him about my experience living in Australia for the past year and a half. I was telling him that although living down under has been great, at times I feel homesick, especially during the holiday season. Our conversation went something like this:
“It’s challenging, man. I mean, I like living in Australia and everything, but the U.S. is my home. I miss everyone, I miss my family. It just feels lonely sometimes, you know?”
He quickly changed the subject and replied, “Yeah, that’s too bad, but what about those ladies in Australia?!”
The abrupt change of topic from my feelings of loneliness to a discussion about women highlighted the difficulty some men have with expressing emotion or hearing it expressed by friends. Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that my friend cares about me, but I can honestly say that in 17 years, he and I have only shared our emotions when it was about sports.
It’s true, and rather odd, that men are much more likely to reveal emotions to romantic partners than close friends—while the reverse is true for women.
Psychologist and author Kevin McClone believes that most male relationships are more behaviorally based than emotionally based. When men get together we tend to spend time doing an activity—playing sports, exercising, going someplace—and not simply talking. This means that male intimacy is usually about doing stuff together and not about talking about feelings face to face.
Research tells us that expressing emotions builds close relationships. And sharing feelings can also have several positive mental and physical health related outcomes, such as relieving tension caused by the build up of everyday stressors, as well as the trauma of major life difficulties.
Expressing emotions also reduces the likelihood of acquiring stress-related problems such as muscle aches and tension headaches. Some psychologists believe that the most important aspect of life is feeling connected to another person—and one way to enhance closeness is through sharing feelings. Recent research has also showed that suppression of emotion is an important factor in male depression. Put another way, men who suppress their emotions are more likely to report depressive symptoms than those who express emotions more often.
There are a number of reasons why men hold back from expressing feelings to other men. One is our tendency to associate the expression of sadness and hurt with weakness. Or, as a colleague of mine put it: “for men, if you feel, then you’re weak.” According to author Arlie Hochschild, there are implicit societal rules that dictate which emotions can be expressed by men versus those that can be expressed by women; men avoid expressing emotions out of a fear of being seen as “feminine.”
According to this view, emotions like anger and aggression are seen as masculine whereas emotions such as fear, hurt, and sadness—as well as behaviors such as crying—are considered feminine. Living by these rules is problematic because men experience a broad array of emotions, but still feel pressured to suppress their feelings. Instead of pretending that we do not experience such vulnerable emotions, I believe that we would feel more connected to ourselves and those we care about if we expressed our feelings.
Ironically, three days after I began writing this piece I received a call from the friend I mentioned above. His partner recently ended their relationship and according to him “I figured you would be good to chat to about that.” As he explained his feelings of heartbreak and disappointment I didn’t change the subject or ask him how his favorite sports team was doing, I simply listened.
Here’s a suggestion. Next time your friend informs you that he has a lot on his mind ask him to discuss his feelings. Better yet, if he lets it slip out that he feels sad, hurt, or down, instead of running from the conversation, let him know that his masculinity remains as solid as ever.
Read more: Bawlin’
Billy Johnson II is a Registered Clinical Psychologist in Private Practice and a University Lecturer at Australian Catholic University. His clinical and research interest include men and masculinity, sexual behavior, and cultural diversity.
—Photo by Kevin N. Murray/Flickr