Emotional Life of Men
Two nights ago, my family and I ate dinner together at our dining room table. Out of the blue, my 4yo son said to his 6 yo older brother, “Sebastian, I love you”.
Sebastian responded, “Thanks Ev, that’s nice to hear, I feel good when you say that”. My spouse and I looked at each other, hearts flooded with appreciation for this precious moment.
As a mother, the joy in such an exchange is almost indescribable.
As a therapist, I can see how at a young age, my boys demonstrate emotional intelligence. It seems like a simple exchange but in fact, reflects their ability to communicate on an emotional level.
As I meet with clients, I witness men painfully struggle to understand their own emotional life.
Often, these men shut down because of their inability to tune into themselves, identify their emotions and/or express them.
These men struggle to get their relationship needs met and their partners feel increasingly resentful.
In our culture, boys are raised to shut down their emotional intelligence with the often quoted phrases as “real boys don’t cry” (uttered to my boys by an acquaintance to which I swiftly intervened and re-educated all parties involved), “don’t be a wimp”, “what are you, a sissy?”
According to the article, Boys Lack Emotional Intelligence, the author quotes data from a 2008 review article that studied both girls and boys:
Men, on the contrary, are socialized since they were children to avoid expressing their emotions.
Male competitiveness, homophobia, avoiding vulnerability and opennes, and the lack of appropriate role models have all been highlighted as obstacles that prevent men from expressing themselves emotionally.
Boys therefore specialize in minimizing any emotions linked to vulnerability, guilt, fear and pain.”
Psychologist Daniel Goleman popularized the psychological theory of Emotional Intelligence developed by Peter Salavoy and John Mayer. Mayer and Salavoy defined emotional intelligence as:
Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth”.~ Salavoy and Mayer (1997).
In sessions, my male clients feel emotions but struggle to identify them, to understand them, to express them, to use those emotions as a means toward connection.
The lack of emotional expression becomes interpreted by their partner as a lack of engagement. Partners tend to feel ignored or that their spouse/boyfriend is disinterested in them.
Or, because men are taught from a young age to be aggressive, the more visible emotion is anger.
Anger requires less vulnerability and is associated with power. Yet, in actuality, anger is the umbrella that covers deeper, more vulnerable emotions like inadequacy, disappointment and fear.
Vulnerable Emotions and Male Masculinity
In the book, The New Male Sexuality, author Bernie Zilbergeld, Ph.D. writes that vulnerable emotions threaten male masculinity. He states that any emotions that suggest weakness strike at the core of what it means to be masculine.
No man wants to feel, or others to think, that he’s confused, overwhelmed, intimidated, or feels neglected or despondent…
Because anger is one of the few feelings men believe they can have, it’s often a mask for other feelings, especially the ones that suggest weakness…
The result of the prohibition on experiencing or expressing feelings is that men often lose track of them.
That is, they don’t know when they’re feeling love or sadness, and they don’t get much practice expressing most of their emotions. Strange things can happen when one doesn’t feel or express much.
The lack of emotional expression or misdirected expressions leads couples into an intimacy crisis. Two nights ago, in a simple exchange, my boys demonstrated what an intimate conversation can look like. This includes:
- Emotional awareness (know what you feel)
- My 4yo felt love for his brother
- Verbal expression of emotion (vulnerability)
- Unprompted, he said, “Sebastian, I love you”
- Permission to receive expression of emotion
- Big brother stopped what he was doing to take his brothers words in
- Expressing appreciation to an other
- Big brother says “Thanks Ev”
- Reciprocation of emotional expression (emotional awareness is required to do this)
- Big brother says “That’s nice to hear. I feel good when you say that”
These simple exchanges at a young age help my boys set the stage for their own emotional expression in adult relationships.
Consider the intimacy climate in your family of origin.
- How did your parents express their emotions?
- Did your parents demonstrate affection and/or say “I love you”?
- How did your parents handle feelings of fear or hurt?
- What messages did you receive about being male?
If you struggle with sexual intimacy in your relationship, this may be significantly tied to your emotional intimacy.
Keep in mind that, as a young boy, you were most likely not encouraged to express yourself emotionally.
However, your emotional expression is your birthright.
Take some time to reflect on these questions. If you feel courageous, share some of this work with your partner.