The widely recognized perception that men and women behave differently in romantic relationships has been a fixture of popular culture and the subject of decades of research. One common myth has attributed this contrast in behavior and emotional expression to distinct neurobiological differences between men and women.
Modern research has since debunked this idea that gendered differences result from different wiring in our brains. Instead, researchers attribute these differences in emotionality along gender lines to social influences.
We may have the same wiring, but boys and girls receive much different programming!
You may be thinking: “Gender binaries are a thing of the past, and people don’t subscribe to these gender definitions anymore!” And it's true. As a society, we have come a long way to move away from the rigid understanding of gender. However, these influences are still entrenched in our culture and impact how children grow up today. Though not as explicit, boys and girls still receive messages from the world around them that instills different expectations around emotionality.
Adherence to these gendered expectations comes with various social rewards. For men, however, when it comes to romantic partnerships, they encounter significant and predictable pitfalls when their expectations about emotionality suddenly shift. If any of the themes below feel familiar, you can avoid these difficulties with conscious effort and intention.
Important Note: Though the themes discussed are related particularly to men, by no means are they limited to men exclusively. These traits can be present in people of any gender, and there are plenty of men to whom these descriptions do not apply. This piece covers general themes that can pertain broadly to many men due to the social influences within the dominant culture.
Our “Emotional Muscles” Are Weak and Out of Shape
All humans are born with the capacity to feel. Emotions are essential elements of being alive! However, societal norms that value strength, independence, and resiliency reinforce expectations for young boys that emotions are not to be shared or expressed. They hear messages like "man up" and "tough it out," which reward emotional suppression while casting their vulnerability as a “weakness.”
Like any other part of our body, an effect of neglecting one’s emotional experience over time is the gradual atrophy of this essential function. Just as a person’s legs grow weak when bedridden, our “emotional muscles” weaken from lack of exercise. For men conditioned to suppress their feelings, the consequences of under-used emotional muscles are far-reaching, particularly concerning romantic partnerships.
We Don’t Know How We Feel
There are few things as emotionally evocative as romantic relationships. When we feel disconnected or face conflict with our partner, emotions run high, and we can become reactive. Men unaccustomed to tracking their feelings encounter an extra layer of difficulty as they lack the emotional language to describe their inner experience.
Our habitual emotional suppression can inhibit our awareness of feelings before they reach an intensity that is difficult to manage. We miss the window of recognizing and communicating our needs; instead, we react in ways that are hard to understand, even to us. Our feeling state gets expressed by our behavior or anger within these reactions, which rarely sends a clear message about what we need.
Without awareness of our feelings, we deny any feelings of upset, even at times when our partners may sense something is "off." Our partners can perceive this as emotional distancing, or worse, when our feelings eventually reach a boiling point, our initial denial appears withholding or even dishonest.
We Aren’t Aware of Our Needs in Relationships
All humans are hardwired to need relationships. We don't survive without connecting to others. However, many men have learned not to depend on relationships due to the traits of independence and self-sufficiency ingrained in "masculinity". We lose touch with this basic human need.
In relationships, however, an unmet need underlies nearly every point of conflict. Emotional repair happens when we can attach these needs to the issue at hand and make reasonable requests from our partner to help us feel secure within our relationship.
Many men struggle to recognize the source of their distress when they feel disconnected from their partners. This makes it hard to communicate about the problem at hand and difficult to ask for what would resolve the unmet need at the root.
We Wear a Mask of Anger
Social norms of “masculinity” favor strength over. While this discourages the expression of vulnerable feelings, anger is a powerful emotion that does not threaten one’s masculinity. Anger is safe.
For many men, our under-utilized “emotional muscles” can cause us to shield our vulnerability behind this safer expression of anger. Anger takes on a protective function, allowing us to express our feelings while avoiding making ourselves vulnerable. We wear a “mask” of anger when emotions run high.
In relationships, however, this protective mask can distort communication, particularly in conflict. Anger arises in the place of feeling hurt, sad, or anxious about the relationship. The mask makes repair difficult, not only because anger often inspires defensiveness in others but because it prevents underlying feelings and needs from entering the conversation.