Vulnerability is uncomfortable by nature. But for many men, the unfamiliarity of emotions adds an extra layer of stress within relationships. This anxiety can often divert our response to our partner’s feelings in ways that prioritize reducing emotional intensity (and our anxiety) yet neglect their emotional needs.
Our Anxiety Creates Emotional Miscues
If heightened emotions provoke anxiety in men, it makes sense that the instinct is to make the feelings smaller. If you know your (emotional) muscles are weak and you’re facing an imposing mountain to climb (an emotional conversation), naturally, you will look for an easier path.
It may seem counterintuitive, but feelings need space to live large before they can feel small. Emotional intimacy grows when partners can share their vulnerability and feel heard, validated, and safe. Partners can effectively respond by receiving the full expression of these emotions with acceptance and empathy. When our anxiety influences our responsiveness, it causes relational miscues and often achieves the opposite of our intentions.
We Look for the Solution to the Problem First
As men within the dominant culture of society, our value is often recognized within the things we do or the work we produce. We are “providers,” “fixers,” and “problem-solvers.” In relationships, however, this skill set can create challenges.
When a partner reaches out in distress, these feelings need attention and validation before they will be available for a problem-solving conversation. Suppose you fall off a ladder and break your arm; your injury needs attention before you will be open to hearing about ladder safety tips.
It can feel so frustrating! How are we supposed to help if they don't want to fix the problem? It can feel like they expect help without allowing us to use the tools that work for us. Moreover, for men conditioned to minimize their emotions, it can be easy to overlook how the simple act of listening offers more help than any practical solution.
We Use Logic to Explain a Feeling Away
The centuries-old dichotomy of thinking versus feeling lies at the foundation of comparison between men and women. Society has regarded emotions in a derogatory way for a long time. And the linking of emotion as a specifically female characteristic has been one of many mechanisms of maintaining patriarchal power inequality between genders. Dominant beliefs hold "rational men" as more capable than "hysterical" women. But this is a topic big enough to deserve its own blog…
Cultural norms privilege reason and intellect as a characteristic of stability and strength. Beyond that, however, logic and rationalization are some of men's most common tools to circumvent their emotions. We use our brains to out-think difficult emotions, which minimizes the impact and protects us from pain.
This strategy can be problematic when applied within relationships, however. Our anxiety amidst the intensity of our partner’s distress can lead men to default to logic to reduce this intensity. Using context or our own perception, we attempt to explain the feeling away.
“If they can understand this the way I do, they won’t feel as bad.”
Not only does this never work, but it also tends to convey the message that the partner’s feelings are “wrong” or “too big.” They feel invalidated, and your attempt to diffuse the intensity has only added another layer of upset.
We Withdraw from Conflict and Intimacy
By nature, humans seek pleasure and avoid pain. It is only natural that those of us with under-utilized emotional muscles avoid putting them to work. Our anxiety about being inadequate or unsuccessful in emotional conversations leads us to avoid this risky territory altogether.
This avoidance takes many forms. For example, men might default to logic and pull away from a conflict, deeming it “irrational.” They could become angry and push their partner away, creating distance when feelings escalate. Or, as in many cases I've encountered as a couple's therapist, they could withdraw due to deep-seated beliefs of being inadequate partners. They instinctively withdraw to avoid causing further harm, as a repeated experience of failure instills in men a story about themselves as being hopelessly incapable of satisfying their partner's emotional needs.