A few days ago, my husband and I were in our bedroom, and I was addressing him with a pile of concerns. At one point, I asked him if he would grab my running skirt out of the laundry basket, and he enthusiastically replied, “Yes! I would love to get your running skirt! Finally, a problem I can solve!” As he tossed it to me, I replied, “Thanks. Now, let’s talk about our feelings.”
If my husband wants to get a laugh at the end of a night out with another couple, he will sometimes announce, “Goodnight. Now we’re going to talk about our feelings.” The cliché is comedic, of course, because it’s so ironic. It works against gender stereotypes. I have had a lot of time to think about those gender stereotypes in romantic pairings, and I want to specifically address how I think they may harm both men and women in long-term committed relationships.
Before continuing, I want to acknowledge that any time gender differences are addressed, we are speaking in terms of a statistical group; there are more within-gender differences than between genders. However, as a couples therapist as well as a mother of five sons, I want to point out some common issues related to gender socialization which have me concerned, because I think they create barriers in couples therapy and in heterosexual romantic relationships in general.
Our culture often shames and blames men in ways that are counterproductive and unhelpful. In short, our culture socializes them out of developing skills in emotional intelligence and relationship processes, and then turns around and beats them up for “failing,” to navigate those skills when they are adults.
This socialization process is visible everywhere. Visit any elementary school and observe a boy who cries being ridiculed by his classmates. Parents who are frightened that their kids will be teased if they operate outside social norms reinforce these practices at home. Boys are told to “toughen up,” so they won’t be perceived as weak.
By adolescence, the socialization process becomes even more pronounced. Young men are validated, if not encouraged, for their sexual feelings and expressions while they continue to be mocked for expressing emotional vulnerability, or even displaying empathy. Eventually, sexuality often becomes entwined with emotional need. They are praised for autonomy and considered spineless for displaying any dependency. As a result, even when they are victimized, they lack broad social support. The expectations are narrow and rigid.
Girls are generally afforded more gender flexibility. When I showed up to my first grade Halloween parade dressed as Spiderman, completely unfazed by the sea of pink princesses surrounding me, no one batted an eye. Every time it was my turn to “play house,” in Kindergarten and I would approach the teacher for permission to visit the book corner instead, I was praised for my intellectual curiosity. When I regularly participated in pick-up football games with the neighborhood boys, people encouraged my athleticism. I was able to explore and expand various facets of my personality and feel comfortable with a broad and flexible range of emotional and relational expression. In contrast, boys are constricted to a narrower range of acceptable behaviors.
By adulthood, after a lifetime of socialization out of vulnerable emotional expression, men are expected to navigate complex heterosexual relationships. They are often absolutely confounded by perceived high levels of emotion in female partners. Many of my male clients describe being disoriented in the emotional processing which comes so naturally to females. For many men, just having a wife start crying is a very shaming experience. It is experienced as, “What kind of loser am I that my wife is so unhappy?” Men often take it very personally, and when they don’t know how to respond, or they manage their own emotions with withdrawal, they are criticized and blamed. It’s not uncommon for me to hear, “He’s a robot,” or “He’s a narcissist.”
Over time, they become expert at sensing when the emotional temperature in the relationship is going up, which is identified as a “no win,” situation, and they prepare for the onslaught, often shutting down completely. I can’t count how many times I have heard a man say, “If I say anything, it will be wrong, but if I say nothing, eventually she will give up and go away.” It’s not because they are selfish, bad or mean. They have been socialized out of speaking that language. The emotions just don’t “make sense,” which is why husbands will often state some version of, “I think she’s Borderline,” or “I can’t handle her emotions.” They look impassive and uncaring when in fact they have been so deeply wounded by repeatedly disappointing their partners that they tend to disconnect from feeling anything. Men consistently report “numbing out,” which only becomes necessary when interactions have been painful to bear.
The socialization around sexuality creates another possible minefield in heterosexual relationships. Not every male has higher sexual desire than his female partner, but because of stereotypes, if he doesn’t have high desire, he may feel ashamed or damaged, and often will not seek help but will suffer in silence.
Because men have been socialized to not be emotionally vulnerable, but encouraged in their sexuality, reaching for a partner in a sexual way is often fused with emotion. It can literally be the only way they know to get comfort and reassurance from an attachment partner in a vulnerable way. They can be misconstrued in their sexual reaching out, as illustrated in the oft recited, “Sex is all he cares about.” I have had countless men explain to me through tears that their wives don’t understand that it’s not just the sex….it’s the connection with their close female partners that they seek. It’s how they know they are still wanted and loved. I believe them.
If that connection is repeatedly withheld, it can leave them completely lonely, and they sometimes medicate their loneliness and shame with pornography or other substances, or withdrawal, which just intensifies the disconnecting cycle. I also acknowledge that there are many variations on this theme, and that having satisfying sex lives with their partners doesn’t always preclude pornography use. In general, however, my experience is that men want emotionally connected sexual relationships in many of the same ways that women do.
I’m writing this in hopes that we will prepare our boys to more effectively identify and express emotional need in a way that is safe, so the emotional world won’t be so confusing. I’m also hoping we can be a little less blaming toward men and a little more patient in our most intimate relationships. For more reading about this issue, here are four books I recommend:
Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World by Rosalind Wiseman, 2013.
The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance, and Direction in Their Lives by Michael Gurian, 2010.
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, 2000.
Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood by William Pollack, 1999.