Q: I need some relationship advice. My wife complains because I don’t talk to her like I used to. I’ve tried to explain that I’m not trying to avoid emotional intimacy, I just can’t figure out how to give her what she wants. Why do so many of us guys have trouble with intimacy?
A: Many of the men I work with struggle to find ways to build an intimate relationship with their partner. Part of this struggle results from the differences between how men and women connect emotionally (we all desire emotional intimacy but men and women often differ in their approaches to create an emotional connection). It’s important to understand why men struggle with emotional intimacy and to separate fact from the many myths about men and intimacy.
Let’s look at what can stand in the way of men being more emotionally available and expressive in their marriages/relationships.
Men and Intimacy: Why Men Struggle with Intimacy
Research shows that men and women communicate their needs in different ways. When asked to talk about feelings they find uncomfortable, men become more distressed than women. Dr. John Gottman’s research has shown that during arguments, men are more likely to become physically overwhelmed (overstimulated) than women, which often leads to avoidance-withdrawal behavior. It seems that when men shut down, they are actually trying to regulate the intensity of their emotional/physiological reactions.
Judging from these findings, you’d think that men are preparing for a punch in the stomach rather than an exchange of words with their loved ones. Let’s find out why.
In my work with couples I’ve frequently heard men describe themselves as feeling “stressed out” when faced with requests for greater emotional intimacy (i.e., requests to be more emotionally available and expressive). Here are two explanations for this struggle:
1) Men may not have the communication skills (verbal tools) to accomplish what is being asked of them.
For instance, Danny (married to his wife Sandra for four years) is often uncertain about what he’s feeling, and in counseling he shared his frustration with not knowing how to effectively communicate his inner experiences. Like many men I work with, Danny never learned how to identify the subtle nuances of his emotional world: He doesn’t have the language needed to identify/label and then share his feelings with his wife.
Because of this, his wife’s requests that her husband be more emotionally available and expressive quickly lead Danny to feel inadequate (he feels like he’s constantly faced with demands he cannot succeed at and ends up feeling like he’s failing his wife). Danny, like many men, then defends against feeling inadequate by becoming angry/annoyed or shutting down.
2) Men view the request for more emotional accessibility as risky.
Certain emotions (sadness, shame, hurt) can make men feel vulnerable and make them feel as if they’re not in control. These emotions conflict with a male’s masculine self-image–colliding with the foundation of what it means to be a man. Often, men experience their spouse’s/partner’s request for greater emotional sharing as a threat to their stoic foundation of masculinity. In order to openly communicate “softer” emotions (which for many women equates to deeper intimacy), men would first need to acknowledge and accept that they are indeed having these feelings (“I feel hurt that you didn’t call when you said you would”).
Sharing more vulnerable emotions adds another challenge for some men: Once communicated, feelings become more real and even harder to avoid. When men become more emotionally vulnerable, we’ve taken a big risk–our guard has been lowered and we can easily feel threatened and jump into shame when communication falters. This makes men more susceptible to feeling misunderstood and/or judged by their spouses/partners. When this occurs, the cost of intimacy ends up overshadowing the benefits that come with emotional closeness.
Many of the men I counsel are emotionally guarded because they don’t yet have the communication skills needed for emotional sharing. Also, many are defending against the emotional pain associated with feeling inadequate as a partner as they struggle to meet their partner’s needs.
Stay tuned to future posts about Men, Emotions and Intimacy…
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Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro