“I’d just like him to share what he’s feeling more. That’s how I feel connected… I know it’s really hard for him, but I feel close to him when he talks about his feelings.”
~Sandra, talking about her husband Chris
“For me, it’s strange to talk about my feelings. Honestly, I was never asked about my feelings before Sandra…A fair percentage of the time when she asks, I honestly don’t know how to answer. It’s just not what I think about.”
~Chris, talking about his wife Sandra
Men, Marriage & Emotions
As a marriage/couples counselor, I often witness the emotional mismatch men and women struggle with when it comes to the world of feelings:
For women, feelings are the pathway to emotional intimacy; closeness and connection are achieved by acknowledging and sharing what is felt. Feelings are something to be experienced, shared and, at times, savored with one another.
For men, requests to acknowledge and integrate feelings into their life and relationships place them in unwelcome territory.
Here are two possible reasons for this struggle:
1) They don’t know how
Some guys are not attuned to their feelings—they haven’t been raised to look inward and form a lasting connection with their own subjective experiences (especially more nuanced feelings). So when you ask your man to express his emotions, he may draw a blank or fall back on the clichéd response: “Everything is fine.”
Side note: Asking a guy who isn’t connected to his emotions to share what he’s feeling is like asking a hyperactive child to sit still—it isn’t going to work and everyone involved will end up frustrated.
2) They Think, “Why?”
Some men simply don’t see any use in exploring or sharing their feelings with their spouse/partner (or anyone, for that matter). An overly pragmatic mindset (“What’s the use in talking about this stuff”; “Why, what’s the purpose?”) can shut men down or cut them off from their emotional world.
So should we conclude that men and women are destined to be a mismatch when it comes to the world of emotions? Not necessarily.
Relationship Help — Tips for Women and Men
Here are some relationship tips that might help you in this area:
Message to Men: Emotions are important and they exist for a reason. Think of your feelings as a source of information that can help you understand yourself better and make your relationships richer.
For instance, when you’re feeling down, being connected to your sadness can ultimately help motivate you to change a circumstance that isn’t working for you (your sadness cues you into the fact that something isn’t working in your life and that you may need to change direction)—but sadness denied or avoided cuts you off from an important resource about yourself and your life. Without a connection to this emotional information, you may remain somewhat lost, stuck and unclear about what steps you can take to improve your situation.
Message to Women: Your guy is cut from a different genetic and developmental stone than you, so he probably won’t be able to give you the level and depth of emotional sharing that other women offer you. Adjusting your expectations a bit can go a long way in curbing your disappointment—this doesn’t mean that you have to throw out all expectations and hopes of getting your needs met. It’s about being realistic.
Message to Men: Your feelings do have a very pragmatic value: they make your wife/partner feel connected and emotionally closer to you (trust me, this is really big). So that’s the practical payoff—a more satisfied and content wife/partner.
Granted, wanting emotional connection might seem too vague or mysterious to some guys (since they can’t take hold of it with a pair of pliers) but that shouldn’t stand in the way of giving your wife or girlfriend something she feels is extremely valuable.
Message to Women: Sometimes the direct approach isn’t the best way to access your man’s feelings (“What are you feeling/thinking?” will immediately shut some men down). As an alternative, ask him to describe the concrete events that happened in his day. Focus your questions on the tangible (“What did your boss say?” “How did you react?” “How is Jim doing?”)—discussing specific events makes sense to guys and this can lead men to connect with their feelings.
Message to Men: Some feelings will be pretty difficult to sit with (for instance, feeling sad, vulnerable or helpless about something), and your tendency might be to avoid these feelings altogether or cover them up with anger or some numbing behavior (alcohol, sex, endless television). Deep breathing and repeating encouraging statements (“I can handle this”) can help you stay with your feelings longer and develop greater appreciation for them.
Message to Women: You might use more guy-friendly “feeling words” with your husband or boyfriend while he describes something that you can see is impacting him emotionally. For instance, rather than saying, “You must have felt pretty vulnerable in that moment,” try: “Wow, dealing with that must have really stunk“; or: “No wonder you’re frustrated about that.”
Certain emotional words have negative connotations for some men (typically words they associate with weakness)–so try to avoid the words that will make your guy cringe and head for the other room.
Here are a few guy-friendly feeling words:
- “Down” or “bummed” rather than sad or depressed;
- “Concerned” or “alarmed” instead of afraid, worried or anxious;
- “Uncertain” or “unsure” rather than vulnerable or helpless;
- “Frustrated” or “dealing with a lot” instead of overwhelmed.
Of course, not all men and women are mismatched emotionally. There are many men who are right at home in the world of feelings (and there are women who are emotionally cut off), but for those of us who struggle with an emotional divide across gender lines, taking the necessary steps to bridge this chasm can go a long way in creating a fulfilling marriage/relationship.
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Dr. Rich Nicastro