Relationship Advice: Understanding Your Man’s Emotional Life

What is your definition of strength?

This was the question I asked men and women at a recent couples workshop. The answers were certainly enlightening. How the sexes view and define strength (in particular, emotional strength) significantly influences how men and women relate to one another. Let’s examine this idea a little further.

Here are some of the responses from the women and men at the workshop:

Men: “To withstand and endure”; “To overcome and fix what isn’t working”; “Being able to take care of business”; “Solve problems”; “Withstanding adversity”; “Not show weakness”; “Protecting my loved ones from danger”; “Providing without complaining.”

Women: “To be there for a loved one”; “To put one’s self-interests aside for another”; “To listen when someone is in need”; “The ability to rebound after some misfortune”; “Opening your heart to another”; “Showing kindness instead of anger.”

Do you notice any difference between the men’s and women’s responses?

While there is some overlap in these definitions of strength (for instance, to rebound or move past some difficulty), one difference that exists is that women seemed to define strength as a relational and emotional event (being open and emotionally available to others), while for men strength centered around problem-solving, stoicism, and the absence of emotional vulnerability.

Relationship Help: Coming to Terms with Incompatible Emotional Worlds

These differences can place men and women at odds and lead to a breakdown in communication, especially when couples are facing stress (difficulties within the marriage/relationship and from outside the relationship) and are needing one another for support.

In these instances, men (based upon their ingrained perception of strength) may be more likely to move into a stoic problem-solving mode of relating just when their partners need them to approach the circumstances from a more vulnerable, heart-centered place. In these instances, emotionality may be experienced as a sign of weakness for men while women may see this as a strength. And for men, the relational-emotional approach may feel ill-advised and confusing when it is believed that some kind of definitive (non-emotional) action is best in an effort to move past the stress.

The goal in these instances isn’t to change each other but rather, to understand the other’s reactions. Empathy will go a long way in keeping couples connected despite these differences.

One way to address these differences (if they do exist in your relationship/marriage) is to discuss how you and your partner define emotional strength. This is a simple yet important conversation to have and can be nurtured with questions, such as:

  • What does being strong look like for you?
  • Who were your role models of strength growing up as a child?
  • How did these people show strength? What did they view as weak?
  • Do you imagine any downsides to your view of strength?

These questions, as well as others, can help you and your partner/spouse better understand each other’s reactions and preferred ways of coping, thereby making you feel less alone in your relationship.

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