I recently discovered a post that Yahsar All wrote last year about the ways in which men are often coddled around their emotions by the women in their lives. Rather than expecting guys to speak up about their feelings, to apologize when they need to, to express their needs and desires, many women will say things like “This is his way of showing that he loves me” or “He’s trying his best”. Of course, this isn’t universal, nor it is limited to m/f relationships, but it is pretty common and it’s worth looking at these patterns.
The short answer is that feeling and expressing emotions is in direct conflict with the performance of masculinity, but I think there’s more to it than that. In particular, we need to look at the gendered ways in which adults and peers teach boys and men that to not have feelings, and to bottle them up when they do happen.
A lot of women make excuses for the inability or unwillingness of their boyfriends/husbands/male partners to talk about their emotions. When these women have children, it really shouldn’t be a surprise when they aren’t able to teach their sons the emotional skills to talk about their feelings. How can you teach someone to do something when you don’t know what it would look like? Plus, there’s a good chance of reenacting the same patterns with children that we have with our partners or that we saw growing up. At the risk of making an overgeneralization, women who coddle men around their feelings often do the same with their sons. It’s a chicken and egg sort of situation, and the cycle is passed from generation to generation.
Meanwhile, the men in these scenarios aren’t teaching emotional skills to their sons, either. Having feelings is outside the Act Like a Man Box, so simply having them can trigger shame, anger, sadness, and grief. That adds an additional intensity to the emotions that are already present and that, by definition, these guys are unable to experience without distress. Withdrawal or lashing out in anger are what people often do in those moments, regardless of their gender. However, given the violence that often erupts when men face these challenges, it’s no wonder that men get coddled. Whatever the details of a given relationship pattern, many men aren’t giving their sons the skills they need.
Of course, not all families are made up of one male parent and one female parent. Couples of other gender combinations and families with other structures often have different ways of teaching their children about these sorts of things, although that’s certainly not always the case. And it does seem to be true that more parents are offering their sons better ways of dealing with emotions than in previous generations.
Even if a boy’s parents do model and teach him how to tap into his emotional intelligence, peers (especially other boys) often make it hard to keep practicing them. They can shame and mock boys who are “too sensitive” or who cry when they feel sad. They can force him to “man up” and hide what he feels. They can bully him into forcing himself into the Act Like a Man Box. And when he starts dating and exploring relationships, they can make it harder for him to navigate the emotional ups and downs that happen by not giving him opportunities for support. The parents I know who are teaching their sons relationship and emotional skills have usually laid a solid foundation that reduces any negative effects from peers. But even so, there are often a few years when their teens are especially challenging because they’re trying to balance how much their parents influence them and how much effect other teens have.
So given this overly simplistic description of these dynamics, what do we do about it?
Men, whether we’re parents or not, need to step up and learn how to make room for our feelings, how to talk about them, and how to manage them. In short, we need to develop emotional intelligence. Not only does that help us create happier relationships and avoid resentment (which is the biggest relationship killer), it gives us much more power in our lives. Instead of running and hiding from our feelings, we can listen to them and work with them. We can take responsibility for them, and for how we respond to them. That lets us live our lives without fearing our emotions because we know that we can ride them instead of letting the wave crash down on us.
That’s not an easy path. Like learning a language or how to swim, it’s a lot easier to get the knack of it if you start when you’re young. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In fact, it’s a lot less difficult than you think because each little success builds room for the next one. Even if it takes a few years, it’s worth it. Whether you do the work or not, you’ll be older in a few years anyway (if you’re lucky). So wouldn’t it be better to be able to look back and see how much you’ve grown, rather than being stuck in the same place? I think that what direction we’re facing and how much we work to move forward are often more important that where we are.
At the same time, the women in our lives need to stop coddling us. They need to make room for our learning curves, for our explorations and mistakes, and for our not fitting into their expectations about who we are. In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown observes that while women tend to feel shame for being imperfect, men tend to feel shame for being weak. We often absorb that shame from women just as much as from other men. The fact that these lessons usually play out differently with women than they do with men doesn’t change how women reinforce the Act Like A Man Box. That means that women need to lean into their discomfort around men’s feelings and not try to rescue us from them.
As part of this work, men need opportunities to practice and develop emotional intelligence with people other than our partners. A lot of guys rely on their partners to be the translators of their feelings. Instead, we can integrate emotional management and negotiation into all of our relationships, both because it helps us create better friendships and connections, and because practicing with many different people helps us learn a wider variety of skills. The more tools we have, the less likely we are to see every problem as a nail.
Since I don’t have children, I don’t feel qualified to describe how parents can foster emotional intelligence in their sons. That seems like something best discussed by someone who’s done it. Talking with other parents who are working on it can also be really helpful, and there are more books and online resources on these topics than ever before. What I can say, however, is that something needs to change in this cycle. Boys who are shamed for their feelings grow up to be boyfriends/husbands who get coddled and fathers who can’t help their own sons to do things differently. They can also become the men who use anger to try to keep the feelings at bay. Not only doesn’t that work, it can easily become the violence that wounds and scars everyone it touches. If you want things to change, then take a look at how you keep the cycle going and seek new ways to deal with it.
Besides, having some skill at working with emotions and big feelings will make your own life better. The more you can build emotional resilience and the greater your capacity to experience your inner world, the more stable your friendships and relationships become. And the more you can express what’s going on for you and honor what other people feel, the better you’ll be at overcoming conflict and finding solutions that genuinely work for everyone.
My yoga teacher likes to say that the pain with yoga is better than the pain without yoga. I think that applies here, too. The pain of healing past wounds and developing new skills is much better than the pain that arises from being stuck, from lashing out, or from running from your feelings. It might not seem like it right now, but trust me- it is. And the benefits are well worth it.