Why Do Guys Suck at Talking about Emotion?

One thing that I have learned from working with hundreds of couples is that guys, for the most part, kinda suck at talking about emotion. It’s not that guys don’t experience as much emotion as women do, but they tend to not have the intuitive awareness of what they are feeling and often lack sufficient language to express their emotions effectively. This phenomenon has less to do with how men are wired biologically, and more to do with how we raise men in this culture. Boys don’t start out that way, they just end up that way as men.

 

Compared to men, women are usually given a lot of space and encouragement to express themselves. When girls are upset, parents, siblings, and peers tend to rally around them, support their experience, and help them talk things out. In the media, women are portrayed as more sensitive, emotionally responsive, and far better at communicating emotion than men. Women have many role models to choose from that are both emotionally responsive and strong human beings.

 

Men typically have a very different experience. When a boy cries, the other kids often mock and ridicule him for “being a pussy” or “acting like a girl”. This has a profound effect on a boy’s emotional development. Adults are not particularly helpful either. Most boys are told to “man up” when they are upset and are celebrated for their toughness, courage, and strength—not their sensitivity. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find any male role model in the media who is courageous, strong, and emotionally sensitive. When I was in graduate school in clinical psychology, one of my colleagues talked about watching a movie with her fiancé where he began to tear up during a particular scene. She talked about how crazy it was that she became uncomfortable by it.

 

The percentage of men who have lost the ability to identify and effectively communicate their emotions is so high that the term “Normative Male Alexithymia” has been proposed by clinical psychologists as a label for the phenomenon. This is a condition that boys are not born with, but develop through socialization, often with devastating consequences for not only men, but also women and society as a whole.

 

Men are much more likely than women to suffer from alcoholism, chronic stress, problems with anger, and suicide, are much more likely to engage in violence, and live with a deep sense of isolation. In fact 1 in 5 men in the U.S. today say that they have no friends at all. This sense of loneliness contributes to a wide variety of mental and physical health consequences, including heart disease, cancer, immune suppression, Alzheimer’s disease, and suicide.

 

Additionally, men are often treated as disposable human beings in our culture. Men are expected to stand up to gun fire, run into burning buildings, protect the family from a violent intruder, and to do all of the hard, dangerous, and dirty work of society. Men are expected to stay on the sinking ship in order to save women and children. Men are expected to sacrifice themselves for the benefit and safety of others. And when men do sacrifice, protect, provide, and take risks, they often do so without the benefit of the kind of emotional support and healing that is available to women.

 

When a catastrophe such as a natural disaster occurs, news reports rarely mention what a tragedy it is that men die. In fact, when reporting numbers of people injured or killed in a terrible event, the phrase “including women and children” is used, as though the men’s deaths were much less important.

 

Obviously, this is a broad generalization and there are many instances of men who have exceptional emotional and relationship skills and instances of men who are supported and nurtured in a healing environment. However, the issue of feeling isolated and lacking emotional communication skills is a massive problem among men.

 

 

HOW THIS SHOWS UP IN RELATIONSHIPS

 

From my clinical experience, the difficulty that men have in identifying and expressing their emotions effectively shows up in a couple ways. The first is that some men tend to emotionally shut down whenever there is a disagreement or when they perceive that their partner is attacking them. It’s as though they vanish into a cocoon and what is left is an emotionally absent shell. This withdrawal pattern is common in men who become paralyzed whenever they are flooded with emotion.

 

The second way this manifests is that men go on the offense whenever they become emotionally flooded. This may be in the form of shouting, storming out of the house, breaking things, or even physical violence. The men who display this pattern have the same basic problem as the withdrawers as far as the inability to effectively communicate, but their distress is expressed outwards, rather than inwards. In either case, the inability to identify and communicate effectively during times of elevated emotion significantly impacts the relationship in a negative way.

 

The quality of a marriage, or any committed intimate relationship for that matter, emerges from the quality of the emotional bond between partners. Emotional communication is what nourishes that bond. When emotional communication is strong, the emotional bond is strong. When emotional communication suffers, the emotional bond suffers. So many couples start out strong because they have fun together, share all of their intimate feelings, and have lots of sex. But once their relationship starts to mature and an emotional bond forms between them, many men struggle to keep the communication lines open—particularly during times of distress.

 

 

STEPS FOR BETTER EMOTIONAL COMMUNICATION

 

Many men struggle with communication because they don’t really know what words to use to label what they are feeling. For many men, there is this amorphous mixed “emotional goo” that is churning in the gut without form or identifiable features. It’s like they can identify that something is going on in their gut, but the part of their brain that allows them to put words to their experience is blocked. Describing emotion can be kind of like trying to describe something that is hidden behind a curtain.

 

In order to lift the curtain and restore some cognitive connection with their emotions, I have them do exercises every day to simply describe what they are feeling the best they can. At first it may be that they can only sense pressure, or a sinking feeling, or an urge to run. That’s fine. Just like with any other skill, repetition is the key. If guys who are disconnected with their emotions will simply take a moment each day and try to describe out loud what they are feeling, it can make a big difference in a short time.

 

The next thing is to have the couple practice what I call “the emotional check-in” with each other every day. This simple little exercise is the first part of a larger communication pattern that I teach to my clients. All the couple has to do is to take a minute, sit down across from one another, and simply verbalize what emotion they are feeling in the moment. That’s it. Just one or two words. It’s like taking an emotional thermometer, sticking it in your belly button, and reading what it says. These could be things like “frustrated”, “exhausted”, “happy”, “hopeful”, “angry”, “tense”, or whatever feels accurate. It is important not to say why you are feeling that way, or for the other partner to ask you to explain. Just say the emotional word, stand up, and go on about your day.

 

These little bite-size exercises are a great way for couples – and men in particular – to start a new pattern of emotional communication. Obviously, there is more to long-term improvement in emotional communication than just this, but these two little things can make a big difference. Many couples have told me how much better they feel even with that small amount of communication when it has been previously absent.

 

Something to keep in mind when trying to improve your emotional communication skills: It will take some time. You didn’t get this way overnight, and you won’t be a master at emotional communication overnight. Just like going to the gym—it takes effort, persistence, and time. This is true for both sexes, but particularly true for men. But guys, if you do make the effort, it can completely restore the sense of connection in your relationship.