For many men, there is nothing worse than coming home after a hard day at work to have your wife or girlfriend ask, “What’s wrong honey?” It would be far better, or so we think, if we could simply be alone with our feelings of loathing for an unsympathetic boss, or better yet, make an escape to the local bar for a few drinks to forget about the day’s events.
From the time we are children, us men are taught to hide our feelings. While our sisters were allowed to cry all they wanted for whatever trifle might have occurred to them, we were told to suck it up and to “be a man.”
As we will explore in more detail below, the accumulation of these experiences has led many men into an almost complete inability to express their feelings and emotions with anyone. More often than not, is our significant other who bears the brunt of this lack of capability to emotionally respond to another person.
Learning how to share your feelings with your other half begins with understanding why we have a seemingly innate tendency to keep our emotions bottled up inside. Acquiring the capacity to open up the locked doors of our feelings and emotions not only can lead to a healthier relationship with our wives and girlfriends, but can also help us obtain the emotional intelligence needed to advance in other areas of our lives as well.
Why Is It So Hard to Talk About Our Feelings?
According to a recent article by the American Psychological Association, men are encouraged by society to mimic the image of the iconic Marlboro Man; a man who is tough, unemotional, and independent.
If you think back on your childhood heroes, chances are that most of them were strong, independent, successful and confident men who imposed their will and forcefully removed any obstacles (oftentimes with violence) that might have gotten in their way.
While these childhood heroes of ours might very well have helped us develop certain aspects of our character, they probably didn’t offer a lot in the way of teaching us how to be open and honest about our emotional state.
Once we grew old enough to get interested in women, chances are that society taught us that we were supposed to be the dominant sex; responsible for wooing women with our good looks, strength, bravery, and deftness. The most sought after girl usually ended up with the biggest jock at school; a guy who could have been the Marlboro Man himself.
As an undersized and outmatched freshman in highschool, I quickly learned that if any girl was going to be interested in my 5 foot 2 inch, 100 pound body, I would have to compensate for my physical weakness by putting forth an aura of the prototypical macho male. Cigarettes helped to make me look tougher than what I was and being as unemotional as possible was always a top priority.
The Hegemonic Construction of Masculinity
The typical “macho man” image that we are told is the only “correct” way to be a man has a name: the hegemonic construction of masculinity.
An essay by researcher Susan Speer titled Reconsidering the Concept of Hegemonic Masculinity considers that any sort of hegemony summons power through consent, and not by coercion. This leads to a destructive and negative status quo that is considered to be natural, ordinary and simply inevitable.
Most of us simply accept that there is no other way to be a man; at least not a respectable one. A man who is overly emotional, who cries at the movies, who collaborates with co-workers instead of competing with them is considered to be an aberration of a man; someone who won’t ever get ahead in life.
When it comes to relationships with women, the hegemonic construction of masculinity coerces us into accepting narrowly defined roles, responsibilities, and functions. We are to be providers and protectors, sexually assertive, stubbornly bull-headed, and strictly rational-minded as opposed to emotional.
We should avoid at all costs any sort of interaction with our partner where we might appear to be weak, delicate, emotional, or expressive. While some of the characteristics of this type of masculinity may be good and necessary at times, our reluctance and powerlessness to express other aspects of our being, especially the ability to openly share our thoughts and feelings, often leads to serious relational problems.
Five Ways to Open Up with Your Partner
Learning how to open up and share your feelings with someone that you love and care about begins by deconstructing the image of the Marlboro Man that we were fed since the time we were children. We need to accept that the tough, macho image of the John Wayne and Vin Diesel types is certainly one way to be a man, but definitely not the only way.
Once we have accepted that we can be caring and still be a man; or share our vulnerabilities and not be considered “feminine”; or—GASP—even cry and not be considered effeminate, then we might very well be ready to embrace new forms of communication with our partners. Below we will look briefly at five different strategies to open up with your partner.
1. Embrace Other Masculinities Possible
As we mentioned above, the first and most important step is to accept that other masculinities are possible. When my wife and I had been dating for about a year, a close family member of hers passed away. At the funeral, I felt that I needed to play the part of the strong and supportive man who stood by her side, offering her a shoulder to cry on. I wanted to be her “rock” in times of hardship, because, well, that sounded like a manly thing to do.
After the funeral, however, the pain of the loss of an important person in both her and my life hit me full force and almost unexpectedly, I found myself crying. We embraced and held each other for a long time allowing our emotions to come together in order to express our full sense of pain and sorrow.
Years later, my wife would admit to me that that moment stuck out in her mind as a defining moment in our relationship. By showing my vulnerability and emotions, she felt like she could better understand and comprehend a part of me that I had been hiding since we had first met.
2. Understand that Feeling Vulnerable is Okay
Men are supposed to be secure of themselves, confident, self-poised, and assured of every step they take, or so goes the story. When it comes to finding and maintaining a relationship, we oftentimes think that we need to stay on “top of our game” and never admit when something is out of our control.
Vulnerability makes us feel exposed and unprotected. We lose our Superman cape of invincibility and aspects of who we are “underneath” become visible. While many of us might shudder at the idea of such an occurrence, perhaps we need to reconsider the merit of vulnerability.
By embracing our vulnerability, we are showing our partners that we’re not afraid to let go of an image that we have been trying to portray and display who we really are, with faults and all. While you might not want to completely expose yourself and all your little eccentricities on a first date, showing your vulnerability to a long term partner can help take that relationship to another level.
3. Let Go of the Tough Man Image
It is probably good for us to own up to the fact that we are not all Rambo´s or Jean Claude Van Damme´s. There is always going to be another guy who is stronger, tougher, and more threatening than we are.
A recent article published on the online U.K. based academic journal “The Psychologist” finds that the dominant or hegemonic image of masculinity that is forced on so many men encourages and even obligates competitive and independent behaviours while repudiating anxieties and insecurities. Not only does this image cause significant emotional diffidence in men, it is also considered to be a factor that increases men´s likelihood of committing suicide.
The opposite of tough is tender, and when it comes to opening up with your partner, not being afraid to show a tender side can be a good thing.
4. Listen to Her Feelings and Tell Her If You Feel the Same
For many men who sincerely want to open up to their partners, but just cannot seem to find a way to do so, engaging in active listening is a good first step. Aside from not being very good at expressing our emotions, us guys also have a notorious reputation for being bad listeners.
The two actually go hand in hand because active, sincere listening compels you to take interest in the other person and feel empathy for her situation. And empathy is not a trait that most of us would use to define the Marlboro Man image that we have come to accept.
As a first step towards opening up with your significant other, make a concerted effort to truly listen to your partner. If your girlfriend or wife comes home from work and begins complaining about a rude customer, don’t simply nod your way through the conversation as you keep an eye on the ballgame you’ve been watching.
Turn off the TV and give her your full attention. Try to put yourself in her shoes and feel her feelings. Experiencing empathy for another person is an extremely powerful emotion; one that will undoubtedly move you closer towards the gift of being able to more fully and truly express your own emotions and feelings.
5. Ask for Empathy and Support
This is the hard one. Let’s say that you have followed the advice above and have gotten to the point where you can tell your significant other what you are feeling. Perhaps you can admit to her that you it upsets you when you feel like everything in life is a competition and that you are constantly trying your hardest to come out on top.
Expressing that emotion is a major breakthrough that many men never achieve. However, taking it to the next level and asking for support and empathy from your wife or girlfriend is a whole another level.
After our first daughter was born, I was working almost double the amount of hours while my wife stayed home to be with the baby. My wife actually received an extended maternity leave that could have lasted for 18 months if she chose. After 9 months, I was feeling exhausted and felt sad that I was missing so many important moments of the life of my only daughter.
At the same time, I was doing well in fulfilling my provider role and had been promoted at work for my extra effort. When I finally decided to talk to my wife, I told her about my fatigue and my despondency at not being more present in the life of our daughter. I then took a deep breath and asked if there might be a way for us to reconsider the roles so that I could spend more time with my daughter.
A few months later, my wife had taken on a part time job. As luck would have it, she was growing a bit antsy at home and wanted to find a way to spend more time away from home. Neither of us were able to bring up our feelings because we felt like we were doing good at obeying the roles that society had laid out for us.
The Benefits that Come with Opening Up
In many ways, it might feel like the safer option to simply hunker down in the roles that the hegemonic construction of masculinity lays out for us. Most people would never question us if we remained loyal to the Marlboro Man image.
Nonetheless, by embracing other possible masculinities, we can begin the slow process of finding our own feelings and emotions and learning how to share those with our partners. Without a doubt you will find that by opening up with your partner and exposing your vulnerability, your relationship will flourish.
Enjoyed the reading? Discover our related article about how your masculinity can harm you and people around you.