The face of marriage (and intimate relationships) has changed over the years and some men are playing catch-up in order to adjust to these changes. The dynamics created by patriarchal arrangements have given way to greater equality and the blurring of traditional marital roles.
The expectations of what it means to be a husband or a wife are no longer restricted by gender roles and stereotypes. Many wives are making more money than their husbands. Many men are taking over domestic duties. Hearing “My wife’s a lawyer and I’m a stay-at-home dad” doesn’t raise as many eyebrows as it did just ten years ago.
And these changes don’t stop at the practical level. More is expected of men emotionally. For many of the wives I’ve worked with, there is the expectation that their husbands will be emotionally engaged.
As one wife said, “My marriage works because my husband is both sensitive and strong when I need him to be. After all, I give all of myself to this marriage in addition to a full-time career. Why would I expect anything less?”
Let’s turn our attention to why some men struggle to meet these new expectations for greater emotional engagement and intimacy.
Men and Intimacy: 3 Reasons Men Struggle
1) Denying the need for connection
One pattern I see in my psychotherapy work with men is the denial of their core emotional needs. For some men, denial may actually be too strong a word, it might be more accurate to say that these men simply don’t fully realize they have emotional needs — an important part of their psychology has been overlooked.
How can we overlook something so important?
In order to identify a self-experience, the experience must capture our attention. And once this occurs, an additional step is needed: we must have the right words to describe what we’re experiencing.
When the socialization of young boys leads to psychological blindspots that prevent us from connecting to and identifying our varied emotional experiences, then the groundwork is laid for emotional blindspots. A significant literature has grown that describes the unique psychological and social dynamics that profoundly shape men (Gilmore, D., 1990; Levant, R.F. & Pollack, W.S. 2003; Wexler, D. 2009).
What are your core emotional needs? How do you know when they are being met?
2) Failing to express our needs
Realizing the need for emotional connection doesn’t automatically translate into the ability to communicate our needs effectively. Emotional needs do not exist in a vacuum—they arise within us and are shaped by our earliest relationships.
As children, our primary needs were to be loved, nurtured and protected. We don’t just feel these things, they emerge out of a relationship with a responsive other, someone who accurately tunes into our emotional life. The responsive parent/caregiver helps us find the words needed to describe our inner life and by doing so, helps to give clarity to our needs.
These early relationships give us the psychological tools to build healthy relationships throughout our lives.
However, not everyone is lucky enough to have a responsive caregiver. And for men, it’s important to highlight a dilemma that can sometimes short-circuit this developmental process:
What happens when our emotional needs start to conflict with the prevailing views of what it means to be a man — a masculinity placed upon us as defined by our family of origin, or a particularly important mentor-mentee/peer relationship, or our culture?
In these instances, expressing our needs becomes dangerous.
Ask any boy who has cried in front of his peers and you’re likely to hear stories about humiliation and ostracism. In these instances, intentionally thwarting the expression of a particular emotional need (for instance, the need for comfort when distressed) may feel like the lesser of two evils — although this path also comes with a significant cost that may not be immediately realized.
What prevented you from expressing your emotional needs as a child?
What psychological tools are needed to help you communicate these needs to your spouse/partner?
3) Resisting emotional vulnerability
As mentioned above, emotional vulnerability and certain masculine ideals do not make good bedfellows. And why is vulnerability even important to the topic of emotional connection?
Our ability to be emotionally open and vulnerable is one way that the connection between you and your partner is fed. Vulnerability allows for mutual understanding, empathy and support. This is how we share the deepest parts of ourselves.
Remaining emotionally closed-off or steeled in masculine stoicism, on the other hand, prevents connecting moments. While the intensity of the connection you and your partner feel with each other will ebb and flow throughout the marriage, the accumulation of connecting moments is vital for a healthy marital foundation to remain in place.
Describe any emotional blocks to vulnerability that you might struggle with.
How can you effectively communicate these struggles to your spouse/partner?
Of course our spouse/partner will need us to be strong and decisive at times, but if this is all we can give—if we are unable to accept and give tender support when needed—then intimacy will suffer.
What’s important for men to hold onto is that we do not have to abandon our masculinity (the masculine ideals we value) by nurturing moments of vulnerability between us and our partner. Just like with stoicism, there will be times when becoming more vulnerable will be what is needed and times when it won’t be necessary.
The key here is emotional flexibility. A flexibility that allows us to experience a range of different emotional experiences with our wives when needed. And don’t worry if you haven’t achieved this yet, it’s a work in progress for many of us.
Here’s to deeper connections with our loved ones!
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D.
Dr. Richard Nicastro is a psychologist in Georgetown, Texas, where he offers individual and marriage counseling. One particular area of interest is working with men who want to improve their ability to form deeper emotional connections. He is currently starting a men’s group on this topic.
A New Psychology of Men (2003). Edited by Levant, R.F. & Pollack, W.S.
Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (1990). Gilmore, D.D.
Men in Therapy: New Approaches to Effective Treatment (2009). Wexler, D.
(Featured images courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)