This article originally appeared in The Good Men Project.
Parents coach their sons to present a facade of emotional toughness and their daughters to admire that facade in men.
There is a commonly held cultural narrative which goes something like this: Men who share their emotions make better husbands and fathers. Women value this in a prospective partner because women are already naturally able to share their emotions. In a nutshell, women are the emotionally able ones; men can learn to be.
Growing more empowered emotional expression for men and women is crucial to making a better world. But the first step to getting there is to set aside these kinds of simplistic ideas about how we all operate emotionally.
Growing more empowered emotional expression for men and women is crucial to making a better world.
So, for the record, women do not automatically navigate emotional expression better than men. It would be nice if they did, but given how our culture operates, it is simply not possible.
We need to acknowledge that gaining emotional fluency—that is, the ability to navigate our internal emotional landscapes—is equally challenging for all of us. Exploring our own emotional histories can well can be the equivalent of opening an internal Pandora’s Box, which, once opened, can unleash wide-ranging and challenging consequences.
Men’s hidden emotions
One aspect of our simplistic cultural narrative is certainly accurate. Boys and men are not prone to sharing their emotions.
But it is not because men are born without these capacities. It is because they are taught from childhood to hide their emotions; that “real men” are emotionally stoic, that real men “man up” and tough it out. Boys and men who express a wider range of emotions, especially those that present as vulnerability or sensitivity (behaviors wrongly labeled as feminine), are typically bullied and policed. They are called sissies and wimps. They are considered to be failed men.
To get a sense of what boys face in our culture, take a minute and view the trailer for The Mask You Live In. This is a powerful documentary about the messages hammered into boys on a daily basis.
When we are forced to be emotionally tough, boys and men are cut off from learning how to process our more complex emotions. Why? Because learning to process our emotions is not a private act.
It is a social act. It happens in relationship to other people. For boys growing up in a culture of emotional toughness, the relational doorway is shut, the way forward, barred.
Men, women, and emotional fluency
Meanwhile, although women may be a bit freer to express their feelings, emotional fluency is far more than simply being free to express ourselves. Emotional fluency is the result of learning via the trial and error of emotional expression within relationships over time. Learning to do this well can take years, even decades. Like learning a language, it is a skill set most easily acquired when we are young, engaging emotional expression in our homes.
The source of our collective challenges is generational.
But in America’s culture of emotional toughness, boys and girls alike aren’t typically given an opportunity to learn these complex skills in their families of origin. A crisis later in life, such as the potential collapse of a marriage or a challenging illness, can launch them on a journey to awaken these emotional capacities.
But it is in these moments that men, doing this work with a spouse or partner, can unwittingly allow their spouses to become emotional gatekeepers for them by virtue of our myths about women and emotions. In doing so, men can get shut down again.
For example, a man learning to more openly express sentiments of love toward his partner or affection toward his children is likely to be encouraged. These “pleasing” expressions of emotion represent little or nothing in the way of a challenge for his partner.
But many men may stop there and proceed no further because of the negative reaction they face when expressing less appealing emotions like loss, grief, and sadness. Not surprisingly, the expression of these emotions can create huge anxiety for women who have been given little opportunity to process these kinds of emotions in their own lives.
Our culture and women’s emotions
When we assume women to be more adept at managing emotional communication, we are responding to the fact that women are granted permission to publicly express a somewhat wider range of emotions. But women have long been relegated to the greeting-card school of emotional expression. Love or condolences with a nice filigree. Nothing threatening. Nothing dark. You won’t find a Hallmark card for despair or rage. You won’t find a Hallmark card for panic or insecurity.
When women express darker emotions, they are told to calm down, that their emotions are simply the result of “their time of the month,” or that the emotional frustration they feel is not based in a rational (i.e., masculine) worldview. While men’s emotional expression is marginalized as feminine, women’s emotional expression is infantilized. It is in this repressed emotional space that the alarming sense of being gaslighted can emerge for women.
The end result? Women’s path to learning emotional fluency is closed off.
How do we listen when our partners share emotions like these without collapsing into them?
Men and women expressing their emotions openly is crucial to creating a healthier, more humane society. I have seen the power of stronger emotional connection play out in my own life and in the lives of my family and friends. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that learning to express our emotions is the key to a better life.
Unfortunately, our culture’s Disneyesque views on the benefits of male emotional expression are a dangerous combination of simplistic and idealistic. To trivialize the process in these ways is to miss the fundamental levels on which emotional expression operates.
The source of our collective challenges is generational. Having grown up in our emotionally averse culture, parents coach their sons to present a facade of emotional toughness and their daughters to admire that facade in men.
So, even as women might seek emotionally expressive men, they also carry deeply retrograde conditioning that causes them to want confidence and emotional toughness in their partners. It is a double bind for both women and men, who, when under stress, are tempted to fall back on retrogressive gender stereotypes in an overly complex world.
The damage done
As a young boy, I remember distinctly the sensation of “feeling like I should be having a feeling.” I was seven when my father divorced my mother. He then went to work overseas. My father was the source of emotional warmth in our family. When he left, I spent years grieving his loss. Then, at some point, those emotions fell silent, creating a blank, numb space. And below that, something very bad was hiding. I call that place “the basement.”
Whatever emotions I was feeling, I was left to process in isolation. The end result was that I could not identify any of the emotions I was feeling, with the possible exception of a consistent baseline of self-loathing.
I recall sitting in the pew at my grandmother’s funeral, witnessing myself attempting to cry. As if I was standing next to my own loss, detached, two steps removed. I stood there watching myself doing a vague performance of grief, feeling nothing. But there was something there, just out of my line of sight: a place I had worked so hard not to see that I couldn’t look toward it now if I wanted to. A place of loss and loneliness that I walled off, reducing it to a dull ache. For decades I simply didn’t look.
To this day, I still don’t want to look.
I have seen the power of stronger emotional connection play out in my own life and in the lives of my family and friends.
The result? Ten years of binge drinking as a young adult, struggling to figure out how to present myself in relationships. Ten more years after that of lurching through emotional chaos, struggling day by day to make my way back up into some kind of emotional self-awareness. Decades more of seeking a foothold and then beginning to sort out my past. To this day, it’s terrifying to “go down to the basement.” There’s a seven-year-old down there in the dark, and he’s not happy. He’s full of rage and despair, and he holds me responsible.
“Why didn’t you do something?,” he screams at me.
“Why didn’t you fight?”
“Why didn’t you fight them back, hurt them back?”
Hurt who? I don’t guess I know. Ghosts, phantoms, bullies ... family. The people who should have helped a young boy but did nothing. The violent bullies who ringed me around, smelling the damage and fear on me. I have yet to untangle all the anger and grief that I suppressed. I may never fully succeed in doing so.
But I know this. I would have talked. I always wanted to talk. What I was feeling day after day would have spilled out, but we don’t do that with our sons. We assume they’re OK. We demand they be OK. We don’t want to see their fears, their sadness. It reminds us too much of our own. So we don’t ask.
We subject our sons to a kind of emotional solitary confinement when we don’t engage their emotions. Our sons cease to trust their instincts. Their inner voice, their spiritual true north, falls silent without external confirmation or support, blocking them off from their innate resiliency. We subject them to decades of lost connections.
And those of us who love them have to deal with the fallout.
The missing piece of the puzzle
So what about the men and women who are committed to achieving more emotional intimacy in their lives? What skills are central if we want to be more emotionally intimate?
Surprisingly, expressing our emotions is not the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge that couples or parents face are the emotions that can arise when we hear our partners or children express theirs. Witnessing in others the darker emotions of fear, sadness, and grief—or even more challenging, witnessing emotions we cannot even name—is terrifying. How do we listen when our partners share emotions like these without collapsing into them?
For example, if my spouse tells me her life “feels empty,” that’s hard to hear. For many, this emotional expression would lead to a defensive posture. “Are you saying that being with me can’t give you a full life?” It’s understandable. It’s also not helpful.
Surprisingly, expressing our emotions is not the biggest challenge.
Why? Because the challenge of living a life of emotional suppression is that the emotions we hide can become monolithic and distorted. Only by expressing these feelings can we hope to move past them. At first, they can be difficult to talk about and even more difficult to hear.
But the expression of these darker emotions is central to moving them out, to releasing them and moving on. On one side we have the need to express, to be heard. On the other side we have the need to react, to respond. Our reactions can come from an equally dark place.
Suddenly, you have dark, painful feelings flying back and forth, doing more damage than good.
The powerful magic of holding
Dr. Saliha Bava, therapist based in New York City, specializes in helping couples and families navigate the complexity of emotional intimacy. Bava talks about the idea of “holding” the emotions of others. She views emotional expression as a relational activity, that is, the back and forth by which we create what she describes as “meaning, understanding and coordination within our relationships.”
Holding the emotions of others is a skill set that we already have in the form of listening.
The next steps in growing this capacity include listening without attempting to fix things. For example, instead of being a witness to our partner’s feelings, we might try to fix things by saying “It will all be OK, it’s not your fault, etc.”
We also need to set aside judgement. For example, we might judge by saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t feel like this.”
And finally we need to set aside the urge to categorize, name or explain. For example, we might try and assign a reason for our partner’s feelings by saying, “Oh, you’re feeling this way because you didn’t get the raise you wanted.”
We listen for how they are making sense and we accept that they may not have an explanation or an understanding yet, only the expression. They may not even be able to name it. By not naming their emotions for them, we let their truth emerge over time.
When we try to fix, judge or name the emotions of others, we are seeking to resolve the uncertainty our partner’s emotions create in us. Learning to set these urges aside takes practice.
One way to cultivate the practice of holding the emotions of others is to visualize that your partner is on the stage and you are in the audience. Your time will come to be on the stage, but for the moment, you sit and witness. When your partner is expressing emotions, let their story finish resonating for them. Let their story be complete. Let the room fall silent for a moment.
Remember, silence is not a lack of response, it is the response. And it comes with signals of connection though our eyes, our hearts, our presence. It is mix of intuition and calmness.
Imagine yourself as a container. Not “you lost your job and so you are feeling this.” Simply “you are feeling this and I am a container for it.” Nothing more.
What we are talking about for couples is ultimately a three-act play.
Act one: Your partner is on the stage, and you are their witness, holding their emotions.
Act two: You are on the stage and your partner is your witness, holding your emotions.
Act three: You both take the stage on behalf of the relationship. From there, the process of how to go forward together emerges. This co-creating emerges out of holding and compassionate listening.
The dance of holding between couples grows their emotional capacities because of the passing back and forth of witnessing and sharing. It creates greater intimacy and vulnerability, a stronger sense of connection and support. In the process, we learn to park the uncertainty such witnessing generates.
Our darker emotions, long suppressed, do not, like the contents of the mythical Pandora’s Box, represent the evils of the world. What we view as dark emotions can be powerful and generative forces for creating growth in our lives, but only if we engage them.
We can, as partners and parents, sons and daughters, learn how to liberate our voices and share our emotions. Sharing our own while holding the emotions of others is a transformational experience. It grants us more and better human-to-human connections in the world.
Which is the key to a wonderful life.