Many men are as cold as ice when it comes to their feelings. A frequent complaint of women in marriage counseling is that their male partners won't open up to them. "He won't communicate," typically means, "he won't tell me how he feels." She says this to me while he sits there thinking he doesn't 'feel' anything. So are there really emotionally unavailable men, or are they just emotionally clueless? Yes and yes.
This emotional divide between men and women often gets defined as, "we can't communicate," and is the most frequent relationship complaint for women, which is often closely followed by most men's top complaint, "we don't have enough sex." Men want sex and women want to talk about feelings. It's one of the oldest male-female stereotypes, but there's a lot of truth to this difference too.
Many men are emotionally unavailable men. I was one. I can still be one at times (and I'm a therapist). Often times it's not intentional for us not to feel anything or not to communicate what we feel when we do. It's just what we've been taught and not taught (I'll explain below).
Men Fix, Women Process
Most guys focus on getting things done and don't usually think much about how they 'feel' while doing it. Many women are just the opposite and focus on the experience (what it feels like) as much as, and sometimes more than, getting a task done.
Because women process experiences they expect the man in their life to do the same by sharing with them in a deep and meaningful way, which requires him to be emotionally available. Here are some comments from a couple I'm counseling that illustrate this and how it becomes a problem:
Kaira: "I want him to tell me what's going on with him . . . Sometimes I know what's going on when he's stressed and sometimes I don't . . . He lacks emotional intimacy . . . I feel more disconnected . . . "
Will: "She has needs I can't meet . . . She longs for deep conversations . . . She expects me to talk to her like her girlfriends do . . . I'm never going to be a girl . . . Her expectations are unfair . . . She wants me to be somebody I'm not going to be . . ."
The differences in expectations, needs, and abilities between Kaira and Will are pretty typical. They each describe a lot of women and men, and the frustration, disappointment, and separation that occurs around this area in relationships. However, despite believing this is just a core difference between he and Kaira, Will has pushed himself to learn how to better share with her how he's feeling.
I always felt hurt because my ex seemed emotionally distant." -Maria
Why Men are Emotionally Unavailable
A myth about men is that they don't have feelings. They do -- they just don't know what they are most of the time. Men's feelings can be seen much more than heard. A fist through the wall is more likely than the words, "I feel angry."
Emotions can be uncomfortable, scary, and hard to deal with, especially for men. So why not just avoid them?
Masculinity has taught men that expressing emotions makes you a girl. When men were growing up they learned that acting like a girl brought teasing and even bullying, so they had to hide how they felt. Displaying emotions is also seen as a sign of weakness. The phrase 'big boys don’t cry' is an example of how boys and men are taught that being a man requires denying emotions.
There is a psychological term for the inability to recognize and describe feelings called alexithymia. Having no words for emotions describes individuals with restricted emotional development, and it also aptly describes emotionally unavailable men. In fact, researcher Ronald Levant has coined the term, “normative male alexithymia,” to describe men who do not meet the clinical threshold for alexithymia, but suffer from a milder version of it. In fact, some experts believe that as many as 80% of men have at least a mild form of alexithymia.
While alexithymia partly explains why men can be emotionally unavailable, it's also possible to change this. Guys, like Will above, who work with a counselor can learn to better recognize, name, and describe their feelings. Building what is called emotional intelligence has value far beyond satisfying a female partner too. Without such emotional skills, many men are literally mute when it comes to describing their emotional experience, which leaves them trapped and unable to escape negative emotional states. What's the result?
Emotionally Disconnected Men are at Risk
Being an emotionally unavailable man has many risks. Obviously, as we have already seen there are relationship risks. There are mental health risks too. Men can suffer from mild symptoms of depression that are hard to recognize or have anger management problems. And there are destructive behavior risks as well, like over drinking, cheating, developing an addiction to online gaming, workaholism, or having a porn addiction. All of these provide men with an emotional release that is socially acceptable for men, while keeping them from the shame associated with feeling expression.
So my boyfriend and I have been living together for a year and have been together for 2. Everything is fine between us and people have always told us we're such a happy couple. We belong together, etc. Then one day he starts changing. Becoming distant. It's like he has no emotion. He denies me sex. He doesn't talk about his feelings or doesn't care about mine (so it seems)." -Court
A lot of men are emotionally frozen. While being a man and emotionally unavailable seem to go hand in hand, they don't have to. Ultimately, it is a choice to remain disconnected from your feelings, especially when your life shows the wreckage from it -- broken relationships, dissatisfaction and unhappiness, or dysfunctional, destructive, addictive behaviors.
Emotionally unavailable men are stuck, but they don't have to stay that way. We men can make a different choice to build our emotional intelligence and free ourselves from the trap of being dissociated from our emotional experience. Join Will, myself, and the other men who've found that you can still be a man and learn how to recognize and share your feelings. It actually takes a lot courage and strength to do it.
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