How Men Can Express Their Emotions and Practice Vulnerability


When Nick Firchau and his wife were dating, he walked from his Brooklyn apartment to Manhattan to buy fresh scallops to make his dinner. It was a big deal for Firchau, now 43, who rarely cooked and wanted to impress his girlfriend. According to him, she got vocally annoyed because he also neglected to cook a vegetable. “I couldn’t believe she didn’t appreciate all the effort I put in,” he told me.

However, he never told her anything. Instead, he fumed for days — a dynamic that continued for years in their marriage. When a conflict arose and he felt hurt, Firchau let those feelings “marinate”, which led to “pent-up anger and resentment, because the air had not been cleared the first time”.

Neglecting to consider and address emotional needs is common to many men, it turns out. For a number of reasons – many of which are rooted in socialized norms about masculinity – men are often taught at a very young age to diminish or even ignore their emotions in relationships. However, they do so at the expense of the health of their relationships and their own well-being. When men learn to better understand their emotional needs, the payoff can be substantial.

The common myth about men and emotions goes something like this: men are wired differently than women and therefore don’t have the same emotional needs. But Israeli researchers who pored over scans of more than 1,400 brains found that the structures and characteristics of the human brain are a “mosaic”, resistant to easy binary expectations about gender or sex. Another one study published last year in Nature reported that the emotions of men and women are, as one of the researchers said“clearly, consistently and unquestionably more similar than different”.

Instead, psychologists say these perceived differences often stem from social constructs, which start early. “We don’t train boys to have a vocabulary around their emotions beyond anger,” said Fredric Rabinowitz, chair of the psychology department at the University of California Redlands, whose research and private practice focus on men’s mental health. This happens, Rabinowitz said, because many boys are raised to believe that deeper emotions are separated from their being, which turns into “unprocessed trauma.” And when men lack emotional language, they can’t explain how they feel.

Firchau can identify with that. Until 2018, the podcast producer and host of the “Paternal“podcast “didn’t think about my emotions in general,” he said. (I appeared as a guest on his show.) That year he lost his job, the stress became overwhelming, and he felt like his identity was under siege.

“I always believed that guys were supposed to have it all figured out, for us and our families,” Firchau said. He worried that he couldn’t handle it all with “stoicism, confidence and emotional strength”, which scared him, as he feared that betraying his vulnerability “would make me unattractive to my wife.” I was afraid of losing her if I shared what was confusing me.

Like so many men who feel under siege, he couldn’t express those negative emotions and, he says, was overwhelmed with stress.

Another self-inflicted barrier that prevents men from meeting their own emotional needs occurs when they check for relationship conflict, or “stone wall.” It occurs when a person feels overwhelmed by their emotions during an interpersonal conflict and then disconnects physically or emotionally, such as by walking away, changing the subject, or engaging in other distracting behaviors. Many people who practice stonewalling consider it a peacekeeping tactic, but it only bury problems that need to be addressed.

Even though they no longer believe that repressing or suppressing deeper emotions makes them “stronger,” many men believe, or at least hope, that this is of no consequence. They are wrong. Research shows, for example, that holding back negative emotions worsens mental healthexacerbating symptoms of anxiety and depression, and triggers physiological responses linked over time to cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease.

Men are not the only ones to contribute to male stereotypes about vulnerability. Psychologist Paulette Kouffman Sherman said in an email that despite the well-documented demand for male partners to be more emotionally available, some women “don’t find it attractive.” They perceive a man’s vulnerability as “weakness, need,” as less masculine, a threat to traits they value in fathers who were the family “rock”: the “strong, quiet, fixer” types, says -she.

Bill Johnson, a psychologist from suburban Chicago, said his mostly black clientele, a third of whom are in the LGBTQ community, experience similar reactions from their partners. “A lot of men don’t feel like they have an audience to talk about the deeper hurt and pain in their romantic relationships. It’s hard to have people in your life who will do that for them. This is true for straight men as well as gay men.

But there’s no doubt about the role of vulnerability in successful relationships. Therapists know that being open to partners and spouses, and to potential rejection, builds and deepens trust, empathy, and intimacy.

Ever since Firchau decided to work with a therapist, walls have come down in her relationship. “My therapist helped me develop the language to talk about my deepest feelings and helped me validate them. And he helped me realize that there was nothing to be ashamed of, that they were normal.

Emboldened, Firchau approached his wife with his newfound literacy and confessed the truth: he had been afraid that she would view his true feelings as a weakness. He was wrong. “She said to me, ‘What’s not attractive is that you didn’t want to face the problem at all.’ ”

This language, Firchau said, broke down unproductive barriers — and created healthy ones.

“Whenever my wife and I have a heated conversation about kids or money, I now know that instead of engaging in a heated argument, I need time to step away and think for myself. -even to the way of expressing what I feel.” He now creates needed space for himself and, a day or two later, shares with his wife why he felt hurt or upset. “But we hold each other accountable. And after that day passes, we have this follow-up conversation.

Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University and is the author of “Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency.”

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