How many times have you felt upset by something your male partner said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do and then found yourself concluding that whatever the issue it results from his very maleness, from the sheer fact that he is a man, that he simply ‘can’t help it.’ Certain notes are sounded again and again when women talk about trouble with their men: “But you know, that’s how men are” or “He’s a man after all, its not his fault” or “MEN!” Typically the women listening nod and laugh, bursting with agreement. These and other platitudes are recited as a way to minimize their distress and frustration. However, this tendency to dismiss males as genetically deficient reinforces for them the idea that it is not safe to fully be themselves with their female partners.
It is important to note research consistently demonstrates that men and women are more alike than different, share an almost identical brain structure, similar needs for achievement and connection, and generally want the same things out of life. The differences are in nuance and, although important, should not be used to relegate men to some far removed, distant space in the universe that normal people, i.e. women, find inhospitable.
Men are socialized beginning in boyhood to conform to what the culture values as masculine. This includes being in control of one’s emotions, winning at all costs and not showing vulnerability. Men who do not wholeheartedly conform are often stigmatized socially and may be viewed by others as ‘feminine’ in some vague way. Men who display vulnerability may be called a “sissy” or, currently in fashion, a “vagina.” Research suggests that men who feel they must rigidly conform to masculine gender norms are more likely to suppress emotions that make them feel vulnerable. These are the very emotions required for emotional intimacy with a romantic partner.
As women we often reinforce the same gender conditioning that pushes men away. A more effective approach is to buffer this harsh cultural reality by keeping these five points in mind.
1. He deeply wants you to like him and to love him for himself and not just what he can do for you.
Male socialization teaches that their value is in their agency—that is in their ability to act, take charge, control, win, achieve—lest he receive the ‘sissy’ scorn. Do not let this superficial part of him mislead you. Underneath this conditioning is a child who, just like you, wants to feel loved for who he is. He desires someone who can be okay with him even when he is not winning, producing or ‘on top.’ He may not be able to tell you this, so when he is feeling ‘not good enough’ you may not even know it. Unlike women, men have more difficulty talking about their ‘weaker’ emotions.’ If you keep this key in mind, you may notice other important things about him. How funny he is? How nice it is to spend time with him? How do you like talking with him about your day? Open the dialogue up to his essence, not merely his prowess.
2. He wants you to like yourself.
If you are using him to feel okay about yourself, it will never be enough and you will constantly be in search of the next boost. He experiences this as dependency and it can become burdensome so that he is not free to be his authentic self. In addition, there is typically a correlation between how much women are unaccepting of themselves and their tendency to criticize and hyper-control the man in their life. This is because people tend to project characteristics onto others that reflect themselves. In other words, if you are unhappy with yourself, you may be overly critical of him. As a rule of thumb, the feedback to your significant other should be 75 percent positive, 25 percent negative. If the ratio is reversed, you are triggering Kryptonite for a lot of men and it makes them feel endlessly nagged and criticized. When this is the case, they acquire a sense that they can ‘never get it right.’ This, invariably, leads them to tune out and avoid the woman in their life.
3. He wants you to believe in his ability to communicate.
News flash: It turns out all that propaganda about men not being able to communicate is wrong, men actually can communicate. “Men are from Mars,” “Men are Neanderthals,” these phrases reinforce the stereotype that men cannot talk about their feeling or motives with more than a fourth-grade point of view. And, these descriptors further reinforce male adoption of the idea that if they do communicate more vulnerable thoughts or emotions, they may be stigmatized as too soft. If you find yourself saying things like this, stop and give him a chance. Yes, women are more verbal—they typically talk about their feelings more quickly and succinctly than men. But men do know what they think and feel. Instead of shaming him, when you can tell he is trying to express something vulnerable take him seriously, ask questions. Be sure to thank him for trying to talk to you on this level. Trust me, if you do this, he will talk more and you will see that under his exterior of manliness is a man who speaks articulately and has feelings very similar to you.
4. He wants you to be playful.
Not to generalize because all women are different, but many are masters at organization, multitasking and ‘taking care of business.’ It can be a little too easy when around your partner to talk mostly about the agenda for this day or the next day, what needs to be done etc. He wants to see you let go of control and be spontaneous, playful and in the moment with him. Because just like when you have a good talk with him and feel as if he really gets your point of view or has validated your feelings in some meaningful way, you feel good about him, yourself and your relationship. His love has an opportunity to deepen when you engage him without agendas and controls. He feels as if he is a real person who you see and hear and not just a piece you move on your chessboard of tasks.
5. He wants you to know that boys do cry.
Deep down, just like you, men are vulnerable beings. Do not punish or minimize if you see even a hint of sadness, let him have his moment. He may or may not cry, and certainly men are typically socialized to cry less than women, however it is important for his negative emotions to be validated and heard. Boys and men are given so much shame in our culture for being vulnerable that they are often left with only one choice to vent negative feelings—anger. Offer him one place in the world where he can unconditionally bring his full self to the table and where you don’t judge. Don’t talk him out of his fears, or upset, offer compassion and understanding—two important qualities that men do not get enough of throughout childhood and adulthood.
When you find yourself trying to understand something he says that you find unacceptable, stop, breathe and remember; deep down most men want what women want–acceptance for who they are, love and positive reinforcement for what they do well and for what they are trying to contribute.