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April 7, 2021

Why Telling Men to “Get in Touch with their Feelings” is Toxic.

In my personal romantic relationships, I’ve never told a man he should “get in touch with his feelings.”

That isn’t my choice—it’s his. He either wants to do it or he doesn’t.

But men have naturally come to me to talk about what they are feeling. It’s not something I’ve sought out. It just happens. In the past three decades as a coach and counselor, I’ve spoken to hundreds of men, and one common response when asked why they come to me is: “I feel at ease talking to you.”

They intuitively know I have no agenda, and I’ve learned a great deal from these men sharing with me.

Many of them have shared they feel deeply, but that the women in their romantic relationships couldn’t see them for who they are. These women couldn’t accept how they process their emotions. They wanted to fix them.

Women want them to get in touch with their feelings and “talk” about them. But men aren’t like that. Some men—not all men—express and process their feelings much differently than women. This isn’t due to a biological difference, but in how men have been socially conditioned over centuries.

Most women are expressive, typically emotional beings; we feel and experience everything. That is part of what is so attractive to men. But when we feel that our man is not expressing his feelings clearly to us, we try to find a reason. We want to know his deepest feelings, so we ask, and if he doesn’t respond in a way we like, we go into our head and logically think he isn’t in touch with his feelings. He needs us to help him. Otherwise, he would be able to express his emotions.

We want to hear it from him to feel it from him.

How we feel “it” from him doesn’t lie in his ability to talk about his feelings though. It lies in our understanding of how he conveys his feelings. When women understand this, the relationship shifts. They begin to see that by paying attention to him and carefully listening to verbal and nonverbal communication cues they get a great deal of information. Suddenly, they understand, and that mental chatter—the need to fix—goes away. They feel more at ease.

Over the past decades talking to and observing men as a dating and relationship coach, I’ve found men feel their emotions deeply. They just cope with and process them differently. It’s even debatable that they may feel more extremes than women. Ilan Shrira states that “on average, young boys are more impulsive, physically active, and have more intense emotional highs than young girls.”

Like women, every man is different. However, there are some common ways in which I see men process their emotions. They stop what they are doing and often stop talking. They usually find something else to do so that they do not get too far into emotional reactivity. Some men go build something, fix the car, watch a game, go for a run, read the paper, or mountain bike, which are all healthy responses. Some men seek out vices and mood-altering substances, which are also a way to self-regulate these extreme emotions.

Whatever they choose, most find something to do that allows them to process.

I once watched one man get a drink and go on the roof of his building to look out over the skyline and think. He thought it through for a long time until he was clear on what he was experiencing—until he knew how he felt. I could see from his body language he was experiencing many different emotions.

From a woman’s perspective, she might be upset that he left her in the middle of whatever the emotional charge was: the intense emotions, the conversation, the argument. She might feel unimportant and abandoned. What they can’t see is that this is his way of processing; moving away is how he self-regulates, and it’s beneficial to calm himself before he gets past a certain point.

Women can learn from watching men process emotions. Because they have been programmed to not express them, they have found ways of processing them without being overcome and acting out on impulse.

History has shown us that when men go around expressing these intense emotions physically, without restraint, the world becomes far more chaotic and violent. Wars, mass shootings, and neighborhood bar fights are all examples of where emotions took over and were acted upon without restraint. We regularly see evidence of this in society today.

Since men typically allow their emotions to take control and act them out physically, they’ve been socialized to hide their emotions, which is a technique seen in stoicism. They’ve been conditioned to believe emotions are more feminine. To be masculine they need to be strong, which leads them to suppress their emotions. Still today, society benefits from men restraining their emotions. Consider what happened to George Floyd: a police officer allowed his emotions to overtake him, overtake his reasoning, and he acted out on these emotions. We’ve seen the result of not regulating intense emotions on live video. Traumatic as that still is, it was also very telling.

We as a society are still trying to educate people on ways to process intense emotions intelligently. Because of this lack of skill in emotional regulation, society benefits from a certain amount of stoicism to maintain a level of peace and order. However, bottled-up emotions can explode. This is why acceptance, understanding, emotional safety, and processing skills are so important. Even more important is stopping the systemic stories that cause men to feel as if they are unfeeling and flawed, which only causes more bottled-up anger.

Shrira highlights this sentiment by adding,

“Though you can’t prevent people from having these emotions, you could convince them that hiding their feelings is the very essence of manhood.”

Thus, stoicism is linked to masculinity and acts as a restraint on the aggressive side of this identity that sometimes runs amok, and we can see the incentive for cultures to do this. All told, this practice has probably prevented countless cases of violent outbursts and many casualties throughout history.”

Sadly, this is all to the detriment of men.

The truth is that despite this history of emotional suppression, men often process their feelings beautifully.

When I’m watching some men work through their feelings, I’m amazed. There are no truly accurate words for me to describe what I feel when I witness it. It’s just beautiful.

I understand why they get so triggered when women express themselves intensely—because they’ve had to learn self-regulation, which women can learn from. Again, men tend to find something physical to do or get away from the current situation to regroup to find resolve. They allow themselves to be less triggered and reactive. It’s often healthy to revisit issues after the intense feelings have passed, after they’ve been thought through.

It’s helpful to remember that just because he doesn’t respond like a woman, doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling.

When this happens, ask yourself these questions:

Are you, as a woman, expecting him to act like you?

Are you looking for him to feel things like you or respond like you?

Are you expecting him to be like your girlfriends?

Take time to really look at yourself and the demands you might be putting on him. Are you allowing him to do things in his own way? Ask yourself what deep need you are trying to get met from him expressing his feelings outwardly.

When we are busy looking at men through our feminine glasses, we don’t acknowledge the historical and social differences. We can’t see him process things in his own way because the window through which we are viewing him is flawed.

So let’s change that window.

Next time you want the man in your life to “get in touch with his feelings,” stop yourself from saying this phrase and notice him—really notice him—and see the feelings that are there. Is he just responding and processing differently?

I’m not saying that men wouldn’t benefit from learning to be more in touch with their feelings. I’m saying to notice how they already are and then have a talk about it from the angle of, “I’ve been listening to you and watching you and I’m curious to learn more about what you are experiencing. I want to understand you.”

Often, men experience emotions as thinking. It might be a bit of time for him to connect to how to express what he is feeling. I suggest avoiding using the word feeling as it might trigger that unconscious need to withhold. Men were taught to not feel for eons, and while rooted in protecting their family and tribe from danger and the ability to hunt and feed them, it now isn’t as necessary to be stoic. Still, men have inherited and been socialized with this trait. And as inconvenient as it might be, it isn’t entirely a bad trait.

When trying to understand your partner, work from a place of curiosity. Would you still be attracted to him if he was emotional and reactive like you? Find value in how he is and how that compliments you. Just because everyone thinks men need to “get in touch with their feelings” doesn’t mean they do. Once we stop this systemic lie and bring logic and compassion in, we will start to see a different man, and we will get further in our relationships by getting to know him as who he is rather than who we’ve come to believe he should be.

I can say from experience that men are more likely to get in touch with and express their feelings when they aren’t being hammered with some societal story that has spread like wildfire and makes them feel like they are somehow flawed. It isn’t emotionally safe for them to express themselves. I’ve seen men open up and literally sob in my arms because I was a safe, accepting, and open person who didn’t have expectations of their emotions.

If you watch how he responds to you in action, you’ll learn a great deal about his feelings. Instead of demanding or seeing yourself as a victim to his apparent lack of feelings, be curious.

Because we don’t need him to express his feelings like us and we don’t need to change him. We need to honor how he processes emotions naturally and use that as a way to grow as a couple.

~

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