There are men who are predisposed to be emotionally present in a relationship and others who are not. This predisposition is an intrinsic part of personality or may be borne of earlier experiences, including the models men grew up with, their previous positive or negative relationships, their temperament,and social norms (as shown in classic studies including, THIS). Regardless of a man’s relationship to having a relationship, the patterns he creates tend to fall into five simple categories.
Whether this post is about you, a friend, or you are reading this post to better understand your partner, identifying how you or your partner is fully or partially reflected in these categories can help you adjust your behaviors and expectations within your relationship. Note that if the pronouns in your relationship don't match those used in this post (e.g. if you are in a same-sex couple), you can adjust these labels as needed.
1. Commitment Man
This man seeks out relationships that value monogamy, reciprocity, and a mutual support. This man admires, respects, and likes women as people, is comfortable with women in positions of authority, and views his partner as having an equal voice in the relationship. He also appreciates her as much for the essential role she plays in the family as he does for her, individually. In this dynamic, difficulties can arise when Commitment Man focuses on the family unit as a whole to the point at which he loses sight of his both his primary partner within the family, and as an individual, which can erode the relationship by creating a “going through the motions” experience at the expense of romance. However, remembering and rediscovering his partner’s individuality and contributions can restore the reciprocal relationship and mutual support that cultivates romance and enhances the long-term investment.
This category also includes men who are comfortable being in a supporting role within the relationship, for example if his partner is the primary breadwinner, he is neither threatened nor frustrated by his supporting financial role. He feels comfortable with a fluidity of roles and will do his best to be supportive in his supportive role. Of note, he may have to check in periodicallly with his partner to determine if she continues to be comfortable with the roles as they are. Otherwise, difficulties in the relationship may sprout up.
2. Emotional Caretaker/Controller
This man treats his partner like a delicate flower that has to be pampered in order to blossom. She may even be kept on a pedestal and is not permitted to fall from grace. He takes great pride in helping his partner grow, as long as his partner understands that there are clear relationship roles. Whatever he gives, he gets back in a different way. He thinks of thoughtful things to do for his partner, and there’s reciprocity to it, as his partner responds to his thoughtfulness by taking care of him in turn. There is mutual respect, but the roles in this relationship are well defined, an experience he not only finds comforting, but necessary. He is probably a man who prefers predictability, patterns, and ritual. These somewhat traditional relationship roles can work well when his partner is comfortable not challenging the role she has been assigned to. This dynamic can work well, even if it seems “old fashioned” to some.
However, this role configuration can also be quite fragile. If any component of Emotional Caretaker/Controller is challenged within the family, he may feel threatened, become more rigid, or even retreat. This careful balance is essential, and anything else can feel chaotic to him and therefore make the relationship as delicate as his treatment of his partner has been.
3. Not Ready for a (Prime Time) Relationship Guy
He travels in a pack – a group of guys usually in their teens, twenties, early thirties (or even older) who gravitate toward each other due to history and mutual interests. They often view their bond with each other as primary, and are threatened by women who are interested in one of them romantically, because it will impact the group. They have convinced themselves (or tried to) that being in a relationship is being “tied down” – an inconvenience rather than an enhancement – unless he finds a partner willing to adhere to "guy rules." He is oriented toward a single lifestyle and encourage a single lifestyle among their peers and feels abandoned when the get involved.
Along the way, because sexual needs (and maybe covert emotional needs) must be met, this guy hooks up and even sometimes dates, whether overtly or covertly. There’s a certain kind of person this guy is willing to date openly, often chosen with his friends’ approval in mind. If the person he dates doesn’t meet the perceived standards of his peers, he may hide or disparage the relationship out of shame.
One of the many difficulties that arises when trying to engage romantically with this guy is that he recognizes that part of being intimate with someone is being vulnerable and many of these guys don’t perceive being vulnerable as “manly.” When this guy is hanging out with his friends, it’s not socially appropriate to show vulnerability, and so this detracts from his ability to connect with women.
As he matures, his emotional needs may evolve and he may find a way to open himself up to emotional connection. However, in some instances, he may engage in relationships just because his friends have, and consequently continue to have great trouble allowing authentic commitment. He may eventually become invested in the identity of being a “carefree” bachelor. But as he gets older, he does frequently come around to the idea that maybe he is ready for a partner.
4. Needy/Dependent Man
This man is often dependent on his partner and feels lost without someone to act as his rudder, guiding him through his daily life. Sometimes this experience of intense need comes from a pattern of being taken care of, or longing to be taken care of, in past relationships or even in his early family life. He may also see himself as unlovable which intensifies his needs from the relationship.Furthermore, there is often a level of disorganization in how these men conduct themselves in the world, (when not at work because there is typically structure already in place). His difficulty creating a structure in his home life intensifies his dependency. Without a partner he feels lost and ineffectual.
The intensity of his need for a relationship comes at the expense of his ability to learn the value of independence when these dynamics are at play, and interferes with growing a relationship in a healthy way. This man’s dependency and lack of realization that he is too dependent on his partner often sabotages his relationship, because he can be inadvertently suffocating. He needs to be in a relationship because he requires someone to take care of him, emotionally as well as perhaps physically. The demands can seem overwhelming, which is a lot to ask of a partner to fill without becoming resentful, which in turn may lead to rejection.
This man who perpetually puts himself in the position of being rejected may have been through this process of rejection many times without understanding his role in sabotaging the relationship. The intensity of his own needs may detract from his ability to identify when the relationship is going sour – when his partner feels suffocated and oppressed by his needs. Without being able to decrease his inadvertent demands his partner ends up feeling miserable, eventually leaves, or becomes unfaithful as described in my previous post.
This man would benefit significantly from taking time off from relationships to learn to sustain his needs independently, and sit with the discomfort of being alone. Facing this fear is empowering, and may give this man the opportunity to become more comfortable in his own skin before attempting to have another (albeit healthier, more balanced) relationship. With rigorous self-exploration this man can learn to be more self-sustaining, and will see the value of learning to live on his own. Bu doing so can incorporate a partner in a way that feels healthier and more mutually connected.
5. Solitary/Phobic Man
This man may have a fear of being hurt, being exposed, being vulnerable, or being shamed, typically a result of early patterns of attachment or lack thereof to caregivers, traumas, experiences in past relationships, or a host of other reasons. Now even if he’s tough on the outside, he feels very fragile inside, and so he either shies away altogether from relationships to protect himself, or he may engage in a relationship while remaining extremely guarded, secretive, and uncommitted. He likely goes to extremes to protect himself from emotional pain, including not putting himself in a position to be rejected. For him, the inability to let anyone in seems a necessary self-protection against being burned again or for the first time. This man may actually be relationship-oriented, but the experience can be so fraught with challenge. Being in a relationship for him involves taking a leap of faith, as he may feel so stuck in previous rejections or slights that it’s just too scary to jump.
With support and consistency from his partner, it is possible for this man to begin to gain trust. Regardless, it can be very easy for him to leave. In this kind of a relationship to make sure your needs get met, and if he is unable, understand that he just may not be ready, or he may never be.
In all five of these categories, increased communication, reassurance, and patience may help to enhance the relationship. And understanding relationship patterns within these five categories can help partners discover how to best relate as a couple. Again, these categories aren’t meant to assign all men to small, constricted boxes. Men will draw from more than one category, and many may not only be represented in these simple ways. These descriptions are meant to help men understand how and what they contribute to a relationship, what their motivations are, and it helps the partners who love them better understand them moving forward.