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Why Do Men Get Nervous When Women Get Emotional?

How men's fears of emotions may keep them from establishing intimacy.

Key points

  • Men sometimes become uncomfortable when conversations with their partners get emotional.
  • Feelings can be contagious, so when women get more emotional, men may be uncomfortable with the emotions they start to feel.
  • Men may try to "win" arguments by keeping them logical and rational, while criticizing women for being "too emotional."
Source: Absolutvision/Pixabay

Men sometimes get nervous when women have strong feelings. It doesn’t matter if she is scared, or sad, or angry, or even really happy. Even when women make it absolutely clear that they are not upset with their partner or husband, men may still feel anxious.

To manage their own anxiety, men often try to reassure women when they are emotional or step in quickly to “fix” whatever is bothering them, or convince them that they don’t have a good reason to be this upset; anything they can think of to calm women down. For a lot of guys, their partner’s distress becomes the single most important thing, and not much else can happen until that gets taken care of.

Why is a woman being openly emotionally destabilizing for certain men? Why do these men find women’s emotions impossible to ignore? As with most things having to do with relationships, the answer is pretty complicated.

This issue often emerges during an argument. Men tend to be more comfortable with facts than feelings. When an argument gets more emotional, men can feel uncharacteristically disadvantaged, like they are playing an away game on their wife/partner’s home field. Men often try to “win” arguments by going on the offensive, telling their wives/partners that they are “being hysterical” or pushing them to “calm down and make sense,” trying to keep things focused on their home field of facts and practical matters and doing their best to keep all emotions out of it.

Even when their wife/partner’s emotions have nothing to do with them, men can still feel compelled to curtail those emotions because they are often raised to feel responsible for women’s happiness. If women are unhappy about something, men are often raised to believe that they have failed in some way. You can see how this leads to repetitive power struggles. Women often feel that they can’t make the kind of intimate connection they are looking for with their husbands/partners. They may learn that if they show a little distress, he will start to lean in and pay more attention.

While this is initially effective, after a while the man may be less responsive to his wife/partner’s distress, so she might escalate her expression of emotion, which is again effective for a while, until it’s not, and things keep escalating from there.

Another reason that men can be so bothered by women’s strong feelings is that men secretly feel emotionally inadequate compared to their wives/partners. On some level, most men recognize that they are not as emotionally well developed as their wives/partners. Their wives/partners seem to have stronger emotions, have an easier time expressing their feelings, and are more empathic responding to other people’s feelings. On an unconscious level, many men are scared that there is something wrong with them when they don’t have the kinds of emotional responses they see in their wives/partners.

My father died when I was a young man. I loved my father and was very close to him and decided I wanted to give his eulogy. My biggest fear was not that I wouldn’t be able to get through it, but that I would not cry, which would confirm my worst fear about myself, that I was a cold, heartless son-of-a-bitch. I sobbed so much during the eulogy that the Rabbi repeatedly tried to pull me away from the lectern. Although distraught, I also felt an enormous sense of relief. As the elephant man said to his tormentors, “I am a human being!”

Interestingly, Freud theorized that when little girls saw their brother’s or father’s penis they would feel penis envy and judge themselves to be inadequate. On the other hand, little boys witness their mother’s and sister’s open display of emotions a lot more than little girls see a penis, yet it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Freud that those boys might feel emotional envy and judge themselves to be emotionally inadequate.

Related to this feeling of inadequacy is the fear that comes from understanding that strong feelings can be contagious. Being around other people who are expressing strong feelings is as contagious as a yawn. When women are more emotional, men are likely to feel internal stirrings of some of the feelings they have been taught to suppress. This is generally not a process that men are consciously aware of, they just know that they are getting increasingly uncomfortable and want to do whatever they can to get it to stop.

When men do feel uncomfortable in the face of women’s strong feelings, they might use three escalating levels of defense mechanisms.

DEFCON 1: Many men’s first line of defense is to clamp down even tighter on their own emotional suppression. This strategy allows them to maintain at least a superficial connection with their partners while controlling the level of their own emotional activation.

DEFCON 2: If the level of emotional activation is still more than a man is comfortable tolerating, he may move to the next level, which is to withdraw. This strategy costs a man the level of connection he would prefer to maintain, but if he is emotionally activated enough, the safety of withdrawal may be worth it.

DEFCON 3: If emotional withdrawal and detachment are still not enough to soothe a man’s own feelings, he may go on the offensive and try to silence women by criticizing them for being “too emotional” or “not rational” or even “on the rag.” Men hold themselves up as the model for women to follow — logical, rational, and most importantly, in control of their feelings. It is terribly frustrating to men that, paradoxically, the more they withdraw, or try to suppress women’s emotional expression, the bigger those feelings get.

While these three defenses can be effective in keeping men from feeling flooded with their own feelings, they also clearly interfere with the kind of mutual emotional exchanges that can lead to the kind of intimacy we all want.

More from Avrum Weiss, Ph.D.
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