- Almost everyone, male or female, longs for deep connection in romantic relationships.
- The messages and stereotypes boys grow up with can be incompatible with emotional intimacy.
- If we can validate and normalize the universal emotional needs of both men and women, we might see less sexual harassment and violence.
We’ve all heard it. We’ve probably all said it, regardless of our gender. “Men can’t commit,” or “Sex is more important to men than emotional connection.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being a therapist for more than 20 years, it’s that most everyone longs for connection. And research supports my anecdotal findings. Men are telling us that they want more emotional intimacy in their romantic relationships.
This jibes with the research on attachment. In graduate school, I had the opportunity to participate in the famous Still Face experiment with Ed Tronick, the psychologist who developed it in the 1970s. In it, mothers are told to coo, smile, play, and make eye contact with their babies, and then to go stone-faced and unresponsive. The babies—both boys and girls—became distressed when they couldn’t get their mother’s attention, screeching, looking away, crying, and eventually giving up, dejected. As an observer, it was heartbreaking to watch despite lasting only two minutes. Study after study finds humans are inherently relational, regardless of sex.
Why then do so many of us believe girls and women are more interested in closeness than boys and men? The fact that men long for deep connection with their romantic partners is one of the best-kept secrets, often from men themselves.
Role of Socialization
Socialization plays a strong role in how we approach relationships. Girls, but not boys, are conditioned from birth to aspire to marriage. They learn boyfriends and romance are their golden ticket, while boys learn relationships are something to endure, or maybe enjoy second to their career ambitions. Indeed, gender norms dictate that men be a success, able to provide, before they take on a serious relationship. Girls date and marry boys who have not spent years preoccupied with marriage, while girls spend years testing out how their first names sound with their latest crush’s last name. If from an early age romantic relationships are important to a girl’s sense of identity in a way they aren’t for boys, an automatic imbalance on the emphasis girls and boys place on their relationships is created.
We also know that the messages and stereotypes boys grow up with can be incompatible with emotional intimacy. Boys feel pressured to be straight and tough, and to relinquish more vulnerable feelings of love and emotional longing. They are supposed to want sex, get sex, and be sexually dominant. We have started telling our daughters it’s OK to embrace some stereotypically male traits—to be smart, to be leaders, to be strong. But we're unlikely to tell our sons to be more like girls. Being “girly” is an insult synonymous with emotional, weak, or gay. These days, when boys share a positive feeling for another boy, they often follow it with “no homo,” an insistence there is nothing girly or gay about them.
But, as with the Still Face experiment, few gender differences in relational needs are found in early and middle adolescence. Niobe Way, NYU professor and author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, interviewed hundreds of boys and found, like girls, they expressed a deep sense of connection, trust, and pleasure in their friendships—that is, until about age 15. Between the ages of 16 and 19, boys talked about the loss of or distance they felt from these once treasured companions. It’s as if, in becoming men, the wish for tenderness and care had been traded in for the emotional stoicism and self-sufficiency of masculinity.
We assume men are strong and competent. That can seem like quite the luxury to women who need to repeatedly prove their capabilities. But as a culture, we’re beginning to acknowledge the pressure inherent in that assumption. We are seeing the mask a man must wear until his natural human vulnerability is no longer recognizable even to him.
Emotional Intimacy Issues
Men are not the only ones who have issues with emotional intimacy. Much of the work I do with women is also centered around the fears that get stirred up around closeness and being seen. But I’ve found men are often more afraid of letting their guard down. They’ve told themselves for so long that they don’t need anyone, so to admit need can feel akin to admitting they’re "soft."
Sometimes the rejected girlfriends and wives of these men work overtime to help them own their needs and desires. It seldom works. It is not a partner’s job, and men have been given no reason from the culture they inhabit to trust they’ll be safe and accepted. Therapy and men’s groups, however, can make a remarkable difference in helping men access and articulate their deeper needs. As a therapist, I have been in the fortunate position of watching men embrace their desire for deep, loving connection and become the person they and their partners have wanted them to be.
More recently, I’ve noticed a change. Men seem more conscious of and open about wanting meaningful connections over meaningless sex. Perhaps this is in response to the cultural shift in awareness of sexual assault, to having more freedom to express gender, or to the loneliness of the pandemic.
Collectively, we must rethink how we teach boys about masculinity and manhood. We need sex education in schools and socialization at home that allows boys to be boys—sweet, silly, roughhousing, nurturing, ball-throwing, princess/superhero-loving, fart-joking deeply connected boys. If we can validate and normalize the universal emotional needs of both men and women, we might just see less sexual harassment and violence. And men might just get what they really want.