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Why Men Are Intimidated by Their Intimate Partners

The paradox of men’s lives is they have all the power but do not feel powerful.

Key points

  • The "If momma ain't happy, no one's happy" of childhood becomes the "Happy wife, happy life" for adult men.
  • Men do such a good job at hiding their fears of women that even their mothers and lovers don't know how scared they are.
  • Throughout history, men have feared what is mysterious about women.
 Pixagay/Wikimages
Adam and Eve
Source: Pixagay/Wikimages

The classic “Still Face” developmental psychology experiment begins with a mother and her infant child playing with each other as they normally do. The split screen makes it clear that they are in a conversation, each learning which funny faces and silly noises best elicit a smile from the other.

At a certain point, the mothers are instructed to turn away from their babies, and when they turn back, to have a “still face,” meaning not to show any emotion or respond to their babies in any way. Almost immediately, the babies become wary and escalate their efforts to reengage their mothers. Within minutes of these attempts failing, the babies start crying hysterically, so distressed that some of them lose bodily control.

Male infants are more distressed than female infants in the study. They show more facial expressions of anger and are more likely to try to escape the situation. The experimenters concluded that male infants need more help from their female caregivers to regulate their emotions. The male infants’ terrified wails of impotent protest are repeated in various forms in men’s fears in intimate relationships with women.

Heterosexual Men's Fears in Intimate Relationships

For adult men who are partnered with women, the “If Mamma ain’t happy, no one’s happy” of their childhood becomes the “Happy wife, happy life” of their adult emotional lives. Heterosexual men live with a series of fears in their intimate relationships, including the fear of being dominated and controlled by women, the fear of being trapped by women, the fear of failing to protect and provide for women, the fear of being inadequate with women, the fear of women’s emotions, and the fear of being abandoned by women.

Men’s fears of women in intimate relationships are hidden in plain sight. Most men do such an incredibly good job at hiding these fears and vulnerabilities that even their mothers and lovers don’t know how scared they are. Men hide their fears because they are taught that real men don’t get scared, and that if they do, they should never let anyone know because they will lose respect and be at a competitive disadvantage with other men. They believe they should not let women know because they will think less of them as a man and be less attracted to them or may even take advantage of them. Hiding these fears is so reflexive for most men that they are largely unaware of them. They are, however, just below the surface, and it doesn’t take much prompting to recognize them.

Historical and Cultural Examples

Throughout history, men have feared what is mysterious about women. Many cultures have taboos against menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. Women experiencing these things may be considered dangerous, contagious, and able to cause weakness in men and, so, are segregated. Many cultures worldwide have some story, image, or symbol of a vagina with teeth, vagina dentata, so that intercourse risks emasculation. In preindustrial cultures, men commonly sealed themselves off from women before hunts or wars, believing that contact with women might make them weaker. Interestingly, one can find remnants of this same idea in the superstition held by some athletes that having sex before the big game will make them weaker.

It is much easier for men to hide their fears of women out in the world at large than in the less guarded moments of their private lives when they are more openly themselves. Intimate partners also make more intentional efforts to be more open and vulnerable with each other than they are in public. As a result, men’s fears of women show up much differently at home than they do elsewhere.

Men’s fears of women are most likely to be stimulated in any situation in which men encounter a woman who has more authority than they do; shows evidence of being strong, competent, or self-confident; or shows that she is angry. For example, research suggests that the more competent a woman is at work, the less likable she is rated to be by the men that work there.

Excerpted in part from Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men's Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships, (Weiss, 2021).

References

Barkhorn, E. (2013). Are successful women really less likable than successful men? The Atlantic.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2001), National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States.

Horney, K. (1932). The dread of women. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 13, 348–360.

Kierski, W., & Blazina, C. (2010). The male fear of the feminine and its effects on counseling and psychotherapy. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 17(2), 155–172.

Tronick, E., Als, H., Adamson, L., Wise, S., & Brazelton, T. B. (1978). The infant’s response to entrapment between contradictory messages in face-to-face interaction. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 17(1), 1–13.

Weinberg, M. K., Tronick, E. Z., Cohn, J. F., & Olson, K. L. (1999). Gender differences in emotional expressivity and self-regulation during early infancy. Developmental Psychology, 35(1), 175.

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