- Some men may feel threatened when women are openly emotional.
- When men feel threatened, they may withdraw.
- Some men also worry that they are emotionally lacking.
Some men may get uncomfortable and withdraw when women have strong feelings. This is particularly true when women are upset, but men may also feel uncomfortable when women are excited, full of joy, or even really turned on.
Men are often particularly uncomfortable whenever their partners are feeling anxious or distressed. It does not even have to be about them. Women can endlessly reassure their male partners that they are just upset, not upset with him, but that is not often reassuring enough.
Why is an openly emotional woman upsetting to some men? Why do some men find women’s emotions impossible to ignore? As with most relationship-related questions, the answer is complex and multi-layered.
Simply put, men are often raised to feel responsible for women’s happiness. If their partner is unhappy, men sometimes believe they have failed in some critically important way.
Many men are also less familiar with and less able to talk about their own feelings, so they can feel disadvantaged when the conversation with their partner becomes more emotional and often defensively insist that the conversation with their partner remains “rational.” This is something like an American traveling abroad who wants other people to speak to them in English rather than trying to learn at least some rudiments of the language spoken in the country they are visiting. Men are often socialized to be less emotionally fluent than their female partners because our culture stereotypically considers the world of emotions to be "feminine territory." From early childhood, men are often derided or mocked for showing signs of emotions other than anger (the one emotion allowed to men). For example: “Big boys, don’t cry.” “Don’t be a sissy.”
Some men may also be averse to their partners’ strong feelings because they know from painful experiences that emotions are contagious. Being around other people with strong feelings is as contagious as a yawn. When women are more emotional, men are more likely to feel the internal stirrings of some of their own feelings that they are uncomfortable with and may have learned to suppress. For some men, being in an intimate relationship with a woman can be like being in alcohol recovery and hanging out with your friends at a bar.
On some level, some men may recognize that they may not be as emotionally well-developed as their partners. It can seem to men that women have stronger emotions, have an easier time expressing their feelings, and are more empathic in responding to other people’s feelings. Research generally confirms that women are more emotionally expressive than men across a range of emotions and across numerous cultural settings, although not nearly the magnitude of differences as hyped in books like Men Are From Mars. These differences in the expression of emotion between men and women are not innate; they are largely taught. Girls are often socialized, primarily by their parents, at ages as young as 4 months old to be more emotionally expressive, while boys are often subtly conditioned to suppress any displays of emotion.
On a more unconscious level, some men fear that something is wrong with them regarding emotions. These men worry that they do not have the feelings they should have—the emotions they see their partners expressing. My father died when I was a young man. I loved and was very close to my father, so I 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-b*tch. 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.
Consequently, men often work hard to manage women’s emotional experiences to protect themselves from the discomfort of their own feelings. When a man’s partner is upset, it can be the single preoccupation in his life, as if nothing can happen until this situation is resolved. “If momma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” This is not a process that men are generally conscious of; they are just aware of getting increasingly uncomfortable and feeling an urgent need to do whatever they must to stop.
This post is excerpted from Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men's Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships.
Gray, J. (1993). Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Harper Collins.
May, C. (2017). Are Women More Emotionally Expressive than Men? Retrieved June 9, 2019, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-women-more-emotionally-e….
Rivers, C., & Ph.D., R. B. (2013). The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children (Reprint ed.). Columbia University Press.
Wester, S. R., Vogel, D. L., Pressly, P. K., & Heesacker, M. (2002). Sex differences in emotion: A critical review of the literature and implications for counseling psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 30(4), 630-652.