Men in Relationships: 3 Keys to Emotional Vulnerability
Reframing masculinity to include emotional openness in relationships.
Posted Aug 31, 2017
"It was love at first…seriously intimate self-disclosure."
— said no one ever. And yet, it’s difficult to make a truer statement about building and sustaining fulfilling relationships. The ability to expose ourselves to another and trust that our partner will still accept an unfiltered version of us may be the most challenging task for men, next to resisting the urge to manspread on trains. Vulnerability represents a core element in any healthy, long-term relationship.
A recent study by Eli Finkel and colleagues (2017) synthesized the major theories in relationship science into 14 principles and noted the pivotal role that mutual openness between partners played in creating healthy relationships. These empirically guided principles provide theoretical insight into the challenges of relationships, as well as ideas for fostering greater emotional vulnerability in men. Below are a few of those thoughts and recommendations for becoming a man’s man in relationships — emotionally available and responsive to your partner’s needs.
1. Resist lying to yourself.
The allure is clear. Having a life partner who travels through life’s triumphs and pitfalls with us, enriches our lives, and grows in tandem with our hopes and dreams is a natural desire, regardless of how masculine a man is (or thinks he is). Yet the ability to self-assess readiness for romantic relationships escapes some men. Maybe this is a meaningless distinction for some, because "who is ever ready for a relationship?" I’ll tell you who: Someone who’s healthy. Part of being healthy is taking time to understand ourselves and the intentions that motivate our actions.
Intentionality in relationships is an intangible ingredient that helps healthy people find other healthy people. In Finkel and colleagues' review of relationship science, a common principle emerged related to relationship maintenance mechanisms, or practices people enact to sustain relationships. Specifically, relationship commitment represented one of the strongest predictors for employing relationship maintenance mechanisms. Partners who perceived their relationship as better than others ignored or thought negatively of romantic alternatives; those who sacrificed for the relationship generally had higher relationship commitment. In short, they intentionally cultivated greater relationship commitment through these actions.
For many men, the competition for our intentions is fierce. We juggle the pursuit of success at work, the desire for adoration from others, and the see-saw emotions of falling for who she truly is versus falling for who we want her to be for us. At face value, each of these seems to reflect selfish thinking that ironically lacks sufficient introspection to gain clarity about the reasons behind any of these pursuits in the first place. Yet for the healthy man who is able to peer into the truth of his desires, unfiltered by the expectations placed on him about who he should be, an understanding of how much he truly is able to give a romantic partner emerges and frees him to communicate that truth to others. More importantly, he can communicate it to himself.
2. Practice communicating ambivalent feelings.
"Saying what you mean and meaning what you say" is an unwritten creed of manhood — implying that lack of definitiveness in words or actions reflects a little less masculinity. While having the integrity to stand behind our words is welcome, the process by which we reach decisions in relationships is not always clear-cut. A range of emotions can arise in response to issues inside and outside the relationship and prompt us to fall back on our subconscious beliefs about how to remain emotionally secure in a relationship. For some men, this may mean reaching a decision about how he thinks and feels about the issue independently before communicating his thought process or ambivalence with a partner — thus preventing the couple from reaching a shared decision.
Several relationship theories refer to internal working models, or subconscious beliefs about ourselves and others, that guide how we show up in relationships. Attachment theory provides one of the most robust theoretical perspectives for how these internal working models develop, starting from our first relationships with our parents. Having a caring and safe upbringing fosters secure attachment and makes it easier for an individual to feel safe exposing vulnerability in close relationships. For those who fail to develop secure attachment, negative internal working models may lead to anxious or avoidant behavior when in close relationships, because the expectation is that either love is not deserved, or love will not be given. While the latter isn’t the case for every man, considering the internal working models that shape how a man thinks about himself in a relationship and the utility he sees in communicating his feelings to his partner may provide insight into increasing emotional openness in relationships.
Challenging internal working models often involves learning new information that compels an adjustment of how a person sees himself and relationships. The best way to gain new information is to try a different approach. For men, having trouble finding the right words because their mind isn’t made up about what to say, think, or feel, sharing the experience of not knowing these things definitively and articulating what you can even if it’s contradictory may provide the practice needed to reshape views for how important openness is in building a fulfilling relationship. It’s surprising how bringing an undecided issue that prompts mixed feelings to a partner can create opportunities for both partners to share their hopes and fears and work toward shared solutions. Yet this reward is reserved for men willing to practice and risk a level of vulnerability that makes their thought process more apparent to partners when making a decision.
3. Appreciate the power of interdependence.
Is a relationship simply the sum of its parts? Anyone who has been in love will guarantee a relationship is more than simply adding the qualities of two people together — and research generally supports this conclusion. Finkel and colleagues identified “uniqueness” as a foundational principle of relationship science, because “unique [relationship] patterns emerge when the partners' qualities intersect.” Creating a meaningful relationship beyond simply the combined qualities of two individuals involves a balance of independence and reliance from each partner. Men are socialized to be independent, and relying on others, particularly emotionally, is less of an expectation. Yet the benefits of approaching a relationship with the expectation of interdependence, with actions to back it up, potentially provide men with one of the best opportunities to achieve goals within and outside a relationship.
Interdependence in a relationship reflects an understanding of one’s needs, the needs of your partner, and a willingness from each partner to be responsive to these needs. Recent findings from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University studying 163 married couples found that professional success was partially contingent on the support of partners at important decision points, such as deciding to pursue a professional goal or persisting through professional challenges. Emotional vulnerability extends beyond revealing ourselves to others and includes fully opening ourselves to the experiences of our partners by celebrating in their successes, empathizing with their failures, and being fully present when they reveal themselves through their emotional vulnerability. For many men, it means resisting the impulse to hide emotional expressiveness when our partners share who they are and what is important to them, and instead emotionally revel in it with them.
When we are able to be honest with ourselves about our intentions in relationships and communicate the sometimes conflicting feelings that arise when making decisions in relationships, the chance to build a relationship that is supportive and responsive becomes much more attainable. The funny truth is that the more emotional vulnerable a man becomes in a relationship, the more of a man he has a chance to become, because he’s becoming more of himself.
Finkel, E. J., Simpson, J. A., & Eastwick, P. W. (2017). The psychology of close relationships: Fourteen core principles. Annual review of psychology, 68, 383-411.
Feeney, B. C., Van Vleet, M., Jakubiak, B. K., & Tomlinson, J. M. (2017). Predicting the Pursuit and Support of Challenging Life Opportunities. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1171-1187.