Jennifer Musselman

Jennifer Musselman M.A., MFTi

The Keys to My Castle

What Ryan Gosling Knows That Your Man Doesn't

Why men hide vulnerability and how women can help

Posted Aug 12, 2012

Perhaps Cinderella and Superman were your introduction to and became your early super heroes in love. But then God made Ryan Gosling and New Line Cinema made The Notebook. And as women got turned on just as much by Gosling’s character’s earnest and emotionally vulnerable character as they did his abs, men got turned upside down. Add feminism, technology and a lasting recession — where many women have become breadwinners — and you have what amounts to an emotional tsunami causing chaos in old world order of romance. Yet, if men hope to have any success in love and relationships, they have to sort through the shambles and rebuild. But without the proper equipment and tools, they struggle silently to define their roles in relationships today. We explore why — with just enough understanding and support from women — men can open up.

Why Men Are The Way They Are

The men who recently risked their lives to protect women against the Colorado movie theater shooter proved men are still hard-wired in old-fashioned ways to protect, provide and pursue, despite ever changing roles at home and in work. Neuroscience points to the brain, explaining men are physiologically designed to provide and protect. A social constructionist perspective suggests that societal influences reinforce traditional gender roles while evolutionary psychology explains psychological differences of priorities among the sexes as a biological consequence of women's  investment in children over evolutionary history. Whatever your position on the matter, American men's need to provide, protect and pursue are still firmly intact despite the confusing, if not frustrating, socio-cultural rules for romance.

From an early age, most men are taught to "tough it out" when they suffer a blow during a little league game, heartbreak in the name of love or job loss. Rarely are they ever given permission to express vulnerability, and certainly not publicly. They are taught to withhold all emotions, with the possible exception of anger and happiness, and to hide them until clearly and safely out of sight of others. "There's no crying in baseball," is a prolific movie line from a beloved movie about men in baseball entitled A League of Their Own which best pinpoints America’s long-standing position on men and vulnerability.

Why Men Don’t Have Long Lines at Public Restrooms

Men take comfort and pride in sulking and problem-solving on their own and preferably privately. Verbal rousing like bashing a buddy's skills or favorite team is all in the vein of camardarie and is meant to connect them with their friends. But sulking together is virtually off-lmits.  If a man is down-for-the-count, teammates or friends will go about their game-plan, leaving him alone to shake off the pain. Falling, after all, is seen as a strength, a sign of effort. They show him respect in his solitude.  

Women, conversely, move in packs and take comfort in comforting each other. Women cherish community. Just look at restroom lines at restaurants for proof. So when a man is feeling beaten, down and out, or hurt, just what does he do with these feelings? 

Behind The Iron Mask Lies Vulnerability

In business, sports or mere emotional conversations, men fight to win, to be right.  They defend their position fiercely because they are socialized to be defenders. It's taught early: Protect your mom, protect your sisters. If they fail, the consequences are great. The consequences are tied to their self-esteem, their sense of self and all that they are socialized to believe a man is worth his accomplishments and his conquests.

Women are taught to communicate in times of need. Their tears are often seen by society as a sign of trust worthiness and sincerity. Men are taught to stuff their feelings inside, making them more vulnerable to loneliness, especially older men, reports Dr. Louann Brizendine, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of The Male Brain (2010). And if that’s not unfair enough, Brizendine also notes men are even physiologically hard-wired to express less outward emotional response. She reports female tear glands are structurally different, allowing women to cry more profusely than men.

Across cultures, women score higher than men in values that emphasize relationships and benevolence, and men score higher in values tied to power and achievement (Schwartz & Rubel, 2005; Schwartz & Rubel-Lifschitz, 2009). With power and achievment at the core of a man’s self-worth, it's easy to see that vulnerability can feel like a liability especially to men in a country where our independence is so heavily valued.

Men In Relationships

When a man restricts his emotions as expected by society, his emotion also spurs the body's "fight or flight" response. This enables him to handle a pending threat, of all sorts.  So just how does a man handle vulnerability when he's least expecting it?

"Many men see vulnerability as an either or ... either they need to get suited up ready for a fight or they go in unarmed and unprepared to employ levels of protection" says Matthew Healy, a licensed Marriage and Family therapist in Santa Monica, California who has studied societal and biological gender differences for two decades. "Conversations with women end abruptly, they do not negotiate what, how much and for how long," he says. This implies men who have not learned to read the currents, who do not see relationships as interactive, tend to be reduced to isolation and complete removal from contact.

So what happens to a man in the presence of a woman? According to Werner Kierski, a London-based German-born psychotherapist and researcher who designed the first empirical research into a phenomenon known as the male fear of the feminine (2007). According to Kierski (2007), the male fear of the feminine is connected to influences from their mothers and to cultural norms that prescribe how men must behave in order to feel accepted as men. When men experience vulnerable feelings and other feelings that are associated with women, men can become frightened causing him to act in one or two of the following ways:

  1. Like an internal monitor to ensure that men stay within the boundaries of what is regarded as masculine, i.e. being action orientated, self-reliant, guarded, and seemingly independent
  2. If a man fails to experience this and feels out of control, vulnerable or dependent, the fear of the feminine can act like a defense, leading to splitting off, repressing, or projecting those feelings. 

With this breadth of understanding the bio-psycho-social-cultural foundation of a modern American man, women can glean new insight into why men are increasingly vulnerable to the undefined rules in dating and relationships.  In Part Two of What Ryan Gosling Knows That Your Man Doesnt, we will learn some basic strategies to support a man struggling with vulnerability without compromising his masculinity.  

Connect with Jennifer:

Twitter: @JenMusselman


Kierski, Werner, “Men and the Fear of the Feminine. Self & Society.” Vol 34, no 5. March–April 2007, p. 27–33. 

Shalom H. Schwartz, Shalom H and & Tammy Rubel: Sex differences in value priorities: Cross-cultural and multimethod studies.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 89(6), Dec 2005, 1010-1028. 

Shalom H. Schwartz & T. Rubel-Lifschitz: Cross-national variation in the size of sex differences in values: effects of gender equality..Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2009 Jul;97(1):171-85.

Brizendine, Louanne (2010). The Male Brain. Broadway Publishing, New York, New York.

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