If you want to elicit from the typical man that “deer in headlights” look just ask him, “Tell me what you’re feeling.” Perhaps the most common response to that request would be a wordless look in your direction, perhaps with a frown on his face. Another common response might be to ignore you completely. If he does open his mouth to speak, these might some of the responses: “What do you mean?”; “I’m not feeling anything.”; “I think such-and-such…”
In many relationships the woman can become very frustrated because her partner does not open up about his feelings. (While I am using a heterosexual couple in this example, these dynamics can also exist in same-sex couples. Although less common, sometimes it may be the man who is frustrated because his wife/girlfriend does not share her feelings.) This can often lead to a stuck place in a relationship and one that can bring a couple into therapy, usually the woman bringing her husband in because as far as he is concerned everything is fine. My typical question to the woman, in this hypothetical case, is, “Oh, so you want your husband (or boyfriend) to talk about nuclear physics in Latin.” She may look at me quizzically, but then I go on to explain. She is expecting him to have engaged in a process, i.e., introspection and self-examination, that our culture has not encouraged, much less permitted, her partner to undertake. Thus, he has never acquired the language to express himself in that domain. In fact, on an unconscious level he may be in that relationship just so that he doesn’t have to feel. His wife is very good at that, and he likely is expecting that she will do it for both of them.
While I believe that it is important to share our feelings in an intimate relationship, one cannot fault the man if he was never taught how to do that. Did he see his father sharing his feelings with his mother—or with anyone for that matter? Probably not. Was he permitted to express his hurt, frustration, or sorrow when he was growing up? Almost certainly not. If I can be gentle and patient enough, I may be able to get the husband to begin that process, but I often have my work cut out for me because he will typically have to overcome a lifetime of “male socialization” to do that. In fact, it is not unusual for some men to be downright phobic about feelings. Just today a chance encounter at the gym illustrated that to me.
I became engaged in a conversation with a middle-aged man who was working out on the equipment next to me. Prior to today we have often said hello to each other and exchanged pleasantries, but we do not know each other. In our conversation I had asked him what he did for a living (admittedly a very “male” question). I do not recall how the topic of feelings came up in that inquiry, but he expressed scorn towards anyone who would base a decision on feelings. Only left-brain logic for him, he insisted. He matter-of-factly told me that feelings were “weak” and made fun of anyone and everyone who would indulge themselves by feeling them, much less exploring them, because feelings were worthless. He even suggested that the focus on feelings was the result of a leftist agenda. While his reaction may have been extreme, it illustrates the type and amount of energy that many men have invested to stay away from their feelings. While I do not agree with him, given the setting and our casual relationship, I felt no mandate to try to change his mind. Besides, perhaps we need less proselytizing and more let-each-other-be in this world. (By the way, I have no intention of avoiding him in future trips to the gym. He did not harm me in any way today; my sense of self remained intact.)
I will have much more to say about feelings in future posts.