Men and Emotional Sharing

Why do men not talk much about emotion? What is their sense of emotion and how do they share emotionally? How does this cause confusion between men and women?

A Common View

It seems to be a fairly common view nowadays that men don't talk about their emotions because they don't want to seem vulnerable to others, or to feel vulnerable within themselves. They want to project a strong, confident impression and to keep a grip on themselves so as not to be, or to seem, weak.

On the other hand, women are seen as more willing to share their emotions, to talk about them so as to help them deal with feelings of vulnerability, and indeed all sorts of feelings. This view sets up a contrast between men and women, such that men are thought to be less emotionally developed than women.

This causes some difficulties in relationships. Firstly, there is the difference in how men and women typically deal with emotion. And secondly, if women are seen as more emotionally developed it puts men on the back foot, seeming to be in need of catching up. This can lead to a mismatch, not only in experience, but also in the seeming merits of each.

There is some truth in that view, but it is only part of the whole picture. Importantly, it is not the main part of the picture. The key lies in the different kind of emotional lives of men and women.

A Partial Truth

Men face a number of 'developmental tasks' during their lives, and one of these is to face their own limitations and vulnerabilities. This is something that tends to come later on in life, beginning somewhere in middle age. It is sometimes brought on by an experience of serious injury or illness. For some it comes in facing the need for recovery from a serious addiction. More normally though the catalyst for emotional growth is the pressure of marriage and family life.

It is understandable that those who specialise in fields like psychology and counselling would tend to focus more on pathologies and exceptional cases.

For example, those who have a special concern for men's mental-emotional health, especially regarding issues such as suicide prevention, recovery from addiction, and domestic violence naturally focus on the kind of emotional development most pertinent to those needs.

However, when we turn our attention to those simply facing the normal ups and downs of life and the challenges of relationships, we need to consider the more ordinary kind of emotional life and development. In this men are on average just as emotionally developed as women - just in a different way. Each has strengths and limitations.

This is a large topic, so let us simply consider the question: Why do men not talk much about emotions in the way women do? In order to answer that question we first need to consider what emotion is for men.

How does emotion function for men?

For men emotion serves a primarily individual function. Its purpose is to establish and maintain individual identity. By contrast, for women emotion serves a primarily relational function. Much more than men, women see emotion as a means of establishing and maintaining relational connection.

For a man, the emotional task is completed when he feels an emotional equilibrium within himself. For a woman, the emotional task is to try to maintain relational-communal equilibrium. Men do not feel that same kind of responsibility for the feelings of others, since they see emotion as something that is essentially managed by the individual. Women see emotion as something requiring 'shared management'.

For reasons like this men don't tend to see emotion as something that would require talking about. The task of emotion begins and ends interiorly, so words are not needed. The 'communication' that occurs is all internal, and can often be handled through different ways of focusing one's attention and 'processing' things that don't involve words. Once a man feels he has interiorly resolved an emotional issue he moves on to other things. He doesn't think of emotion as the kind of thing that would involve other people.

How do men typically experience emotion?

As well as this different sense of what emotion is for, what its purpose is, men's emotional focus is different from women's. For both men and women there are things that form the foreground of emotional focus and things that form the background. The kinds of things that form the foreground for women's sense of emotion tend to be only a kind of background in men's emotional sense, and vice versa.

Men can recognise in an abstract sort of way what it is that women are doing emotionally, especially if it is explained clearly, but it doesn't carry the same weight. The 'centre of gravity' of men's emotional life is located elsewhere.

Where does this different sense of the role of emotion come from? It is difficult to explain such things, so I will try to illustrate with an analogy.

Men's primary kind of emotion can be compared to the experience of hearing music.

If you enjoy listening to a certain piece of music, or a particular style, or a favourite band, and you want to share that experience with others, how do you do it? You play the music for them and you experience it together. You gain enjoyment from being with others whom you can see are deriving a similar enjoyment as yourself from the music. You pick up from their manner how they are responding, or simply assume that they are feeling something similar to your own experience.

Sharing an Experience

It would be rather odd to say to someone: "Hey, there's this great song. I know you haven't heard it, but let me explain to you how it makes me feel and why." Then you launch into a long explanation of what it is about the structure of the song that makes it work, how the melody modulates halfway through, why the drummer stops playing the snare drum at a certain place, why the harmonies chosen were better than several other options that could have been taken, and so on. Your friend would be thinking, "Just play me the song".

We all recognise that talking about music is a completely different thing from experiencing it.

I think it was Steve Martin, the actor, who said "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture".

That's a bit like what men feel if you say, "Let's talk about your feelings". I'm not saying that men would use this example, or even give any particular thought to these matters, but that there is a sense in which they feel that the important part of their emotional life is essentially incommunicable, rather like the feelings evoked by music. To say things like, "It's great. I like it. Wonderful" conveys none of the contents of the feeling. They just position it somewhere in a spectrum of attraction or aversion.

Now if you took the literal example of music women would be much the same as men in recognising that the only real way to share it is to experience it together. But women have a whole other realm of their emotional life that is about direct interpersonal relations. They share this by talking about the various things that happen which evoke emotional responses. These are the kinds of things that can more readily be described. For example, if one woman says to another, "You know, Cindy has been saying such-and-such about you behind your back" the focus of feeling is not essentially private but is out in the space 'between' people where it can be seen and discussed. A lot of what is discussed is people's actions and reactions, and the issues involved in relating to other people. The subject matter is of a more observable kind and more in the 'public' arena.

Men also do a bit of this, but generally it is not felt to be where the emotional centre of interest lies. Men organise their relationships by having clear demarcations and prerogatives, and giving each other plenty of space. Men feel like they are intruding into another man's private space if they quiz him about his feelings or relationships. It is more of a background thing.

Foreground and Background

But if that is the emotional background what is the foreground? Men's emotional lives revolve around their sense of themselves in the world. What is my mission? Where do I stand? How am I going to move things forward? This provides a serious core to men's emotional lives.

At the same time they are not looking to dwell on negatives but on positives. Men moderate the seriousness of life with playfulness and lightness. They are drawn to games, and seek ways of making life itself seem like a game.

Men specialise in treating things that really matter as if they don't, and things that don't really matter as if they do.

This gives them the interior 'levers' to pull to moderate their feelings.

It is this kind of thing that occupies the foreground in men's emotional lives. It is where they develop fine distinctions in interior feeling, such that there is no direct way of naming them. Men 'name' emotional realities indirectly through gamelike forms and rituals.

This helps to explain why men talk less about the relational type of feelings than women. There are few obvious ways to speak directly about most of what occupies the important place in men's feelings.

If you say to men, why don't you talk about your feelings, their interior reaction would be something like: "Um, why would you do that? What would be the point?" To men it is not at all apparent why you would talk about your feelings, and that even if you did it would bear so little relation to the experience that it doesn't seem worth the effort.

Men think, instead of talking about it, why don't we just share the same experience?

It is one of those things where you say, "You had to be there". And since I'm the only one who can be there - inside myself - how would talking about it help, exactly?

So men's usual reaction to requests or pressure to talk about their feelings is not fear, but lack of interest. The prospect seems tedious, like analysing at length the structure of a song the other person hasn't heard. This is also why men find it hard to watch 'chick flicks' - not because they might have to feel something, but because they find them boring. The ups and downs and subtleties in them are of a kind that men don't specialise in. They can watch such a movie and at the end say, "Nothing happened". The kind of things they are looking for didn't happen, and the kind of things that did happen were not things that have any resonance. Also they feel that the whole emotional tone is heavy rather than light.

The emotional field of interest that women foster through discussing and thinking about the relational context of emotion has little resonance for men. Men are capable of learning something about it but it remains a fairly abstract kind of interest.

Just Listen

Men are commonly given the advice to simply listen to a woman sharing her emotions, and not try to help her solve them, but simply to be a sympathetic ear so she can share her feelings.

The reason men need this advice spelt out for them is that it is very counter-intuitive.

The only reason they would give any special attention to their own feelings is if they are feeling negative and want to restore a positive feeling. They do this by thinking through the causes and working out what to do to solve the source of the negativity.

But when they try to help women do this they receive the message, "I'm not looking for you to solve my negative feeling. I just want you to listen." For men this is inexplicable, and many would not have any experiences of their own that would make sense of it. Why would sharing your feelings with someone make any difference? Unless you think they might have some good advice why would you bring the matter up?

How would talking help?

Men typically don't ask each other how they feel, not because they are afraid of emotions particularly, but because they don't see how it could be of any help. They would think, "Poor Barry. I hope he can work things out". Men are usually happy enough to offer a sympathetic presence - for a while - and maybe offer some advice if they think it might help, but that's about it.

You often hear people (like women, and psychologists) say that talking about your feelings will help to lighten the load.

Men typically feel, "How would that help?" and don't take up the advice. Many wouldn't have had such experiences, and couldn't imagine how it could help. And if they did consider it, they'd probably feel, "Great, then I'd have two problems". They would still have their original problem (since they don't expect it would be solved), plus the complications involved in others knowing about it.

A Vocabulary of Feeling

Even when they want to talk about their feelings men are often unable to articulate them in any satisfactory way. This is not simply that they lack a vocabulary for their feelings, but that the feelings themselves are sufficiently subtle and elusive that no words have ever been coined for them. The only way to talk about them then is indirectly by describing the realities that evoked them. This can make it sound as though men are 'intellectualising' their feelings. But that is not usually what is going on. They only have fairly indirect pointers to their important feelings.

There is no set of expressions that sound like 'feeling words' for the kinds of feelings that are most central to men's lives.

Men can learn easily enough the vocabulary for more obvious feelings like anger, sadness, happiness, excitement, disappointment, loss and so on. But most of this is felt as a kind of background. They don't see much significance in them most of the time. That's not 'where the action is' emotionally for men. The feelings that tend to engage men most often are positive feelings related to their own sense of self and their mission and place in the world.

A Different Language

The 'language' in which men share their emotions is made up of games, rituals and experiences that men can share with each other by being with each other while each experiences them.

When it comes to a relationship with a woman, men don't anticipate doing a lot of talking. They hope that presence will be sufficient.

Men are not hoping that a woman will talk a lot but that she will have a beautiful quality of presence.

This communicates most directly to men's core emotional sense. Men are looking to share in three main ways. One is simple presence to each other as they do the various things they do. Another is shared interests. And at the core is the shared experience of sex. In all of these, words might be largely incidental to men. And since they tend to assume (at first, and perhaps for a long time) that women experience these things in the same way men do, they might not realise that the woman feels that something important is missing.

This is because each has been busily developing a different kind of emotional specialisation, and marriage is usually the main arena in which this difference is experienced in a concentrated and continuous way.

Marriage is a workshop for emotional development and a crucible for emotional refinement.

So both men and women face a developmental task regarding emotion, and if they can rise to the challenge they can build deeper and more satisfying relationships.