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Men, emotional communication, and the challenge of empathy

Please see note below.

In a relationship communication workshop I led recently one of the topics that came up, unsurprisingly, was men’s vs. women’s communications concerning emotions.

One of the frustrations women often express about men is “he doesn’t talk about his emotions”, closely followed by “he doesn’t want to hear about my emotions”.

Earlier in the day one of the workshop participants pointed out that most of us are poorly trained about relationships or emotions. Men in particular receive very little training on emotional communication, and often get negative feedback when they express “too much” emotion. When you don’t get training in something and are discouraged from practicing it, you generally don’t develop much skill at it. This is the situation for many men where emotional communication is concerned: they aren’t much good at it.

This is isn’t big news to most people. But I often hear this discussed as a question of men’s capabilities rather than their motivations or their motivations’ origins.

For many men, at least part of the reason that they tend not to want to talk about emotions and relationships is that they don’t feel confident in their ability to participate in those discussions skillfully. In many cases, they feel less confident than women do for the very good reason that they don’t know how to do it as well. Since men are generally taught to equate their self-worth with their ability to perform, they have a lot of motivation to avoid dealing with emotions and talking about relationships.

One of the common male/female disconnects occurs when women talk about their feelings and their male counterparts attempt to “fix” them. Men usually do this by trying to help the woman come up with a better way to handle the situation that produced the feelings. Often they also try to help the woman understand that her feelings are unproductive or inappropriate to resolving the problem situation. The woman often experiences this as condescending, disrespectful, and spectacularly unempathetic.

The fixing approach comes easily to many men, who have received a lot of training and practice at fixing things. Unfortunately for men with this kind of training, people do not work like mechanical objects, and women can be quite vocal in their resistance to being treated like a ’57 Chevy.

Generally women are not looking for help in fixing the situation. Most women take understandable pride in being able to fix things themselves. What they want here is empathy for the way they feel, which simultaneously reinforces the validity of their feelings and makes them feel closer to the person expressing the empathy.

Some people have concluded that men are inherently less capable of empathy than women. I doubt that this is true. If a baseball player takes a line drive to the groin, most of the men watching automatically bend over protectively and groan in a spectacular demonstration of mass empathy. The problem isn’t lack of innate ability, and it isn’t just a lack of training. It is that men are actively trained not to empathize with emotional (rather than physical) feelings.

To understand this, first keep in mind that empathy is the ability to observe someone else and imagine how you would feel if you were in their position. This means that your skill at emotional empathizing is largely proportional to your awareness of your own emotional experience.

A therapist friend of mine in San Francisco named Jeff Wright jokingly says, “We men have two emotions: ‘fine’ and ‘angry’.” Men are trained to disregard most of their own emotions, to the point where many men aren’t even aware of what they are feeling most of the time. If you are cut off from your own feelings it is extremely difficult to empathize with someone else’s.

When a man tells a woman, “I don’t understand why you feel that way,” he really means it, because if he was in her place he would automatically shut his feelings down before they even became conscious. Furthermore, he has been trained to perceive the ability to disregard his feelings as a positive and perhaps even necessary skill. On some level he may even feel resentful of the woman’s “self-indulgence”. Some part of him may believe that since he has to repress his feelings she should do the same.

So, women, when you become exasperated with the men in your life because they seem to find it so difficult to simply acknowledge and validate your feelings, remember how “emotionally challenged” they are. Effective empathizing is extremely difficult when you have been taught to avoid the actions that are the prerequisites to empathy.

Men, this is not a “get out of jail free” card. Being emotionally and relationally stunted should not be a source of pride. It is extremely useful to be aware of your own feelings and, therefore, to be able to empathize with the feelings of others. It may mean the difference between a good relationship and a breakup. If you can’t develop these skills on your own — and learning them alone is virtually impossible — get help.

Let me reassure you that acquiring this skill will not turn you into a woman. It will not make you incapable of enjoying movie car chases; it will simply allow you to name your feelings about them. (For example: “I feel excited about the size of that explosion!”) And you still get to decide whether to discuss those feelings — but at least you will have the option available to you.

Note: When it comes to understanding emotional differences, I believe that personality is a more useful focus than gender. Nonetheless, whether due to social conditioning, natural inclination, or both, there is a widespread perception that men and women are noticeably different when it comes to expressing and responding to emotions. The stereotype, of course, is that men do not express or communicate emotions as strongly or as readily as women; many people seem to believe that men are not even capable of feeling as much or as strongly as women.

This article uses the language of gender difference (male/female or man/woman), since so many people look at it in that way. I want to be clear, though, that the dynamics described here could be reversed (i.e., the man being more emotional than the woman) or could exist within a same-sex or same-gender relationship (i.e., one man or woman being more emotionally reserved than the other).

Also, this article describes a stereotype of the experience and behavior of men in mainstream American society, which has strongly defined gender norms. I suspect that many people will agree that the resulting description is generally true for many men, but it is certainly not true for all men, and it is probably not 100% true for any particular man.

Ask the man in your life how it does and does not ring true for him!

2 comments… add one
  • Olin October 4, 2014, 8:47 am

    Haha, this article completely confirms what women have already figured out and the author doesn’t even realize it. Men do not empathize. It doesn’t matter if the do not do this because they can’t or because they don’t know how, or because they don’t want to because the end result is the same. Telling women to be more understanding of this fact is a slap in the face to women. Women are tired of giving understanding to men when it is not reciprocated.

    • todfiste November 5, 2014, 6:05 pm

      Thank you for your comment. It sounds like you feel frustration and anger as a result of experiences you have had with apparent lack of empathy in men. You are certainly not alone in that experience, and it is understandable that you would have those feelings.

      However, writing off all men as hopelessly empathetic is not going to improve the situation. With the article I am suggesting that a constructive approach is to model empathy by trying to understand the experience of men who have trouble feeling or expressing empathy.

      Of course it is frustrating to have to train someone to do something that seems so obvious and natural to you. One of the most difficult things we can do is to empathize with people who are very different from us in experience, perspective, beliefs, etc., and patiently try to help them understand our point of view. But what is the alternative? Berating men (or anyone) for not having a particular ability is not helpful or encouraging, just as being told, “You throw like a girl!” does not help you become a better baseball player.

      I also want to reiterate that this is not a black-and-white gender division. There are plenty of heterosexual couples where the woman is the one who equates emotional expression with weakness and wants her male partner to “man up” and quit whining, although socialization trains most women to express it differently than men usually do.

      If you have chosen to be in many relationships with unempathetic men, it might be worth questioning what leads you to make those decisions. I can assure you that men capable of empathy do exist, although they may be more difficult to find in some places than in others.

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