Men are emotional beings–whether we think that or not.
Keith here with this month’s installment of Men’s Corner. This month’s theme is “Emotional Maturity”.
Can I start out by being really blunt? I think many people of both genders tend to write men off in this area and unjustly so. It seems to me that it is generally assumed by many that women are by nature more “emotionally intelligent” than men.
In fact, this so engrained in our culture that I would say that some people would even equate the phrase “become more emotionally mature” with “be more feminine”.
I categorically disagree that emotional maturity is “a woman thing”. I do think this is an area that many men do struggle with (for reasons I will get into below), but I think it is something that all people can develop and master regardless of gender.
Emotional maturity is not intrinsically gender-based.
After all the discussion on the blog this month, I hope I don’t need to argue that. We have all known many emotionally mature and immature people of both sexes. And I think most people also realize that emotional maturity is an ongoing process that is open to both men and women. I have seen myself change and grow over my life and I have also seen Sheila and my two daughters develop emotional maturity over their lives. I don’t think that Sheila and my daughters were born more emotionally mature than me, nor intrinsically better at developing emotional maturity over time. It is simply a matter of putting in the time and developing the necessary skills. And that, to me, is where the problem lies.
Emotional maturity is a product of a set of skills–skills which require practice in order to perfect them.
And men start out with a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to developing those very skills based on the way we socialize boys and girls (and men and women, for that fact!). It seems clear to me that from a young age, females are praised and rewarded for recognizing and processing their emotions whereas males are praised and rewarded for denying and repressing their emotions.
If you disagree, I invite you to consider a theoretical story from the primary school playground to demonstrate the vastly different experiences growing up as a boy versus as a girl. Imagine you are a girl who is picked on by a boy at recess. You are annoyed and you decide to talk to someone about it. No matter who you talk to about how the situation is making you feel – a parent, a teacher, another student – you will certainly get some level of support and encouragement. Unless you clearly deliberately provoked the situation, the experience will be nothing but positive for you. In fact, even if you did provoke the situation, you will likely be reprimanded for your part, but your feelings about when the little boy “struck back” will also be affirmed.
Contrast that to a little boy being picked on by a girl in the same situation.
What is the reception he receives when he brings this issue to light? If he gets exactly the right person at exactly the right time he may get some support, but more than likely this is going to be a very different experience for him than for our female protagonist. He may be met with actual ridicule that he should be so upset about being picked on by a girl. If not outright ridicule, there will certainly be the expectation that he should be tough enough not to let things like that bother him.
At some level the message will be received: Don’t be a wimp. This is the classic “Big boys don’t cry” idea. But I think the message is received at an even deeper level than just holding back tears to appear strong. The overall theme is “Big boys don’t feel sad” and there is something wrong with you if you feel hurt in the first place. How could such an approach ever encourage a child to recognize, identify and process what he is feeling? The answer – It can’t. And worse still, this is not limited to the playground; this double standard continues through into adult life as well.
The stereotypical man is supposed to be “tough as nails”, basically a tower of emotionless strength and should expect to be ridiculed if he shows weakness.
I have heard women saying absolutely cutting things to men then ridiculing his “fragile male ego” when he takes it badly. This is not to disparage women. I know most women are not like that and that men can say very hurtful things as well. However, I do think it is strange that no one notices how things change when the situation is reversed. When a man says cruel things to a woman, everyone’s instinct is to (rightfully) label him a brute but no one ever talks about a “fragile female ego.” Everyone knows you aren’t supposed to talk to women like that. Too often, however, it is assumed that men should be tough enough to take whatever is said to them or (worse!) be so scary that no one would ever dare say it in the first place. Tragically, men learn quickly that being angry or being numb are the only two emotional options.
But let me make an impassioned plea to my brothers in Christ to not let this be the end of the discussion.
This “macho image” is an incredibly anemic view of what it means to be a man and we need to let it go. We can do so much better than that. And we must do better than that if we really want to seek emotional maturity.
Yet that exact mindset – for no good reason that I can see – still has a firm root in the church. Despite what some would teach, I see no basis for this “macho” view as the ideal for men in Scripture. Quite the opposite, in fact! The Bible is full of examples of strong men who felt deeply. From David pouring his heart out in the Psalms to our Saviour weeping over Lazarus, we have so much proof that feeling deeply does not make you any less of a man in God’s eyes. And yet somehow, we seem to have bought into that concept “hook line and sinker” and continue to pass it on to the next generation.
It needs to stop if we want to be healthy.
If you are a man who has a hard time putting words to his emotions. If you find yourself reacting emotionally to things and you don’t know why. Or if you are just scared of emotions in general, then please seek out help in this area.
If you like to read, maybe check out this list of books about emotional maturity. If reading is not your thing, seek out emotionally mature men to mentor you or work through these issues with a certified counsellor. The Bible tells us to “be mature” (James 1:4), to “grow up in all things” (Eph 4:14) and through all its pages, encourages us to be people of good character. But how can you possibly become spiritually mature when you have not yet learned how to identify and handle your own emotions? Being emotionally healthy is part of being fully human. Seek out the help you need and don’t settle for your current situation. God wants more for you.
But being an emotionally mature husband means more than just understanding and learning to process your own emotions; it means being able to interact with your wife in an emotionally healthy way.
And that is another area where I think we husbands often stumble. I am always struck by how often I hear about women wanting to connect to their husbands, but feeling like he is shutting them out. Whether in the comments section on the blog or in question & answer sessions at marriage conferences, this is a huge issue that keeps coming up again and again. I am not talking about outright stonewalling which is a separate issue. I mean the situation where it seems that the wife feels the need to connect more than the husband seems to want to.
I used to think this was a “knowledge gap”. I thought men just didn’t understand how being emotionally distant was hard on their wives. So I would explain that when you don’t make an effort to regularly connect with your wife on an emotional level, she interprets that as you not being invested in the relationship. A husband may not mean it that way, but it comes across to her as unloving, because “if you loved me, you would want to connect with me.”
I now realize that a “knowledge gap” can’t be the whole answer. I have seen too many situations where the husband knows this, but still does not change his behavior. HIs wife tends to conclude that her worst fears are true – that he truly is not invested in the relationship, that he doesn’t really love her. But I wonder if in at least some cases, the issue goes “back to the playground” and is fundamentally a manifestation of how some men handle a “skill gap” with regard to emotional maturity.
As Sheila pointed out in last week’s podcast, women perform better than men on most tests of emotional maturity. Given what I said above about how we socialize boys versus girls, this should come as no surprise to us. Of course they do! They have had more practice with the basic skills of handling their own emotions and interacting with others on an emotional level since they were children.
So in most marriages, when it comes to the skill set of maintaining relationships, the unfortunate reality is that the wife likely starts off with a larger and more impressive set of skills than the husband.
As a husband you then have two options: Either work on honing those skills yourself or saying, “Well, I guess relationship-building isn’t my thing” and leaving that task to your wife. It’s just a theory, but I wonder if many guys drift into a situation where their wife is doing most of the “relationship work” in the same way that he does most of the yard work or household repairs or the family finances. Couples tend to specialize; they recognize early on who is naturally better at certain tasks and (often without a word) they take over the areas they feel competent in and avoid the ones they feel incompetent in. The problem is that – unlike fixing a toilet or mowing the lawn – the work of maintaining a relationship is not a task that can be handled by one person alone. If you want your relationship to succeed, both husband and wife need to be engaged. I have talked about this on the blog before when I shared John Gottman’s research proving that emotionally intelligent husbands are the key to a lasting marriage.
Husbands, if we want our marriages to thrive, we need to start doing some of the “heavy lifting” emotionally speaking.
For many of us, that will be a frightening prospect. It may feel like we are taking on a task we have not been trained for – probably because for many of us we are taking on a task we have not been trained for!
But we absolutely cannot let that stop us! Remember that the components of emotional intelligence – like any set of skills – can be learned if we invest the time and energy. So get out there and practice! Commit to growing in emotionally maturity. Read blogposts and books about it. Or, if reading is not your thing, listen to podcasts.
And I have two other quick things that can help you!
1. A FREE email course that Sheila has set up to help you reconnect.
It’s a 5-email course, and each email has a different activity or skill you can do with your spouse to grow your emotional connection, including the high-low exercise Sheila and I talked about at the end of the last podcast. (Yes, it’s aimed at wives, but honestly, the exercises are the same whether you’re male or female).
2. The Intimately Us App
This will pique the attention of many of you–the Intimately Us intimacy and sex app! Sheila’s reviewed the app, but basically it helps you spice up your sex life by communicating more about what you like, what feels good, what you’d like to try–and also where we’re at in our relationship. The prompts give you discussion topics, help you share with each other, and, when you turn to the sexier parts of the app, also help you have great sex!
That’s it, guys! Practice, practice, practice. And let’s stop calling men who are good with their emotions “feminine”, okay?
What do you think? Can handling emotions well be a learned skill? How did you learn (if you had to)? Let’s talk in the comments!
Posts in the Emotional Maturity Series:
- Four Markers of Emotional Maturity
- Do We Use God Language to Avoid Maturity?
- 2 Keys to Handling Stonewalling Behavior
- 6 Ways to Grow in Emotional Maturity
- A Book List to Help with Emotional Maturity
- What Does Emotional Maturity Look Like (Podcast)
- When Christian Resources Perpetuate Your Spouse's Immaturity
- What if Emotional Maturity is a Skill Guys Can Learn?
- How Anger is Like an Iceberg
- What is Real Masculinity?
Blog and Podcast Contributor, Co-Author with Sheila of two upcoming marriage books
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