This sounds completely counterintuitive. How is it that so many men need deeper, stable ties in their love lives, yet historically they have been the ones fleeing to literal and figurative “man caves”? Time and time again, both gay and heterosexual men I interviewed spoke of a paralyzing fear of appearing “weak” (that was the most common one) or “small” or “too insecure” if they opened up and shared their fears, sadness and need for emotional succor with their love partners. They feared that airing such protected feelings would lead to rejection or abandonment.
More often than we care to believe, these fears are well founded.
Andrew Smiler, a psychologist based in Winston-Salem, N.C., whose practice is devoted to boys and men, told me that one of the main skills he helps men with is learning how to access, process and articulate their deeper emotional lives as a way of sustaining and strengthening their romantic partnerships.
Typically, he said, it goes well for these men the first time they make themselves vulnerable. After that, though, the warm reception cools. They’re often met with such responses as “‘You’re much needier than I thought you were.’ That seems to be the big one,” said Dr. Smiler, an author of books on masculinity, including “The Masculine Self.” Another common reaction from female partners is one they have long endured from men: “They’re told that they shouldn’t get so worked up and emotional about things.”
I’ve experienced this myself. One girlfriend during my 20s was mortified when I cried openly, sitting next to her on an airplane. Another girlfriend during my 30s told me she wanted nurturing when she felt scared or sad but didn’t find it “attractive in a guy” who sought the same. In my marriage, I have always pushed for greater emotional intimacy, asking my wife, Elizabeth, to articulate loving feelings or sentiments she has told me that run through her mind but remain unsaid. When she would share them, sometimes they were shrouded in humor. A few years ago, I pushed harder when we were seeing a couples counselor.
“Know what I would love more than anything to hear from you?” I asked, facing my wife. ‘“I need you.”’
“Well, I do,” she replied.
Tess Brigham, a San Francisco-based therapist whose practice is made up of millennial and Generation Z clients, wasn’t surprised by such anecdotes, even though, she said, vulnerability is essential to healthy relationships. “In their daily lives, women can’t show vulnerability,” she said. “They can’t show vulnerability at work. And when younger women feel too vulnerable in dating life, they fear that will make them look weak. If you’re vulnerable you’re seen as too emotional. That’s not a good thing today for women.”
This squares with the findings of the vulnerability and shame researcher and author Brené Brown. In her book “Daring Greatly,” she observes the zero sum dynamic that occurs when women “beg” men to be vulnerable with them. “The truth is that most women can’t stomach it,” she writes. “In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear, and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust.”