men, masculinities and gender politics

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Men and emotions

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It’s a weeknight after a particularly tough day at work. You’ve just put the kids to bed. You can’t stop thinking about work, the problems waiting for you there tomorrow and it’s getting you down. You don’t feel like talking about it, especially not with your partner. You just want to be left alone to mull things over. You’re ready for a beer and the couch.

Your partner always knows when some thing’s up and tonight is no exception.  She sits beside you on the couch and asks ”Are you ok? You haven’t said much all night.” You reply with a curt, “I’m fine.” And you turn back to the TV hoping she will change the subject. Your partner is offended now and she gets up and leaves the room.

Does this sound familiar? It’s a common scenario that many men could avoid if they developed their emotional intelligence.

There’s still a great divide between men and women when it comes to communicating our feelings and emotions especially to those we are closest too. To understand why this is the case, we need to take a look at our culture and how we traditionally view gender differences.

Author of “Fire in the Belly- On Being a Man”, Sam Keen says “Because of the artificial gender division, our culture assigned reason to men and emotion to women, men tend to be novices in distinguishing the repertoire of their own emotions”.

In our culture men grow up learning to become hunters and providers. They are expected to be dependable, strong and resilient. Our media portrays men as insensitive, incommunicative and emotionally detached. Thus, stereotypes develop into labels for men, such as ‘blokes’, ‘emos’, ’SNAGs’. Men are told we that we need to be more in touch with our ‘feminine side’, softer, caring, and more understanding. It is these messages and mistaken beliefs which re-enforce the misconception men don’t experience feelings and emotions as much as women, when in reality it is quite different.

Research from the University of Chicago highlights that men experience feelings as frequently and intensely as women do. It suggested the issue is actually more to do with how men express and communicate their feelings that have created the misconception that men don’t feel as much as women. In the American Journal of Happiness, a case study on the regulation of sadness and anger found that women regulate these emotions by talking about issues, whereas men tend to use different strategies over talking to friend, such as changing the situation or distracting themselves.

Bridging the Gap

Men do communicate differently to women. Because of this men and woman can begin a conversation with the intention of reaching mutual understanding only to end up feeling misunderstood and frustrated. It is common for a man to misunderstand his partner’s intentions when he perceives his independence, freedom is being threatened. Equally is it common for a woman to feel ignored and rejected when she perceives her partner is being unsupportive. With these differences you can begin to understand why men and women have difficulty communicating about emotions.

Developing EI

How then can men learn to communicate their emotions and feelings more effectively to women? The answer may lie in emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence became popular in 1990s when Damien Goleman released his book Emotional Intelligence” why it could matter more than IQ”. The most widely accepted definition is from the work of Salovey and Mayer’s. And in the very simple terms it is about developing these four abilities:

    the ability to accurately perceive emotions in oneself and others;

Some feelings are easy to spot, like anger and joy, but can you tell when you are confused, anxious, or stressed?

    to use your emotions to facilitate thinking;

Men learn to use reason and logic to solve problems and make decisions. Emotions are seen as irrational because they appear to have no purpose. Trouble is if you ignore yours and other people’s emotions you will often end with more problems than you started with

    to understand emotional meanings,

Emotions and feelings can be confusing and men are often baffled by their partner’s emotions because they tend to try understanding it from their point of view. This approach can lead to the woman feeling dismissed and the man feeling frustrated because his partner can’t understand he trying to help. Learning to listen first before jumping into problem solving helps the other person feel heard.

    to manage emotions.

Manage originates from the French word ‘maneggiare’ meaning to train horses. Unmanaged emotions are like untamed horses, highly sensitive and unpredictable. A relationship between the untamed horse and its trainer is one of mutual respect and trust. The trainer respects the horse’s power and wildness, knowing that the horse can only be tamed by discipline and through repetitive reinforcement the horse eventually accepts that the trainer is its master. Developing emotional intelligence and self-awareness means to tame your emotions becoming the master not the slave.

Here are a few tips to help you improve your emotional intelligence and communication skills with your partner:

Tell her about it

Often men can’t describe how they are feeling so they don’t say anything and deny they feel anything at all. Take the opposite approach. Say something. Anything. If you can’t describe how you feel acknowledge to your partner that there is something on your mind but you can’t describe what you are feeling - see where this takes your conversation.

Don’t give advice

Men tend to tackle their own emotions as if they were problems. Women tend to talk about their feelings not always searching for solution but rather an empathetic listener. Resist the urge to offer solutions to your partner when she is telling you about herself particularly if she is vulnerable. If she wants advice wait for her to ask for it. Instead pay attention to her and what you are feeling when you listen to her. Learning to listen puts you in touch with her and your emotions.

Let her in

Women can feel cut-off and rejected when men refuse to talk about how they are feeling when it is blatantly obvious there is something wrong. Women value the sharing of their emotional life. Shutting her out from your emotions gives the impression that you don’t value her support. Let her in by admitting there is something wrong when she asks you. Admit you don’t feel great and you’re not ready to talk about yet and make sure she knows you appreciate her concern.  Notice how this action affects how you feel.

Being aware of the cultural influences on how you communicate your emotions and emotional needs is a step towards preventing misunderstandings with others and creates an opportunity to do things differently.