Why Men Get Uncomfortable When Women Get Emotional
Molly and Sam are having a conversation about their eldest daughter who is not doing well in school. The conversation is not going very well because, as is often the case, they are each coming from a very different place and putting a lot more effort into making their own points than trying to understand each other.
Molly has been worried about their daughter for some time, and, on the surface at least, she keeps trying to convince Sam that there is reason to be scared. In fact, what Molly really wants is to have Sam join her in feeling scared, both to validate the way she feels and to have some company so that she doesn’t feel so alone.
It’s difficult to tell how Sam is feeling because he’s working really hard not to let anyone know, including himself. Most likely, underneath all of his logical problem-solving, Sam is also at least worried if not scared. For some reason, it’s really important to him Sam to not let himself get upset, so important that he continually pressures Molly to do the same, to “stay rational” and not “get hysterical.” He would like to feel more empathically towards Molly, and to comfort her, but for reasons he does not fully understand, the more emotional Molly gets, the more guarded and withdrawn Sam becomes.
Men often get uncomfortable when women have strong feelings. This is particularly true when women are upset, but men can also feel uncomfortable when women are excited, full of joy, or even really turned on. Women understand this and learned long ago to suppress their own excitement in order not to make men uncomfortable.
Why is an openly emotional woman so challenging for many men? Why doesn’t Sam just ignore Molly if she’s making him so uncomfortable? As with most things having to do with relationships, the answer is complex and multi-layered.
On the simplest level, men are raised to feel responsible for women’s happiness. If their partner is unhappy, men believe they have failed in some critically important way (Weiss, 2021).
Men are also less familiar with and typically less skilled in talking about their own feelings, so they feel disadvantaged when the conversation with their partner becomes more emotional (Weiss, 2021). This is something like an American travelling abroad who wants other people to speak to them in English, rather than trying to learn at least some rudiments of the language spoken in the country they are visiting. Men are generally less emotionally fluent than their female partners because our culture stereotypically considers the world of emotions to be feminine territory. From early childhood, men are often derided or mocked for showing any sign of emotions other than anger (the one emotion allowed to men). “Big boys don’t cry.” “Don’t be a sissy.”
Men are also averse to their partners’ strong feelings because they know from painful experience that emotions are contagious. Being around other people who are having strong feelings is as contagious as a yawn. When women are more emotional, men are likely to feel the internal stirrings of some of their own feelings that they are uncomfortable with and have learned to suppress. For men, being in an intimate relationship with a woman can be like being in alcohol recovery and hanging out with your friends at a bar.
On some level, men recognize that they are not as emotionally well developed as their partners. Women seem to have stronger emotions, have an easier time expressing their feelings, and are more empathic in responding to other people’s feelings. Research does generally confirm that women are more emotionally expressive than men across a range of emotions and across numerous cultural settings (May, 2017), although not nearly the magnitude of differences as hyped in books like Men are From Mars (Gray, 1993). These differences in expression of emotion between men and women are not innate; they are largely taught (Wester, et al., 2002). Girls are socialized, primarily by their parents, at ages as young as four months old to be more emotionally expressive, while boys are often subtly conditioned to suppress any displays of emotion (Rivers & Barnett, 2013).
On a more unconscious level, many men are scared that there is something wrong with them when it comes to emotions. Men worry that they do not have the kinds of feelings they should have — the kinds of emotions they see their partners expressing. My father died when I was a young man. I loved my father and was very close to him, so I decided I wanted to give his eulogy. My biggest fear was not that I wouldn’t be able to get through it, but that I would not cry, which would confirm my worst fear about myself, that I was a cold, heartless son-of-a-bitch. I sobbed so much during the eulogy that the rabbi repeatedly tried to pull me away from the lectern. Although distraught, I also felt an enormous sense of relief. Interestingly, Freud theorized that when little girls saw their brother’s or father’s penis, they would feel penis envy and judge themselves to be inadequate. On the other hand, little boys witness their mothers’ and sisters’ open display of emotions a lot more than little girls see a penis — thank goodness — yet it does not seem to have occurred to Freud that those boys might feel emotional envy and judge themselves to be emotionally inadequate.
Paradoxically, men also worry that if they ever were to give full rein to their feelings that could be dangerous. When women tend to suppress their emotions because they are afraid that if they open the spigot, they will never be able to shut them off. Men, on the other hand, tend to worry that if they relax their guard and give in to what they are feeling, the murderous rage they feel could get out of control and result in violence.
Consequently, men work hard to manage women’s emotional experience in the service of protecting themselves from the discomfort — or even danger — of their own feelings. When a man’s partner is upset, that becomes the single preoccupation in his life, as if nothing can happen until this situation is resolved. “If momma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” This is not a process that men are conscious of, they are just aware of getting increasingly uncomfortable and feeling an urgent need to do whatever they have to do to get it to stop.