Who chokes up at sappy movies? Who gets so swept away by excitement that they leap to their feet and hug complete strangers? Who falls apart when a relationship ends? The surprising answer: men. Granted, the movie is likely to be Field of Dreams, the exuberance explodes in stadiums and the breakup may be their idea. However, new research reveals that a man’s emotional life is as complex and rich as a woman’s, but often remains a mystery to him as well as to any woman who loves him.
Although emotions have long been considered a female trademark, men report feelings as often as women and describe their experiences of emotion similarly. In an analysis of the emotional intelligence of 500,000 adults, men rated just as high in emotional awareness. In studies of married couples, husbands proved as attuned to their mates’ stress levels as wives and just as capable of offering support.
Although both men and women sigh, cry, rejoice, rage, shout and pout, the sexes process and express emotions differently. “Emotions live in the background of a man’s life and the foreground of a woman’s,” says psychologist Josh Coleman, PhD, author of The Lazy Husband. “Testosterone dampens feelings in men, who compartmentalize and intellectualize more. Women seem naturally more in touch with their emotions, while men have to work at it. But when they do, it’s a win-win situation. They discover a whole new dimension of themselves. Their relationships are happier, and they’re happier too.”
Inside the Male Brain
Thirteen years ago, businessman Chris Schroder, 48, of Atlanta, had it all: robust good health, the job he’d always wanted, a wife and two children he cherished. In one soul-searing month, he was hospitalized with appendicitis, he was laid off and his marriage fell apart. “All three legs of the tripod of my life were kicked out from under me,” he recalls. “I had been cruising along, not expressing much of anything, not aware that you need to and not knowing how to.”
Why are many men so emotionally clueless? Blame the male brain. “Men are hard-wired differently,” says David Powell, PhD, president of the International Center for Health Concerns, who explains that the connection between the left brain, home of logic, and the right, the seat of emotions, is much greater in women. “Women have the equivalent of an interstate highway, so they move readily between the right and left brains. For men the connection is like a meandering country lane, so we don’t have such ready access to feelings.”
This may explain why, in 125 studies in various cultures, boys and men were consistently less accurate at interpreting unspoken messages in gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice. Men also react less intensely to emotions — and forget them faster. In an experiment at Stanford University, photographs of upsetting or traumatic images triggered greater activity in more regions of female brains. Three weeks later the women remembered more detail about the pictures than the men. In similar ways, the researchers speculated, a woman may continue stewing over a tiff or slight her husband has long forgotten.
Divorce, which typically is more emotionally devastating for men, forces them into unexplored emotional territory. “I had to face raw emotion for the first time,” says Schroder, who recently remarried after more than a decade on his own. “For years I wrestled with deep, intense feelings I never knew I had. Once you’re in touch with your emotions, you can’t bottle them back up. Now I appreciate life more. I’m in touch with my creative side. If I’d known everything I’ve learned, I might have been a better husband.”
The first time that Robert Westover, 41, of Washington, D.C., saw his dad cry was the day he graduated from the same Marine Corps boot camp where his father and grandfather had trained. “A little tear ran down his cheek,” he says. “I was shocked.” Growing up in a military family with three brothers, Westover learned to eat fast, talk loud, compete ferociously and keep his feelings under guard. “Showing emotion,” he declares, “is a no-can-do among men.”
Boys learn this lesson early. By age one, they make less eye contact than girls and pay more attention to moving objects like cars than to human faces. Both mothers and fathers talk less about feelings (except anger) to sons than daughters, and boys’ vocabularies include fewer “feeling” words. In the playground, if not at home, boys learn to choke back tears and show no fear. Their faces, once as openly emotional as those of girls, become less expressive as they move through the elementary school years.
As adults, men use fewer words, and they talk, at least in public, as a means of putting themselves in a one-up situation — unlike women, who talk to draw others closer. Even with friends, men mainly swap information as they talk shop, sports, cars, computers. “Women talk to clear their heads, but men think before they talk,” says psychiatrist Mark Goulston, MD, co-author of The 6 Secrets of a Lasting Relationship. “If they didn’t, they’d risk saying something stupid and being humiliated or offending another man and getting beaten up. They’re safer not saying anything.”
What lurks behind a man’s silent, stoic mask? Vulnerability. Most men, experts agree, are far more insecure than they like to admit, and than their wives ever guess. “Inside every man is a secret fear that he lacks competence and courage, that he’s not as manly as he should be,” says Goulston. “A man knows he is supposed to take a bullet for his family. A man knows he is supposed to fix whatever gets broken. When he’s feeling powerless, when everything he says seems to be the wrong thing, he shuts down and withdraws.”
As gender roles and rules have loosened, some men — dubbed Sensitive New Age Guys (SNAGs) — have dared to let their softer side show. But many men remain confused about how much they can dare to share. “In one breath a woman says she wants us to be emotionally open,” says Westover, who is divorced. “In the next she wants us to be her rock. Women are asking us to perform these incredible emotional gymnastics, and it is messing with our heads. Men don’t have a road map or a role model to show us how to be both emotional and strong.”
Why Men Explode
Although women get angry just as often as men, rage remains the prototypical male emotion. “My kids still talk about my ‘freak-outs,'” says Kim Garretson, 54, a corporate strategist in Minneapolis, who once erupted into volcanic fury in a restaurant when served a still-frozen entrée. “I didn’t express much of anything, but once in a while, I’d just blow.”
Why do so many men lose their tempers? “The rage comes because there’s so much frustration when you cut off something that is you. Yet that’s what men do, because they’re afraid that if you give emotions an inch, they’ll take a mile,” says psychologist Kenneth W. Christian, PhD, author of Your Own Worst Enemy. “If you don’t develop all of yourself in some way, if you don’t learn how to work with your emotions, you’re a shadow figure, a small truncated version of yourself. It’s only a matter of time until the house of cards that you are falls apart.”
For Kim Garretson that day came four years ago when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As often happens when illness strikes men, he realized he had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by letting himself feel. “I’m no longer afraid of expressing almost any emotion, ” he says. “I get anger out with my quick, sharp tongue and move on. I use humor as an outlet. I’ve reconnected with old friends. I talk about the big questions of life. I search for spiritual meaning. I am so full of exuberance and joy that my wife describes me as giddy.”Guys, Try These
In his Dirty Harry days, Clint Eastwood never flinched. Now as a husband, father and Oscar-winning director of movies that explore the depths of men’s souls, the tough guy has turned tender — but not talkative. “The men who hide their emotions the most may in fact be the most sensitive,” observes Christian. Yet men can become more emotionally expressive without tears or fears. Here are some ways to start:
Develop a creative outlet. Hobbies like painting or playing a musical instrument can tap into a man’s soul. Remember that much of the world’s greatest art, music and literature was created by the allegedly emotionally challenged sex.
Release stress and anger through exercise. “When you get to the breaking point where you just want to put your head through a wall, taking a ten-minute time-out isn’t enough to calm down,” says Westover, who in moments of extreme emotion finds a place to drop to the floor and do push-ups.
Try expressing “a little” emotion. “Start with feelings you can control, find a sympathetic ear and use the term ‘a little,'” suggests Coleman. Saying you feel “a little” sad or “a little” scared feels safer than a full declaration of vulnerability.
Lean into the discomfort. “Rather than avoiding a feeling that you’re not sure how to handle, move toward it,” says psychologist Travis Bradberry, PhD, co-author of The Emotional Intelligence Quick Book. “Learning to handle emotions takes time and practice because you need to retrain your brain, but it does get easier.”
Women Be Aware
“A man is like a hermit crab,” says businessman Chris Schroder. “If we trot out our emotions and get burned, we’ll roll right back into that shell and may not come back out. We can’t be bullied or cajoled into sharing our emotions. We have to be seduced over a period of time until we feel safe.”
Here are some ways you can help your man become more comfortable with his emotions:
Talk side-by-side rather than face-to-face. “Getting in a man’s face makes him feel competitive or confrontational,” says psychologist David Powell. Rather than facing him across a table, sit next to your husband.
Do something physical together. When you hike or bike, a man’s defenses come down. Let topics bubble up naturally, but don’t force a man to walk and talk, or he may balk.
Watch a guy flick. “There’s a 95% tear factor when a group of men watch Field of Dreams,” says Powell. “Sports are the archetypal bond between men and their fathers, and for most men the most primitive and important relationship in their life is with their dads.” Don’t try to dissect the movie or analyze his childhood. Just be present.
Don’t press a man to talk about a bad day. “If he’s spent the day struggling, he may just want to get away from the pain,” says psychologist Ken Christian. “What’s the point of being miserable all evening when that won’t solve the problem?”
Show, don’t tell. Talk may be a woman’s favorite form of foreplay, but men view sex as a form of communication. “We men express so much of our emotions physically,” says psychologist Powell. “Sex is our way of expressing affection.” Rather than pressing a man to translate feelings into words, speak his language.
Let men know what emotional support you need. In her research, psychologist Lisa Neff, PhD, of the University of Toledo found that husbands can be as emotionally sensitive and supportive as wives, but often their timing is off. “Men aren’t oblivious, but wives need to let them know what they want and when they need it.”
Say what he means to you. “At a quiet moment, ask your husband, ‘Have I ever made you feel that I don’t admire and respect you more today than when we first met?’ ” suggests psychiatrist Mark Goulston. “Tell him that you feel blessed to have him in your life, and you’re sorry if you don’t let him know that often enough. Most men’s jaws will drop.”