I have been meeting with couples in pre-marital, marital or relationship therapy for thirty-five years. One of the problems that gets identified on a regular basis is the difficulty they have making a deep and satisfying emotional connection. It will probably come as no surprise that most often it is the woman who feels the lack of connection more strongly and typically she is the one who will raise this issue in sessions. It’s not that men don’t notice and feel the emotional distance between them and their partners, but it is comparatively rare that the man will raise this concern first.
This same problem is often identified by individuals early in a new relationship. A woman might say that she finds it difficult to connect emotionally with the man she is dating because, “He isn’t very good at describing his emotions.” Actually, the phrases are usually much more “colorful,” but I’ll leave that part to your imagination.
A man, on the other hand, may tell me in an individual session that he doesn’t even know how to identify his feelings, much less describe them, or God forbid, have to actually express a feeling such as tenderness or love. He, too, feels at a loss as to how to make the kind of emotional connection he wants with the woman he has been dating and now wants to be in a relationship with.
I’d like to address my comments in this column primarily to women, though I hope that men will find something of value also. I’ll start with some preliminary observations about emotions and relationships that I hope will provide a foundation for the suggestions that will come in the second half.
First, the Basics
1. Men have all the same feelings that women do and will talk about them when they feel safe; it just may take them longer to feel safe.
This may be so basic that it seems unnecessary to even say. I continue to marvel, though, at how many men tell me they think they don’t even have feelings. There are many reasons for this, but for our purposes, it will help if you remember, we humans all have the same range of feelings. We vary in amazing ways regarding how we experience, defend against and/or express feelings, but they are there.
It may be easier, especially at first, to talk about feelings indirectly. You might try asking your guy what he’d do during a getaway or romantic weekend. Notice I didn’t say what he’d like to do. That would require him to identify his feelings which might stall the conversation before it gets started. Another possibility is asking what he thought the first time he met you or after a particularly fun activity. Sometimes talking about thoughts reveals what he actually feels better than asking about feelings directly.
2. Men want to be understood. This usually means they want their feelings to be understood (though they probably won’t say it that way).
Guys are typically not as practiced or accomplished at identifying their feelings, even to themselves. I often hear men say, “I don’t know what I feel” and they are truly unable to put their emotions into words. They will often resort to describing their thoughts about another person, activity or relationship when asked what they feel.
As noted above, these “thoughts” can give plenty of clues about what he feels. Sometimes it may help if you “read between the lines” and suggest a possible feeling he may be experiencing based on his non-verbal or other cues. With patience, encouragement and practice men can “translate” the physical sensations, e.g. a “warm” feeling in the chest, “butterflies in the stomach,” or “boiling blood,” as emotions such as love, anxiety, or anger.
3. Men want a strong, secure connection with their preferred partner and suffer (though often in silence) when that attachment and connection is threatened.
We are social creatures and we tend to do best when we are in stable relationships. When men overemphasize independence and autonomy it is often because they’ve been hurt in past relationships and fear being hurt in similar ways again. This does not always mean they don’t want a relationship with you.
It might just be a signal that you need to go slow, build trust and safety, and let him know you understand his desire for independence. You can then begin to ask him about the “other side” of relationships, intimacy and connection. If you keep this basic truth in mind, it may help you feel more secure when the guy seems to be reticent or distant at times.
4. Given enough time, patience, encouragement and help, most men will feel safe enough to try to get better at emotional language.
Patience is often conveyed best through an attitude of respect for another’s opinions, thoughts and feelings. Sometimes simply asking him to expand on his thoughts or opinions and trying to understand his reasoning can help him feel respected. As a result, he may be more open to encouragement and/or offers to help him identify his feelings about a given topic. In time, this may help him feel safer to talk more directly about his feelings about you and the relationship in general.
Suggestions to Make the Connection Happen
1. Men take commitment in a relationship seriously.
I noted above that men want a strong, secure relationship they can depend on. Once they do make the commitment, they want it to last just as much as women. As a result of their discomfort with emotions, though, they may take more time to actually make the commitment and talk about it.
Often their actions, such as doing things they think will be helpful to you, can give clues that they are committed. This frequently takes an “interpretation” or “translation” on the part of their partners since men often don’t explain that they are trying to show love and commitment through the “language” of their actions. Remembering this might be their motivation can have a positive impact on you and him.
2. Often, men are “doers” more than talkers.
Keeping in mind that men want commitment, it may be useful to think about different styles of communicating this. Men often put their feelings into actions to try to be helpful to the one care about. It may stem from a desire to make your life easier, your world a better place or something similar to this. It can be really frustrating to be on the receiving end of their kind deeds when what you really desire is a tender affirmation in words that express how much they love you.
Sometimes a simple acknowledgement of his efforts or a word of appreciation can help him feel understood and be more open to a suggestion that he put his feelings for you into words also.
3. Men often don’t catch the non-verbals in a relationship.
Or they do, but don’t know how or whether to mention those things to help deepen the level of emotional intimacy. Sometimes a little coaching can go a long way. Saying something about noticing his non-verbal behavior, for example, how you like his smile when you compliment him, or the downcast, disappointed look in his eye when he talks about something that happened at work or with a friend can deepen your connection. These little gestures can make such a big difference and invite similar behavior in response, but they are easy to overlook when our lives get busy.
4. Men often respond well to appreciation, both in gestures and words.
This follows what I was saying in the above section. It is worth repeating and emphasizing. There is a strong tendency in our society to take each other for granted once the relationship is established. It is, after all, what we want in our relationships, though we usually call it by different names including trust, reliability, etc. If we “forget” or consider it unnecessary to show and say our appreciation to each other as a result of this “taking for granted,” little hurts can eventually build up to big obstacles. Try to keep these expressions alive in your relationship and consider them as simple gifts to each other.
5. While men want to be understood just as much as women, many have learned not to expect it and, as a result, have “turned off” their hope that they’ll get it.
If this is true for the guy you are with, it will probably mean taking even more time and patience on your part to help him identify it in the first place and then help him gradually dare to believe he can get what he wants in his relationship with you. Helping each other increase our ability to both give and receive love can be a life-long gift that will help our relationships flourish.
About the author
Dr. John Weiks is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Grand Rapids, MI. He has over 35 years of experience treating individuals, couples and doing groups. In addition, he provides consultation for other mental health professionals and has done numerous trainings both locally and nationally.
To learn more about Dr. Weiks, visit his website: www.johnweiks.com.
To contact him, send an email to: jcweiks [at] mac.com (replace [at] with @).