My wife wants me to be open and vulnerable and then calls me weak when I open up. I don’t understand.
This is a common scenario. It can feel personal and perplexing, but emotional gender inequality is something that looms invisibly in the background of many lives, and it typically has nothing to do with a particular relationship or partner.
Emotional Gender Inequality from Birth to Adulthood
At large, emotions are expressed significantly different between males and females. The cause of emotional expression gender inequality is somewhat debatable, as research typically points towards how boys and girls are raised – how they are socialized by their parents. To a lesser extent, some theories indicate that the variances in the expression of emotions between the sexes are likely biologically based.
Parents commonly expect girls, compared to boys, to be more relationally oriented. Females are taught to be nurturing and more accommodating than males. Girls are typically raised to show more emotions, specifically positive emotions, such as happiness. Historically, females are commonly led to internalize negative emotions, such as sadness, fear, anxiety, shame, and guilt.
Males are often raised to show fewer emotions that indicate tenderness, such as sadness and anxiety. Society is often biased between the genders – expecting males to be assertive, independent, and aggressive, compared to females. These emotional differences support the role expectations that males are the protectors of the family and must overcome dangers and weaknesses that could interfere with their ability to support their families.
These role and emotional gender inequalities are carried between generations and typically go unnoticed until they strike a nerve in a relationship.
Nurturing vs. Protective Gender-Related Emotions in a Relationship
It is healthy in any relationship to nurture intimacy and trust through the expression of emotions and open communication, but it requires work. Let’s look at the example that we opened this blog with. The wife expressed to her husband that she wants him to be open and vulnerable, but when he opens up, she tells him that he is being weak. Her ingrained belief is that her husband should be the ‘strong’ partner – that he should protect her and their family unit. She feels vulnerable when he expresses emotions. She unintentionally perceives this as a threat. She believes that her role is to nurture the relationship and to be emphatic, but she is unable to do so when she has difficulty processing his emotions. It feels unsafe to her.
The husband would likely internalize any emotions that would deem him ‘soft’ unless he felt secure with opening up (e.g., she asked him to do so). Otherwise, he might hold back and hide any emotions that he feels could damage his image as the strong, stoic, and protective partner. The expression of emotions can strengthen a relationship – holding feelings back, not so much. A healthy outcome from expressing emotions rests on how positive and negative emotions are shared.
The Value of Sharing Positive and Negative Emotions
Nobody should feel as if they are tiptoeing through a relationship. The freedom to comfortably express emotions is an important part of open communication and a strong partnership, but a healthy balance is crucial.
Sharing Positive Emotions
We all need to be lifted up, and it can be done by sharing emotions. But this isn’t about being so intentional that you’re faking it. Sharing your true positive emotions, like feelings of love, appreciation, empathy, and happiness can strengthen your relationship. When you make the extra effort to share positive emotions, the outcome is similar to assuming the best to nurture your relationship – you cultivate an environment where open and honest communication thrives.
Sharing positive emotions like feelings of love does not make a person (especially men) weak. Quite the opposite, it may feel like a vulnerability as you open up, but it can be the elixir that dissolves doubt. You’re still in the role of being the protector of your family, but you aren’t doing so because of gender expectations. The truth is, we ALL must work in the capacity of relationship protection!
Sharing Negative Emotions
It is a misconception that your relationship will be ruined by sharing negative feelings. By expressing negative feelings, you can build a much closer and stronger bond. You and your partner will understand each other much better, and trust and intimacy will thrive. To make this work, however, finesse is key. Finesse involves giving your feelings time to simmer down before you share them. Give your emotions time to evolve into comprehensive words and meanings that will help build your relationship and special partner up, rather than tear them down.
Time is an essential piece that differentiates between helpful communication vs. what might be interpreted as criticism and displeasure. It gives precedence to:
- Emotional intimacy
- Time to understand your partner’s thoughts and feelings
- Time to protect and nurture your partner
- Put your relationship first and foremost (trust, honesty, compassion, and open communication)
Are You Ready to Make Your Love Work?
Despite your best efforts, you may struggle with jointly communicating openly and understanding your partner. It is not always easy, and you don’t have to do it alone. You and your partner can benefit from couples counseling. Are you ready to have the relationship you’ve always desired – with the core elements in your relationship that solidify trust, understanding, and acceptance?