We live in a culture that inoculates men against their feelings. They grow up learning to develop thick, protective skin over their emotions. They may have a father tell them to “just be tough” or chide them because “boys don’t cry.” In a moment of vulnerability in grade school, they may hear someone say, “He’s such a cry baby!” As teens, they quickly learn that to be one of the guys you have to mock each other for fun. To survive, they bury their feelings and play the part, turning into another generation of emotionally detached men.
I’m not trying to bash men, but as a man myself, I am suggesting that our culture has done us a disservice by teaching us that expressing emotions is akin to weakness. As a result, we can find ourselves experiencing little emotional intimacy in the relationships we care about the most.
I thought I was emotionally self-aware — that is, until my wife and I went to marriage counselling. It didn’t take long for the counsellor to point out that every time she asked how I felt about something, I would begin my response with the words “I think…” instead of “I feel….” I went in there expecting the session to help fix my wife and her feelings, but it turned into a discussion about why I had isolated myself from my own emotions.
Apparently, keeping discussions cerebral was a safety mechanism I needed to unlearn. Eesh! That sure was uncomfortable, especially at first. But I stuck it out, and learned how to say the “F” word (feel) regularly. And each time I dropped that bomb, it busted down another piece of the wall I had erected around my emotions. Something incredibly freeing began to happen in my wife and in myself.
I discovered that expressing emotions supports your wife in three key ways.
1. She doesn’t feel alone in her struggles. As she hears how life is affecting you, she has confidence that you are in it together. Sharing life together (the good, the bad, and the ugly), is one of her deepest desires. You may never understand all of her feelings (after all, you are a man), but letting yourself be vulnerable alongside of her unites you in a powerful way.
2. She feels deeply respected. Expressing your feelings shows that you trust her enough to disclose something personal. She may even have the honour of being the first person you’ve ever expressed emotions to on that level. When you risk vulnerability, you’re giving her permission to do so as well, and that assures her that she is safe with you.
3. She has hope for the future. Expressing emotions in a healthy way enables you to work through conflicts. Men tend to want to fix things through logic without paying attention to the underlying emotions. But voicing emotions lets the wound breathe, and if you develop that foundational communication, you can face anything in life together — and that gives her a sense of security for the future.
I also discovered that expressing emotions does three things within a man.
1. It enables healing. When you brave the realm of emotions, you begin to uncover old scars or hurts and how they’ve affected your relationships. Logic then becomes your tool to dig up the root causes of your emotions — to uncover the lies that past hurts have ingrained within you. Discussing your findings with your spouse is remarkably cathartic, enabling you to journey towards healing in order to become the whole person your wife and family needs.
2. It strengthens respect. Macho culture would have you believe that respect is lost if you show emotion. But with your wife, it’s completely the opposite. She thinks even more highly of you when you open up. To her, your transparency is a sign of strength, and that respect will last because it’s based on the real you, not on the have-it-together image you might be tempted to portray.
3. It’s empowering. Learning to verbally process your feelings is incredibly freeing. You discover who you truly are and why you react certain ways in relationships. Your confidence and self-esteem is no longer only based on bravado, business success, a fat wad of dollar bills, or a flashy smartphone. You’ve seen who you are underneath all of that, and you’ve learned the art of being thankful for your strengths while also facing your weaknesses head on with humility. You also have the opportunity to empower your sons (and other men) to become emotionally healthy, giving them an incredible advantage for having successful marriages themselves.
If you want to build a strong marriage, try starting more sentences with “I feel.” It doesn’t have to be all the time — begin by expressing how you feel once this week while discussing something serious with your wife. See what happens!