She Said, He Said: Recognize that personality traits can be a choice, too
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
I’ve been in a relationship with my boyfriend for over three years and we’ve never really communicated very well. I’m more expressive with my feelings and I’m always sharing my experiences with him but he rarely lets me know how he’s feeling or if anything is bothering him. He says he doesn’t really have strong emotions and doesn’t see the need to talk about them. He’s always saying, “that’s just how I am” and if I don’t like it I can find another guy who’s more in touch with his “feminine side.” I don’t want another guy but I wish he could just open up a little more and let me in. What should I do?
Wanting Deeper Connection
Lori and Jeff: Emotions are not specifically feminine. We all have them and experience them internally. However, whether we choose to (or are able to) express our feelings is highly influenced by what we learn about being male or being a female in contemporary culture. Girls are taught and encouraged to share and express their feelings, so they have a lot more practice. Boys have been taught to be tough, fearing any feedback that suggests they are weak or a “wuss” if they express any feminine traits or emotions. Thankfully, things are changing, albeit slowly, to a more tolerant and accepting paradigm of gender roles and expectations.
Lori: Start by not judging your man. Then work to find a balance between accepting who he knows himself to be and continuing to create safe opportunities for him to explore trying something new with his emotions. Accepting means not pressuring him to change, and developing an awareness of your own stories for why his lack of emotional expression makes you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. If you want to strengthen your bond through emotional conversations, ask yourself where or why your bond may be feeling weak. It’s so easy for us to become fixated on what our partners could change to improve the relationship (or our sense of security in it), that we overlook our own culpability and areas for growth.
At the same time, partners in long-term intimate relationships do have a unique ability to foster emotional expression in the men they love. But this has to be done with patience and care, and is often more successful with a little structure. Start by creating a regular check in two or three times a week where you ask each other slightly more pointed reflection questions about that day: What excited you most? When did you feel most inspired? What was disappointing? What in the near future may create stress or worry for you?
Start my making a list of 10 or 15 that you can pull from when you talk. And most importantly, be cognizant of how you respond when your partner is courageous enough to discuss his feelings. Make sure that you validate his emotions (even when they may be related to something you did) and express appreciation that he shared.
Jeff: Anytime I hear people say, “that’s just who/how I am” I want to suggest they rephrase their statement to: “that’s just who/how I choose to be.” While it’s true that you might have to accept his lack of “strong emotions,” I disagree that an emotionless man is who he truly knows himself to be — it is who he chooses himself to be. We are all responsible for choosing and accepting the values that guide how we live and if emotional awareness or emotional intelligence is not one of those values, that is his choice. So instead, you might have to accept that it’s who/how he is choosing to be.
As psychotherapist and writer Nathaniel Brandon suggests, “If I live by values I have accepted or adopted passively and unthinkingly, it is easy to imagine that they are just ‘my nature,’ or just ‘who I am,’ and to avoid recognizing that choice is involved.” We all have the ability to reassess our values and their related behaviors as a way to change and grow if certain situations ask for us to — especially in relationships.
Lori and Jeff: Your boyfriend needs to take responsibility for his choice to be more stoic and unaware of his emotional experience, and if he decides not to change, you will also have to make some choices as to whether or not he’s the right guy for you.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.