How Boys Are Raised and What This Means for Your Marriage

Parenting AdviceHave you seen the trailer for the new film by The Representation Project?

It is worth the three minutes. I watched it with my husband and 12-year old son and what ensued was a fascinating conversation about masculinity, boys feelings, and social expectations.

For men in our culture, it is acceptable to be angry, bored, and excited (if you are at a sporting event). Sadness, fear, loneliness, vulnerability, and hurt are culturally signs of weakness and are infrequently demonstrated within even our most intimate relationships.

But who of us is immune from fear, sadness, and hurt?

What we know from psychological research is that when our deepest feelings (i.e. hurts and pains) go unexpressed they eventually come out as anger or leak into our lives as depression or addiction. Unexpressed feelings will get expressed…but maybe not in the most direct or productive way possible.

I often tell clients, “Feelings that aren’t expressed directly to your partner will come out crooked.”

What this means is if I feel hurt by my husband’s lack of interest in physical affection but do not express this directly to him during a conversation than this hurt will go underground and come out in some other context. If he shows up late to dinner I might be cold and resentful quietly making him wrong in my mind and then silently keeping score of all of the times when he “fails” to meet my needs. This behavior can go on for weeks or even years creating a gaping wound in the marriage.

Learning to express feelings directly is not just the job of men, women need help with this as well. Although culturally, women are expected to and raised to have a broader emotional range, this does not mean that they are well-equipped to communicate their needs especially during times of conflict or fear.

The First Step

You must do the work of your own feelings. What this means, is getting to know your own emotional landscape, yourself. What I have seen over the 15 years of doing this work is that most commonly women do the “emotional work” for men in their relationships. This starts at a very young age.

Imagine:

Five year-old Billy comes home from school, he is frowning and walking slowly dragging his backpack on the ground.

His mother asks, “Billy? What is wrong? You look sad? Did something happen at school today?”

Billy shrugs.

His mother continues, “Was it that boy Tommy? Was he picking on you? Oh honey!” [pulling Billy on her lap] “Did you talk to your teacher? It was probably so scary for you!”

On one hand, this is a very caring mother paying close attention to her son’s feelings and intuiting his feelings.

On the other hand, this is a mother training her son to depend on a woman to do his emotional work.

This scenario is not wrong or bad (believe me, as a mother to a boy child I have had plenty of these kinds of interactions!) however it does not invite the boy to:

  1. Feel into what is happening within him
  2. Create his own language for that experience
  3. Practice expressing it to another person.

As you can imagine, this type of training grows men who are looking to the women in their lives to do some of this work for them. And women who are more than happy to do it — because it helps women feel important, valued, and connected.

The Second Step

After you have excavated some of your own feelings, it is valuable to be accountable for what you find there. Most commonly we want to blame our partner for our feelings but this is a cheap escape route to the more mature work of emotional ownership. If I discover that I tend to feel resentful and like a victim in my relationships, it is worthwhile to examine how this serves me in my relationships. I know, I know…this might sound a bit off the wall — but get honest here with yourself. You might learn something about how being a victim allows you to be powerless and disempowered sheltering you from showing up and feeling like a failure or protecting your own vulnerability.

And Finally, The Third Step

Talk to you partner about what you have found inside of you. Use language that is accountable and notice where you might want to blame or give responsibility to your partner for your own feelings of pain or hurt. Conversations that happen AFTER you have done some of your own emotional work can be incredibly transformative as opposed to conversations that happen in reaction to a painful experience.

If you want some more guidance navigating this process, sign up for your free 20 minute phone consultation by clicking on the button below. Now is the time to create the relationships that you want!