“I want more intimacy, more vulnerability. That was a challenge in my marriage. For too long I felt sad and alone, and I just don’t want to feel alone anymore.”
This has been the threadbare anthem for women of all ages in their romantic partnerships with far too many men for far too long.
The words above are those of Zach, 43, who said he separated from his wife because he wasn’t able to find the depth of emotional connection he needed and wanted. In research for my book about the new brand of resiliency and courage boys and men need to thrive and survive, I spoke to quite a few men who echoed this sentiment in varying degrees. (They spoke on the condition that their last names not be used to protect their privacy.)
John, 47, a corporate vice president, spoke to the “profound loneliness” he has endured since getting divorced and learning how to better articulate his deeper emotional needs through therapy. He has dated a bit but said that the women he has met sidestep discussing feelings, the same way he used to. He called it “frustrating and disappointing” to think that he might never find the degree of emotional transparency from a partner that he has worked hard to access within himself.
Contrary to the prevailing gender tropes on TV, in rom-com films and in many women’s magazines, some men want deeper intimacy in their love lives, work hard for it and don’t always receive it in return.
It’s true that many men are still clinging to a traditional masculine script that leaves them disconnected from their deeper emotions and the words to articulate them. But it’s inaccurate and reductionist to continue dismissing men as biologically incapable of healthy intimacy and deserving the brunt of all relationship woes.
A study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2018 examined the reasons nearly 200 participants ended their heterosexual romantic relationships. The researchers found that, while the young women and men echoed previous findings about why people break up — not enough emotional and sexual intimacy, respectively — participants of all genders agreed that “emotional inaccessibility was more likely” to lead to them ending a relationship. This spoke to what the psychologist Sarah Hunter Murray observed in her book “Not Always in the Mood”: If the men she surveyed felt an emotional disconnect from their partners, their sexual desire tanked, even if the woman still wanted to have sex. Clearly, if men feel this disconnect for long enough, and the physical intimacy lapses, a troubling divide will grow in their relationships.
Just as we are discovering that the human brain is a structural mosaic, neither “male” nor “female,” emotional attachment styles simply aren’t as binary, either, as many people would like to believe. A 2017 Canadian study revealed that while men typically report greater feelings of avoidance and women greater feelings of ambivalence in their relationships with each other, those impulses are starting to reverse. Some of the men in this research were less avoidant in their love lives.
The simple but masked truth is that men have always needed deep connection. A 2010 study discovered that men between the ages of 18 and 23 were more affected by emotional instability in their romantic relationships than were their female partners. This doesn’t change with age. One 2009 Australian study found that male participants were more vulnerable to the adverse effects of divorce: They were more likely to lapse into deep social isolation — and, in turn, more likely to become suicidal and to lean into destructive risky behaviors. It’s true that initially women tend to be more negatively affected by breakups. Ultimately, they recover stronger emotionally. Men, on the other hand, research shows, never fully recover. They merely “move on.”
This sounds completely counterintuitive. How is it that so many men need deeper, stable ties in their love lives, yet historically they have been the ones fleeing to literal and figurative “man caves”? Time and time again, both gay and heterosexual men I interviewed spoke of a paralyzing fear of appearing “weak” (that was the most common one) or “small” or “too insecure” if they opened up and shared their fears, sadness and need for emotional succor with their love partners. They feared that airing such protected feelings would lead to rejection or abandonment.
More often than we care to believe, these fears are well founded.
Andrew Smiler, a psychologist based in Winston-Salem, N.C., whose practice is devoted to boys and men, told me that one of the main skills he helps men with is learning how to access, process and articulate their deeper emotional lives as a way of sustaining and strengthening their romantic partnerships.
Typically, he said, it goes well for these men the first time they make themselves vulnerable. After that, though, the warm reception cools. They’re often met with such responses as “‘You’re much needier than I thought you were.’ That seems to be the big one,” said Dr. Smiler, an author of books on masculinity, including “The Masculine Self.” Another common reaction from female partners is one they have long endured from men: “They’re told that they shouldn’t get so worked up and emotional about things.”
I’ve experienced this myself. One girlfriend during my 20s was mortified when I cried openly, sitting next to her on an airplane. Another girlfriend during my 30s told me she wanted nurturing when she felt scared or sad but didn’t find it “attractive in a guy” who sought the same. In my marriage, I have always pushed for greater emotional intimacy, asking my wife, Elizabeth, to articulate loving feelings or sentiments she has told me that run through her mind but remain unsaid. When she would share them, sometimes they were shrouded in humor. A few years ago, I pushed harder when we were seeing a couples counselor.
“Know what I would love more than anything to hear from you?” I asked, facing my wife. ‘“I need you.”’
“Well, I do,” she replied.
Tess Brigham, a San Francisco-based therapist whose practice is made up of millennial and Generation Z clients, wasn’t surprised by such anecdotes, even though, she said, vulnerability is essential to healthy relationships. “In their daily lives, women can’t show vulnerability,” she said. “They can’t show vulnerability at work. And when younger women feel too vulnerable in dating life, they fear that will make them look weak. If you’re vulnerable you’re seen as too emotional. That’s not a good thing today for women.”
This squares with the findings of the vulnerability and shame researcher and author Brené Brown. In her book “Daring Greatly,” she observes the zero sum dynamic that occurs when women “beg” men to be vulnerable with them. “The truth is that most women can’t stomach it,” she writes. “In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear, and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust.”
A few weeks ago, while talking with my wife, I lamented the realities of raising a child in a toxic, fractured culture and keeping a full-time job in such an unstable economy.
As we talked about it, she empathized and said, “For whatever it’s worth, know this: I will always need you.”
To me, those words opened a window, allowing a fresh breath of exposure and interdependency into our marriage.
Andrew Reiner is the author of “Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency,” coming out in December.