Ladies—How You Can Get Emotionally Close to the Men You Love

Most men process difficult emotions differently from most women, and understanding this can create connection
October 3, 2019 Updated: October 3, 2019

Ladies, how many times have you been frustrated by not being able to connect emotionally with the men you love? Want to learn how to do that? Keep reading.

The first thing to know is that there are a multitude of ways people deal with emotions. What we want to guard against is the idea that “our” way is the “only” way. If we get stuck in that sort of thinking, we’re in danger of not seeing the many ways that others might use.

What sorts of things help us when we have emotions? How do we help ourselves find balance? Many people, especially women, find talking about their emotions to be a top strategy, others see talking as something to be avoided. We know about the origins of this difference from the research of Shelly Taylor of UCLA.

Taylor has helped us greatly in understanding that men and women have very different ways to deal with stress. She found in 2003 that nearly all of the previous research on stress had been done using male subjects. Given this obvious bias, Taylor decided to find if women might have a different way to deal with stress from the standard “fight or flight” mode observed.

What Taylor found was that when stressed, women don’t usually fight or flee. Instead, they “tend and befriend.” When stressed, women are much more likely to move toward people and toward interaction. This is a remarkable difference and starts to inform our understanding of how men and women might have different ways to process emotions. Taylor helps us see that women will be more likely to talk while men will be less likely to do so.

Why is it that talking and interaction help many women heal? The bottom line is that this is where they feel safe. The first element of healing is to find safety.

The people who use the tend-and-befriend mode will usually find help in talking and interacting because this is where they feel safe. Think of your way. When you’re upset, do you look toward others for support? Are there certain people who help you feel safer? People you’re more likely to open up with? Are there certain places that help you feel safer to open up with that person?

The more you feel safe, the more likely you’ll feel free to open up, right? You’ll be sensitive to your own safety and seek interactions that fit your safety needs. When you find that safety, you’ll talk about your problems and difficulties. This is a win.

Men are no different, but their safe places are different. Most men simply don’t find the interactive tend-and-befriend mode to be so safe.

In the late 1970s, when I first started working at a counseling center, my clients were mostly men. I started finding that the things that helped women didn’t seem to go over so well with men. I was taught in grad school to sit and face my clients and make good eye contact. This worked like a charm with women. It seemed to help them feel safe. With men? Not so much.

Rather than help them feel safe, it seemed to be making them more tense. It was only later that I found that eye contact for men in this setting (especially with another man) had the tendency to increase tension rather than help them feel safe.

Eye contact can mean something very different for men, and often means competition or confrontation.

Think about it. Hockey has a “face-off,” boxers face each other when men compete they “face” the other team. It took me some time to realize this and also to see that men feel considerably safer not in a face-to-face mode but by being shoulder to shoulder.

Before we go a step farther, we need to back up a bit. The differences that Taylor found are not black and white. For many reasons, including both social and biological ones, there are some men who process things more like women and some women who process more like men.

We are called to not pigeonhole, either. We are all very different, and each person needs to be understood for their own unique paths. I have found that about 20 percent of men are going to process things more like women (tend and befriend) and about 20 percent of women will likely process things more like men.

There are, of course, many people who are a blend of the two. It’s not a simple split.

With that said, it is more likely for women to tend and befriend in response to emotional issues. But what about men? Where do men find safety? If we knew that, we would find it much easier to enter into their safe space, right? After working with grieving and traumatized men for more than 30 years, I have slowly come to see some of these differences.

Identifying His Safe Zone

Think of the man you love. Where do you think he finds safety? Where does he seem to feel safe?

There are three basic places that people will find safety: interaction, action, and inaction. Most of us will use all three of these, but we will usually have a primary approach used more often than the other two.

When a man you care for is stressed, does he want to talk about things (interaction)? Does he move toward doing something (action)? Or does he isolate himself and get quiet (inaction)? Think of his way.

You may want to talk with him about this when you see him. Just ask him where he feels safe and see what he says. You could even tell him what you do and where you feel safe when you feel stressed and ask him if that sort of thing works for him. It could prove to be a valuable conversation.

Common Approaches of Men

In general, men tend to move more toward action or inaction but each man (and each woman) will have different ways to find safety.

We also know that most men find that being shoulder to shoulder will bring more safety than being face-to-face. Men tend to get close to one another when they’re on the same team and working toward a common goal. This is where men tend to relax and develop friendships, especially if the situation is somewhat dangerous.

Think of men who become close to each other, wartime buddies, policemen who are partners, firemen who are at the same firehouse, players on the same team, or even fishing together in a fishing boat all day. These are all places where men are shoulder to shoulder and taking part in an action together with a common goal. This is where men begin to feel close, and it gives us a powerful clue about how we can get closer to them.

Once someone finds safety, what is the next step? Think of what happens when you find your close friend and you have a safe place with time to interact. What happens? It’s obvious. You tell your story.

There is something about telling the story that is healing and fulfilling. When you can get that story out and someone hears it, you feel differently. Often we feel affirmed. These are the basic elements of healing that can be seen clearly in therapy or a support group. Both therapy and support groups are built to help people feel safe to tell their stories.

These two elements are the basics of how people heal from very strong grief and trauma. It’s been my experience that these elements are also used for everyday sorts of emotional bumps and bruises, but on a smaller scale.

The human mind is built to listen to and tell stories, and this is for good reason. Doing this helps us stabilize and find our center. People find safety and then they tell their story within that safety. When I first started working with men, I assumed that everyone felt safe sitting face to face and that everyone would benefit from verbally telling their story. Not true.

It took me quite some time to realize that the basics of safety and story were the same for both men and women, but the specifics of safe places and the way the stories were told were quite different.

I began to realize that men often found safety in action and would use that action to tell their story. It was right there for me to see, but I missed it due to my assumption that everyone healed in the same manner.

I can hear you now saying, “Wait a minute. How can anyone tell their story through action? How does that work?” I can really understand this question since I struggled to understand it for years. Let’s take an example.

I worked with a man once who experienced the death of his teenaged son in a car crash. The man was stunned and reeling. What he eventually did to deal with the chaos of such a massive loss was to begin to write a book about his son. He interviewed his son’s girlfriend, ex-girlfriends, teachers, friends, religious leaders, coaches, and anyone he could think of who’d had contact with him. After interviewing each person, he would write up the interview as a section for his book.

The conversations the man had with his interviewees were not unlike what some others might have in a support group, or in therapy, but this man had the conversations as a part of his action, the action of writing a book.

The project was meant to honor his son and his son’s life. The project also pulled the man into the future: Should he have an index? How would he get it printed? Distributed? Who should he interview next? The entire project became a way for this man to tell his story of his son, and his loss. It was an action that honored his son and pulled the man into the future.

During this action and interviewing his sons’ friends and talking about his son’s life, how could he not experience the emotions of this loss? By honoring his son with his action, he was telling his son’s story and his own story and experiencing the emotions that were a part of that loss.

Now, imagine you are this man’s wife. How do you get emotionally close to him? Would it work to simply sit with him face to face and say, “Honey, how are you feeling about our son?” Probably not.

Much better to simply ask how the book is going. It’s a very good bet that he will be very willing and even interested in talking about the book—the latest thing he had discovered about his son from the son’s friends, and so on. Better yet, how can you help him with the book? “Honey, maybe I can round up some pictures that you could use in the book? Would that help?” Men sometimes deeply appreciate someone taking an interest in their healing actions and working with them shoulder to shoulder.

That is where men tend to feel safe.

I can hear you saying, “Well, Tom, my husband doesn’t write books.” But it’s likely your husband uses some type of action to tell his story, and if you know how he does it, you will be in a much better position to both understand him and connect with him. But how does he do it?

Where Does He Find Safety?

Think of the man you love and remember where he finds safety. Now think of what he does once he finds that safety. It is likely that he will move into one of four spheres: creative action, practical action, thinking action, or inaction. The men I have worked with will generally have one of those that’s their primary path to tell their story.

Let’s take just a second to observe these four types of healing action. It’s easiest to start seeing these by observing what men tend to do following a very strong loss. Here are some examples.

Practical Action

This is probably the most common path men use to tell their story. Some men might work, others might build a memorial or start a trust fund, still others might dedicate themselves to better parenting.

Think of the NFL when a player on a team dies. What do these men do naturally and without direction? They honor their fallen comrade with an insignia or patch on their uniform, and they dedicate their season to the lost friend. Their play is now connected to their loss and the future becomes a way to remember this friend and to tell a story. But all of this happens through action, not just sitting in a circle and talking.

Creative Action

Many people use creative action to tell their story. You can see this in men who use actions like painting, singing, sculpting, writing music, listening to music, and a host of other creative paths. How many symphonies have been written by men that were in honor of a loss?

Thinking Action

Some men write, like the man in our example. Some journal, some study grief, some dedicate their learning, some philosophize. Other’s contemplate the broader meaning of life and their experience in the face of loss or other emotional trauma.

Inaction

This is simply telling the story internally, in our own heads, by ourselves. Some will do this before going to sleep, others while driving, and some others while taking a walk. It can happen any place.

You won’t see it unless they tell you about it. They’re likely telling this story over and over again in their heads. Like the other three types of action, this one is basically invisible. You can’t see it or connect it to a story of what these men are dealing with unless you look closely.

It is this invisibility that kept me from seeing the way men used action in order to heal. Men are great at making their healing paths invisible. It’s likely you don’t know the first thing about how he does this. My next article will be on why men try to keep their healing invisible and the reasons they do this. When we can understand this basic idea, we’ll be in much better position to see more clearly the healing actions they’re taking.

Summary

To recap what we’ve discussed, remember:

1. Men feel safer in a shoulder-to-shoulder mode on the same team
2. Rather than interaction, men often use action or inaction to tell their story
3. Rather than the past, men use the future to tell their story
4. Honoring and rebuilding are the tools they use

Tom Golden, LCSW, has written three books on the way men heal and has co-authored a fourth. His newest book “Helping Mothers be Closer to Their Sons: Understanding the Unique World of Boys” offers the latest research about boys and their healing and how moms can use this to be closer to them. “The Way Men Heal” is Tom’s book that is specifically on male healing paths. Tom offers online consultations for women seeking to get closer to the men they love.

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