Here are four things to keep in mind when your man seems distant…
When talking about the inner workings of human beings, it is dangerous to generalize. Exceptions will always confound simplistic answers to complex questions. Still, nearly all women share a frustration at some time or another in romantic relationships. They express it something like this: “He seems so shut down…His heart is like a safe I can’t seem to crack…I can’t get him to open up and talk about what he’s feeling…Even when he’s physically with me, he seems to be emotionally somewhere else.”
Sound familiar? Many new relationships have sputtered because of this complaint. But while there are no simple solutions, there are some useful big-picture insights into to why this may happen. Understanding the root causes can go a long way toward creating ample middle ground on which to build a healthy relationship.
You first have to account for the way men are fundamentally wired. Whether you believe God created males to be protectors and providers, or it was a matter of evolution, it’s true that for many millennia men mostly kept the company of other men, hunting, engaging in war, and so on. The skills needed for that lifestyle did not include the ability to verbalize one’s deep feelings—and with good reason. By the time that man got stuff off his chest, the herd, or the battle, had either killed him or left him behind.
Fast forward to today’s male. Those instincts are still in a man’s DNA, however much the times have moved on. And he still undergoes a social “natural selection” of sorts, beginning at an early age, which rewards reticence over chattiness every time.
It is this combination of influences that makes it difficult for him to open up to the woman in his life. Here’s why:
1. Men and women think differently. While women judge an event by how it makes them feel, men are more likely to wonder what it means for their sense of competence and strength. Will this make me stronger or weaker? He is also thinking: Will this help me get the girl? It isn’t that a man doesn’t have feelings; rather, he prioritizes them differently than women. Compared to action and tangible effects, feelings strike him as insubstantial and irrelevant.
2. Men and women communicate differently. Research has revealed that the average female uses nearly twice as many words in the course of a given day as a typical male. It is tempting for women to assume this is a conscious choice he makes. It isn’t. He’s not being evasive. He’s not playing cat-and-mouse mind games or purposely making life difficult for you. He’s simply being what he is—a man. Pressuring him to be something else entirely is an exercise in futility and frustration. Sure, express your feelings, and encourage him to do the same. But let go of the expectation that there is a Shakespeare in there somewhere, if only he’d open up.
3. Unlike girls, boys grow up playing games that don’t account for feelings. As children, girls’ play typically centers on social interaction (dolls, house, tea parties). Boys play warfare games, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians—good-guy-versus-bad-guy scenarios. Modern parents who refuse to buy toy weapons for their boys—because they are concerned by the prevalence of violence in the world—are often dismayed when the kitchen mop becomes a rifle and every stick outside is a sword. Perhaps in our forgotten past, tribal communities considered this a good sign, since survival would one day depend on the little guy’s skill as a warrior or hunter. The point is, even now boys at play enact roles that minimize emotional awareness. Later in life, that translates into an inability to comprehend the layers of emotional nuance their partners expect from them, much less to talk about it.
4. Boys are conditioned to avoid the appearance of weakness like the plague. As much as we try to deny it in modern civilized culture, there is a pecking order in human social structures that begins to develop the minute we step onto the school playground. Boys jockey for position and prestige, especially in the eyes of the on-looking girls. The other boys will punish mercilessly for any sign of softness—but, what’s worse, the girls might also. It doesn’t take long for a boy to realize the best way to stay on top is to never, ever let anyone see his doubts, fears, and wounds.
Years later, when the woman in his life asks him to open up and share his feelings, he may even sense he’s being led into a trap and circle his emotional wagons. He’d rather endure her frustration at his guardedness than risk losing everything in a moment of transparent vulnerability.
Here’s some good news: None of this is as toxic to romantic relationships as some would have you believe. Awareness and understanding are powerful magnets that can draw you closer together. Being realistic about how your man’s mind works is a good first step in learning how to meet him in the middle.