Toxic Masculinity: How Women Are Paying the Price for a Society of Emotionally-Stunted Men

In recent years, I became increasingly weary of the emotional shortcomings of the men in my life. It seemed to me that they were either unwilling to or incapable of expressing their feelings effectively and, over time, were prone to outbursts as a means to rid themselves of pent-up emotions. They also consistently failed to balance the division of emotional labor within the relationship, and when questioned, displayed little knowledge of, or desire to, admit to their shortcomings. I have heard similar complaints from several women; while they seek out a variety of methods — therapy, friends, family, podcasts, and self-help books — to cope with their emotions, the men in their lives rely on them alone.

If this is a common concern amongst women, then why are we so quick to conform to the role of on-call therapist, bearing the burden of men’s emotional lives? And why is it that we are so forgiving of our male counterparts’ inability to support us in similar ways? Perhaps it is because our society has institutionalized the ideal man as one who will reject sensitivity as a show of strength. Women, on the other hand, are taught to cope with men’s emotional vacancy by mothering them through their insecurities, supporting them through their unhealthy coping mechanisms, and making it our duty to save them from their flaws. In other words, we as women are expected to shape men, providing them with constant emotional labor in order to help them succeed, whilst recognizing that we must do the same for ourselves. We live in a society obsessed with making women into mothers — even if we do not mother children, we must mother men. 

I have enabled the men in my life by saying yes to their emotional needs all the time. I do this partly out of guilt, because I am afraid that their mental health will suffer if I don’t, and partly because I have been conditioned to feel that, as a woman, I am more equipped to support them emotionally — a failure to do so would qualify as selfishness. This support has rarely been mutual: more often than not, it becomes too much, and I end up exhausted and resentful. 

Toxic masculinity is a set of behaviors and beliefs instilled in men by society that involves (1) the suppression of emotions, (2) the need to maintain a “tough” façade, (3) and the perception of violence as an indicator of power. The enduring idea that feelings are inherently female has left generations of straight men emotionally-stunted, unable to forge intimate relationships (especially with other men) — and women are paying the price. 

While women are encouraged — and even expected — to display emotions and cultivate platonic intimacy from a young age, men are taught to perceive displays of emotion as a sign of weakness. This is especially true in platonic relationships between men, meaning that women are left as the only people that men feel they can turn to for emotional support. This is worsened by socially-imposed gender roles that classify women as inherently maternal and caring. The consequence of this is a generation of men that cast their female partners in the roles of lover, best friend, confidant, career advisor, stylist, mother, and therapist. As well as being detrimental to men, preventing them from seeking out the appropriate channels to process trauma and foster intimacy, it is putting a strain on the emotional health of women. 

The idea that expressing emotion is a display of weakness has forced men to repress their emotions and rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms as an outlet for their frustrations. Their failure to discuss feelings and seek out professional help, and their tendency to suppress emotions make them prone to feelings of anger and, in turn, aggressive behavior. Most men have never been taught to identify and process their feelings, and express emotional needs. With this, women are left to interpret and excuse the aggressive behavior, emotional vacancy, and outbursts of men in their lives. 

Although this dynamic has long been imposed by society, it is not a woman’s duty to accommodate or fix emotionally-stunted men — much less withstand excessive amounts of emotional labor and tolerate toxic male behavior. There must, instead, be a widespread effort to revert institutionalized expectations of gender at a structural level. Until this occurs, and men are encouraged to explore and share their emotions — rather than be ashamed of them — and feel comfortable expressing the same vulnerability expected of women, there will be no progress in the dynamic between genders.