In my relationship, I would 100% say that I am the more emotional one. If we are watching a sad movie, nine times out of 10 I’m the only one who is crying (unless it’s “Marley and Me,” obviously). Don’t get me wrong, my boyfriend expresses his emotions, such as crying in front of me, but there is a disparity in how much emotion we convey.
Honestly, I never thought anything of this trend because that’s how my father is. I have only seen my father cry two times in my life, so his lack of emotional display became the social norm I ascribed to men.
It’s not just me either. After all, the epitome of ‘manly’ characters in popular culture tends to be the ‘strong and silent’ type. Think Edward Cullen from Twilight or James Bond—what did these characters have in common? They both embodied the stoic, take-charge and show-no-fear qualities, all of which we wrongfully categorize as manly.
This phenomenon, toxic masculinity, has been a hot topic lately as seen with the insensitive comment (“Bring back manly men”) from Candace Owens on Harry Style’s post of him wearing a dress. While masculinity itself isn’t a bad thing, it can certainly be damaging to both mental and physical health if taken to restrictive and toxic levels. Toxic masculinity can appear in many forms, but it can often be seen in gender stereotyping, derogatory phrases towards genders, the belief that suppressing emotions is indicative of strength, etc.
While I was encouraged to share my feelings and express myself growing up, my boyfriend was taught by society to ‘toughen up’ and was hardly given a safe space to voice his emotions. Unfortunately, this emotional avoidance can have lifelong consequences. It has been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) that toxic masculinity may be correlated to men’s tendency to die at younger ages. Additionally, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that the suicide rate for men was four times higher than for women, which may indicate the ‘manly’ trait of not seeking help can have dire consequences.
I didn’t even realize that my boyfriend was sometimes putting up a strong front in our relationship. It would be little moments, like trying to hide that a movie made him tear up or not expressing if I had hurt his feelings with my comment. Once I noticed the pattern, I felt immense guilt. It’s not fair that I can lean on him for emotional support, but he doesn’t feel that he could do the same for fear of appearing ‘weak.’
As a partner, I wasn’t sure how I could show him that it was okay to express his feelings, especially within the relationship. After all, if I was hurting his feelings and he didn’t let me know in some way, I didn’t want to keep making the same mistakes.
After researching the topic, I came up with a few ways to gently encourage emotional openness from your partner, especially if they identify as male.
- Be open about your feelings to set an example
As I stated in the beginning, I am a very emotional person. However, I realized that when I showed my emotions in front of my boyfriend, I would immediately apologize for them. Instead of making emotions seem like a bad thing, I reframed them into a positive. For example, if I started crying during a disagreement, I would vocalize that it was okay I was showing emotion because it’s healthier than bottling it up. Also, if your partner is trying to hide their true feelings, gently encourage them that you don’t find expressing emotion to be weak and that you would feel more connected if they showed you how they truly felt. However, don’t force it—let them open up on their own time so they feel comfortable sharing.
- Ready your listening ear
If your partner is ready to talk about their emotions or something on their mind, then that means it is your job to be an active listener. You can ask your partner before they begin if they would like your advice or feedback. If they don’t, then while they are speaking, make sure that they feel heard by providing reassuring expressions and gestures, such as a supportive hand on their back.
- Go more in-depth when asking about their day
While I can go on and on about my day to my boyfriend, I find that he rarely can do the same. Instead of complaining about how his professor’s mean words made him feel, his description of his day is more based on the actual actions. When asking your partner about their day, encourage them to go beyond what they did that day and dive into how these events made them feel. You can encourage them through further questioning or just reassuring nods to go on.
- Learn your partner’s love language
While it isn’t a cure-all, knowing your partner’s love language is extremely useful information. This is especially true if you are trying to find ways to show your partner how you feel about them in a way that they can understand. Take the quiz with your partner here and use their love language as a way to get closer to enable open conversations.
While these steps have tremendously helped my relationship, there are still more ways that I can be supportive of my partner and help to undo the social effects of toxic masculinity. If you were like me and blind to the concept, take action within your relationship to make it a safe space for you both to express yourselves freely. After all, you both deserve it.