Us men can seem like a bit of an enigma at times, appearing stoic, emotionless, carefree, and perhaps even cold and indifferent. The keyword here though is ‘appearing’. The truth is that we feel more than you think. It’s just that we’ve been conditioned to believe that the expression of emotion equals weakness – unless it’s related to sports or video games, of course.
I write this as a man who has struggled to express his truth with women for many years – a man afraid of reaction, rejection, judgement, and the truth I might hear reflected back at me. So instead, I lied, suppressed my truth, and consequently caused a lot of pain to those close to me. The battle between the man who wants to express his truth and the woman who wants him to when they both lack trust in each other is ongoing.
As you read this, you may think that it’s normal for a man to lie and hide the truth – and whilst I might agree with you, it does not make it okay. The reality is that men want to be honest. A man wants to unburden his troubles, but the conditions need to be psychologically safe. Most men fear that their truth will hurt the person they want to be honest with, so they decide to say nothing. They fear rejection, and their ego struggles to accept it, so they avoid being vulnerable altogether.
To the women reading this: you are the conductors of this journey and the experts of emotional expression – and we need your help. It’s not easy for us to switch between our emotions, especially with some of the vulnerable ones. They don’t feel nice, and we don’t know what to do with them. Most men want to escape a negative state of mind as quickly as possible, which is why we try our hardest to block our emotions or numb them.
So where do we go from here? It might sound cliché, but communication really is key. I’d like to share with you some ways in which you can create psychological safety for the men in your life in order to encourage open and honest conversations together. Of course, there are many men who are comfortable being vulnerable, but this article is written with those who are emotionally closed off in mind.
Before you read ahead, know that I fully understand there are times when the things I list will be difficult to do, perhaps because your own emotions may be heightened or the topic you wish to bring up has been on the table for quite some time. Every relationship is unique and relationship goals may vary. This is a journey and it will take time, but I promise that if you really work on creating safety, the man in your life will begin to open up.
Is this the time or place?
He’s just come home from work or hanging out with his friends, and you’re ready to talk to him about something that’s been on your mind all day – after all, you’ve had all the time to go over it and now you want to let it all out. But this is not the time. This scenario does not create safety. As mentioned before, it is difficult for a man to switch between emotional states and after having just come home, he’s in no state to talk about his feelings, so give him time to truly settle.
Talking to him just before sleeping is also a bad idea. Most men just want to sleep once their head hits the pillow. I can fully appreciate that you may have something on your heart and mind – possibly something that’s been bothering you for a while – but if you really want to have the best shot at an open conversation, find the right time and place to do so.
Are you really ready to hear his truth?
Before embarking on a journey to create safety for him to open up, ask yourself if you feel safe with yourself to receive his truth. Are you ready to accept whatever he says with an open heart, to listen and not react? What is your intention for the conversation? What do you want to achieve together? Check in with yourself to recognise if there has ever been a time where he has attempted to express his truth and you mishandled the situation, emotionally hijacked the conversation, or even used his vulnerability against him. It doesn’t take a lot for a man to shut down and never attempt to speak his truth again.
- Be patient with him. Understand that he won’t always know what he’s feeling, Many men have been conditioned not to feel and he may need time to find his words. Try not to jump in or finish his sentences and just listen. It may even be necessary for him to go away and reflect on the topic and come back to you, so be prepared to hit walls.
- Commit to holding space for him – even if his truth triggers you.
This also means a commitment moving forward that you will not use his truth against him. It’s important that you work to ensure that safety is maintained within your relationship. Try your best to remain open and take your own time to process anything that triggers you. Be mindful of jumping in with advice or rebuttals. We already get a lot of advice from other men, so what we want from you is to feel seen, heard, and understood. Turn up the dial on empathy and approach with curiosity. Use phrases like ‘I hear you’ and ‘tell me more’ to encourage the flow.
Approach with Loving-Kindness
Think ‘how can I open his heart?’ rather than “I want him to be more expressive’. Use physical touch to show affection, allow him to see and feel your presence, and reaffirm that he is safe. Use this as a moment to bond with him and build your connection. To foster more openness, you could even express your own truth and fears to show your vulnerability. I find that when working with men, they are far more likely to open up when I share a story about myself with them.
Ask Better Questions
Avoid asking big questions like, “Where do you see this relationship going?” It’s a very direct and important question, but such questions can be incredibly daunting to a man who finds it difficult to open up. If your aim is to create safety and encourage openness, start by asking softer and more specific questions like, “When do you enjoy connecting with me most?” Be playful and ask questions that he can answer. If a man begins to feel pressured or overwhelmed, he is likely to close and retreat. Try not to let him feel that he can’t keep up with the conversation.
- Catch him doing it right and reinforce the behaviour. When he is opening up, let him know that he’s heard, thank him for his vulnerability, and tell him that it makes you feel good when he opens up to you. Men love to feel that they’re doing a good job, and positive reinforcement will create new neuro-associations in the brain that will likely encourage him to continue opening up.
- If you’re not quite getting the response you desire, do not punish him. Instead, speak from your heart and express how it makes you feel when he struggles to express himself – but do so in a calm and loving way. This is more likely to elicit a response from him, but also be prepared for no reaction.
I know this can appear intense, but I cannot stress to you how hard it is for men to open up about their feelings. Real safety is so important in making a man feel comfortable. If we sense even the slightest bit of disingenuity or judgement, we’ll either stop talking altogether or get into our heads and begin disguising or playing down our truth.
It’s a Journey, Not a Destination
I have an exercise for you to try. This is something I used to do on a weekly basis in my last relationship. We would have a ‘check-in’ every week on Thursday at 7pm with the intention of creating a safe space for us. We’d used it to share how we’re feeling in our lives, towards each other, and the relationship. By having it at the same time every week, it allows you both to mentally and emotionally prepare yourselves for the connection – this is especially important for men. Here’s my check-in guide:
- Pick a day and time that suits you both. Put it in a diary and honour it.
- Both of you must take ownership in creating a safe environment. This can mean lighting candles, putting some music on, opening a bottle of wine, or burning some incense – whatever works for you both.
- Sit facing each other and spend around five minutes looking into each other’s eyes (you can blink!) and settle yourself into the moment.
- Next, take turns expressing how you’re feeling, knowing that anything can be said. The one listening can only listen, and is then to repeat back everything that their partner said. Try your best not to paraphrase and use their words. The aim of this exercise is to make each other feel heard and seen.
- After each share and reflection, say thanks for listening to each other and embrace.
- If there is anything that needs further discussion, continue with loving kindness while taking care to maintain physical touch and openness throughout.
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