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Why Do Men Struggle With Displaying Emotion To Other Men?

More from Sudhamshu Mitra

I am tired, I think. Rather, I feel a complete lack of energy whenever I think of building strong, emotionally-rooted cis-gendered, heterosexual male friendships. I think it is difficult.

Why Can’t Men Have Emotionally Meaningful Relationships With Other Men?

We, men, have been socialized since childhood, to emote our fears and issues predominantly through anger, closing-down, suppressing emotions, being emotionally distant. I can feel how my throat starts aching and I clench my jaw every time I try to hold back tears instead of expressing emotions as is. These days, with more conversations around feminism, there have been more discussions, research, and work on how patriarchy affects both men and women and how men are socialized in a particular way since childhood.
There are enough examples that we see being talked about how men are attuned to expressing anger through wanting to hit something or someone, throw some object, shout, and express it through violence. In fact, it took me 2-3 years of psychological therapy to be able to identify my own emotions and name them. I realized that my vocabulary and capacity to identify emotions is still very limited.
But, how does patriarchy limits relationship-building between men? Once I understood some of the feminist principles, I started trying to open up more to both men and women. I wanted to build relationships with men where I can talk about my deepest fears, everyday emotions, stress and anxieties, mental health, issues with romantic relationships.
a guy sitting on a bench in a park
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Men have been socialized to not talk about the issues that they face.
I wanted to rebuild relationships with specifically my male friends from my time in my engineering college and from the organizations I worked at. It became important because, for about 20-25 years, I have had majorly only male friends around me. I wanted to expand on the bond that I already shared with them and build deeper relationships since I realized that making new friends as I grow older is more difficult for me.
But, it has been a tough path to tread, which I have given up for now. However, the process shed light on the different kinds of relationships that I share with men, the different ways we do express ourselves, and the limitations that we encounter because of the way we are socialized.

My Experiences And What I Have Noticed

I have noticed both in my life and in other men’s lives that we always go to the ‘woman’ in our lives for any emotional expression and sharing of thoughts. It is usually our partner or it is a female friend that we have. We find comfort in expressing everything that is there in our mind to female friends more than the male ones, which has been delved upon by many feminists. Only in particular scenarios is when we do reach out to men in our lives. It is usually when there is a breakup in a romantic relationship, resulting in the loss of that female person who used to listen to us all the time, is when we reach out to a male friend.
For instance, M used to reach out to me only when there is an issue in his relationship with his partner or if he wanted to talk about his dating experiences. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know anything about his general emotions or anxieties in life if his relationship was going well. We spoke to each other only when he wanted to understand how to deal with the issues in his relationship, how to deal with his breakup, and at times he wanted to empathize on the fact that he was being treated unfairly by his partner.
We also spoke about Tinder and how he was not able to find any matches despite having the Tinder Gold feature activated, which I did empathize with. But, our conversations were limited to this. We never talked about other emotions that are present in our lives regarding each others’ workplaces, professional lives, our relationships with parents, or even about how to deal with loneliness.

“We Talk About Our Struggles, Anxieties, Anger, Through Text And Rarely In Person”

Another difference I have observed is that it is easier for some men to text each other than talk to each other in person when it comes to emotional conversations. T, who is a close relative of mine, only opens up on text messages but never in person. In fact, I feel comfortable texting T about what I feel. In-person, we talk about different things in a very objective manner devoid of emotions. But, in the last 2 years, we have established a relationship wherein any emotional conversations happen only through the text format. We talk about political differences, our struggles, our anxieties, our anger, our fears through text messages, rarely in person.
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Some men find it easier to open up to other men over text rather than in-person.
Sometimes I wonder if this is because both T and I fear expressing emotions to each other in person. I wonder if I fear that I won’t be able to handle emotions of T or will not be able to hold emotional space for T. Thus, I do not express my emotions to T openly to not face emotions of T. I also wonder if T doesn’t want to look vulnerable in front of me since he is older to me and thinks that he should ensure that he looks strong and reliable.
I have tried to change the nature of the relationships I share with men many times. I have tried to ask them questions about topics that we don’t usually talk about between men. Usually, we men always talk about topics outside of us. We talk about politics, we talk about sports, we talk about our jobs, we talk about everything outside of us. Objectivity and logical thought are supposedly our bread and butter. We do not move beyond the usual question of ‘How are you?’ or ‘Where are you working?’. So, I have tried to bring up topics related to how their relationships with their parents are, how they are dealing with job stress or anxiety.
I have also tried to talk to friends about their sex lives, not in the usual stereotypical manner, but more about what they find difficult, the pressures of having to ‘perform’, how they figure out what they really like and not go by stereotypes of what sex has to look like. These conversations have worked best when we aren’t in a group and there are no standards that we have to meet and no fears of being ridiculed amongst other male friends. Usually in one-on-one conversations, some of the male friends I have spoken to have opened up and they do talk about their emotions and everyday feelings and issues.
But, I end up facing awkward silences after a conversation related to a topic ends. I do not see the male friend I am speaking to pick the cue and engage in deeper conversations or ask similar questions back to me. The onus usually falls back on me to bring up another topic of conversation that we both can speak on. Otherwise, we end up going back to conversations about the topics I mentioned before.
In groups, the nature of conversations is shaped by different dynamics that exist. Men do not know how to make space for anyone wanting to open up. In the same way, men do not listen to women in their lives, men end up not listening intently to other men who may be opening up about their lives. Usually, a joke is cracked or the topic shifts, without giving enough space and time to talk about our deepest emotions.

Opening Up About Traumatic Experiences To Male Friends

The fear of feeling and expressing varied emotions in front of other men upon listening to someone opening up exists strongly in groups. I don’t mean to say that every occasion of men coming together should involve deep emotional conversations. But, I rarely have seen men opening up and being vulnerable in front of other men when in groups.
Once, with B, I took the effort to open up about a traumatic experience I went through. But B wasn’t able to empathize with me immediately. He was getting ready to leave for some personal work and couldn’t gauge the fact that I had consciously decided to share with him my experience at that point. I went into the conversation expecting that he would listen to me and empathize with me. But, he failed to see that I was affected by the experience deeply. Or maybe he did see and didn’t want to acknowledge it consciously. At a later point in the day, he did check on me through a text message, but that was the limit to it.
Instead of trying to understand the impact this experience had on me, he assumed that this experience makes one a true ‘activist’. This one experience scarred me in a way that I don’t feel like opening up to B again, though I want to try again. In my mind, I imagine calling B to a pub and open up about many things over a beer and listen to how his life is going on really and what he might be discussing in his therapy sessions.
At times I almost take up my phone and decide to text him the same. But, I then feel tired thinking about the emotional investment I am putting from my side to have a deeper relationship, and I give up. Since my expectation that B would himself take up the effort to build a relationship remains unfulfilled, I have ended up distancing myself from B and have only surface-level conversations where needed.
However, when I shared the same experience with C, another male friend of mine, he was present in the conversation and showed empathy. He was able to understand my point of view and didn’t rationalize the experience in any way. While I rarely meet C without his partner around, I do know that he is someone who is sensitive and has space for multiple emotions. Since he is not emotionally closed, I don’t feel emotional tiredness while speaking to him.
I have had a couple of friends like C. While they have very traditional masculine characteristics, they also like cats, romantic Japanese movies, cooking, and many likings that are considered traditionally ‘feminine’. This, somehow, also allows for a more expansive range of emotions in my relationship with them. I wish sometimes that all-male relationships are easy and I can cry and hug and open up whenever I want.
By sharing these experiences, I don’t mean to say men do not bond or open up with each other at all. Men who are friends with each other since childhood or college do have strong bonds at times where they open up to each other and be vulnerable. But this is usually a close group of 2-3 men who may have known each other for very long. The dynamics of this relationship however do change when men have partners, wherein they might spend more of their time with their partners than invest in emotional bonding with their male friends, apart from games, alcohol, movies, and music.

Traditionally ‘Masculine’ Bonding: Does It Have Merits?

Although, I do think there is merit to male bonding over video games, beer/substances, music, and sports. I wouldn’t discard the existing forms of male bonding since they are still important avenues that can be explored even with their limitations. Even though the range of emotions that could be communicated through such activities is limited, it does provide solace to the body and mind. Recently, a male friend and I both queried each other about our lives over a computer game. The game itself provided the ‘distraction’ that allowed us to open up.
We spoke about our professional lives and personal lives without feeling ‘weird’ about having traditionally non-masculine conversations. Without the game, we would never have picked up the phone and talked to each other. Similarly, I have had multiple experiences where games and music have brought me closer to my male friends. In a college WhatsApp group, I am part of, conversations happen only about games or politics. It is very easy for men I know to come together over games and alcohol than on any other topic.
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Activities like gaming can allow men to find ways to discuss deeper issues about their lives but these activities have limitations too.
Sometimes, I do resort to and like such forms of bonding, since in limited ways they do provide an emotional opening and affection that does not exist otherwise. Since my body is used to such a space since childhood, I rely on such forms of bonding at times over opening up to a female friend. I know for a fact that I can call up any male friend and vent about things over alcohol. I know that attending music concerts or practicing music with male friends brings in a different form of male bonding.
I know that computer games and competitive sports allow for camaraderie. Of course, there are pitfalls, but I think the existing avenues wherein men already bond can be utilized to have deeper emotional conversations and build relationships between men if one is willing to do so. I do not feel guilty about enjoying traditionally masculine ways of bonding anymore since I now know its positives and negatives better. I have seen that it is easier for men to open up in these spaces and I try my way to build deeper relationships through these spaces, sometimes hoping that the same camaraderie built spills over to times when we aren’t playing games or drinking alcohol.

What Are The Limitations?

But, the limitations of such avenues are very much evident. They cannot be substitutes for deeper emotional relationships where we aren’t hesitant to feel vulnerable and do not cover up vulnerabilities through jokes and any-topic-but-not-about-ourselves conversations. While it is hard and difficult, I think it is pertinent for men to move beyond relying on female-friendships and even therapy for emotional support. When men start putting in efforts to be vulnerable with other men, it would enable the creation of more spaces of deeper emotional bonding and allow for more men to open up.
Instead of talking about yesterday’s football match, one can open up about how they deal with loneliness, about their relationship with their families, about their insecurities in professional and personal lives, and their addictions. One can also learn from each other on how to and how not to deal with certain emotions healthily. One can learn how to understand and deal with our romantic relationships, our partners, and heartbreaks in a manner that is respectful to oneself and others around us.
These can happen step by step and in tandem with traditionally ‘masculine’ activities too. Instead of distracting oneself or calling up one’s partner or female friends every time, one can start opening up to other men without shame. I think men fail to realize that only the first step to open up is hard. The fear of being vulnerable and ‘losing’ our masculinity prevents us from taking the first step mostly. After that, it becomes a second nature to honestly ask or talk about topics that are about one’s daily lives and daily emotions. It becomes easy because we live and experience emotions every day and we only need supportive male friendships that provide us similar spaces like that with our partners and psychologists.

What Do Men Need To Do To Make Meaningful Relationships

All you need to do is pose a personal and honest question to your male friend about something that usually doesn’t get talked about and take the conversation forward from there. This can happen through a text message, over a competitive sport, over a computer game, over alcohol, over heartbreaks. There is no reason why the camaraderie that exists in times of breakups, games, sports cannot translate into empathy and vulnerability when it comes to things that affect our lives and mental health.
In a way, this is a selfish request since I am tired of trying to make men open up and I don’t want to be tired anymore. Hence, I want more men to take the onus of establishing relationships that allow for vulnerability and physical and emotional affection. I want men to recognize and reflect on the nature of the relationship they have with the men in their lives. I want men to think about the positives and limitations of such relationships. I want men to think about why they do not text or call other men about loneliness, depression, frustration, stress, sadness, and even happiness.
I want men to think about why the topics of conversation are always limited to women, games, sports, politics, and never about one’s own lives and emotions. I want men to think about why we don’t seek emotional support from each other but only from women in their lives. All we need to do is just talk about our lives and emotions honestly. We can live much fuller lives if only men take the first steps and also recognize and support when other men are taking steps to open up. Only then, I will be more hopeful of having enjoyable and yet vulnerable relationships with men.
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