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How men can save relationships by learning to be vulnerable

(Isabel Espanol/Illustration for The Washington Post)

When Nick Firchau and his wife were dating, he trekked from his Brooklyn apartment into Manhattan to buy fresh scallops to make her dinner. This was a big deal for Firchau, now 43, who rarely cooked and wanted to impress his girlfriend. According to him, she grew vocally upset because he neglected to cook a vegetable, too. “I couldn’t believe she didn’t appreciate all the effort I went to,” he told me.

He never said anything to her, though. Instead, he fumed for days — a dynamic that continued for years into their marriage. When conflict arose, and he felt hurt, Firchau let those feelings “marinate,” which led to pent-up “anger and resentment, because the air hadn’t been cleared the first time.”

Neglecting to examine and tend to emotional needs is common to many men, it turns out. For a number of reasons — many rooted in socialized norms about masculinity — men are often taught very young to diminish, or even ignore, their emotions in relationships. They do this, however, at the expense of their relationships’ health and their own well-being. When men learn to better understand their emotional needs, the payoff can be profound.

The common myth about men and emotions goes something like this: Men are wired differently than women, and, as a result, they don’t have the same emotional needs. But Israeli researchers who pored over scans of more than 1,400 brains discovered that human brain structures and features are a “mosaic,” resistant to easy binary expectations about gender or sex. Another study published last year in Nature reported that men’s and women’s emotions are, as one of the researchers put it, “clearly, consistently and unmistakably more similar than they are different.”

Instead, psychologists say these perceived differences often arise from social constructs, which starts early. “We don’t train boys to have vocabulary around their emotions beyond anger,” said Fredric Rabinowitz, chair of the psychology department at the University of Redlands in California, whose research and private practice focus on men’s mental health. This occurs, Rabinowitz said, because many boys are raised to believe that deeper emotions are separate to their being, which morphs into “unprocessed trauma.” And when men lack emotional language, they cannot explain what they are feeling.

Firchau can identify with this. Until 2018, the podcast producer and host of the “Paternal” podcast “didn’t think about my emotions in general,” he said. (I have appeared as a guest on his show.) That year, he lost his job, the stress became overwhelming, and he felt as if his identity was under siege.

“I always believed guys are supposed to have everything figured out, for ourselves and our families,” Firchau said. He worried that he couldn’t handle everything with “stoicism, confidence and emotional toughness,” which scared him, because he feared that betraying vulnerability “would make me unattractive to my wife. I was afraid I would lose her if I shared what was unraveling me.”

Like so many men who feel beleaguered, he could not express these negative emotions and, he said, became overwhelmed with stress.

Another self-inflicted barrier that prevents men from meeting their own emotional needs occurs when they check out of relational conflicts, or “stonewall.” This occurs when someone feels overwhelmed by their emotions during interpersonal conflict and then physically or emotionally disconnects, such as by walking away, changing the subject or reaching for other diversionary behaviors. Many people who practice stonewalling consider it a peacekeeping tactic, but it merely buries problems that need resolving.

Even if they no longer believe that repressing or suppressing deeper emotions makes them “stronger,” many men believe, or at least hope, that it comes without consequences. They’re wrong. Research shows, for instance, that holding in negative emotions worsens mental health, heightening symptoms of anxiety and depression, and kick-starts physiological responses linked over time to cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease.

Men aren’t the only ones who contribute to masculine stereotypes about vulnerability. Psychologist Paulette Kouffman Sherman said in an email that, despite the well-documented request for male partners to be more emotionally available, some women “don’t find it attractive.” They perceive a man’s vulnerability as “weakness, neediness,” as less masculine, a threat to traits they value in fathers who were the family “rock”: “strong, silent, fixer” types, she said.

Bill Johnson, a psychologist in suburban Chicago, said that his mostly Black clientele, a third of whom are part of the LGBTQ community, experience similar pushback from their partners. “Many men don’t feel they have an audience to talk about deeper pain and hurt in their romantic relationships. It’s difficult to have people in their lives who will do that for them. This is true for both straight and gay men.”

But there’s no question about vulnerability’s role in successful relationships. Therapists know that opening up to partners and spouses, and to potential rejection, builds and deepens trust, empathy and intimacy.

Since Firchau took the step of working with a therapist, walls have come down in his relationship. “My therapist helped me develop the language to talk about my deeper feelings and helped me validate them. And he helped me realize that they weren’t anything to feel ashamed of, that they were normal.”

Emboldened, Firchau approached his wife with his newfound literacy and confessed the truth: He had been afraid that she would regard his true feelings as weakness. He was wrong. “She told me, ‘What’s unattractive is that you were unwilling to face the problem at all.’ ”

This language, Firchau said, has broken down unproductive barriers — and created healthy ones.

“Whenever my wife and I have a heated conversation about kids or money, I know now that rather than engage in a heated argument, I need time to step away and think for myself on how to articulate what I’m feeling.” He now creates some needed space for himself and, a day or so later, shares with his wife why he felt hurt or upset. “But we hold each other accountable. And after that day has passed, we have that follow-up conversation.”

Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University and is the author of “Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency.”