In both the men and women’s groups the focus centered on the barriers to a man’s full expression of feelings. Men are socialized to avoid expressing feelings that are commonly viewed as signs of weakness or vulnerability. Individual group members listed as many feeling words as they could think of in two minutes. Next each individual evaluated the list and indicated whether the feeling word was viewed as positive, negative or neutral. The results were shared with the larger group by summarizing the breakdown of positive, negative and neutral feeling words.
There were some interesting differences between the list prepared by men and women. In the women’s group, the majority of participants were able to identify more than 15 feeling words in the allotted time. The men on the other hand, were more likely to identify fewer than ten words with a significant number only able to list five or less. Another difference was that the men were more likely to have a higher proportion of negative feeling words than the women.
The discussion then focused on possible explanations for the differences. At that point we began to discuss how the different responses to expressions of feelings as children might in part explain the differences found in adults. The participants were able to recognize how adults, other children and teachers responded differently to little boys and girls expressions of feelings. Typically, when a boy experiences emotional hurt and naturally begins to cry, he is very likely to be made fun of by other boys and girls. He is called names, bullied and if he allows it to happen often enough he will become an outcast from the "group". This experience teaches the boy a valuable playground lesson – expressing vulnerability, pain or hurt equals weakness and weakness equals unmanliness. The boy learns how to channel hurt, pain or vulnerability into hostility, anger and aggression, which he equates with strength and being manly. His peers respond to these expressions very differently. He is now viewed as tough, strong and courageous. The group therefore, reinforces his new "manly" expressions.
The girl’s experience with expressions of emotional hurt is responded to very differently. Boys and adults typically (of course not always) respond to a little girl’s expressions of vulnerability with protection, attempts to rescue or advocacy. The girls are rescued and comforted when they are vulnerable. The girls learn that they are free to accurately express their emotional state and are in fact reinforced to do so.
So what does all this mean for adult relationships? In the case of men, if they fail to grow into a complete mature emotional male, intimate relationships will create fear and vulnerability in them. They will have a difficult time being emotionally genuine. Whenever they feel threatened or vulnerable, they will likely resort to their childhood responses that safeguarded their "manhood". In other words they will utilize anger, hostility and aggression in the place of accurately expressing their emotional pain or vulnerability. Their partner then responds to the anger, hostility and aggression and may in fact fail to see that they inflicted emotional pain on the man.
In the case of women, if they fail to grow into a mature woman that is genuine in their emotional expressions, they will experience significant disappointment in relationships. This is especially true if their partner fails to come to their rescue or protect them in vulnerable situations. Since their partners may be emotionally immature as well, they may grow desensitized over time to the woman’s emotional hurt or vulnerability. They may in fact respond with hostility, aggression or anger, which increases the woman’s feeling of vulnerability or fear. This cycle is likely to spiral out of control and if not changed may lead to eventual violence.
The answer to this problem is emotional maturity by both men and women. Men must learn to accept the vulnerability that is germane to mature interpersonal relationships. Men can learn this in a number of ways; first, they experience a significant personal loss such as death of a loved one or serious health concerns for a child or second significant tragedy. The lesson learned when this happens is that I am vulnerable and if responded to with support, comfort or other appropriate actions by other loved ones the man is freed to experience the vulnerability without fear of loss of manhood.
In the case of women, they need to avoid utilizing expressions of vulnerability or hurt in attempts to manipulate their partners. This lesson is essential so that when circumstances present where they are genuinely vulnerable or hurt, their partner can support them with confidence-free of concerns about being manipulated.