Every woman has probably experienced a man they were dating suddenly get cold feet and wondered if he were one of those emotionally unavailable men. “Let’s cool it for a while…” “Let’s not see each other so often.” When only a month ago, he was the one who was setting up every get-together. Then the change comes.
Being emotionally available is not just about sharing his emotions. Many good men can talk enthusiastically about their feeling about their favorite sports figure or hated politician.
It’s the process of sharing emotions about his everyday life, his dreams of the future, and his deepest fears and uncertainties. It’s his willingness to stay with his own (and your!) “negative” emotions like sadness, anger, or fear, instead of leaving the room, solving it before he mentions it to you, or trying to sort it out for you.
What is the science behind emotionally unavailable men? Some thought leaders have endorsed the idea that gender is only a social construct. Supporters of this argument tell us that differences in behavior between husbands and their spouses are entirely social conventions. This argument conveniently ignores the stack of neuroscience that proves that men and women are fundamentally different.
But they have a point. The problem of emotionally unavailable men does starts with a social construct. We now call this problem Masculine Gender Role Stress (MGRS). MGRS is the bind that men experience when they try to keep faith in the ways of being a “Man” that they learned growing up that doesn’t work out so well in real adult life (Moore & Stuart, 2004).
The theory of MGRS describes a “boy code” (Pollack, 2006), which requires them to display problem-solving skills, strength, boldness, achieve a high peer-status, and curb the expression as well as the experience of vulnerability, affection, and need for others (Wexler, 2009).
Pollack suggests that the problem with emotionally unavailable men begins with the socializing experience of this “boy code” defense mechanism.
The code shapes boys by shaming them to an extreme position of “self-containment, toughness, and separation.”
In other words, the relational potential of the emotionally unavailable man is often thwarted in childhood.
Emotionally unavailable men neither started out that way nor “decided” to withdraw. Emotionally unavailable men were shamed into discounting their vulnerabilities and emotional needs, ironically at a point in their human development when they needed to access their emotional needs most (Wexler, 2009). Or they may be clinically depressed.
This “boy code” morphs over time into a “guy code.” Young men often have a deep struggle because as they mature, they encounter situations with attractive others where they will confront feelings of sadness, need, or desire, and feel overwhelmed and unprepared, having only their problematic “guy code” to guide them.
The problem of emotionally unavailable men starts with the feelings of intense pressure and feelings of failure that men report where their intimate relationships hit a rough patch.
Moore and Stuart did a study in 2004 that took a close look at men who were particularly faithful to the “guy code.” They found that these types of men displayed aggressive and angry feelings when in conflict with their partners.
Research by Levant et al. (2006) tells us that boys who embrace the “boy code” not only learn to faithfully restrict their emotional expression, their developing brains also eventually become unable to even reliably recognize the presence of emotions and needs.
They feel good about adhering to the code, and it shapes them for future struggles in a long term relationship. Men don’t decide to become emotionally unavailable. And not all emotionally unavailable people are men.
The problem for men is that when they marry, emotionally unavailable men enter into a set of relational expectations for which they may be poorly equipped. A loving relationship requires a man to listen, express empathy, and discuss their feelings. Consequently, over time, his love life suffers due to his failure to emotionally connect..
After he falls in love, his socialization fails to adequately prepare this type of man for the stress of intimacy. He tends to withdraw and shut down, at precisely the moment when he needs to lean in and step up.
Gottman’s groundbreaking research in the early 90’s recognized that stonewalling and emotional withdrawal are highly toxic behaviors that can stress healthy relationships to the breaking point.
Gottman discovered through close physiological measurements that the detached and indifferent demeanor of men in conflict with their spouses was not the whole story. The cognitive dissonance between what was expected of them, and their “guy code” manifested in physiological stress.
And there were physiological changes too. Their blood pressure and heart rate soared much higher than their spouses and remained higher after the conflict much longer. The shutdown and withdrawal were not indifferent, it was in fact, the opposite.
It was a futile attempt to manage a raging inner turmoil that men often cannot even find the words to describe, even if they wanted to…which, of course, they don’t. They suppress the emotional experience, shut down, and withdraw, because they are overwhelmed…not because they don’t care.
The “guy code” teaches men that their self-worth is found in their ability to solve problems and execute their family responsibilities flawlessly. The accomplishments make men feel good about themselves.
The more that they buy into the “guy code”, the more they will resist even acknowledging the reality of perpetual problems. Their sense of agency and self-worth are deeply undermined by their spouse’s chronic unhappiness. Matters are made worse when they see working with a life coach or marriage counselor as wasting your time.
Problems are supposed to be confronted, sorted out, and solved. If they linger, it’s proof that you just aren’t “man” enough to handle them. Men in the throes of the “guy code” are often resistant to “therapy” or even the word “therapy.”
Corporate America knows that when HR wants to encourage an awareness of the importance of managing workplace stress, you better call it “executive coaching,” not “stress reduction therapy” (McKelley & Rochlen, 2010).
“All-purpose couples therapists” often miss assessing how deeply a husband is grounded in his family-of-origin “guy code,” and fail to establish a therapeutic bond. You keep these guys motivated to work in couples therapy by emphasizing pragmatic skill-building that will help both spouses understand each other better and avoid unnecessary conflict.
It’s useful to think of the “guy code” as resulting in what therapists call “normative male” alexithymia. It’s the legacy of the code.
This type of man can be highly motivated and often respond well to couples therapy. But they need the reliable support and validation of a science-based couples therapist.
We direct these men to notice…really notice their wife’s facial expressions, while concurrently seeing their own physiological responses.
We help them to understand the meaning that their wives make of their withdrawal. We help them to understand how they miss each other. We also help them to express what is in their heart and mind.
These men come to realize that their wives tend to feel more anxious, marginalized, and angry when they shut down (Johnson, 2004). And we help wives to notice that their husbands are not as indifferent as they appear to be and that they feel overwhelmed, helpless, and numb in the face of their anger.
The irony is that most of these emotionally unavailable men genuinely love and cherish their wives, and are extremely upset (perhaps even too angry) to witness their distress.
They take it as a personal failing.
They weren’t good enough to solve the problem. If only they only were, they might be able to “solve” their “problem.”
And, deep down, they often believe that if they were a “better man,” then this problem would have gone away by now.
In science-based couples therapy, they are encouraged to reflect on their attachment to the “guy code,” while their couples therapist expands on their desire to acquire the practical skills to help them connect more deeply with their partner.
“One could argue that what today’s men need is more encouragement to enhance one side of the masculine virtues – the dignity, responsibility, self-control, and self-reliance – while inhibiting others, such as machismo, violence, and the drive for dominance.” Thomas B. Edsall.
This kind of change is inner-directed. He needs to be aware that he is emotionally unavailable to you, and he has been willing to work on it with you. He’s going to have to take a hard look at himself, and what he is risking by continuing to be emotionally disconnected from you.
Science-based couples therapy can help the emotionally unavailable man unpack what is missing without him feeling shame or blame. Perhaps his biggest fear is “being ganged upon.” It’s a reasonable fear. Show him this article. Tell him that you understand that he is the way he is through no fault or decision of his own. And most of all, tell him that you love him and you believe in him.
If he wants to change, he may not know-how. You might need some science-based couples therapy to help him sort it out. But expect him to be willing to take some action. If he wants it, he knows that he needs to work at it. Be patient with his efforts to figure it out. Praise him when you see him trying.
I can’t emphasize this enough so I will repeat it.
Keep a positive outlook. Encourage him. Smile. Laugh. Wives sometimes forget how vulnerable, tentative, and conditional it is to be a man today.
Nobody told you when you were growing up to change your behavior and “be a woman.”
Understand that you are asking him to do something that isn’t easy. He may be resistant because he doesn’t want to admit that he doesn’t know how to start.
Be specific about what you need. Try to be concrete about what works for you, and what efforts would be most appreciated. Try to be patient with the fact that he needs direction but be positive and encouraging.
You’re asking him to grow, and model healthy growth for your children. So feed and water his efforts. Put him in the sunshine of your love. Praise and guide him. He needs it, and you will both be grateful for the result.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.