My Boyfriend Thinks Expressing Feelings Makes Him Less of a Man

I’m Zachary Zane, a sex writer and ethical manwhore (a fancy way of saying I sleep with a lot of people, and I’m very, very open about it).

Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of sexual experiences, dating and sleeping with hundreds of people of all genders and orientations. In doing so, I’ve learned a thing or two about navigating issues in the bedroom (and a bunch of other places, TBH).

I’m here to answer your most pressing sex questions with thorough, actionable advice that isn’t just “communicate with your partner,” because you know that already. Ask me anything—literally, anything—and I will gladly Sexplain It. 

This is an edited and condensed transcription from last week’s “Sexplain It Live,” which was recorded on Men’s Health‘s Instagram. I was joined by sex therapist Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., founder of Modern Intimacy.

How do I get my boyfriend to open up and tell me how he’s feeling? He’s so closed-off and “masculine.”

KB: This is a tricky situation because I think so many men are conditioned to stoicism, and they are in this unconscious struggle between their identity as a man and their desire to connect because often they’re conditioned to feel like those are two very different experiences. So I think sometimes recognizing that because of that conditioning, some men really have a difficult time even recognizing their own feelings, let alone communicating them. In fact, there’s a whole term called “normative male alexithymia” because of this phenomenon. It basically means men have been pushed away from their feelings and separated for so long that they aren’t even able to recognize, label, emote, and express what they feel. So it takes time to build those skills if you’ve been without them.

ZZ: So it’s not even that these men are purposefully hiding their feelings. It’s almost like they’ve been hiding their feelings for so long that they forgot how to experience them.

KB: Yeah.

ZZ: That’s deeply sad.

KB: Yeah, it can be, but the good news is that once those neuropathways start developing—meaning once they practice slowing down and recognizing their feelings—if they permit themselves to develop these skills, they can.

And it is something that can be easier in the future. So what I think happens then is that men experience this kind of loyalty bind.

Are they loyal to this rigid idea of masculinity, since they’ve been conditioned this way, and therefore can’t feel or share their feelings because if they do, they’re no longer “man enough?” Or can they give themselves permission to be loyal to their own organic, authentic experience and to share that with their partner?

ZZ: What could she do to help encourage that openness and facilitate him feeling and expressing his emotions?

KB: Well, most men are really passionate about being of service to their partner and their partner’s needs. It gives them a sense of purpose and a sense of duty. So I think she should be supportive and really let him know how much it means to her when he’s able to share his feelings. But then really give him space to show up in that way for himself first and then for her.

ZZ: I love that. One thing I’ve noticed with certain stoic people, people who have loved me, is that they won’t do things for themselves, but they will do things for you if they love you. And, of course, what you’re doing is actually helping that person by presenting it in this matter. So you don’t frame it as: “I want you to help yourself.” You frame it as: “I need this from you. I need you to be open and emotional and vulnerable for me, for my well-being. You say you would do anything for me. I need you to do this for me.” I think that’s such a great way to frame it. For a lot of people, it’s easier doing things for the people you love than for yourself.

KB: It is, but one thing I want to really highlight here is that for people who have been conditioned away from their feelings, it actually can feel—from a nervous system perspective—super overwhelming to have somebody coming at you, being like, “I need,” and “I want,” and doing it repeatedly. They might actually shut down more because their protection mechanisms say, “Okay, just hide and detach and stay back here.” So making your needs very clear, and asking how you can support them, is really important. Then, also giving them the space to activate in that way is going to be super key. And then when you’re not in a really heated moment, if you feel like you’re still not getting what you need, bringing it up again.

ZZ: Absolutely, all communication is about finding the balance. If you push too hard, then they’ll shut down, get angry, or become sad. So it’s up to you to see where they are, when it’s a time to ask for more, and when it’s a time to let them breathe.

KB: Right, but also recognizing their own agency. They are capable. It just may take some time for them to get there.

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