If I had a dollar every time a husband told me he wasn’t a very emotional guy, I’d be retired by now. But hey, I’m not judging. I used to think the same thing.
Turns out: it’s pure bunkum. And it’s messing up your marriage too.
It’s definitely a very commonly held view that women are more emotional than men. The stereotypical view is that women’s emotions are all over the place and they’re only too happy to let you know about it, while men are more muted; less extreme in their emotions and less willing to talk about how they’re feeling.
But the research on emotion and gender paints a rather different picture.
There are some differences around our ways of expressing ourselves, but nothing so drastic as being able to say that men “just aren’t as emotional” as women. Sorry, guys.
Does Evidence Support the Idea that Women are More Emotional?
We have to start by looking at our culture, and the subset of culture known as emotion culture. Emotion culture is defined as a way of viewing emotions and their expression within a society. It’s the unspoken rules and implicit assumptions that guide how we see and express different emotions. Unsurprisingly, these rules differ for women and men.
Part of western emotion culture then is the belief that women are “both more emotional and more emotionally expressive” than men[i]. Also it is widely thought that we differ in the emotions we feel and express: for example anger is a masculine reaction to things and sadness is more a feminine reaction[ii].
But does this commonly held view hold up to scrutiny?
A study by Simon and Nath[iii] used a questionnaire about daily emotional experiences for which they analyzed 1460 responses. They looked at:
- The frequency of feeling emotions in general
- The frequency of reporting feeling different emotions (changing emotional state)
- Emotional expressiveness (how much expressivity happened)
- No difference in the frequency of feeling emotions between genders. Men feel as frequently as women do.
- Some differences around which emotions are felt by men and women, but not a strong link. Often these differences were accounted for by differences in roles or situations. For example, women reported feeling negative emotions more often but this difference was accounted for by their lower household income. Men often reported feeling calm more often than women did, but when the effect of having children under 18 was removed, this effect disappeared. Men aren’t naturally calmer than women–women are just less calm because they are dealing with the kids!
- Women DO express their emotions more readily than men. But the underlying level of feeling is not different.
Now you have visibility into emotion culture: humans all experiencing the same amount of feeling, but culture is dictating the extent to which you express it. We’ll unpack that more in a minute. I only cited one study. Let me drop a couple more in just so we know that we’re being fair in our consideration of the research.
Kring & Gordon[iv]: measured people’s emotions while watching film clips that were either scary, happy or sad. They observed participant’s facial expressions, self-reported emotional reaction and skin-conductance, which is part of the physiological or biological aspect of emotion.
They found no difference in self-reported emotions or skin conductance between men and women, but women were again more expressive with their facial expressions. Men were reporting feeling the same emotions as women, they just weren’t showing them externally. So again: male and female feelings were the same. Only women were more expressive of those feelings.
Another study: Lively & Powell[v]: looked at differences in expression of anger between men and women. Found that “social domain and status differences are such powerful predictors of emotion expression that they eclipse the influence of other individual characteristics, most notably the gender of both the individual and the target of the anger.” So any perceived difference in anger between men and women are actually down to differences in status/power. Again, note the identical underlying feelings, but observe that cultural influence is the modulating factor.
How Does Society Shape Emotion?
Roles and Norms have an impact. Due to different expectations placed men and women, and different roles in society, there are differences in emotional expression. So it’s not that God made men one way emotionally and women another, it’s actually about the roles and expectations of society[vi].
Emotion Management is another factor which affects different levels of expression. Emotion management means controlling what emotions you feel, as well as what you express. And this is done by channeling or bringing to mind memories with strong emotions attached to them. Society dictates which emotions are considered acceptable for men and women to feel and express. And we use emotion management based on our gender expectations to regulate what we express. So if a man feels sad about something he may channel angry memories in order to make himself feel more angry, as this is considered a more normal response for a man. This is emotion management at work.
Reaction from Others. Society will react differently to men and women displaying certain emotions, teaching them which emotions it is acceptable to feel and display. Thorne[vii] shows that boys are given more leeway in expressing anger in the school playground than girls.
This affect also changes which emotions men and women pay attention to. From an early age boys are also taught to conceal their emotions while girls are taught to express them. Hence why many guys prefer to bottle stuff up in marriage rather than honestly talk about what’s going on. Differences in expression of emotions increased with age, and are more pronounced when interacting with unfamiliar adults than with parents, suggesting it is a learned behavior[viii] rather than something innately different about men and women.
All of this adds up to the fact that ability to feel different emotions is the same for men and women, and the differences in expressiveness are much more to do with society’s expectations than any real gender differences. Women in our emotion culture are taught from a young age that it’s ok to express how they are feeling while men are taught to conceal their true emotions or twist them into something more “manly”.
Bottom line: looking at gender differences and looking at the impact of society: your husband is a perfectly emotional guy. You are not a crazy emotional woman. You are actually the same emotionally. You just differ in your expressiveness and, probably also your awareness.
So when a guy says to me, I’m not an emotional guy, I’ve always corrected him and said, “You should say, “I’m not an emotionally expressive guy, yet.” That is what is actually true.
Sorry guys. Your cover is blown.
Now, I’ve started a Kickstarter campaign and if I can raise one million dollars from all you guys out there by the end of the month, I will remove this post from the Internet! Just kidding…
However I do have a more practical solution for you. Below, we’re going to take a look at increasing emotional expressiveness and then why this is so important to your marriage. Trust me, you’re missing out, gentlemen: this is going to open up a whole new world. And you’ll love it!
Learn to Identify Your Emotions
This guide is designed to complement the guidance below. It will teach you how to use your body to help identify your emotions so that you can get really skilled at this, and then to identify the source of those emotions: as in, why you are feeling them! And then how to express them in a way that’s adaptive and healthy for your marriage.
Increasing Emotional Expressiveness
I’m going to tell you a little of what you need to do to increase emotional expressiveness here but if you really want to know HOW to do it, be sure to become a patron and get the guide for this episode.
The first thing is to become more aware of your emotions. Having an accurate idea of what emotion you are feeling, and what caused it, isn’t always easy. To begin with, pay attention to the physiological signs: what you’re feeling in your body. Think of it this way. Feeling is about sad, happy, hurt, etc. Emotion is about where and how you experience that in your body. That’s a key. Map your physiological signals back to the feelings they represent.
This is where emotional intelligence comes in. Knowing what you’re feeling and why makes a huge difference in your ability to accurately interpret the world around you. And then a huge part of that becomes learning to understand your spouse!
Here’s an example. Read this carefully. In a study by Yip and Cote[ix], people were measured for emotional intelligence and given a decision making/risk taking survey. All participants displayed risk taking preferences about 50% of the time. The researchers then repeated the exercise, but induced anxiety in participants first by telling them they would have to give a speech later.
Those with high emotional intelligence performed exactly the same on the risk test- they could tell that the anxiety they were feeling was nothing to do with the current task. Those with low EI showed a big reduction in risk taking behavior- they thought their anxiety was to do with the current task and so acted in a safer way. They misinterpreted the source of their anxiety. They didn’t know exactly what they were feeling, nor why they were feeling it.
In a follow up study this effect could be eliminated by making low EI participants aware of the real source of their anxiety. Even in people who are not naturally good at identifying their emotions (people with low emotional intelligence), developing “emotion-understanding ability guards against the biasing effects” of misinterpreted emotion.
So even if it’s not something you are naturally good at, forcing yourself to identify where your emotions are coming from is still effective.
And you need to know: we figure we’re born with an IQ — a defined, predetermined level of intelligence. However, I know from my own experience and seeing my clients’ growth that emotional intelligence can be developed and grown, and rapidly at that.
I know for myself, at the start of our marriage if something was wrong I just felt this big dark knot in my chest. I felt bad. It was hard to figure out why. Now: I have a lot more precision on what I am feeling (what kind of hurt: sad, loss, grief, insult, betrayal, etc.) and why I am feeling it. So this can totally be learned. We’ve looked before at how to increase intimacy in your marriage and today’s bonus content (see box above) will really help with that by showing you how to identify and properly convey your emotions.
Why Emotional Expressiveness Matters in Marriage
This is The Marriage Podcast for Smart People — I think we’ve helped make you smarter but our ultimate goal is to help your marriage, not just make you smarter!
How does all this talk of emotional help you in your marriage? Know this: emotion is a powerful source of information. It’s the key to understanding behavior: your behavior, your spouse’s behavior. It’s by the expression of emotion that you really hear a person’s heart. I know when I see emotional expression that I am seeing what really matters. In all of my counseling I am always going past the details and the facts of the story to find out what the emotion is. Not just the emotion that is culturally acceptable, but the true, deep emotion is what I want to see and bring out.
When that is drawn out people find great clarity. When it comes out in counseling, couples are able to shift and reorganize their relationship in profoundly positive ways.
And I know that in my own marriage when we’re stuck on something and we dive deep and go for sharing that emotional part, that’s when we really begin to understand each other.
This is where the soul-mate thing happens. Being able to really and honestly communicate your emotions to your spouse takes your marriage to a whole other level. People think they can’t go deep into their emotions with their spouse because they haven’t found the right person. That’s the language of “He’s just not an emotional guy” or “she just doesn’t understand me”. But the root of these issues is incredibly solvable: you just need to learn how to identify and express these very important emotions. And that IS something you can get better at over time.
So yeah: your husband is definitely an emotional guy. He just needs to start learning to identify and share those emotions with you!
References:[i] Robin W. Simon and Leda E. Nath, ‘Gender and Emotion in the United States: Do Men and Women Differ in Self‐Reports of Feelings and Expressive Behavior?’, American Journal of Sociology, 109.5 (2004), 1137–76 <https://doi.org/10.1086/382111>. [ii] Kathryn Lively, ‘Emotional Segues and the Management of Emotion by Women and Men’, Social Forces, 87.2 (2008), 911–36. [iii] Simon and Nath. [iv] Ann M. Kring and Albert H. Gordon, ‘Sex Differences in Emotion: Expression, Experience, and Physiology’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74.3 (1998), 686–703 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2066>. [v] Kathryn J. Lively and Brian Powell, ‘Emotional Expression at Work and at Home: Domain, Status, or Individual Characteristics?’, Social Psychology Quarterly, 69.1 (2006), 17–38. [vi] Simon and Nath. [vii] Simon and Nath. [viii] Tara M. Chaplin and Amelia Aldao, ‘Gender Differences in Emotion Expression in Children: A Meta-Analytic Review.’ [ix] Jeremy A. Yip and Stéphane Côté, ‘The Emotionally Intelligent Decision Maker: Emotion-Understanding Ability Reduces the Effect of Incidental Anxiety on Risk Taking’, Psychological Science, 24.1 (2013), 48–55 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612450031>.