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Can men change their relationship with emotions?

What Emotional Rollercoaster? I’m fine

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One of the biggest things that I have benefited from as a result of our fertility journey and was probably the catalyst to us conceiving naturally against all odds, was the change in my relationship with emotions.

Infertility is known as an emotional rollercoaster. A Harvard University study1 demonstrates the stress levels of women experiencing infertility can be equivalent to those with AIDS, cancer and heart disease. And no one tells them just to relax! The study didn’t test the stress levels of men, but I imagine they would be similar albeit more hidden.

Before our infertility journey, and during the majority of it, I had a very distant relationship with emotions. Subconsciously I avoided strong emotions. I avoided conflict and negative emotions because I thought they were unhelpful and destructive. During our fertility journey, I also tried to be the strong one. I didn’t want to burden my wife with my stuff, she had enough to do with as it was. Little did I know all of this was both impacting my own fertility but also pushing our relationship to breaking point.

As boys and men, we are bombarded with messages about what it means to be a man. This can come both unconsciously and consciously from our fathers but also media and society as a whole. The typical male idols of kids are deemed to be strong, powerful and rarely express real deep emotion. In the school playground, it is survival of the fittest and you daren’t show any weakness. So, as men we often feel that expressing emotions can be seen as a weakness. 

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Brené outlines how ‘shame’ was defined by the men she interviewed ; 

  • Shame is failure. At work. On the football field. In your marriage. In bed. With money. With your children. It doesn’t matter—shame is failure
  • Shame is being wrong. Not doing it wrong but being wrong
  • Shame is a sense of being defective
  • Shame happens when people think you’re soft. It’s degrading and shaming to be

   seen as anything but tough. 

According to Brené, the majority of men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: “Do not be perceived as week.” 

The protection mechanism that men have to prevent them from ‘being perceived as weak’ actually prevents us from having the experiences in life we aspire to have. To feel loved deeply and passionately by our partner; to experience the highs and lows of life. This protection mechanism means we flatline through life. Being ‘OK’ but not really living and engaging meaningfully in life and thus experiencing the joys it can bring. 

I lived my life that way for many years (decades). It felt safe but at the same time, it stopped me being truly happy. It also drove a wedge between me and my wife.  

Numbering our vulnerability doesn’t just prevent us from feeling difficult feelings it also numbs the experiences of joy, happiness, inspiration and love. You can’t selectively numb the ‘negative’ emotions and just feel the ‘positive ones’. You end up flat-lining through life. It’s better to be alive to life than dead to life.

‘But I don’t feel anything’

We all have feelings it is just that some of us find it easier to be aware and in tune with them than others. Often men say they find it difficult to be in tune with their feelings…. or do they…

I remember a European Cup Final. Chelsea was losing 1-0 with a few minutes to go. They scored an equaliser in the dying minutes that took the game to extra time – you could feel the relief of supporters across the country. Then came the penalty shoot-out. From the point of defeat and despair to victory and elation through penalties. I remember every second of that dramatic 120 plus minutes and the range of emotions it evoked.  

I would like to suggest 99% of the male supporters went through a rollercoaster of emotions from hope, joy, despair, anger, fear, sadness, anxiety… Of course, nothing to match the magnitude as infertility however but I suspect that many of these are men who say they don’t feel their feelings!

I grew up in an environment where there was a lot of conflict. I learnt to keep my head down. To retreat into my head as it was safer there. I couldn’t get emotionally hurt, disappointed or let down. This shut me off from feelings generally, I went to my head, my thinking as a protection from feeling. 

What is an emotion?

Since then my exploration of feelings has helped me understand the true nature of emotions. We think we are feeling life and circumstances. We think we are angry because someone just let us down, or once again the traffic made us late for an important meeting. The thing is, nothing has the power to make us feel anything. 100% of our human experience comes from thought. Everyone has their own unique experience created by thought, their own perception of the situation.

The more we understand that everything we experience comes from thought the more we realise we don’t need to be scared of it. The more we resist our emotions, or try and change them, they don’t move on. They either hang around, get stronger or worse we bury them and internalise them. Little did I know the damage I was doing to my relationship and my fertility in doing that.

Life beyond fear

When I stopped trying to bury my emotions, when I was no longer scared of feeling them, I felt like less of a victim in life. A few months after this realisation and experience my wife got pregnant naturally against all odds. My fertility had improved dramatically without me trying to improve it. In fact, I’d given up trying to improve it because everything I was doing to try and prove it actually made it worse. This was because my buried fear and anger were doing more damage than anything I was doing to improve my fertility. This was the thing that made the difference in our fertility journey.

When I began to understand the true nature of feelings two things happened that transformed our relationship. Firstly, I felt more able to understand how I felt in any given moment and thus express that to my wife. Instead of genuinely not knowing how I felt and saying my usual ‘I don’t know’ when she asked how I felt or telling what I thought instead of how I felt (there’s a big difference). Women like to connect with others on an emotional level. To understand how they are feeling. And to be understood emotionally as well. They feel united, loved and understood when that happens. 

Secondly, I was able to help her feel more understood. Men communicate information as and when required. They share a problem because they are looking for a solution. Women communicate to be understood. Women want to be seen, felt and heard. Women to communicate a problem or a feeling to be understood in it. This difference can come to the fore at times of stress, such as infertility. Habitually when my wife was upset I would try and make her feel better, or provide a solution. This seemed to make things worse!  I got to the stage where I just didn’t know what to do. Part of me felt scared of her emotion. This left her feeling unloved, lonely and misunderstood. This creates a distance in a relationship.

I began to realise what she wanted was for me to hold a space for her to express her emotion without any judgment or evaluation. Without trying to fix or change it. 

Getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable

Starting to be more aware of your emotions, allowing them and even expressing them can feel unfamiliar or even uncomfortable. The more you understand the true nature of an emotion, that it’s thought in the moment, the less scared of it you become. Also, you become more able to express how you feel. The emotion doesn’t get stuck, it flows from you. The sense of flow comes into your life (and your body) as well as a deeper sense of connection with your partner even in the toughest of times. Because it’s in those times we need to feel loved and understood more than anything.

“And numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light“. Brené Brown 

References:

  1. Domar AD, et al. The Psychological Impact of Infertility: A Comparison with Patients with Other Medical Conditions. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology 14 Suppl.: pp45–52, 1993.