What exactly does this mean? Individuals who are emotion-dismissing believe that one should be able to choose and control emotion with willpower, value action over introspection, deny their needs which are seen as weak, have an impoverished emotion lexicon, endorse a “suck it up” attitude, and see emotion expression as losing control.
How does this look in therapy? Typically the emotion-dismissing man comes to see me because of problems in his main relationship and/or all relationships. Usually his partner has given him a nudge or push toward counseling. She may have even scheduled the appointment on his behalf. He has mixed feelings about being here. He appears hesitant, somewhat guarded, and maybe a bit irritable. His wife feels emotionally alone in the relationship and is tired of doing the lion’s share of the emotional work. He struggles to understand her emotions. He is not quite sure what to do when she expresses them. He hopes she’ll be in a good mood. Anger he kind of gets but still doesn’t know how to respond. It’s her other feelings – sad? anxious? – that really make him uncomfortable. He thinks she over-reacts and is too sensitive but made the mistake of saying this once - never again. He does know that he is not supposed to fix things and offer advice. He has become a better listener even though it takes a lot of effort to focus. But now she’s upped the ante and expects him to actually talk about his day. She seems to really need this from him (it’s because mutual self-disclosure makes us feel secure in our relationship) but it doesn’t make sense to him. He’s used to working things out in his own mind, independently, thank you very much. And besides, doesn’t talking about and focusing on things like emotion make it worse? His holding back leaves too much ambiguity for her so she fills in the blanks. It starts to feel personal when she thinks back to his efforts early in the relationship or how engaged he can be in social situations, even with total strangers.
Since he’s here, he figures he might as well leave with some tools. He’s clear that he sees no point in talking about his past. He says his childhood was great but can’t say much specific about it. At work, he has done well, he’s great with the operational and the technical, but his leadership potential is limited. He has no idea what to do when an employee comes to him in distress. As a parent, he takes care of business and gets things done. He isn’t as warm or patient as his wife is with the kids. He struggles more when they are feeling “negative” emotions strongly. He’s been noticing that they kind of avoid him. They certainly don’t come to him for much. He’s been feeling some inkling of envy (again, too vulnerable to express) about her relationships with them and more and more left out. It’s tempting to steal away to the den on his own in the evening or spend more time at work.
He actually feels deeply disappointed in himself for failing his wife. Maybe he struggled to commit at one point, but he takes his responsibilities seriously and really wants to make her happy. This is hard to talk about because it is vulnerable, yet this is his main motivation. Over time, he may come to see other meaningful reasons to challenge his longstanding style, especially if he’s able to see that he’s missing out.
I have a lot of respect for this man’s courage and I know that he has the capacity to change. I’ve witnessed it and it’s amazing. I appreciate that he doesn’t “bs”; he’s honest about his skepticism and doubt. He’s not on his home turf. Sitting across from each other talking is highly threatening. I get it. There’s a reason why men open up to friends when they’re actively involved in an activity side by side (think squash court). As a side note, if you want your son to talk to you, sit next to him, not too close, and wait patiently. Then when he does say something, don’t pounce! I think it’s confusing for men. They’re expected to be rock and best friend/confident at the same time.
What happens in therapy? The good news is there are some tools. Motivation is key in this work. I help him to see the value in emotion. It’s a tough sell but he comes around over time. Initially he uses the words “good” and “bad” to describe how he feels. He’s surprised that these aren’t emotions. I help him to connect emotions to what happens in the body (think of our emotion metaphors – red in the face, butterflies in the stomach). I help him to build an emotion vocabulary, to identify and discriminate among different emotions, to accept mixed emotions. He tracks emotions in his daily life. He learns that when we don’t struggle with emotions, they move through us and run their course. This helps him to understand and develop empathy for what others feel. He takes up the challenge and starts to “read people’s emotions”.
There are two tough forks in the road. The first is realizing that emotions tell us something valuable about our desires, wants, and needs. This is new and threatening territory because he learned that needs are childish and he doesn’t want to be needy or dependent. The other fork is when he is ready to take a chance with his wife. He says something kind of emotion-y or relationship-sounding. Guess what happens? It doesn’t come out perfectly. What else? Even though she’s been waiting for this for a long time, she misses it or squashes it by correcting or talking over him. He goes away thinking “why bother – still not good enough” and feeling defeated, hardly motivated to keep at it. She ends up thinking, “he’s never going to change”. Sometimes couple counseling is warranted here. Regardless I encourage him to keep trying. Over time, he not only feels more confident and effective; every now and then he finds himself thinking about the past.
Note that even though I have described a prototypical emotion-dismissing man, I see a fair number of women with this style. Interestingly, I find that compared to men with this style whose relationships tend to “fade out”, they are more likely to use the “cut off” in relationships when things get emotionally messy. [You know what I mean by this if you do it]. I also see this style in LGBT individuals and relationships.
Want to learn more?
The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships by John Gottman Ph.D.