Is what men want in relationships so different than women?
Well, that depends. What you’ll learn here is that how your man may respond to challenging situations between you may depend on a number of factors unique to him. What men want in relationships isn’t so different from what women want, but it can look different on the surface.
Our goal here is to help you open up communication between the two of you on how better to understand each other and to help you understand how to further nurture and deepen your connection.
Gender Differences Can Contribute to What Men Want in Relationships
In our culture and in many families, little boys and little girls often are raised with some subtle, yet important, differences. For example, when a little girl falls and scrapes her knee, parents often rush to her aid, comfort her and let her pick her favorite Band-Aid.
When little boys experience the same tumble, they’re often told to pick themselves up and that they are not hurt that badly.
Little girls typically are encouraged to express and share their feelings; on the other hand, little boys are guided to be brave, stoic and to manage their feelings on their own.
These different messages, while unintentional by most parents, begin to shape how children see themselves and society’s expectations. And, these same views are typically carried on into adulthood — and into our adult relationships.
How Men & Women Differ in Conversation
Girls and boys develop different ways of engaging with one another and, thus, how they see interactions with others.
Boys and girls (and men and women) speak from different “languages” or perspectives, according to the work of Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., well-known for her years of research on how men and women interact in conversation.
“Girls play in small groups or in pairs; the center of a girl’s social life is a best friend,” Dr. Tannen writes. For girls, what’s most important in connection and closeness with her peers.
Boys, on the other hand, play in large groups that are hierarchical. Boys learn to value status and independence. Their groups have a leader who tells others what to do; their games have winners or losers.
Gender differences in ways of talking have been described by researchers observing children as young as three!
As adults, friction can occur when one partner wants to be heard and gain empathy from their partners and men offer advice or try to fix the problem. Sound familiar?
It’s important to note that these differences are things that result from how we are raised and the messages we get about relationships through our childhood. This isn’t to say that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but men and women often approach conversations differently. This makes understanding what each of you want a trickier thing.
Does Your Man Shut Down When You Want to Talk?
Most people become angry — even infuriated — when their partner shuts down during an argument or important discussion. A cycle may develop: You want to talk, he shuts down or leaves the room, you follow him and you’re angrier now because he won’t talk. Your increased anger causes him to be even more removed from the discussion. Unfortunately, the original issue rarely gets resolved. Or, maybe you learn not to even start the conversation in the first place.
You’re frustrated, yet your man, actually, is often in a state of fear. A fear you won’t get to see or understand because he has gone silent. What men want in relationships often isn’t spoken. Again, men are often holding in their emotions, trying to withdraw from experiencing and/or sharing them. This often results not only in withdrawing from emotional intensity, but in withdrawal from their partner as well.
Outbursts of anger are a typical exception: After a while of suppressing their feelings, someone may have an outburst of anger. The result can be a shouting match between you. Yet, again, issues are rarely resolved.
The Emotions Underneath Your Man’s Withdrawal
What we know is that men who withdraw from conflict have deeper feelings of which their partner may be unaware. These can include:
- Sad about letting partner down
- Fear of rejection for failing his partner, or being weak
- Inadequate to meet partner’s needs
- Not wanted or desired
- Judged, criticized
- Sad and ashamed about not feeling acceptable for who he is
- Anger about feeling disrespected
In couples counseling, we help both partners look beneath the withdrawal (and, yes, women can withdraw also!). Often, the woman who tries to get her partner to talk is quite unaware that her man has so many deep and sad feelings and a fear of disappointing her.
How Men and Women Experience Shame
We now turn to the work of Brene Brown, Ph.D., the well-known “shame researcher,” to further understand those deeper emotions. She defines shame as an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and, thus, fearing we are somehow unworthy of love and belonging.
“Shame is the fear of disconnection,” she points out. “We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience.” She notes that we’re all afraid to talk about shame. “The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.”
Dr. Brown notes that most of women’s shame centers around her appearance and being “perfect” as a wife, mother and daughter. For women, the struggle is to feel “good enough” at home, work, with the kids, in bed.
Men, on the other hand, feel triggered by shame when they fear being weak or a failure. Your man can struggle with:
- Fear of failure at work, in sports, in marriage, in bed, financially and as a father
- Being wrong
- Revealing any weakness
- Showing fear
- Being criticized or ridiculed
- A sense of being defective
- LGBTQ issues around shame and acceptance, coming out, family support
The Aha! What Men Want in Relationships Becomes Clearer
All told, we can gain insight into how our man reacts to varied situations and stressors. And, we can begin to understand why men and their partners can clash and misunderstand each other.
First and foremost, all humans — men and women alike — seek to be heard and understood. We seek acceptance and love for who we are, an absence of criticism from our partner and to have someone who is there for us no matter what.
To His Partner: The challenge in fulfilling what men want in relationships requires our own understanding of ourselves — our fears of disconnection, of not being important to our partner and of not being good enough and loveable just the way we are. It’s often out of this fear that we pursue our partner to get him to talk when we are not getting along.
Which, may, in turn cause him to freeze up or leave the conversation. It’s easy for us to not understand that he fears letting us down, being rejected or feeling inadequate to please us. After all, we only see his silence or withdrawal!
The power of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy is that couples learn to more deeply understand themselves and their partner at a much deeper level and to gently understand those deeper, often-hidden fears.
Honoring What Your Man Wants in Your Relationship
Give some thought to the following (and consider discussing these with him):
- How do I help him feel important in our relationship? Is he certain that he is my priority in my life?
- How can I avoid criticism when we have differences in style, preferences, opinions?
- Do I let him know when he has pleased me? We all need feedback from time to time.
- Do we work together to make time for just the two of us — away from distractions and even the kids?
- Can I open the door to conversation without pressuring him? How can I soften my approach to him so he won’t freeze up? Do I make it easy for him to respond to me?
- Physical intimacy is one area that can be a contentious issue within a partnership. It’s an undeniable physical and emotional need for both, which can make coming to a balance between each person’s needs tricky. Often it seems that what men want in relationships is sex, and women want emotional connection. We can help you bridge that seeming gap because that’s not the whole story.
To learn what women want, we invite you to read this companion post What Women Want
For more on Dr. Brown’s work, you can watch her TED talk and read Daring Greatly (Gotham Books, 2012. For more about Dr. Tannen’s studies you can read her classic You Just Don’t Understand: Women & Men in Conversation (Ballantine, 1990)