Emotional midwifery

So, I tend to date or be friends with guys who are a) not as adept at identifying their emotions and b) not as adept at talking about their emotions as I am. I have plenty of examples of this becoming an “issue” in my relationships, but my favorite illustrative example comes from a friend of mine. She was once dating a dude who started crying during an intense discussion. He actually said, and I kid you not, “Sometimes when I’m sad, my eyes water.” My friend politely informed him there was actually a name for this, and it was called, crying. Holy. Shit. I’m serious.

Okay, so my taste in men is a bit higher on the emotional awareness scale, but I still tend to be attracted to fellas who are attracted to me, in part, because I’m more facile with my emotions. I’m not bragging here. I happened to be raised female in a culture that teaches girls to pay attention to their emotions, and further, was raised by a therapist mom and a dad who has been to lots of therapy (i.e. paid a lot of money later in life to learn how to talk about his feelings.) When people were sad in my family, we sat down and talked about it. A lot. Is it any wonder that when the guys I’m in relationship with now feel stuff, I help them figure out what they’re feeling and how they might talk about that, and further, how they might take steps to feel different? Whew. I’m exhausted just writing that.

I recently brought this pattern up with my therapist–who is a man–and he said, “It’s not that you date emotionally stunted men. It’s that you date men. We’re all socialized to be less equipped with our emotions.” You can see why I like this guy…he thinks about gender a lot.

So I could date women and maybe have a better chance of finding an emotional equal (I know lots of them aren’t particularly facile with their emotions, too). Turns out, I’m mostly attracted to dudes, so I’m trying to learn how to have boundaries in my relationships so I don’t end up exhausted or bitter at helping guys I love figure out their emotions all the time. I’m also hoping to someday raise a boy who is adept at naming and managing his own emotions. This is some of the major undone work of the feminist movement.

When it comes to guys and their emotions, a revolution would be grand. It would certainly lead to less emotional midwifery on the part of devoted girlfriends, partners, wives etc. I expect to, and in fact look forward to, having emotional intimacy in my relationships (talking about feelings, helping each other work through various shit etc.), but I do think there is a dangerous line that a lot of women cross between being a partner and becoming an unpaid, untrained therapist. The fact that few guys have learned to have these kinds of conversations with one another makes the emotional weight on women’s shoulders even more intense.

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19 Comments

  1. Posted October 7, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Yeah, why can’t a dude be more like a chick?

    • Posted October 7, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Thank you Henry Higgins.

  2. Posted October 7, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I definitely agree, guys need to 1) not be socalized to identify certain emotions, such as sadness, as demeaning to who they are because it’s not “masculine” 2) learn to manage their emotions as you said and 3) really learn to embrace human characteristics and emotions and not see them through the narrow scope of feminine versus masculine.

    As far as the feminist movement, we seem to be at a point where men truly have to change their views in order for us all to move forward, in my opinion. I think then the backlash would be less if a good portion of guys took a different perspective on emotions and really human characteristics. This is a little off topic, though not marginally so, I would love to see boys raised with a variety of toys ranging from sports to dress up with make-up, just as girls should be. In my opinion, if children are raised to explore all areas (being non-violent) from boys playing stay at home dad to girls engaging in football, and seeing those as activities people do, not just something men seperately or women seperately do, then we might all be in a happier place. The same goes for emotions and expressions of self like clothing. Everyone raised or even taught later in life the diversity of emotions, characteristics, expressions, personalities, interests are something we all should explore.

  3. Posted October 7, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    I tend to be attracted more strongly to people who are very emotional themselves. I have few absolute turn offs, but being gruff and afraid of showing emotion is a big one. In the best case scenario, there’s instant chemistry and compatibility, and in the worst case scenario we exhaust each other because of our intense needs.

    That being said, there have been times in my life where I have turned to my girlfriend for psychological help, and also to female friends. And at times I have broached boundaries without meaning to, though therapy has helped identify how to avoid doing so. There are times that others, be they relationship partners or friends, have leaned heavily on me for the same purpose. I suppose it’s a balancing act of a sort, and one that requires some flexibility. There are no absolute rules present, because every person is different.

  4. Posted October 7, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I also wanted to add sexuality, gender identity, and raised strongly against racism as well.

  5. Posted October 7, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    As someone in a same-sex relationship, I just wanted to point out what you probably already know … being with a woman is not automatically a solution to this challenge of setting boundaries and being the “emotional midwife” of the couple. Yes, in contemporary Western (particularly US) culture, women are more likely to have emotional training than men. However, this isn’t always the case — class, region, immigrant background, and dysfunctional families can contribute to emotional shut-downness.

    Ironically, I also see a lot of resistence to emotional awareness and openness among feminist women who associate tears (for example) or nurturing activities with “feminine” identities and roles they are trying to escape. I see feminists denegrading other women for feminine-typed behaviors (such as display of emotion) and rejecting such displays themselves … often in the name of rejecting misogyny. In other words, feminists can sometimes have a really fraught relationship with their own emotional life, and with being articulate and open about that emotional life … in part because they identify as feminists!

    Complicated :( .

    • Posted October 7, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      I agree that crying or generally putting up a display of emotions is widely considered feminine, and hence, degrading and for a healthy life we need a good emotional outlet once in while.
      However, I feel that there is a place, time, people for emotional outbursts. With friends, family or a therapists, you can let your heart out. Crying when your code does not compile or your grade is not what you expected, is not constructive (I see a lot of it in school). It hampers damage control and obfuscates rational thought which is essentially required in such a situation. It is not anti-feminist to check such behavior. Thinking less of someone who is prone to such behavior is a negative reaction, but generally trying to maintain a sane head in situations that requires it should not be construed anti-feminist; or anti-feminine for that matter.

  6. Posted October 7, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree that our society conditions boys to stop crying the closer they get to puberty and to exile their emotions to their mental periphery. It’s TREMENDOUSLY unfair to them and it makes me want to haul every teacher and coach and dad who told a boy not to be a sissy into therapy.

    However, as a feminist and the daughter of a social worker, I can’t say that girls don’t also get a raw deal. They are often conditioned to the opposite extreme – instead of facing their true feelings in a constructive way, they hide them behind melodramatic behavior. How many girls and women have I met that think pouting is the best way to express some minor upset? Lots. So many social archetypes from princesses to divas tell us that jumping to the hyperemotional extreme is the feminine way to avoid confronting our problems. The pouting waif is mysterious and sexy! The girl who bursts into tears at the slightest criticism gets the other person to take it all back! I was taught this, too, and had to do some soul-searching until I realized how repressive and anti-feminist it is.

    • Posted October 7, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Very true, we have conditioning on both ends.

  7. Posted October 7, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I think this stereotype is extremely hurtful to women who are NOT very emotional. Personally, I tend towards an analytic approach to issues, but am placed in very uncomfortable situations when people expect me to be “empathetic” and “emotionally driven” due to my gender.

    • Posted October 24, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, agreed, agreed a thousand times. I am in a similar situation.

  8. Posted October 7, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I think another interesting part of this is be benefit for men. Using myself as an example, being more able to identify and articulate my emotions has made me SO much more able to deal with them constructively, as opposed to ignoring them or sweeping them under the rug. I think (and hope) it’s also made me a better partner to women I date, because I’m not relying on them for emotional management (which is healthy for me too), and I’m able to be supportive of their emotions. It’s a win-win situation, in my opinion, for men to be emotionally literate.

  9. Posted October 7, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I’ve got issues with this:

    The fact that few guys have learned to have these kinds of conversations with one another makes the emotional weight on women’s shoulders even more intense.

    Wait, are we really, really, really sure that guys generally don’t have conversations about how they feel with one another? Because as a heterosexual, 34 year old American man, I can tell you that I, personally, have conversations with my brothers constantly about how we feel.
    About many things. Including but not limited to politics, women, our relationships, our families, sex, death, religion, sadness, joy, social injustice, frustration and so on, ad infinitum.

    I’m in a motorcycle club. Can you think of anything more stereotypically “macho” than that? Leather, chrome, huge American motorcycles, the whole nine yards. The entire subculture. You know what my brothers do at the end of a long ride? We hug each other and say, “I love you, bro.” Every time. Isn’t that emotional? I feel that it is.

    This is my first Feministing post. I am rewriting this over and over trying to make this post not seem angry, but I find myself failing…the truth is I am sort of upset, as a man, reading stuff like this. We’re just more diverse than this, and I really feel like this is a narrative that needs to go away, and I feel like it’s precisely the sort of thing that I’ve respected feminism for–the idea that we should not make sweeping generalizations about people simply because of their gender identity.

    I think that my girlfriend–who more readily describes me as a feminist than I would describe myself, and is herself unabashedly a feminist–would agree that I have little problem sharing my feelings with her, and I rather doubt that she finds me all that feminine. And yet…

    I have no real scientific proof, and we all know that anecdotal evidence is highly suspect, nonetheless I will share my experience of this in my relationships. So take this…with a grain of salt.

    I cry. I get upset. It doesn’t really bother me, for me it is cathartic and healthy. However, I have found, personally, that when I address my feelings with a woman, or reveal that I am upset or disturbed by a situation and allow myself to “be emotional” (whatever that really means), that I often get a negative response. Or one that is, to me, humiliating. Girlfriends have said things like, “You should’ve been a girl.” Or “You went all chick on me.” Or, “You totally freaked out on me.” Stuff like that.

    Here’s the thing that might infuriate folks, but I’ll share it anyway: no matter how many feminist theorists your boyfriend has read, no matter how deeply he cares about the movement, no matter how lefty he is, no matter how in-tune with the party line his opinions on gender and so on: your hetero boyfriend does not enjoy feeling emasculated. It doesn’t matter if you mean it kindly. We don’t take it as a compliment. In fact–here’s some irony!–it makes us emotional.

    In this situation, some men just might shut right down on you…which is the opposite of the intended effect, I think. It doesn’t matter if seeing your boyfriend crying makes you feel as though he’s become emotionally healthier or more human–should it? isn’t this supposed to be about HE feels? It’s possible that for him, that experience in and of itself is not cathartic but rather traumatic; it’s possible it just might not heal that person, at that time, the same way it heals another person. One might argue that is socially and culturally programmed, and I’ll grant that. Yet many of us are hyper-aware of this situation. We’re culturally literate. We know that we understand masculinity differently than our fathers did. But it doesn’t mean we necessarily can extract ourselves from our cultural and social milieu with a snap of the fingers. And neither, as others have said, can anybody!

    We also rather dislike being told that there is a script we should be following in order to express our emotions appropriately. We’re open to the idea that there are better ways. We’re not open to the idea that the only right way to express ourselves is the way (our fathers | our wives or girlfriends | the feminist movement | the men’s movement | a therapist | the church | our motorcycle club | etc) want us to do it.

    As for emotional midwifery, I hope my girlfriend doesn’t find working with my feelings to be a burden, because I go to her first to express them, however difficult it is. Because I trust her, and that she loves me, and she is, quite frankly, my closest friend. And I hope that she will come to me if she has feelings she needs to be worked out, because I want to be there for her; I believe that is what love is.

    My generation of men are, in my experience, a fairly honest, open-hearted, eloquent bunch. Also, we love our women. And each other. And, at least I feel, we generally express it.

    A lot of us value feminism, and what it historically and currently represents. But I think many of us feel completely unwelcome in the debate, particularly because of statements like this. If feminists truly believe we’re inherently emotionally stilted, then clearly they don’t find us to be qualified as fully vested members of the prevailing discourse. It’s more than uninviting.

    Oh, and we do cry. We even laugh about it: ever see Dane Cook’s crying skit? Youtube that, it’s hilarious. He’s working with all of these issues in that skit…

    Maybe it’s because I’m a Buddhist, but I really believe that if you’re quiet enough and listen and pay attention enough, you’ll realize that any person you come across is actually expressing their emotions to you in their particular way. Maybe we need to remind each other to value how folks are actually expressing themselves at first, instead of forcing them to do it our particular way. Come to think of it, that sounds like a feminist ideal, to me…

    • Posted October 7, 2010 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. This post felt very “girls are bad at math” in reverse, and reduced the role of the individual while also ignoring variation within subcultures. Yes, we do need to bring men under the tent to move forward with feminism, which is about equality and not the superiority and separateness of women. It is about saying that patriarchy has been limiting to all gender identities. It is not about saying “if only men would get more in touch with their feelings. . . ”

      And I think that is what Courtney was trying to say, but I think her tone missed the mark . . . probably by talking about “guys” as a homogeneous group that causes us problems, even after she was careful to set up her personal experience of the matter.

      For the record, I’m a woman married to a man and we’re both feminists and both artists paid to express emotion in front of people. He’s better at staying emotionally healthy than I am; I’m more likely to unload too much onto someone, or miss that I’ve hurt their feelings. I’m also asked to give “emotional midwifery” on a regular basis by people of various genders and sexual orientations and I don’t see it as coming more or less frequently from straight men than anybody else. The only people I know of any age who fit into the “can’t reveal emotion comfortably” category are autistic. Maybe it’s different in other parts of the country. I live in Texas.

  10. Posted October 12, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Sean, thank you very much for your input on this topic, i really appreciate and needed it to see things clearly.
    In general I think that both the input from men and women is important to further the goals of feminism.

  11. Posted October 12, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    “guys dude men fellas guys man *men* *men* guy dudes guys boy guys guys”

    A list, in order, of the pronouns used to describe men in the article. Starred are the two from a quote by a man.

    The collective aggregate is:
    Men/Man: 4/14 (28.5%) [2/14 Courtney Descriptions (14.25%)]
    Guy(s): 6/14 (42.75%)
    Dude(s): 2/14 (14.25%)
    Fella(s): 1/14 (7.125%)
    Boy(s): 1/14 (7.125%) [Probable Outlier]

    It sounds to me like you’re dating too many “dudes” and not enough “men”, or you’re ascribing things to men based on conventional notions of masculinity in regard to emotion and it’s coming out in word choice.

    Sean did a way better job of it than I can do, but to say or imply that men are, as a group, emotional misfits doesn’t really do much to aid contemporary feminism. Men are socialized to emote differently, no doubt about that, but that’s not the same as being emotionally stunted.

    Men, for example, are socialized to emote pride and satisfaction far more than women are, and with fewer qualifiers, but that doesn’t mean women don’t feel as much pride, it’s just less socially acceptable for them to express it.

    If a post in this vein about “chicks” and “gals” who can’t avoid backhanded compliments, and are therefore emotionally stunted as a group, made the main page the amount of vitriol that would be inveighed against it would be stunning, and for good reason. Just saying, as a man expressing my emotions here.

    Both genders are socialized to present certain emotions while avoiding others. It affects all of us. We all have to figure out our emotions in the context of a society that wishes to promote some of them while stifling others, and limiting this just to men and making sweeping conclusions as a result is just bad form.

    • Posted October 12, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      @davenj:

      I’m glad I wasn’t the only fella who weighed in on this one, helps to show that the boys really are interested in being part of contemporary feminist discourse. But dude, you post begins with a ton of statistics. You’re such a guy. ;)

      Seriously though, I actually don’t mind any of those words, I rather enjoy being a dude. The point about the linguistic double-standard, though, is very astute, I think.

      I think it took courage for you to suggest that it might be the author’s choices in men that is suspect, but knowing so little (just what we know from this post), I didn’t feel comfortable going there. As for myself, someone once told me, after I had been lamenting relationship woes, she said, “Hey Sean, what’s the one thing ALL of those women had in common?” To which I responded, “I have no idea. They’re all women?” To which she responded: “Yeah, well that, but also: You.”

      Sobering moment…

      On a lighter note, it’s too bad you can’t edit previous comments, because if you could I’d have to do a find & replace on the word “girlfriend” in my post above and change it to “fiancée”, because she said yes last Saturday. :-D

      • Posted October 12, 2010 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I don’t particularly mind “dude”, “guy”, or “fella”, either, but I think they can be indicative of an attitude, particularly in the case of people who otherwise explore gendered terminology and language. The way “dude” is used in feminist discourse on this and other sites is pretty particular, and it certainly describes men through a very particular lens. “Fella” does, too, and “guy” as well, though to a somewhat lesser extent.

        The way this language was used appears to present a picture of men through the eyes of the author that tends to buy into conventional notions of what men are and are not, and it certainly doesn’t read as being understanding.

        The point about varied ways of expressing emotion is an important one, and a really good one. Men and women are certainly socialized to express different emotions while suppressing other ones, and to express those emotions in certain ways, but assuming that only one gender deals with this is extremely problematic. I’ve been frustrated many a time when I express anger in front of women, as well as open derision or pride. It is often met by laughter, simply because it is so alien to that person. Men definitely are “allowed” to express anger and scorn more blatantly and openly, and I’ve had discussions with women in which they describe being hurt in some way by someone’s actions and I respond with clear anger or derision. The responses have led me to be frustrated with that person’s inability to adequately express their feelings of anger themselves, and this has overwhelmingly happened with women.

        However, that’s an issue we all have to deal with, not just women or men. Simply put, the notion that men are emotional misfits because they’re socialized not to cry is like saying women are stunted because of the way they’re asked to express their anger.

        Men feel sadness. Women feel anger. The way we express it can be complicated and confusing because people are complicated and confusing, especially when we arbitrarily limit ourselves, but that’s a problem everyone’s going to have to face, dudes and chicks alike.

        And yeah, emotional midwifery could be a gendered problem, but it is often a personal problem. I know men and women who definitely seem to enjoy “fixing” partners through major investment in emotional guidance. Some people like being amateur psychologists, or they get some sort of reward from it that ends up fostering problematic relationship practices. Women do it, but so do men. I really can’t hazard a guess as to why those folks do it given where I fall on that scale, but they definitely do it.

        It’s important to examine one’s own practices before making blanket claims. It may seem callous or rude to suggest that the problem might lie in the original poster, and that’s not my intent, but people looking for problems, whether they think they want to do so or not, tend to end up finding them.

        A lot of “emotional midwifery” I see is really codependence issues between partners who aren’t compatible.

        Congrats on the engagement, too.

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