A friend of mine recently confessed that her boyfriend sucks at comforting her. When she confides in him about a stressful day or an anxious feeling, he says, with a sympathetic tenderness, “I wish I could help somehow,” inadvertently making the moment about him. As she told me this, she qualified that it’s sweet and well-intentioned, but simply not enough — and, to be frank, inequitable to what she’s bringing to the table in terms of emotional support. But she’s not sure how to say that without being mean.
Not so long ago, another friend of mine admitted she was frustrated with her partner, too. She told me that whenever she expresses anger or distress about something, he places a hand on her leg and says, “Everything’s going to be okay.” It drives her nuts. She once called him out on this default response and he asked, ego bruised, that she not criticize how he shows support.
I know both of these men to be wonderful and loving partners, and I also know this grievance like the back of my front teeth. It’s one that dots my romantic past. I used to wonder if I was being unfair, expecting too much. How do you ask for someone to just…be wiser? But whenever I shared this concern with friends, I was usually met with reassurances: You can’t get everything from one person. Go to your mom or girlfriends for that kind of emotional support. Men are just wired differently.
I can’t count the number of times I heard this advice. To look elsewhere, expect less, accept alternative wiring. It’s just as maddening as the problem itself. To feel unmatched in a relationship is one thing — we’re all different creatures — but to feel unmet is something totally different. Wanting a partner to get in the complicated, emotional trenches with you seems a reasonable request. Excusing that as a gender-based inevitability seems as lazy as saying “boys will be boys.” Shouldn’t everyone expect and ask for more? In fact, might that expectation be part of what instigates growth?
This isn’t a problem exclusive to heterosexual women, of course, but it’s part of a larger pattern of misogyny that assumes men don’t have the emotional faculties to, say, sit around and chat, cry, confess — do all the mushy and wonderful things that have come to represent the most transcendent parts of womanhood. That kind of freedom shouldn’t be exclusive to women. Just because a group of men, if left alone, might choose to throw a ball around instead of sit in the grass, as some old guy once mansplained to me, doesn’t mean an avoidance of vulnerability is inherent to their sex. Assuming as much just perpetuates it, doesn’t it? The “dumb boyfriend” or “simple husband” cliche hurts everyone, especially if it halts worthy conversations. At times, it might be an uphill battle to ask someone who is closed off to pick apart their feelings or help you pick apart yours, but it’s not an insurmountable one. If that’s what you need in a partner, you should ask for it.
One of the reasons my current partner’s ex broke up with him was because he’d shown a pattern of selfishness when it came to her emotional needs. He’d solve instead of empathize; react instead of hear. When he first told me this, I was taken aback. I’ve always known him to be a giving partner and compassionate listener, but he says it took him years to get where he is. Whereas empathy and vulnerability have been encouraged in me since I was a young girl, it took him being told he wasn’t cutting it — among other currents, of course — to flesh out those parts of himself in his late 20s. He credits those tough lessons as some of his most formative.
None of this is as cut-and-dried along gender lines as these anecdotes make it sound, nor is a man’s maturity a woman’s responsibility or vice versa. It’d be nice to drop the dynamic entirely, but these gendered expectations still play a huge role in how we all behave, and assuming “men are just wired differently” when it comes to emotions seems a dangerous one. Unfair to all involved. I think people should expect and seek out emotional resonance with those they love most, whatever that looks like, comfort zones notwithstanding.
My two friends need something different from their partners. These guys probably won’t transform into the kind of confidantes they’re looking for overnight, but I think my friends are right to ask for more, even if it results in hurting their partners’ feelings a little. Isn’t that part of the process? I’ve met people of all genders who are compassionate, empathetic, wise, emotionally intelligent, and capable of dark and sticky conversations that break you open in a good way. We’re all conditioned differently, but none of us are simple. It shouldn’t be the default work of women to empathize and comfort with grace. I think it’s in all of us.