How to Empower Emotional Intelligence in Men
Emotional intelligence. Emerging buzzwords in today’s corporate world, but also incredibly practical and applicable for romantic relationships.
Now as buzzword-y as the phrase “emotional intelligence” is, it’s a little vague as to its meaning. There are three key skills that make up emotional intelligence: emotional awareness, harnessing emotions and using them to problem solve, and emotional management.
Emotional awareness is not only the ability to decipher your own emotions, but also to decipher another person’s emotions. This is very helpful when first identifying an emotional situation, and knowing how you and the other participants are approaching it. Being able to focus them toward solutions is a second critical skill inherent in emotional intelligence. If you’re angry or frustrated that a situation is less than desirable, taking that anger and using to make the situation more desirable in a constructive way is a valuable talent to have. Finally, emotional management, the act of establishing control over one’s emotions, combines a few principles from the previous two components. Emotional management takes that anger you felt, and decides to not let it control your actions and thoughts. Now this is not about suppressing one’s emotions, but about not understanding how to properly and healthily express them, and when it is appropriate to do so.
In the corporate world, this looks like an employer knowing how to engage with his or her employees –and them with him or her– to create a welcoming and positive work environment.
In romantic relationships, emotional intelligence looks like each partner not only knowing and valuing their own feelings, but also, and most importantly, their partner’s feelings. But for men and women, levels of emotional intelligence vary. Doctor John Gottman uses the example of games. When boys play games, they play to win. If a boy falls, or gets hurt, the game goes on. For girls, on the other hand, it’s different. When a girl suffers an injury or has her feelings hurt, the game is paused, and does not continue until the two (or more) girls involved positively reconcile.
Rates of good emotional intelligence among male partners in heterosexual relationships is frighteningly low: only 35%. This means that 65% of men in relationships do not have, or chose not to use, emotional intelligence when engaging with their partner during moments of conflict. This comes down to three things: power, influence, and stigma. Cultural precepts have created a world where men are viewed as the head of the relationship and women should respect and honor their husbands. Now, is this necessarily bad? No, but it has created a situation where men are uncomfortable with relinquishing that power and accepting the influence of their wives. In order to keep that power, men resort to the Four Horsemen of Conflict (stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism, contempt) to retain their power.
Some of it comes down to cultural precedent and convention. Masculinity is often associated with traits like confidence, assertiveness, competitiveness, preference for truth over feelings, etc. And so men have felt obligated to make these the core of how they present themselves. They have become too used to these being able to shield them from criticism, and have been too constrained by a parallel cultural stigma against men and emotional expression.
So how do we get men to get comfortable with acknowledging and sharing their emotions? We start by removing the stigma of men showing emotion. Emotions are a natural and integral part of our humanity, and if we ignore them or chose not to show them, we are blocking a part of ourselves. We have to give men a chance to grow emotionally, and this starts in childhood, adolescence, and even into adulthood. It starts by teaching young men that being “manly” isn’t only about winning and being at the top. It continues by teaching them to value how other people feel. But in order to remove the stigma, we have to change the culture, and that will only come with time and patience.
Once that happens, and as a new generation of men grows up with this new set of ideals, we’ll begin to see relationships where men aren’t behaving in ways that allow them to hoard power and influence, but in ways that value their wives, and their wives’ opinions and feelings, rather than ignoring them or making them secondary to their own.