The stereotype that it’s hard for men to share their feelings is deeply familiar. All we have to do is turn on many hit shows about family life and we’ll see a father character (Homer Simpson or George Bluth, Sr., anyone?) who, even if he’s funny, is often oblivious when it comes to understanding or discussing emotions.
Unfortunately, this is a potent and pervasive societal message, and one that so many men — myself included — internalize from an early age. This internalization can make it difficult for men to communicate with their partners during big life events, such as infertility.
For couples experiencing infertility, connecting and communicating are critical in order to maintain a strong partnership. Carrying on with the strong, silent behavior men are taught to exude can make that connection and communication incredibly difficult, particularly when facing the stress and pressure of infertility.
I’m no stranger to this reality! When my wife and I were first coming to grips with our fertility struggle, I at first leaned on my instinct to keep acting strong and positive. As the months and months went on with no positive pregnancy test, I’d say things like: “Maybe next month will be the one,” and “I’m sure we just have to keep trying – it’ll all work out.”
Meanwhile, what was I really thinking on the inside? Things like: “This can’t be good. It’s been seven months of trying, and everyone else we know is getting pregnant. Is something wrong? As I look back, I understand WHY I was hesitant to share those feelings with my wife, but I wish I had been brave enough to open up about them earlier.
So what are some creative ways to overcome this stereotype, help men feel more comfortable opening up about their emotions, and work to maintain a supportive partnership during the stress of infertility?
Tip 1: Start with positive feelings—they’re easier to share—then transition to more challenging ones.
One of the hardest things about infertility is that it can rob you of the positive feelings you once had about starting a family. When I was coming to terms with our fertility struggles, thinking about traveling or cooking with our future child was the last thing I wanted to do. My brain simply defaulted to the worry and stress of wondering why we weren’t pregnant yet.
However, one powerful stereotypical message society sends to men is that “real“ men don’t complain. Of course, talking about how we’re feeling is NOT the same as complaining, yet the impact is real.
So how can couples start conversations about how they’re feeling emotionally in a way that feels more open and inviting to men? Start by talking about more positive feelings, then transition to more difficult ones.
For instance, you might start by discussing the things you most look forward to about becoming parents. You might also try talking about what qualities you see in your partner that let you know they’d be a great mom/dad. These discussions may feel like an easier way in for a man, and can help lead more naturally to more challenging questions — like how they’re feeling about your struggles to get pregnant and how it’s affecting them.
Tip 2: Keep the discussion more casual, at least to start— having a formal sit down to talk about feelings doesn’t come naturally to men.
“We need to talk.”
Those four little words are enough to strike fear into the heart of most people. When looking to support a man in opening up, formality of that type is more likely to bring a discussion to a screeching halt. Instead, look for lower-stakes opportunities to chat in more informal ways.
To keep things more comfortable and informal, DO:
- Try to talk during another activity such as watching some mindless television or on a car ride – it makes the situation feel more informal.
- Be patient and allow time to think and respond.
- Be okay with small steps. Men unfortunately hear many years of societal messages that can inhibit their skill at sharing what they’re feeling. Even small progress is good progress here.
- Put too much pressure on by asking direct questions. Try open-ended things like, “What do you think about that?” or “What’s your take?”
- Turn the conversation into a formal event, such as by setting up to sit across from each other (side to side may be more comfortable). This leads to the final tip…
Tip 3: Get physical! Talk over a walk, hike, or bike ride.
What comes to mind when you think of typical male bonding activities? Maybe a day on the golf course. A game of pick-up ball. Trying a new craft brewery. It can seem like these types of active experiences are just men being men – throwing a ball or whacking something with a stick. But really, these activities men do together are a chance for social bonding.
Simply put, it can be much easier for men to open up and talk when doing something physical. So try going for a walk, hitting a favorite hiking trail, or going for a bike ride! This type of setting and activity can make it much easier for men to open up.
The Truth About Men and Feelings
Ultimately, the truth is that men feel things just as deeply as women — it’s just a matter of finding the context and tactics that can help them feel comfortable expressing them. Indeed, it’s also important for men (once started) to continue doing the work of exploring, expressing, and understanding their feelings. You might try some journaling, acupuncture, make a plan to try some healthy eating, or try drawing on what our ancestors knew and connecting with nature!
Over the course of my infertility journey, I became much better at expressing my feelings — not just with my wife, but in my life as a whole. It takes some unlearning to be sure, but just like the work of enduring fertility treatments, the end goal is worth it.
So if you’re experiencing infertility or other stress that’s putting pressure on your relationship, try out one of these tips. Better yet, read this article together as a couple and then discuss which of these tips seem most pertinent and useful. Whether you’re a man, woman, or a couple reading this, I hope these tips help you find some connection and understanding.
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