Expressing Emotions Across Gender Lines
Popular culture would have us believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. According to Namibian Clinical Psychologist, Heidi Burmeister-Nel, “We are all well aware of the gender stereotypes when it comes to emotions. Naturally, there are truths in all stereotypes, but I am in agreement with a large number of psychologists that believe that these differences are largely socialised (1). Personality characteristics, our upbringing and life experiences, parenting, culture and socialisation play a large interrelated role in our expression of emotion. Simply put, this means that girls and boys, women and men, learn over time about what is appropriate or inappropriate for their gender in their social setting, in terms of the expression of emotions. However, when you see couples or individuals in therapy, one should always be curious about their experiences and should never assume ‘men are like this’ or ‘woman are like that’. Our preconceived ideas about gender can make us neglect to understand the unique and complex experience of the individual.”
“This means that girls and boys, women and men, learn over time about what is appropriate or inappropriate for their gender in their social setting, in terms of the expression of emotions.”
The way men and women differ in their displays of affection can be seen as an example of the ways they differ. Women are socialised to embrace feelings of love, nurturing and tenderness; this can mean that women are more comfortable expressing and sharing these emotions verbally. Conversely, men are brought up to focus on physical strength, independence and possibly even competition. This means that while they might be great at boasting or showing off their skills or strength, men may be less comfortable making such obvious claims of affection.
However, explains Heidi, you can’t generalise on these points, “Despite women generally being socialised to express emotion more, and men to a ‘boys don’t’ cry’ mentality, I have often been surprised when so-called stereotypes have been reversed. I often see couples where women express needs stereotypically assigned to men, or where females have difficulty expressing their emotions and needs, while some men are completely comfortable with it. Emotions are multifaceted and involve different components such as personal insight, regulatory functions (such as managing anxiety, distress and frustration), the ability to self –soothe, communication skills, and the ability for empathy. The expressive behaviours that make it difficult or easy to express emotions are therefore incredibly complex. Attributing it to only gender differences trivialises this complex function.”
“Despite emotional expression not consciously being a need for everybody, it is crucial for effective communication, empathising, and connection.”
With some surprising differences in the way in which men and women express their love and contrary to the common gender stereotypes, the truth of the matter is, love is difficult to define and measure.
“I believe humans have essentially similar needs, and the expressions of needs are interlinked with the expression of emotions. Despite emotional expression not consciously being a need for everybody, it is crucial for effective communication, empathising, and connection.” Says Heidi.
The best advice for expressing your emotions effectively in your relationship, through bridging the divide in gender differences, is to know yourself and also to try giving the love you wish to receive. “To identify, understand and express emotions functionally, is a life skill all genders can benefit from tremendously.” Explains Heidi.
(1) Kring, A. M.; Gordon, A. H. (1998). “Sex differences in emotion: expression, experience, and physiology”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 74 (3): 686–703. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1996.