NB: I have inserted quotes from men I interviewed for this piece. I have changed all their names for the sake of anonymity.
It’s common for men to use women, most often subconsciously, for their emotional labour. This applies to almost all aspects of life (but that’s a whole other bag of beans). One area in particular where men lean on women’s emotional chops is friendship. Women are their emotional leg rest: a person with who they can let their guard down, rest their feet and breathe.
Engaging with a female friend on an emotional level is, of course, a good thing. A building block of meaningful relationships. But this cannot, and should not, be the only reason men seek female friendship. If it is indeed the only reason, then it’s really not a friendship at all; genuine relationships aren’t based on meeting one individual’s singular need.
For centuries, toxic masculinity has compelled men not to share their emotions, especially with other men. They have been taught to be the strong and silent type. Not to gush over things, not to be emotional, not to be overly attached. They are told to play their roles and reject the feminine. As a result, we have a society where men repress their feelings, waiting for an opportunity to express themselves, and yearning for an outlet.
Many men find that outlet in the company of women – in female friendships or romantic
partners. They flock to women to shed some of these gender roles. To be all the things they aren’t supposed to be: vulnerable, open, emotional. In other words, “feminine.”
I have many male friends and I love them dearly. We often have conversations that go deeper than the weather, Netflix or our weekend plans. As friends do. But too often I notice that men (especially those who I do not consider close friends) speak to me or confide in me, in a way they don’t feel they can communicate with their male friends.
Men, as we know, have countless privileges that flow from their gender, but the toxic
masculinity that so permeates their existence is not one of them. In fact, it is a distinct form of oppression that they endure. From birth, men are inundated with images, ideas, and suggestions of what it is to be a proper man.
“Traditional concepts of masculinity affect how you act and what you show to others from a very young age. Even those who claim to be unaffected by it will find themselves looked at differently by their peers, so to say that it doesn’t affect them would be naive. I think there is a romanticized version of what it is to be a man that makes it very difficult to show weakness to others and that archetype is reinforced again and again, so it’s pretty hard to not live into it on some level.”- Greg
Because of the constant pressure to act a certain way, most men choose to suffer in silence rather than exhibit traditionally feminine traits. They avoid asking for help, expressing what’s going on in their mind, or sharing their story.
Men witness how women operate in their relationships; how we open up to each other and be vulnerable with one another. They see the bond it builds between women and recognize the benefits that come from being vulnerable and sharing a part of yourself with another person.
Yet they resist it.
There are so many situations in which men should (and wish they could) express themselves, but don’t. The echoes of society telling them to hold onto power ring loudly in their ears. Men don’t share with other men because they are scared of what others will see or perceive. They ask themselves: How will my friend on the other end of the phone take what I’m saying? What will that person at the table beside us think if we two men maintain eye contact? How will my dad or brothers respond to my crying?
“Even opening up to male friends they call you a pussy etc.” – George
Men worry, rightfully, that the simple act of telling a truth or expressing a fear will lead others to see them as weak or overly emotional. After all, a man devoid of strength and power is not really ‘man’ at all. When men allow themselves to open up, they risk feeling like they are not the kind of man they are supposed to be.
We have created a society where men chose to bottle up their emotions, suffering in silence, rather than risk facing criticism from friends and strangers alike. We have a society where these raw, vulnerable emotions are channelled into a single acceptable ‘male’ response: anger. Men are not naturally more violent; we have conditioned them to convert all their vulnerable emotions into the singular expression of rage. We tell men, “Yell all you want and we will respect your opinion, but cry and we will dismiss your power.”
“I would always rather show parts of my personality that might be negative but associated with strength or control rather than those that might be positive but have the appearance of weakness.”- Greg
While most men resign themselves to bottling certain emotions or expressing them as rage, some men seek comfort in the arms of women; an emotional catharsis through ‘feminine’ interactions.
Men respond to their surroundings. When placed in hyper masculine environments – be it the army, a locker room, or a sports bar – they adapt their behaviour to fit into the mainstream paradigm. They act confident, strong, and virile. When placed in more open or forgiving environments - such as the company of a female friend or partner - they feel they can be more honest and vulnerable.
“I am definitely more of a typical ‘guy’ in certain environments.” - Aaron
Friendships with women allow men to explore the expression of feelings they are taught to suppress. These interactions allow them to see and analyze how women acknowledge, express and honour our emotions. They hear us share a fear, and see the tension ease from our shoulders. They watch us cry and see how cathartic it is.
Behind the ‘closed doors’ of a friendship or romantic relationship with a woman, some men practice expressing their emotions. The secrecy of this expression – done only in the intimacy of relationship with a woman – is their security blanket. They haven’t yet shed their toxic masculinity. The idea of being vulnerable in front of their basketball team, for example, is too much. But being open with one person, one woman who has shown that it is okay to be your authentic self, is their starting point. Friendship with women, aka “Vulnerability 101.”
Men, being conditioned by toxic masculinity to avoid anything that makes them seem ‘soft,’ have not honed the skills (yes, skills) of being emotional, vulnerable and open. The primary role every man is supposed to assume is a protector - of his family, his woman, his space. They are to be the problem fixers of the group. This makes men scared to open up, because vulnerability can bring problems to light. Men are supposed to fix problems, not find new ones or acknowledge old ones.
While men often shoulder the burden of feeling the need to find a solution when they become aware of a problem, women are comfortable simply listening to and supporting others who share. This is because women haven’t been conditioned to respond in ‘fix it’ mode. For better and for worse, we haven’t been seen as capable enough to be the fixers, so simply listening is an acceptable response for us.
Women, since the day we were born, have been taught to support people. “Go serve your dad his meal. “Bring your brother his toy.” “Be gentle with your doll.” “Help mama set the table.” For most of history, women have been the supporting role to men, so supporting someone emotionally - being the wind beneath their wings - is fine.
Men, on the other hand, have been taught that they are the entire bird. And what happens when more and more weight is placed on their wings? Weight they cannot express because that would risk their masculinity? Perhaps men are so hesitant to share their vulnerabilities (even with women) because they are scared they cannot handle the weight of these problems.
When casual male acquaintances approach me and begin to discuss serious topics or confide in me, I am often taken aback at first. If the roles were reversed, I would likely feel uncomfortable opening up to this person; I reserve my emotional soliloquys for my dearest friends. But then I remember that the stakes are simply too high for men to confide in other men, and it is less risky to seek out a female acquaintance with whom they can be vulnerable. Baring part of your soul to someone is better than hiding all of it forever.
As a woman, I can never understand the difficulty some men must feel in expressing themselves. Society has thrust many harmful gender roles upon women, but none have stifled our ability to create meaningful relationships through honest and open expression.
I don’t know what to tell men who are uncomfortable expressing themselves. It is a burden I’ve never bore, and one I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.
All I can say is, I hope one day soft and strong become synonyms.