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Yashar Ali Headshot

Treating Men Like 4-Year-Olds

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I've always said that it's a generally fantastic experience to be a man in our culture. This is because, in comparison to women, we men get way more room to be ourselves or do what is most comfortable for us. One of the areas in life where men are most coddled is in how we are permitted to emotionally express ourselves.

Specifically, I am talking about the excuses that women make for men who lack emotional follow-through. For me, emotional follow-through is about the capability to completely and clearly express emotions or emotional responsibilities -- whether that means someone apologizing in a heartfelt way, expressing affection, etc. I'm not talking about extraordinary expressions of emotion; rather, I am addressing the most basic forms of emotional follow-through like, "I love you" and "I'm sorry."

The excuses that women make for men who lack emotional follow-through come in many different forms, but they all serve one purpose: they are used to coddle men who lack the ability to act as adults when it comes to emotional expression.

These excuses are ones that women make on behalf of their men to themselves and in front of other people who interact with their male partners, friends and colleagues. And these excuses are not limited to a man's failure at expressing love; these excuses can also be about what mothers tell their children as a way of explaining their father's emotional distance.

But for this column, I am focusing on what women tell themselves and their concerned loved ones when the men in their lives make even the tiniest, vaguest effort at emotional clarity.

Men are given a lot of credit for trying -- trying to be nice, trying to be communicative, trying to be attentive. I'm sure you've either given a man that kind of credit before or you've heard another woman praise a half-hearted attempt at emotional expression: "He's trying to be nicer, he's trying to be more attentive, he's doing better."

Or my personal favorite, "Awww, this is his way of saying he loves me," or "this is his way of saying he's sorry."

While every relationship -- both platonic and romantic -- should be about improving and growing together, isn't trying really for children? At some point, shouldn't a grown man be doing instead of just trying on the basic gestures all of us should be expected to make in a healthy relationship?

If we think back to when we were kids and misbehaved (or, for those of you who have kids, what happens when they misbehave), we encourage children (sometimes force them) to do what's right: "Tommy, you hurt your sister's feelings, now say you're sorry."

Or we hear something like, "Tommy, did you say 'please' when you asked for another cookie?"

As kids, we weren't allowed to get away with doing the wrong thing. So, my point is that a 4-year-old is held to a higher standard than men who fail to fulfill emotional responsibilities. While some parents may over-coddle their kids, you won't find many parents making excuses for their children like, "He's trying," or "this is simply the way he says sorry."

For most kids, the only way to say you're sorry when you're 4 is just that: "I'm sorry."

But so often, a man's way of apologizing is exactly the opposite -- he says everything but those explicit words, "I'm sorry." And the response to this indirect, unclear apology is usually a welcome, accepting confirmation. What we men get in return from the women in our lives is a soft place to land emotionally, rather than any sort of accountability.

Holly, who is 35 years old, made these sorts of excuses for her then-live-in boyfriend. Whenever they would have an argument, if the impetus for the argument was her fault, she would find no issue apologizing and using the words "I'm sorry."

But when her boyfriend was the impetus for the argument, there would be a long stretch of silence, hours, a couple days, until he would finally break the silence by bringing up a mundane topic like booking tickets for a weekend trip.

"I would think to myself, this is his way of saying he's sorry, he couldn't say the words or admit fault, so he did it by breaking the silence."

While Holly was more than willing to see his weak effort at breaking the silence as some sort of legitimate apology, even she would eventually get frustrated, "For a moment, it felt better, but my frustration would return because his weak apology wasn't enough for me. I would always ask myself 'Why can't he just say the words?'"

Holly often felt that she was selling herself short... and she was.

"Why wasn't he trying to resolve the issue at hand? Does he love me enough? Does he not care about me? Why does he want to brush it under the rug, like it didn't happen?"

And so often, Holly would attempt to move on, because she didn't want to fight anymore.

At a difficult breaking point in their relationship, after Holly indicated to her boyfriend that things weren't going to work out, he made an attempt to save the relationship. They went on a trip together and over the course of three days, he never made an attempt to discuss their relationship -- he made no real emotional effort to resolving the tensions and frictions in their relationship.

Finally, Holly told him that she really thought his attempts at saving their relationship were feeble. At that moment, he welled up with tears and said "I've been thinking the past few days, I've realized that you are the only person in the world that cares about me, and that means something to me."

When Holly heard those words, it was enough for her. She was so in need of an emotional response from him that one sentence was substance enough to give her something to latch on to and enough to stay in the relationship.

But she shouldn't have been celebrating. No one should be celebrating one sentence, or even two or three, in the course of a long-term relationship. Holly should have been hearing those words, or words like them, on a regular basis. Mutual communication is the backbone of a healthy, balanced relationship, but Holly was emotionally deprived of clear communication with her boyfriend for so long that she took whatever she could get.

Aleese, age 29, has been married for three years to a man who locks up when it's appropriate, and much-needed, for him to express himself emotionally. "It's like I've been brought in from the cold when he says something sweet to me, it's that rare," she said.

So in terms of her need to emotionally connect with her husband, Aleese looks for it where she can get it -- just like Holly. If her husband brings home her favorite ice cream or remembers an important memory in her life, she thinks to herself, "This is his way of saying he loves me."

Aleese will occasionally ask her husband why he can't directly come out and say "I love you," or a least return the expression when she says it. She will ask him if he still loves her and he always responds with, "You know I do. I'm just not as good with words as you are."

But something has always bothered Aleese about his claim of not being "good with words" and his reticence to explicitly express his love, because he was the first one to say "I love you" in the relationship and wrote her really thoughtful notes when they first started dating.

For those of you who have heard or accepted this excuse, perhaps it's time to ask yourself: Was he good with words at any point? Was he able to express himself at some point? Was he, at some point in your relationship, emotionally more open?

I am venturing to guess that he was, because you probably wouldn't have entered a relationship with a man who didn't share with you, from the get-go, his emotional side by expressing it with words.

The point is, there is only one acceptable version of expressing emotions "his way," and that is after your basic emotional needs are fulfilled. Saying "I love you," saying something validating, or saying "I'm sorry" doesn't require a man's unique version, because that ultimately means he's not really apologizing or expressing love. Any adult should be able to explicitly articulate what they mean, and a grown man should not and does not need to be coddled.

I get it, though -- it's about holding onto anything that helps you confirm that the man in your life is not a horrible person who lacks any sort of emotional capabilities. But, frankly, that's just grasping for straws.

Excusing men from explicitly apologizing or expressing love/happiness/unhappiness is a way of projecting -- a way of imagining that trying is the equivalent to doing. We all, at times, feel the need to construct an idea of who our partners are, and when that need is not met, we have to somehow cobble together their weak emotional expressions to come up with an image better fits into our expectations.

At the end of all this excuse-making, men still get to live in a horrible place for their long-term emotional health, but it's one that feels good to them in the short-term, a warm comfy space of emotional remoteness.

But that's just the way things are, right? "Men will be men," and they just somehow can't get it together when it comes to direct and explicit communication on the emotional level.

That's what women are for: to pry what they can, emotionally, out of men. Let's make it a woman's burden, to nurture and make the man, to excuse him from emotional accountability. Why are women constantly inheriting so many burdens? Why do they have to trudge though feeling lonely and loveless?

Because just as much as men are conditioned not to feel, not to express, women are continually conditioned to accept what they are given.

Well, I'm tired of all this problematic conditioning and the behaviors that come out of that. I'm tired of women seeing men who explicitly apologize or directly profess "l love you" as some sort of mystical unicorn.

And I am especially tired of women having to feel like they have no other choice but to mold their man to become this better, more emotionally grounded person.

Why should women make excuses for the stuff we wouldn't have been excused for when we were 4?

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This column was originally posted on The Current Conscience.