‘He’s been playing a lot of video games lately, and I’m worried because I know he’s under a lot of work pressure. But, he’ll never talk about it. He finishes his work and starts his XBox. That’s become routine now,’ a 43-year-old wife and mother of a son laments. ‘It’s always been this way if I really think about it,’ she continues, ‘And he switches off even when I want to discuss something difficult with him. He’s emotionally just not there. He’s emotionally unavailable as they say.’
Women often complain of men being emotionally unavailable and while this is true in some cases, in many cases, a man’s emotional unavailability is in fact, an inability to express his emotions. This is so common that there is a term for it – ‘normative male alexithymia.’ Coined by Ronald F. Levant of Nova Southeastern University, Normative Male Alexithymia, or NMA, refers to a man’s inability to put emotions into words. This stunting of emotional expression is a result of gender-stereotypical upbringing and socialisation.
Research shows that young boys are more emotionally sensitive and expressive than female toddlers. However, by adolescence, boys become less expressive than girls. Parenting styles which expose girl children to a wider range of emotions and experiences, while discouraging boys from showing so-called ‘weaker’ emotions, lead to this change.
NMA is a spectrum rather than a list of symptoms or signs. The means that some men are less capable of expressing emotions than others. Where a man lies along the spectrum is directly related to how rigid and gender-compliant his upbringing was. So, the harsher the consequences for a young boy showing vulnerability, the less emotionally expressive he will be as a man.
Boys don’t cry!
This isn’t simply a punchline for ad campaigns. Especially in India, where young boys are socialised to be rough and tough, this stereotype is the most common impediment to men’s mental health. Not only are men in countries like ours discouraged from showing a sensitive side, they are also shamed for being anything other than the traditionally masculine – unemotional, stoic, unforgiving, unscathed by the vicissitudes life.
‘I always had more female friends than guy friends, even in school.’ 31-year-old Swaroop tells me. ‘It started in 7th grade. All these hormonal boys would only want to talk shit about girls. They’d want to smoke hookah, and pick fights for no reason. I didn’t like all that – so some of the boys would call me sissy or gay.’ Swaroop is a man of few words. He talks about being bullied at school with very little emotion. As if he’s telling me about someone else.
This kind of banter is common among men. Gatekeeping sensitivity and emotion as adults, seems to help men uphold the traditionally masculine values they imbibe as children.
The idea that boys don’t cry is first introduced unwittingly by parents who tell young boys to be ‘tough’. It becomes more pronounced if simultaneously the parents have the opposite expectation of young girls. During adolescence, peers reinforce this. In adulthood, friends, colleagues and even family, maintain such diktats.
But, when we suppress free expression of one emotion, or a set of emotions, it impacts the whole person. Instead of helping young boys deal with sadness, fear and anxiety, we tell them to suppress these feelings. Instead of saying – ‘I see you’re feeling sad. What would make you feel better?’, the message we give young boys is – ‘It is wrong for boys to show they are sad.’
Over time, this trickles down to how men express other emotions – or not. Fear. Disappointment. Grief. Longing. And even love.
It hurts everyone, not just men
A study published in the Journal of Men’s Studies found that NMA negatively impacts relationship satisfaction and quality of communication. Case in point the 43-year-old whose husband turns to video games rather than his wife when he is going through a difficult time.
Gauri had her first child last month. But, due to the lockdown, she is stuck in Australia, while her partner is here in India. He has met his child only over Zoom. When I ask Gauri how her partner feels about being away from her and their child, she says, ‘Oh, you know he doesn’t talk much about it. But I’m sure he really wants to be here with us.’ Note – Gauri’s partner hasn’t said this to her. She guesses that this is what he wants.
It may well be so. But, is it not necessary to sometimes express such things in relationships? This lack of communication leaves women to do all the guesswork, and live with the hope that they are making the right connections between their partner’s actions and feelings.
So, is he emotionally unavailable or simply unable to express his emotions?
In a way, a man who is unable to express his emotions is emotionally unavailable. If Gauri were to tell her partner she misses him, he would probably respond with a ‘hmm’. This can be frustrating, and can have a woman pulling her hair. It’s like talking to a wall. So yes, in a way all men are emotionally unavailable.
But, to be emotionally unavailable means to not want any kind of emotional intimacy whatsoever. An inexpressive man may have another love language by which he shows his love for you. Maybe he likes to watch TV together. Or, cook for you. When you’re gone for too long, he may ask you out to dinner. There is some form of connection that he creates and values.
An emotionally unavailable man, on the other hand, will not want any connection or intimacy in any form. This is not necessarily because he is incapable of it, but probably because he’s just not that into you. A man who is in a committed relationship but wants to have a fling on the side is emotionally unavailable. A man buried in work commitments and not open to a relationship at the moment is also emotionally unavailable. Someone who lives in another country may also be considered emotionally unavailable if they don’t want a long-distance relationship. The operational word here is – ‘unavailable’. This doesn’t reflect their capacity.
Most men, however, are misunderstood as emotionally unavailable when they’re in fact clueless about how to make themselves available.
I write. I read. I do yoga. I hula hoop. I love cats and dogs in equal measure. I'd say the same for wine. My zen motto: "Eat kale for the body, cake for the soul." Find me on IG: @prachigangwani87