I had a supervisor who once said to me: "If a woman is crying in your office, ask her what she's angry about. If a man is angry, ask him what he's sad about."
The point of this advice is that each gender has "safe" emotions, emotions that society and surroundings have given them the message it's more okay to express. Typically it is safe for women to cry and safe for men to be angry. Switch the two around, however, and things become more dicey: most women have greater difficulty expressing their anger than they do their sadness; most men have greater difficulty expressing their sadness than they do their anger.
But it's more involved than that. For a variety of reasons, men seem to have access to fewer emotions overall than women, or to be less able to discern between the palette of feelings than women are. It's like the story about the Eskimos having so many words for snow: because snow is such a constant for them, they are much more attuned to all the subtle gradations of snow and the different types of snow. So too for women and emotions: they are often able to discern far more nuanced shades of feelings than their male partners.
Why does this matter? Let me tell you what I tell the men in my office when their wife asks them what they're feeling and they shrug their shoulders and say "nothing."
There are a number of reasons it's important to learn to identify and name your feelings. For starters, the more you can identify them and put words to them, the more control you have over them. Having a name for a feeling shifts the experience: the feeling is then within you, rather than you being in the feeling. If you are quaking with rage and can say that, or if you are wracked by grief and can say that, you will be in the driver's seat of the emotion, rather than being thrown around without a seat belt.
Second, and men seem to have a hard time getting this, your wives really want to know what you feel. It helps people feel more connected to each other when feelings are shared. If you learn to feel and express your own feelings more clearly you will start to enjoy hearing about your wife's as well.
Third, it is much more likely your wife will want to have sex with you if you talk to her about your feelings. She will feel closer to you and more trusting of you. Like sunshine opens up flowers, you expressing yourself to your wife will open her up to you.
Fourth, if you don't talk to your wife about what you're feeling, she's going to start guessing and making up things in her head. And women, believe it or not, are often wrong. Just because they have this verbal fluency and just because you hear them talking on the phone to each other using all these feeling words, does not make them emotional geniuses. Women are by and large more complex than we are emotionally, and they will come up with some complicated explanation for why you're grumpy when all you needed to say when you came home is: "Honey, I'm tired, I'm hungry, and I need to be alone for 45 minutes. It's not about you."
Fifth, think of feelings like keys on the piano. The more you learn to identify, the more keys you can play, the more your life will have richness and color and depth, like a more complex piece of music. You won't lose your favorite keys (happy, horny, hungry) but you will get a lot more keys to play with.
Sixth, this is an ongoing mission of mine: I want you to learn to trust yourself more. Like any other skill you develop, the more you become conscious of your feelings, the more finely honed they become. Eventually you will come to rely on them as extraordinarily fine and sensitive instruments of perception, providing you with information about yourself and your surroundings which is stunning in its nuance and detail. You will have a more beautiful and accurate instrument panel than the highest end sports car has on its dash.
Next week: Women in Relationships, Part I.
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at email@example.com.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.