I know you do sex advice, but I need some relationship advice. My boyfriend and I have been dating for about half a year and he shows zero emotion. I want to bring it up to him, but not in a way that will make him clam up more, ya know? Any advice would be awesome. Thanks!
— Emote My Boat
The longer I contemplate this question, the curiouser and curiouser I get about what the exact situation is here. Are you in love with this guy and you want to know if he’s in love with you? Have things been kind of lighthearted so far and now it’s time to have the DTR (Define the Relationship) talk, but he’s just not picking up the breadcrumbs you’re dropping?
Did you go on one of those YouTube binges of videos about courageous puppies who were found abandoned and injured so they lost their back legs, but now they’ve been lovingly outfitted with amazing doggie-mobility devices and they can now play fetch like their puppy peers and your boyfriend somehow DIDN’T SHED A TEAR and now you suspect he’s a heartless robot?
First, here’s what we’re up against: an ingrained socialization that tells young men that they can’t emote and still be men unless that emotion is anger. This same socialization tells young women that they should shoulder the weight of everyone else’s emotions, but shouldn’t burden others — especially their boyfriends — with theirs.
What you can do, EMB, is be brave and unapologetically, emotionally expressive.
If “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” emotionless for emotionless makes the whole world disconnected. You say you don’t want to ask him to express his emotions because you fear it’ll push him further into his emotional clamshell. Are you also worried this would turn you into one of those girls who “nags” her boyfriend about emotions?
But more importantly: How does his lack of emotional expression make you feel? Hurt, abandoned, unclear, insecure, disconnected, invalidated, underappreciated, and lonely are some words that pop into my mind when I imagine my own partner shutting off his emotions in our relationship. Maybe some of those ring a bell for you.
Once you’ve figured out how his being emotionless makes you feel, express those emotions to him. Instead of saying, “You’re making me hurt because you don’t emote,” use some “I” statements such as, “When you don’t share your emotions with me, I feel hurt and disconnected from you.” This non-blaming phrasing helps you own your emotions — setting a good example — while inviting him to engage with you rather than become defensive.
Then, invite him to co-create some solutions with you by asking some questions like, “Is there something I can do differently to help make emotional expression more comfortable for you in our relationship?”
Suppressing our emotions can be the result of many things — from trauma to gender roles, etc. — that are personal to each individual, so you or I can’t speculate too much about what’s happening for him. As his partner, however, you’re in a position to state your needs — emotional connection — and your concerns — what’s happening for you in this relationship.
At its most basic, a relationship is about relating. And emotions are a huge piece of how we relate. Your question tells me that you’re feeling unsure of where you stand in this guy’s life and heart, which will likely make you feel extra vulnerable to state the feelings you’re having. But someone has to take the first crack at this emotional clamshell and it sounds like it won’t be him. At least not yet.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive writer and educator livining in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sex advice, resources, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.