Building emotional intelligence in men …

Warkworth counsellor Peter McMillan has specialised in relationship counselling since 1996. He’s also facilitated men’s anger management and stopping violence programmes. He offers some thoughts on how men can improve their emotional intelligence and get along better with their spouse and their children …

Where do men often go wrong in relationships?   

Men tend to be more practically orientated and provider-focused, but can be less connected to their own emotional life. Meanwhile, many women want emotional intimacy and often men are unable to meet women in that place. A woman is saying, “Something is bothering me, and I want to connect with you around that”, whereas the man will be saying, “Let’s fix it”.  

What can men do about that?

This often requires some help, because when you talk about connecting with your emotional life, many men will not know what the hell you are talking about. I recommend weekend workshops for couples where a man can begin to engage with his inner life. At the same time, women need to appreciate their partner is maybe doing the best they can. So rather than blame him and make him wrong and cause him to withdraw, there needs to be an appreciation that this man is loving her in a way that he understands what love is. Men and women need to appreciate their differences so they can move forward together. My wife and I have very different personalities – in fact, we are polar opposites. But together that becomes a real strength because you cover more of the bases. As a together team, we are a greater whole.

Why are so many men disconnected from their emotions?

One of my sons was a very creative and connected young boy. When he was in Year 6 he was making this paper mâché elephant. Another boy poured paint all over it and wrecked it. My son got really upset and cried about it. He got a hard time about that. So, he decided I’m going to high school next year and I’m never going to let that happen again. I won’t cry.  He shut down showing his emotion and, as a consequence, he also blocked off his creativity. We are vulnerable human beings, it’s the nature of being human, and yet the messages we get as men are that it’s not okay to be vulnerable.

So how do we bring up our sons?

With boys, it’s about enabling them – enabling their vulnerability, enabling their ability to express themselves. Enabling them to cry. Enabling them to be real about their sadness, their upsets and the things that they are afraid of. It also helps to not be stereotypical around your expectations. Another of our sons is a professional dancer. He got into a boys’ hip-hop class, loved it and showed ability. But he knew that to progress he needed to do ballet. He put that off for a long time because he feared his friends’ reaction. Indeed, when he did enter a ballet class he ended up one day crying in the toilets because his friends gave him such a hard time about it. Fortunately, an older girl got to hear about it and threatened to beat them up if they did not leave my son alone [laughs].    

But if we allow boys to cry, will they crumble when the going gets tough?

You need to have strength to navigate what presents itself to you in the world. But you have the potential to be stronger when you recognise your vulnerability, rather than trying to block it off. Teaching kids how to manage and work with their vulnerabilities so they can keep going – that’s resilience. That’s strength. If you block off your vulnerabilities and deny them and push them away, that does not help resilience. It’s just stuff that will fester away and cause problems under the surface.