- Men are often taught to take care of women emotionally to feel good about themselves.
- This can leave men on edge and at risk of feeling like a failure.
- Taking care of women may help protect some men from feeling bad about themselves.
Men are often socialized to take emotional responsibility for women, so much so that they often evaluate potential life partners based primarily on how much emotional caretaking they will require. The ideal partner is sometimes described as “low maintenance,” which is like choosing a car because you hope it will require fewer repairs rather than because you like it and enjoy driving it.
One of men’s most persistent complaints about women is that they are “too needy.” On the simplest level, this complaint expresses some men’s resentment at being stuck in the role of being an emotional caretaker. This job is not enjoyable because it seems never-ending, and men don’t feel very competent at it. (Of course, women are also socialized to be emotional caretakers.)
Going a level deeper, men’s complaints about women being "too needy" may also reflect the gender role expectations for men to be independent to the point of self-reliance, not to need anything from anyone, and to disdain dependency as a sign of weakness and vulnerability. From this perspective, relying on others is a luxury, a dangerous over-extension from the safe base of self-reliance.
As is often the case in our culture, we tend to label some values we don’t respect as feminine and consider values to admire as masculine. In this case, men are raised to aspire to independence, often to the point of being emotionally self-reliant, and are taught that allowing themselves to have needs that would lead to depending on others is less masculine.
Heterosexual men often complain about never being able to "get it right,” meaning that no matter how hard they try to soothe any signs of discontent in their partner, she “keeps moving the goalposts.” For men, this is a game they can’t afford to lose but can’t seem to win. If it’s their job to take care of their partners, then any sign of emotional distress means they are failing at their most important role. Men perpetually seek reassurance from their partner that they have been judged as adequate in their response to her emotional distress and that things can return to normal.
A woman simply being kind goes a long way with most men, and any withdrawal of approval or affection impacts men more strongly than they care to admit. Women implicitly understand this and some may be socialized to use withdrawing approval or the expression of emotional distress as an effective way to get the kind of emotional attention and connection from their partners that is often difficult to get any other way.
Men implicitly understand that some women can use expressions of emotional distress to balance the playing field by pressuring men to better attend to their partner’s emotional needs. Accordingly, men often resent and resist being leveraged in this way and respond by trying to minimize the reality of their partner’s emotional needs or look for superficial “fixes” which will soothe their partner’s distress and reestablish the status quo.
Paradoxically, these efforts to suppress their partner’s expression of emotion can be unsatisfying to her and inevitably lead to an exacerbation, rather than diminishing her feelings.
Men’s criticism, if not disdain, for "neediness" can be confusing because it’s not that they want their partners not to need them at all; men start to feel insecure if their partners don’t seem to need them at all. Men want their partners to need them enough to keep them from feeling insecure but not so much that they start to feel disempowered and inadequate.
Of course, women may be taught to study their partners carefully (as people learn to do with those in positions to hurt them) so that they can figure out where this sweet spot is and stay within it without any guidance from their partners—who probably won’t talk about it.
At the deepest level, men work hard to soothe any sign of emotional despair in their partners because they feel threatened by the level of emotion that is elicited in themselves in response to their partner's feelings.
A version of this post appears in Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men's Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships. 2021, Lasting Impact Press.
Weiss, A. G. (2002). The lost role of dependency in psychotherapy. Gestalt Review, 6(1), 6-17.