A recent study has toppled long-standing assumptions about what brings wives the greatest happiness. In their report What’s Love Got to Do With It? sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock showed that the most important factor in women’s marital happiness is neither money nor the division of housework, but rather their husbands’ emotional engagement.
This study is a sobering wake-up call for men who have difficulty expressing emotions. For many husbands, asking them to show more emotion is like expecting their wives to move toward the mouse in the kitchen or smash the spider in the shower with their bare fingers.
Intense emotions make many men feel out of control and even chaotic. This is especially true for men who, like me, experienced childhood trauma such as physical and emotional abuse, abandonment or neglect, and who have yet to understand what these experiences did to their God-given emotional capacity.
After men’s conferences where I’ve talked about the importance of emotions in marriage, I’m always approached by men who were raised in alcoholic families. They grew up believing it wasn’t safe to express their feelings, and after they married, their wives grew tired of waiting for the closeness that wouldn’t come. Not surprisingly, these men are often separated from their wives or divorced.
In my childhood home, emotions were often ridiculed and belittled. So, as a boy, I learned how to hide and lie about my feelings. This approach was so normal that I kept my emotional shell as an adult, even as a married man with children. I feared emotions, both my own and my wife’s, because expressing them was synonymous with pain.
Many Christians are familiar with the powerful Bible verse “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). But the inverse is also true: Fear drives out love. Fear acts like plastic wrap around our hearts, stifling our ability to express and accept emotions. I was married but not emotionally engaged – a prime candidate for discontent.
Not all disengaged husbands have suffered childhood trauma. Some men have bought into the erroneous belief that becoming emotionally alive means getting in touch with their “inner woman” or wearing their emotions on their sleeves. This gives many men the creeps, so they shun the idea of exploring or even acknowledging their feelings.
Emotions are manly . . . and Christian. This fact is underscored by the verse “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). The strongest, most godly men I know cry – but they cry for the right reasons. They are strong because they are emotional.
Being emotionally healthy means experiencing and expressing a range of feelings – from positive to negative. But many men run from painful feelings, especially grief. By not allowing themselves to experience negative emotions, they diminish their ability to feel positive ones such as joy and love. They become one-dimensional, dull and stilted. Their marital intimacy shrivels and sometimes dies.
But there’s good news: Intimacy can be cultivated, even if it’s been neglected far too long.
Get in shape
Most men get paid for what they produce, not how they feel. More times than not, this requires men to turn their emotions off. Problem is, they fail to turn them back on when they get home.
Once I realized this tendency, I viewed my daily commute home as a time to bring my emotions back to life. I listened to music that brought me good feelings and emotional vitality. I also searched my mind to remember the important events that my wife had scheduled or anticipated that day. This way, I could see the world through her eyes by asking her relevant questions.
The time-honoured expression that women fall in love through their ears has been forgotten, and men need to bring it back. Ask her questions about her life, then really listen.
- A good place to start is to ask about her childhood: “Who made you feel best about yourself when growing up? When did you feel most alive as a little girl?” These questions ignite wonder and warm feelings – two qualities that emotionally starved marriages need.
- Create your own Top 10 list of moments that brought you the greatest happiness and sorrow. Share these moments with your wife – both the facts and how they made you feel.
- If sharing your thoughts and feelings seems awkward to you, try taking regular walks together. It may be easier to open up while doing something physical.
- Resist the urge to stifle your emotions, positive or negative. When this urge comes, ask yourself, What do I really fear? Chances are, it’s rejection – something a wife of goodwill won’t do to you.
- Read the book of Psalms regularly. Study and absorb its emotional range. Notice how many psalms start with complaints and lamentations, yet they are resolved by trust in God.
- Also, keep a journal, and record every time Jesus expresses powerful emotions. This will help you do the same.
- Be careful, however, not to force emotions you don’t have. Your wife will sense the discrepancy. Because of the way God wired men, you may not always feel emotions as deeply as your wife. But as long as you remain open and honest, you can still create a meaningful connection.
Husbands who connect emotionally are often blessed with greater companionship and lower risk of depression. They experience greater sexual satisfaction, which reduces unfaithful thoughts and acts. They are far more likely to receive the respect they long for in marriage.
Emotions, properly explored and expressed, are the key to remaining married and engaged.