A Psychologist Explains Why Men Talk Less About Their Relationships Than Women
Dickinson College’s Azriel Grysman discusses his new research on emotional expression in relationships.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 9, 2022
A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality offers insight into how gender stereotypes hinder the emotional expression of relationships. According to the author, societal norms encourage emotional expression in women while encouraging men to downplay them.
I recently spoke with Azriel Grysman, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Dickinson College, and lead author of the paper, to discuss the importance of expressing our emotions in relationships. Here is a summary of our conversation.
First, could you tell me about the practical takeaways of your research?
The first takeaway is about the importance of emotional expression which I think is the easy one. Talking about your feelings is good no matter who you are, and people should be encouraged to do it even if it makes them uncomfortable.
The second is about relationships – we should cherish them and invest in them. The more central we keep them in our lives, the better off we will be.
The third is about society – norms and patterns have consequences, and we should consider how broadly they might be influencing our life in so many ways.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who struggle with expressing communion in their narratives?
This is a really hard one, especially because I am not a clinician (or all that wise).
It's important to have someone in your life with whom you can be vulnerable, but I'm cautious to give relationship advice in any form. Think about how your relationships matter to you and if you can incorporate that into thinking about events.
A diary might be a low-stakes place to practice if someone is nervous about sharing. If you have a relationship that really matters to you, put in the effort to keep it. Don't let good friends drift away.
What inspired you to investigate the topic of emotional expression in relationships and what were the key findings from your study?
I already had a data set of men and women as part of a larger data collection project, but wanted to get more targeted with my students as we thought about gender. We specifically wanted to look at well-being because my other studies had not covered it, and authors have long pointed to positive relationships as contributing to positive well-being, regardless of gender.
But then why do men talk about their relationships so much less? We were finding robust gender differences with regard to how men and women expressed communion in their narratives, and there is a history of communion being associated with gender stereotypes.
As can be seen in the paper, we coded event memory narratives for how much participants talked about relationships, although none of the instructions mentioned relationships specifically. We then found that:
- Women not only wrote more about relationships in their memory narratives, but the more they talked about relationships, the better their well-being, whereas for men there was no relationship
- On a questionnaire about restricted emotional expression, this too was linked to relationship content in women's narratives but not men's
- Finally, we found that restricted expression of emotions, as assessed in this questionnaire, predicted poorer well-being regardless of gender
So, in total, for women, all these variables were related – narrative expressions of communion and questionnaire measures of well-being and restricted emotion. For men, the only relationship was between well-being and restricted emotion, with narrative communion not correlated to any of the other measures.
Could you briefly explain the methodology of the study?
Participants wrote about eight memories at four time points, in the following order:
- an event occurring today (i.e., the day of data collection)
- in the last week
- in the last 24 hours
- receiving their college acceptance letter
- occurring in the past 2 years
- high point and low point
- a self-defining memory
So, there was a mix of longer-term and more pivotal events with recent events. Each narrative was coded on a 0-3 scale for how much people elaborated about meaningful relationships in the narrative, and participants also completed the questionnaires mentioned above.
Can you give a brief description of communion, narrative expressions of communion, and the gendered or sociocultural aspect of it?
One very prominent gender stereotype commonly referred to is that of agency and communion.
- Agency, a masculine stereotype, refers to the ability to initiate and meet goals
- Communion, a feminine stereotype, refers to the importance or centrality of relationships
Both traits are associated with well-being, and both are getting progressively less gendered as gender norms reduce in this country.
Narrative expressions simply mean how central a close relationship is in the event narrative provided by participants.
As for the sociocultural component, I come from a research tradition that emphasizes how the way we narrate is influenced by others, especially parents and peers. When a person shares a narrative of a life experience, they are demonstrating how they have learned to tell that story, including external influences upon them.
When we see narrative patterns that differ by gender, one possibility is that those patterns have come from social encouragement to speak or share stories a certain way, either in the form of mimicking role models or from how people respond to previous stories we have told.
What is the role of gender in an individual's narrative identity?
This is the big question. Of course, it varies from person to person in terms of their sense of self and the micro-environment they've been exposed to, and gender norms are constantly changing. But according to the study it looks like societal norms play a role. Here's my take.
Social norms encourage women to express their emotions and men to downplay them, and this plays a role in talking about relationships too.
Niobe Way (2011) wrote about teenage boys in New York City that she interviewed, and that as they got older, they started using the homophobic phrase 'no homo' to refer to their close relationships with other boys. In other words, they meant to express real emotions about a close friend relationship, but they were worried about social stigma surrounding this kind of emotional expression, and so had to use this phrase to clarify that it was a friend relationship and not a romantic, gay relationship.
I was shocked when I read this – how damaging is it that developing teenage boys and young men face such societal pressure against simply expressing emotions? I am so lucky to have a group of guys that I grew up with in high school that we all feel comfortable expressing emotions with each other, and I believe it has kept us close to this day.
To return to the question about narrative identity, the way I see this study's results is that women are encouraged to express these components of ourselves that are good for us, and so we see unity in their narrative identities – when they write about relationships, it connects to well-being and to emotional expression.
For men, the act of disclosing relationships and emotions is more tentative – it generates discomfort and so the links between patterns of narration and other components of self are less consistent.
Could you tell me more about how emotional expression, communion and well-being are related to each other?
From a data point of view, women who wrote narratives with more communion content in them rated themselves as more emotionally expressive.
But I think the bigger takeaway is that expression of emotions serves our relationships – it builds strong bonds and ties us together. Strong bonds to others are good for us. We are a species that evolved to live in groups and being close to others is something we want and something gives us a sense of belonging and fulfillment.
Feeling a sense of community, of closeness to others, enhances our lives and makes us feel good about ourselves. People who are more expressive about their emotions are more likely to have stable, strong relationships, which will ultimately enhance the sense of self and personal well-being.