Men generally compartmentalise their emotions in order to protect themselves from feeling vulnerable.
Emotional compartmentalisation involves shifting your focus to a situation and suppressing feelings that emerge. It’s when we push difficult feelings aside, sweep them under the carpet and move on.
A blokey term that encapsulates this is “suck it up and move on”!
How and why guys compartmentalise?
There are some theories that subscribe to the notion that men are just wired differently. However, this can be an excuse for some guys to dismiss their responsibility for emotional and behavioural accountability.
Here’s a few possibilities about why men tend to compartmentalise.
Lots of men have little practice when it comes to emotional expression. Many have not had the guides or mentors to help them.
A significant influence will be their experience of emotionally absent or dismissing parents.
Other men have grown up in volatile and threatening emotional environments and learnt to shut down their own feelings to protect themselves.
Fix it and move on
The fix-it mentality allows men to excel at finding solutions to problems and is a great strength.
The evolutionary history of the male brain could have some influence here. Men’s ancient brains were wired for their role as the hunter/gatherer. Some research suggest that men’s natural, logical, linear and abstract way of thinking helped them survive.
Men have evolved since (I hear some people may argue otherwise!).
The experience of emotions tends to be more vague and less concrete making them difficult to identify and solve from a logical perspective.
Some guys believe their emotions just aren’t important. They minimise their emotional experience.
Certain feelings like anger, sadness, fear and shame are consequently separated off in a man’s mind.
These feelings do exist but are disowned and pushed away into a compartment and hidden from view.
Accessing feelings that have been pushed away for many years can be incredibly hard to do.
What tends to happen is that these feelings get ‘activated’ by the actions or behaviours of a significant person in their life like a partner, a child, sibling, mother or father.
It’s a bit like an overstuffed filing cabinet drawer that spills its contents.
The effect can be overwhelming for everyone and sometimes create a cycle of shame and further avoidance in men.
How emotional compartmentalisation ruins relationships.
When people start to rely too heavily on compartmentalising their feelings it can become a problem in a variety of ways.
Identifying and expressing personal needs becomes a challenge when the feelings associated with them are seen as negative, bad and should be avoided.
In committed relationships the pushing away of thoughts and feelings will inevitably overload the mind and spill.
One classic relationship example of this is a communication pattern where one partner (often the bloke) has had the difficult conversations mulling over in their heads so many times he thinks he has had the conversation with their partner!
However, often they haven’t or have seriously edited the conversation. I call this the assumed conversation. It creates confusion and conflict.
Stress and disconnection
Emotional expression is the bedrock of committed relationships. Detaching from negative emotions consequently creates significant distance between partners.
Life is stressful. Coping with negative feelings by pushing them aside tends to build up into high-level moods, an increase in arguments and more disconnection.
Putting off difficult conversations, tasks and decisions is an aspect of compartmentalisation. It’s a delaying tactic when fear comes along and takes over.
Pushing something into the ‘too hard’ basket for so long can also immobilise people.
Procrastination leads to anxiety, stress and disappointment when left unchecked. The result in a relationship can be a sense of isolation and rejection .
Probably the most destructive elements of compartmentalisation are the hiding or denial of unhappiness or dissatisfaction in a relationship.
Infidelity, gambling, porn addiction, drug and alcohol addictions are some of the extreme outcomes of compartmentalising feelings. These behaviours are the classic escape from honest communication and primarily running away from intolerable emotions.
Sign posts for Men – What to look out for.
Men contribute to the distress in their relationship if they rely too much on compartmentalising their feelings.
Whilst this is not exclusively a male issue it seems to be a recurring theme in my conversations with guys.
I encourage men to look out for the following signs :
- A loss of desire to contribute towards emotional connection with your partner
- Becoming quiet, withdrawn and unresponsive, including retreating into your cave for hours at a time, or increasing hours at work
- Actively avoiding tough conversations despite going over and over them in your head
- Engaging in an emotional or physical affair
- Noticing an increase in addictive behaviours include alcohol, drugs, pornography or extending work hours
Are you aware of any problems in how you compartmentalise?