Men’s fears of women in intimate relationships are hidden in plain sight. Most men do such an incredibly good job at hiding these fears and vulnerabilities that even their mothers and lovers don’t know how scared they are.
Men hide their fears because they are taught that real men don’t get scared. If they do, they should never let anyone know because they will lose respect and be at a competitive disadvantage with other men.
You should not let women know because they will think less of you as a man and be less attracted to you, or may even take advantage of you. Hiding these fears is so reflexive for most men that they are largely unaware of them. They are, however, just below the surface, and it doesn’t take much prompting to recognize them. One man said to me, “At first, I passed by it because I thought ‘I’m not afraid of women.’ But since that moment my mind’s been racing, thinking of the ways that can be true and has been true as far back as I remember.”
It is much easier for men to hide their fears of women out in the world at large than in the less guarded moments of their private lives when they are more openly themselves. Intimate partners also make more intentional efforts to be more open and vulnerable with each other than they are in public. As a result, men’s fears of women show up much differently at home than they do out in the world.
Men’s fears of women are most likely to be stimulated in any situation in which men encounter a woman who has more authority than they do, shows evidence of being strong or competent, evidence of being self-confident, or shows that she is angry (Kierski & Blazina, 2010). For example, research suggests that the more competent a woman is at work the less likable she is rated by the men who work there (Barkhorn, 2013).
Here are some examples of the ways that men’s fears of women show up in intimate relationships. If you are a man reading this, see how far down the list you get before you start to recognize yourself and or your relationship. Show these examples to a few of your male friends and colleagues and watch their expressions shift from puzzled to dawning recognition.
You are a man in a committed relationship with a woman. Friends ask you at the last minute to get together and have a drink after work. You and your partner don’t have any plans for the evening, and it bothers you that your first thought is not about whether you would like to see your friends but about whether your partner will be upset with you. She has never objected to your getting together with your friends—this is not a group of guys who get together to go to strip clubs or chase women—and yet even after calling to check in with her, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve done something wrong. You want to feel free, unencumbered.
You are a man in a committed relationship with a woman. You and your partner come home at the end of the day and it seems clear to you that she is upset. You ask if she’s OK, and she insists that she is. You ask if she’s upset with you, and she assures you she is not. Despite all her reassurances, you can’t quite shake an uneasy, unsettled feeling. The longer she stays upset, the more worried you get, until her being upset becomes your single preoccupation, as if nothing else can happen until that is resolved. You are convinced that she is upset with you, that you’ve done something “wrong,” although you have no idea what that might be. You yearn to feel off the hook and back to the status quo.
You are a man and a woman in a committed relationship, having an argument. As the woman, you are hurt and angry. As the man, you can clearly see that she’s upset, and her tears make you surprisingly uncomfortable. While you would like to feel empathic, there is something about her strong feelings that is distressing to you and gets in the way. Because you are uncomfortable with your own strong feelings, you, the man, begin to withdraw emotionally and detach to protect yourself. For reasons you don’t fully understand, it becomes increasingly important to you to remain rational and unemotional, and you are increasingly critical of, and irritated with, your partner for being “too emotional.” You, the woman, can feel your partner withdrawing, and the more he withdraws, the stronger your feelings become and the more urgently you pursue him, trying to find a way to make some kind of emotional connection. Now you both are locked in a mutually destructive cycle; the more you, the woman, push for the emotional connection you yearn for, the more he detaches. The more you, the man, try to control your fear by detaching, the more upset she gets.
You are a man and woman in a long-term committed relationship. Your sexual relationship started out pretty hot and exciting. You had a lot of sex, both enjoyed it, and seemed to agree about wanting to have sex as often as you could. Over the last few years, not only has the frequency fallen way off, but sex has started to feel more like just another thing to check off the list. Neither of you is very excited about it; it’s just something you both feel like you should do. Although you, as the man, find yourself less interested in sex with your partner, you still feel very sexually alive. You are often turned on by other women and masturbate frequently, usually to images of women who don’t look much like your partner and to sexual activities that are different from the sex you have with her. You are particularly turned on by scenes in which the woman’s desire is very overt, but when your partner is open about her own sexual desire, you get turned off. Truth be told, it often seems more attractive to masturbate to fantasies you can control than to navigate the complex emotional territory that’s become necessary to have sex with your partner.
This article by Avrum Weiss, Ph.D, was excerpted from Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men’s Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships by the same author.
Avrum Weiss, Ph.D is a psychotherapist, author, and teacher with 40 years of clinical experience. Dr. Weiss gives workshops nationally on the psychology of men and relationships.