Why Men May be More Susceptible to Emotional Abuse Than Women

Beyond a quick perusal of news headlines about incels or gun violence, there is an abundance of gloomy statistics chronicled in books and documentaries about the many social problems facing men today, e.g., higher rate of suicide completion, poor outcomes in the education system, diminishing post-secondary enrollment, higher rates of incarceration and substance abuse, and a decrease in the self-reporting of well-being, etc. These pessimistic statistics are compounded by the changing roles of masculinity that boys and men are traversing today. Since there’s been a lot of work on the causes and treatment of many of these social problems facing boys and men, this article will focus specifically on the well-being of men and young men in romantic relationships.

There is a large amount of research that shows that the overall the rates of abuse in intimate relationships, e.g., physical, sexual, psychological, etc., by men and women are similar. Men, however, are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of physical injury (but not physical aggression) and sexual abuse on their partners. Less known, however, is that in intimate relationships the perpetrators of psychological abuse (i.e., either emotional or verbal abuse) are roughly the same in men and women; and greater in young men than in young women. A strong argument can be made that emotional and verbal abuse is as damaging or more damaging than physical abuse because psychological abuse occurs over long(-er) spans, psychological abuse leads to isolation and degradation such as a reduced sense of self-worth. Low self-worth, in turn, results in an increase in susceptibility to additional emotional and verbal abuse in future romantic relationships, etc. In this way long-term exposure to emotional and verbal abuse is a negative vicious cycle.

There are two kinds of psychological abuse: verbal and emotional. Verbal abuse is fairly straightforward, e.g., expletives, name-calling, etc. Emotional abuse tends to be more difficult to measure and more subtle. Emotional abuse is intended to control, subdue or punish. Common examples of behaviors that result in emotional abuse are:

  • Deception or omission: omitting information about mental health, one’s past, other intimate partners, emotional affairs, etc.
  • Manipulation: the use of sex (e.g., love-bombing), gaslighting (e.g., when your partner claims/projects “you’re a narcissist”), etc.
  • Blame-shifting: not taking responsibility for mistakes, wrong-doing, etc. and instead blaming your partner.

What I am arguing here is that the lack of education about emotions in males might make them more susceptible to emotional abuse than women. The concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) can help us make sense of this asymmetry. EQ includes a few things. First, EQ includes having an emotional vocabulary that allows you to identify the emotions that you’re experiencing, e.g., the ability to distinguishing between anger and sadness, etc. Second, EQ includes the ability to identify emotions in the self and others. The ability to identify emotions in others helps with cognitive empathy, and typically also affective empathy. Last, EQ allows us to improve the regulate of our emotions using certain cognitive techniques.

Here’s what the research shows about the rates of emotional abuse by gender and age.

The rates of emotional abuse are similar in adult males and females, but greater in younger males than younger females. One plausible explanation for the asymmetry in younger males and females is that EQ is not socially promoted in young men as much as it is in young women. Many boys are socialized, for example, that there are two socially acceptable emotions: anger and stoicism. A quick look at the emotion wheel shows that the emotional education of boys excludes 95% of the range of human emotions. Young women in our society, on the other hand, are encouraged to cultivate the full range of their emotional lives, emotional skills such as empathy and skills that promote interpersonal relationships. Because men rarely have a complete emotional vocabulary nor socialized to identify emotions in themselves and others, they will be less adept at recognizing when they’re the target of emotional abuse and therefore possibly more susceptible to emotional abuse.

Younger and older males alike receive a poor education in EQ in our culture. But because younger men experience a greater amount of emotional abuse in intimate relationships, EQ education must start earlier for males. In order to change many of the negative social outcomes experienced by males that persist today, parents, and society more generally, must start prioritizing EQ in young men. Parents must educate boys about their emotional lives and talk with their younger men who are in relationships. Talking to our boys about their emotional lives and encouraging boys to cultivate their emotional lives, interpersonal relationship, etc. is one of the most important parts of managing the changing roles of men today. Many parents, however, aren’t adequately familiar with EQ and the resulting harms that affect the well-being of males. These parents need to educate themselves or seek alternative sources for this information such as a specialized coach.

ABD in Philosophy, Senior Public Policy Analyst building freelance writing portfolio. Collaborate, contact me at srmillard@gmail.com IG @philo_mentoring

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