Teen couple in love

Emotional Intimacy: Some Things Your Son Needs To Know

In The Blog by Dr James Wellborn

There are a lot of ways teenagers can learn about healthy romantic relationships. Most media representations are focused on titillation and sexual licentiousness. Romance in movies is mostly characterized by idealization, infatuation, lust and one dimensional people (think Twilight, The Hangover, Iron Man, Spider man and 300). Relationships in music lyrics emphasize hedonism, sexism, the objectification of women (and men) or the inability to trust your partner not to break your heart (or cheat on you). Pornography is now one of the standards by which sexual intimacy is measured. Needless to say, emotional intimacy isn’t anywhere in the equation despite it being the foundation of long term relationships, even long term sexual relationships. And guy rules are still in effect, shaping what “real” boys (and girls) are supposed to be like and how they should approach relating to a serious romantic partner.

In the end, the messages teenagers get is:

  • Sex equals relationship
  • Relationships are a competition
  • Love is instantaneous
  • If you have to work at love, it isn’t meant to be
  • Guys should be strong and in charge
  • Guys don’t talk about feelings (other than anger)
  • Guys aren’t interested in love and affection
  • All guys care about is sex
  • Girls are sexy, want sex and have to rely on guys to get things done
  • Girls are responsible for making the relationship work
  • Once you fall in love everything is ok
  • Sensitive guys are unreliable and won’t get the girl
  • Physical qualities are all that matter
  • Unattractive guys can’t get the girl (except sometimes, if they are funny or rich)
  • Unattractive girls aren’t worth dating

Despite all this, some interesting statistics have been surfacing about what heterosexual guys really think and feel about relationships. Seventy-five percent of teenage guys would rather lose their virginity to someone they love. Sixty-six percent would rather have a girlfriend with no sex (versus sex without a girlfriend). Fifty-eight percent of teenage guys would not have sex without love. Sixty-one percent would rather have sex with a girl who is hot versus one that is smart and funny. (Ok, they are still human.) But, 78% would rather have a relationship with a girl who is smart and funny versus one that is hot. Only 34% define having a serious relationship by whether they are having sex and only 6% have broken up with a girlfriend because she wouldn’t have sex. Guys are as equally likely as girls to feel love toward their dating partner and are equally emotionally invested in a dating relationship. However, guys are less confident in dating relationships, are more awkward in communicating affection and emotions in general, feel like less of an equal partner in the relationship and have less influence in making relationship decisions.

In other words, there is a LOT going on in your son’s head and in his heart. Teenage guys are really invested in having emotionally intimate relationships but most don’t have the skills (or the information) they need to feel confident in making these relationships work.

What’s a parent to do?

Your son needs information on what makes for a loving, intimate relationship. That’s where you come in. Here’s a list of some of the skills your kid will need that guy rules won’t help him develop.

Express tender feelings. Talk to your son about the importance of being able to recognize, show and express tender feelings. The old model of the strong, silent type leaves men feeling empty and relationship partners feeling lonely and disconnected. Be sure to give some examples. Instead of “That pisses me off!” he will need to recognize when it is really “That hurt my feelings.”

Listen. Your son will need to be able to listen, really listen, to their romantic partner. This means not trying to problem solve, not telling them what they should do or multi-tasking when their significant other wants and needs to talk. It also means actually caring about what their romantic partner is talking about (not just acting like they are paying attention).  “What do you think she is really saying?” “What do you think I am really talking about?”

Open up. Relationships are built on the mutual sharing of hopes, dreams, fears, worries, disappointments and desires. Guy rules discourage them from this kind of openness. Help your son realize the importance of learning and practicing emotional openness. “Tell her what you are really feeling.” “Did you tell her that’s how you were feeling?”

Touch with affection. Your son will need to learn how to hug, touch, caress, cuddle and press up against their romantic partner without it being a prelude to sexual intimacy. This turns out to be quite difficult for many men. It is difficult for many guys (and men) to not reach for a sexual part when being affectionate. You will need to talk very specifically about this. A surprising number of guys (and men) tend to be clueless that groping at sexual parts is not considered tender demonstrations of affection by the vast majority of girls and women.

Share ALL emotions freely. Men have little trouble expressing anger and, lots of times, expressing excitement. Sadness, fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, disappointment, anguish, devastation; these are emotions that represent weakness according to Guy Rules. To have a deeply intimate relationship, your son will need to be able to express the full range of emotions without feeling lesser because of it. Ask him how he is feeling. Encourage him to reveal, at least a little, what is bothering or upsetting him. (Be careful, at first, not to push too far. Focus on the initial sharing without trying to have him elaborate it. A simple “that sucks” or “I’m really sorry. Is there something I can do?” can be more than enough to set him on the path of increasing emotional openness.)

Reciprocate. Being a “real” man is often defined in part by dominating others.   This becomes a real problem when the Other is your romantic partner. Love and intimacy can’t survive the suffocating effects of domination. Your son will need to be able to reciprocate love, trust, vulnerability and consideration for others and their feelings. Give him direct instructions on doing this with members of the family. “Look son. Your sister has really been trying to support you. You need to give some of that back to her. Go ask her how she is feeling. Tell her you appreciate her being so considerate.”

Think of her first. This is not about giving presents or defending her honor (both of which can be a twisted form of making yourself feel good). It is not what you THINK the other person needs or wants. It is not what YOU think is best for them. Intimacy requires you to think from the other person’s perspective; thinking about them and THEIR interests (and fears) even when it means you won’t get what you want. It is true self-sacrifice. It is also about making sure the other person doesn’t feel pressured by trying to please you. You will need to help your son understand this subtle but crucial relationship dynamic. (This is a normative problem for teenage boys given how they are socialized. However, if you have a naturally sensitive guy, he won’t need much help with this quality.)

Don’t make her take all the risks. Guys often wait until the girl is vulnerable first. She has to say she loves him before he can risk saying it. She has to be the first one who makes it clear she wants to be a couple. Talk to your son about the importance of being the first to take some of the emotional risks in a relationship.

Get your heart broken. It is crucial that your son love someone deeply enough to get their heart broken. And, then, they need to love someone else deeply enough to get their heart broken again. The only way to love deeply is to risk (and inevitably get) a broken heart. And loving deeply is the only way to love. Talk a lot about this to your son. Prepare him for the eventuality of a broken heart. Help him see the link between all the joy and wonder of feeling SO in love with someone and having to risk the possibility of heartbreak. (Now THIS takes courage!)

Support your guy friends when they are in love. The longstanding and deeply engrained tradition of putting down other guys for showing feminine traits or qualities has created no end of trouble for men across the ages. Guys need to encourage other guys to love and care, be tender and compassionate and to love and show their vulnerable side in relationships. Take every opportunity to encourage your son to encourage others to find love. Make sure they know now important it is to support other guys who have found someone to love and care about. Point out when their seemingly playful and joking remarks are actually shaming and hurtful. Your boy may very well not even know how to actually be supportive to a friend in love. Give him some ideas about what to say (“Looks like she is really important to you man. That’s awesome.“ “Dude, you’re in love with her. That’s cool.”) and what to do (e.g., get others to back off, let your friend know YOU think it’s great he has found someone to love, etc.)

Intimate relationships in the teen years are about figuring out how to get from infatuation and lust to romantic love. This will establish the foundation for moving from romantic love to the deeper attachment that is required in long-term, committed, adult relationships. To accomplish this, your son will need to cast off the distorted expectations that Guy Rules impose on them. They need your help to learn how to take the risk of becoming vulnerable by loving deeply.