Why do men need space in relationships? Why do they get distant after sex or pull away when they are falling in love? Why do guys never know what they want? For women who date men, the male brain can sometimes seem like a total enigma. If you're having trouble understanding men in relationships, let's talk.
There's no blueprint for how men think in relationships
Sorry! There is no one way all men think in relationships. For every 10 guys out there who are scared of intimacy or prefer to take things slow, there are another 10 guys out there who are hopeless romantics just waiting for the chance to settle down with the right person and start a family.
It's really convenient to blame any tension, confusion, or disagreements with our boyfriends or potential partners on the idea that "men are just different." But the truth is, no two men will be exactly the same in the ways they approach relationships. If you feel like you don't understand the way your partner is behaving, that's not because he's a guy—it's because he's not you. He's a whole, separate human being who does not think the same way you do, and to understand how he thinks and what he wants, you're going to need to just ask him. Nothing you read on the internet will fully explain why the particular man you're dealing with is the way he is. Only he can tell you.
Men and women are not intrinsically different
Culturally, we do tend to raise boys and girls differently: Boys are rewarded for being tough and adventurous, while girls are rewarded for being good caretakers. Research shows parents use more words about emotions with their daughters (supporting better emotional intelligence) and more words about spatial objects with their sons (supporting better STEM skills). That stuff all sticks with us and affects the kinds of people men and women grow up to be.
"Different genders are socialized differently and, generally speaking, often have different societal expectations," explains Jesse Kahn, LCSW, CST, sex therapist and director at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center. "Of course, people push back on the ways in which their world is trying to socialize them and push back on those expectations. However, this difference could have impacts on how people think, interact, and navigate the world."
That means the differences between men and women are not inherent: Women are not "naturally" better at talking about their feelings, and men are not "naturally" more logical. It's important not to make assumptions about what your man is and isn't capable of based on his gender, nor to pigeonhole him into certain stereotypes. Don't assume how he feels about things just because he's a man.
Some men need space, and it's not because they're falling in love
There's a pervasive cultural myth that men are mean or act distant when they like you or that men pull away when they are falling in love. But this is another one of those convenient excuses: We tell ourselves that when someone is pulling away, it's because they like us too much. It's easier to believe that than to just admit that they might not be as interested in you as you thought.
If your boyfriend or partner asks for space, ask them what they mean by that and why they need it. It's totally normal to want alone time in a relationship, but you shouldn't make assumptions about why they need it. Ask for clarity about what your man is experiencing when he asks for space so you can better understand what they need and whether you're able to give it to him. If you're feeling lonely in your relationship, you can tell him that. Open and honest communication is the key to figuring out the best way to approach these situations so that everybody's needs are being met.
Some men fear commitment and intimacy
And so do some women. This isn't gender-specific.
Some people do experience fear when falling in love—because it's really scary to be that vulnerable! When you're falling in love, you have the possibility of getting hurt. Some people instinctively run away from serious relationships because they're too afraid of that possibility of heartbreak. Again, it's easier to choose to leave yourself than to suffer through a possible rejection.
This behavior is common among people with an avoidant attachment style. Your attachment style is your way of behaving in relationships, and it's shaped based on your earliest interactions with your first caregivers (more on that here). The three main adult attachment styles are secure attachment (you can easily love and be loved by others), anxious attachment style (you tend to need a lot of attention and validation to feel love), and avoidant attachment style (you tend to need a lot of space and can feel suffocated in relationships).
Some research suggests men are more likely to develop an avoidant attachment style, potentially because of the aforementioned differences in how boys and girls are treated in childhood.
"Generally speaking, I don't think men are afraid of commitment," Kahn adds. "One could argue that because masculinity can be associated with not being vulnerable, and commitment and intimacy involve vulnerability, that some men may appear or experience fear or resistance to commitment."
Men aren't encouraged to engage with their feelings
It's not true that "men don't talk about their emotions," Kahn says. That's just another stereotype we have, and unfortunately it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"As a therapist, I talk to men all the time about their emotions," he explains. "With that said, a lot of the men I've worked with communicate feeling pressure or being socialized to avoid talking about sadness, emotional pain, relationship or emotional hardship, vulnerability, and any emotions they have internalized as weak."
If you're with a man who struggles to talk about his emotions, be gentle and encouraging with him. Ask him questions that help him open up, and express gratitude when he does—even if his feelings are difficult for you to hear. Give him positive reinforcement when he does talk about his feelings so that he knows he's safe with you.
Men don't know what women want
But here's the thing: Nobody knows what anybody wants—unless they get told directly. Like anyone else, men are not mind-readers. If you don't tell someone what you want, how can you expect them to know?
If you feel like your partner is not meeting your needs or giving you the things you want in a relationship, talk to him about it. It's very well possible that he doesn't know what your expectations or desires are, and a conversation about it can make all the difference. Don't expect him to "just know."
The male brain is not a mystery
Understanding men is not about reading up everything there is to know about "male psychology"—because, at the end of the day, your man is different from other men. Even general trends in male behavior are just trends, and there will always be outliers. If you want to know what a man wants in a relationship, just ask him.
In general, though, just remember: Men are just like any other human being. They want to be complimented, taken care of, challenged, listened to, and loved just like the rest of us.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter