When I glanced at the title of Susan Walsh’s post How to Let Go of an Emotionally Repressed Man, my first thought was:
Wow. Sounds like most Asian guys.
And once I read it, that’s exactly who the emotionally repressed man turned out to be.
Here’s the advice I would write to the 29-year old presumably white woman who is dating a 30-year old Taiwanese American man:
My first instinct when I read about your situation is to tell you is to dump the guy and swear off emotionally repressed men forever.
But upon reflection, there may be hope for this relationship but change will require courage, humility, and trust by both parties.
I want to give some perspective about what it feels like to be an emotionally repressed Asian American man. Emotional repression is not my particular dysfunction (rage and insecurity are my modus operandi) but as an Asian American pastor in the Chinese church who has worked and counseled dozens of Asian men over the years, I can assure you emotional repression is fairly typical for Asian American men mainly because of cultural differences in the way Asians communicate. We tend to avoid conflict, be uncomfortable with emotional expression particularly negative ones like grief, pain, and loss, be self-deprecating, and have difficulty expressing our needs/desires/wants.
So this is what your man may be feeling when, in your words, you pressure him into responding emotionally:
He’s afraid of how you’ll receive his emotional expression. He’s afraid of being vulnerable. He’s afraid of sharing his feelings and being rejected. He’s afraid you’ll respond the way his parents did when as a child, he expressed his needs or fears and had them dismissed in a cursory way, was ignored, or was patronized with advice-giving. He has a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look when you ask him how feels because he has never been exposed to a healthy model of healthy emotional expression. He feels tremendous pressure to appease you because that’s how he dealt with his family’s expectations and thus he is afraid sharing anything deeper because he senses it might threaten your relationship. He is afraid to initiate conversations about improving the relationship because it implies your relationship isn’t good enough and that threatens him. He is afraid to initiate dates because the fear of rejection or failure is so strong.
All this fear causes paralysis and a feeling like he’s being flooded and his instinct is to retreat into himself. In the end, his emotional repression is probably some amount of shyness and cluelessness but mostly fear.
What can you do?
Turn the pressure way down. If you understand the fear behind his actions, then you will make an effort to help him feel safe and secure. Give him time to think about what he wants to say. He may even need a separate conversation to compose his feelings.
Re-frame his emotional distance. This is, after all, the reason you were attracted to him in the first place. Statements like “I’m not a thoughtful person” coming from an Asian guy should NOT be taken at face value. In a shame-based culture, self-deprecating remarks are self-effacing comments meant either to elicit humor or demonstrate humility.
Be explicit and specific about how you expect him to be thoughtful. I think all guys are clueless about this. And we are afraid to ask at risk of appearing clueless. Fear of rejection and failure is big. Look for signs of progress and be pleasantly surprised when he’s more thoughtful than he gives himself credit for.
To temper your expectations, I’m not convinced that a dating relationship is the best place for an emotionally repressed Asian guy to work out his issues. You also need to confront the reality that on an emotional expression scale (10 being unrestrained emotionality), he’s probably a 3. He may someday move from 3 to 5 but he will never be a 7 much less a 10. You also need to accept he may always be a 3.