Seven Lessons I Have Learned in Therapy with Men

Why I love working with this much maligned species

Posted May 01, 2016

Source: Aquamethods/Shutterstock

There was an excellent article in the New York Times recently about teaching men to be emotionally honest. It triggered a discussion on a listserv of marriage counselors I belong to. Like most things therapy related, the listserv is predominately female, and I thought it important to try to articulate a man’s perspective on working with men. I want to share here some things I wrote there, lessons I have learned in my work with men both in individual and couple's work:

  1. Male emotionality, vulnerability, and sensitivity is different than a woman's. Part of what makes it difficult for a man to recapture these qualities, which were socialized out of him, is the lack of adequate role models. Too often men hear encouragement to be vulnerable, sensitive, or emotional in ways that mimic a female version, and there is something internal that is just uncomfortable about that. It is parallel to a woman needing to learn to access her power, her ability to take a stand, her willingness to put self before relationship in a female way, and not by imitating men.  
  2. Many, if not most, of my male clients don't have a clear idea why they're in my office or why learning to better connect with their spouse is good for them. Most come in because they know they're "in trouble": They know their wife wants them to share their feelings more, and they know that's supposed to be a good thing. But besides making their wife happy, they don't know why they should do it. They have not experienced intimacy and connection as an intrinsically positive and pleasurable thing (besides via sex) and they're mystified why everyone keeps harping on it.
  3. Many, if not most, of my male clients truly get pleasure and a sense of identity in feeling like they can make their spouse happy, whether it's providing for them, helping them, pleasuring them physically, or making them feel safe. Men were raised by women and most men want to make their wives happy just like they wanted to make their mothers happy. For this reason, they look to their wives for cues on how they are doing. If their wife is happy, they think they're okay. If their wife is unhappy, they feel like they need to fix something in themselves, the situation, or their wife.
  4. For many men I work with, feeling respected is at least as important as feeling loved, if not more so.
  5. One thing I like to help men take notice of is the tremendous pressure involved in providing financially for their family. Where has anyone written that a man is instantly going to want to work full time to give his money to other people, even his wife and children? We have empathy for mothers who sometimes struggle to live up to all-nurturing ideals when it comes to giving to their families. But men seem to expect of themselves that they should want to provide financially for a family with infinite needs without struggle, ambivalence, or anxiety. This is a setup for feelings of inadequacy.
  6. When a couple becomes locked in a particular power struggle, I usually turn to the man and tell him: "This is your opportunity to take out the garbage." "Huh?" he asks. I explain that in situations where there appears to be a standoff, a man is much more capable of shouldering the burden. I am asking him to shoulder the relationship burden, to do the heavy lifting and take one for the team. I have never met a man who didn't rise to that challenge—and in each case, it has seemed that the wife was extremely grateful to him for doing it.
  7. A male acting like a man is nothing more and nothing less than having the courage to be true to himself. This is the hero's journey so often present in mythology, fairy tales, and on the big screen. Rather than slaying dragons, aliens, or enemies, the real challenge for most men in today's society is to understand the truth of his essential nature and then to vanquish whatever fears would prevent him from acting in accordance with that. I know of no better partner for him on this quest than his spouse.  And from my work with many women in my practice, they need their men to engage in this journey as much as the man needs to do it for himself.

A man disconnected from his inner world is usually not a pretty sight or very easy to live with. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than showing a man (a) that there is such a thing as an inner world, and (b) that their inner world contains far greater richness than anything they can find in the outer world.