A Survival Guide for Men in Couples Therapy — Part One
When men enter into couples therapy with their wives or significant female others they will often come into what seems like foreign territory. Things don’t make sense and the language used is not so familiar. His needs seem far less addressed than his female partner. It seems to men like they are “out of place.” The first section of this article intends to offer men a primer on the basics of why they may feel out of place. The later section will focus on ideas about what they can do about it and tips for getting the most they can from the experience. It is worth noting that for biological reasons there are probably about 1 in 5 men who will feel more comfortable in the couples therapy setting. It is also true that 1 in 5 women will be more like most men. When this article addresses “men” it is directed towards that 80% of men and 20% of women. Bottom line? We are all very different and if you are a man or a woman and want to know more about the nature of couples therapy you may find this article useful. (For more information on these differences see my ebook The Way Men Heal at Amazon)
1. Men and Couples Therapy – Why is this hard for men?
The whole idea of sitting face to face and talking about emotions and hurt seems odd to many men. Men might feel more comfortable taking this sort of problem and hashing it out as they play a game of horse or shoot 18 holes of golf. They may feel more comfortable shoulder to shoulder or even by themselves but that is not the way this system of couples therapy is set up. This is just one of many factors that make this experience one that is more difficult for men.
Couples therapy uses a unique language that most men simply don’t know but most women speak fluently. This has an impact on what happens in couples treatment. Imagine visiting France. Your wife speaks fluent French and you speak a little. A Frenchman invites you to his table at a restaurant and a conversation unfolds. Who is he going to speak with? How will the conversation flow? Likely you will be secondary since you are simply not as fluent and your wife will translate to you the details that you miss. You rely on her to keep you informed about what is happening and you make your best guesses about the rest. Both your wife and the frenchman will probably not judge you harshly for not being fluent but even so, you will likely feel on the outside. Now think about a couples therapy session. You are likely not as fluent as the therapist and your wife, you will probably feel on the outside in a similar manner but there may be a difference. In the couples therapy arena when you are not as fluent you are likely to be judged and seen as inferior, ignorant, even as cold and uncaring. The truth is that many therapists think that men should be fluent in the language of feelings and tend to judge them for their apparent deficiency. They believe that men, if only they wanted to, could easily learn this feeling language and would then want to talk about their emotions. Simple right? “Just try a little harder honey, it’s not so hard if you will just try.” What these therapists don’t seem to know is that men’s biology is working against them. Their brains are more geared towards building and understanding systems and are not as interested in the emotional side of things. There is some evidence now that testosterone actually limits a man’s ability to articulate emotions even when in the midst of feeling them. Men have a very different way to process emotions but this difference is rarely acknowledged in couples therapy and men’s unique ways are often interpreted as being deficiencies or are simply ignored.
Another aspect to the language problem is that it likely creates a bond between your wife and the therapist and just as you depended on her translations at the French restaurant you now depend on her. The difference is that in a couples therapy scenario, she may be antagonistic towards you since your interests are now in conflict. The likelihood of getting a good translation goes down as you must depend on her emotional maturity and only a truly mature woman will be considering your needs at a time like this. I have seen women use their fluency in the language of emotions as a tool to prove her side and to show the man as being the problem.
Another difference is in the details. Have you ever noticed that women seem to remember in great detail relationship events from years ago? You know, the time you insulted her by saying she was fat in 2007. She remembers. You don’t. Why is it when you are in a session with a couples therapist, she can rattle off a long series of your indiscretions over the past several years? All the while you are struggling to remember the events she is describing much less coming up with your own examples. This sort of memory gives women a distinct advantage in couples counseling since they have a much better grasp on details of problems and disagreements from the past. She often keeps a scorecard. You usually don’t. Her barrage of memories and your silence make it appear that you have no case.
We don’t know why women remember and men don’t. Maybe it’s that men seem to treat their relationship problems and upsets like fishing. When they catch a fish that is too small they simply throw it back in, forget about it, and focus on catching the next one. Most men don’t keep score and catalogue the small everyday relationship deficiencies. Could it be that men see small indiscretions in relationships as being like the small fish and let them go by just throwing them back in rather then hold on to them and file them into a growing pile of hurts and resentments? Could it be that men are simply forgiving and letting the small stuff go? Perhaps when it comes time for couples therapy the men don’t have a huge stockpile of past hurts since they have already let them go while his female partner has a bucket of old hurts which seem geared to prove he is an uncaring sort? You be the judge. YMMV.
Avoiding Men’s Emotional Pain
Also at work are misandrist attitudes that are held by almost everyone in the US culture that have an impact on men in couples treatment. These attitudes are led by the idea that a man’s emotional pain is basically taboo. No one wants to touch a man’s pain, no one wants to hear a man’s pain, no one knows what to do with a man’s pain. Men are aware of this distaste for his emotional pain and avoid publicly emoting. No brainer. Men are simply not dumb enough to emote publicly, they know the judgement they would face. Contrast this with the norm for female emotional pain which rather than being taboo is more a call to action. When people see a tearful women in public the first thing that comes to their mind is “How can I help? Oh, poor thing, she needs support.” When they see a tearful man they will often see him as someone dangerous who needs to be avoided. These vastly different responses to men and women’s emotional pain has an impact on couples treatment. I have noticed that at least some therapists carry a portion of this bias. Those who do carry it seem unaware. It is obvious that if this bias is present in therapy the man’s emotional pain is going to get little attention while the women’s emotional pain will likely be the focus of treatment. Add on to that many couples therapists are female and this will give the female therapist a much better understanding of what it is like to grow up as a girl and be a woman but leaves her devoid of the same understandings about men and boys. She will be more likely to compare him to the female norm she has in her minds eye. This sort of thing can leave the man terribly misunderstood. I have known men who had huge stressors like recent major surgery, the loss of a job, and the death of a parent all having happened in the previous month and the therapist decides not to focus on his pain but instead focus on the wife’s emotional pain from something much less significant and question why he hasn’t been more attentive to her needs. This simply disenfranchises his reality and reinforces the therapist’s and the wife’s avoidance of the man’s pain. My experience has been that when the men’s emotional pain is avoided in therapy the men are left feeling even more bewildered and alone.
There is yet another important and related factor involved in the bias we see in couples therapy. It has to do with sex roles. Women’s sex roles have been changing over the last 40-50 years but men’s? Not so much. The traditional male sex role calls for him to provide and protect. Specifically, it calls him to do those things for his spouse that provide her with the supplies she needs/wants while also offering her a safe place. This idea of a safe place can and does include the idea of being cared for. If a woman does not feel cared for she is likely not going to feel safe so it is rolled into one big package for which the man is responsible. Bring her the provisions she needs to do her job and help her feel safe and cared for. On the other hand, the traditional sex roles of women were to birth, raise, and nurture the children and care for the home. He may get some benefit from this but her focus is not on him, it is on the kids and the home. These roles link the spouses in a very different manner. Her happiness is linked directly to how he performs in his providing and protecting. Does he give her what she wants? Does he give her a safe place? If not, he is open to judgement and criticism from his wife. This is his primary responsibility, to make money to provide and to insure safety. Her needs are his responsibility and his needs and his happiness are not attached in a similar manner. He needs to get the job done first and provide for her. This makes it simple to see the flow of energy in a traditional marriage as being from man to woman, and her flow of energy is from woman to children and/or home. This gives the woman a platform to judge his success or lack of success in providing for her. It gives her reasons to complain about his failures. Her needs are seen as primary. But what about his needs? No one is responsible. His needs are his problem. There is no one mandated to provide and protect for him. No one. It’s easy to see how this plays out in couples therapy. The woman’s needs and satisfaction are a primary element. His needs are much less front and center if they are even dealt with. This being the case it would be easy to see how most couples therapists will have a tendency to focus on HER and not so much on HIM. It would also be more likely that he wouldn’t even think of focusing on HIS needs and wants. He is programmed to care for her needs, not his. Plus, he is graded on how well he performs his providing and protecting for her but she is less likely to receive a grade for her treatment of him. “I can’t do everything, I’ve been taking care of the house and kids.”
To make matters worse the man’s role of provide and protect leaves him with a mandate to maintain his independence. Being dependent or needy is not acceptable. In order to be the best provider and protector he needs to be independent and he will usually struggle to do so. What do we ask of men in therapy and specifically in couples therapy? We ask them to talk about their problems, their vulnerabilities, and their feelings. All of the above are huge signs of dependency and neediness. So we are asking men to do a 180 degree turn and suddenly they are supposed to just magically be comfortable with showing neediness and dependency. The women think this should be easy since their roles are not as demanding of them to be independent. In fact what are the old demands of women’s roles? Nurturing and caring right? So just imagine for a moment putting women into a situation where they had to talk in ways that would show they were not nurturing and caring! Would they have an easy time with that? I don’t think so. We need to have some compassion for our men and the bind they are placed into by coming into couples therapy.
Therapy is Friendly to Women
Therapy has evolved over the years to be friendly to women. Why? Well, it’s pretty simple, women are the ones who come into therapy. Therapists will naturally move towards creating an environment that caters to and welcomes those who are showing up and paying! This is one of the reasons that therapy is based on the more feminine ideas of who is relating to whom and who cares about whom. This is the currency. This is what drives things. In a more masculine environment the currency would more likely be who is governing whom or who is admiring or respecting whom. These are very different spaces. If you are presently in couples counseling it is likely that your wife is attempting to make the point that you simply don’t care about her and she will go through the litany of things you have done that prove you don’t care. Caring is the index. She attempts to convince the therapist that you have committed numerous sins of not caring and now need to change your ways and that her negative behaviors are justified by your indiscretions. This puts you into a defensive position. You spend most of your time defending yourself and trying to rebut her claims about your uncaring behaviors. This is yet another problem for men in couples treatment. They will often find themselves in such a defensive position that they neglect telling their own story, their own needs etc since they are so overwhelmed with just trying to defend themselves.
This sort of imbalanced approach neglects to look at the man’s side of things. He probably isn’t even thinking about voicing his own needs. It is partly his fault for not bringing things up but he is all too often under water in trying to defend himself and feeling out of place in a world that shows little interest in his needs or his feelings. This pattern has been going on for thousands of years and continues to this day, that women voice what they need in relationship whether it is about their own safety or the provisions they feel they require. The men do their best to provide what is requested or protect them if they are in danger. The men are then evaluated on their performance. It’s easy to see how in couples counseling it would be simple to focus on the woman’s complaints and needs and expect the man to step up and meet those needs while at the same time placing his wants and desires a step down. The byproduct of this formula is that men’s emotional pain and needs are marginalized and avoided.
Another problem that often surfaces is that of volume. Women have a very different threshold for determining when someone is yelling. Two men can be actively and politely arguing a point at what seems to them to be reasonable volumes but if that same tone and volume is used with their wives, she often claims he is yelling. This often frustrates the man no end. He simply says, “I am not yelling.” And in his mind this is the objective truth. But remember when entering couples therapy your masculine rules and limits stop being applicable. You have entered a more feminine space. The biggest danger of this dreaded “you are yelling” meme is that it is sometimes used when the man is making a very good point, a point that can’t be easily countered. By claiming he is yelling the focus of the conversation shifts quickly and completely. Now the focus is whether he yelled or not…AND how hurt she is that he was yelling at her. (remember the keyword is “caring”, a caring person wouldn’t yell) Now the focus leaves his point and instead centers on how hurt she is and his responsibility for this. This is a devastating development and leaves the man feeling ambushed, helpless and completely unheard. It also importantly lets her off the hook.
Now let’s change gears and look into what a man can do to improve the chances of couples therapy being helpful to him and his relationship in Part Two.
Tom Golden, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice. His office is in Gaithersburg MD. Tom also does consults via the internet and phone. His newest ebook “The Way Men Heal” offers a quick look at the masculine side of healing. You can find him here: [email protected]