After several years of working as a therapist, I ave noticed noticed some significant differences between women and men in why they choose to be in therapy or participate in a support group. One major difference is that women generally enter into therapy for the first time at an earlier age than men. It is not unusual for a woman in her twenties to have been in therapy at least for a brief period of time, whereas most men tend to be in their thirties or forties before seeing a therapist for the first time. With respect to couples counseling, women generally initiate the idea of seeing a counselor and make the first contact with the therapist. Moreover, her male partner is frequently reluctant or unwilling to participate in couples therapy. Finally, ! more women than men enter into individual therapy, and there are far more women who join support groups than men.
Traditional models of masculinity
What accounts for these differences? Do women have more emotional and psychological problems than men? Are men better adjusted and less likely to need the help of a therapist? While many men would like to think so, I doubt this is true. I believe the answer can be traced back to menís genetic dispositions and to the roles and coping styles that men learn during childhood. From very early childhood, boys are conditioned to be strong, brave, independent, even fearless. Such traits are considered virtuous.
Boys grow up learning to identify with ideal images of men in the form of the masculine hero. The hero is strong and alone. In times of trouble, he can conquer all odds and rescue and save others from devastation. Clearly, living up to this image prevents a man from being real and authentic. He expends his time and energy trying to live up to an idealized self-image that requires him to sacrifice his own inner needs. In his efforts to save and rescue others, he forgets who he really is.
Any display of pain can quickly be interpreted as a sign of weakness. "Big boys donít cry." A boy risks being shamed as a "sissy" by his male playmates if he shows he is afraid or in pain. To compound matters, most of us had fathers who were emotionally distant, incapable of showing affection or tender feelings toward us. Our model of how to be masculine was to be like Dad: suppress softer feelings, deny emotional needs and be invulnerable.
What is the price that men pay for such conditioning? Not surprisingly, most of us lose touch with our deeper feelings and needs. Having learned to deny much of our inner life, we look for fulfillment outside ourselves. We put our energy into developing a career, making a living, engaging in sports or other leisure activities. We also seek to find the right woman to marry and have a family with. Hopefully, she will be able to provide for our sexual and emotional needs and otherwise make us happy.
Competition and homophobia
Boys are predisposed to competition and learn to be highly competitive with each other. Losing in a sporting activity or game can easily result in being ridiculed or shamed. While competition may have the positive effect of bringing out the best in us, it also leads to hiding our vulnerability, thereby creating mistrust and emotional distance. A common myth is that men bond with their drinking buddies or with male friends while they engage in sporting activities. However, most of these relationships do not result in deep emotional attachment, and can be almost superficial or businesslike in nature.
Not only does our competitiveness prevent us from being close, but there is the additional factor of homophobia. Men generally are afraid that being physically close or emotionally vulnerable with another man will be construed as a message that they are gay. We do all we can to convince our male friends that we are strong and in control. There is shame in revealing vulnerability or in asking for emotional help from another man. In addition, there is the added fear that expressing deeper feelings and needs to another man will be interpreted as homosexual. Thus, to maintain our manhood, we withdraw emotionally, deny our emotional needs, and attempt to appear to be invincible.
Given our past conditioning, how do we men get our emotional needs met? Since we have not learned to satisfy such needs in relationships with other men, we turn to relationships with women. It is not unusual for men to rely exclusively on a primary relationship with a woman for this need, thereby placing an added strain on the coupleís relationship. Furthermore, men have a tendency to place a greater value on the sexual aspect of the relationship without realizing how important the emotional connection is to the woman in this dynamic. These differences in emotional styles and communication skills quite naturally result in conflict. In our relationships with other men, we tend to equate being close emotionally or physically with being sexual. Thus, men tend to sexualize their emotional con! nection with both men and women.
Crisis is opportunity for change
What finally causes a man to decide to enter into therapy or join a menís group? In my experience it takes a crisis of some kind, usually a failed relationship or a series of failed relationships, career burnout, or some other traumatic event which leads to depression, anxiety, isolation or loneliness. For many men this happens in mid-life, when a man approaches the age of forty. It is a time when a man looks at his life and asks, " Is this all there is?" Until then, he has been able to hang on to the hope that he will find his dream somewhere out there in this big, wide, wonderful world. At mid-life, something mysterious causes him to look back and realize that life is half over and "it" still hasnít happened. His dream has not yet been realized. Having spent half his life! trying to find fulfillment outside himself, he awakens to discover that it has not worked. For the first time in his life, a man may turn inward for answers. He may begin to realize that his unhappiness is not caused by his failure to find the right woman or the right career, but by who he is and the way he is living his life. Rather than blame others, he may ask, "How have I caused this to happen? Perhaps I need to change and develop greater self-awareness before I can have a healthy relationship or a satisfying career."
This is a very difficult and courageous step for a man to take. Having successfully mastered his life on the outside, he is now forced to acknowledge that he needs help to explore difficulties encountered in his inner life. As difficult as his crisis may be, it also presents an enormous opportunity for him to go to a therapist. A good therapist can provide guidance, support and a safe and trusting relationship to help a man heal from his past wounds. The therapeutic process provides a safe environment where a man can explore and open to deeper hidden aspects of himself. In discovering the full range of his emotional and spiritual nature, he is able to learn to express his own authentic masculinity.
Ultimately, a man is unable to save others if he cannot first save himself. In order to be fully human, a man must realize his deeper needs and limitations. He can learn to acknowledge his weaknesses as well as his strengths. As men we have tremendous emotional capacity, which is largely sacrificed in our quest to live up to the hero image. In truth, the strong, lonesome hero who denies his own inner needs is not fully authentic. Authentic masculinity is not only being strong and brave, it includes being warm, caring and loving. Men are more real when they are able to give as well as receive, to feel pain and experience fear, as well as act with courage and strength.
Joining a menís group
While individual therapy is important, it alone may not be sufficient to help a man realize his true nature. Interpersonal interaction with other men is also a vital step in this process. In the company of like-minded men, perhaps in a menís group, men are provided with a unique opportunity to break their isolation from other men. They are able to confront their fears, open their hearts, and express deeper feelings in the presence of other caring men. In the intimacy created by allowing ourselves to connect and be vulnerable in this way, we learn to nurture each other and experience all of our authentic masculinity. At last, a man has opened the doorway to his soul. He has come home to a safe place where he can discover his true nature. He is relieved that he need not expend so much energ! y hiding his disowned parts trying to look good on the outside, while feeling empty and alone inside. He finds that there is strength in his vulnerability. In learning to be fully real and authentic, he discovers his wholeness. Finally, he is liberated from old male stereotypes. He is free to be himself.
Jerry Magaro, J.D., M.A., is a licensed marriage, family, and child counselor in private practice in San Francisco and Marin County. After nearly 20 years as a practicing attorney, Jerry underwent a life transition to become a therapist. He focuses primarily on menís issues, and has been leading menís groups and workshops for over eight years. He also works with individuals and couples, and leads relationship groups for men and women.
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