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Third Party Therapy

by Patrick Wharton

This article appeared in the May 1995 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

We are printing one man's views on therapy, not because we agree or disagree with them, but because he raises important issues on men and therapy. Our purpose is to stimulate discussion on this topic, by therapists and non-therapists. We invite your responses (of 1,000 words or less, unless you feel it's vitally important to take more space to develop your points) on the issues raised in this article or on other perspectives on men and therapy. We plan on printing responses from therapists and non-therapists. We hope to have an article by a man who has benefited from therapy, a man whose experiences have been less positive, and from a man who has been reluctant to consider therapy. We hope to have articles from therapists representing a variety of perspectives. Responses will appear in a special issue on men in therapy or, if there are sufficient quality responses, in a series spanning more than one issue. We hope that the responses will not only discuss the issues raised, but also give men practical guidance, answering the questions like the ones Mr. Wharton asks at the end of his article. What defines a good therapist? How do you go about finding one? How can you work with a therapist in a positive way to make sure the therapist helps you meet your goals? What can you do or say if the therapy "isn't working" or if you feel the therapist is not responding to your (expressed or unexpressed) needs and concerns?

There is a burning issue for men and that is psychology. Therapy itself bestows victim status. It releases its clients from commitment and responsibility. How many men have experienced:

· Prior to divorce your wife enters therapy for depression or vague feelings of unhappiness?

· The therapist does not interview you (read male) or gather any forensic data on the presented problem?

· You were treated as a minor guest on a talk show if you were allowed to attend a joint therapy session?

· Men and their children forced into psyche evaluations with a stranger to obtain visitation or custody?

I believe therapists have to move away from center. Unless the therapist wants to adopt the client they have to involve the client's support group. People in the support group will be the ones to provide the long term support and help the person needs to cope. When my now x wife went through years of therapy for depression, the isolation and humiliation were just about more than my sons and I could cope with. The contempt I held for her new wave feminist therapists was impossible to disguise. Attempts to involve a more moderate therapist proved to be impossible. The abyss created will be something my whole family will have to live with for a long time. Maybe men's problems with therapy is that men put more value on action than on words. Dr. Campbell makes some good points in his book.

I believe men's aversion to therapy stems from its lack of creditability. Men see it as a violation at an intensely personal level. Therapists have claimed the professional status of physicians but are seen by many as avoiding the attendant responsibilities. Even the most casual observer has seen psychotherapy embrace the most outrageous fads. These fads are legitimized through talk shows and self help books rather than research and clinical trials. It is difficult for a man to accept something that appears to lack substance or merit and where risk is undefined. Going to the doctor to have an orifice probed is difficult. Going to a stranger to have your very soul exposed is almost impossible. The doctor will explain the risks and benefits. Should a therapist be held to the same standard? All of us have trouble accepting uncertainty. Perhaps men feel that therapy is an unwarranted challenge by a stranger to their fitness as a human being. I personally feel that normal is not great -- it's just OK. Of course Frank Zappa felt the same way.

Many times a man's wife or significant other initiates therapy unilaterally. Justified or not the man feels betrayed that their lover and best friend is paying a stranger to hear intimate details of their life. Rogerian Client Centered Humanism (CCH) prevails in individual therapy. CCH borrows from retail sales its approach. In essence, the customer is always right. When a man is finally brought into the therapy setting he finds out quickly that he is not the customer. A sense of betrayal escalates to resentment. Soon he is isolated and supplanted by the therapist. He becomes consumed with anger and frustration. When this happens the therapist can only observe an angry man. Therapists are very cautious about challenging the narrative their client has presented. To challenge the narrative for historical accuracy could very well alienate the client and produce yet another angry person. Alienated angry clients typically terminate therapy. So financially it is not in a therapist's best interest to check reality with the third party. Therapy turns into an indecisive never ending series of shameful events. Platitudes and psycho babble replace goals.

Another man's issue may be the personal agenda of the therapist. The therapist's personal beliefs or preconceived notions may be incompatible with the man's. For example a feminist lesbian CCH therapist may have an approach different from a happily married parent with a strong foundation in religion. Many times a man has no input on the selection of a therapist. It is truly a roll of the dice. If I am going to rent a friend let me rent one I get along with. It is difficult indeed to resolve problems with someone with whom you cannot develop a rapport. Instances in which a goal or a course of action is recommended that is dissonant with either party are doomed to failure. There is a tendency to blame the third party when this occurs. After all, a professional gave their recommendation and you cannot or will not do it. Somebody failed. You have failed in your relationship and you have failed in therapy. All men will try to avoid failure and humiliation. Being made to pay for it boggles the mind.

When therapists involve themselves with custody decisions, anger, resentment and despair reach debilitating peaks. Lawyers, judges and parents need only shop around to find a therapist advocate. This is where the creditability of psychology truly breaks down. A man's experience in this setting is seldom good. Therapists suffer from the same biases that the Family Law system does. After this experience men are reluctant to voluntarily submit to therapy even if they should find a therapist who could help them, and assuming they have any money left.

Where does that leave men and therapy? Are there good therapists out there? What defines a good therapist? How could one go about finding a good therapist? First a man has to decide if his problem is something he can resolve on his own. Men are reluctant to ask a stranger to solve their problems. Certainly paying for it is a bit repugnant. Historically many men have found that therapy's risks outweigh the benefits. Making yourself vulnerable to a stranger is very difficult. Too many times therapy is seen as a way to avoid responsibility or to embrace a victim mentality. As a third party in therapy you can find yourself reduced to a shell of your former self. After giving up all to meet the convoluted and nebulous goals of therapy, introspection leaves you wondering just who you are. Perhaps these are the vague thoughts that post lobotomy recipients had. The longing for your former self can be painful. Before you do surgery on your soul make sure it is not for cosmetic reasons or to meet an unreasonable demand. Sometimes original equipment is the best.

Books:

What's Wrong with the Mental Health Movement K. Edward Renner, 1975

House of Cards -- Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth Robert M. Dawes, 1994

Beware of the Talking Culture Terrence Campbell

We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse James Hillman, and Michael Ventura, 1992


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