Category Archives: Survival Guide for Men in Couples Therapy

A Survival Guide for Men in Couples Therapy — Part One

ID-10070272When 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. It seems 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.

Language

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.

Details

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.

 

2.
 

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.

Yelling

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.

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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: golden@webhealing.com

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A Survival Guide for Men in Couples Therapy — Part Two

 2. What to do about it?

ID-10070272In order for couples therapy to be effective the needs of both men and women need to be given equal time and attention. We have seen how there are multiple factors that impede that from happening.  The language differences, the sex role bias, and the taboo towards men’s emotional pain all contribute to the avoidance of the depth of a man’s emotional experience. This sets up a situation where women’s stories, emotions, frustrations, desires etc are the focus in treatment.  Given this bias the first thing that needs to happen is to help the man get his side of the story into the conversation. Otherwise the work is not about the couple but instead can become a cheerleading exercise for one spouse over the other.  The man is clearly at a disadvantage.  So what can be done?

One of the first things that needs to happen is to insure the man is voicing his side of the story and making what he wants and needs in the relationship an important part of the conversation.  The man will be fighting not only the cultural bias against his own personal pain but also his own tendency to maintain his independence and to care for others rather than himself.  These two factors conspire to make it less likely a man will present his own needs in relationship.  The obvious question is what can be done about this?

Voice His Side

If you are a man in this position here’s a simple formula to help you come up with your side of things. Think back to when you were first dating.  What did she do that you enjoyed? How did she treat you differently?  What did you like about the ways she treated you and would you like to have some of those ways rekindled?  Think about those things and bring them up in your couples therapy. Was the sex more frequent and more enjoyable? Did you feel admired?  Appreciated? Was her complaining greatly reduced during those early times? Just say the things you miss and would like to see again.  You might even want to jot down a list before you go in for the session so you will have them handy.

If you have a hard time directly saying the things you want you can always take a more indirect route.  Remember in couples therapy the client should be the relationship rather than either you or your wife.  Therefore it will always go over well if you talk about the things you want in terms of the way it will improve the relationship.  Here’s an example, you want more sex and feel you have been cut off.  You could say something about your needs and how they aren’t being met but you might also say something more indirect that will be more effective in the feminine environment of couples therapy.  Here’s possibility: “I remember when our relationship was really good and one of the things that made it that way was a great sex life. I’m sure our relationship will improve if we try to rekindle that.” Basically you reframe “I want” with “The relationship needs.” You are saying the same thing it just has a much better chance within the confines of couples therapy to be heard and acted upon if it is framed in terms of improving the relationship.  It will be very difficult for wife or therapist to shoot this down since it was presented as being helpful to the relationship.  What may happen is the wife will now be forced to openly discuss her reasons for not having sex and if they are not very good reasons she will be seen as the one who is “blocking a good connection in your relationship.” Don’t be surprised if you hear from both the therapist and your wife that “sex is a result of closeness in the relationship and needs to come after you start feeling close again.” To that you can simply say that you have a different way of seeing this.  You think that sex can actually rekindle intimacy and closeness and that is just what you both want, right?  This at least puts it on the table that you want more sexual contact and think it will be helpful.

Remember, if both you and your wife are fairly happy with the relationship and the way things are going it becomes much more likely that you each will want to go out of your way to do things for the other.  If someone is stuck in resentment they are much LESS likely to want to offer kindness.  Kindness, like resentfulness is contagious. It’s just hard to get the kindling lit for kindness to start to burn, it’s too damp to light when soaked in resentment.  In order for couples therapy to be of any use both members of the relationship need to feel they are getting what they want, or at least a part of what they want. Bring up the thing that YOU miss, bring up the ways you would like to be treated.  When you get those things it becomes more likely that you will want to reciprocate.

When you say the things you want it never hurts to mention the emotional pain that the absence of those things has caused you. ie “It’s been really hard on me for our sex life to dwindle.” This is difficult for most men since we live under the heavy rule of needing to appear independent. When we ignore this rule it places us squarely into a needy and dependent stance. If you can speak of how things have been tough on you be sure to note the response of your wife and of the therapist.  Do they ask you more about what this is like for you?  Is your wife questioned about whether she has been supportive to you? Is there a similar amount of time spent on your unhappiness as that is spent on your wife?

Saying What You Want

When you tell your side of things the obvious result is you will begin to frame what it is you want in the relationship.  This is critical.  If you don’t voice what you want you are likely going to be inundated with only her side of things and what she wants.  Think about the things you want and see if you can quantify them.  For instance, if you want more sex can you quantify that?  Well, I’d like us to have sex at least 3 times a week.  Make it a number and put it out to your wife and the therapist.  Maybe, I want you to cook dinner for the family at least twice a week like we used to do.  If they concur that is a realistic goal then you have a good start.  In the week ahead you can count the times the target goal is reached and you then have a gauge for success.  All too often men in couples therapy walk away wondering what just happened.  Did we get anywhere? Are we any closer?  It seems nebulous and hard to gauge.  Using the masculine strength of putting a number on things can be a good strategy in couples therapy for men.

Men Too Often Unheard – Are Their Issues Swept Under the Rug?

This is a very important question because my experience, as described in the first part of this article, with couples therapists in general is that they are much more interested in the upset and needs of the woman than they are with the man.  His pain is all too often seen as an afterthought and hers as the main dish.  I have sent clients into couples therapy with another therapist and have gotten feedback from my male clients that their pain is simply not attended to.  Yet they are expected to spend much of the time on the emotional states of their wives.  This may not happen so often, maybe it is infrequent.  I certainly hope so but my experience tells me it happens more than a little.  If you see this happening in a session it is your right to bring this up.  Men are hesitant to do this since we are swimming in the provide and protect thing and this tells us to focus on her and shut up about ourselves.  Keep in mind that in couples therapy both parties should get loving attention.  Not just one.

Listening

One of the things you can do that will help getting positive outcomes in couples therapy is to work on listening.  Many men are naturally pulled to want to help her out and fix things.  The first thing we think of is to get her to see the simple solution that is so obvious to us but doesn’t seem so obvious to her.  We tell her and what do we get?  A sneer and a tear that they are not being heard!  In the workshops I give I tell women straight up that they need to tell their men when they want a “consultation” as opposed to when they want “consolation.”  Men will usually assume she wants a consultation which they can understand and try and help solve.  Since men’s nature is to move in this direction it is incumbent upon the women to let the men know that they don’t want an answer or a solution, they simply want to be heard.  They want consolation.  When men truly understand this they are usually relieved!  I don’t have to DO anything?  Nope.  Just listen.  This is gold.  A little bit of this can bring huge help and change.  Here’s an example:  Wife: “I am just so frustrated by Jimmy not sleeping at night.”  Husband: “The thing with Jimmy not sleeping is really getting you upset.”  She will then say “Yes, exactly.”  And at that point you are both on the same page and in agreement.  She feels that she has been heard and this is often very important to her.  You didn’t have to do a thing to help Jimmy or her, you just acknowledge her situation.  That’s it.  For this small effort you will get kudos in the feminine world.  The therapist will nod and your wife will likely feel good about things.  All the while you have made no commitments, no offers to do anything, no nothing but you are getting good results.  This is efficiency!  Try it.

Language

Voicing your side is an essential start. The next thing to work on is the language problem.  They are more fluent so what do you do?  You take your time. One of the things I have noticed over the years is that the man’s mental processor of emotions is much slower than the woman’s.  If they ask you how you are feeling give yourself plenty of time.  A couple of minutes or even more if you need it.  Let them know you are considering your inner state and need more time then they might need.  Don’t be rushed. The immediate response is to be rushed and to say something.  Forget that.  Take your time and get a sense of what is going on for you, then say it.    Also, don’t feel you have to give a definitive answer.  You can say you seem to be feeling this or that.  You can also say you are not sure if that is the case.  Don’t be rushed.  Your processor is slower in working with emotions.  You have a 286 and she has a  quad core I7. The 286 is a good chip, it just takes more time.  Slow is okay.

There are some things you can do while you are pondering the emotionally related questions that may help you come up with your truth.  You have likely never been taught the basics of your own emotional states so let’s take a moment to go over some of the basics for men.  Feel free to skip this if you don’t need the basics.

The first thing is to be aware of what is happening in your body.  Oftentimes men can help themselves become more aware of their emotions by being aware of what is happening in their body. Think of the last football/soccer/basketball game you watched. What did the player’s bodies do as they were sad and were beaten?  Slumped downward, looked heavy, gravity wins.  What did their bodies look like when they played well?  Everything points upward, jumping up, pointing up, high fives etc.  Everything is pointing up.  Gravity loses.  Sadness will often have a simultaneous body experience that feels heavy or weighted down.  Gladness and happy is the opposite, you are lifted up.  What does your body feel when you are angry?  Most men experience tightness in their arms, fists, or jaws.  If your body is showing any of that it is a tipoff that maybe some of what you are experiencing is anger. Fear often has an accompanying sense of wanting to protect oneself, a sense of needing to put up one’s guard so to speak.  that can be a tipoff for you.  Is your body feeling heavy?  Is it feeling trapped? Does it feel like surging upward? These are likely clues about what you are feeling. These point towards the building blocks of emotions.  Almost all feeling related experiences can be boiled down to these four: sad, mad, glad, and afraid.  When and if you get stuck in wondering what you might be feeling just run those four through your mind and ask  yourself which one is closest to what you are experiencing?  Is it more like sadness, gladness, anger or fear?  Then again, maybe you aren’t feeling anything and that is ok too.  Remember, it is okay to say something like, “I think I am feeling some sadness but I can’t put my finger on why.”  You will get points for that sort of answer.

Admiration

One of the things that men will sometimes forget to mention when they are saying what they want in the relationship is the lack of admiration.  When relationships are first started the woman is often enamored with how the man cares for her.  The man will usually get admired for this and it is the admiration that fuels him to do more for her. This cycle keeps up in healthy relationships.  The woman maintains her admiration (and respect) for the man and he continues to help her feel cared for and cherished.  It’s a positive feedback loop.

It’s an interesting fact that research has shown repeatedly that a good relationship will always follow the 5 to 1 ratio.  Both man and woman will say five positive things to the other  for every one negative comment.  It seems that this ratio maintains the bond.  When couples are fighting this ratio goes awry as the relationships fall apart.  Bringing this ratio back can re-invigorate things.

Volume

What can be done about the volume problem?  Learn to whisper.  Speaking very softly has the advantage of not being vulnerable to being labelled as yelling and also has the advantage that when you speak softly people will often strain to listen to what you are saying. It’s an interesting gambit and takes a bit of self-control but the payoffs can be big since you can say things that might otherwise have been verboten.

Another variation on whispering is singing.  Often times women will accuse you of having a mean tone of voice. This accusation has the bad habit of shifting the ground away from the issue at hand and throwing the focus on her and whether she is being hurt by your “insensitive” tone. I have found one of the best ways to completely negate this accusation is to sing to her what is pissing you off.  When you sing you have absolutely no tone of voice.  Not only that but it is so unusual and unexpected that it will often bring laughter from both of you while also getting the message across.  This is a win.  When I see couples and they are having tone issues I will often get them to sing and it is effective and hilarious.  Everyone gets laughing, your side of things gets heard and the issues get on the table.

Summary

Couples therapy is feminine territory.  The language used, the default importance of caring, the reliance upon talking, and the focus on feelings all play together to make this a place that is not particularly male friendly.  By getting to know the territory and assessing your weaknesses and strategy you may be able to increase your chances of getting something from this process.  Best of luck to you.

And don’t forget.  Men are good.

 

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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: golden@webhealing.com

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