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Women Treating Men

Women Treating Men

Therapy across the gender divide

by Holly Sweet

Growing up in the '50s and '60s, I came of age in a world in which men ran the show, had the higher-paying jobs, and women were seen as second-class citizens. Like many women in my generation, I joined women's groups that questioned basic gender norms and envisioned a society that wasn't dominated by sexism and male privilege. At the same time, I was aware of how men were themselves being shortchanged by restrictive sex-role norms. I was struck by the higher rates of suicide and substance abuse among men, the prevalence of violence, and their shorter life expectancies. Among the men who were my friends and whom I dated, I saw how their need to appear tough, independent, and emotionally in control got in the way of their intimate relationships. When I brought up the subject of men's struggle to uphold macho standards of masculinity in my various women's groups, I was told I wasn't a "true feminist" because I was paying attention to men's needs.

As a graduate student, I became increasingly interested in how little the inner experience of gender is put into words on both sides of the gender divide. My growing curiosity about what it's really like to be a man and how much rigid male norms get in the way of healthy relationships led to my writing my doctoral dissertation on men's needs and fears in romantic relationships. In my research, I found that the women I surveyed thought men were actively choosing not to express their emotions, whereas the men said they didn't know what they felt, didn't have the vocabulary to describe their feelings, or were afraid to show their feelings for fear of feeling or looking like "wimps."

When I started my clinical training, I wondered about the impact of men's discomfort with emotional expression (and women's ignorance of this discomfort) on how male clients experienced therapy with female therapists. Unfortunately, there were no psychology-of-men classes in my doctoral program and no training on men's issues in therapy in my internship, so I found myself pretty much on my own in learning how to work with men.

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