By Rich Simon Not long ago, my wife, Jette (who just happens to be the world’s best couples’ therapist), and I were about to begin one of the several couples weekend workshops we hold every year. One of the men in the group approached Jette during an early break, obviously in real distress. “You must change the sign downstairs in the lobby,” he hissed in her ear. The offending sign, there in public for all to see, said, “Couples Therapy—Mayfair Room.” The fact that he was attending a “therapy” event—a word so obnoxious to him that he could barely spit it out—in his mind clearly identified him as a total wimp, a low-testosterone failure of a man, and a complete loser in the masculinity sweepstakes. God forbid somebody he knew should catch him in such humiliating circumstances; it was akin to marching publicly into a room boldly labeled, “Child Molesters Convention Here.”
In recent years, this kind of intense reaction from many has been receiving more and more clinical attention. Therapists have increasingly begun to tune into a secret that many men harbor–how often we feel unable to live up to the seemingly impossible task of being a “man” (whatever that means). And when we fail, however it looks on the outside, how we experience the corrosive, toxic, intolerable feelings of shame. Just the threat of being shamed is so dreadful to us that we will do virtually anything to avoid it—we will possibly yell at or stonewall our wives, get drunk, pick fights, drive our cars like bats out of hell, join a militia, or have sex with as many women as possible.
In the early days of this magazine, inspired by the feminist movement, previously undiscussed aspects of women’s experiences received far more of our editorial attention—the plight of mothers, the power inequities of traditional marriage, and, most of all, therapists’ reflexive tendency to blame women when things went wrong in the family. But while that exploration was primarily inspired by politics and ideology, the recent focus on men has been far more pragmatic, arising out of recognition that therapy, especially couples therapy, too often just doesn’t work with men. As Steven Stosny has written in the Networker, “While the therapeutic language of ‘intimacy’ is supposedly gender-neutral, most men see it as reflecting values and ideals that appeal disproportionately to women.”
In a few weeks, we’ll be rebroadcasting a webcast series on Men and Intimacy that may be of interest to you if you missed it the first time. Meanwhile, check out some articles by Stosny, David Wexler, Holly Sweet, and Barry Jacobs that address the therapeutic challenge of working with men. As you read them, you may find yourself exploring a territory beyond the politically correct, in which it is possible to consider whether there are differences between men and women not usually acknowledged in the conventional therapeutic wisdom. Prepare to discover how disconcerting—and illuminating—it is to embrace the possibility that men and women don’t necessarily want exactly the same things after all.