Using men’s groups to enhance couples therapy
My best friend, Jake Kriger, and I have been running therapeutic men’s groups—we call them “friendship labs”—for the past 18 years. While everyone believes that emotional intimacy is important in relationships, men often struggle with certain skills—like emotional expressiveness, self-disclosure, vulnerability, giving and getting support, letting go of control, cooperation, and reciprocity—that are at odds with our cultural definitions of successful masculinity. Psychotherapy has developed clever methods to persuade men to adopt the more open and expressive habits, but many guys entering therapy still feel as though they’re walking into a lion’s den of shame, humiliation, and failure if they acquire them—specifically, failure as men.
We’ve found that groups are particularly appealing for men who experience traditional individual or couples approaches as being too alien or off-putting. There’s something comforting about being part of a group of guys dealing with similar issues, who are there to ask for and give support to each other.
Because our groups are therapeutically oriented, rather than simply supportive or educational, men can develop the emotional skills with each other similar to those learned in therapy. We emphasize that emotional intimacy skills aren’t just for women—they’re a central part of healthy masculinity, and as the men in our groups discover, they take work to develop.
Men in our groups often lament the superficiality of their friendships with other men. We’ve found that fostering intimate male relationships can greatly help men better care for themselves and connect with each other, while deepening their relationships with their partners and children. We don’t expect that all our guys will become best friends, but we do expect them to learn ways to deepen relationships with each other. Most of them do come to care for one another. Our friendship labs are particularly helpful because we collaborate with therapists who are seeing our men individually or in couples therapy.
Jack and Caroline
Jack and Caroline had been in couples therapy for only a few months when their therapist, Rhonda, a colleague and friend of mine, noticed that his interest appeared to be flagging. He seemed sincere, but continued to zone out when Caroline asked him to attend to her emotional needs. He’d shake his head affirmatively, but nothing seemed to be getting through. When they tried to speak at home, Jack would drink, argue, and withdraw.
Jack was 44 and Caroline was 42 with two daughters, ages 7 and 9. Money was a focal point for this couple. Jack was a successful banker, but would become impatient when Caroline would press him for details about their finances. During Caroline’s childhood, her father had periodically gambled away the family’s money, and she and her mother had been left to fend off the bill collectors. The thought of financial instability caused Caroline major anxiety.
Close inquiry revealed that the couple was, in fact, on good financial footing; however, none of this explained Jack’s dismissiveness or his aggravation in response to Caroline’s distress whenever they discussed money. He seemed to revel in her upset mood while stonewalling her around financial details, arguing and then leaving the scene in a huff. Rhonda admitted she was “pulling her hair out” trying to get Jack to feel the slightest bit of empathy for Caroline. In a private session, she asked him if he was having an affair. His puzzled and hurt response convinced her that he wasn’t.
Jack was the oldest of three children. When he was 10, his father had left his mother for a younger woman. After this, Jack felt that he’d become the scapegoat for his parents’ divorce. His mother became increasingly critical and, according to Jack, “never failed to compare me negatively to my father.” For a while, he’d tried to be a model son, accommodating his mother in whatever way he could, but eventually he realized this wasn’t productive. Listening to his description of these years with his mother, Rhonda said it seemed like he was “sitting on a pot of pain.” His father had dropped out of his life, providing financial support but not much else, and later moved to another community with his new wife. Over the years, Jack’s relationship with his father had improved, but their meetings were infrequent.
After a few months of getting nowhere with Jack, Rhonda, called me and said, “Do I have a guy for your men’s group!”