Meeting to Decide
“Rhonda thought I might like your group and that it might help our couples therapy,” Jack said, when he came in for his screening evaluation. “I have an easier time with guys,” he admitted. “With Caroline, I just don’t know. I get so angry with her. It’s irrational. She just pisses me off when she presses me about money.”
Jack seemed affable and easy to connect with on the surface. When men feel shamed, however, they can become irascible and even violent, so we always carefully question how anger and frustration get expressed at home with the partner and children.
“If you mean, do I hit her or get physical? No, no! I cuss sometimes, but mostly I argue with her and then withdraw.” He didn’t seem to be taking much pleasure in describing this scenario.
In eliciting these kinds of details, we try to reduce the shaming experience for a man, to normalize his reactions. We do explore, however, whether additional interventions, such as anger management or drug or alcohol treatment, might be needed before accepting someone into our groups.
Jack was embarrassed about his behaviors. “I don’t speak to anyone, my friends included, about these things.” Jake, my coleader, stepped in to reassure him, “The whole idea is that the group is a place where guys can feel safe to talk about things they normally don’t share, and get support from each other. You can share details at your own pace. We’re not going to force you to reveal anything.” Jack seemed relieved to hear this.
We got his permission to speak with Rhonda while he was in the group, emphasizing that this kind of collaboration usually adds to the progress on both sides. We make sure our men feel safe and protected around issues of boundaries and confidentiality between the therapists and therapies, however. For over 18 years, not a single man has objected to this collaboration.
Making Meaningful Connections
When Jack came to his first meeting, we encouraged the guys who were already members to give updates on their own situations first. We have six men in each group, and wanted Jack to get comfortable with the kind of sharing that occurs. He was riveted, listening to these men opening up about their personal issues. Men like the idea that they’re not alone when they struggle with emotional problems. When they find that there are other men who, like themselves, are generally regarded as successful and competent, but also struggle with difficult emotional issues, they feel relieved and uplifted.
When it was his turn, Jack jumped in, sharing his childhood history, what he thought were his “therapy issues,” and how he routinely got annoyed with Caroline. The group’s attention seemed to energize him, and when he’d finished his story, he presented his dilemma: “It seems like I’m not the only guy here who has trouble with his wife. What would you guys suggest I do with her? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” There was silence in the room.
Finally, Ed, one of the group members, responded: “I guess if I were you, I’d start by trying to figure out why you’re so angry with your wife—a person who you seem to love—and try to get this under control.” Jack was stunned. He’d never been confronted by another guy about his behavior before. Come to think of it, he’d never shared anything like this with anyone. He felt surprisingly relieved. He nodded and responded thoughtfully. “So maybe I can get some help with this here?” The other men nodded with encouragement.
Conversations from the Heart
What Jack experienced was a far cry from the locker-room banter that most men complain about and feel so limited by in their daily lives. We encourage our guys to express their feelings, disclose important information, be vulnerable, and provide each other with honest emotional feedback, as opposed to problem solving or intellectual analysis.
All this requires creating an atmosphere of safety. We start by insisting on confidentiality outside of the group. Our men agree that they won’t repeat what’s discussed in the group with anyone outside, even with intimate partners. If they wish to share their own experience with a partner, it’s at their discretion.
Inside the group, we encourage our men to voice their genuine affection and empathy to each other, while discouraging “innocent” put-downs, dismissals, and jokes at another man’s expense. Men will often put up with this kind of banter, but they won’t open up when it’s going on.
We introduce structured exercises and discussions around particular themes that arise (our models for manhood, what we expect of ourselves as husbands, fathers, and professionals, sex, money, and status). These discussions provide opportunities for emotionally intimate exchanges.