During his second month in the group, the topic of money came up, and Jack was particularly keen to speak about this. He couldn’t understand why Caroline constantly quizzed him about their financial situation, since, as he said, “She knows I bring in a six-figure salary. Why does she get so bent out of shape?” He was clearly angry and hurt about this. Stanley, a teacher, looked pained as Jack was speaking. I asked him if he’d be willing to share with Jack what was going on in his head.
“Mixed feelings,” he replied. “On one hand, I’d be angry, too, if my wife was badgering me, if I were bringing in six figures—which I clearly am not,” he said, smiling. “But,” he said, looking at Jack, “I have this feeling that there’s more to it. You’re so angry. There’s something else going on here, and I don’t know what that is.”
Jack was quiet at first. Stanley’s observation had struck a chord. He looked sad. “It’s just like what used to happen with my mom,” he said. “She was always putting my father down. He tried to support us and always sent money. Every time I tried to defend him, she put me down, too!”
Stanley didn’t miss a beat in responding. “So when your wife gets anxious about money, you react and go ballistic, or withdraw? Something like that?” He was being direct with Jack, but his voice tone was comforting.
“That’s right,” Jack responded. “I can’t hear her when she starts talking like that.”
It’s hard to know what impact a group intervention will have. When Rhonda and I spoke the next week, she reported that Jack had seemed more present in their couples session. He was able to let Caroline voice her anxiety about money and not take her feelings so personally. He even expressed some empathy for how terrified she felt when her mom would discover her dad had emptied the bank accounts during one of his gambling binges. My take was that Jack felt heard by the guys in his group, and, as a result, was better able to hear his wife.
Cooperation and Conflict Resolution
The men were talking about their fathers in a session a few months later. One of the members, Frank, was touting his father, a man he’d frequently described as a drunk and a bully, as a good role model for him. Frank was a salesman who thought of himself as “old school.” He prided himself on being a “no-nonsense” guy, who could be hard on the outside. Our men, however, had seen he could also be incredibly gentle on the inside. Jack was looking at Frank skeptically. When I asked him what he was feeling, he responded, “I’m not really comfortable saying.”
Frank looked at him and said, “Oh, c’mon, Jack. I’m a big boy. I can take it.” Jack swallowed hard and said, “Well, Frank, you’re usually pretty honest. But now, I think you’re making excuses for your father, I don’t think you think he was a good role model.”
The other guys concurred, supporting Jack’s reaction. Frank quickly conceded, “OK. I guess I was padding my old man’s resume a little bit. He could be a pretty scary guy.”
Jack admitted that he himself had never been comfortable challenging his own father, because “my mother was always doing that, and I figured my relationship with him was fragile enough.” He also reported that he thought his dad liked to be in control of things and didn’t have much patience when he was challenged.
Our men often function in leadership roles at home and in the workplace, and are routinely asked to make important decisions. However, social expectations about maintaining power and control often make them reluctant to share authority or ask for help from others. While they may advocate egalitarian values, they struggle about giving up control in their relationships with other men and in their marriages. When their decisions are challenged, they can become defensive. The men in the group were easily able to identify with Jack and Frank’s issues with their fathers over the difficulty of challenging them in any way. They went on to agree that social expectations of leadership often made it difficult for them to share authority; to let go and resolve conflicts when they arose.
We try to help men become secure with their own authority while they’re learning to share power and address conflicts that arise in their relationships. When we sense an unspoken tension in the group, we often introduce the topic of competition and sharing, which gives the men a chance to acknowledge these feelings.
Jack was getting progressively better at advocating for himself in the group. This was reflected in his couples therapy with Caroline. Rhonda reported, with delight, that he’d discussed his frustration with Caroline about her family’s annual holiday gathering. He wanted their family to stay in a hotel this year, rather than cram themselves into one of the small bedrooms in his in-laws’ house. In the past, he’d have had a tantrum about this, sulk, and then miserably concede to stay in uncomfortable circumstances. This time, however, Caroline was able to hear his feelings and work with him to come up with an alternative plan that they both liked.
Cotherapy and Collaboration
I learned something else from Rhonda: Jack was angry with me. He’d told her that in recent sessions, he felt I was coming down hard on him, challenging him in ways that made him feel stupid. I was upset to hear this, and realized that I’d had no clue he was feeling this way. “He’s a good actor,” Rhonda reassured me. “I told him to bring this up with you or Jake in the group. I think he’ll do it. Let’s see.”
Jake told me that Jack had called him, and that he, likewise, had encouraged Jack to bring this up in the group. When the next meeting came, I waited patiently to see whether Jack would say anything. He was reluctant at first, but when it was his turn to speak, he addressed me: “I guess, in the spirit of therapy, I need to tell you I’ve been pissed off at you.”
“Talk to me about it,” I offered. Jake made sure that Jack was able to speak his feelings without interruption. The guys were quiet, waiting to see what would happen. I told Jack that I was genuinely sorry that I’d hurt him, and that I’d had no idea this was going on. Jake then invited the other guys to share their reactions.
Ed said to Jack, “I’ve felt uncomfortable at times when Rob has pushed me in the group. I think it’s good that you’re speaking up about this. At this point, I don’t take it personally. Rob’s not perfect,” he said, smiling at me, “but I think he really cares about us.”
Having a cotherapist and colleagues is an enormous benefit in situations like this. It allowed me to be the “guilty party,” a human as well as a therapist, while supporting Jack in voicing his feelings in a way that was therapeutic for him. Here, we modeled how sharing power and flexible authority can promote intimacy for men; I might have navigated this issue by myself had Jack confronted me independently, but these supports made the process easier and allowed the group to participate in a deeper way. Jack himself seemed a lot more at ease with me afterward.