Commitment: Staying on Course
After several months, Jack was calmer and more consistent in his marriage and with his kids. Bickering between him and Caroline still occurred occasionally, but it was resolved more quickly. Tension around money dissipated as they continued to discuss their finances regularly and openly.
Jack found himself thinking about his father and his role in the divorce. As a husband, he was seeing how improved communication had better connected him with his family, and consequently, how this improved his participation in family life. He felt more like a competent man now, and wondered what had really happened with his parents’ marriage.
Jack’s father was in his eighties, and in poor health. The thought of dredging up this material and upsetting the old man was appalling to Jack, but he couldn’t get the question of what happened out of his head. He shared this with the group and their reaction was immediate and strong: “You should go see him,” Stanley said. “You need to talk to him before he dies. Trust yourself. He cares about you. This will help you both.”
Jack was skeptical, but he called his dad, who was weak but happy to hear from him. He made an appointment to drive to visit him. He told himself he’d abandon his question if the situation felt wrong. He thought about the guys in the group and their frequent calls to him during the week before his trip while he drove to see his father.
In our groups, we emphasize loyalty, a strong feature of male friendship. Traditional myths about loyalty in men’s friendship stress male bonding under crisis (heroic friendship), or men coming together against a common adversary, as in war or sporting events. We challenge this notion, stating that less dramatic but more consistent contact with your friends, particularly during emotionally trying times, is more important for guys in today’s world. As one of our men said, “So we don’t have to throw ourselves over a bridge for each other for our efforts to count, right?” Unlike in traditional group therapy, we encourage our men to contact each other and get together between sessions. As long as they bring back any important and relevant feelings to the group, we consider their attempts to reach out as part of their progress in the group.
Jack’s meeting with his dad was profound in ways he couldn’t have predicted. The man was ready to talk—possibly because of his illness, Jack reflected. There was some remorse when he recalled the early days of his divorce from Jack’s mom.
“I wasn’t a very good father then, and probably not that good a husband.” When he talked about his tendency to withdraw from conflict, Jack sat up straight in recognition. “It took Annie [his second wife] and me 30 years to work this out,” his father concluded. “I hope you and Caroline can do better than that.”
Jack drove home in a daze, grateful for the visit. When he got home, he had a group of phone messages awaiting him from guys in the group, inquiring about how the trip had gone.
When I spoke with Rhonda the following week, she said Caroline had expressed how moved she was by the guys’ genuine caring for Jack, and how personally supported she felt by this. Jack concurred and said his father’s willingness to be honest with him had reinforced the value of the work he and Caroline had been doing in couples therapy and his group therapy. The couple was able to complete their important work with Rhonda over the next few months, and Jack continued on in the men’s group for another year.
We’ve found that therapeutic men’s groups that focus on developing emotional intimacy skills not only help men bond with each other, but also, as with Jack, help strengthen their marriages and other close relationships. This seems to echo Henry Ford’s praise for close male relationships: “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.”
By David Wexler
Robert Garfield’s wonderful description of a group of men helping men highlights what men are so damn afraid of—and what to do about it.
The men’s group worked for Jack because of the twinship he experienced. Like many of us men, he spent a lot of time suffering alone and dreading the exposure of his deficiencies. He labeled himself (sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously) as shame-worthy—until he heard other men, his “twins,” revealing their similar struggles. The destigmatization of failure (or perceived failure) allowed him and others in the group to move on to the next healthy phase of genuine problem-solving—which men are born to do.
The group also worked because of the reframing process. This begins with the group name: the Friendship Lab—not Men’s Emotional Retraining or even Men’s Therapy. Who would have any problem with entering a Friendship Lab? The author also talks about redefining emotional intimacy skills as part of healthy masculinity. This reminds me of Terry Real’s use of the term relational heroism, which frames these relational skills as acts of courage (always appealing to the male consciousness) rather than ways of just becoming more like women. It’s clear that the group therapist and the group members themselves incorporated this language and this reframing consistently, and it paid off.