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Shame-O-Phobia - Page 6

"Relational Dread"

Not all the problems men have with therapy, and the therapy milieu, occur in therapy; they often extend to situations with loved ones and friends. Stephen Bergman, a leading researcher on male psychology, coined the term "relational dread" to describe men's sense of being ill-equipped for the arduous task of discussing feelings and processing relationship issues, even with the people they love most. This dread not only keeps many men out of therapy, it impairs their ability to connect intimately. How does a therapist, engaging in a quintessentially "relational" practice, reach men who suffer from relational dread?

Let's say a guy's marriage is on the line because he can't even identify his emotions, much less express them, and feels under constant pressure from his wife to do so. You can open the conversation with what might be called a clinical icebreaker, saying, "It's hard to talk about these feelings when, for your whole life, you've kept them to yourself." Or to a man who's really struggling, you might offer a teasing, but empathic, comment like, "Man, aren't you glad you showed up here today?"

Then, because he probably feels ashamed of his inability to offer her what she seems to need, you can give him a little encouragement: "I know you don't feel like you're very good at this and that your wife is disappointed," followed by words of encouragement like, "I'm going to help you figure out how to do this, and I know you can do it."

When guys are terrified that any discussion of feelings or relationship issues with their partners—for example, that dreaded question, "So, what did you talk to your shrink about?"—will turn into unbearable marathon sessions, you can throw them a life preserver. Say to them, "When you talk about this issue at home, set an alarm for 10 minutes. Discussion ends then, no matter what." If even 10 minutes is too long for a man who can't tolerate the inherent lack of structure in "feelings-and-relationship" conversations, teach him some very specific relationship-friendly strategies, like "active listening."

For the man who just goes dumb at the critical moment and can't think of the "right" words when he needs them most—a variant of stage fright—be a coach for him. Try the old Virginia Satir technique of "doubling" (standing right next to him and speaking for him): "I'm really trying to be more of the man you want me to be—I'm just freaked out that I might fail at this. That's why I shut down so much." This shows your respect for the fact that his heart may be in the right place, even though his words aren't. By hearing you do it, he gets a model for how it can be done.

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