A couple of months ago, my wife, Jette (who just happens to be the world’s best couples therapist), and I were about to begin one of the couples weekend workshops we hold every year. Just before the workshop began, I’d been rereading the articles from this issue on “The Secret World of Men” and pondering the apparently real, if politically inconvenient, differences between the way men and women express emotion (particularly love) and handle conflict. I’d been particularly struck by David Wexler’s article about the toxic effects of shame on the male psyche and the lengths to which men will go to avoid it.
During the first break, one of the men in the group approached Jette, obviously in real distress. “You must change the sign downstairs in the lobby,” he hissed in her ear. The offending sign, there for all to see, read “Couples Therapy—Mayfair Room.” The fact that he was attending a “therapy” event—a word so obnoxious to him that he could barely spit it out—in his mind clearly identified him as a total wimp, a low-testosterone failure of a man, a complete loser in the masculinity sweepstakes. God forbid somebody he knew should catch him in such humiliating circumstances; it was akin to marching publicly into a room boldly labeled “Child Molesters Convention Here.” Male shame strikes again!
This was such a stunning example of what the contributors to this issue had been saying about the inner lives of men that I spent much of the morning discussing the insights contained in this issue with the assembled couples. (One of the great pleasures of being an editor of a magazine like this is that I often can pose as an expert by merely regurgitating the wisdom I’ve just gleaned from the Networker.) I told the group that the great secret that most men harbor is that we often feel incompetent, weak, vulnerable, and inadequate, not up to the seemingly impossible task of being a “man” (whatever that means). And when we “fail”—we feel our loved ones are disappointed in us, we think we’ve given others reason to question our masculinity—we experience corrosive, toxic, intolerable feelings of shame. Just the threat of being shamed is so dreadful to us that we’ll go to any lengths to avoid it—yell at or stonewall our wives, get drunk, pick fights, drive our cars recklessly, join the Marines, have sex with as many women as possible.
As I talked about this, the room grew absolutely silent; everybody was riveted, particularly the women. Finally, the peculiar behavior of their mates—their emotional defensiveness, their allergy to the statement “we have to talk about our relationship,” the sheer loathing with which they regard the thought of “sharing their feelings,” with wives or therapists (“the very idea of sitting in a room, talking out loud about all this touchy-feely stuff creeps them out,” writes Wexler in this issue)—for the first time, all of it began to make sense.
It seems odd that after nearly 50 years of focusing on gender norms and how they affect women, the inner world of men would remain as dimly understood as it is, even by psychotherapists. This issue is testimony to the fact that we’re only beginning to understand the peculiarities of the male heart and mind. One obstacle to gaining a fuller understanding that it attempts to remove is the ideological truism that, deep down, both genders want exactly the same thing from their relationships. As you read through this issue, you’ll find yourself exploring a territory beyond the politically correct, in which it’s possible to consider whether there really are differences between men and women not usually acknowledged in the conventional therapeutic wisdom. Prepare to discover how disconcerting—and illuminating—it is to embrace the possibility that men and women don’t necessarily want exactly the same things after all.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.