Lions Without a Cause

Men's Animal Instincts Don't Fit the Modern World

A lion head | Photo by Alexas Fotos/Pexels

This article first appeared in the May/June 2010 issue.

Most of the couples I work with are referred by clinicians who find the man to be “too resistant” for therapy to continue. Typically, when the guys come in, they’re either defensively resentful, angry, or just emotionally shut down. Often they start right off by proclaiming that they’re frustrated as hell with therapy. As we talk, it becomes clear that, initially, they practiced the communication techniques they were taught and took to heart the insights they learned about relationships and family of origin. Yet, for reasons they can’t explain, they couldn’t bring themselves to make the long-term effort to use their new skills or apply their consulting-room insights on a routine basis at home. Of course, this failure to follow through makes their wives even more disappointed in them: “It was one thing when I thought he couldn’t do it; now I know he just won’t!” noted one angry spouse.

But beyond the frustration and resentment of the men I see is their utter bewilderment. Despite their time in therapy, they still don’t have a clue about what their wives and therapists want from them. Partly this has to do with having different expectations from their partners—men just don’t buy relationship-improvement books or read women’s magazines or watch Oprah. They find words like, connection, attunement, and validation mystifying, used less to enlighten than to point out their deficiencies.

Most of my male clients feel that their previous therapy experience was about forcing them to fit a template of what the Therapy World believes love and relationships should look like. While the therapeutic language of “intimacy” is supposedly gender-neutral, most men see it as reflecting values and ideals that appeal disproportionately to women. Nevertheless, when men don’t buy into our relationship template, we often wind up labeling them as resistant, manipulative, narcissistic, or, maybe worst of all, “patriarchal.” The message these “failed” clients get is that the way they express their love just isn’t good enough.

The reason men can talk about feelings and relationship patterns in consultation rooms, but are unlikely to keep doing it at home is simple: emotional talk tends to produce more physiological arousal in men—they experience it more stressfully. Unlike women, they don’t get the oxytocin reward that makes them feel calm, secure, and confident when talking about emotions and the complexities of relationships; testosterone, which men produce more of during stress, seems to reduce the effect of oxytocin, while estrogen enhances it. It takes more work with less reward for men to shift into and maintain the active-listening and self-revealing emotional talk they learn in therapy, so they’re unlikely to do it on a routine basis.

Gender Differences

Some readers may be squirming right now at the very suggestion that there may be gender differences in the way people love. So let me emphasize that gender differences can never account for all of the nuances and complexities of individual behavior or render irrelevant the impact of personality variables, such as introversion, sociability, and neuroticism. It’s important to remember that research findings are always about group averages and thus provide room for lots of individual exceptions.

My colleague Pat Love and I begin our presentations standing side-by-side while making the empirically valid statement that men are generally taller than women. (Pat is 5 ft. 11 in. or so, while I’m just over 5 ft. 6 in.) If you randomly select 25 men and women, the average height of the men will likely exceed the average height of the women, yet probably there’ll be tall women and short men in the sample as well. There most assuredly are men who love to talk about feelings and women who hate it. For some couples, no doubt, emotional conversation is like a good, mutually enjoyable backrub—both parties love it equally. However, those couples are unlikely to seek therapy.

Broadly speaking, the men who do come into therapy want to feel understood and appreciated as much as their wives, but therapy typically involves asking partners to go beyond generalized expressions of appreciation to acknowledge that each partner’s point of view is reasonable or understandable in certain circumstances. The focus of most of today’s couples therapies is “validation”—conveying an understanding that you experience your partner’s mental and emotional states and that you value their experience. But the fact is that men often don’t want their thoughts and deeper feelings experienced or valued by their partners, even if their therapists think they should want these things. Unless we develop a better understanding of the real, intrinsic rewards men can experience as a result of being in therapy, they’ll just go through the motions or pursue their hidden agendas, like “Learning what I have to say to get laid.”

For men to engage in the hard work of change, the rewards have to be automatic and visceral, independent of the artificial environment of the therapist’s office and vague therapeutic concepts. They have to feel compelling reasons to change and, most important, to incorporate new behavior into their daily routine. I believe that the primary motivation keeping men invested in loving relationships is different from what keeps women invested, that it has a strong biological underpinning present in all social animals, and that it’s been culturally reinforced throughout the development of the human species.

The glue that keeps men (and males in social animal groups) bonded is the instinct to protect. If you listen long enough to men talking about what it means to love, you’ll notice that loving is inextricably linked, for many men, to some form of protection. If men can’t feel successful at protecting, they can’t fully love.

Protection and Connection

The main role of males in social groups throughout the animal world is to protect the group from outside threats. For the most part, males participate in packs and herds only if the group has predators or strong competition for food. Herds and packs without predators or competitors, like elephants and hippos, are matriarchal, with males either absent or playing peripheral or merely sperm-donor roles.

Male physiology is well-evolved for group protection, with greater muscle mass, more efficient blood flow to the muscles and organs, bigger fangs and claws, quicker reflexes, longer strides, more electrical activity in the central nervous system (to stimulate organs and muscle groups), and a thicker amygdala—the organ that activates the flight or fight response. That’s right, the first emergency response in male social animals is flight, with the option to fight coming into play only when flight isn’t possible. The principal protective role of males in social groups is to lead the pack to safety. (The primacy of flight over fight may be why the initial response of most men to conflict with their wives is to withdraw or shut down.) Significantly, males who are deficient in protecting—the ones poorer at escaping or, if necessary, fighting—have little access to the females of the species.

In species in which the females are the primary hunters, like African lions, males protect the pride from competition for food from other lions and hyenas. This sets them apart from lions in other parts of the world because they’re socially integrated with the pride. Some zoologists believe that this is because the smaller females, while excellent hunters, couldn’t protect their kills from hyena packs.

When most animal packs are under attack and can’t flee, the males form a defensive perimeter, while the females for the most part gather the young and hide them within an inner circle of protection. This scenario plays out in a great many human households, when the woman, who generally has keener hearing, detects a middle-of-the-night sound somewhere in the house. The man typically goes down to investigate, perhaps carrying a baseball bat, while she checks on the children.

Even when male animals are dominant in packs and herds, the glue of the social structure is maintained by females, who attend to one another in ways that are analogous to “validation”— sniffing, licking, and grooming other female members of the pride. This behavior calms and gratifies all the females involved, much the same way that a good emotional talk with girlfriends seems to calm and gratify women. If one of the females is missing from the pack, the others seem to worry. When she returns, the other females greet her with sniffing, licking, and grooming. The males remain connected to the group by virtue of proximity to the females, but don’t interact with them much. In contrast, it appears that frequent interaction among the females—along with fear of isolation—keeps them connected.

Anthropologists agree that humans were communal from our earliest time on earth, moving into pair-bonding relatively late in our history. There’s no reason to suspect that early human social structures were greatly different from those of other primates, where the larger, stronger males protected the tribe and the more social females “validated” each other. Both specialized activities—protection and validation—increased survival rates by enhancing group cohesion and cooperation.

Through much of history, the idea that men and women should consistently engage in intimate conversation and validate each other’s emotional worlds would have been laughable. As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it, previous generations widely assumed that men and women had different natures and couldn’t truly understand each other. The idea of intergender emotional talk independent of the need to protect didn’t emerge until the dissolution of the extended family, which began in the middle of the 20th century. Previous to that, the nuclear family—an intimate couple and children living as an isolated unit—was a rarity. Other family members were in the same house, next door, or across the street. Women got their emotional validation from other women, although they certainly wanted admiration from their men and vice versa. Today, research shows that the healthiest, happiest women have a strong network of girlfriends. In earlier times, men tended to associate mostly with other men—a cultural construct that’s still prevalent in many parts of the world, frequently reinforced by religious beliefs.

Male Protection and Self-Value

The survival importance of the instinct to protect makes it a potent factor in men’s self-value. Men with families automatically suffer low self-value when they fail to protect loved ones, no matter how successful they might be in other areas of life. Just imagine the emotional fate of a world-class CEO who distractedly lets go of his child’s hand, and sees the child run over in traffic. In contrast, a man’s self-value will likely remain intact, even if he fails at work, as long as he feels he can protect his loved ones. As a boy, I remember the manager of our Little League baseball team, a man in his mid-forties, who was beloved by his two sons and idolized by the rest of the kids, even though our parents considered him a flunkie for working as a grocery store bagger. Getting fired from a job is more tolerable for men who are more invested in the protection of their families than in their egos. They tend to search immediately for another job as a means of putting food on the table, while those who view failure at work primarily as an ego assault may face weeks of self-reproach and depression before they get up the energy to job-hunt. Under stress at work, women tend to want closer family connections, while men under stress are likely to withdraw if not isolate from their families to keep from feeling overwhelmed by their failure to protect. Men who abandon their families don’t respond to them as individuals with needs as much as symbols of their failure to protect.

Failure to protect drains meaning and purpose from the lives of family men. As a result, they often turn to some form of adrenaline arousal for motivation or stimulation—chronic resentment, anger, drugs, affairs, or compulsive behavior. When those prove insufficient, they succumb to a dispirited numbness or depression. I’ve never seen a depressed, resentful, angry, abusive, addicted, unfaithful, or compulsive man who didn’t see himself as a failure at protecting his family.

Violence and Failure to Protect

Male social mammals who succumb to fear and fail to protect the pack are either killed or driven away by its dominant males. Those who survive banishment often become rogue predators on the pack, raping females and killing juveniles who stray too far from the group. Among humans, violent criminals usually lack what sociologists term a stake in the community: marriage, paternal investment in children, a job, and positive neighborhood connections. Serial killers and terrorists almost never have intimate relationships or a close connection to their children. Historically, invading armies wanted soldiers before they married or had children; when they did have spouse and children, they were kept isolated from them. By contrast, defensive armies conscripted married men because they’d be willing to die to protect their families from invading hordes.

The increase in family violence since the 1960s parallels the diminishment of fatherhood in America. Fatherless homes have grown 400 percent by some estimates, greatly increasing the risk to women and children. A woman and her children are much more likely to be abused by a boyfriend who isn’t the father of the children and to suffer serious violence and death at the hands of a rejected father, compared to a woman and children who live with the children’s father. Men marginalized as protectors of their families are likelier to struggle for power and control over their wives or girlfriends. They compensate for loss of the capacity to protect with dominance and/or violence.

My early experience with court-ordered domestic-violence offenders taught me that when fathers are more involved in the lives of their children, they’re less likely to hurt women. Before developing our intervention for domestic violence, we studied a group of young men (with a mean age of 22), all of whom had at least two children from previous relationships and who were court-ordered for abuse of their current partners. (At that time, there was only one agency in the area offering batterer intervention, and it had a long waiting list.) As is too often the case with young violent men, none of our guys had a relationship with his children.

We gave them a course called Compassionate Parenting, which raised their awareness of the emotional worlds of their children, particularly their need for fathers who care about them and are willing to look out for them. These young men got more involved in the lives of their kids and, without any direct intervention for domestic violence, reduced recidivism of partner abuse to about 28 percent. The normal recidivism rate for unmarried men of this age group was more than 60 percent, after domestic-violence intervention.

Fur and Bone

In modern culture, male protection is defined almost entirely in financial terms. Protector is practically synonymous with provider, and a man’s worth is measured by how much fur and bone he can bring home to the cave. But the world has changed profoundly. Now few women have a choice between work and full-time motherhood, and more often than not, men aren’t the chief source of financial support in their families. The psychological toll on men conditioned by nature and society to equate being the provider and protector with personal value can be devastating. The predominant cultural message continues to cast men as the dollar signs of families, only now it upholds a standard of breadwinning that fewer men than ever can achieve.

The harm of making the dollar the measure of the man is twofold. First, it undervalues the emotional support that men can—and many do—give their families. In fact, our therapeutic message to men can appear to be paradoxical because we ask them to give more emotional support to their partners at the same time that the culture undervalues it. Second, overvaluing financial support creates a sense of entitlement in many successful providers. They think all they have to do is make more money to earn the “services”—emotional, sexual, homemaking—of their wives. The fact that wives and therapists expect more from them than being a successful breadwinner seems inherently unfair.

Male Protection in Therapy

As a practical matter, it’s useful in therapy to educate couples about the role of protectiveness in the male psyche as a way of normalizing the difficulties they have in forming a more perfect union. Couples typically find it particularly interesting that males remain connected to social animal groups by proximity to the females, even though they don’t interact much, while the females enhance group cohesion by frequently interacting with one another. If the couple has had a boy and girl toddler, they can see this difference in social orientation for themselves early on. Assuming that the children are both securely attached, the boy will tend to play in proximity to the caregiver, always checking to see that he or she is there, but seeking far fewer direct interactions—talking, asking questions, making eye contact, touching, hugging—than the girl. As long as he knows his caregiver is present, his primary interaction is with the environment.

Similarly, a man can feel close to his wife if he’s in one room—on the computer, in front of the TV, or going about his routine—and she’s in another. He’ll likely protest, sulk, or sink into loneliness if she goes out, which she may well do since he isn’t talking to her anyway. To her, and to uninformed therapists, it seems that he wants her home so he can ignore her. But he isn’t ignoring her; her presence gives stability to his routine.

This little example of why proximity to his wife is crucial to him works wonders in opening a man’s eyes to that fact that his wife gives meaning and purpose to his life. In fact, we tend to think about meaning or purpose only when we’re losing it, which is why men tend to fall in love with their wives as they’re walking out the door, with their bags packed. Evidence for the drastic loss of meaning and purpose that men suffer when they lose their wives is seen in the effects of divorce and widowerhood on men: poorer job performance, impaired problem-solving, lowered creativity, high distractibility, “heavy foot” on the gas while driving, anxiety, worry, depression, resentment, anger, aggression, alcoholism, poor nutrition, isolation, shortened lifespan, and suicide. The divorced or widowed man isn’t merely lonely—he’s alone with the crushing shame of his failure to protect his family.

I’m able to use education about the effects of divorce on men clinically, because most guys know someone at work who’s lost his family and become a shadow of his former self. As a quick way of accessing men’s fundamental sense of the meaning and purpose of their lives, I ask each man to write down what he thinks is the most important thing about him as a person. “How do you want those you love to remember you,” I ask. “Near the end of your life, what will you most regret not doing enough of?”

Because meaning and purpose are elusive psychological concepts—a way of describing why we do something rather than what we do—men will rarely hit the mark at first. They say they want to be remembered as a “good provider,” “hard worker,” “loyal man,” choosing mostly protective terms. I then ask them to imagine that they have grown children and how they’d most like their children to feel about them when they’re gone. “Dad was a good provider, hard worker, loyal, etc. I’m not sure he cared about us, but he was a good provider, worked, and was loyal” or “Dad was human; he made mistakes. But I always knew that he cared about us and wanted what was best for us.” On a deep level, all the men I’ve worked with have wanted to be remembered with some version of the second statement—as both protective and compassionate. Helping men learn to express care and compassion directly to the people they love is the key to bridging the divide between their protective instinct and their reluctance to show their emotions.

To Love Big, Think Small

Most of my work with couples centers on helping men come up with ways to approach expressions of emotional support and compassion as a form of protection. We start with enhancing a man’s daily awareness of how his desire to protect his family gives meaning and purpose to his life. He signs an agreement in therapy to remind himself every day that the primary reason he does most of what he does is to protect his family.

My experience in working with men has taught me not to be misled by the interest they might show in therapeutic topics during sessions. They’re often curious about patterns of behavior and communication, as well as family-of-origin issues. They’re also capable of impressive catharsis during sessions. Typically, however, their curiosity and catharsis won’t translate into sustainable behavior change, as 20-plus years of doing regular follow-ups with couples indicate. For all its repetitive tedium, behavior rehearsal is more effective with men in the long run than insight and catharsis.

That’s probably because men are creatures of habit, who generally don’t like surprises or departures from routine. They tend to be less tolerant of interruptions in their relatively rigid daily regimens—eating the same thing for breakfast every day, brushing their teeth at the same time and in the same direction, putting their keys in the same place at the same interval after they arrive home. Because routine is paramount for most men, behavior change based on insight and catharsis eventually sinks beneath the grind of daily habits. But if their routine incorporates small behaviors that enhance their relationships (by increasing their sense of protectiveness), change is likelier to endure.

Early in therapy, I ask men to come up with some brief, symbolic rituals that will build an awareness of the meaning and purpose of their role as protector into their daily routine. A few of my favorites include lighting a morning candle, posting “I love you” notes, putting a flower petal on his wife’s breakfast plate, sending affectionate text messages, and writing one line of their favorite song every day. To increase the chances of compliance, the rule for the small rituals is that they’re spread throughout the day and take less than two minutes total to enact. The goal is to build a mentality of caring over time.

Although men in treatment almost invariably buy into compassion as a deeper form of protection, there’s one aspect of this important bonding emotion that’s hard for both men and women to grasp: true compassion is giving what the other person needs, not necessarily what you want to give. The kind of protection men want to give often comes off more like control than the help and support their partners desire. It’s easy for any of us to confuse control with support when we feel protective of loved ones. If you doubt that, just ask your children. What seems controlling to them, you feel you do out of concern and protectiveness. I use several techniques with couples to convert control into support.

First I explain that control is: implying that she isn’t smart or creative enough to decide things on her own, or that her perspectives and opinions aren’t valid, relevant, or important. It’s telling her what to do and then criticizing or withdrawing affection if she doesn’t do it. By contrast, protective support is: respecting her competence, intelligence, creativity, and resourcefulness. It’s giving her encouragement to find the best course of action and then standing by her if what she decides to do doesn’t work. The therapeutic practice I use is role-playing advocacy—he’s her lawyer presenting her case (i.e., perspective) in a disagreement. This forces him to focus on the strengths of her position, rather than trying to undermine it. We practice this until the ability to see both perspectives simultaneously becomes automatic to him. The nice thing about this exercise is its built-in reciprocity effect; women tend to begin see both perspectives simultaneously, too, when their husbands start doing it.

A major challenge to lasting change in marriage lies in the fact that couples’ day-to-day interactions operate largely on automatic pilot. Emotional response is triggered predominantly by unconscious cues, such as body language, tone of voice, and level of mental distractedness. Negativity in any of these inadvertently sets off the automatic defense system that’s developed between the parties. Once triggered, the unaware couple can easily spiral into dysfunctional patterns of relating. They tend to get lost in the details of whatever they’re blaming on each other, with no realization of what’s actually happened to them—namely, an inadvertent triggering of the automatic defense system.

To offset the escalating effects of the automatic defense system, I try to get men to use their negative emotions as cues to protect. If he feels guilty, ashamed, resentful, or angry, she’s most likely feeling anxious or afraid, even if those vulnerable emotions are hidden beneath harsh resentment or anger. I ask the guy to remember times when he first felt negative emotions in any given interaction with his wife. He recalls the feeling and briefly “physicalizes” it, noting what it feels like in his neck, jaw, chest, shoulders, back, arms, and hands. He associates these physical sensations with a moment’s mindfulness of the things he most values about himself as a person, which is to be protective and compassionate to his family. He then shifts focus to the anxiety or fear underlying his wife’s resentment/ anger. He makes some gesture of reassurance—a demonstration of protectiveness to ease her anxiety—usually making eye contact, touching her hand, rubbing her shoulder, or just asking if he can help. The gesture has to convey that he cares about how she feels and that he very much wishes her well. This level of compassion has to be established before they address the content of their dispute. Once emotional reactivity is regulated by compassion, any dispute becomes easier to resolve. We practice the exercise in treatment until it seems automatic to the couple.

This is sounding much more mundane and plodding than it is in execution. It’s actually exhilarating to help a man use his protective instinct to strengthen his vulnerability. It’s exciting to watch him move from perceiving his wife’s requests (and complaints) as indictments of his ability to protect to experiencing them as cues to activate his desire to protect. He can then see, hear, and support—that is, protect—the most important adult in his life. When he’s able to do that, she feels validated. They both feel “connected,” for want of a better term, even though they’re in different emotional states and doing different things for different rewards. Rather than forcing themselves to act like the same instruments playing the same notes in a duet, couples who begin to interact in this way become like two different instruments playing different notes to create something together that neither can do individually—relational harmony.

Steven Stosny

Steven Stosny, Ph.D. is a well-known therapist and author of many books and articles. He’s appeared on all the major networks and national radio shows, most of the major newspapers and magazines. He has taught at the University of Maryland. His blog on has more than 21 million views.