Should You Take Sides in Couples Therapy?

Why Psychotherapy's Views on Male Intimacy Need to Change

Terry Real

"I can understand why Jenn is so frustrated," Peter says, sighing, his voice soft and Southern. He runs his hand through thinning hair. Early forties, I figure: he's handsome—even sexy—in a cerebral, Ivy League sort of way. With a mop of jet-black hair, a long frame, and dark lipstick, Jenn is visually arresting as well. But despite her looks and style, there's something faded about her, worn and fatigued.

"I'm glad I'm here," Peter says tentatively. "Really, I am. It's just—." He trails off. We wait for him. "I don't know," he moans, frustrated. "I guess I'm not sure what I want, to be honest. I'm—." He pokes a hole with the tip of his polished shoe in my carpet. I resist the impulse to tell him to stop. "I guess I'm just, well, I'm confused."

"Can I just cut in here?" Jenn offers. "Sure, perhaps we could—," I begin.
But she breezes right past me, "I just have one thing to say," she wheels on her husband.

"I'd like to suggest—," I try again.

"Fuck you, Peter!" she delivers her payload. "Just go fuck yourself." And then she leans back, arms folded over her chest, not heaving or screaming or anything, just staring.

Couples on the Brink

If Peter and Jenn were on the brink, it was because Peter had pushed them there. Throughout the marriage, he'd always had his "special friends." "Peter is charming," Jenn smiles. "He's an honestly friendly guy, with both men and women. He'd just get in over his head sometimes." So Jenn had thought, until about six months ago, when she'd discovered he was having an affair. Jenn had contacted a lawyer the following day, but she didn't really want her marriage to end. Peter had backed away from his young mistress, admitted being "inappropriate" in other relationships, and agreed to come up from Atlanta to see me—a last-ditch effort to salvage things. But after traveling so far, Peter now seemed loath to push himself all the way through. "My marriage has been dead for years," he tells me, furtively glancing at Jenn. "And I've been dead in it. I guess I can't really say for sure that I want to go back."

"Are you open to trying?" I ask. "Do you want to resuscitate the marriage if you can?"

"Well, yeah," he answers, repeating the nervous brush of his fingertips through his hair. "Sure, I guess," he drawls with a thunderous lack of conviction.

Clinically, it would have been straightforward if Peter had been lying, if he really did want the marriage to end but was having difficulty finding the nerve to say so. But as it would turn out, he didn't want to leave Jenn, though it was hard to know this at the moment. He loved her, he told me without much enthusiasm during this first session. He just wasn't sure, anymore, that he loved her, "like that."

Not fully in the marriage and yet not out of it, Peter had parked in a position I call "stable ambiguity." For those of us who have emerged from painful childhoods or dysfunctional families, intimacy can be a conundrum. Too immature to deal with the pain of being alone and to tolerate the pain inherent in any important relationship, some of us avoid both loneliness and commitment by arranging connections that we're in, but not of—affairs, star-crossed situations, long-distance romances. The most prevalent form is "I'm with you, but I don't really belong here."

"There's a word," I tell Peter later in the session, "for going to sleep each night and waking up each morning with someone you're not sure you really want to be with. Do you know what it is?" He shakes his head. "It's called torture," I tell him. "It's a way of torturing someone." Peter opens his mouth to speak and then clamps it shut firmly as Jenn puts her head in her hands and starts to cry. Her shoulders tremble slightly as she turns from us. I offer her some tissues.

It's at this juncture that many women cry. Why? Because, like Jenn, pushed to the brink of a divorce they don't really want, they've dragged their male partners to several therapists hoping for backup, validation, help—with little result. I believe these are tears of relief.

Love Found and Lost

For the past five years, Carol Gilligan and I have worked on an informal exploration of intimacy. I bring to the collaboration a resonance with men's voices, and a focus on relational trauma and its consequences. Carol brings a resonance with women's voices and a focus on pleasure.

Interviewing couples together transformed our thinking. A common story began to emerge—of boys and girls attached to their mothers in pleasure and then losing that connection, of men and women attached to each other in love and then losing that connection. As we tracked the course of love found and lost in childhood, found and lost again as adults, our work became ever more clearly guided by one overarching principle: authentic connection—intimacy—is our natural state as human beings, the state we begin life in, the state we function best in, the condition we most crave, despite our wounds and defenses. It's the "relationality" that Relational Recovery Therapy seeks to recover. That conviction guides each moment in therapy, and it gives us the courage to speak the truth.

Peter looks on blankly as Jenn wipes her face.

"Can you say why you're crying?" I ask her. "Can you put it into words?"

"I'm crying because it's true," she says, hurling the last word at her husband. "I've felt it for years. For years, Peter!" She wads the tissue in her hand. "I didn't even have the guts to say it to myself, but I've felt it all along, Peter. I've felt tortured by you and your goddamn ambivalence."

"And you've hated him for it," I finish for her.

My words take her aback. They're too harsh, too lacking in nuance.

"It's not that I hated you," she corrects me. "I still don't hate you, even now. It's just a part of me has died."

"Do you want it back?" I ask, "that part of you?

"Yes!" she answers unhesitatingly. "Yes, if we were in a healthy relationship."

"And do you want her to get it back?" I ask Peter.

"Well, I think everyone deserves to feel—," he trots out, prevaricating.

"With you, Peter," I press. "Are you interested in a return of her feelings for you?"

"Well, I suppose so," he says, hedging. "I—I have to say, I'm not really sure."

"Well, this is therapy," I answer expansively. "Think about it. Take your time. Take a full minute or two. If this marriage can be set to rights, put where you want it to be, are you even open to it? Or is it a foregone conclusion that—."

"No," he says. "I'd rather work things out if we can."

"Why?" I ask him.

"Why?" he says. "Why? Well, we have a lot of history. We've been married 13 years. We have two kids, a house."

I lean in a little toward him. "And you love her?"

For a long while he contemplates his wife. "Yes," he answers at last. "As much as I think I love anybody." No one says anything for a moment; we sit in the rippling silence of Peter's admission.

"Why do you say that?" I ask softly, "'As much as I love anyone?'"

"I didn't mean—I just—." He starts to back off.

"You're not sure you quite know how to love completely?" I press.

"I—," he pauses, on the brink. And then he lets himself go. "Right," he confesses. "Yes, you're right. Not completely."

"Thank you, Peter," I answer, shaking his hand.

"What for?"

"Courage," I answer, "and honesty. Because I think you're probably right. I think you don't quite know how to love. We don't know why yet, where it comes from, but I believe you when you say it. It feels true."

"Oh," he seems a little dazed that I've agreed with him. Looking square into my face he asks, "So what happens now?" It's the most direct thing he has said so far.

"It all depends on what you want. But if you want to, really want to, what happens now is that we fix it."

At first, I see Jenn's face tighten. But then her expression softens, and she leans back on the couch. She has decided to let me play my hand. Peter looks bemused, and then his jaw sets and he seems, for the first time since he entered the office, resolved. "You may think I like putzing around in all this," he says, the Yiddish sounding funny on his Southern lips, "But I really am tired of it. I want it settled—one way or another."

"Good," I answer. "Good. Then we have a deal."

Reversing Entropy

Over the last 40 years, women's roles—and the way women see themselves—have radically changed. The problem is that the same can't be said of men.

With new economic, cultural, and psychological resources, empowered women are, for the first time in history, insisting on real emotional intimacy in their marriages. And men are coming up short. We can't blame each of these men individually. It isn't enough to sift through each one's family of origin in search of clues for their domestic failures. Men's job description has changed—and men are unprepared for the change. We don't raise, nor have we ever raised, boys and men to be intimate partners, but to be strong, competitive performers. The pressure to be hard, logical, independent, and stoic all too often sets men up to be emotionally distant, arrogant, numb to their own feelings, and unconcerned about everyone else's, as well as contemptuous of vulnerability and weakness.

These aren't pathological aberrations; they're the defining characteristics of manhood in our culture. I tell clients like Peter, "The very values and traits instilled in us as boys—whether we wanted them or not—ensure that we'll become lousy husbands." I lift the burden of responsibility from their shoulders, but I also break one of marital therapy's cardinal rules.

I side with the woman.


The field of psychotherapy has allowed itself to be intimidated. The unvoiced open secret, the elephant in the middle of the room, is that men bring into the therapy room the same privilege they bring into the living room and bedroom: the privilege to flee.

The subtext is that men, if pushed too hard, will explode, fall apart, or bolt, so it's best to soothe them, win them over, and then tell them the difficult truth. In Relational Recovery Therapy, my colleagues and I do things differently. We form a trusting relationship with the man by engaging the difficult truth, right out of the starting gate. I often say to my students: I don't know how to teach a man authentic relatedness while not being authentic with him.

Taking Responsibility

I lean back, think about where I'm going to go.

Peter raises his head. "We've been to four therapists already," he begins. "If Jenn would just—."

I hold up my hand for him to stop, asking him to wait a minute while I gather my thoughts.

"Peter," I begin. "This is one of those make-it-or-break-it moments in therapy." He waits expectantly. "She's right," I tell him. "You're wrong."

Peter looks startled.

"Let it go," I tell him. He cries, his face red, his sobs choke in his throat. "Open your throat," I instruct. "Make noise. If you choke this off you'll just make yourself sick."

He sobs in earnest, tears and mucus flowing, banging his hand into his thigh.

"Put what you're feeling into words, Peter." I put my hand over his, stopping him from hurting himself.

"I hate it! I hate it! I hate it when I act like this!" through his tears.

"Good, Peter. That's good to know."

A Second Language

Conventional wisdom has it that men are afraid of intimacy. But I don't think so. I think many men, like Peter, don't know what real intimacy is. They bring the one-up, one-down framework of masculinity into their relationships and read closeness through the only filter they know. Men aren't afraid of intimacy; they're afraid of subjugation. Many men read emotional receptivity as an invitation to be run over. But shame and grandiosity are incompatible with love. Peter needs a new space, a median space of loving truthfulness, of moderation and accountability.

Step by step, Peter begins the process of rebuilding his capacity for appropriate shame and legitimate self-esteem. We work on letting go of contempt, letting go of control, experiencing empathy and true remorse.

Speaking the Truth

While many women, like Jenn, have trouble connecting in healthy ways, many men, like Peter, need help learning how to connect at all. Does Jenn have her issues? Of course, and they'll emerge most clearly and be dealt with just as emphatically, after her husband begins to change. As my male clients begin to move into recovery, to give their partners what they've been asking for all these years, most women don't swoon in their arms in loving gratitude. They most often hesitate behind walls of anger and complaint, just as their men have predicted they would. But as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, "First things first."

Real intimacy is the conjunction of truth and love. Patriarchy, and the rules sustaining it, blunt women's capacity to live in the truth and men's capacity to live with love. Conventional therapy has done as much to replicate these mores as challenge them. It's time for men and women of good faith to join in the understanding that this traditional arrangement harms both sexes and compromises the union between them. Undoing those strictures isn't feminist work any more than it's masculinist: it's work for all of us who stand in serious pursuit of fulfilling lives—for ourselves, and for the troubled, searching men and women who come to us in hope of guidance and relief.


This blog is excerpted from "The Awful Truth," by Terry Real. The full version is available in the November/December 2002 issue, Bad Couples Therapy: How to Avoid It.

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Photo © Tero Vesalainen/Dreamstime

Topic: Couples | Men

Tags: affair | affairs | couples | Couples & Family | couples conflict | couples counseling | couples therapist | divorce | divorce counseling | have affairs | having an affair | healthy relationships | love | love and relationships | Men | Men and Intimacy | men and therapy | men in therapy | men's issues | Terry Real

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