Esther Perel on the Paradox of Masculinity

What Does It Mean to Be a “Real” Man Today?

Esther Perel

Psychotherapy Networker: In the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, the watchword for the intellectually adventurous in this field used to be context. Whether it was about gender, race, or class, a lot of conversation centered around how the larger dimensions of identity and culture were relevant to therapy. But that focus on context has seemed to fade over the years. What happened?

Esther Perel: It’s all part of a pendulum swing. Years ago, Salvador Minuchin, the father of structural family therapy, taught us about the importance of context in his work with delinquent boys at the Wiltwyck School. He found that the boys who’d changed their behavior at school soon regressed after being sent home and returned to the context of their family and neighborhood. He showed how we needed to understand that behavior wasn’t something intrinsic within the child, but something dictated by the context in which they lived. So we began to look less at what caused the problem and more at what maintains it. In other words, we looked at how the system was organized.

But as exciting as the family therapy movement was, it underrepresented the psychology of the individual. So the next generation of therapists came along and said, "We need to reinstate the individual," and that was an important corrective that was then reinforced by the hyperfocus on individualism in society as a whole. The pendulum swung strongly in the other direction. As a result, our field, like the rest of society, was inducted into the point of view of the individual too.

PN: Do you think that’s changing now?

Perel: I think it’s time for us to find a way to unite context with individualism. There’s been many recent changes in the social and political landscape that we can’t ignore. We realize that we’re not shielded from the rise of authoritarianism  the way we’d come to believe. Our social institutions no longer seem solid. The 2016 election showed those of us who live in liberal enclaves, which includes the majority of therapists, that we actually inhabit a different world than the one we thought we did. Although we promote curiosity, flexibility, uncertainty, and complexity, and we aim to introduce that in the lives of our clients, it’s not evident.

Even the #MeToo movement risks perpetuating an understanding of sexual misconduct from an individualistic point of view: we think that justice is about punishing a few bad apples yet we, as a society, ignore the institutions that sustain the culture of harassment. The focus on individuals like Harvey Weinstein and other predatory men just creates a colony of lepers (as Foucault used to say) who we can blame for the problem.

Now, more than ever, we need a multidisciplinary approach that looks at the root cause—where the context meets the individual. We need to bridge the gap, and we need to ensure that our work engages with the current social woes as much as we engage with the individual.

PN: One of the distinctive features of your work is your focus on understanding the male experience. Where does that come from?

Perel: I’ve always had close, nurturing relationships with men. Professionally, I’ve worked with men’s groups, national sports teams, and at millennial men’s conferences. My first book Mating in Captivity, brought me to speak to hundreds of men and to learn valuable lessons about the sexual and relationship socialization of men and the challenges they faced. This is all in addition to the men I encounter in my practice—men from all racial and religious backgrounds in the throes of their relational lives, in crises and in love, in highs and in lows.

Across these experiences, one thing that’s surprised me over and over again is that when men start to open up, they often tell me things they’ve never told anyone in their lives. They tell me things they’ve not even told themselves. That tells me that there’s a big gap when it comes to the resources and the tools we make available to men. At this particular moment in time, in so many Western societies, there’s this paradoxical motion: we want to invite men to enter into a conversation with women about gender and roles and masculinity—but there’s a lot of ambivalence (and I mean that in the literal sense of strongly mixed feelings) about the outcomes desired.

We’ve spent the past 50 years discussing what it means to be a woman. Women have examined their relationships, their identity, their sense of agency, at home and at work. And now, maybe for the first time, we’re at a moment where men could have the same opportunity to redefine themselves—but I worry that we aren’t giving men, or women, the resources they need to get there.

PN: When you talk with your female colleagues and give them your sympathetic portrayal of the dilemmas of manhood, do you ever get pushback, as if you’re betraying women?

Perel: It’s even more complex than that. When men start talking about manhood, it gets quickly framed by a polarizing narrative that labels them as either mush, or as taking part in a dangerous boys club. The moment women start talking about masculinity, men start girding their loins, assuming they’re about the be banished to the leper colony.

When I first started talking about holding a conference on The Masculinity Paradox, many men and women came forward saying, “Yes, please, this is a much-needed discussion.” At the same time, a handful of men that I respected professionally went straight into attack mode. They didn’t ask about the aims of the event. Instead, they immediately went into diatribes that implied they thought this couldn’t be anything other than an organized attack on men or a misguided woman’s attempt at feminizing their gender.

It was disappointing, and the exact type of rigidity and polarization I’m trying to move beyond by bringing multiple voices and experts to the table. Nobody wins when we create silos based on some notion that “I’m so special you’ll never understand, therefore we can never really talk to each other.” Deconstructing masculinity as we’ll do at the event doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s happening because the dominant model has revealed its limitations.

Feminism has given women a new narrative, but it hasn’t offered men a particularly new narrative that they can identify with. Because women have undertaken to redefine themselves, they’ve forced men to do the same. Yet feminist literature only locates the problem with men, and the male-studies literature only focuses on the crisis of masculinity and the ontological anxiety, the mutilation that they feel as a consequence of the changes that women have made. Ultimately, the lives of women will not change until the lives of men come along. This means they get to rethink their lives as well.

PN: What can therapists contribute to the current conversation about our gender politics and the meaning of masculinity and femininity today?

Perel: I think that there was a time not so long ago when therapists became advocates for children and challenged the status quo, hence,  active participants in normative change. We helped parents and schools talk to  children differently and transition from corporal punishment to conversation. And I think that at this moment, therapists need to once again participate in the social change that’s taking place. We’re well positioned for that role. We can help people brave difficult changes that are really scary for both men and for women—and we can become relevant on a social and political level again.

Questioning our deep-seated convictions is long and painful. If we don’t step up now, we’ll be part and parcel to the creation of an environment where everyone is too afraid to talk about “it”---where the word masculinity becomes this cultural trigger word that sets people off in their various ways.

Masculinity is a very complex subject and it’s important to recognize all of its different dimensions—intimacy, power, sexuality, and trauma—in order to figure out how it all adds up. What makes the identities of men today? As Terry Real has written, “Currently, masculinity seems at war with itself. How can we as therapists, coaches, relieve men's suffering—both individual symptoms and interpersonal difficulties—by helping them reconstruct who they are as men, what kind of man to be?” And I will add: how can we dig into this in a way that benefits all of us, men and women alike?

That is our mission. 


Esther Perel, MA, LMFT, is hosting Sessions Live 2018: The Masculinity Paradox, a clinical event and workshop for therapists and coaches, on November 10, 2018.

Topic: Couples | Men | Sex & Sexuality

Tags: 2018 | Esther Perel | Feminism | gender | Gender differences | gender issues | gender roles | male | male clients | male sexuality | Men | Men and Intimacy | men and therapy | Mens health | men's issues

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Friday, September 13, 2019 12:26:03 PM | posted by Marne Wine
I have pondered this issue for decades. I grew up with 4 older brothers, that definitely contributed to my comfort around men. I married a man who was one of 4 brothers. And at one time in my career, I taught pilots for a major commercial airline, typically 30 in a class. 99% were male then. I love (most:) men and have advocated for them, and taught them relationship skills for 25+ years. That being said, I am SO excited this is a new focus for you. I know you will bring meaningful positive change on their behalf. I am SO excited about this! I am also curious about one aspect. I recall you saying your husband has spent his career dealing with trauma and pain. My husband told me once that historically there has always been war. He broke my heart by telling me it would be an injustice to our sons, if we did not raise them to be prepared to go to war. We both lived through the Vietnam era, where young men were drafted, and had to serve. Ugh. This is a complicated and important study. Thank you for delving into this world of masculinity. I appreciate you more than I can say.

Saturday, November 10, 2018 11:38:30 PM | posted by Jeffrey Von Glahn
Thank you so very much for raising this topic. It’s one I’ve given serious thought to for some time – and I have to confess that I’m still as befuddled by the meaning of “masculinity” as I’ve ever been. If someone asked what I thought of the word, my immediate answer would be, “I have absolutely no idea.” Nor do I understand the meaning of a “real” man. I think a part of the problem is that “femininity” has been a popular topic of conversation for many, many years. I was in college at the height of the Sixties. One of my confusing responses to that word is, “Well, I can understand, at least in general, why that’s a popular topic for women.” The implication seems to be that as a male there is an automatic assumption that “masculinity” is an important part of who I am. What I can be more explicit about is the societal expectations for males, which I’m sure that inquisitive folks of both genders will agree is, in some ways, quite oppressive. For example, if a problem arises in a social situation and there are females present, they all look to me for an answer. I recently overheard several high school girls discussing how they found themselves doing that, and not liking it. The stereotype says that I am forbidden to say, “I don’t know;” whereas, a woman has societal approval for readily saying so, and without having to offer much of a rationalization for doing so. When someone is faced with a social stereotype, the fear that immediately grips the person is that all of society is watching – and waiting! I’ve always been heterosexual. The fear of acting otherwise has been crippling of my basic nature. One day I left a building with another fellow where we were taking a break from an encounter type group. We walked out holding hands. I knew that he was heterosexual as well. We walked along the sidewalk of an upper-class neighborhood for about 20 seconds. Then both of us at the same instant disengaged our hand. Neither one of us said a word. We didn’t have to. I can also tell you what I’ve struggled with for many years: Getting out from under the stereotype for males. I’ve become quite emotionally expressive, at least compared to my childhood when I was raised by parents who weren’t so. Example: I recently met a woman, perhaps 15 years younger, who, every time we unexpectedly encountered each other and based on a dozen or so few minute though quite personal conversations, had an immediate expression of utter, sheer delight that I suspect surprised her as much as it did me. One day, I found myself reflecting on the dozen or so times over the past month that that had happened. A few seconds later, I started tearing, and then sobbing for a little bit as I realized that I had no memory of anyone in my life ever looking at me with such unabashed delight. And, contrary to most of my life, I couldn’t wait to tell her and a few others close to me about my crying. I’m 77, and feel like I’m making great progress in becoming the kind of person I was meant, intrinsically, to be, especially in terms of being more spontaneously expressive emotionally. Have I ever wished that I was female? No. However, I freely admit that I am unbelievably envious of how spontaneously expressive a female can be. Conclusion: I don’t like the word “masculinity.” I just want to be my natural self, the one that various forces in society try to say I can’t. Being a therapist has been a great socially approved opportunity for me to be so.