Creating a Safe Space for Men in Therapy

Using a Men's Group Therapy Model to Cultivate Emotional Intimacy

Robert Garfield

I have been running therapeutic men’s groups---we call them “friendship labs”---for the past 18 years. While everyone believes that emotional intimacy is important in relationships, men often struggle with certain skills—like emotional expressiveness, self-disclosure, vulnerability, giving and getting support, letting go of control, cooperation, and reciprocity---that are at odds with our cultural definitions of successful masculinity. Psychotherapy has developed clever methods to persuade men to adopt the more open and expressive habits, but many guys entering therapy still feel as though they’re walking into a lion’s den of shame, humiliation, and failure if they acquire them---specifically, failure as men.

We’ve found that groups are particularly appealing for men who experience traditional individual or couples approaches as being too alien or off-putting. There’s something comforting about being part of a group of guys dealing with similar issues, who are there to ask for and give support to each other.

Men in our groups often lament the superficiality of their friendships with other men. We’ve found that fostering intimate male relationships can greatly help men better care for themselves and connect with each other, while deepening their relationships with their partners and children.

Jack and Caroline

Jack and Caroline had been in couples therapy for only a few months when their therapist, Rhonda, a colleague and friend of mine, noticed that his interest appeared to be flagging. He seemed sincere, but continued to zone out when Caroline asked him to attend to her emotional needs. He’d shake his head affirmatively, but nothing seemed to be getting through. When they tried to speak at home, Jack would drink, argue, and withdraw.

Jack was 44 and Caroline was 42 with two daughters, ages 7 and 9. Money was a focal point for this couple. Jack was a successful banker, but would become impatient when Caroline would press him for details about their finances. During Caroline’s childhood, her father had periodically gambled away the family’s money, and she and her mother had been left to fend off the bill collectors. The thought of financial instability caused Caroline major anxiety.

Close inquiry revealed that the couple was, in fact, on good financial footing; however, none of this explained Jack’s dismissiveness or his aggravation in response to Caroline’s distress whenever they discussed money. He seemed to revel in her upset mood while stonewalling her around financial details, arguing and then leaving the scene in a huff. Rhonda admitted she was “pulling her hair out” trying to get Jack to feel the slightest bit of empathy for Caroline.

After a few months of getting nowhere with Jack, Rhonda, called me and said, “Do I have a guy for your men’s group!”

Meeting to Decide

Jack seemed affable and easy to connect with on the surface. When men feel shamed, however, they can become irascible and even violent, so we always carefully question how anger and frustration get expressed at home with the partner and children.

“If you mean, do I hit her or get physical? No, no! I cuss sometimes, but mostly I argue with her and then withdraw.” He didn’t seem to be taking much pleasure in describing this scenario.

In eliciting these kinds of details, we try to reduce the shaming experience for a man, to normalize his reactions. We do explore, however, whether additional interventions, such as anger management or drug or alcohol treatment, might be needed before accepting someone into our groups.

Jack was embarrassed about his behaviors. “I don’t speak to anyone, my friends included, about these things.” Jake, my coleader, stepped in to reassure him, “The whole idea is that the group is a place where guys can feel safe to talk about things they normally don’t share, and get support from each other. You can share details at your own pace. We’re not going to force you to reveal anything.”

Making Meaningful Connections

When it was his turn, Jack jumped in, sharing his childhood history, what he thought were his “therapy issues,” and how he routinely got annoyed with Caroline. The group’s attention seemed to energize him, and when he’d finished his story, he presented his dilemma: “It seems like I’m not the only guy here who has trouble with his wife. What would you guys suggest I do with her? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” There was silence in the room.

Finally, Ed, one of the group members, responded: “I guess if I were you, I’d start by trying to figure out why you’re so angry with your wife---a person who you seem to love---and try to get this under control.” Jack was stunned. He’d never been confronted by another guy about his behavior before. Come to think of it, he’d never shared anything like this with anyone. He felt surprisingly relieved. He nodded and responded thoughtfully. “So maybe I can get some help with this here?” The other men nodded with encouragement.

Conversations from the Heart

What Jack experienced was a far cry from the locker-room banter that most men complain about and feel so limited by in their daily lives. We encourage our guys to express their feelings, disclose important information, be vulnerable, and provide each other with honest emotional feedback, as opposed to problem solving or intellectual analysis.

All this requires creating an atmosphere of safety. We start by insisting on confidentiality outside of the group. Our men agree that they won’t repeat what’s discussed in the group with anyone outside, even with intimate partners. If they wish to share their own experience with a partner, it’s at their discretion.

We introduce structured exercises and discussions around particular themes that arise (our models for manhood, what we expect of ourselves as husbands, fathers, and professionals, sex, money, and status). These discussions provide opportunities for emotionally intimate exchanges.

My take was that Jack felt heard by the guys in his group, and, as a result, was better able to hear his wife.

Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

We’ve found that therapeutic men’s groups that focus on developing emotional intimacy skills not only help men bond with each other, but also, as with Jack, help strengthen their marriages and other close relationships. This seems to echo Henry Ford’s praise for close male relationships: “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.”

This blog is excerpted from “Using Men's Groups to Enhance Couples Therapy." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Professional Development | Couples

Tags: group therapy | psychotherapy | relationships | sex | therapist | therapy | marriage | networker | crying | emotional | Men | romance | walled-off | feelings | emotions | shutdown | Robert Garfield | safe space | bonding | male | romantic

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