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Do Men and Women Want the Same Things?

Men in Therapy

By Rich Simon Not long ago, my wife, Jette (who just happens to be the world’s best couples’ therapist), and I were about to begin one of the several couples weekend workshops we hold every year. One of the men in the group approached Jette during an early break, obviously in real distress. “You must change the sign downstairs in the lobby,” he hissed in her ear. The offending sign, there in public for all to see, said, “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, and 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.”

In recent years, this kind of intense reaction from many has been receiving more and more clinical attention. Therapists have increasingly begun to tune into a secret that many men harbor–how often we feel unable to live up to the seemingly impossible task of being a “man” (whatever that means). And when we fail, however it looks on the outside, how we experience the corrosive, toxic, intolerable feelings of shame. Just the threat of being shamed is so dreadful to us that we will do virtually anything to avoid it—we will possibly yell at or stonewall our wives, get drunk, pick fights, drive our cars like bats out of hell, join a militia, or have sex with as many women as possible.

In the early days of this magazine, inspired by the feminist movement, previously undiscussed aspects of women’s experiences received far more of our editorial attention—the plight of mothers, the power inequities of traditional marriage, and, most of all, therapists’ reflexive tendency to blame women when things went wrong in the family. But while that exploration was primarily inspired by politics and ideology, the recent focus on men has been far more pragmatic, arising out of recognition that therapy, especially couples therapy, too often just doesn’t work with men. As Steven Stosny has written in the Networker, “While the therapeutic language of ‘intimacy’ is supposedly gender-neutral, most men see it as reflecting values and ideals that appeal disproportionately to women.”

In a few weeks, we’ll be rebroadcasting a webcast series on Men and Intimacy that may be of interest to you if you missed it the first time. Meanwhile, check out some articles by Stosny, David Wexler, Holly Sweet, and Barry Jacobs that address the therapeutic challenge of working with men. As you read them, you may find yourself exploring a territory beyond the politically correct, in which it is possible to consider whether there 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.

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17 Responses to Do Men and Women Want the Same Things?

  1. Thank you. As a couples “therapist” myself I welcome this perspective. I would like to be included in an email when you air this webcast. I will in the meantime check out the links above. Help me (us) come up with a term that is more gender friendly to men and women when coming in for couples work. I might propose the terms couples work, relationship enhancement, gender aware dialogue with intimate partners, etc, etc, etc. Good luck!

  2. After many years as a Marriage and Family Therapist working with domestic violence and child abuse cases I believe men behave badly and have negative reactions to “therapy” because they can. It has to do with entitlement, power and control and a sense that males should be dominant over their female partners. We as change agents, need to change societal beliefs and behaviors that support that erroneous belief that men enjoy a special privilege that allows misbehavior just because they are men. Men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. We are all from planet earth and need to behave respectfully toward one another!

    • Marilyn Pisante says:

      This is true, but we women have a tendency to explain things mainly on the basis of men’s exaggerated rights and privileges which is undoubtedly correct. However, this article is focusing on something different, something we do not usually think about, and these are men’s feelings of inadequacy and shame. I believe that we should focus more on that, because it is harder for men to show their vulnerability and difficulty because it is socially unacceptable. The truth is that they are much more vulnerable than women. I have a friend whose husband started cheating on her when she saw a man in the street and said “what a good looking man that is”.

  3. Hi Rich:

    Read”Adam was trapped Eve Was Framed” maybe this will help you all understand, I am a clinician, a professor for 40 years…………


  4. Can we receive CE’s for this workshop?

  5. Kelsey Menehan says:

    I think there is a typo above: As Steven Stosny has written in the Networker, “While the therapeutic language of ‘intimacy’ is supposedly gender-neutral, most men see it as reflecting values and ideals that appeal disproportionately to men.”

    Last word should be women, right?

  6. As a female therapist, I appreciate the distinctions addressed in this article. I’m wondering what the research shows about men’s preferences for a male versus a female therapist. As a female, I frequently hear comments from female clients about their preferences for working with a female (especially in cases of sexual abuse) and I am curious about whether male therapists hear the same comments from men. Also, what does the research show on effectiveness of male therapists versus female therapists with male clients?

    • Mark Gery MFT says:

      As a male couples therapist, I frequently here preferences for a male therapist, that the wife/girlfriend choose me so to raise the chances that their partner would a) try it out and b) hopefully keep going.

    • As a therapist in part-time private practice for four years I don’t think I can offer a statistically significant sample, but for what it’s worth upwards of two-thirds of my clients are men, without any particular marketing in that direction on my part. It’s hard to know without asking (and I think I will now begin to!) whether this reflects a preference in most men for a male therapist, or rather that the number of women I see is lower because of most women’s preference for a female therapist. I suspect the latter. For men, I think, it could go either way: for some, a male therapist may seem to offer a greater chance of “getting” a guy’s issues; but on the other hand some men may find it easier to contemplate being emotionally vulnerable to a woman, being used to the idea of female receptiveness to vulnerability and fearing that exposing their inner lives to a male therapist would be particularly shaming. I can attest to this second impulse in my own choices of therapists earlier in life — it’s only decades later that I’ve become more comfortable with the idea of confronting my resistance to working with a male therapist.

  7. I am a clinical social worker and have been involved in doing psychotherapy with men for many years, including Domestic Violence offender work with men mandated to treatment. I think your article hits the nail on the head. While women have achieved much in the equality sphere, men have yet to conquer the fears of standing up to the social definitions of masculinity and manhood that lead to many relationship and self-esteem issues. Men are trained as young boys to “Man Up”. Real men only express one emotion – anger! Issues of dependency, intimacy, honesty and fear- need to be covered up by what Dr. Jackson Katz refers to as the “Tough Guise”. Many of us men struggle with intimacy and the other “F” word (feelings) because the social definitions of manhood put us in conflict with who we really are. Men must wear the disguise of pretense or risk appearing less than a man. Of course most men know that being labeled as feminine or, god forbid, “a women” is the worst insult of all. What guy hasn’t heard “you throw like a girl”! The issues of not living up to these social definitions lead to a whole lot of men feeling inadequate struggling alone with issues of depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and aggression. Simply ask any a man who has ever gone to prison and they will tell you the “mask of toughness” (tough guise) they needed to create in an effort to keep safe. The social definitions of manhood create many barriers for men to participate fully in life expressing the full range of human emotions including empathy, compassion and intimacy.

  8. I do a lot of couples work, and with very few exceptions, the men are receptive (even if they had refused couples therapy earlier) and once they come seem to really want to know wht they can do to make their marriage better and are very open in their needs.

    Several wives have told me that their husband wanted a female therapist and in at least half the cases they have investigated online and chosen together who they will see.

    If I had to estimate, I would say out of the cases that terminate prematurely (before any real help) I would say that 90% are female driven. I ave also found that in some cases te female wanted a female therapist feeling they would more supported in their views — these are often the females who terminate and walk out.

  9. Terr Jessee says:

    I don’t believe it–I was beginning to think that nobody really “got” guys.
    I’m a counselor now, but I’m also a retired sheriff’s deputy–which is all of these articles X10. Too many therapists think that guys have to mold themselves to fit the therapist’s requirements.
    Most guys will tell you where you can put that. Therapy as it’s been practiced is counter-intuitive to most men.
    This is not a matter of men behaving in any particular way because they can–it’s because they’ve been taught to behave that way.
    Deer get hit on the highway because the highway is a new danger, one they haven’t learned to appreciate after thousands of generations of crossing some place before the road was there.
    Insisting that guys behave in a certain “new” way because “modern society” demands it is just as threatening to a man’s sense of safety.

  10. In my recent experience men are making the calls requesting couples therapy and are more open to attending than when I started my practice in the early 90′s. I’m wondering if we aren’t stereotyping by assuming that all men are not willing to access their feelings. The man you described at your conference sounds pretty extreme to me. I wonder what other therapists are experiencing in this regard.

  11. pgorelkin says:

    My wife and I have been a psychotherapy team, specializing in couples, for over fifteen years. We are together in sessions with our couples and have, from the start, been sensitive to and have utilized the effects of our culture’s conditioning, of men and women, to promote deeper understanding, enhanced communication skills and fulfillment. Examples of how we utilize such an approach in sessions can be found in my article, “Helping Clients Create the Partners They Want”, published in the Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association, Fall 2007/Vol.10, number 3.
    Leo Gorelkin, MD, FAPA

  12. Gary Vann says:

    Rich – The man may have got angry and fearful after he thought he signed up with his wife for an expierential “Marriage Engrichment Workshop Weekend” – not marital psychotherapy as listed at the conference room signage. In my practice as a marriage & family psychologist for over 40 years I find men don’t initially want psychotherapy as (Therapy = Sickness). Rather, reframing it as “relationship skill development” using Cognitive and Adlerian methods works for the men I work with. The handbook – Time For A Better Marriage at the first session helps eliminate any resistance from the men when they see we all have room for growth.

  13. I am appreciating everyone’s comments about this article. I have been working with couples for almost thirty years. In my practice, many women, when they phone for appointments, mention that their partners are reluctant to come in. I like Gary Vann’s term “relationship skill development” because it directly offers these men something concrete and attainable to work on, something they can relate to that is not intimidating. The premise in the article about “protection” is a great jumping off point for offering concrete tools. Here is something they can understand and value in the work being done in the sessions.
    Very helpful article and subsequent contributions.

  14. Where can I get that handbook? I totally agree with your comments.

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