Part of what sabotages a man’s ability to relate more deeply with his intimate partner is the “relational dread” phenomenon (a term coined by Stephen Bergman). A man is afraid he’s going to fail at the task at hand, so he enters fight-or flight mode: emotional withdrawal or aggressive defensiveness while blaming his partner for nagging him or demanding so much. But when he feels more competent at this task (and stops perceiving her needs as such a threat), he relaxes. When he relaxes, he can actually see, feel, and hear that there’s another real human being over there. This is what happened to Jack when he finally was able to let his wife voice her anxiety about money and not “take her feelings so personally”—and he was able to express “some empathy for how terrified she felt.”
I have a slightly different take on the “power and control” issue that the author identifies. Plenty of men, of course, are obsessed with this theme. But plenty of others only look like power and control freaks because they’re wearing a mask to hide their vulnerability about feeling incompetent. Men in therapy respond best when they feel like we’re really speaking to them, and we can usually hit the nail on the head by talking about shame. A good approach is to talk about shame by other names—like needing to feel “valued” or “successful” or “needed” or “competent” or “important”—that don’t cause further shame.
One other suggestion for a man in a men’s group is to educate his partner about what he’s learning about himself. A man cares so much (often way too much) about how his partner views him. If his partner mirrors a “good man behaving badly” or a “good man struggling with his vulnerability” (rather than a cold guy who doesn’t really care about anyone but himself), her mirror will make it easier to believe this more hopeful narrative about himself, and his better self will emerge.
Much as I hate to give Henry Ford credit for anything other than producing a lot of cars, I love the use of his quote at the end of this case study. And as Jung once said, “One is always in the dark about one’s own personality. One needs others to get to know oneself.” This applies to intimate partner relationships, and it applies to groups of men helping men as well.
Robert Garfield, M.D., who codirects family therapy training in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, writes and presents extensively on men’s issues. His forthcoming book is My Guys: How Men Can Make and Keep Close Male Friendships.
David Wexler, Ph.D., the executive director of the Relationship Training Institute in San Diego, is the author of many books and articles about men in relationships, including When Good Men Behave Badly; Is He Depressed or What?; Men in Therapy; and STOP Domestic Violence. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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