Case, Male-Friendly Couples Counseling: Finding Love beyond Words

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Case Studies By Steven Stosny

Male-Friendly Couples Counseling Finding love beyond words

You've heard the jokes. Every couples therapist has skid marks at the front door from husbands being dragged into the office. Or this one: A man is convicted of tax evasion, claiming that he had to do it because his wife spent too much. The sentencing judge gives him a choice: "Do you want to go to federal prison or marriage counseling?" The guy asks, "Could I have a private cell?"

You've also heard the usual explanations for male resistance to couples therapy: socialization discourages men from seeking help of any kind, but particularly in the mental health system; men are uncomfortable talking about emotions, especially with a wife present: it's her turf! Men tend to be more instrumental in the way they express emotion: they prefer to do something to show their feelings, rather than talk about them. Men expect to be blamed for everything that goes wrong in a relationship, so why even try explaining themselves or talking about how they feel? "Let's skip the prosecution and get right to the sentencing."

Even highly skilled therapists can have trouble handling male resistance. Some bend over backward to engage the guy, which can make him drop out early, convinced that his wife is the problem. Sometimes frustrated therapists are tempted to do just what men say their wives do: blame them, but in the language of psychopathology--he won't talk about how he feels because he's narcissistic, depressed, passive-aggressive, sociopathic, emotionally unavailable, phobic about intimacy--and that's why therapy isn't working!

It was because couples therapy has such a hard time engaging men that I began what I call "boot camp" couples therapy--a tough, concentrated format, consisting of three eight-hour days with a one-year follow-up. Men seem to prefer this approach to drawn-out weekly therapy with no conclusion in sight. The vast majority of the couples I see are therapy veterans, whose former therapists have thrown up their hands in defeat and referred them to me. When these couples come to my office, the women are exhausted, or bitter, or both; the men cynically describe what they've learned in their previous therapy: "To save my marriage, I have to become a woman."

I typically ignore this assertion because it isn't the real issue. Men don't dislike therapy because they might have to talk like women or adopt feminine sensibilities: what they hate is that therapy forces them to experience that most heinous emotional state to a man--feeling like a failure. Most men dread failure, particularly as providers, protectors, and lovers; their wives' unhappiness makes them feel like failures. Their seeming narcissism and compulsion to be "right" reflect their need to be seen as anything but failures. They sometimes agree that it's better to be a jerk than a loser. "Death before dishonor" isn't a phrase associated with women's groups.

The need to ward off feelings of failure is why many men seem annoyed when their wives are unhappy, rather than ready to sit down and have a long, revealing talk about "feelings." It helps explain why they're more inclined to blame their partners for being too sensitive, too demanding, too selfish, too critical. Such blame temporarily relieves their shame, protects them from emotional reflection, and gives them a sense of empowerment. They can blame people and still be tough and in control. Unfortunately, being in continual blame-mode renders them powerless to engage with their wives or their therapists, or to improve their relationships.

Men who come to the boot camp feel powerless because they can't regulate their dread of failure sufficiently to sustain intimate connection, which requires letting down defenses and keeping them down. As a consequence, they've developed habits of empowering themselves against the vulnerability of attachment with resentment and anger. …