A Survival Guide for Men in Couples Therapy — Part One
When men enter into couples therapy with their wives or significant female others they will often come into what seems like foreign territory. Things don’t make sense and the language used is not so familiar. It seems like they are “out of place.” The first section of this article intends to offer men a primer on the basics of why they may feel out of place. The later section will focus on ideas about what they can do about it and tips for getting the most they can from the experience. It is worth noting that for biological reasons there are probably about 1 in 5 men who will feel more comfortable in the couples therapy setting. It is also true that 1 in 5 women will be more like most men. When this article addresses “men” it is directed towards that 80% of men and 20% of women. Bottom line? We are all very different and if you are a man or a woman and want to know more about the nature of couples therapy you may find this article useful. (For more information on these differences see my book at Amazon)
Men and Couples Therapy – Why is this hard for men?
The whole idea of sitting face to face and talking about emotions and hurt seems odd to many men. Men might feel more comfortable taking this sort of problem and hashing it out as they play a game of horse or shoot 18 holes of golf. They may feel more comfortable shoulder to shoulder or even by themselves but that is not the way this system of couples therapy is set up. This is just one of many factors that make this experience one that is more difficult for men.
Couples therapy uses a unique language that most men simply don’t know but most women speak fluently. This has an impact on what happens in couples treatment. Imagine visiting France. Your wife speaks fluent French and you speak a little. A Frenchman invites you to his table at a restaurant and a conversation unfolds. Who is he going to speak with? How will the conversation flow? Likely you will be secondary since you are simply not as fluent and your wife will translate to you the details that you miss. You rely on her to keep you informed about what is happening and you make your best guesses about the rest. Both your wife and the frenchman will probably not judge you harshly for not being fluent but even so, you will likely feel on the outside. Now think about a couples therapy session. You are likely not as fluent as the therapist and your wife, you will probably feel on the outside in a similar manner but there may be a difference. In the couples therapy arena when you are not as fluent you are likely to be judged and seen as inferior, ignorant, even as cold and uncaring. The truth is that many therapists think that men should be fluent in the language of feelings and tend to judge them for their apparent deficiency. They believe that men, if only they wanted to, could easily learn this feeling language and would then want to talk about their emotions. Simple right? “Just try a little harder honey, it’s not so hard if you will just try.” What these therapists don’t seem to know is that men’s biology is working against them. Their brains are more geared towards building and understanding systems and are not as interested in the emotional side of things. There is some evidence now that testosterone actually limits a man’s ability to articulate emotions even when in the midst of feeling them. Men have a very different way to process emotions but this difference is rarely acknowledged in couples therapy and men’s unique ways are often interpreted as being deficiencies or are simply ignored.
Another aspect to the language problem is that it likely creates a bond between your wife and the therapist and just as you depended on her translations at the French restaurant you now depend on her. The difference is that in a couples therapy scenario, she may be antagonistic towards you since your interests are now in conflict. The likelihood of getting a good translation goes down as you must depend on her emotional maturity and only a truly mature woman will be considering your needs at a time like this. I have seen women use their fluency in the language of emotions as a tool to prove her side and to show the man as being the problem.
Another difference is in the details. Have you ever noticed that women seem to remember in great detail relationship events from years ago? You know, the time you insulted her by saying she was fat in 2007. She remembers. You don’t. Why is it when you are in a session with a couples therapist, she can rattle off a long series of your indiscretions over the past several years? All the while you are struggling to remember the events she is describing much less coming up with your own examples. This sort of memory gives women a distinct advantage in couples counseling since they have a much better grasp on details of problems and disagreements from the past. She often keeps a scorecard. You usually don’t. Her barrage of memories and your silence make it appear that you have no case.
We don’t know why women remember and men don’t. Maybe it’s that men seem to treat their relationship problems and upsets like fishing. When they catch a fish that is too small they simply throw it back in, forget about it, and focus on catching the next one. Most men don’t keep score and catalogue the small everyday relationship deficiencies. Could it be that men see small indiscretions in relationships as being like the small fish and let them go by just throwing them back in rather then hold on to them and file them into a growing pile of hurts and resentments? Could it be that men are simply forgiving and letting the small stuff go? Perhaps when it comes time for couples therapy the men don’t have a huge stockpile of past hurts since they have already let them go while his female partner has a bucket of old hurts which seem geared to prove he is an uncaring sort? You be the judge. YMMV.
Avoiding Men’s Emotional Pain
Also at work are misandrist attitudes that are held by almost everyone in the US culture that have an impact on men in couples treatment. These attitudes are led by the idea that a man’s emotional pain is basically taboo. No one wants to touch a man’s pain, no one wants to hear a man’s pain, no one knows what to do with a man’s pain. Men are aware of this distaste for his emotional pain and avoid publicly emoting. No brainer. Men are simply not dumb enough to emote publicly, they know the judgment they would face. Contrast this with the norm for female emotional pain which rather than being taboo is more a call to action. When people see a tearful women in public the first thing that comes to their mind is “How can I help? Oh, poor thing, she needs support.” When they see a tearful man they will often see him as someone dangerous who needs to be avoided. These vastly different responses to men and women’s emotional pain has an impact on couples treatment. I have noticed that at least some therapists carry a portion of this bias. Those who do carry it seem unaware. It is obvious that if this bias is present in therapy the man’s emotional pain is going to get little attention while the women’s emotional pain will likely be the focus of treatment. Add on to that many couples therapists are female and this will give the female therapist a much better understanding of what it is like to grow up as a girl and be a woman but leaves her devoid of the same understandings about men and boys. She will be more likely to compare him to the female norm she has in her minds eye. This sort of thing can leave the man terribly misunderstood. I have known men who had huge stressors like recent major surgery, the loss of a job, and the death of a parent all having happened in the previous month and the therapist decides not to focus on his pain but instead focus on the wife’s emotional pain from something much less significant and question why he hasn’t been more attentive to her needs. This simply disenfranchises his reality and reinforces the therapist’s and the wife’s avoidance of the man’s pain. My experience has been that when the men’s emotional pain is avoided in therapy the men are left feeling even more bewildered and alone.
Part two will look into the problem of men being disallowed by our culture to appear dependent and the ramifications in couples therapy, why therapy is made for women and a word on yelling. If you have to skip ahead you can see the next segment here.