Men and Psychotherapy

Ger Murphy of the Creative Counselling Centre is interviewed by Mary Montaut.

In my experience as a psychotherapist men are increasingly coming for therapy. Five years ago the proportion of men to women in my practice would have been perhaps 80% women to 20% men. Now it would seem to be much closer to half and half. The questions that I’ve been asking myself are, what is that change? What is it about? What is happening to men?

I suppose that the increase is due in some ways to the beginning of a men’s consciousness raising movement as has happened in the States and across Europe, much like the women’s consciousness raising movement twenty years ago. Men are seeing the real need to get together, and to bond in way that they have not experienced before. This bonding involves men sharing their vulnerability, fears, joys, relationship issues and views of themselves in related areas.

When men come to therapy there are some particular issues which seem to emerge. One of the most important is the very act of coming to psycho­therapy in the first place. It would be wrong to generalise but, in my experience, it seems that many men do not come of their own free will but have been sent by someone else. It may be a condition coming from a partner in a relationship, or perhaps a change in a partner brings about a crisis in the man, rather than it coming predominantly from an internal place in him. So the impetus comes externally, which causes its own difficulties in terms of how men begin their personal journey.

The question of the ambivalence, their actual motivation for being in therapy, can be mixed because they feel they are “being sent”, and often sent by a woman. This is like “being sent” by mother and being a “good boy”. A number of men I have worked with have “been sent” because of an inability to be intimate or vulnerable, to be deeply in a relationship, or to be connected intimately to another person. And that is a difficult one to start with because the man may be coming with a sense of blankness, (i.e. know­ing something is wrong but not sure what it is) rather than a particular feeling which is overwhelming, a particular theme which is bothering him intrinsically within himself. Therefore it is less tangible and less easy to grasp as a theme to work with.

Men often come into therapy at a time of crisis when something has broken down externally, a relationship, perhaps, or unemployment, causing major stress, and I suppose that may be part of the kind of role and the kind of pressure a lot of men find themselves under, of being the provider, of needing to go out and be adult. There would probably be less permission for men not to be fully adult than there would be for women. And therefore a lot of their energy does go out into the outside world, into competing, into making a living and it is often when that breaks down (with its resulting loss of role and self esteem), and when another demand is made of them, like being intimate as well, that they come into therapy.

In the initial stages there may be difficulties. Many men would be much more used to being in the position of offering support rather than looking for it themselves. It is unusual for them to find themselves on the receiving end. To be the one who is offering can be a much more familiar place. It can be very uncomfortable when they are faced with taking rather than giving, and the unfamiliar feeling of being out of control. As men move beyond that initial blankness and possible resentment at “being sent” my feeling is that they need to move down into themselves, but in a way that is different from women. This may be generalising again, but if the theme for a lot of women is to move towards self-empowerment (and in a sense that is quite an attractive prospect), for a lot of men the prospect is not at all as attractive. They see it as a move towards vulnerability, towards developing a sense of the less able and more out-of-control parts of themselves, the feeling side of themselves. It is as if they are giving away their power, seeing where they have been, say, working from a sexist perspective or where they have been oppressive, and seeing also how they have been oppressing the feminine or the child in themselves. So the actual journey before they reach a full sense of self-empowerment is quite complicated, and involves, in some ways, a more circuitous route than it may do for women.

The reasons for this may lie in childhood. If we look at the young child, then we see the first locus of identity for both the girl child and the boy child is with the mother. That locus of identity remains constant with a girl; but for the boy, he has to move away, to dis-identify with his mother and actually go to the other side of the river and identify with a different person. I suspect that, for a lot of men, it can often be seen as a shameful thing to go back, to return to that side of themselves and to the female locus of identity. Many of my clients have talked about how they find intimate relationships “stifling”, “suffocating”, “clawing”. They have a sense (if we keep the original image) of being dragged back across the river, back to being under mother’s skirts, for example, if they give in to strong feelings, or to vulner­ability or to any sense of inadequacy. In some ways it feels as if this may endanger their very sense of identity as a male. One of the first steps for a lot of male clients is to allow themselves to have any feelings at all, to move beyond only having a head to having a heart and a belly and more wholeness in themselves.

In that move back to accepting the feeling side of themselves, there’s often a lot of fear. Men can feel very ashamed of their feelings and of their tears because of their conditioning since childhood. It’s a familiar adage at this stage that “big boys don’t cry” and men have often been shamed into being older and stronger than they really were. Therefore, the idea of moving back and re-owning the feeling side of themselves is, as I have said, like returning to mother but with the added disadvantage of possibly being shamed by their peers. This is where psychotherapy in a group context can be very useful for men. In a one-to-one situation there is a certain working-through of that shame through the acceptance of the therapist. But it can be very powerful to work with one’s peers. It can bring up all the feelings of the need to be competitive and the need to be strong, so that the feelings of shame can be worked through in a group setting.

I think it would be an interesting study to look at how men choose a psychotherapist: whether they prefer to work with a woman or a man. In my own experience a lot of men choose to work with a woman first of all, because they feel she may be more accepting of their possible weakness or vulnerability. But I think it also works the other way: that some men would be afraid of working with a woman and would feel more at home with a man, especially in the initial stages of therapy. They suspect that a man may understand them more easily and would not expect them to be something different. But I think there is an interesting issue there as we move through to the next phase where men need to face their “feeling” nature, their possible shame at their vulnerability, intuition and and their need to recognise and reconcile their femininity and their masculinity. “What model of a man am I going to become?” is a question they often ask. “Am I really supposed, in a way, to become a woman? Is that what psychotherapy is going to do to me?”

For many men who come into therapy their journey is initially about finding themselves able to be intimate, to be in contact with another and with themselves, about being able to love again. Reich says that the two goals in life are love and work. A lot of men have done quite well in work but find love, deep love, difficult to express although it is often felt. And I think the goal of a number of men I’ve worked with has been to make themselves vulnerable, not to be in charge or be in control or manipulate, but actually to be fully open to being in love: with their partner, their children, perhaps even with a cause.

But after they reach that point, it may be followed by feelings of fear around the psychotherapeutic process. Men ask: “Is there still going to be some difference between men and women? Or is psychotherapy supposed to be a kind of equalizer in some way, that brings us all together and is more of a feminine undertaking?” I think a lot of men are afraid of being castrated by psychotherapy and pacified by it, although I think that this may be another valuable phase in their journey. It isn’t like a giving up of their head, or their thinking function or their ability to plan and to work things out and to be strategic and to know how to live in the world. Perhaps a more appropriate image is that of the centaur: half man, half horse, the fully embodied person, able to be in the world as well as being within himself.

One other theme which often comes up in my work with men is the issue of sexuality and sexual intimacy. I find that while some men have a great need for sexual contact, it somehow doesn’t actually fulfil them. In itself it can be experienced as a role that they are being asked to perform or they can feel caught in a treadmill where they need to look for sexual contact but gain little satisfaction from it. It is as if emotional areas which are closer to the surface are aggression and sexuality, whereas for women these might be sadness or softer kinds of feelings, and they would look for an emotional component in sexual contact.

I suppose, therefore, that it is in this work where we are trying to heal the mind/body split, and where we are trying to help men to be in contact on an intimate and emotional level as well as a sexual level, that therapy can help to transform the sexual from being quite a mechanical activity into more of a con­nective activity. I think it can be difficult for a man to talk about sexuality with a woman because of the fear of shame, of not being good enough, of not per­forming well enough: all the male myth stuff. Even amongst men themselves this kind of self-disclosure can be very difficult and potentially humiliating.

I would say that many men in psychotherapy with a male therapist have a lot of transference around their fathers, and place the therapist in the father role. In my experience few of the men who have come to me for therapy have had an intimate and close supportive relationship with their fathers. And I suppose one of the ways that men are healing that loss is in the fathering they are trying to do themselves. Although their own fathers may be dead, a lot of men are re-awakening the contact and their relationships with their fathers through their sons and daughters. Through psychotherapy groups or in individual therapy men are discovering that they can be playful, involved with their children and can tolerate holding them both physically and emotionally without having either to push the child away or sort him or her out because they cannot tolerate the chaos and messiness or the unclosed gestalt. They find themselves being gradually more and more able to stay in that place where they let go of the pressure to do something.

In a fairly recent study based in the Harvard Counselling Centre on the effectiveness of psychotherapists, they looked at four different categories; experienced male, experienced female, inexperienced female and inexperienced male. They had a scale of satisfaction and dissatisfaction which was rated by clients. The one category which tended to come out much stronger in terms of dissatisfaction was the inexperienced male psychotherapist. And that would seem to be something around the pressure on the male to do, and his difficulty in actually just waiting and holding which is the less active side of psychotherapy. I suspect this would apply to other relationships as well, especially parenting. A lot of women say about their male partners that they cannot tolerate listening to a problem without solving it. And that is where the cut-off in relating often occurs. The real shift for men in therapy is being able to tolerate that kind of on-going, unfinished issue, of being able to allow the whole mess and chaos of feeling in themselves or other people without having to clean it up or sort it out.

Men are increasingly coming for therapy. I believe this is important for the men themselves, for relationships, for family life and especially for the child­ren of the next generation. But in order to allay the fears which many men have about therapy I believe a message needs to go out that they can find acceptance and reach an openness within the therapeutic experience which is in no way threatening and which allows them to remain themselves.

I think this is probably part of the whole dynamic which is going on between men and women right now, and which is especially relevant to the work that is being done around sexual and other forms of abuse. It is important that the kind of splitting which can see men as all bad does not become a predominant feature either for men or for women. I believe it serves no useful purpose. Of course it is of the utmost importance for men who have abused to take full responsibility for their abuse, and to undergo specific psychotherapeutic treatment. But I do think there is a lot more work that men need to do in terms of internalizing an acceptance of themselves as they are, not trying to become somebody else, but actually becoming them­selves. So, in a way, this is a kind of maturational process which needs to go on for a lot of men and can be an enriching experience for those who come into psychotherapy.

Ger Murphy works as a psychotherapist, supervisor and trainer at the Creative Counselling Centre.