REAL MEN PROCESS
The following psychotherapy “story” is about two gay men struggling with their issues in couples therapy. “Carlos and David” are character composites that blend components from a variety of client couples, both heterosexual and gay, in order to protect client confidentiality. With the exception of homophobic oppression, the basic psychodynamic issues presented in this story are relevant to all kinds of couples and are not exclusive to gay male couples.
Real Men Process
I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is two men can have a perfectly healthy, intimate, long-term relationship if they so desire. The bad news is they have to learn to do the work of “processing.”
Processing is what all couples must do if they want to nurture and grow their relationships. I find it a bit mystifying at times that men shy away from the often times hard work of processing; they certainly don’t shy away from hard work at the office or working out at the gym. No pain, no gain, right?
Well, all right, I confess: I am not all surprised that men find it so difficult to process in relationships. The ability to process successfully involves being able to identify the full range of human emotions and to express them authentically. However, many men have been trained to deny their feelings. So, if you are reading this and scratching your head, then I suggest you first take Human Emotions 101 (subtitled: Why Am I So Angry) or make an appointment with a qualified therapist and start to sort out your internal life. It takes some work, but is well worth the struggle in terms of the meaning it will bring to your life.
If the rest of you knuckleheads can admit that you occasionally feel hurt, confused, embarrassed, ashamed, or sad in life—or within the context of your relationship—then you are man enough to begin learning about processing.
What is Processing?
“Processing” is psychobabble for talking about how you and your partner are feeling about the relationship. The myth about successful relationships is that when two people are really in love, or perfect for each other, then they will live happily ever after, never arguing or hurting each other, effortlessly. The clinical word for this myth is horseshit. Every successful relationship involves having long, frequent talks about each other’s feelings, your family histories and childhoods, and the current state of the relationship.
The truth about authentic love and intimacy is that while it can bring great joy, it can also unearth the pain we all experience growing up with less than perfect (read: human) parents. When our love reaches deep inside, it stirs up our secret insecurities and we feel very vulnerable. But if our partners show us that they will listen lovingly and respectfully to our hurt and fears, then we will feel safe enough to work through issues as they arise.
If, on the other hand, we do not feel secure in talking about how we feel, then we understandably get defensive and fall back on the one emotion Society gives men full rein to express: anger. And, boy, we men can find all manner of creative ways to express this anger. The problem is, when conflict arises in this way, we create issues to argue or fight about in the here and now, when the real source of the conflict may have its roots in early childhood feelings of our parents not fully loving or accepting us. Classic examples of childhood issues that we play out in relationships include: 1) Internalizing the homophobia from our families and communities, 2) Feeling abandoned either physically or emotionally by our parents, and 3) The experience of being physically or emotionally abused.
Carlos and David
I worked with Carlos and David for over a year. Both were in their early 30s and had satisfying careers. They were bright men who loved each other a great deal. At first blush, they seemed to have an enviable relationship and life together; but in the privacy of their Manhattan Co-Op they often felt hurt and angry at each other, growing more distant over the years. A particularly difficult argument brought them into couple’s therapy.
Carlos grew up in an upper middle class family in Mexico City. Financially, he wanted for little as a child, but he grew up with unmet dependency needs from his parents. His father was quite homophobic and, sensing his son was somehow different, made constant anti-gay remarks throughout Carlos’ childhood. This made it difficult for father and son to share any bonding and kinship. In his early teens, Carlos began to look for emotional dependency and connection through anonymous sexual encounters. He, like so many men, confused sexual intimacy for emotional intimacy and brought this conflict into his adult life.
When Carlos was four years old doctors diagnosed his mother with colon cancer,that required a series of operations. She struggled with her illness for many years before passing away when Carlos was fifteen. As a child, Carlos knew his mother was ill, but had difficulty with his overwhelming feelings of abandonment. His mother simply could not be there for him emotionally the way he needed because all strength was spent battling her illness. Carlos felt emotionally abandoned and thus overwhelmingly vulnerable. He was forced to cut the proverbial apron strings years before he was ready. To defend against this overwhelming reality, Carlos learned to shut down his feelings to the point that all he could experience emotionally was irritation and anger. Additionally, his mother wasn’t able to be there for him in a way that might have softened the impact of his father’s harsh, rejecting homophobic comments.
David grew up in a solidly middle-class household in the Midwest. Unlike Carlos, David’s mother was largely available to him emotionally and supportive of him throughout his childhood. However, he too had a traumatic relationship with his father. In retrospect, David could understand that his father suffered from chronic depression, but as a child all he knew was that his father always seemed to be critical and angry toward him. It seemed he could never do anything right and this created painful feelings of shame and a sense of inadequacy. On a number of occasions his father became physically abusive, throwing David into walls, screaming at him, and calling him a sissy when he cried.
Even more traumatic was his father’s constant irritable mood and emasculating tone. David feared his dad could get out of control at any moment. He even found himself wishing at times that his father would just hit him. At least then he would have known he could have survived it! Instead he nursed an internal, smoldering rage for his father and learned to express his anger in indirect, passive ways. As he grew up, he would avoid open conflict with everyone in his life, and instead grew sullen and distant, hoping that this would somehow punish those with whom he was angry.
Both Carlos and David grew up and, as adults, made peace with their fathers. Carlos’s father, distraught over his wife’s death, eventually learned to cherish his relationship with his son. Life was simply too valuable and short to allow such a thing as sexual orientation to separate father from son. David’s father eventually sought out psychotherapy to treat his depression. Through family counseling, David and his father were able to put the pieces of their relationship back together. David’s parents also eventually joined a P-FLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) support group and learned how to value their gay son.
Trouble in Paradise
Carlos and David’s life stories would seem to point toward a happy ending. At peace with their respective fathers, these two bright and capable men found successful careers and met each other and fell in love. All was romance and fun for more than a year, and they became as good of friends as they were lovers. However, slowly they started to let the personal baggage left over from childhood infect their relationship.
They began to argue more frequently without achieving resolution. Over time a basic pattern emerged. David became increasingly hypersensitive to any kind of criticism. Even constructive criticism from Carlos would produce powerful feelings of shame that David hadn’t felt since childhood. To defend against this lacerating, painful shame, David would get angry and sullen, withdrawing from Carlos for days at a time. This withdrawal would trigger Carlos’ abandonment issues and he would worry that David might leave him if he confronted him directly. Carlos felt trapped and controlled by David’s moods and, unaware that he was actually feeling scared and vulnerable, he would get angry.
They would repeat this basic cycle until Carlos sought solace in an anonymous sexual encounter after an especially painful argument. Unconsciously searching for an emotional connection, he had sex when he was really looking for love.
The infidelity haunted Carlos, but fearing even more that David might leave him, he found it impossible to tell David about it. Carlos began to feel more shame and anger and would look for ways to find fault with David in the relationship. Both men found themselves in a cycle of anger and recrimination until one night Carlos threw the fact of his sexual encounter in David’s face.
Carlos and David get “Real”
The couple limped into my office. Hurt, angry, and embarrassed at even having to bring their relationship into therapy, they laid out their tale for me. Every time I would try and get to their underlying feelings, they would resume arguing about how the other had done them wrong. Going into their actual feelings was simply too painful for them at first, especially when the past seemed so irrelevant to the here and now of their lives together.
In the end, Carlos and David fought valiantly to find their way back to each other by finding the courage to go fully into their painful childhoods. The pain at times was excruciating.
Slowly pride gave way to tears, which gave way to humility. Though they knew quite a lot about each other’s childhoods, they started listening to each other’s life stories with empathy. In time they were able to gain the necessary insight into their mutual cycle of hurt and shame. They learned how to take responsibility for their own issues and how to “process” their thoughts and feelings about each other as these issues came up.
In the end their friendship and romantic ties turned into a more mature bond where they were able, with humility, to accept each other’s limitations and human foibles. They learned how to identify their feelings and express them tactfully but directly. They would still go through painful times together, but something new started to happen. Whenever they would courageously face up to a difficult conflict and process through it, they would be able to find each other again more quickly. They discovered that their anger did not destroy their love, which in turn made it safer for them to deal directly with future conflict between them. Their love deepened. Their parting gift to me was saying in their last session, they never knew how much they could love another person, and they thanked me for all my help. I told them they did all the hard work and their results were theirs alone to own and celebrate.
The Logic of Going There: Men and Emotions
Have you had a Michael Monday? Boy, are they good for the Soul. Basically I’m talking about a good old-fashioned cry. They don’t have to happen on Mondays; that’s just the day a client of mine named Michael had his routine weekly appointments. Michael taught me what most every male client, gay or straight, has taught me over the last 15 years of being a psychotherapist: The logic of going there.
Michael would walk into my office, plop down on the couch and peer out at me through the eyes of a 10 year old boy that just so happened to be currently carried around in the body of a 30 year old, hyper-masculine, fully gym-bodied gay man. In order to avoid dealing with his sexual orientation in high school, he played football, ran track and wrestled. In what can only be regarded as drastic measures, he enlisted in the army after high school in a further attempt at not being gay. He then became a fireman and married a very nice young woman with whom he had a son. The perfect picture of a masculine man of the late 1990’s, until it all came crashing down around his biceps when his fellow fire fighters discovered that he was gay and drove him from the station house. After his divorce he spent 4 years drinking and tricking until his masculine body was as battered from denial as the sweet little gay boy inside him.
After years of stigma avoidance, Michael decided he was ready for therapeutic help, but wasn’t quite ready to buy into it all the way. “I just don’t feel comfortable losing it,” he would say when we would talk more directly about the need to explore his feelings. He had all the insight in the world, but feelings made him bury his head in the sand. “Michael, you have been a fireman and a soldier,” I said. “By all accounts you have conquered the fear of physical pain, why are you afraid to feel emotional pain?” He responded, “I guess I just don’t see the logic of going there.”
Men struggle so valiantly to be what they believe is a “real man.” Real men don’t cry, get confused or feel vulnerable. Real men kill things and drag them back to the cave to feed the family. Real men compete for success and can only win if another man loses. The culture drives home the “boys don’t cry” code of living so thoroughly that men don’t even know what emotions may be lurking under their chronic irritation or empty feelings. In other words, men have been suckered into being less than fully human. Michael was no exception.
"Michael, you are able to relate stories from your childhood when you felt different from other kids; when you felt lonely and alienated. You remember the time when your father, intent on divorcing your mother, left the house when you were five years old. You remember how scared you were that he might never come back to you and you thought it was because he didn't love you. You felt abandoned. You even remember times when it was your mother who told you to stop crying. Remember when she dropped you off at kindergarten for the first time and you felt scared to be left alone with out her? Your father had just left and she told you it was time to grow up and be a man. You were five years old for pity's sake and all you wanted was some sense of security. You told me all these stories because you made the connections that they may be relevant to how your life is going in the present. But you tell me these stories blankly, like you are your own personal historian. How do they make you feel?"
Shifting nervously on the couch, Michael would stare at me impatient with both of us. "I just don't see what the past has to do with the present, it's not like I can go back and do it over. What's the point of crying over these things now?"
I can feel Michael's sadness as clearly as I can see how blank he experiences his internal self. Now it is my turn to be impatient; not with Michael, but with myself. Here this man has been traumatized about his emotions, all he needs is some wise ass psychotherapist beating him up because he cannot access the painful feelings associated with some of the worst times in his life.
After scolding myself for being so thoughtless, I remember that I too am only human. And in my humility I turn to one of my psychoanalytic heroes, D.W. Winnicott. Winnicott tells us that which we are most afraid of has already happened to us. This is heady stuff! When we are children, our emotions are less modulated by more mature defense mechanisms. They are quite dramatic and lead to equally dramatic fantasies of being abandoned or annihilated. As adults we look back and know we were never truly in any danger and so we forget how traumatizing it was as a kid. However, early trauma cannot be rationalized away by an adult assessment of past realities.
To understand the blankness Michael and others feel we have to understand the concept of "multiplicity of the mind." This ten-dollar phrase made up by those in my profession who wish to make it as difficult to understand as possible, are really obscuring a very simple human reality. It just seems to be the case that we are all made up of parts. Freud postulated 3 parts; Id, Ego and Super-Ego. More contemporary thinkers believe we may be made up of many different parts, maybe even hundreds. Think about a time when you wanted to see a movie and said to someone "part of me wants to see an action-adventure movie, but another part of me wants to see a drama." This language speaks very eloquently about the fact that different parts inside of us may want or feel very different things all at the same time.
In psychotherapy, I believe that every age we have ever been lives on inside of us as parts. Thus we have an infant part, a toddler part, a child part, an adolescent part and so on. When these parts got what they needed from their parents or the world, which is too say they were supported and validated, they then become integrated into a more cohesive self. We are then able to maintain a sense of continuity of who we are as we act in the world, as opposed to constantly being pulled to and fro by various parts in need of attention. When more fully integrated, we can call upon our various child selves when we need to play or let our imaginations run wild. We can also call upon our adolescent self when we want to question authority in a healthy way. However, when we experience trauma as children, those parts of ourselves freeze up. They do not have the adult ability to accurately gauge the real level of threat or to muster the necessary defense mechanisms to keep from feeling overwhelmed with fear, shame, confusion or terror. These parts stay frozen and do not integrate into the more cohesive adult self. Instead they stay split off and remain frozen in fear or shame even as the rest of the self grows into an adult.
Here, then, is the logic of going there. No rational adult would allow a young child to go on crying in fear or shame without trying to comfort that child. Yet, that is exactly what we do every time we ignore our own internal children by doing all we can in an effort not to "lose it." In reality, when we turn inward to our internal children and nurture them with a quiet, loving embrace, we have not lost anything. Rather, we have found our Self/Selves at deeper levels and are afforded the ability endowed in all human beings: the ability to self-heal. Just as an adult may soothe the hurt feelings of a child, we can soothe our own hurt children with psychic hugs by allowing ourselves to empathically feel their feelings. When we cry, they are allowed to cry in the arms of a caring, supportive adult. To cry, then, is to love our selves.
With this understanding it is easy to see the folly of telling young male children that boy's don't cry. To cry is to be strong enough to weather the slings and arrows of existence in a healthy way. And when we feel the depths of human pain, we also open ourselves up to the heights of joy as well. The kind of all encompassing joy we might see in the laughter of a young boy at play.
Eventually, Michael courageously scaled the wall that separated him from his hurting child parts and learned how to empathically connect with them.
Boy, did he cry.
He worried he would never stop.
In time, however, he discovered that not only did the tears start to come much less often, but he had gained a new, healthy sense of play in his life. No longer did he drink and trick as if it were a matter of life and death. Instead, he learned to play like there was no tomorrow. And while he continues to work out, it has ceased to be a way of avoiding the stigma of being gay by creating the outward appearance of masculinity. It is also no longer part of the deadly serious game of attracting men. It is a fun past time and a way to keep him connected to the healthy aspects of athletics. Now when he plays it is more about the joy of playing rather than needing to win to avoid the literal agony of defeat.
And speaking of men; my man Michael has also found love. It seems his outward masculine shell only served to keep him from really connecting with another man in truly intimate ways. Now he can cry in his lover's arms and allow himself to be comforted by another man, as well as be the one who comforts when his partner is sad. During his last session he told me how strong his love was for this man. How they wrestle like school-boys and goof around like kids, but also how they have committed to an adult relationship where truth and love bind them together. Michael has found a man with who he can be a man and a child. Michael has found himself. I couldn't be more happy for him.