If Men Could Talk Book Excerpt
Men Are Difficult
…let me count the ways
Men are difficult. On the surface, they often seem distant and elusive. Or loud and obnoxious. And when you try to get to know them, it often gets worse — they can become defensive and impenetrable. Indeed, unlike women, who are generally open with their feelings, most men find it extremely difficult to open up to others. But when they finally do, they invariably reveal a dramatic, bold, and amazingly vulnerable inner self. This hidden self, and the challenges it presents for the occasional visitor, is the subject of this book. As I explore the inner world of men, we will come upon multiple sightings of the central paradox on which masculinity rests: the cornerstone of man’s gender identity is his feminine, not his masculine, desires.
I am a clinical psychologist working primarily with men, which is unusual because most psychotherapy patients are women. So while many therapists spend their time listening to women complain about men who don’t talk, don’t listen, or don’t understand, I spend most of my time listening to these men. And with a little bit of help, my male patients do talk, do listen, and do understand.
In presenting the inner world of men, I am assuming that women will always be in the business of trying to decode male behavior. For them, it’s a practical matter of improving their relationships with men — a high priority for many women. In writing this book I hope to help women to attain this goal, not by telling them what to do, but rather, by inviting them into the emotional and spiritual equivalent of the male locker room. My intention is to discuss my experiences with male patients and to share what I do, as a psychologist, when confronted with some of the troublesome aspects of male psychology. In short, I’m going to tell the “inside story” about men.
But this book is not only for women. As a writer, I’d like to replicate here what I believe I have accomplished as a psychologist — to reach and connect with men. I hope, as they read about other men’s struggles to break out of their emotional isolation, male readers will feel understood and moved and that what they read will mirror and nurture their own self-knowledge — nascent, secret, or not fully conscious as it may be.
What brings men to therapy and what they end up talking about in therapy are two different matters. For one thing, at the beginning of therapy many men don’t talk at all — that is, about anything significant or interesting. In a sense, men come to therapy because they don’t talk. Since their unconscious philosophy is that talk is cheap and that actions speak louder than words, they often enter therapy in the same way that they drive: rather than ask for directions, they keep on going until they reach a dead end, are lost, or have an accident. Even then they may avoid asking for help: their backseat driver might do it for them.
In that way, many of my male patients stumble into my office for the initial consultation after some destructive action and/or at the urging of their spouse or girlfriend. In the latter case, they are often “dragged” in because they refuse to communicate or because they communicate chiefly by means of angry outbursts or other unseemly discharges. Sometimes they are forced to come for the same reasons not by an intimate partner but rather by a business partner or a boss. An ultimatum — a threat of divorce or of termination of employment — is often involved.
While some men seek treatment for problems or issues similar to women’s — depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties — many more enter psychotherapy with distinctly male dilemmas and a uniquely masculine style. Perhaps not surprisingly, research shows that men are particularly susceptible to such conditions as alcoholism, drug abuse, and antisocial behaviors. But in my consulting room, even men who do not fit into such diagnostic criteria — and most of my patients don’t — cannot be mistaken for women. Many of the men who come to see me on their own initiative are in the midst of a work-related crisis. Being fired or even “restructured” is a traumatic experience for most men. Even a perception of failure, let alone an actual lack of success, can precipitate a crisis. There are other work issues which bring men into my office, for example, difficulty in making business decisions, getting into costly political conflicts, feeling oppressed by the corporation, and being bored or lacking passion for one’s work.
Some very successful men come to see me to address the fundamental sense of uncertainty, the oversized survival instincts and the emotional hunger which have served them so well in their drive to the top of their professions. Some of these men come because they realize they will never feel satiated. Others come because of the heavy price they have paid for their success: alienation from wife and children or a lack of personal fulfillment.
Last but not least, many men seek therapy for sexual or what they think are sexual symptoms. Impotence, premature ejaculation, disturbing sexual fantasies, questions about sexual identity, infidelity, and sexual impulsivity or compulsivity are the most common “presenting problems.” In this group are those who are so ashamed of their difficulties that they don’t even tell you for many months why they came to see you. Then there are those who are so “oversexed” that they do not hesitate to be graphic or pornographic as soon as possible. There is a third group as well — those who guardedly allude to their sexual anxieties by cracking jokes.