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Why Men Struggle with Intimacy

Do most men actually struggle with intimacy—and why? Sought-after family therapist Terry Real says that the issue boils down to the disconnect between what men are taught to value and be (“the essence of traditional masculinity is invulnerability”) and what their partners actually desire (namely, vulnerability). As Real puts it: “Most women want more emotional intimacy from men than we traditionally raise boys and men to deliver.”

Real has honed his distinct therapy method over the years—in part to help men meet the intimacy bar that he says modern women have rightly raised. Called Relational Life Therapy (RLT), it differs from conventional therapy in that the therapist, rather than remaining neutral, gets “in the mud” with patients, and isn’t afraid to call BS when someone in the relationship is acting out. In the process of practicing RLT, Real has developed some paradigm-shifting theories on male privilege and the patriarchy, the different ways men and women are silenced in relationships, why men lie, where male anger comes from—and most importantly, how we can all forge more honest, intimate, and satisfying relationships.

Today, when Real isn’t training therapists in RLT or giving public workshops (you can catch him live at our NYC wellness summit, In goop Health), he’s seeing couples on the brink of divorce who have tried everything else already. While Real’s ideas about how we can better support the boys and men in our lives to be more intimate are particularly poignant, so much of his advice applies across genders and sexual orientations: “Suffering in an unhappy relationship seems to be an equal opportunity condition,” as he says. Read on for his way forward:

(And for more from Real on how to not end up hating your partner…see here.)

A Q&A with Terry Real

Q

How does the Relational Life Therapy model differ from conventional therapy for men (and couples)?

A

When my book, I Don’t Want To Talk About It, came out twenty years ago, there wasn’t much available for men with depression, which had long been considered a woman’s disease. (Depression is more common in women but it’s estimated that six million men have depression each year in the U.S.) I began getting calls asking if there was someone in St. Louis, or San Francisco, or wherever, doing the therapy work described in the book. Some of these calls were from men, but most were from their desperate partners.

I began inviting the couples with related intimacy struggles to Boston to join me for an intensive relationship intervention: The couple and I would spend two full days face-to-face, at the end of which time we would all agree that they were either on track to changing their relationship, or calling a lawyer—this was it, the last stop. I noticed two things about these interventions: Most of them worked remarkably well. And I broke virtually every rule I’d learned in therapy school.

I took sides, for example, often throwing my weight behind the woman. I stepped out of the therapeutic mask of “neutrality” in other ways as well, making a point of talking about struggles in my own life, my marriage, and my fraught childhood. For a time, I was joined by the great feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan and her team of sociologists, anthropologists, and educators, who helped articulate how what I was doing—however unconventional—seemed to have such impact. RLT, or Relational Life Therapy, was born.

Conventional therapy has done a great job of helping people grow by coming up from the one-down position of shame. What’s distinctive about RLT is that it gives just as much attention to helping people come down from the one-up of grandiosity, superiority, and looking down their nose at people. In therapy with men, I believe giving equal attention to both shame and grandiosity is critical.

In RLT, we use the crucible of the couple to bring about deep change in each individual, with an emphasis on doing trauma and early childhood work in the presence of the partner. The therapist is an explicit guide and mentor, teaching both men and women a set of practical relationship skills. Equally important is being able to serve more like twelve-step sponsors than like traditional therapists, basing our authority on our own relational recovery. The essential message is: “We’re in the mud with you, not above you.”

“What’s distinctive about RLT is that it gives just as much attention to helping people come down from the one-up of grandiosity, superiority, and looking down their nose at people. In therapy with men, I believe giving equal attention to both shame and grandiosity is critical.”

Perhaps most important, we tell our clients the truth in ways most therapists are taught to hold back. We don’t treat difficult people with kid gloves, but confront their dysfunctional traits and behaviors head on—with love. I call this joining through the truth: “Look, Bill. This is what you’ve been doing to blow your own foot off. How about you let me help you with it?” In RLT, even as we hold the person with warmth, we also cast a cool eye on their destructive or obnoxious behaviors. And we empower the disempowered partner to do the same—to stand up for themselves with love.

Q

What are the biggest roadblocks to intimacy that you see between men and women?

A

The first thing to realize is that this question would never have been asked a generation or two ago. “Intimacy? What’s that?” The 20th-century marriage was built for stability and companionship. But nowadays, we want more—long walks on the beach holding hands; heart-to-heart talks; great sex into our sixties, seventies, and beyond. We want a lifelong lover romance. But we don’t much act like lovers in our long-term relationships. No one ever taught us how to sustain that energy with each other.

The second thing is that when I say we have raised the bar, the truth is that mostly I’m referring to women. Many men would like more sex in their relationships, sure, but more emotional intimacy? Are you kidding? The open secret in couple’s therapy is that, by and large, it is women who carry dissatisfaction with the status quo. If I had a nickel for every guy who called me saying, “I just gotta get my wife in to see you. We’re not as close as we used to be,” well, I’d be broke. This is the elephant in the room: Most hetero men are not that unhappy in their marriages. They’re unhappy that their wives are so unhappy with them. “If you could just get her off my back,” they tell me, “all would be well.”

“Men have been sold a bill of goods. No one wants a perfect man.”

The bottom line is that most women want more emotional intimacy from men than we traditionally raise boys and men to deliver. I tell the guys I see, “The things you were taught as a boy—be strong, don’t feel, be independent—will ensure that by today’s standards you’ll be seen as a lousy husband.”

The essence of traditional masculinity is invulnerability. The more invulnerable you are, the more manly you are; and the more vulnerable you are, the more girly you are—a momma’s boy, a sissy. But what we’ve come to understand is that human vulnerability is what connects us to each other. Our worries, sadness, imperfections, draw us close. Men have been sold a bill of goods. No one wants a perfect man. Partners and kids want a real man with an open heart. I tell the guys I see that denying your human vulnerability is like trying to run away from your own rectum. It has a way of following you wherever you go.

Q

Is it different for straight vs. gay men?

A

Many straight therapists imagine that because a man is gay, he’s stepped out of the traditional male code, out of patriarchy. But everyone participates in patriarchal values. Men and women, gays and heteros. No one gets through the cheese strainer untouched. Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’ve escaped. To name one example, there’s the old issue in the gay community of what’s known as “bottom shame,” the disparagement of the male who receives sexually as opposed to the “top” who gives. This is misogyny transposed—contempt for the “feminine.” The dynamic of patriarchy can play out between a man and a woman, of course. But it can also play out between two men or two women, a parent and a child, two cultures, two races. Anytime something deemed “feminine” is despised, patriarchy reigns.

Q

Can you share your theory on why men (typically) lie?

A

There are three major reasons why men lie. At the broadest social level, masculinity itself, as it’s traditionally thought of, is a lie. Every time a man says, “I’ve got it, I’m in charge,” when clearly he isn’t, he’s lying. Men are taught that we are responsible for—and entitled to—run the universe. If there’s a problem, it’s our job to fix it. This imperative runs smack into a wife or partner’s tears. Men go berserk trying to “solve” their partner’s bad feelings when all the partner wants is some TLC. There’s an old saying in AA, “Don’t just DO something, STAND THERE!” But just being present with a hurt partner or even one’s child feels counter to the myth of our omnipotence.

Second, a man might lie to cover his butt, get away with something, or just get his own way. This kind of lying comes from a man’s grandiosity, his feelings of superiority, or entitlement. “I have the right to… I deserve…” This is the kind of lying typical of selfish, narcissistic, or overbearing men—men who take liberties. At its most extreme, it can be downright abusive. Cheaters, addicts, abusers of all kinds—these men live a life that is all lie.

“Every time a man says, ‘I’ve got it, I’m in charge,’ when clearly he isn’t, he’s lying. Men are taught that we are responsible for—and entitled to—run the universe.”

The third kind of lying comes from the opposite extreme—men who are afraid of their partners, particularly hetero men with women partners. One of the great unspoken truths is how many men fear their spouses. These are passive—and passive aggressive—men, the kind of individuals writer Robert Bly called “soft men.” Each time a man says, “yes” when he means “no”, each time he promises something he has no real intention of following through on, he lies. Of course, many women are no strangers to this kind of manipulation. The cure for this kind of lying is learning to be forthright with your partner. Tell your truth with diplomacy and skill, but nonetheless get it said. Have the courage to speak up for yourself rather than placate your partner and mutter through your teeth in anger. I call this radical truth-telling: fierce intimacy. The willingness to take one another on is an essential element in keeping a couple in good health.

Q

What’s the end result of men not telling the truth?

A

The first casualty of not telling the truth is our passion. As resentment builds, desire and generosity start to go out the window. I think this is the root of the epidemic of sexlessness in long-term relationships. When we stop showing up in authentic ways for our partner, and for ourselves, we may avoid painful conflict, but we also grow numb and disillusioned. Every time a man doesn’t open up and speak when he should, you can bet there will be payback.

Much has been written over the years about women’s loss of voice, but I find many men have no real voice in their relationships either. Men and women are silenced for different reasons. Generally, when a woman stops standing up for her needs, it’s either because she’s afraid to, or because she’s been socialized into thinking her own needs are somehow selfish. Men, by contrast, don’t stand up for their emotional needs because a real man simply doesn’t have any. “Real” men are needless and wantless, stoic and tough. Can you imagine a man like Clint Eastwood or Vin Diesel asking someone to comfort him because he feels insecure? But, of course, actual men (as opposed to macho, “real” men) are full of insecurities. All humans are.

Q

You also talk about male anger on a societal scale—how does that come into play in relationships and couples therapy?

A

Anger is mostly a secondary emotion. Underneath it is often hurt or pain. But men aren’t allowed to express such vulnerable feelings. For too many men, the only strong emotions they permit themselves are either anger or lust. When feeling hurt, or insecure, many men may dip into feelings of shame or inadequacy. But they’ll only stay with those one-down emotions for a few seconds before they bounce up into grandiosity, going from one-down to one-up, from hurt to rage—and then they attack.

In therapy, I forcefully block such aggression, then help clients walk back their anger to the shame or pain underneath. This work requires the courage to allow yourself to be truly vulnerable. One of my clients gave me the gift of this proverb: “There is nothing more gentle than true strength. And nothing more strong than true gentleness.” We men have a ways to go on this one.

“It’s okay. You won’t die if you don’t get your way.”

When I work with a raging man, I often teach him that much of male rage is helpless rage. Whether it’s drivers on the highway, or noisy kids you can’t control, the great male word for anger is frustration—that stifling sense of being obstructed. But I tell my guys, don’t raise the bridge, lower the water. Take your “frustration” as a signal that you’re trying to control something that doesn’t want to be controlled by you—like, for instance, your wife. Instead of redoubling your efforts at control or flying off the handle in revenge, take a few deep breaths and relax, let it go. You’re not going to win this one right now, so either bang yourself bloody or surrender. It’s okay. You won’t die if you don’t get your way.

I want the men I work with to live the “Serenity Prayer” associated with 12 Step—you know, the courage to change what you can (you!), the serenity to accept what you can’t (others!), and the wisdom to know which is which. We men are taught to live the opposite of that, not attending to what we can affect and getting into knockdown fights over the traffic.

Q

How might things be different if our culture was more driven by matriarchal values?

A

Unless you’re on some remote island or hanging out with bonobos, we don’t really know, because patriarchy is what we live in. But if you do look at the historical and anthropological literature, there is some evidence that women might do things differently. My friend and colleague Carol Gilligan just returned from Israel, where—in part inspired by her work (see her book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development)—more than ten thousand Israeli “daughters of Sarah” and Palestinian “daughters of Hager” met in the desert to sign a document insisting on the end of conflict between their two peoples. After the signing, they marched to Jerusalem where their ranks swelled to thirty thousand. They call their movement Women Wage Peace. I’ll take more of that.

The cultural historian Riane Eisler speaks of the difference between “power over” and “power with.” Patriarchal thinking is founded upon an illusion—the crazy idea of dominion, that we stand above and lord over nature—whether the nature we supposedly stand above is our planet, our wives, or our families. Living relationally, by contrast, means living ecologically. You’re not above the system. You live inside it; you’re one humble part. Your relationship is your biosphere. Take good care of it for your own sake. I don’t believe in altruism. I believe in enlightened self-interest. Sure, it might feel good to haul off and pollute your marriage with angry toxic words over there. But, buddy, you’re the one who will be breathing your wife’s or kids’ resentful blowback over here. Wake up!

Q

Do you see real potential for these patterns to change?

A

Yes. I’m a huge fan of millennials. For all their much-noticed narcissism, millennial men are by far the most gender-progressive generation on the planet. Young men expect a two-career family, expect joint decision-making, and expect to help out around the house. Remember, these guys were raised by a generation of feminist mothers. They’re not perfect, but they’re a big step up from Boomers, who are in real trouble. So many Boomer marriages are now ending in divorce that people are calling it the “Gray Divorce Revolution.” Why is that happening? I think the answer is tragically simple. Men in their sixties and beyond are stuck in the old patriarchal mode, and women in their sixties are having none of it.

Women have undergone a revolution. We men can scurry for cover or beat our chests and reassert the old ways, or we can rise to the challenge and meet these new demands for respect and emotional intimacy. As a family therapist, I believe that true intimacy and connection is our birthright. It’s how we’re designed to work best. I don’t want women to back off of these demands; I want men to stand up and meet them. We need to create a relationship-cherishing culture around husbands, fathers, and sons.

“Women have undergone a revolution. We men can scurry for cover or beat our chests and reassert the old ways, or we can rise to the challenge and meet these new demands for respect and emotional intimacy.”

Places like ManKind Project offer men the opportunity to open up and care for other men. But going off into the woods or a weekend men’s workshop is only the first step. We have to bring our best selves, our emotional selves, back home to our partners and children.

Q

What do you think is important for women to know in terms of supporting male partners, friends, family members in their intimate development/relationships?

A

I want women to stand up for and demand this new intimacy—with their partners, sons, even their dads. And I want them to do so with love. A lot of women get themselves empowered and start sounding as aggressive as men have always sounded. That’s not a step up. I want women to work with men, to teach them, with humility, what works best for them. Let go of complaint and step into the vulnerability of making a request. Don’t tell men what they’ve done wrong, but what they could do that’s right. Men, by and large, are criticism-phobic. Inside of every complaint is a wish for something different. Lead with that. And when men do try to come through, don’t squash it—encourage it. Remember, they’re beginners, mostly, when it comes to this relational stuff. But I think most men are truly good-hearted. Most of the guys I encounter are well-meaning and bewildered.

Also, don’t think for a moment that because a man is gentle in the living room he still can’t be Tarzan in the bedroom. I don’t want soft men. I want strong, big-hearted men. I want men to be whole.

Q

How do you feel about the future of relationships between men and women?

A

It’s not rocket science to understand that men, and the relationship between men and women, are both in a state of crisis right now. Men are confused, barraged with mixed messages about what it means to be a good man in these times. I don’t think we can go back to some imagined ideal of the past, even if we wanted to. We must move forward. We must disassemble, for example, the essentially grandiose position of holding ourselves above nature. To put it simply, if we don’t, we may all die—and take the planet with us.

“Don’t think for a moment that because a man is gentle in the living room he still can’t be Tarzan in the bedroom.”

As a family therapist, I know that in crisis lies opportunity. Both dissolution and transformation begin in exactly the same way, with an unsettling sweeping away of the past and its security. The difference between death and transformation lies in our willingness to change, and the wisdom we gain. I believe in the essential goodness of men; I believe that women should—in fact, must—help. The legacy of grandiosity—of what I call poison privilege—hurts everyone.

To paraphrase the great poet, Rabindranath Tagore: Privilege is like a knife all blade. It cuts the hand that wields it. I tell the guys I work with that you may not be able to bring peace to another country, but you can bring peace to your living room and bedroom. The stakes are very high—for each of us and for all of us.

Terry Real is a family therapist, speaker, and author. He founded the Relational Life Institute (RLI), which offers workshops for couples, individuals, and parents around the country, along with a professional training program for clinicians on his RLT (Relational Life Therapy) methodology. His bestselling books include I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, How Can I Get Through to You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women, and The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work. Real has also served as a senior faculty member of the Family Institute of Cambridge in Massachusetts and is a retired Clinical Fellow of the Meadows Institute in Arizona.

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