Help For A Shut-Down Man

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Amy: When therapist Avi Klein wrote about men and their struggle with emotions, it reminded me of many of the men I see in the therapy setting,  mostly as part of a couple or family.   One of the helpful ideas  I’ve gotten from my conversations with David Keith involve new ways of  thinking  about the male emotional landscape. As we know, men have been typically acculturated not to show much emotional pain or need. My discussions with David have reminded me not to be fooled by these  “cool” guys: Men are as hungry for love as women. They just wear it differently

Here’s an example of a couple that I see frequently in my office, only more so. It has something to say about how people are not necessarily as they appear:

Case: It was hard to guage the state of Nora and Charles’ relationship when they first sat down on the couch. I hadn’t seen them for several months due to traveling and other scheduling issues. They had been to see me five or six  times, with gradual improvement. “Improvement” in this case means less fighting, and that Charles was no longer threatening to leave the relationship.

images-3At this session, Charles acknowledged that things are “better”. Asked what he meant, he said, “Less nagging, less fighting.”. Nora agreed, said she felt happier, they were enjoying each other more, but still worried that this lack of fighting signaled a fragile peace, rather than meaningful change.

Charles, an Australian-born film editor  and Nora, owner of a graphic design company, first came to see me when they were on the verge of separation. They’d lived together for 7 years, never married, and had a 3-year old son, Benjamin. The initial, superficial impression was that these two people were polar opposites; he–uptight, unavailable, with clenched jaw, she–emotional, open, vulnerable.

At our initial session, Charles said he’d “give therapy a chance”, but he “couldn’t take the nagging” and seemed to be headed for the door. Nora, a sweet-faced strawberry blonde, looked really weepy and upset, while Charles sat stone-faced on the couch next to her. Charles was one of the most understated characters I’ve seen in my office; a handsome, expressionless face, monotone voice, and his body seemed weighted with exhaustion. His wife appeared to have much more life in her; even her pain was more alive.

images-6In our sessions I ended up working like an archaeologist,  unearthing the emotions which Charles had long denied, both to himself and to Nora. Slowly, one layer of rubble at a time, Charles began emerging, slightly more vulnerable, slightly more revealing. It required some heavy lifting on my part. I knew how Nora felt.

Charles , whose parents divorced when he was an infant, had been kicked into an early adulthood at age twelve, when , in the midst of his mother’s re-marriage, he was sent to a English boarding school. As he said, he “never returned home” except for brief periods. He maintained a cool, cordial relationship with both parents, nothing cozy or messy–-mostly polite and distant-ish.

Nora, by contrast, had more overt upheaval in her family, including a parental divorce when she was thirteen, and a sister with apparent bi-polar disorder. The family pressures had calmed down over the years and now Nora, the oldest, enjoyed a warm relationship with both parents–her Mom especially–and felt emotionally protective toward her sister and brother .

Unknown-2Over the course of several visits, Charles and Nora’s relationship seemed easier, lighter. Although I doubted he would admit it, Charles seemed to welcome an opportunity to talk about some of the emotional pain in his life, past and present. I think this accounted for the increased “lightness” in the room, and the relationship. Though forty years old, Charles had apparently never, ever talked about the feeling of being wrenched from his mother as a twelve-year old.  It must have been especially painful, as a single child with a divorced mom; he and his mother had been alone, the two of them, since he was very little.  He had been storing that up for many years, toughing it out, maybe hoping that if he didn’t talk about it, or think about it, it would go away. But I felt surprisingly little resistance from him as I began to be curious about his years of accumulated tension. Perhaps he was glad someone was asking. He clearly did not know how to begin this reflection on his own.

I could, however,  understand Nora’s “nagging”, since this guy’s pattern of stony silence made me want to light a fire under him. But I also understood how bad it must have felt for Charles  to be under the gun all the time. Indeed, Nora, though a lively and intuitive woman, DID seem to be overly tuned-in to Charles’ deficits. For example, Charles came alive when talked about how much he loved his daily ritual of making breakfast for their son. Nora, however, felt that this ritual could be improved upon, and she had suggestions to go with it.

After about six months of semi-regular sessions, , the couple seemed to be in a better place. Charles was slightly looser, less uptight, and Nora looked and sounded lighter and brighter. Though she said she indeed felt “happier”, Nora harbored  a worry that if she raised something “unpleasant” Charles would  bolt. She became convinced that “he would be just fine” without her.

This was the theme of every session–to lift the mask of disengagement from Charles face so that Nora could  really, truly, see her partner. I asked Nora if she was serious in believing that Charles, this pseudo- Iron Man, didn’t need her? I told her (and him) that I was quite sure Charles’ hunger for love was as deep as hers– he just had more practice hiding it. I knew that he had been “practicing” since he was sent away from home at home at twelve years old.  He hadn’t asked for much since that time.

Charles didn’t deny it. He turned to Nora, and with as much feeling as I’d seen from him, said, “Of course I don’t want to break up this relationship. Of course I would hate to see it end!” That’s probably as much an expression of need that she’s ever gotten from him. But it was heartfelt, and she recognized that. The tension seemed to go out of her body.

Unknown-2As we finished the session, I realize that the process of “unmasking” Charles has been critical to this couple’s increased sense of well-being. I always assumed, despite evidence to the contrary, that this relationship was more emotionally equal than it looked.

That’s true of most couples. In general, our unconscious emotional antennae is reliable;  we tend to partner with people with the same degree of emotional need. It doesn’t always look like that, for sure, but mostly our choice of partner is “correct”. (Of course then we may grow to resent those qualities that first attracted us!) But we can use this idea of emotional equality as a guide:  If the wife seems “needy”, you can assume that the cool-seeming husband is just as hungry for love, on the inside. No matter how it looks!

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