There's something inherently funny about a man in therapy. I realized this recently when I saw the trailer to Couples Retreat , a new Vince Vaughn comedy hitting theatres today. Three of the four couples in the film that attend said retreat are led to believe it's just an economical group-rate vacation, but then are bullied into also partaking in the couples counselling aspect of the tropical getaway. Humour ensues! And many of the jokes, it appears, have to do with this stigma of men talking out their relationship issues with a shrink.
Certainly the endless spoofs of the mythopoetic mens' movement born out of the seventies - you know, sweat lodges and drums - has something to do with the fact that I snicker when I think about men sensitively talking about their deepest issues. This is true even though I consider myself a modern sensitive type and often talk openly about relationship problems with friends. I guess this means I am somewhat of a self-hating sensitive type. Huh. I should probably talk to my therapist about that.
Of course, it's a problem when men have relationship troubles and don't seek help. David B. Wexler, a clinical psychologist (though not mine) and the author of When Good Men Behave Badly , tells me that about 80 per cent of the men who come to him are sent by other people in their lives, such as a spouse who's finally worked up the nerve to tell her husband that their marriage is in a crisis, even threatening divorce if they don't seek help. It is the same ingrained male stereotypes that make it funny for men to be in therapy, says Dr. Wexler, that is often their ruin.
"One thing that a lot of the research has shown is that men who are especially attached to classic notions of masculinity - don't be vulnerable, don't appear weak, be in control - are more likely to be experiencing depression and are more likely to be unhappy in their relationship," he says. "And those men are also the ones least likely to seek out the relatively proven methods we've got for ameliorating those situations. That's a bad combination."
Dr. Wexler proposes, however, that it's not all the fault of us guys - part of the problem lies with the way therapy has been presented to us.
Instead of advertising counselling as a place where a man is going to be forced to "reveal his inner self," Dr. Wexler suggests therapy should be put into language that speaks not against, but to ingrained ideas of masculinity. "When somebody encourages men to go into therapy, they'll say no way," he says. "But if they say 'I know this guy who can give us some tips and tools or coach us or who can put us through a class about relationship skills,' that's more user friendly for men."
I suppose it's a little patronizing for therapists to have to use these typically male terms - coaching, tools - to get us to seek help, but I'm not against being tricked if it works.
I talked to a few guys who see a therapist and one, who said it had benefited his relationship, serves as evidence of Dr. Wexler's point. "My therapist is action-oriented," the guy said, explaining that the goal of his sessions is not just talk, but to put into concrete motion things that will help his relationship and help him at work. His therapist, he said, "is a no-nonsense guy from Texas and doesn't coddle me. As a man, I like a manly man. He's very direct."
Blake Woodside, an academic psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, has personally seen many men learn how to open up. He runs an anorexia nervosa clinic and says there is occasionally a man who attends. "They're kind of quiet at first," he says. "But they're dumped into this intensely female environment and it's like they have 11 sisters all of a sudden. It's interesting to watch them gradually come out of their shell and start to talk about what they're actually feeling. And for many of these guys, it's a totally novel experience."
The men who finally do learn to talk about their feelings, Dr. Woodside speculated, "probably get on a whole lot better with women than your average guy because they've got practice at communicating in a way that women understand more clearly."
Which brings us back, of course, to the idea that emotional expression is a primarily a woman's domain. Well, so be it. But here's an idea which I don't think is too much of a paradox: If men really are more oriented towards action than talking about feelings, couldn't we start to include talking about feelings as an action? Sure, it might end up looking comical at first, but if learning about myself in the therapy room - or at a couples retreat - means getting on better with women and in relationships, my goal-oriented male brain will be a happy one. But maybe that's just how I feel about it.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks , will be published in the fall of 2010.