Premises for treating men with problems in intimate relations

By Tamir Ashman

“Obtain your masculinity but also keep your femininity, and the channels of the world will open themselves to you” (The book of Tao)

Introduction

For many years I’ve been occupying in mentoring workshops, long term groups, and private treatment sessions among adult men and teenagers. During the work process with this population, my patients teach me about their inner world, and it is more accurate to say that they teach me about the unique way in which us men conduct ourselves inside an environment of intimate relations. In fact, without noticing and without coconscious intent I embarked on to years of research, in which I was exposed to dozens of men, some are momentarily guests and others are hosted for years, and once a week allow me to experience and touch a little, I their emotional world. Along the years I have learned to recognize and experience the suffering of the violent man. And in perspective there is a therapeutic importance to recognize and empathize versus this suffer. To this day, I have never met a man who hits his spouse out of joy and happiness in his life, or from satisfaction, there are always different levels of suffering in that place.   

It is important for me to point out that my empathy as a therapist for a moment does not justify their behavior. The man is the only responsible for his violent behavior, life in the partition of a man who suffers from a problem of violent behavior are a continuous sequence of misery and terror. But in my perspective, empathy and deep understanding of the routes of violent behavior among men, are one of the main keys to the beginning of a change. And without the empathy and faith in the ability of men to change, my work wouldn’t mean anything.   

In this paper I am trying to review the assumptions and the conceptions which guide me as a therapist while working with men who behave violently in the marital space. Some of these assumptions are often changed so in some way I am using this document to take a break for thinking and reflection.

In this work are found many inclusions about the behavior of men in the marital space, by definition inclusions cause injustice to the unique world of each one of my patients, but one could learn about a phenomenon and human behaviors without the process of inclusion.

A. A lot of men are having trouble and lack the capability and skills to create intimate relationships

The group as a therapeutic environment provides an almost laboratory space to examine the way in which men create intimacy. I find that one of the most frustrating factors in the world of men who approach to receive help, is on the one hand, the longing for proximity with one’s partner, and on the other hand the lack of capability to create it. The term of intimacy is not substantial to them, and I often find that behind many outbreaks, the undeclared and deep motive is due to difficult frustration feelings which come from a feeling of distance between the partners. The man feels that he and his spouse are distant, but the vision of distance is translated and interpreted in the man’s inner world as damage done by the woman in the shared intimacy and not as a damage done by him.

The inability of the man to observe his own responsibility for the damage in the intimacy, comes in my perspective from defense mechanisms which allow the man to avoid taking responsibility over the situation and to cast it over his spouse. The man translates the situation subjectively and egocentrically as an intent damage done by the woman, and that she is the one who ruins the relationship. In the group conversation a lot of men almost enjoy quoting the saying “A wise woman builds her house, while a foolish woman tears hers down with her own hands.” Which expresses a rooted conception which means that the power and exclusive responsibility over the marital and family relationship is found at the woman’s hands, and she has the power to build the house and the strength to ruin it as well. In my perspective the most important point behind that conception is the comprehension of the man as incapable to influence, to wreck and to build the same space which he shares with the woman. This sentence almost attributes the woman imaginary powers of destruction and construction, and behind it concealed a fear from the feminine power. So in fact, at the inner subjective experience the attacking man feels as if he is a victim to the destructive power of the woman. And once the man interprets a situation as an attack, the repertoire of comments shrinks to fight or flight.   

B. The distance between the man and his spouse reflects the quality of the relationship which the man has with himself

The word intimacy is derived from the Greek word intimos, which means inner.  This definition clarifies to me in an accurate way the essence of the intimate experience. It begins from the individual’s inside environment and radiates outside. So in fact, the quality of the relationship which the man creates in his outer environment is a reflection to the level of intimacy which the man shares with himself.  

A man who feels distant and strange inside his inner world will create the same experience of emotional distance in his surrounding environment. I often find that a lot of men refuse to watch the outer environment as a reflecting expression of their inner world, this observation will destabilize any belief system which they obtain about themselves, and as I mentioned in the first assumption – it is safer narcissistically to see the woman as the factor which causes damage to the intimacy and not the man himself. The lack of ability to create intimacy is created during the first stages of the socialization process among boys. In the biographical axis there is a point of divergence in which the boy starts to alienate himself from extensive parts of his conscious, and in the long term this process shrinks the emotional world of the male (an opposite process to the one of creating intimacy, the male in this process loses the capability to create a connection to his emotions). The divergence point at the boy, comes from negative reinforcements from their close surroundings (parents, siblings) to behaviors which are attributed as feminine. Yasur Borokovitz (2003), points out that according to one of the myths which are linked to masculinity it is desired that the man won’t obtain or at least won’t express certain feelings. One could say that the society creates the man who doesn’t feel. Different researchers argue, that this myth is one of the reasons that a lot of men label their emotions in mistaken names, are unable to identify them and experience their emotional world as confused and confusing.  

Patients can remember this foundation memory which sparked the process of desertion from their inner world. They tell about key sentences which they remember from their childhood that were told to them by their parents such as, “why are you crying you behave like a girl” “you get offended like a sissy”. The boy who brings his vulnerability to the family’s communication space for the first time, through an emotional expression, will often be rejected by one of his parents. In my perspective this rejection is one of the greatest wrongs caused to sons by their parents, and in the manner of wrongs they are caused as a result from lack of awareness and innocence but creates the beginning of the masculine distance. The son, which a full repertoire of his feelings is found as inappropriate will search for alternatives to communicate his inner world with himself and fellow people, and thus often begins a process in which the boy adopts the feeling of anger as a key emotion which through it, he experiences his emotional presence.

The process of alienating yourself to the emotional system, affects the way in which the boy will adopt words which express emotional nuances in the process of learning a language. Many times, in my meetings with men I ask them to count all of the words which express emotion, usually men can tell about five feelings in the Hebrew language – anger, sadness, love, hate, envy. Meaning, most men who come to therapy lack the linguistic capability to talk in emotional nuances.  

Weitengenstein claimed that our inner world is understood and defined to us through language, and in the absence of language an experience cannot be existed, so the men experience their outer and inner world through a limited linguistic prism. The lack of an emotional language reflects the question of the egg and the chicken – the lack of acceptance of the entire branch of feelings of the son by his close environment leads him to be unable to internalize emotional words, which are comprehended as non-legitimist for his gender, that the use of these words puts the son in a risk of rejection experiences. In an older age, once the capability to create intimacy is put to an actual test, the lack of familiarization with the emotional language will not enable the male to experience and communicate his feelings. And the lack of ability to communicate his feelings does not allow the creation of a real proximity of the male with himself and fellow people.

The essence of the marital intimate relationship is based on the space which provides the singular a feeling of acceptance by the other, the same space of acceptance is the one which allows a ‘correction’ of the individual with himself, in my perspective.  

Therefore, in my vision, one of the key goals of the therapeutic work with men who suffer from struggles in creating intimate relationships, is to provide the individual an environment which will help him to expand his self acceptance space, meaning, to assist the man to develop intimacy with each part of his personality, and thus his capability to create intimacy with fellow people will be expanded naturally. As long as the individual is remained in the group or the individual environment he is capable of looking in the ‘mirror’ that faces him and to experience an acceptance of his changing reflection which is naturally reflected through the other, the intimate space of the individual expands, and as a byproduct the ability of the man to accept himself and his spouse in the actual life expands.

 

C. There is a link between the difficulties of men in the intimate space to an emotional state of concealed depression

In his book ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ Trans Real addresses the violent behavior as an externalization of the inner depression, which he defines as a concealed depression. Most men who go to therapy will not admit that they are suffering from depression, unlike the manifested depression in which the man suffers from self violence, suicidal thoughts, seclusion, self beating, physical damage. The concealed depression leads to intensive doing, DOING mechanisms, restless search for thrills. The man will divert and remove the inner misery, which comes from a lack of connection with his feelings, which will cause harm to his closest person – his spouse. One of the costs of this response mechanism, is that the man doesn’t develop an awareness to his misery and his depression. The lack of ability of the man to create an intimate dialogue with his misery leads him to distant it to his spouse, and then in a process that is usually done without awareness, by distancing his spouse, the man releases his own misery for a moment. Meaning, the violent behavior operates in a similar principle – the man removes his inner misery which comes from the lack of connection go the emotional system to causing pain to his spouse, the removal of the mental pain allows the break from it. Part of the group doing includes helping to show the man his inner reflection, as it is reflected through the misery he causes to his spouse.

     

D. Aggressive communication rewards the man in the short term and is destructive in the long term

The dynamics of the often outbreaks bursts in seconds, and the delicate texture of the marital intimacy which is built during weeks and months is ruined in the blink of an eye. The violent behavior serves the man’s needs in the short term and is destructive in the long run. The violence creates an illusion of solving a conflict, the spouse (mainly during the first years of the relationship) will often won’t repeat the declared event after which the man had the outbreak, thus the man a positive reinforcement for his outbreak.

From a slightly different direction, a patient that used to be a drug addict, told that during the experience of injecting heroin to his body there is a feeling of intimacy, and reduction of the misery which is caused due to the feeling of alienation and emptiness. In my perspective the violent outbreak acts in a similar mechanism. When a man uses violence he experiences a relief, a release and a sense of calmness from the accumulated inner tension. As a result from the alienated marital space, the man is unable to discharge inner stress by sharing bis difficulties with his partner, and as a result of lacking an intimate relationship with himself, he is unable to identify the feelings which ‘stream’ I the emotional system, the absence of emotional conceptualization leads to a feeling of emptiness and alienation, and the violence in that perspective is used as a mental mechanism which creates temporary connection (sort of intimacy) between the man and his feelings. This is a highly effective tool in the immediate term to release emotional stress, and an effective tool in the short term for achieving change in the couple’s dynamics. After the outbreak, the male experiences a feeling which resembles intimacy; an entire arch of feelings is ‘opened’ for him, and he feels emotions of guilt, shame, regret, passion, and love. Men tell in the group sessions about their feeling post the outbreak; they talk about a sense of quiet in them, they feel love towards their spouse, a true will to make it up to her, often after the outbreak the men succeed to talk with their spouse in an emotional language, they will express their love, will scatter promises to change their behavior, and during the days after the outbreak they will often act in a pleasing way, thus often in the first few years the spouses are captivated and rewarded by the honeymoon illusion. Today I tend to understand the violent behavior as a personal communication problem – and not as a psychopathology. Meaning the man who hits his wife is trying and interested to communicate his feelings, the depression, the sense of self alienation, but as a result from lack of accessible emotional language, he expresses his inner emotional world through the emotion of anger (which is expressed by ACTING OUT). (I find a reinforcement to that in the behavior of babies during the pre language phase, when the baby experiences frustration (expressed inside or outside) he will express that frustration through aggressive behavior (tossing objects, screaming, physical beating of the parent), this behavior will vanish as long as the baby will learn a literal language to conceptualize his inner world. When a man throws and breaks a glass during outbreaks, he communicates (in a destructive way) his anger to his spouse. Mostly, the feeling of anger conceals a wide branch of other feelings, that the fog of anger does not allow the man to observe and communicate.

E. One of the therapy’s goals: Changing conceptions, and treating the feeling of anger

One of the things that kept md occupied while working with men, is the relationship with the feeling of anger, which is the emotion which drives any violent outbreak, is it a negative or a positive anger?

Today I refer to anger using the simile of the mathematical term – ‘absolute value’, it is not positive nor negative it simply exists. In the therapeutic work I make a separation between handling feelings from the past and between anger feelings which are forming here and now in the personal, marital and the group medium. Most men who are in therapy treat the feeling of anger in a non-effective and destructive way, or they compress that anger through internalization mechanisms or they ‘kick’ the anger outside through impulsive outbreaks. The passive man, who is scared of handling conflicts, will keep the anger within, the extrinsic man will choose to attack, the first path causes psychometric damages and after long compressing to difficult outbreaks (like a dam that has been breached) while the second path may release the energy buried in the anger, but as a result from the quick and un regulated release, it scorches and creates secondary damage inside the emotional system of the attacker and the attacked (the violent outbreak leaves a trace of guilt, shame, and alienation feelings so it only  creates an illusion of a release.)

In my perspective one of the main objectives of working with men who suffer from violent communication is to create a renewed contract with the feeling of anger. To tear apart the conception by which anger is a negative feeling, to dismantle the conscious connection between anger and violence, to decrease the fear of anger, and to turn the group of a kind of ‘studio’ which teaches the assertive language which means learning to conduct a conflict here and now in a non-violent way.  

F. The process of creating personal and interpersonal intimacy is a process of solving conflicts

One of the hidden objectives of the therapeutic group, is that during the stages of the group’s development, it will aspire to reach the level of intimacy, the marital system also aspires to reach the intimate place. And it acts in a similar mechanism to the way in which the group will move towards intimacy – in a process of solving conflicts.

A group progresses towards intimacy by coping in each given time with a main conflict which occupies its members, the member s of the group consciously or unconsciously will invest emotional energy and thought to solve a conflict in the group’s here and now. There are universal group conflicts (absorption versus uniqueness, acceptance versus criticism, competition over personal exposure versus the fear of getting hurt or being used etc.) And there are conflicts which are unique to each group. The quality of the solution that the group will choose for a certain conflict will affect (speed or delays or pauses) the development of the group on its way to the destination of the intimate phase.   

I find a lot of resemblance between the process of creating intimacy in the group and between the process of forming intimacy in the marital space. The spouses need to cope with countless of conflicts regarding the shared space on their to intimacy, during their years together. Some of the conflicts are universal and some are unique to each relationship. In order to achieve intimacy the spouses need to consent regarding countless of conflict issues (criticism, coping with situations of disagreement, strong and weak, giving, the ways in which tensions are drained out, division of duties at home, what is masculine and what is feminine, the way of raising children, how much SPACE together and apart, sexual behaviors, leader and lead etc.), a correct handling of conflicts creates a change in the marital dynamics.  

I find that men who suffer from issues of violence has low capability in solving conflicts, and tend to select the aggressive, passive, or passive aggressive style of communication. These men lack the ability of assertive communication. The prevention of solving the conflict creates an illusion of quiet when in fact it defects the relations between the spouses and creates a lack of movement in the marital system, the avoiding print (the passive) creates an accumulation of hostility and additional negative feelings. And in fact, the spouses accumulate stress and continuous distance and the outbreak is as a ticking time bomb. I find that a lot of men create bypass conflict paths, they scatter invisible ‘anger mines’, (the towels’ placement, waste of electricity, taking the garbage out, cleaning the sink and any other trivial thing) when the spouse steps on one of these anger mines, the man responds in aggression which is not suitable to the situation, and this does not create an understanding between the spouses over the essence of the conflict, for examples, couples can argue for months over the issue of who takes out the garbage, without understanding and realizing that behind this trivial garbage fight hides a critical negotiation over the division of duties a the house.   

G. Men who behave in an aggressive way at the marital space were fed with violent communication patterns during their childhood in their origin family

In his book Individuality: the impossible project, Carlo Shterenger defined the therapeutic mission as helping the patient to tell and redesign the patients’ past, present and future, to help them to exit the cables of their past, meaning to stop the infinite repetitions of these patterns.

According to the intergenerational transfer comprehension, a man who suffer from an issue of violence was exposed to an emotional environment in his origin family which affects his future connections and causes his marital life to have the same environment. I find that almost every man who suffer from violence issues were exposed to a violent communication between their parents. (Not necessarily physical violence), the man almost breast fed the patterns of his parents’ communication and the way that his parents solved couple conflicts between them. Often the man’s parents, will ‘talk’ through him in a way which resembles unaware instinctive responds, for example a man that as a child experienced his father bursts and assaults his mother, after she criticized his father, will respond in criticism situations in the present in a similar way. A man who his father was characterized in passive communication patterns, will often continue the process of giving up on his own needs. A man can adopt the reversed pattern of behavior to one of his parents accurately, for example a man who grew up in the shadow of an impulsive father who struggles go control his impulses, will adopt the other side of that conflict, and strangle any urge that goes through the system of his feelings.       

If we look at the intergenerational transfer in a slightly poetic way with a light scent of optimism, often, the son who becomes a father, continues the process of the father’s development from the point he had stopped I the son’s perspective, in this aspect not only the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, the seeds of this apple will create a new tree, that might feed itself from similar roots, but it the right to choose. I’ll quote a creepy metaphor from a patient who suffered from a harsh violence problem, “My father hit me with a belt at the metal side, and K progressed, I hit my children today with the soft side of the belt.”

I often find that a lot of men struggle to remember memories of their childhood, the way that they’d tell the memory will be through understanding and justifying the father’s behavior “well this is what they knew back then” “he didn’t have another choice nothing else would stop me” “it says in the bible spare the rod and spoil the child” “I don’t know where I’d be today without the discipline my father had put in me” “I was a problematic child”, “It wasn’t violence it was respect, there used to be respect for parents”. This process of justifying the misdoing done by their father in the past, comes to serve the behavioral choices that these men pick in the present in my perspective. Meaning, a critical dialogue of their father’s behavior, means criticism and self observation of themselves as spouses and fathers.        

In my perspective, the main tool in the group work for exiting that violent ‘fait’ is a continuous process of self awareness, meaning in the framework of the group’s process the man learns to know himself upon his different parts, and the group helps the individual to identify the connection between the past and the present.

In a therapeutic aspect the assumption around the connection between the men’s past as children and their marital present could be problematic, since the danger concealed in it might strengthen the feeling of victim and self pettiness of the man and may assist him to remove responsibility from his violent behavior in the present, both within the group and in the relationship with his spouse and children.

One of the therapeutic possibilities for solving this situation is to use the same attractive strength which is rich with the power of the past but in the other way around, meaning the man could fix parts of his biography by burning fixed memories in the conscious of his children, his successors in the present. For example, a man told in the group that as a child his parents never celebrated his birthday, in this case the group tried to support and help him to celebrate his son’s birthday. Another man told that as a child the teachers’ parents’ day at school left a memory of harsh violence experiences by his father. In this case the group tried to help him to respond patiently to his son and not in a violent way.     

H. Men who suffer from an aggressive behavior in the marital space hold harsh conceptions about parity and family

Behind each violent outbreak of the man, during those minutes and sometimes seconds of the outbreak process, the man captures the reality in a dichotomist way, his thoughts will interoperate the reality with his spouse in way which is focusing on him, and the man will not doubt the way he captures the reality, that there might be other perspectives to the same situation.

For example a man told in the group about a breakout he experienced a home: he came home hungry from work, in the few minutes of climbing the stairs to his house, he began to imagine the un set table, empty pots, and his wife sitting in front of the television, imaginary images may have creates in his conscious thoughts which came to explain the imaginary reality, “she is spiking me… she does that on purpose… she is trying to test me… she is trying to see when will I burst… if I come home and there isn’t food on the table I don’t know what I will do to her…”

These thoughts that are called in the group language ‘negative inner talks’, feed the feeling of anger, so I fact before the outer expression of the outbreak, it is imagined inside of the man’s brain and receives a sort of confirmation to act. The thinking process in the inner reality creates a process of justifying the response, and when a man is unable to flex his response, and see the inner reality in other perspectives, and he is convinced that he holds the truth. The causing of misdoing and assaulting the woman is only a matter of time. Often this mechanism, creates a feeling at the man that he is the victim of that situation, and thus he won’t feel regret and compassion towards his assaulted spouse, will shut himself with his insult and will internally justify his behavior “if she would have acted differently none of this would have happened”, “she got what she wanted”. Once the man obtains stiff opinions about different subjects in the marital and family space, each stiff conception might create a cause for an outbreak.  

 

In conclusion:

In this paper I tried to review the guiding system of conceptions in my work with men, the basic conception which guides me, is that the aggressive behavior and communication comes from a place of distress and misery, misery that comes from inability of the man to be in touch with his feelings, this leads to a feeling of distance and strangeness in the internal world of the man. The marital system will only reflect the quality of the individual intimacy of each of the spouses. The inability of the man to have a dialogue with his feelings becomes a sort of disability in the marital system. The man longs for intimacy but is unable to create emotional touch in it because he doesn’t create a touch and listening to his emotional needs.       

From the moment of our birth as sons to our formation as fathers, we go through a painful and violent process, in which complete parts of our emotional world are cut from our conscious in a sort of a social circumcision. Sometimes I ask men how many times they cried during their lives. The men usually don’t need an extra hand to complete the count. Their memory usually counts between three to five incidents of bursting in tears during their lives, usually these events are dramatic, and have some level of social justification to express sadness (mainly revolving death and birth). This example illustrates the essence of the male misery – to burst out of laughter and to burst in tears are two opposing sides of one whole and is a living and beating emotional system. I believe all of us would have paused and arise if a social warrant prohibited an entire population to express laughter. When in fact a lot of men are captivated under the same hidden social law which prevents us from crying. This fact creates an inter personal relationship which is based on an inner sense of alienation inside the man’s world. And I return to the second ground assumption of this paper – one cannot create an intimate relationship with his spouse as long as he is not in a relationship with himself.    

 

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