A Relationship Map for Men
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how men find intimacy and closeness in their friendships. I have been a daughter, a wife, a mother, a sister, a boss, and a friend to so many men over the years. Additionally, I’m a trained psychotherapist in Washington, DC to families, children, parents, and also to fathers and men. Often, I have men in my waiting room and in my psychotherapy office seeking help, yet I find myself wondering about the roadblocks that men experience in pursuing what they need emotionally and within their relationships.
As an observer of others and an interested party in the health and workings of relationships, I often wonder what I’m missing in understanding men’s relationships. I have considered in the past that perhaps men have a different emotional or relational roadmap than women; and I sometimes fear that therapy doesn’t offer men a constructive path toward greater intimacy, closeness or emotional fulfillment, especially if it is rooted in more stereotypically female ways of relating. What is all this wondering about, really? It could be because I am a woman–first and foremost–and see these issues through my skewed female lense. Is it that men perhaps have fewer experiences and blueprints about how to be close throughout their lives as sons, brothers, friends, and colleagues? These questions feel a bit too “judgey” on my part. When I work with men in the context of couples therapy in my practice in Northwest DC near Bethesda, I sometimes sense how terribly foreign and awkward all of this emotional talk is. My primary question is, do we need a new or better emotional roadmap for men, or are we misunderstanding fundamental ways that men relate to others, themselves and their world?
This question stirred in me as I have watched my aging father and my uncle form a bond over the past year through my father’s illness. Both men are loving, responsible fathers, workers, husbands, and community members. Both men fulfilled their responsibilities, and have lived full, happy lives. They have raised their children; they worked, and they retired. My father was lucky. He had time to pursue his hobbies, go on fishing and ski trips with his friends, and develop a few close male friendships, which he turned to when he was in need of counsel and support. Yet, I watch my father and uncle now, as they convene daily in conversation and share in mutual support–my uncle helps my dad who is failing; my father admires and loves my uncle–I wonder if they are discovering (or even just demonstrating an already present) emotional road map for men that is something rather special and perhaps offers me a new way of thinking about helping men engage emotionally in the therapy process.
What is different about their emotional roadmap or way of relating? From my observations, it embodies the following qualities.
It occurs in the present moment. My uncle knows something that the women in the house don’t seem to understand. He intuitively knows how to pace with my father.
It is active! There is less talking, fewer words, and more being with the other person that occurs within their interactions. The conversation flows like a golf match. Prepare, think, wait, position, putt, watch, remark, then remember.
It is fairly concrete and rooted in facts before feelings. I find this way of relating very authentic. While feelings color a conversation, they only really need to season or pepper the main ideas. Feelings are important but do not always need to be at the forefront. Thus, it helps to deal with feelings in an active manner that acknowledges them without highlighting them.
It is guided by a quiet respect. Words or talking don’t direct or lead the interactions. Showing up, and being solidly present with one’s actions are the keys for relating well. Reminiscing is a huge part of how they relate. I wonder if men are bigger and better storytellers than women, or perhaps my uncle is a better listener and “rememberer” than I am for my father. And if storytelling is a key component within attachments, then I find it curious that we continually label men as detached. Perhaps we aren’t telling or inviting stories in a manner that is important or relevant to them.
As my uncle and father have grown in their connection, I’ve found myself in awe of my uncle’s way of comforting and relating to my father. He is present, he is patient, he is wisely reserved in response to my father’s worries or confused actions. I also feel grateful for the many men that gather to visit my father regularly. They are loyal, quietly loving, engaged men that know how to support in ways that are different than my “go to” ways as a woman and a daughter.
I know that there are so many more nuances that as a woman, I’ve missed. However, as a mother of two sons, I’ve decided that I’m on a mission to understand men’s ways of relating better, and I’m committed to seeking better solutions for paying attention to their roadmap. Perhaps, men don’t need a new or better roadmap. We might just need to look more closely and follow along more carefully with the men and boys in our daily lives.