Men, Women and a Social Therapy Group

Dear Readers: Our blog post on men’s lack of emotional development by my colleague, the social therapist and psychiatrist Dr. Hugh Polk, sparked a very rich dialogue — thank you to those who commented. We’re following up by sharing some concrete work done in social therapy groups on how men and women relate to each other.  Here's Dr. Polk again:

Christine LaCerva, Director Social Therapy Group

In social therapy groups, the therapist and the group members work to create an environment / conversation in which men and women together can work to develop emotionally. All of our groups are diverse — women and men, multiracial, gay and straight, different ages (adults, that is — we also have groups for children and families) and with people having a wide variety of emotional difficulties. The following is a rough transcript of a segment of the conversation that took place one evening. The names have been changed, of course, and I’ve called the therapist “Mark.” At the end I’ve added some comments of my own.

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Dave: I’d like to talk about something that’s going on at home. As you all know, I’m now partly retired. The problem is that now that I’m home a lot more, my wife and I have been fighting a lot. It seems like we’re fighting over nothing — half the time I don’t even get what’s bugging her.

Laura: Have you asked her?

Dave: Well, she says a lot of stuff but it doesn’t really make any sense to me.

Fran: Wait a second. What do mean she “says a lot of stuff but it doesn’t make any sense” to you? Maybe I’m jumping the gun here but that doesn’t sound right to me. What does she say and what don’t you get? Maybe we can help you to get it.

Dave: Okay. The other night I’m in the kitchen and Naomi has something on the stove and it’s boiling away. So I go over and I turn the flame down. And right away she cops an attitude. She says, “I’m cooking something, it needs to be on a high heat, why are you walking in here and turning down the heat without even asking me?”

Fran and Doris (simultaneously): What is it about what she said that doesn’t make any sense to you?

Dave: I was just trying to help! I thought it was dangerous — she was wearing this long scarf, she bends over the pot…I thought it might catch fire.

Fran: So you’re saying you were looking out for her.

Dave: Yeah…she gets distracted sometimes. She’s doing seven things at once and she can be a little careless. But she told me I was dissing her.

George: I have a similar situation with my girlfriend. Sometimes she gets mad at me out of the blue. I don’t even know what I did wrong, and suddenly I’m this bad guy.

Tina: Do you guys want help with any of this from us or do you just want us to sit here while you complain about the women in your lives?

Laura (to the social therapist): Mark, can you help? I don’t think we’re doing so great in this conversation.

Mark: It sounds to me like the women in the group are being reactive to the men. By that I mean that I think they’re pushing your buttons. Is that what’s going on?

Doris: Well, yes. I can’t stand it when the men act so dumb! How can it be that Dave doesn’t understand what Naomi said? What’s not to understand?

Mark: How come that makes you mad?

Jenny: It makes me mad too. Naomi is his wife, they live in the same house, she says some things to him that are perfectly understandable to me – and I don’t even know her! It seems to me that he doesn’t want to hear what she’s saying. But instead he says he doesn’t understand. I feel like he’s being dishonest, with her and with us.

Dave: Hold it. This is therapy, right? I thought you’re supposed to come in here and talk about your problems. That’s what I did. I’m saying I don’t understand what Naomi’s talking about when she says what she says to me. But now you’re telling me I’m doing it wrong, or maybe that I’m lying.

Eva (half-jokingly, half-seriously): This is one of the reasons I’m gay — so I don’t have to put up with this convenient way men have of ignoring you…at least I don’t have to put up with it in my own house. But I have to deal with it at my job all the time. And here it is again.

Mark: I think the women in the group are having a hard time accepting that when it comes to emotional conversation, Dave — like a lot of men — is dumb. Which is what he’s been telling us. I don’t mean that as a putdown. It’s a fact of life that many men, if not most, just aren’t very smart at listening, or talking, when the conversation turns to emotions. I think that women have a hard time accepting that…you get frustrated and angry instead. I’m not being critical of you for that. But holding on to your frustration and anger makes it virtually impossible for you to teach men how to do it better. So men stay dumb and you stay mad. My question to you is: Do you want to do something to change that?

There is a long silence.

Tina: I don’t know. It seems hopeless.

Fran: Yeah, it’s like a standoff between us and them.

Mark: I think you feel hopeless because that state of being angry all the time leaves you powerless to do anything else. As I see it, the situation isn’t hopeless. But I do think it’s difficult. To put my question another way: Do you want to work with me to learn to do something more powerful with your anger than simply holding on to it?

Shelley: Why do we always have to do all the work?

Cheryl: That sounds to me like you holding on to your anger. But Mark is asking us if we want to do something else. I’d like to, because I’m tired of being angry all the time. Being angry is work too, except it never gets you anywhere.

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And the conversation went on from there. In this short excerpt, we see the men and women in the group struggling to talk to each other. It’s not easy! Mark, the social therapist, doesn’t say anything for quite some time because he’s listening carefully to what the group is doing in this conversation. When he does speak, he tries to show the men and women in the group that the way they are talking, though quite commonplace and ordinary in our culture, is keeping them distant and angry at each other, both in the home and in the group. He does not blame them or attribute this to “mental illness,” but attempts to show how the societally scripted ways men and women talk to each other keep everyone locked into rigid (and alienated) roles.

Mark is attempting to point this out so that they might begin (if they choose) to create some new ways of speaking to each other, even if they don’t know how. Taking the risk to try to do things we don’t know how to do is key to creating new ways of relating to each other.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts. Let’s keep our conversation going!

Hugh Polk