as Soul Work

A Men’s Group: Essential to a Man’s Growth and Development

Why do men join men’s groups? How does participating in a men’s group benefit a man? What role do men’s groups play in redefining masculinity and in changing the way men relate to other men and to women? I will address these questions based on my experience leading and participating in men’s groups the past twenty-five years.

“I feel lonely and I do not have any good male friends anymore” “I need to be able to discuss the things that are important to me with other men.” “I feel overwhelmed in my marriage and my family life and I need feedback from other men.” “I used to have close male friends, but we have drifted apart and I miss them -- I especially miss that feeling of connection.” “I got divorced recently and realized that all my friends were really my wife’s friends.” “I grew up being ashamed of being male.” I think I am really different from other men and do not know what to say to them.” “I feel guilty about my sexual feelings toward women -- I am afraid I will objectify them.” “I have trouble asserting myself and feel abused and angry much of the time.” “I am unable to hold my own in a conversation with a woman.” “I know I have emotions, but sometimes I feel numb, or, if I do feel something, I can’t put it in words.“ “I work so hard to support my family, that there is no time for me.“ These are just a few of the reasons given by men who came to me looking to join a men’s group.

How did we get in this mess?

In the book, Finding Our Fathers, Sam Osherson points to research that shows that boys, by an early age (3-5 years) understand that to be male means to shun dependence. If he wishes to avoid being ridiculed as a “mommy‘s boy“ and “sissy,” he denies his dependency needs and disowns any part of himself that seems feminine. In a culture where mothers are important caregivers, most boys, like most girls are initially dependent on and identified with their mothers -- in other words, I need her and I am like her. At a much earlier age than girls, boys are pressured to repress our needs to be cared for and dependent. It is as if each of us has the needs of a five-year old frozen within us. Women sometimes complain that in intimate relationships, men act like children. In the warmth of a relationship, these frozen needs begin to thaw and can be overwhelming.

All of this has a profound impact on a man's ability to form satisfying relationships. While the problems often show up in the way a man relates to women -- girlfriends, wives, coworkers, friends, the cure may lie in a man’s relationships with other men. A central issues in men's psychological development is the capacity for friendship with other men. Many men have had painful experiences with other males in childhood and adolescence. A man might have had a lack of connection with his father, or, worse, his father might have been abusive to the son or to the mother. He may have vowed to never be like his father, but lack any positive male role models. As a boy, he might have been bullied by other boys, or been a bully himself. In the workplace, he may come to see other males as competitors and not as allies. As adults, many men lack truly supportive and genuine friendships with other men. Many men experience a painful isolation. Caught up in the demands of daily life, there is a drift towards isolation. Unless a man makes ongoing, deliberate attempts to build friendships and cultivate relationship skills, he may become progressively more alone, even within his family. I am not talking about men with some sort of psychological disorder -- this is true for many normal, highly-functioning men with good jobs, families and all the trappings of success.

A man might have superficial connections with other men, but, especially if he is heterosexual, rely on his girlfriend or wife for deeper emotional connections. He might also assign his wife the job of initiating and maintaining social relationships. Men are far more dependent on women than they will admit, and, therefore, tremendously vulnerable to perceived rejection or disapproval. This actually makes intimacy with his wife difficult. In addition, the man might see masculinity through feminine eyes -- he may have seen his father through his mother's eyes and now see himself through his wife's eyes. This leads to a lack of understanding of the male mode of feeling, and, often, shame and confusion about being a man. A man may even suffer from an inability to recognize and articulate feelings, not because he lacks feelings, rather, he has lacks experience identifying and speaking about them.

The core of a successful men's group is the group's ability to reveal and, eventually, transform, each man’s pattern of interpersonal relationships. In a men's group, a man might find that he is more similar to other men than he thought. He may experience camaraderie and support. He finds the opportunity to work through the pain of past relationships with males and begin to see the other group members as supportive allies. Many a man has told his men's group that he imagined that they were by his side as he faced a difficult situation. He leans to identify and communicate his emotions, even revealing secrets that have caused him unbearable shame. He starts to see men as emotionally and interpersonally competent, as well as nurturing, and, so sees himself that way. He may find a portion of the mentoring that he has longed for. He participates in a group that, in the here and now, grapples honestly with how group members relate to one another. He experiences conflicts being resolved and intimacy deepened. In getting feedback from other men, he starts to see masculinity through masculine eyes. He may understand his father better. He may gain pride in being male, which paradoxically gives him the strength to face the injustices men perpetrate against women. He may learn to rely on the support of other men, making him less emotionally dependent on his wife, which, paradoxically, makes him more able to be genuinely intimate with her.

While all of this good stuff does not always happen, enough of it happens enough of the time to show that men's groups are effective.

©2005, Gary Hoeber

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Psychology has a long past, but only a short history. - Hermann Ebbinghaus

Gary Hoeber has been working as a psychotherapist since 1976, helping a broad range of people successfully deal with a wide variety of life challenges. He is a leading practitioner and teacher of group psychotherapy. An Instructor at John F. Kennedy University since 1988, he offers classes on "The Practice of Group Psychotherapy." His approach to group therapy is highly interpersonal, assisting in the development of effective communication and relationship skills and increasing the capacity for intimacy, friendship and community. His work with individuals focuses less on pathology, and more on the unfolding of one's life purpose, using a depth psychology informed by poetry, story and mythology. Gary is licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist and has offices in Berkeley and San Rafael, California. or Gary will also be reviewing important new books on psychotherap

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