To anyone in a relationship with a cisgender man, I want you to know that there is hope.
After years of thinking I’d never go to therapy, I now see a therapist regularly and even go to a therapy group every week.
I’m not anything special. I, like most other men, was raised in ways that make it hard for me to feel and express emotions — particularly softer, so-called “feminine” ones, like love, sadness, and fear.
What changed is what happens in many heterosexual relationships: A partner gave me what was effectively an ultimatum.
“Maybe you should talk to someone about that,” she said, after I’d complained about a recent visit with my parents. Looking back, what she really meant was: Maybe you should talk to someone about us.
After hesitating for months — you know, avoiding my feelings and focusing on work and other stuff — I saw a therapist. But I wasn’t fully committed. I went to one session and figured I’d learned enough to figure things out myself.
My partner wanted me to keep going, but I hesitated again. Pretty soon it was too late. Too many years of ignoring issues and dodging uncomfortable conversations had passed. She ended the relationship weeks later.
Ultimately, it was the heartbreak that made me stick with therapy. “I’m going through some uncertainty in my relationship and need some help,” I emailed the therapist the night of the breakup.
I’m sure a part of me was continuing because maybe my partner would notice and take me back. She never did, but within a few sessions, I was hooked.
I’m here to help you understand why the man you’re with isn’t enthusiastic about therapy and what you can do about it.
Let me cut to the chase. This is going to be hard to hear. You can’t force your partner to go to therapy. You probably can’t even convince him. And even if you’re able to, he likely won’t commit much effort to it.
As a therapist, I’ve worked with many men who had tried therapy before yet hadn’t been ready for it. They say they’d gone only because their partner had wanted them to. They’d talked with a therapist for a session or two and then dropped off. Now, they tell me, they’re talking to me because they want to. They insist it’s not about obeying their partner’s wishes — and I can feel the truth of that in their presence and voice.
Those are the men who tend to stick with it. The men I see who go to therapy because their partner is more or less forcing them are easy to spot. They’re not all that present during sessions. They seem to be regurgitating the ways their partner talks about the relationship. They generally report being content (“Everything’s been good.” “Can’t complain.”).
That’s the main point I want to get across: Therapy works best if a person sees what they are going to get out of it. It’s a rewarding experience, but it’s also hard work. They have to be committed to some degree.
In other words, there’s no guarantee here. Your partner is an adult with his own choices. The more you remember that, the easier it will be to accept whatever choice he ends up making.
You’re up against a lot. (That is to say, what you’re experiencing is valid and normal.)
Thousands of years of conditioning have done a number on men. The last few hundred years of capitalism, in particular, have forced men to be more focused on work and career than family and relationships. And the types of jobs men have been pushed into have tended to be more physical and intellectual than emotional and relational. (These broad trends are shifting in recent years, thanks to feminism.)
This has left many men, let’s say, emotionally immature. Research has found that men, at least in the U.S. and Europe, express fewer emotions than women. We also cry far less often. And we seek therapy and other forms of mental health support far less than others.
There’s even a mental health diagnosis for men who can’t feel their feelings. Normative Male Alexithymia describes when men have difficulty putting words to their emotional experience.
I prefer to call it patriarchy. I firmly believe that men have been socialized to be less skilled at feeling and expressing emotions. As far as I can tell from the science, it’s not something that’s biological or inherent to being born with a penis.
In fact, recent research found that men and women are equally emotional. It’s just that men tend to be less aware of feelings and talk about them less.
You probably already know most of that — and what difference does it really make why many men are emotionally immature?
So, you’re wondering, what you can I do about it?
What I would say if you were my therapy client is, you should spend some time figuring why you’re with this particular man. Go to therapy if you aren’t already. Do some journaling or other creative activity to access deeper feelings. Ask your close friends from their honest thoughts about your relationship.
Doing this work on yourself will help you communicate more effectively and set better boundaries to protect yourself. You can also figure out whether being with men who aren’t doing the work on themselves is a pattern.
In general — because of patriarchy — cisgender women are socialized into having what’s called an “anxious attachment style.” Attachment styles are how we relate to intimacy, and they’re developed when we are young children based on how your parents and other adults interacted with us. Someone with an anxious style might worry when their partner doesn’t text back right way, or they might constantly fear that their partner may leave them.
Men, on the other hand, are socialized into having an “avoidant attachment style.” An avoidant style person is more concerned about autonomy and independence. They often have trouble opening up about their emotions or being intimate in ways other than sex. (Sound familiar?)
If this resonates with you, you might work with a therapist to learn where your attachment style came from and how to become more securely attached. This is hard work, but it’s worth it.
“It can be easier to stay on the relationship roller coaster of using your dating life to punish yourself, seek reassurance, seek validation, get a brief high, plummet off that high, and start it all over again,” writes life coach Kara Loewentheil. “But stepping off that ride provides huge opportunities for growth.” (I learned a ton from her breakdown of attachment styles.)
In my experience, the more securely attached I’ve become, the more I’ve been drawn to and attracted partners with more secure attachment styles.
Whether the particular relationship you’re in right now continues or not, working on yourself will lead to perspective and growth. You’ll be clearer and more confident about who you truly are and what you truly want out of life.
I know, you’re probably still reading in hopes that I’ll finally give some actual tips. You might see if he’s willing to go to couples therapy. As men’s therapist Justin Lioi writes, “This is by far one of the most common ways in to therapy for men. This shifts the blame of who ‘needs’ therapy and can show your investment in him and making the relationship work.” (Here are his tips for getting a man to go to therapy.)
Another idea: See if he’s willing to join a therapy group, particularly one for men. Joining a group might be an easier first step than opening up alone to one person.
Sure, you could suggest that he see a therapist (like my ex did). You could find a therapist, get all the details, and set up an initial phone call. But in my experience, this rarely works in the long-term — and if it does, it’s often not the initial partner who benefits from it.
I know all of this sounds harsh. I wish I could just tell what you to do and it would work.
But you’re best off investing in your own healing, setting boundaries for how you should be treated, communicating your feelings and needs as honestly as you can, and — ultimately — letting go of the outcome.
As the serenity prayer — used in 12-step recovery programs — says, “Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”