Couples, marriage

Why the “Men are Pigs” Narrative is Flawed

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If you read the title and thought, “Well, she doesn’t know my husband,” I admittedly don’t.  Trust me, I have met with plenty of men who model unfavorable gender stereotypes when it comes to sexuality.  However, I have met with many more who are far more relationally complex in their sexuality than modern western culture leads people to believe.

I felt validated by a recent Canadian study exploring the tenets of male sexual desire among 30-65-year-old heterosexual men in long-term relationships lasting 2.5 years or more.  The study used a small sample size (n=30) typical of qualitative studies, but the findings were so congruent with my experience with men in therapy that I wanted to shed light on the topic.  In essence, the authors wanted to know if the way men really feel about sex fits the predominant sexual scripts imposed on them in society.

In short, what elicits sexual desire and what inhibits sexual desire for adult men in long-term relationships?

The common expectation imposed on men is that they will have higher sexual desire than their female partners–pretty much always–and that they will generally have a high enduring interest in sex in general.  A basic assumption is that male sexual desire is independent of emotional closeness or relationship quality fluctuations.

However, the study found that male sexual desire was highly tied to relationships.  This did not surprise me at all.  The study reflected what I consistently see with most men in long-term marriages.

The three most common themes associated with evoking sexual desire were:

  1. Feeling desired—the majority of participants described this. This is incongruent with a social norm that men are the ones who should do the wanting.  Females often underestimate the importance of communicating desire for male partners, believing instead that they are the ones to be desired.  Please, can we just normalize the female sex drive already???!!!!!  Best way to communicate desire for a male partner:  initiate sex, which was described as the “ultimate expression or reassurance,” communicating “I (still) want you.” BAM!  I have explained this in therapy so many times I am sick of hearing myself say it out loud.  Need inspiration?  Play Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me, circa 1979.  Catchy and straight to the point. (What? I’m old?  Yeah, I know).
  2. Exciting and unexpected sexual encounters—this was most often presented in the context of spontaneity. Kind of like—“Do you realize this is the first time we are actually in our house alone without children for the first time in 127 consecutive days? What should we do about it?” Extra points if that question comes from the wife—as an integration with #1.
  3. Intimate communication—defined as intelligent exchanges with talking and laughing.  Men explained that talking was actually connecting for them, which led to more intimate sexual encounters.  A lot of men said that they wished they could talk about the sexual relationship with their partners.  I can verify that this is a healthy and advisable process—it creates more possibilities for increased sexual quality.  Unfortunately, I can also verify that many couples struggle talking about their sex lives, and in my experience women are generally more avoidant and uncomfortable about it.  If you struggle with this, start with just discussing what it would be like to be able to talk about sexuality, or talk about what makes it hard for you, or what gets uncomfortable when you think about it?

The factors inhibiting sexuality were mostly things that inhibited general relationship closeness. 

The three most common were:

  1. Rejection—this is HUGE and way too many wives underestimate the profoundly devastating impact on their partners—mostly because men do such a good job of hiding their hurt by numbing, turning away, becoming dismissive, or transforming it into anger. They rarely talk about how painful sexual rejection really is.  In my therapy experience, it’s one of the most painful rejections and can have a long-term impact.  These men often stop initiating, and some wives experience that as favorable, or being “off the hook,” when in reality it is creating gargantuan relationship distance which can be difficult to repair.  Rejecting your partner makes you untrustworthy.
  2. Physical ailments and negative health characteristics.  This can be extra challenging if the physical ailment is directly affecting sexual performance.
  3. Lack of emotional connection with partner—This is where some people might be surprised and I’m not surprised at all–men commonly want to feel connected when having sex with their wives. Many of the respondents said they would still have sex if their wives initiated, but their desire would be lower.  This is an area where women may be generally different.  More women might outright refuse sex than participate with a disconnected partner, while men MIGHT be more willing to participate in sex even with lower desire, but they still described preferring emotional connection.  Most of them said their emotional connection was entwined with their physical desire.

The big takeaway here is that the men’s answers were so similar to what we know from studies of women and reported sexual desire.  Male sexual desire waxes and wanes in long-term relationships with other relationship variables.

In our sexcentric society, multiple casual, disconnected and meaningless sexual encounters are presented as the norm, while co-created meaningful sexual encounters in long-term relationships seem almost non-existent.  However, in my clinical experience, both men and women generally have greater sexual desire when the emotional relationship is safe and healthy and when mutuality is high, meaning both partners want to participate.  We limit ourselves in marriage when we categorize our partners according to socially projected stereotypes.  We limit ourselves even more when we allow the media to inform our sexual relationship expectations.

Before you feel the urge to email or message me about your stereotypically hypersexual and insensitive husband, I can assure you I already know those humans exist.  So do mean, critical, withholding wives.  So do emotionally disconnected wives.  My point is that before you write off your spouse, take some time to get to know him individually and try to suspend preconceived malicious intent.  If you can do that, you can generate different possibilities for connection…as in WE WE WE….all the way home.

Reference:

A Qualitative Exploration of Factors That Affect Sexual Desire Among Men Aged 30 to 65 in Long-Term Relationships (2017) by Murray, S. H., Milhausen, R. R., Graham, C. A., & Kuczynski, L. in The Journal of Sex Research, 54(3), 319-330.

Photo credit: Copyright: dasha11 / 123RF Stock Photo

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Couples, Love

Holy Relationships, Batman! Eleven Relationship Truths We Can Learn from The Lego Batman Movie

batman-loveI have been waiting for almost a year for the Lego Batman movie to come out.  Last summer, when the trailers were available, I was using one of them in presentations to illustrate how males are so frequently socialized out of feeling and expressing any vulnerable emotions.  You can see what I mean in the second half of this trailer.  His butler, Alfred asks, “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?” and Batman shouts, “What? No!  I don’t want to do that!”  My husband and I watched that clip and laughed over and over.

We finally went with our kids to the movie last weekend.  In the middle of the show, my husband leaned over and whispered to me, “I feel like I’m in a therapy session with Dr. Lori Schade.”  If you aren’t familiar with Batman’s story, his parents were killed when he was younger and he lives largely in social isolation, emerging occasionally to save the city from the bad guys.  Alone in his billionaire mansion, he is a tortured soul.  There were many things about his character that I see in therapy all the time.  Just for fun, I identified the things Lego Batman can teach us about love.

  1. We all exist in relationship to others.  At the beginning of the movie, Batman declares that he doesn’t “do ships—as in relationships.”  He prefers to be alone.  However, as humans, we exist in relationships.  The question is whether we are proactive, as in using them for connection, or reactive, as in being avoidant or demanding.
  1. When people are wounded they often “numb out” and stop needing people.  In the first Lego movie, I laughed when Batman blasted music declaring, “Darkness!….No Parents!” demonstrating that he was still hurting over his familial loss.  I wasn’t laughing at his pain, but at the writer’s incisive observance of human behavior, and how we use music to express things for ourselves better than we can articulate them alone.  Sometimes music with this intensity follows numbness, because it allows the person in pain to “feel something,” even if only for a moment.
  1. People who are numb from emotional pain commonly have a restricted emotional range.   There was one emotion Batman admitted feeling: Rage.  It’s typical to see people with relationship trauma prevent themselves from feeling at all or only feeling anger, usually because they cannot hurt anymore.  This happens in marriage all the time.  Going numb keeps people from feeling and anger keeps people protected and effectively keeps other people out.
  1. People can have family of origin trauma or romantic relationship trauma that can follow them into the present. The loss of his parents was so painful that Batman didn’t want to get close to people again.  For many people, the injury can occur in the context of a previous romantic relationship in which someone was severely wounded.  The ghosts from these relationships show up, triggering people into reactivity in the present.  It’s not even always conscious.  Our brains remember pain.
  1. When you allow other people to get close to you, you are more vulnerable.  Batman was not willing to risk getting close to someone again, because he was not risk feeling the pain of loss again.  Very common and again, not always intentional.
  1. It’s scary to be vulnerable with other people. Batman’s butler, Alfred, conjectures that Batman is afraid of being in a family again.  Batman finally does admit that he is afraid to get close enough to people to hurt if they are taken away again.  Many people prevent closeness because of fear of the pain of loss or lack of connection.
  1. It’s more distressing to get no reaction than an angry reaction.  This relationship truth was manifested in Batman’s relation to the Joker, his nemesis.  The Joker wants confirmation that Batman hates him and sees him as a threat, but Batman is dismissive of him, driving his desperation for acknowledgment.  This relationship truth is that it’s more emotionally painful to get NO reaction from someone than an angry, bitter reaction.  This is why if a partner is stonewalling, it’s common to see another partner become more provoking.
  1. Relationship loss is normal, but you can’t stop letting people into your life.  Batman dispenses this advice at the end of the movie.  People who shut people out because of relationship pain are also denying themselves the benefit of having relationship support.  People thrive in the context of safe, close relationships.  They also function more effectively independently than people who are constantly trying to be completely independent and not need others for anything.  Safe, close relationships help us regulate distressing emotions more efficiently than when we are alone.  We literally feel less pain.
  1. We can want someone and push them away at the same time.  Even though he clearly has a thing for the commissioner, he pushes her away on purpose, to protect himself from future pain and to protect her from himself.  Batman knows he has a dark side.  There is fear that if he gets close to her, she won’t like who he really is, and there is fear that he will disappoint her.  This is a very real thing people do to stay in the safe zone.
  1. You can’t force someone to be vulnerable or close to you. As much as his friends tried to engage him, Batman ultimately had to be the one to decide that he would ALLOW people to be close.  There is a reaching out aspect, but the receiving aspect, at least in therapy, is often the hardest dynamic to shift.  People need to be willing to let their walls down to allow people to get close.  Demanding that someone, “BE VULNERABLE,” will never work.  Believe me, I have clients that try that approach constantly.  It will paradoxically push people away more.  All you can do is reassure and be consistently safe and hope that your partner will see it long enough to try to engage, especially if you have been a dangerous partner in the past, with criticism, blame, demand, or betrayal. 
  1. Being completely independent seems safe, but comes at a cost.  Batman is ultimately not a happy, albeit fictitious, soul.  His emotional isolation comes at a cost, which is loneliness, a restricted emotional range, rage and mistrust.  People who don’t risk getting close prevent the possibility of having close, bonding experiences with people, which can help build trust and safety.

I was amazed at how many relationship truths were presented in the Batman Lego movie.  Many people aren’t presenting these characteristics in Batman’s extreme, but they use the same strategies nonetheless.  Bottom line:  We are social beings.  We thrive in the context of close, safe, special relationships.  The question is not whether you are doing relationships, but how you are doing relationships.  To maximize the benefit, see where and when you can be vulnerable to emotionally bond to people.  It is a risk, but we have lots of evidence to show that it’s worth it in a safe, healing context.

My guess is that with supportive people around him, Batman will be even more effective at saving the citizens of Gotham….but we will have to wait for the next Lego Batman movie to find out.

Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na…..Thatman…does…Relationships!

Photo credit.  Copyright: bubbers / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

In Defense of Men

lego men largerA few days ago, my husband and I were in our bedroom, and I was addressing him with a pile of concerns.  At one point, I asked him if he would grab my running skirt out of the laundry basket, and he enthusiastically replied, “Yes!  I would love to get your running skirt!  Finally, a problem I can solve!”  As he tossed it to me, I replied, “Thanks.  Now, let’s talk about our feelings.”

If my husband wants to get a laugh at the end of a night out with another couple, he will sometimes announce, “Goodnight.  Now we’re going to talk about our feelings.”   The cliché is comedic, of course, because it’s so ironic.  It works against gender stereotypes.  I have had a lot of time to think about those gender stereotypes in romantic pairings, and I want to specifically address how I think they may harm both men and women in long-term committed relationships.

Before continuing, I want to acknowledge that any time gender differences are addressed, we are speaking in terms of a statistical group; there are more within-gender differences than between genders.  However, as a couples therapist as well as a mother of five sons, I want to point out some common issues related to gender socialization which have me concerned, because I think they create barriers in couples therapy and in heterosexual romantic relationships in general.

Our culture often shames and blames men in ways that are counterproductive and unhelpful.  In short, our culture socializes them out of developing skills in emotional intelligence and relationship processes, and then turns around and beats them up for “failing,” to navigate those skills when they are adults.

This socialization process is visible everywhere.   Visit any elementary school and observe a boy who cries being ridiculed by his classmates.  Parents who are frightened that their kids will be teased if they operate outside social norms reinforce these practices at home.  Boys are told to “toughen up,” so they won’t be perceived as weak.

By adolescence, the socialization process becomes even more pronounced.  Young men are validated, if not encouraged, for their sexual feelings and expressions while they continue to be mocked for expressing emotional vulnerability, or even displaying empathy.  Eventually, sexuality often becomes entwined with emotional need.  They are praised for autonomy and considered spineless for displaying any dependency.  As a result, even when they are victimized, they lack broad social support.  The expectations are narrow and rigid.

Girls are generally afforded more gender flexibility.  When I showed up to my first grade Halloween parade dressed as Spiderman, completely unfazed by the sea of pink princesses surrounding me, no one batted an eye.  Every time it was my turn to “play house,” in Kindergarten and I would approach the teacher for permission to visit the book corner instead, I was praised for my intellectual curiosity.  When I regularly participated in pick-up football games with the neighborhood boys, people encouraged my athleticism.  I was able to explore and expand various facets of my personality and feel comfortable with a broad and flexible range of emotional and relational expression. In contrast, boys are constricted to a narrower range of acceptable behaviors.

By adulthood, after a lifetime of socialization out of vulnerable emotional expression, men are expected to navigate complex heterosexual relationships.  They are often absolutely confounded by perceived high levels of emotion in female partners.  Many of my male clients describe being disoriented in the emotional processing which comes so naturally to females.  For many men, just having a wife start crying is a very shaming experience.  It is experienced as, “What kind of loser am I that my wife is so unhappy?”  Men often take it very personally, and when they don’t know how to respond, or they manage their own emotions with withdrawal, they are criticized and blamed.  It’s not uncommon for me to hear, “He’s a robot,” or “He’s a narcissist.”

Over time, they become expert at sensing when the emotional temperature in the relationship is going up, which is identified as a “no win,” situation, and they prepare for the onslaught, often shutting down completely.  I can’t count how many times I have heard a man say, “If I say anything, it will be wrong, but if I say nothing, eventually she will give up and go away.”  It’s not because they are selfish, bad or mean.  They have been socialized out of speaking that language.  The emotions just don’t “make sense,” which is why husbands will often state some version of, “I think she’s Borderline,” or “I can’t handle her emotions.”  They look impassive and uncaring when in fact they have been so deeply wounded by repeatedly disappointing their partners that they tend to disconnect from feeling anything.  Men consistently report “numbing out,” which only becomes necessary when interactions have been painful to bear.

The socialization around sexuality creates another possible minefield in heterosexual relationships.  Not every male has higher sexual desire than his female partner, but because of stereotypes, if he doesn’t have high desire, he may feel ashamed or damaged, and often will not seek help but will suffer in silence.

Because men have been socialized to not be emotionally vulnerable, but encouraged in their sexuality, reaching for a partner in a sexual way is often fused with emotion.  It can literally be the only way they know to get comfort and reassurance from an attachment partner in a vulnerable way.  They can be misconstrued in their sexual reaching out, as illustrated in the oft recited, “Sex is all he cares about.”  I have had countless men explain to me through tears that their wives don’t understand that it’s not just the sex….it’s the connection with their close female partners that they seek.  It’s how they know they are still wanted and loved.  I believe them.

If that connection is repeatedly withheld, it can leave them completely lonely, and they sometimes medicate their loneliness and shame with pornography or other substances, or withdrawal, which just intensifies the disconnecting cycle.  I also acknowledge that there are many variations on this theme, and that having satisfying sex lives with their partners doesn’t always preclude pornography use.  In general, however, my experience is that men want emotionally connected sexual relationships in many of the same ways that women do.

I’m writing this in hopes that we will prepare our boys to more effectively identify and express emotional need in a way that is safe, so the emotional world won’t be so confusing.  I’m also hoping we can be a little less blaming toward men and a little more patient in our most intimate relationships.  For more reading about this issue, here are four books I recommend:

Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping our Boys Cope with  Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World  by Rosalind Wiseman, 2013.

The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance, and Direction in Their Lives by Michael Gurian, 2010.

Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, 2000.

Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood  by William Pollack, 1999.

photo credit: @davestone via photopin cc