Couples, marriage, Uncategorized

Why the “Men are Pigs” Narrative is Flawed

12285202 - crazy man. man wearing pig suit over gray background

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

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Why a Husband’s Pornography Use Can be so Painful to so Many Wives

42915540 - offended the wife with her husband playing computer games**Side note—When I read the title to my husband, he said, “Do you really have to explain that?  Isn’t it obvious?”  The answer is that I don’t think it’s obvious enough, because men get socialized so differently than women.  As much as they try, I think they have a hard time understanding the pain of felt betrayal and rejection that can be associated with pornography.  Too often it is minimized.

Anyone practicing as a marriage therapist nowadays is going to have clients in which pornography is presented as a problem in the marriage by one or both spouses, regardless of religious belief.  Whenever sexuality comes up in marriage therapy (which is almost always), it’s a complex topic with varying emotions, histories, experiences, desires and outcomes.  Every situation is a little different.  However, a somewhat typical presentation is one in which a husband is or has been viewing pornography and his wife feels betrayed by his behaviors and has a decreased desire to engage sexually with him.  I want to attempt to explain why I think a husband’s pornography use can be so painful for women, and why I think it’s hard for men to understand why it’s so rejecting.

From the moment they are born, females get consistent messages that they are being evaluated by their looks.  The message is, “Be pretty.”  One of my earliest memories of elementary school is standing in line near my teacher and hearing my friend ask my teacher, “Ms. Hoffmann, do you think Lori’s pretty?”  I remember feeling a sense of panic and watching my teacher carefully to hear her answer.  “Yes,” she answered—what else was she going to say with me standing right there?  I wondered why my friend was asking her when she followed up with, “Because I think she’s pretty.”  I remember experiencing an emotion I hadn’t experienced before—fear that I wasn’t going to look good enough—fear that I wasn’t going to BE enough.  The message I got was clear—People were evaluating me based on my appearance—something over which I had limited control.

In junior high, the messages about image intensify.  Females are judged constantly and harshly on every aspect of appearance.  Boys comment on body parts continually.  This is the age at which some girls decide not to be “too smart,” and focus more on how they look.  Social rejection related to looks is painful.  Anyone who thinks this doesn’t happen more for girls than boys hasn’t been to a secondary school lately.  Once when I got the highest score in the class on a chemistry test, I was horrified, worrying that someone was going to find out it was me, because our scores were graded on a curve.  When one young man did find out, he said, “Lori Cluff’s too cute to be that smart.”  Whether I was that cute or that smart was debatable, but his statement represented the predominant message for females in our culture.  The message I got was that I needed to work harder to hide academic achievement to gain social approval.

Fortunately, I had a father who valued competency above appearance, but sadly, for many girls, any dimension of competency is underrated in comparison to their looks.  Also, my father’s voice was influential but was often easily lost in the surrounding cultural message.  It didn’t matter if I outperformed all but two boys in my high school cohort on every academic measure—it didn’t matter if I studied the piano enough for my teacher to encourage me toward a music major—it mattered if I looked good.  Boys, conversely, are more frequently praised for their performances rather than their ornamental values.  They simply don’t experience the same pressure about appearance, which I believe makes it harder for them to understand as men how deeply their porn use can hurt their wives.

As women age, the messages don’t get any better.  Aging is to be feared because it makes you ugly.  In my late 30’s, after my mother experienced serious heart health issues, I went to the library to check out every book I could on aging and health, determined to learn how to use exercise and nutrition to try to attain a better quality of life than she was experiencing.  The female librarian recognized me from my previous frequent visits.  She took at a look at my books and comforted, “Oh, honey—I always thought you were the prettiest girl.”  I smiled wanly and thought, “What does that have to do with it?”  It didn’t even occur to her that my concern was my physical health and not my looks.  I can promise that if my husband walked up to the library counter with the same books, the assumption would be that he was trying to preserve his physical condition and not that he was clinging to his hotness factor.

Not only are women CONSTANTLY evaluated on how they look, but they are CONSTANTLY compared, implicitly and explicitly, as a group.  Marketers target women by inciting insecurity to fuel consumerism—very effectively–so effectively that it’s rare to find a female who thinks she is skinny enough, toned enough, glamorous enough, pretty enough, sexual enough, young enough, shapely enough, perfect enough, flawless enough, enough ENOUGH.  At age 5, I sat in front of the mirror wondering how I could get my hair to change to black like Snow White.  I asked my mom if we could make my hair black, and she acted confused.  My response came from comparing myself to the iconic Disney princess.  Now, the pressure is SO much greater—with SO many more princesses to compare.

Disney princesses are literally child’s play when juxtaposed with the pressure elicited from pornography where surgically altered bodies are the norm.  When prevailing female cosmetic insecurity meets the porn industry in marriage, the result can be devastating.  In a relationship in which a female felt presumably safe and reasonably confident (not entirely—because let’s not get too crazy or unrealistic), suddenly she has to worry again about her appearance in a big way.  Having a husband who is viewing porn can trigger every self-doubt a women has ever had about how she looks.  In short, it’s common for a woman to conclude, “If he has to look at porn (other women), I must not be enough.”

Now, think about wanting to be sexual with a spouse who doesn’t think you are enough.  For most couples, sexuality is an area of utmost vulnerability.  I have often said that if you really want to destroy your marriage, criticize your spouse’s sexual performance.  Both men and women are usually highly sensitive to evaluations of their sexuality, which is entwined with desirability.  I have seen men withdraw from sex in a big way based on one performance-related comment.  Women withdraw similarly when they find out their husbands have been hiding a porn-viewing habit.

In short, being married to someone who is viewing pornography can feel threatening to the attachment safety in a relationship.  Part of attachment security is knowing that one is “enough,” for one’s partner.  I believe that pornography can strike so deeply for women because intensely socialized insecurities (physical appearance) are combined with an intensely vulnerable aspect (sex) of the relationship.

Another important facet of attachment is predictability in a partner.  Usually the deception that has accompanied porn use completely erodes trust. Commonly, women have reported discovering a partner’s hidden porn habit as a trauma and/or an infidelity.  Many become afraid and hypervigilant and disconnected sexually and emotionally from their partners.  Women repeatedly tell me that they can’t have sex without wondering what images of other women are flashing in their husbands’ minds.  Building safety back into the relationship can be a slow process.

An important step in healing is to try as much as is possible to understand a partner’s experience.  To understand better, ask your wife what messages she got about her appearance growing up and how pornography impacts those messages.  Then, really listen and see if you relate.  Be honest.

Reference:

Wives’ Experience of Husbands’ Pornography Use and Concomitant Deception as an Attachment Threat in the Adult Pair-Bond Relationship by Spencer T. Zitzman and Mark H. Butler (2009), in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 16(3), 210-240.

Photo credit: Copyright: kosmos111 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy, Uncategorized

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