Why Men Fear Couples Counseling and How to Convince Them to Go

originally posted on Yourtango.com on August 24, 2017 at http://www.yourtango.com/experts/tony-overbay/why-men-fear-couples-counseling-and-how-convince-them

Couples counseling saves marriages, but typically men aren’t game, here’s why and how to get them to come to counseling. 

“She’s been to counseling a lot on her own, so she knows all the right things to say. I feel like she immediately gets the counselor on her side because she says something about empathy, or attachment or some other touchy-feely word!”

Now we were getting somewhere! David, who up to this point had spent the better part of the two previous couples sessions staring at the list of ingredients on the back of his energy drink, was finally sitting up on the couch and looking me in the eye. I was witnessing, in real time, David finally being the dreaded “v” word, “vulnerable,” and as I glanced at his wife, Staci, it was clear to see that she, too, was getting a peak at a side of David that she hadn’t seen before, and she liked what she was seeing.

And so it goes when working with men in couples counseling. I actually entered the counseling profession after a decade as successful software company executive because I felt a calling to work with men. I went through grad school professing my passion for wanting to help my fellow XY-chromosome-carrying brethren become better husbands and fathers. (Cue the patriotic music while I step up on my soapbox) I wanted to see men live up to their full potential. I wanted them to treat their mothers with kindness and return to helping old ladies across the street. I wanted to dig deeply into their childhoods and help them realize that they were no longer that shy, insecure kid getting picked last at kickball, even if they deserved it! I wanted them all building white picket fences around their dream homes, carrying their partners across the threshold, I wanted them to be millionaires, and pirates and astronauts, and I wanted rainbows and unicorns to appear and every man on Earth to finally get that pony he always wanted!

But men didn’t come to therapy. Sure, there were the exceptions, the sensitive guy who liked rom-coms and aromatic shower gels and wasn’t afraid to wear bright colors after Labor Day. For the most part I would only get men who had been caught in any of the following: looking at pornography, cheating on their spouses, or Oklahoma City Thunder basketball fans angry that Kevin Durrant left for the Warriors.

What I discovered in my work with men was that they typically turned to their vices as coping mechanisms, and in most cases, they were coping with unsatisfying relationships with their partners, or unfulfilling careers. Coming to terms with these life-challenges was difficult because it implied weakness, or vulnerability. Ah, there’s that word again, vulnerability!

This discovery led me to more training on couples counseling. I learned that most counselors weren’t particularly excited to work with couples, and upon further review, more than one counselor shared with me that it was because they didn’t know what to do with the men! My training led me to an evidenced-based modality called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), EFT had become popular over the last 15 years led by renowned psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson and her easily-digestible book Hold Me Tight.

At the core of EFT is the need to be vulnerable, to be able to open up to your partner and share your most intimate thoughts, and details, hopes and dreams, allowing your partner a voice to be able to meet your unmet “emotional bids.” With understanding, and practice, the process works beautifully, and I’ve since worked with hundreds of couples who have seen their relationships go to levels they never dreamed of, and almost 100% of these couples have included men!

The challenge is that vulnerability is not the default setting for most males. Men are typically raised with heavy doses of “rub a little dirt in it,” or praise for the strong, silent type, the Lone Ranger, John Wayne, or for a more updated reference, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. These heros never cried, they just kicked butt, rescued the damsel in distress, and in the Duke’s case, literally rode off into the sunset. Vulnerability was for wimps, and a man’s brain is wired to think that if he opens up to his feelings, his wife will immediately do a spit-take (I offer all of my clients complimentary water bottles upon arrival, I’m classy like that), and then run out of the room yelling over her shoulder, “I didn’t marry a weakling, I wanted the Terminator (sorry, another dated reference)!”

I’ve heard a variety of reasons why men don’t want to come to couples counseling, but the recurring reasons typically sound like one of these:

1. I’m going to get ganged up on, I’m basically walking into my own execution.

2. I don’t believe in all of that touchy feely emotional crap.

3. You’re just going to tell me that it’s all my fault.

4. It costs a lot of money, can’t we just read a book or watch an episode of Dr. Phil?

5. I’m worried that the therapist won’t have complimentary water (see, I already have that one covered).

At the core of all of the reasons and excuses that I’ve heard over the years is a fear of the man having to be vulnerable. Men typically don’t voluntarily try to tap into feelings that rarely surface on their own. Feelings that only come out at the end of any family movie where an animal is reunited with its owner (shout out to Air Bud, I’ll never forget!), anytime a childhood-favorite sports franchise wins (or loses) a championship game or when you open the donut box and someone has, in fact, eaten the last chocolate sprinkle even though you left a sticky note on top of the box and all you really wanted  after your workout was a chocolate sprinkle donut (but no, I’m not bitter!).

But the truth is, I have yet to experience a couples session when the man finally did decide to “buy in” and be vulnerable, and his wife didn’t nearly burst into tears, and not tears of “get this guy out of here!” but tears of “finally, there’s that guy I’ve always wanted, one that I can actually communicate with on a deeper level than whether or not the Giants won last night!”

So how DO you get him to come into counseling? Well, there’s always leaving a trail of bacon into the counselor’s office (I recommend giving the counselor a heads up so they can lay down some plastic, the good bacon leaves stains) but better yet, I recommend that the wife model that same vulnerability that will come into play in effective couples counseling.

“I can understand your hesitation, but I want to assure you that I know you’re not completely to blame (even if he is), and I appreciate your willingness to come with me.”

There’s no harm in reaching out to a counselor in advance, you can ask her/him what counseling methods they use, what would they say to a husband who is hesitant to come to therapy, and to they have bacon?

Or, I have regularly had women express in the first session that their husband is not particularly sold on counseling, or doesn’t believe it will work. As a counselor, I appreciate that type of information, and a good counselor will address a comment like that with empathy and understanding, and be aware of the triggers that may lead to the husband shutting down, or disengaging from the counseling process.

Look, I’m a counselor, obviously I feel that it works. I currently see around 15-20 couples a week and there is nothing quite like seeing a man recognize the benefits of counseling and watching their marriages grow.  So I believe that short of lying to your husband to get him to go to therapy, getting him in the door is worth the effort. I often see couples who say that they wish they had come to counseling years before, but she wanted him to want to, or he felt like she was always nagging him about it. I like to say that somebody has to “come out of their bunker” first, and in this case, it may in fact have to be the woman. Express to your husband how important it is to you, be vulnerable, and once he’s inside the counseling office, you may need to help him express his hesitation for coming.

Be sure to give the counselor the data upfront, remember, he or she is a pro, they’ll know what to do to help put him at ease. And if you don’t feel comfortable with your counselor after a few sessions, find another! That’s part of the business, the relationship between the client and the counselor is imperative for success, find a good fit and then watch the magic happen. And once he’s at ease, ladies, and he sees how effective counseling can be once he’s vulnerable, you’ll eventually be the one fighting him for aromatic soap!

Tony Overbay is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the creator of The Path Back, an online pornography recovery program. You can download a free copy of Tony’s “5 Common Mistakes Christians Make Attempting to Break Free from Pornography Addiction” from his website http://pathbackrecovery.com

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