What do men want?
27th June, 2008
What do men want? Many women are baffled by the contrasting aspects of their male colleagues’, friends or lover’s relational interests. Men, unsurprisingly, are themselves unsure of how to resolve the internal conflicts that close relationships so often provokes in them. Many believe that the expectation that romance unifies both erotic and companionate love has made men’s relational dilemmas even more pronounced.
Paradoxically psychological theories and research have often failed to address men’s life issues in a meaningful manner. Indeed most research and interest in so called ‘male psychology’ has often centred on the ‘dark side’ - men’s propensity towards infidelity, relational violence and addiction. Psychology has in the last two decades or so started to address men’s everyday challenges such as personal growth, romantic attachment and “good enough” fathering. There is also more awareness of the influence that socio-cultural contexts have had on men’s perception of themselves and the manner in which they live out their lives.
Understanding and helping men deal with their desire to develop more effective ways of relationship building with their partners (and often with their own children) necessitates sensitivity to what being and feeling male entails. Sebastian Kraemer (1995), a psychiatrist and family therapist rather crudely pointed out that essentially maleness has “to do with fighting, sexuality and fathering: the three ‘F’s if you like”. These themes have provided enduring guiding metaphors or stories of what being male really entails and this inevitably is brought into every relationship men live in a most powerfully way. One may be bewildered by a wife’s statement that her husband is essentially ‘a good man’ in spite of the fact that his behaviour towards her may be appalling! Women often have an uncanny understanding of their partner’s struggle to express their ‘good self’ and the pressure men experience towards fulfilling the dictates of these myths in a life-limiting manner.
Research has shown that men often experience gender role strain or conflict. For example, while men desire intimacy and collaborative relationships, internal opposing forces often lead them to develop avoidant and competitive attitudes. The ultimate result of this psychological state is stifling of the human potential for personal development in men and of those they hold dearest. O’Neil (1997) identified a number of key areas of conflict resulting in 1) restricted emotionality, 2) health care problems, 3) obsession with achievement and success, 4) restrictive affectionate behaviour between men, 5) socialised control power and competition issues, and 6) homophobia. One must understand that men experience strong but muted needs in the opposing direction too – thus, for example, men experience conflict when the innate need to express oneself is inhibited by an inability or a disabling fear resulting in emotional impoverishment. Empirical research has substantiated most of these assertions and clinical experience clearly illustrates how these tensions restrict men’s ability to enjoy the quality of life they long for, particularly in the relational sphere (for more detailed information visit the gender role conflict research website at: http://web.uconn.edu/joneil/GenderHome.html).
The experience of internal conflict is rendered more taxing in romantic relationships. Here partners are faced with a clear expectation that they will find emotional companionship in each other, partnership in activity and a sense of equality. This may place some men in an untenable position if they have not resolved the conflicts mentioned earlier as relationships involve a sensitive and in many ways complex dance around the key issues of intimacy and power.
Men who have not sufficiently developed their capacity to express deeply felt feelings often make dull and impoverishing partners (and parents). And yet these men still long for the intimacy offered by close relationships but they have often been socialised to experience a sense of dread related with this desired state. Likewise men who are overly concerned with competition and achievement are unlikely to offer much encouragement of their partners’ development. Such fears are often irrational, perhaps even unconscious but many women (and children) can give testimony to the subtle (or direct) manner in which many men manoeuvre to maintain their position of prominence and privilege. These internal conflicts often results in arrangements that men find convenient but ultimately deeply unsatisfying.
Moreover, a closer analysis of masculinity norms across cultures shows us that being male is intimately related to self-sacrifice (e.g. Gilmore’s Manhood in the Making, 1990 provides a valuable anthropological perspective). While this may not seem apparent at first, it is also true that throughout the ages, men have sacrificed their lives for the good of the community they belonged to – in protecting their home and country from threats and enduring hardship and perilous working conditions to provide for those they cherished (this of course does not negate women’s exposure to their fair share of peril). Unfortunately men’s actions have often been shrouded in such pride or violence that their altruistic value has often remained unseen.
My experience in working with men and their partners shows me that a deeply felt, but often unexpressed desire for personal development is present in every man. What is also present is the fear of what change might bring and how accessing deep feelings of warmth, neediness and disappointment can be managed. We men, have never been great at facing the unfamiliar (particularly in the relational field) but this we definitely must do in order to be able to relate with the language that the new millennium requires of us. Likewise power remains a fatal attraction to many of us, even if ultimately the isolation wrought by attaining it in a non-collaborative manner is often experienced as toxic! If we care about those closest to us and our own physical and mental health, we must risk facing the challenge of embracing our deepest needs and working towards their fulfilment.
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