Understanding Men and Men in Therapy

December 12, 2001


My mother never forgave my father

for killing himself,

especially at such an awkward time

and in a public park,

that spring

when I was waiting to be born.

She locked his name

in her deepest cabinet

and would not let him out,

though I could hear him thumping.

When I came down from the attic

with the pastel portrait in my hand

of a long-lipped stranger

with a brave moustache

and deep brown level eyes,

she ripped it into shreds

without a single word

and slapped me hard.

In my sixty-fourth year

I can feel my cheek

still burning[i]

— Stanley Kunitz

When I was nine my father died. Some might say he killed himself, too, though not by an obvious suicide and not in a public park. He was depressed, lonely, and in an unhappy marriage. He had no men in his life. He died a slow, painful death from pancreatic cancer at age 43. My mother never forgave him for dying on her like that, for leaving her with three boys, me being the baby, and with $2,000 in the bank. She was angry. She too locked his name and his memory in her “deepest cabinet.” It took me nearly 24 years to find the key to open that cabinet. Opening that cabinet, the search for my father, has led me on a painful yet crucial journey. You see, my mother’s anger for that man, my father, became anger toward all men. Her anger then became my anger. Her lifelong estrangement from men had become mine, until it was time for me to find my father, to heal my masculine wound and to try to fill the painful void left by my father’s death and my mother’s near extermination of his memory and my legacy.

While on this journey, I have discovered that many other men share my pain and my quest. In fact, as I learned more about the history of the men’s movement in this country, I found striking similarities between my own experiences and those of the movement as a whole. In this paper I will discuss 1) my own experiences within the historical context of the men’s movement, 2) examine the unfulfilled need of most men in our society to heal their father wounds, and 3) attempt to raise the awareness in psychotherapists of the unique relationship between father and son and to offer the suggestions of experts in the field to encourage greater sensitivity and understanding when working with men in the therapeutic environment.

When my father died, my mother’s anger caused her to deny her own emotions. She refused to grieve and by example, taught me to deny my own feelings and to repress my own sadness and other feeling reactions. But despite the role model, the feelings were still there. But those feelings were unacceptable in my home. I began to believe that those feelings were inappropriate. As a result, I was wrong for having those feelings. There was something wrong with me. This is how my shame developed. This is also how shame develops in all men in our society, a society where the love and connection between father and son and between men in general is socially unacceptable, where the uncensored expression of emotions is mistaken for weakness and ridiculed.

As Dr. Stephen Johnson points out, Robert Bly, a poet and elder in the men’s movement, identified in men “father hunger,” that men had such a need to be around other men, especially older men, because they were starving from lack of father.[ii]

I naturally had the need for connection with my father. As a little boy, I needed his touch, his boundaries, his examples, his smells, his love, his voice, his anger, his help, his wisdom, his pain, his humor. I needed my father to validate in me all that was naturally me. The good, the bad and the ugly. I needed him to be there to initiate me into manhood, to teach me what it meant to leave boyhood behind and to embrace my masculine self. I needed the foundation of my father to lean on when my universe was rocked at age 9, 16, 21, and 28. But the truth is, I would not have received all of these things from my father even if he had lived. Why? He had not received the wisdom he needed to transition successfully into manhood. He struggled with his role as husband, father, brother and son. He too never had the relationship he yearned for with his own father. He had never been initiated into manhood.

“The word ‘initiation’ means to ‘enter’ or ‘start,’ so initiation is the starting point, not the end point, for the adventure of living. The goal of initiation is spiritual awakening. If a young man finally feels competent around other men and in himself about his manhood, he has been initiated into the cultural ideal of masculinity.”[iii] Unfortunately, ceremonial rites of passage are all but extinct in our society. As a result, most boys are not spiritually awakened. They do not grow up to feel competent around other men and with their own manhood. Then they have sons and the cycle continues.

As in my own early years, men in our society have experienced a loss of father. As early as the late part of the 19th century, “there were forces working against the desire for men to commit emotional energy to their wives and children.”[iv] “In our country, prior to the industrial revolution when it was common for three generations to reside under one roof, there was a built-in support system. The inherent value system, which was based on age-old traditions, was customarily passed from the elders to the youngsters. The age of industrialization, however, set in motion the wheels of change that have altered the course of history.”[v]

“Structural barriers that undermined father-child bonding were endemic to an economy in which increasing numbers of men earned wages and salaries outside the home. To make a living, ever more men from both rural and urban communities had to work long hours in central shops and new factories away from home. Breadwinning became even more important to a class increasingly wedded to consumption. To earn the salaries that purchased the accoutrements of middle-class life, fathers often had to work in distant downtown offices. These were America’s first commuters. Their travels between home and work left them little time to spend with their children, and thus their wives dominated child rearing. What these fathers had to offer was something more tangible – money.”[vi]

“Men left their homes to seek work many miles from the common thread that historically united grandfathers, fathers and sons. This was a tribal thread that had once woven the males into the fabric of lineage of men that had come before them. Older men had always initiated the younger boys into the ways of men, guiding them to find a balance point deep within their masculine souls.”[vii]

In addition to fathers who were absent due to death and working long hours, there were fathers who were emotionally unavailable, or too depressed to properly function in their role as father. Many men, failing in their role as financial provider, lived tormented lives during the industrial revolution. As Griswold says of early 20th century fathers: “His children were a daily reminder that he had failed at the fundamental task of fatherhood, which left him consumed by guilt and a profound sense of personal inadequacy.”[viii] This could have easily been written about the fathers in our society today.

My father suffered from this sense of failure. Though well-read and politically and socially aware, he never attended college and he never earned what he believed was a decent wage. Like so many men, he felt stuck and incapable of getting ahead. What would have been a decent wage? What would have been the proper balance between wage earning and fathering? “The obligation to provide and protect is the heritage common to all men. The fear of not fulfilling that obligation is also a heritage common to all men. But in these all-male settings, men discover that even when they do fulfill these obligations, they face a catch-22: If he provides well financially, he hasn’t had enough time for his family, leaving both them and him unnurtured. On the other hand, if he has been close emotionally, he fears he has not provided adequately financially. That’s why each man shares the fears of other men.”[ix] Addressing this agonizing conflict and finding the balance needed to live a healthy life is the domain of men’s work. With the elimination of the built-in support of elders, men are now forced to seek out their own elders, their own male support systems. But they are forced to do so in a critical and shame-based environment.

Just as I was made to feel shame around my unexpressed feelings toward the loss of my father, so too were men in the 1980’s and 90’s shamed for their unfulfilled need for emotional expression.

Just as men were beginning to come out from hiding, just as they were allowing themselves to join with other men to explore that repressed part of themselves, they were ridiculed and sent back into hiding. Johnson states: “The media picked up on it and began to parody what we were doing, dubbing it “neotribalism.” So men who might have been attracted to it maybe remained separate from it for fear of being laughed at. I think the thought of men coming together as men and howling and dancing around a fire was too threatening to them. Yet that wasn’t the essence of what we were trying to accomplish.”[x] “Men carry a tremendous amount of sadness, despair, and grief inside. It’s not that men don’t feel, but they’ve gotten the message that it’s not okay to publicly emote their feelings.”[xi]

The aftereffects of this media and cultural backlash on men’s attempt to connect and to heal themselves continues to this day to isolate men and to perpetuate a condition in which men live lives of quiet, and often-times violent, desperation. But it is important to realize where this critical response toward the gathering of men originated. “There is an angry element that has an ax to grind. These individuals, be they men or women, typically carry the unhealed wounds of past relationships with men and tend to view all men as falling somewhere along a perpetrator scale.”[xii] As my mother’s hurt and rage made it unacceptable for me to seek the companionship of men, so has the collective hurt and rage toward men kept most men from seeking the connection they so desperately need.

Fortunately for me, a man in my life took an interest in me and recommended I do a men’s weekend. That was in 1994. For the first time, I connected with my masculinity. For the first time, I felt the grief and joy that men can experience while in the presence of other men. For the first time, I found my place among the men. For the first time in my life I grieved for my father, I grieved for myself. I was initiated into manhood. And as many authorities have recognized, when men experience a rite of passage, they realize the need to give back to other men.

So what steps are counselors to take to care for men in this environment of shame, pain, confusion and isolation? Unfortunately, due to this judgmental environment, most men do not find their way to counseling. And those who do usually do not recognize their need to heal their father wounds, i.e., deal with their father issues. Making it even more difficult for men in this geographic area is that almost 84% of therapists in Southern California are women.[xiii] So even men who want to find a competent male therapist may have difficulty doing so, especially with managed care and its limited options. But as Dr. Stephen Johnson suggests, the most important thing a female therapist can do for a male client is to recognize when he is dealing with father issues and refer him to a male therapist who has himself been initiated.[xiv]

According to Johnson, there are several telltale signs that can alert counselors to father issues. Counselors can be sure that unresolved father issues are present when clients says things like, “I feel most comfortable around women,” “I’m really glad I have a female therapist,” or “Most of my close friends are women.” Other red flags can be identified in clients’ acting out. Those men who are sex addicts, serial monogamists, or are sexually promiscuous are attempting to satisfy an insatiable need. They are trying to fill a void with the feminine, only to realize that the void can never be filled. Though unconscious to their own yearning, what they are actually in need of is the masculine.

It has become my higher purpose to seek out a connection with men and to teach other men what I have learned about the need we have and the shame that prevents us from satisfying that need. I want to teach men and their families about the importance of father and fathering, the confusing and sometimes excruciating position fathers find themselves in today and ways in which they can learn the lessons they need to be the fathers and sons their hearts have yearned to be. It is also my objective to increase awareness of the needs of men in the therapeutic community. Only when men begin to receive the kind of help they need from counselors, and society as a whole, who appreciate men’s lack of initiation into manhood, will it become acceptable for more men to reach out for help.

As Johnson states: “It’s been my experience that men need to bare their souls with dignity in a safe environment. There’s a longing within men, a desire to go inside as well as to reach out to one another. They may not fully comprehend the need but they quickly discover that when they come together in the presence of other men, it feels good. When they leave, they walk away with something that they’ve been able to touch that perhaps they didn’t even realize existed before.”[xv]


For, brother, what are we?

We are the sons of our father,

Whose face we have never seen,

We are the sons of our father,

Whose voice we have never heard,

We are the sons of our father,

To whom we have cried for strength and comfort

In our agony,

We are the sons of our fathers,

Whose life like ours

Was lived in solitude in the wilderness,

We are the sons of our father,

To whom only we can speak out

The strange, dark burden of our heart and spirit,

We are the sons of our father,

And we shall follow the print of his foot forever.[xvi]

— Thomas Wolfe

[i] Bly, R., Hillman, J. & Meade, M. (Eds.). (1992). The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart—Poems for Men. (p. 134). New York: HarperCollins.
[ii] Triveri, L. (1992, August). Healing the Masculine Wound: An Interview with Stephen Johnson, Ph.D. Whole Life Times, 22-23.
[iii] Johnson, S. (1999, August). Initiation: Rediscovering Rites of Passage. Whole Life Times
[iv] Griswold, R. L. (1993) Fatherhood in America: A History. (p. 14). New York: HarperCollins.
[v] Johnson, S. (1993, August). The Absent Father. Whole Life Times, 24-25.
[vi] Griswold, R. L. (1993) Fatherhood in America: A History. (p. 15). New York: HarperCollins.
[vii] Johnson, S. (1993, August). The Absent Father. Whole Life Times, 24-25.
[viii] Griswold, R. L. (1993) Fatherhood in America: A History. (p. 44). New York: HarperCollins.
[ix] Farrell, W. (1999) Women Can’t Hear What Men Don’t Say. (p. 71). New York: Penguin Putnam.
[x] Triveri, L. (1992, August). Healing the Masculine Wound: An Interview with Stephen Johnson, Ph.D. Whole Life Times, 22-23.
[xi] Ibid., 22-23.
[xii] Cose, E. (1994, August). In the Trenches: An Interview with Stephen Johnson, Ph.D. Whole Life Times, 24-25.
[xiii] Personal interview with Stephen Johnson, Ph.D. November 2001.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Johnson, S. (1995, August). The Quest for the Masculine. Whole Life Times, 27.
[xvi] Bly, R., Hillman, J. & Meade, M. (Eds.). (1992). The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart —Poems for Men. (p. 123). New York: HarperCollins