Men's Issues

Pay Special Attention to Your Feelings... There are some significant differences between men and women with regard to both their use of counseling and therapy services and the types of problems that they tend to present. These observed differences are not, for the most part, due to the physical or biological characteristics of being male or female, but rather have to do with the psychologically based concepts of being "male" or "female". The constellation of psychological aspects involved in identifying ourselves as being "male" or "female" is commonly referred to as gender. Gender is a social construct, meaning that it is defined by our society or culture. There are no absolute rules about what it is to "be a man" (beyond perhaps the previously mentioned physical and biological sex characteristics). The evidence for this fact lies in the significant variations in the concept of masculinity across cultures and subcultures. For example, the expression of masculinity may be even more complex for ethnic minority men and gay and bisexual men, the result of the significant impact of social oppression on various aspects of their identity, including who they are as men. Therefore, "being a man" is defined quite differently by different social groups, and it is important to understand the particular social contexts of men when (and even if) they come to counseling.

Implications of Traditional Concepts of Masculinity: In the dominant Western culture, specifically in the U.S., we have a lot of inter-related cultural messages about what it means to be masculine. A few examples include: 1) men don't cry, don't show emotion; 2) men are achievement-oriented, are the "breadwinners" of the family; and 3) men are physically and emotionally "strong", they can take care of themselves. Men (and women) reading this handout can undoubtedly add many other messages they might have heard growing up about what men should be. These socially constructed gender roles may be viewed as "double-edged" swords for men in our culture. On the positive side, men socialized into this culture tend to possess strengths in problem-solving, logical thinking, risk-taking, anger expression, and assertive behavior (all attributes that are notably NOT typically ascribed to women in this culture). Conversely, our gender socialization can lead to problems such as a lack of emotional awareness and expression, restricted relationships, and physical and emotional isolation.

Implications in Counseling: It may be clear how these identified issues and other problems related to male gender socialization might negatively impact men in their daily lives. In some cases these issues may result in the development of significant psychological symptoms. These same factors will also impact how, when, and even if men will seek help for their problems. The ratio of men to women seeking counseling is approximately 1:2. This gender difference is not new, and may not be that surprising, but it is slowly changing. Still, many men hold negative attitudes about counseling, and given even our brief discussion about the cultural messages men receive about being masculine, it is not difficult to understand why. Asking for help, talking about one's problems and sharing one's feelings are certainly not valued within the traditional male role. Therefore, even to take the step of initiating counseling can take a lot of courage for many men, as they must go against much of their gender socialization just to walk through the door. When men do take the courageous step of entering counseling, their socialization also influences the types of problems they identify and how those problems are presented to their counselor or therapist.

Common Concerns of Men:

Relationships The most common concern for men. Often the problems involve romantic relationships and trying to figure out just what their role is in the relationship, a task that is increasingly difficult as gender role expectations now vary more widely and norms are not as clear. As a result of their socialization, men tend not to be as equipped to deal with such relationship issues, often feeling as though they "don't have the words" to describe how they are feeling and to discuss such matters with their partners. Issues about sexuality may also emerge, particularly during college, whether it involves questions of sexual orientation or sexual expectations and practices. Another common assumption in the dominant culture is that men should be responsible for initiating sexual behavior and as such they must be "experts" in all things sexual. This, of course, is not the case and can be the cause of a lot of anxiety. Another relationship issue often encountered in college is the continuing process of individuation from one's parents. Most students begin their college careers as teenagers, often significantly dependent on their families, both financially and emotionally. By graduation, particularly for men, there is an expectation that they are ready to assume a productive and financially independent role in society. Such a transformation requires men to significantly redefine their relationships within their families, a process that can be very painful for everyone involved.

Career Concerns Men's careers, related to the male socialized value for achievement, factor strongly into their identity as a man. The choice of major for a male college student might not be experienced as only involving his particular strengths and interests, but may include his potential level of success and prestige in the work world, his social status, and his attractiveness to potential mates. Such career concerns are often accompanied by relational difficulties for men, such as romantic partners or parents pressuring them to consider certain careers or criticizing their career choice. These issues can be further complicated for men from families with particular vocational backgrounds, e.g. farming, or who own family businesses. Men in these circumstances may have increased pressure to pursue specific careers, with their role in their families hanging in the balance.

Mood Difficulties Recent research suggests that there is not a big difference between men and women regarding their level of distress, in fact men are at an even higher risk for some issues, including significantly higher rates of suicide beginning around college-age and continuing through adulthood. What does seem to be different is how men express and/or experience distress. Depression is a very common presenting issue for men. However, unlike most women who experience crying spells and feelings of worthlessness and helplessness, men tend to experience social withdrawal and isolation and physical symptoms, such as headaches or feeling "run down". Another common experience for men is the presence of anger, which may be masking other emotions related to depression. Many men come to counseling or are forced into counseling due to concerns about anger and "anger management". As mentioned above, men are socialized to not show emotion EXCEPT when it comes to anger. When anger is the only "acceptable" emotion, it makes sense that in times of stress this is how men express themselves. Often, "managing" their anger does not involve restricting their expression of anger, but developing their ability to express their many other emotions that have been perceived as "unacceptable" and "weak" for so long.

Substance Misuse Related to their problems with mood difficulties, men have typically experienced a higher rate of substance use and abuse. Again, given men's restricted range of coping strategies for dealing with distress, the result of gender socialization, many men use alcohol and other drugs to "drown out" or "numb" the emotional pain they experience. This behavior, particularly regarding drinking, is reinforced by our society as heavy drinking and being able to "hold your liquor" is considered "manly".

Violence While it may not be surprising that men commit the vast majority of violent crimes in our society, given our value of toughness and aggressiveness in men, the fact that men are also the most common victim of violence might be. Our male-dominated culture also contributes strongly to the issues of relationship violence, including physical and sexual assault, which may result in men presenting for counseling, either on their own or as part of their involvement in the legal system.

Sexual DysfunctionMale sexual dysfunction is not uncommon and often involves many of the issues already discussed, such as relationship and emotional concerns. There is some evidence that masculinity-related beliefs, such as the assumed "sex expert" role, mentioned above, and other myths, can cause significant levels of performance anxiety which then contribute to male sexual dysfunction. The most common male sexual dysfunctions are, premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, inhibited orgasm, and lack of sexual desire.

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Very few men have been taught how to have a healthy relationship or a realistic view of masculinity. Fortunately, these are skills and knowledge that can be learned and counseling can be an effective way to learn them. Many of the usual problems males have in their relationships and career just get worse and rarely go away on their own. Perhaps now is the time to invest some important time into personal change and growth.



Call us today at 603-749-4462.