Counselling Men: Coming in from the Cold

Looking out on life (Ant Henderson from Unsplash)

As I opened the front door a rush of icy air entered the vestibule. A slender man in his late forties stood there. He was dressed in a grey hooded top, white shirt and dark blue jeans. He looked very distinguished with his short peppered hair and trimmed beard. His name is John (not his real name) and it was the first time I had met him. As we entered the counselling room, the warmth of the open fire greeted us. It was a welcome change to the icy evening air. John commented on the fire and settled down in the chair next to the fire.

When I see a man on his own, I’m usually filled with trepidation and caution as to what he might think of me as a counsellor and as a man. I feel a little judged and wonder if they feel judged, too. This seems to be the normal “manly” encounter: to size up your male opponent, but this is not a normal encounter. This is where men can be vulnerable and talk openly about their emotional state and their “feelings”. The majority of men I see on their own are surprised by the amount of talking they do and how elaborate they verbalise their feels about their situation or even how they feel about their partner. It’s normally the first time they have ever spoken to someone about their concerns and I feel privileged to be the one they are talking to about them. It seems as if the regrets they are telling me will never be heard again outside of the room. It’s as if the room is a sacred area where they can talk about anything that’s bothering them. It’s a place where they can be tearful, angry, upset, happy, cheerful and sad without criticism, judgement or ridicule; to feel supportive and open to questions, the great discussion that provokes thoughts of change and self-reflection; to a greater awareness of themselves and how their partner might see them in a different light, compared to the impression they might have of themselves. It’s an opportunity to talk about their sex life, their sexual frustrations, their affairs, love, intimacy, their sexual behaviour, pornography and masturbation without feeling embarrassed.

At times, when some men are holding on to their emotional state, holding back how they truly feel, I get headaches after the session. It’s as if I’ve taken on board all of their feelings they’ve projected on to me, but at other times, I know it’s just me feeling tired and need some rest from the long day.

As John comes to the end of talking about his concerns, I ask him, “What would you like for your relationship?”. He responds thoughtfully, “To be able to feel I sexually desire her again; to have the feeling that I love her, not a teenage love but a love that’s new and lasting”.

Everyone wants this really. To feel loved and desired. To be sexually fulfilled and cherished. To feel they are the centre of their partner’s universe. But this takes work. Sometimes it feels just too much work for people to achieve. This is where therapy can make the difference. It helps to support the desire to change, if you are willing, it can happen, and when the change does happen, it is noticeable to both partners.

I ask John, “if you achieve what you want, what would you see as being different in your relationship?” This is a harder question to answer. John sits there thinking and looking around to see what the answer should be, as if it’s just in his grasp. “Us being able to talk; to talk about most things that we don’t talk about at the moment, such as what’s bothering us about our current situation; our jobs and how they can be frustrating; our parents and how they can be annoying at times. To have a great sex life and feel wanted…”

There are secrets as well. Many men come with secrets that they can’t tell their partner. Secrets that can be overwhelming, too much to bear, too much to hold on to that the cracks in the secret start to show. When they start to show, their partner starts to notice, they act differently and their partner starts to ask them questions as to “what’s going on?”

John had a secret. One night stands were his secret. But the guilt started to get to him as he realised what he wanted to have with his wife. He hadn’t told anyone about having sex with women he didn’t know. It was always away from home while he was visiting other cities for work, staying away for weeks at a time. But the last encounter frightened him. He realised he could lose everything: his wife, the love she tries to give him, his children, his home, his life he had built with them together. He then decided to change, to talk about it to someone. He wanted to make his marriage work. He knew it would be difficult as his wife knew something had been bothering him for a couple of years. So he said he wanted to change the way he was with her, to get back together. He wanted to make a difference to their relationship and their sex life as that hadn’t been good either.

John’s story isn’t unusual. In fact it’s one of the frequently told stories I hear. But not all couples or men have closely held secrets, some of these secrets are let out and then it’s a different story all together.

As John reflected on what he wanted with his wife, I felt a sense of sadness. John had wanted to make everything work for his marriage in the beginning, but then work, family and children changed some of this for him. It changes most of us, for better or worse, but we need to change and adapt to these highs and lows in a way that’s right for both partners in a relationship. The sadness I felt was one that comes with loss. I could see that John realised he had lost the past two years or more and realised he could lose everything all together if he didn’t act now.

John stood up to go and thanked me for listening. He said it had made a difference. I opened the front door to let John out, the rush of cold air met us again. “It really is very cold out tonight”, he said. “Take care driving home, and I’ll see you next week”, I replied. As John walked away, I closed the door and felt the chill of the night fade away as I walked back into the room with the fire. As I sat there for a few moments reflecting on John’s story, I wondered whether telling his story had really made a difference. As with most men, telling the story does make a difference. While it can be difficult to talk initially about a problem, getting it out in the open and sharing it can make a difference. But it’s just the start. Coming in from the cold while holding on to a secret, or your feelings, and then opening up to someone who will listen does help, it can make the future warmer. That is if you want to make it happen.

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