The Resurgence of Patriarchy and On Being a Feminist Therapist

Terry Real, a family and couples therapist in Boston, writes extensively on how traditional masculinity can be damaging to marriage.  I agree with his positions completely, and since he has written so well on the issue I am just going to share the following quotes from his recent article.

“The election of Donald Trump and the resurgence of populism throughout the West were fueled by a renewed pull toward certain notions of traditional masculinity.

“Let me be clear. I haven’t been for 40 years, nor will I ever be, neutral on the issue of patriarchy in my work. Traditional gender roles are a bad deal for both sexes. And they’re particularly toxic for men. The evidence couldn’t be clearer. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a statement implicating traditional masculine values as inimical to good health.

“Let’s take a stark, bottom-line issue: death. Men live 7 to 10 years less than women do, not because of some genetic differences, as most people imagine, but because men act like, well, men. For one, we don’t seek help as often as women do; it’s unmanly. Indeed, as I once wrote about male depression, “A man is as likely to ask for help with depression as he is to ask for directions.” And men are more noncompliant with treatment when we do get it. Also, we take many more risks. That driver without a seatbelt—odds are that’s a man. Men drink more, take drugs more, are more than three times as likely to be imprisoned, and five times as likely to commit suicide.

“Traditional masculine habits not only hurt men’s physical and psychological health, but also produce the least happy marriages. Study after study has shown that egalitarian marriages—which often involve dual careers and always encompass shared housework and decision-making—unequivocally lead to higher rates of marital satisfaction for both sexes than do “traditional” marriages, based on hierarchy and a strict division of roles. Yet most therapists, even today, act as if these choices in marriage were simply a matter of personal preference, of legitimate, sometimes clashing values.

“For his entire life, Bill  [A pseudonym for one of Real’s clients, who is typical of many successful men I see] credited his success in life to his fevered drive for perfection. He thought his harsh inner critic, which he never hesitated to unleash on others, was his best friend, holding up the standard, goading him to achieve. I tell Bill that like most of the men I treat, even like Icarus winging it toward the sun, he thought it was the achievement of glory that made him worthy of love. And like Icarus, he was about to fall, and fall hard.

“My drive is my edge, my equalizer,” he says, “I may not be as smart as some of the boys in the office, but, man, I can work.”

Let me help you out here,” I tell him. “I promise you that as we work together, you won’t lose your edge. All the guys I see worry about that. But you can be just as tough and, at the right times, just as driven.”

“So what will be so different?” he asks.

“You,” I tell him. “You’ll be different. Radically different if you want to save this marriage. You’ll have choice.”

“Like most feminist therapists I know, I don’t want to “feminize” men any more than I want to “masculinize” women. I want choice. When the moment calls for combat, I want men to be ferocious. But when the moment calls for tenderness, I want men to be sweet, compassionate, soft. Mostly, I want men to be able to discern which moment is which and behave accordingly. I want men to hold fast to those elements that are good and right about the traditional male role—courage, loyalty, competence—but men like Bill also deserve to have access to emotion, particularly the vulnerable emotions that connect us to one another. He deserves to have more empathy for himself first of all, and for those he loves.

“[Bill,] You’ve been acting in this marriage in a lot of ways as though you were still single,” I tell him. “Six hours a day at the gym, 10-hour bike rides, call girls when you travel. You need to learn to become what I call a real family man,” a term that deliberately harks back to some of the positive ideals contained in traditional notions of masculinity. Contrary to what gender conservatives claim we feminists are after, I don’t want the men I work with to discard every aspect of masculinity. Rather, I talk to Bill about the differences between living life as a self-centered boy and living it like a family man. It’s not “repeal and replace” the entire notion of masculinity so much as “sort through, use the best, and transform the rest.”

This blog is excerpted from “The Long Shadow of Patriarchy,” by Terry Real. The full version is available in the September/October 2017 issue, The Future of Couplehood: Esther Perel is Expanding the Conversation.

This blog is excerpted from: The Resurgence of Patriarchy by Terry Real.  9/25/2017 in PsychoTherapy Networker online.