The following represents some observations that I’ve noticed in my clinical practice that challenge some frequently repeated stereotypes about men as they concern men and romantic intimacy.
1. “Men are not emotional.”
It is true that men often learn to bottle up or swallow their emotions in public. Men have emotions, but they don’t always know how to name them or understand the right context to express them. In my practice, I hear much longing for men to experience emotions, particularly in interpersonal relationships with partners, friendships, and families; however, there are many learned barriers that automatically block these needs.
The challenge frequently lies in the articulation and communication of these longings, and this is where men can get stuck. In many cases, these needs for an emotional connection get translated into other forms, often into sex in romantic relationships. As Barry McCarthy and Michael Metz argue, men “funnel” many of their emotions into sexual wants: anxiety, anger, sadness, and shame.
What appears as a sexual impulse is very often a need for emotional connection. Sex can be a way for men to manage and ward off a whole range of emotional challenges—like general work anxiety, family stress, low self-esteem, and lacking self-validation. Sex often becomes a way to regulate these emotional lows, either by bolstering physical closeness with another or by distracting the brain from a heavy dose of negative self-talk.
Ironically, the popular intervention DBT recommends sex or masturbation as a means of positively distracting oneself from thoughts that veer too dangerously into self-negation or self-harm. The problem with this approach, however, is that when divorced from a cognitive, reflective counterpart (understanding the emotional need or deficit beneath the sexual impulse), these behaviors remain reactive rather than proactive and can thus be too late.
2. “Men don’t want real intimacy.”
Men tend to crave intimacy from their partners and their friends but very often don’t have the experience or the language to invite, ask for, or enact intimacy.
Again, sex can often stand in and comes to satisfy all forms of closeness, intimacy, and connection for men, but this often goes unsaid in a relationship. As a result, not having sex can cause a sharp decrease in overall intimacy and connectedness with a partner. This can lead to unvoiced expressions of frustration, interpersonal withdrawal, and irritability that can be dismissed as only a biological craving. Men, too, can come to believe in this strictly physiological function or craving themselves, leading to further thoughts of guilt and shame.
When men start to disclose and investigate the meaning of sex with their partner, however, we very often see the many kinds of functions that sex holds in their life. Sex can be the single place where men allow themselves to be vulnerable or to experience closeness. It is a place where many men experience their highest levels of self-esteem, vitality, and even purpose. When this disappears and is un-communicated, attachment fears can spring up. Is my partner really there for me? Am I loved or worthy of love? Am I attractive enough? Is the relationship secure or at risk?
The work and challenge is to translate those deeper needs into language and find alternative ways to meet those needs. Make no mistake, however: The deep need for intimacy is there, if often under-communicated.
3. “Men are self-interested and performance-focused in sex.”
Too often, men in my practice feel that their sole contribution to intimate relationships is their sexual performance. Much of this stems from mistaken beliefs that masculinity and virility are exclusively located in narrowly defined sexual performance, a fact that results in tremendous private mental pressure during sexual acts.
Men, more than women, rely on pornography for models of sexual performance and satisfying sex. Men frequently carry this model in their heads and measure their performance against professional male porn stars. This model reinforces genital-focused sexuality without emotional or physiological challenges or interruptions.
Measuring yourself against this artificial model is a doomed task, and men can often experience this as profound gender and partner failure. Indeed, many men privately share the fear that their relationship rests on the balance of their sexual performance.
Because men are also less likely to share and reveal sexual success and challenges (let alone emotional experiences) with other peers, these anxieties may get swallowed and internalized, often causing external symptoms like ED, low desire, and sex aversion.
McCarthy and Metz argue for men to shift from thinking about performance-oriented sex to pleasure-oriented sex. This is easier said than done, especially with the volume of pornography available on our mobile devices.
Pleasure, too, requires more thoughtful consideration and expansive imagining as we move from genital to other bodily pleasures as well as non-bodily pleasures that include emotional and communicative processes. For example, pleasure can be achieved through close listening and personal disclosure or through a narration of past intimacies and bodily self-concept.
Widening our views of pleasure to include the relational dimensions of sex help get men “out of their heads” and away from the one-dimensional view of sex as a single-handed exercise in heavy lifting.