The Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan works primarily with men and boys, helping them navigate the issues that affect their lives, including their emotional well-being. Many men are reticent to talk about their feelings; especially thoughts around intimacy. Often, they are socialized to see sex as the only means for intimacy. This can adversely affect their ability to develop and maintain healthy, intimate relationships. In this Revealing Men podcast Randy Flood, psychotherapist and director of the Men’s Resource Center, engages Laura Bennett, his good friend and fellow psychotherapist, in a conversation about men’s challenges with intimacy and sexuality. Their exchange examines how men and women can view intimacy differently, the lingering stereotypes that limit men and women, and the life-changing benefits of having the courage to open oneself to intimacy. Read their conversation below (edited for length and clarity) or listen to it anytime on popular podcast platforms including Spotify and Stitcher.
A Man and A Woman Talk About Intimacy
Flood: Laura is a colleague, and a friend, who has been in private practice with a group of like eight colleagues for 20 years. She left the field of sales and marketing and freelance writing in midlife—a little midlife crisis there, Laura? —to pursue a degree in counseling at Western Michigan University, the place I went to as well. Laura was married for 23 years and now divorced for ten with three grown children, a daughter-in-law, and lots of doggies running around. You don’t have all the dogs, but your kids…
Bennett: No, we all have dogs. It’s bring your own kennel at my house.
Flood: Laura and I share a love of music and the arts. She and I, along with a local artist, had a successful mental health project entry in the nationally recognized ArtPrize competition here in the fair city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Laura is an incredible vocalist and sings in several local bands and groups. We’ve gigged a little with each other as I’m a percussionist. I’ve played on trash cans a little bit when I didn’t bring my drums!
So, thanks Laura for agreeing to come and talk about men and intimacy.
The Changing Dynamics Around Intimacy
Bennett: Absolutely! As you said in the intro, I’ve been practicing for about 20 years. Young adults are my major focus, though I guess the age span would be anywhere from 18 to 80 technically. Women and men, but I’ve developed I guess just a niche, an interest in young adults. I have three young adults of my own. So, that’s maybe just close to my heart, I guess. But I find that group very interesting in their challenges and of course navigating relationships, [Flood: “Right. It’s part of that.”] and being young, just less time on the planet.
They have less experience and the world is challenging and changing rapidly. It’s been interesting to me to see how many of their issues overlap and congregate around certain topics. Intimacy and relating to one another, especially in the social media world, in a very virtual, digital-heavy world, that has affected things, I think, significantly. It’s interesting to sit with people in person, especially now that we’re more in person, to start to untangle these things.
Flood: One of the things that we hear often is that men are not socialized or prepared to do intimacy well, and ya know, women are socialized in a different way. I’m wondering what kinds of frustrations sometimes you hear from clients, from girlfriends, or from your own life about some of the struggles that men might bring to the table and into relationships with intimacy.
Bennett: Some of that, I believe—from the small microcosm that is my caseload— is changing for the better in many ways, because I think that as gender roles change, and the look of a family is changing completely, people are broadening their definition of all sorts of things, intimacy included. So, I do think it’s changing for the better. That said, [Laughs] we still do have some long-standing patterns, I think.
I still see an awful lot of stigma around many things, again gender roles, and around mental health, asking for help. And then that stretches back to just relating to one another. I think that still, I would say men more than women, have— obviously generalizing here—more of a struggle to reach out and ask for help. You know the old joke about not asking for directions when you’re lost kind of thing. [Flood: “Right.”] That’s quite a metaphor for life, I think. I do still see that. And of course, that can frustrate partners.
The Language of Intimacy
Bennett: I had an online session this morning, just with a young couple, a very young couple, they’ve been married four years and I think they’re 22, 23? With a two-year-old child.
But he looked right at the screen and very straight-faced said, “I don’t do emotion. I don’t feel emotions,” and then he sort of laughed. And I said, “I just saw an emotion!” [Flood: “There’s an emotion right there!”] And she said, “It’s true. I have to follow him around and ask him ‘what are you feeling’.” And I said “well, okay. You have emotions because you’re human.” So maybe there’s not language. And then as we delved into that, he was able to say okay I have them, I don’t understand them, I’m at my limit, I don’t have room for emotions, I don’t have the bandwidth if I’m gonna keep working this many hours, parenting and all that. So, some of it I think is a protective stance that people take, particularly men.
Flood: And I think that just even trying to define, what is intimacy? What is this little thing, this crazy little thing called love? [Flood: Starts humming.] It’s crazy because it’s unique, it’s different, there’s nothing like trying to do love, trying to do connection, trying to do intimacy. And so, I always tell the guys I work with that intimacy is: Into Me You See. [Bennett: “I like that.”]
So, this person, this couple that you saw, my guess is that she is saying “I want to see you,” “I want to know you.” [Bennett: “Exactly.”] He’s like “I got nothing.” Or “it’s not in me.” It is. But I think that we’re socialized often to put your cards close to your chest because to be intimate is to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable leads to the possibility of someone having power over you, someone who can hurt you, [Bennett: “Expose you.”] someone who can reject you, and there’s a lot of fear around that for some men.
Bennett: Right. But if the person doesn’t have the language, … I’m a big fan of languages as a bridge to yourself and to others. This same couple, this same conversation, … one of their struggles is around, he said it’s around intimacy, and I wondered if I knew what he meant by that. And it turns out that I did know what he meant by that. But, as we drilled backward from that comment about not having time, space, whatever for sexuality, was really around emotional connection and intimacy, and he didn’t seem to be really aware of how that was affecting, and I’m not trying to place any blame on one person or the other, these are just dynamics that have shaped up over the years, it was interesting to watch them develop more of an understanding of themselves as a couple even in just one session.
No, Intimacy and Sexuality Aren’t the Same Thing
Flood: When I ask a guy to take an assessment I say, “tell me about the intimacy in your relationship,” and they’ll say, “oh, we have sex about 2-3 times a week or once a month and I’m terribly frustrated.” And I think guys sometimes equate intimacy with sexuality and I think unfortunately our culture socializes guys to only have that as a vehicle for intimacy. Is that if they’re going to experience deep, deep connection, the only way I have available for me to experience that is through sex. [Bennett: “Exactly.”] And, I think, I don’t know if you hear frustrations from women saying they want to have this deeper emotional connection so that I’m more interested in sex.
Bennett: Well, that’s exactly what I hear routinely, is this flipped chicken or the egg kind of a thing. Where men will say, ya know, the vehicle to intimacy for me is sexuality. When we have sex, I feel more [Flood: “Warmth, and close, and connected.”] close to you and I feel more intimate in other ways, and I’m more likely to want to cuddle and watch a movie with you, kind of thing. Where women are like the opposite. And again, generalizing, this is not every couple, but often women will say but the sexual expression is an expression of an emotional intimacy that has been there for me before we ever go to the bedroom, or the couch, or wherever. [Both: Laugh] [Flood: “Or the kitchen.”]
Flood: I encourage guys to see ultimately yes, sex is beautiful but can you see sex as a celebration of intimacy achieved, rather than it being the vehicle to achieve intimacy. [Bennett: “Exactly.”] And so, that helps them begin to say, “well tell me about what other forms of intimacy is out there?” And then, that’s when we start talking about emotional intelligence and we start talking about sharing feelings, and that’s where it’s like “oh, my gosh!” That sounds weird or that sounds scary, or that sounds feminine.
Men Share What They Do Better Than How They Feel
Bennett: Well, that was my question for you. Is that what you think happens? That doesn’t feel, what? Manly? Or that’s too soft a skill for me? I need to take charge. What do you think that’s about?
Flood: I think for some guys that are socialized more traditionally, and again, we are speaking in some generalizations here, but they look at talking about feelings as “I’m going to be showing you my weakness and why would I want to do that?” As a guy, they want to impress you and they want to show you their heroic side, their fearless side, their accomplishments, the things that they fixed and tackled, and been credentialed on. And so, to them, it’s like you’re going to get to know me, but I’m going to talk to you about those things, and that’s how you’re going to get to know me, and then you’re going to be so impressed with me, then you’re going to want to have sex with me. [Both: Laugh]
Bennett: “And then I will eventually let my guard down?” Is that how that goes?
Flood: Yeah. I think when I talk to guys about that level of vulnerability can create a deeper connection, and there’s risk involved. Brené Brown talks about courage and vulnerability and letting people see you. And so, I try to help them reframe it as an act of courage to be open and vulnerable and share feelings; but it’s still a pretty hard sell for some guys.
Experiencing Male-to-Male Intimacy
Bennett: Yeah. I can see that. And I probably do the same thing with slightly different wording in my office. I think that many of the women that I know who are thinking about age a little bit; older women or women who wouldn’t be considered young adults I guess, mid-life and on. Many are out in the dating world or they’re in committed relationships. But they are with someone from a generation who were raised in a much more traditional setting. Younger people are being raised with more open-mindedness, I think these days, around the roles. What’s your suggestion for women who are dating or married to these older guys who are sort of stuck in those stigma places?
Flood: I would imagine it’s frustrating and lonely for women. And if you try to push a man into it and you try to mentor him and educate him on emotional intimacy, then you’re at risk of them hearing you or sensing you as their mother. So, you got this delicate dance, right? It’s hard to get men to go into therapy. But I think doing it with you [their spouse or partner] could be too threatening and too difficult.
That’s one of the reasons why we do [men’s] groups because doing intimacy with men when sexuality is not necessarily on the table, it gives them a different experience of the beauty and the warmth of a human connection when you don’t have sexuality clouding it and confusing it. And for guys to experience male-to-male intimacy, then they can take that experience into their marriage and be able to better do the intimacy without sexuality that then can lead to that celebration of intimacy achieved that I talked about earlier.
Bennett: Right. I like that.
When Men Cheat on Their Intimate Partners
Bennett: Another issue that I hear a lot about is this either cheating or running from partner-to-partner, pornography, I mean a lot of sexual expression outside of the relationship, shall we say? That can be an absolute deal-breaker for so many people and can break so many hearts on so many levels. And, helping men to understand their patterns.
I don’t see as many, I see more of the women in therapy in those situations, who are trying to figure out, they can’t affect change on their person because there’s another dynamic at work there clearly. We all talk about ways to support women, but how can women support men in those situations and help them to not be shamed but to learn and grow about what their own patterns are.
Flood: Yeah. And we know women can have affairs, too.
Flood: I think Ronald Levant talks about men are socialized into nonrelational sexuality and sometimes we hear that as conquests or objectification of women, and misuse of pornography for sexual gratification. It becomes this instrumental approach to sex versus it being this intimate human connection. And then, David Schnarch talks about intimate sexuality, intimate sexuality as being the highest form of sex, the most evolved form, and the most difficult. [Bennett: “That makes sense.”]
And so, to have intimate sexuality, and for it to be erotic, and for it to be connected, and all the things that they experience in an affair and bringing this human connection with the sexuality is the most difficult, is the most vulnerable of them all, and yet potentially the most satisfying.
Bennett: Yeah, right. And that’s, there’s the promise, right?
Flood: There’s the promise.
Bennett: The carrot. [Flood: “Right.”] But I think like all humans, it seems, male and female, just sitting with yourself, sitting with the feelings—not running to fill the void or take the drugs or take the alcohol, or…— is so hard because that can be a very painful, scary place for people.
Intimate Relationships Promote Mental Wellness
Bennett: I feel like I’m a billboard for therapy, but it does help to talk and to sit in a space where there is no judgment, but just wondering; wondering and sitting with it would be very helpful.
Flood: And I think partnering in intimate relationships can provide that therapeutic value and that’s, I think, the beauty and the magic of long-term connections where you can sit with someone, hopefully, and be able to feel safe to reveal yourself and to have someone hold space for you and talk about fears, and dreams, and joys. And have that person mirror and validate and then you get to change roles and you’re holding space for that person.
Therapy is a one-way. We’re there to do that with clients, but I think in an intimate relationship if it’s healthy and well, that’s why we gravitate towards those because it’s like something magical about being connected to another human being.
Bennett: Exactly. Well, it’s healing. So, there’s some therapy in all intimate relationships.
Flood: But, it’s also scary as hell. [Bennett: “Right.”] [Both: Laugh] Hence the tension.
Love and Intimacy are Risky Endeavors
Flood: We have this drive to want to be seen, to want to be connected, and want to have that warmth, but there’s just such fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, fear of being engulfed. Like, if I get too close to you, you’re gonna swallow me or overpower me. So guys, and again, women too, guys can have this fear of both being engulfed, and then they won’t admit it, but the fear of being abandoned.
Bennett: Right. So, that begs the question. I think the antidote to fear or anxiety is trust. So, what are some trust-building types of activities or words or dynamics can we focus on to help quell those fears? How do you really trust someone? Can we ever say for certain that someone will not leave or hurt you? [Flood: “No.”] We’re human beings, right?
Flood: I always tell guys if you don’t want to get hurt, and you don’t want to get rejected, then don’t ever love. Don’t ever love. Love is a risky endeavor. And so, it takes a lot of courage to love.
Stereotypes that Affect Men and Women
Flood: I think one of the things that I hear from guys is—remember the Paula Cole song? In the ‘90s, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”
Bennett: Oh yeah! I couldn’t have named it.
Flood: It’s like, that’s what they are frustrated or confused by because here’s this pro-feminist woman with hair on her legs singing “where have all the cowboys gone?” A lot of guys feel like they’re put on a white horse and they have to still be the champion, and be this heroic guy and be the protector. But there’s not room for them to be vulnerable, and that if they are vulnerable and show their fears and anxieties and insecurities, that that’s going to make their partners feel unsafe. Because they’re not being the man.
Bennett: Then, cue Sheryl Crow, right? “Are you strong enough to be my man?” Remember that song? That’s the same kind of thing. I actually love the song, but when you pick it apart and think about it. To your point, it takes courage to love. It’s an act of courage and there’s risk in everything worth doing. We all want to be strong enough to be there for the other person, but that’s quite a burden on a culture that already feels a lot of pressure and fear.
Flood: Brené Brown talks about some guy coming up to her after one of her presentations in a large group about vulnerability and it takes courage and he came up there and he was all pissed off at her. And he said, “ma’am, they don’t want me to come off my white horse and be vulnerable.” And so, she said that taught her something about masculine culture when that guy came up and talked to her about that.
I think guys sometimes get confusing messages about their role [Bennett: “Agreed.”] and who they’re supposed to be and I think, we’re all socialized in this, historically, a patriarchal culture. And I think even women sometimes can be—and you could probably speak to this—confused about what they want from the men they are in relationships with, right?
Sharing Roles In Intimate Relationships
Bennett: This is a big topic of conversation in my office a lot and it’s around when we look at things in that binary kind of way: I’m either strong or I’m weak. I’m good or I’m bad. That rarely works. So, I try to frame it around the integration of all the parts of ourselves and being a tapestry of many colors, many skills, many fears, many strengths, many weaknesses. We’re all human. I almost want to take gender out of it.
If we think of things in black and white, it’s going to be very difficult because you’re going to get the guy talking to Brené about “no, no I can’t get off this horse,” because this is what’s expected of me. It’s A or it’s Z. And, I think that’s going to be very frustrating. Because the goal is to integrate the parts and some days you feel strong, some days you are strong, however we define strong, incidentally, but ya know, in other days you’re not. Because you’re human!
Flood: I mean, you can tell we’re both musicians because I think of Tracey Chapman’s song, “Start All Over,” and she talks about starting all over with new language, new symbols, new constructs, and this idea that I think we associate so much gender roles with a certain energy. You’re of the female sex, so therefore you’re supposed to be this role and you’re supposed to be complementary, and you’re supposed to be soft and nurturing. The sooner we can get over that and be human beings and realize…
Sometimes in my relationship with my wife, there are times where it feels like I’m truly in the lead because it’s my expertise and it’s my strength and so, she feels like she’s following at times. And then there are times where I’m following her because she’s in the lead because she’s got strengths in certain areas. There are times where she’s listening to me and holding space with strength and there as a support system, and then there’s times where I’m doing that for her. And so, there’s so much fluidity [Bennett: “I was just going to use that word. The fluidity of the dance.”] Yeah. The art of love, which we’ve approached it I think, way too mechanically with too many rigid scripts.
Bennett: I agree. And I have to give you kudos because conversations like this are so important to have not just in therapy offices but out there, sitting on your bar stool, or your kitchen table, listening to a podcast. Because making these conversations more accessible to people, therapy, as we said, isn’t the only way to get at what’s going on for you. It’s about human connection and conversing openly and daring to do that. [Flood: “Right.”] Because everyone has a little fear of vulnerability. [Flood: “The human condition.”] Exactly.
What Do Women Want?
Flood: You’ve been divorced for ten years and you’ve been in the dating field. And so, guys are listening to this podcast. “What do women want? What do women expect?” And “what would a woman think if she knew I was in therapy? Would she think I was weak? That I’m broken?” Taking your psychotherapist hat off, just being a woman out there in the dating field, what is your point of view about men that are seeking help or willing to go into emotion or that kind of thing?
Bennett: Well, that’s a wide-open field of questions here! As a psychotherapist, I have a lot of people say to me, both in the dating realm and outside of it, “Wow. I don’t know how you do what you do. I could never do that.” I could never listen to people gripe all day or whatever the words are. And I honestly say I don’t view it that way. I say I view this as a very positive experience. People coming in to talk to essentially a stranger for the first time and open themselves up to sort of say, “hey, I need some ideas here, I need some feedback, I gotta get out of my echo chamber.” Share that. I see that as tremendous strength and I see it as inherently hopeful and courageous.
And so, I have nothing but respect for my clients. And that’s how I view anyone who’s willing to open up and share what’s real for them. It’s a struggle for everyone, women and men. When I see someone willing to do it, willing to risk, I admire the heck out of that. So, in answer to your question, I’m encouraged when I know someone is in therapy or even if they’re not in therapy but they’re just willing to talk about their emotional life and explore things or to say, “this is true in my family” or “this is something I went through.” And I’m like “oh, you too? Me too!” So, that’s, to me it’s a strength, it’s not a weakness.
The Courage to Listen to and Share Emotions
Flood: So, it’s another way of looking at strength and courage is that do you have the strength to hear my emotions and hold space, do you have the strength to share yours, do you have the courage to let me behind the curtain and see who you are. In helping guys maybe take what they see as masculine energy—(of)courage, strength, and endurance— and be able to frame it in an intimate context, this is what courage and strength look like, that intimacy. [Bennett: “Exactly.”] You can do this, don’t be so, don’t be a fraidy-cat. [Both: Laugh] We don’t shame them, but there’s like jump in the water. “It’s too cold” or no, it’s like, “I’ll do it, I’ll jump in there, you big wuss.” Jump into the pool of love and jump into this place where you just don’t know how deep it is, you don’t know quite the strokes to swim, but [Bennett: “You’ll see real courage there.”] Yeah.
Bennett: I think it takes less courage to hide behind a mask, to isolate, to shut down. I’m not judging those things; those are just the human response to fear and we’ve got to help people through that. But man, you want to see courage (well, you can’t sit in my office and watch, you know, because of HIPPA) but some of the things that people experience. As you know, as a therapist, it’s really beautiful to watch actually and people change and grow.
Flood: It’s a spiritual space, a sacred space.
Developing a New Understanding of Intimacy
Flood: And that’s when I get guys that get into the therapy and they’re further along and they’re a part of these men’s circles that we do here. They will talk about it as sacred space: I’ve never had a place where I could be real and honest with other men. That is another form of courage; just showing up and doing that work.
Bennett: I will sometimes shock people when I use the term intimacy in terms of describing the therapeutic relationship. This is a very intimate relationship. Let’s clarify. Intimacy is about connecting honestly and from your heart and confronting your fears and exposing fears of abandonment and all those kinds of things. We treat that with great honor. This is an example of what it feels like—it’s sort of a laboratory setting— of what it feels like to be in a trusting, caring, safe space. Hopefully, we’re doing something to help, right? [Both: Laugh]
Flood: Right. People would love to have that in an intimate partnership. What makes it so difficult is the therapist’s job is to hold that space for you, right? But in a marriage, we’re supposed to reciprocate and it’s a different gig.
Bennett: Oh! For sure. For sure. So, absolutely it’s a one-way thing.
Therapists are Human Beings, First
Bennett: I will tell you that that does affect the dating life because not everyone wants to date a therapist.
Flood: I would imagine that you could be intimidating for some men. [Bennett: “Yeah.”] [Laughs] In many different ways!
Bennett: I’ve sensed it. I’ve also been told, people make the jokes about “oh, can you see into my soul?” No, actually I can’t. I do not have x-ray vision.
Flood: Can you show me your soul? Then I’ll see it.
Bennett: That’s a great comeback actually! It’s almost, for some, immediately threatening, again whether it’s spoken or not I can usually feel it. For others, they say “Awesome! That’s great. Let’s talk.” I have to just reassure, not just in dating circles, but with friends and family, it’s like I promise you I’m not working right now. I will not bill your Blue Cross for this conversation. We’re just talking like friends. That’s a little tricky sometimes, those lines. As I’m sure you know.
Flood: Sure. Well, thanks for coming and talking about this.
Bennett: Absolutely. Thank you for inviting me. It’s a great conversation.
Flood: We always try to put ourselves out of business but I do think that raising boys and girls differently to train them into intimacy and, especially for guys, getting them to see the more expansive view of what intimacy can be and that’ll be a better world when we do a better job at that.
Bennett: I agree.
Flood: So, thanks for that, I look forward to gigging with you someday soon.
On the Path to Intimacy and Self-Awareness
Taking the plunge to open yourself to intimacy isn’t always easy. But it can lead to living a more balanced and authentic life. The Men’s Resource Center offers tools to help you on your way. Our men’s support groups provide opportunities for support, education, challenge, and growth through interaction with other men who face similar personal struggles. And, if it seems that addictions and abuse are interfering with your ability for intimacy with your partner or spouse, contact us about our counseling for porn and sex addictions and domestic abuse.
In addition to in-person counseling and therapy, the Men’s Resource Center offers a full spectrum of online counseling services. For more information about our counseling, coaching, and consultative services please visit the counseling services page on our website. Also, feel free to contact us through the website or call us at (616) 456-1178 if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.