Revealing Men launches its second season with Otha Brown, principal therapist in the domestic relationships program at the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan. Last season, Brown’s podcast segment on teaching men to manage themselves instead of trying to control others was one of Revealing Men’s most listened to. He and Randy Flood, psychotherapist and Director of the Men’s Resource Center continue the conversation this season—reflecting upon how most men who enter counseling for control, anger, and abuse issues really wanted to be good fathers, good partners, good community members but somewhere along the line, things broke down. By offering tools such as self-awareness and empathy, Brown helps them understand their abusive behavior and move toward a vision of becoming a better man. Excerpts from the conversation are below (edited for length and clarity). Hear the entire discussion on the Revealing Man podcast.
The Desire to be a Better Man
Flood: I was thinking about last time we got together, Otha. We talked about the particular issues that bring guys in. One of the things you often hear from guys in these [men’s support] groups is “I want to be a better man.”
Brown: Often. Yes, indeed. Guys who have never seen each other before in their lives come in and say pretty much the same thing. I meet really good guys, but they’ve done some pretty bad things. And I understand it. But domestic violence is a huge problem in the United States, and we want guys to come in and get help. And men come in and they say “I want to be better. I want to do better. I want to be better in my home.” And it takes a bit, but they say it.
Flood: It’s not so much about eliminating this bad behavior and subtracting things in their life; this is more about developing and adding.
At the Root of Abusive Behavior
Flood: So, say more about what types of things they aspire to be and what kind of conversations come up around being a better man.
Brown: Well, we use an engagement model and we’re not here to shame guys. We’re not dragging them through the mud. The things that happen are unfortunate but we’re not trying to shame anybody. But we really get at the heart. And these guys really want to be good partners, they want to be good fathers, they want to be good community members, and things break down. Because guys are not good at expressing themselves. They’ve not had—many of them have not had—good role models. Many of them come from homes where the rule is pretty punitive, and there’s frequent abuse. It’s just plain and simple. They try to get into relationships with women they respect and love and they act out.
Flood: You talk about the engagement model, but we also talk about it’s not a one-size-fits-all model. And that the reason one man might be abusive or controlling could be very different in terms of some of the underlying issues. [Brown: “Very much so.”] There are some universal abusive belief systems that we get at. Some men experience a level of trauma growing up, maybe witnessing domestic violence or witnessing a father who was controlling and abusive, and they end up having that pain and trauma inside them. And then they end up loving and respecting a woman, getting into a relationship, and then they find themselves “I can’t believe I’m becoming my dad” or “I can’t believe I’m saying and doing these things.”
Brown: Exactly. Guys do not intend to cause suffering and conflict in their relationships. And, they wind up with even legal issues. They’re not intending that kind of thing. But it happens because they’re not really aware of themselves and how they affect their partner. And so, what’s the remedy?
Brown: We must start to get in with some emotional intelligence information. Helping guys understand this is how you are and how it affects your partner. That’s really the lynchpin. They have to understand that the way I am, well, it’s maybe not that bad, but how does it affect my partner? That’s where they have to have the thought.
Flood: You do a lot of empathy training. That’s where you’re talking about emotional intelligence. And I think that one of the reasons, and you’ve seen this, that men will deny that they’re abusive, or minimize or blame their partner, is because they can’t handle the shame.
You said something that’s really important: that guys truly do not intend to cause people suffering. There are some anti-social, psychopathic men out there, but most of the guys that we work with we know do not want to create suffering. And so, the fact that they are creating suffering has just overwhelming shame. That’s why they blame. It’s like “you’re making me do this. I am not causing you the suffering.” It’s just hard for them to reconcile that, right?
Brown: Yeah. You have something going on in you. You don’t understand it. And who do you blame it on? Your partner. Instead of looking at yourself. It is just emotional intelligence and we kind of reflect men back to their own behavior before they even met their partner. How were you? How did you handle conflict? How did you handle your anger? And really get some perspective because it’s not your partner. This was going on before you met your partner. And guys can look back and say, “yup,” you know, “yes.” And it is in this relationship that things have come out and now you’re seeing it. So, we want to help you begin to address it.
Flood: Do you hear guys think about it? Because it’s showing up in their marriage or in their intimate relationships. They sometimes—I remember, having done the groups myself—think of it as a relationship problem. “I’m having this relationship problem,” right? But what you do, and what we do, is try to help them see it as a personal problem. It’s an individual problem that happens to manifest in a relationship.
Taking Responsibility for Choices Made
Brown: I’m careful to use certain words. And one word I use a lot is “choice.” “You’re making a choice.” And a guy will, “no, no, this is how she affects me.” “No. You’re making a choice.” And if you can see that, you can make a different choice. But as long as you’re just blaming your partner and talking about things that you feel you can’t control, then you can’t control it. You have to see that you’re making a choice.
Flood: And isn’t that ultimately an empowering message?
Brown: It is.
Flood: Right? Because I always say, if someone, if I can push your button and force you to behave a certain way, that’s not very empowering. You’re giving them this message that this is their self- agency. You have choices to make and I’m gonna help you see them.
Brown: Exactly. And it leads us to talk about emotional regulation. How do you settle down? You’re confronted with something, it’s confusing, it’s irritating, it’s shaming. Well, what do you do? How do you settle down? How do you get yourself out of that? So that you can participate in your relationship and not create a wreck. How do you settle down?
And guys are, many times, not familiar with the fact that emotions flow from your thoughts, what you’re thinking. I mean, guys will use phrases like, “she came at me” or “she was trying to tear me down” or “she wants to take me out.” And I’m saying, “wait a minute, hold on,” this is your partner you’re talking about, right? “Yeah, but she…”
Come on. Let’s get this language clear. This is what you were thinking. This is what you were thinking and your feelings rolled from your thoughts. And now if you want to get back to that and start thinking, “Okay. She was expressing herself. She was telling me how she felt. She … this is what she believed.” And this is helpful for guys to begin to regulate their own emotions, by changing their thoughts about their partner.
Men Find Their Way Out of the Darkness
Flood: What kind of response do you get? Because a lot of times being a real man is [seen as] just being stoic and not being emotional, and that’s what women do is wear their emotions on their sleeve. So, introducing them to this idea that you have emotions and to be aware of them, how is that received by men?
Brown: [Both: Laugh.] Well, you make me laugh because a lot of times guys will get silent and they’ll start thinking about what I’m saying to them and it becomes a reality once they begin to take it apart. How do they respond? They get silent.
Flood: At first?
Brown: At first, yeah. And then there’s this expression of relief. Because when they come in, it’s, they’re staring into a dark hole: “This keeps happening, I keep yelling at my partner, I keep having this fight and arguments.” And the first thing I tell them is “look, an argument is a waste of time. You’ll never get anything that you want by arguing with your partner.
So, you’ve gotta give that up.” But they’re looking at a dark hole. There are no answers about why this is happening. They began a loving relationship but all they’re doing is fighting and yelling at each other. There’s no answers. But when we talk about emotional intelligence and how you affect your partner and we talk about your thinking creating your feelings, those are answers. Those are answers for most guys to think, “well, ya know, I guess this is how I’m responding and —I can see your point—what I’m thinking.
Flood: One thing I always tell guys is that emotions are information, it’s data. Typically, guys are okay with data. They like to have information and feedback from their car. Guys like to see an instrument panel, and the RPMs, and stuff, and is the car overheating because they know that if there’s something not quite right, the car might break down. [Brown: “Exactly.”] They’re very conditioned to look at the engineering of engines and making sure it runs; the internal combustion and all that. But trying to help them see themselves: You’ve got stuff going on inside of you, and you gotta know what’s going on inside of you, too, so you’re not going to bust out and end up with your marriage on the side of the road.
Brown: Yeah, exactly. This affects their relationship with their kids because they have these preconceived thoughts about being a dad, being a father. Well, those thoughts are based on their observation of their own dads, and there they’ve had to fill in a lot of information because before they’re going to be able to act out this role by what they saw, they need a lot more information about what it means to be a dad, especially emotionally, emotional connection with your children. And men are sometimes not thinking about that and it leaves a lot to be desired in their role as a parent.
The Role of Empathy in Building Better Relationships
Flood: Going back to this idea of being a better man. Emotional intelligence is part of it, self-regulation, what other things do you tend to work on?
Brown: Well, a big part is for guys to understand the role of empathy. I introduce it as a tool. Empathy is the ability to see things from another’s perspective. And that’s really helpful when they’re listening to their partner tell them how they feel. And it’s not pretty, sometimes a partner can be pretty ragged and use words that you don’t want to hear.
But empathy will help a man understand that this is a person expressing their feelings. It’s not about them. It’s about their partner’s feelings, beliefs. And once they can understand that, it helps them listen and respond, rather than listen and react. And this other idea of avoiding an argument. How do you avoid an argument? You listen. You listen. You’re there to hear and understand your partner. If you’re gonna just start exchanging insults and calling each other names, that is not helpful and that’s not listening.
Flood: And it probably gives them a chance to, if you’re truly listening empathically and with more curiosity, rather than pride, it gives you a chance to learn about how your partner’s experiencing you and gets you connected to ways that you’re controlling. Ways that you’re selfish. Ways that you’re not partnering. And yeah, she might give you that feedback in a way that’s not very easy to hear, because she does it with anger, maybe she doesn’t talk to you about it for a long time and it builds up, builds up, and it comes out in a bunch of anger, but it’s an opportunity to learn about yourself when you’re open to feedback.
Brown: Exactly. And this is the path to becoming the better man that you’re hoping to be. To be able to connect and listen, to use empathy, be aware of yourself, really helps you in the dialogue no matter what that subject matter might be. It may be someone who’s really irate and over the top. How can you handle that, how can you hint that you understand that how you react is gonna be helpful?
And lastly, I think one of the more helpful things that happen in group is that men have used group to practice expressing their feelings in a non-abusive way. [Flood: “With each other.”] With each other, in the groups. And the guy will say, “well, she said this, and I said that and I lost it.” Okay guy, how could you have done that better? And then, there’s some reflection, there’s some consideration about, “okay, I could’ve used a different phrase,” because we know that it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. If you’re going to say something in a disrespectful way, you’re gonna have a fight.
If you can talk to your partner with dignity and respect, your partner actually gets to hear what you have to say and this is a better conversation and that’s what we want in our relationships and this is this better man concept that guys really want. So, a guy will say, “I want to be a better man.” Well, what does that mean? And he goes, ya know, he will have these descriptions of what he doesn’t want to have, but we have to have descriptions of what we do want to have in order to be a better man, and this is how we fill in the gaps. [Flood: “Nice.”] It’s amazing though.
Flood: Yeah. [During the pandemic] we were forced to go on Zoom and do online sessions with even guys who were able to drive to us and have in-person groups. We found out there were a lot of people that could access us who couldn’t drive to us and so we developed and had an influx of these online groups and those have been going pretty well for you.
Brown: It has been going! Guys from the upper part of Michigan, way out nearly across the [Mackinac] Bridge are coming in and they’re able to participate in a group. And guys have a different perspective when they hear a guy from Alpena talking about his relationship and somebody down in the southern part of the state or Detroit and they’re talking, they’re saying the same things, they’re experiencing the same things. It’s really helpful. It’s been good with Zoom. [Flood: “Yeah. Better than we thought.”] Better than I thought.
Flood: I’ve had guys make the connection and like the convenience of it and once you get them talking to each other, the human interaction takes over and good stuff happens, right?
Brown: Yeah, it was good.
Flood: Well, Otha, I appreciate the work that you do with this idea of not just working on getting rid of bad behavior and talking just about that, but also helping guys revision masculinity and becoming better men and learning the skills and attributes and what it takes to be that guy that you want to be.
Brown: Yup. We’ll keep doing it!
Flood: Yeah, we’ll keep doing it. Thanks, Otha
You Can be a Better Man
If you’re tired of hurting the ones you love, ashamed for your lack of control over your emotions, and wanting to find a different, better way to live your life, learn more about the Men’s Resource Center’s domestic abuse counseling programs. You don’t have to be located in Grand Rapids to participate. Our support groups and individual counseling are available online and in person. If you have any questions about these programs or additional counseling, coaching, and consultative services, please free to contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call us at (616) 456-1178. In addition, if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast, let us know.