Research has shown that loneliness takes years off our lives. In fact, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy points to this research when he states that loneliness in the 21st century is a public health problem comparable to cigarette smoking in the 20th century. This is particularly noted in males, who historically prize independence and rugged individualism over relationships. Randy Flood, psychotherapist and director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan states that oftentimes “males don’t get the permission nor the rituals to gather in ways that produce and cultivate emotional intimacy. They’re socialized more for shoulder-to-shoulder activities than face-to-face.” So, even in the company of other men—playing sports, catching a game, hanging at the bar—they can feel lonely. They’ve grown up focusing so much on independence, says Flood, that they haven’t learned how to ask for help and be vulnerable. Meaningful connection, he says, is one of the things men need from each other, but struggle to find.
Flood sits down for a Revealing Men conversation with his friends Al Heystek and Otha Brown, to discuss how important male-to-male intimacy and connection is for men’s health and emotional well-being. Both Brown and Heystek are previous guests on the Revealing Men podcast. Heystek is a principal therapist in the Transformations Toward a Healthy Sexuality program at the Men’s Resource Center. He also works with men who are dealing with trauma as well as those navigating domestic abuse issues and anger management. Brown—a part of the team since 2013— is the principal therapist in the Men’s Resource Center’s domestic relationships program. He facilitates in-person and online groups for men who struggle with domestic abuse and anger management. He also works with young men who are struggling to launch their lives.
Read excerpts below. You can hear the entire conversation on the Revealing Men podcast found on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and Apple Podcasts.
A Life-Changing Experience
As Flood describes, men’s groups at the Men’s Resource Center are intentional; designed and led for men to face each other and face honestly what is happening in their lives.
For some, the experience is so fulfilling, he says, that they don’t want to leave the group. In fact, he notes, there are waiting lists. “What happens in our groups that provide males healing—perhaps an awakening— movement in their personal growth? What’s the special sauce?” And, is there a way for men to transfer what they’ve experienced in these groups to their day-to-day lives?
How it Feels to Be Listened To
“Our model,” says Brown, “is engagement and to help guys begin to talk about themselves, talk about their lives, their relationships. And in as much detail as they are comfortable with.” But that process is hard,” he continues, “because whereas guys go to work, and they experience contact with people on the job or they go to a picnic or some kind of dinner or some kind of engagement, no one is really up for listening to them about their lives and details like we are. And to explore a problem like we do. … This is a new environment for them. This is a new experience for them. And it is freeing and they tend to like it quickly.”
“I grew up with that male socialization,” offers Heystek, “which was a lot of shoulder-to-shoulder stuff. I remember when Randy [first] mentioned that phrase. I think when we were getting to know each other and our past athletic experiences. I played Little League baseball, and played basketball, and ran track. And I had a lot of buddies. But I never really had a bridge to my loneliness with another man until I was like 25. Started having deeper conversations. And then, recognizing how valuable that is. I’ve been in a men’s group myself for a very long time.”
Echoing a common misperception, Flood teases, “Did you lose your ability to play sports when you started making those connections?” After some laughter, he continues, “Sometimes we think in those binaries, right? That you’re going to get emasculated or something.”
Taking Steps Toward Wholeness
Heystek replies, “This is not a subtraction proposition. This is about addition. We don’t encourage our men to give up their independence. It’s like, add a little interdependence.”
This process begins as men enter the group setting. For Brown, it works like this, “One of the first things we do in group when a new guy comes is introduce ourselves. And that’s intentional to make this new person feel welcome. There is where the connection begins with group members. Some guys try to remember guys’ names. Some guys try to remember things about them. Sometimes I’m surprised when guys come back and say ‘Oh yeah, you mentioned that when you first came in.’ And, there is almost instantly a connection.” Flood mentions how the groups are intentionally structured to create connection. “…giving other guys a chance to talk about themselves. …that is a very inviting and safe way for people to enter the group.”
“Absolutely!” responds Brown. “Many times, these guys have never been in a therapy group. And, when you think about therapy, therapy is a novel thing. ‘Therapy? [they say] I don’t need therapy.’ And I say, ‘Hey, you just sit down and talk to somebody about anything you want to talk about.’ That’s therapy. We kinda demystify that term.”
“Not just demystify,” adds Heystek, “but also destigmatize it.”
Sharing Competition and Cooperation
Heystek calls to mind Michael Jordan when explaining how men start to experience some level of cooperation rather than just competitiveness. “So, what was it [he] said? ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team.’ Right? You’re an individual. You have your individual skills. You have your role to play. But there’s this other entity.”
He relates that when guys get into a group, the first thing they start to do is make comparisons. “It’s like ‘Okay, well, I’m in this substance group.’ ‘Okay. Well let’s see, I drink worse than him and not as bad as him.’ I mean, we’re sizing each other up all the time.” “It’s kind of where the male brain goes,” says Flood.
“It’s where the human brain goes in a way,” responds Heystek. “I need to protect myself. Can I assess danger from danger? And all that. So, we compare. … and start making judgments and assessments.”
Being in a group, however, invites individuals to look in the mirror, he says. “We encourage men who are new to just listen and we’ll make you feel welcomed. And we’re going to share with you before you even have to be on the spot. Then this man who is afraid to look in the mirror, would much rather look at the window and compare, they get [sic] the experience … They can look out the window but they’re looking out of the window at other men who are looking in the mirror. They’re like ‘Wow. This is different. And they’re not doing all this competitive, comparing thing. They’re just talking vulnerably about what’s going on with them. Dang. If they can do that, I guess maybe I can do that too.’”
“We often hear this in the domestic group,” Flood says. ‘Well, I’m not as bad as that guy because I’ve never pushed my wife, I’ve only screamed at her.’ Or ‘I’ve never hit my wife; I’ve only pushed her.’ There’s that comparison.” He asks Brown how he moves this type of competition and “comparative analysis” into cooperation and learning from one another.
“Many of the guys that come in feel a sense of shame,” Brown says. “And there are all kinds of efforts to cover that. This is where men want to appear better, bigger, stronger than they really are.” To counter that, Brown just encourages the men to tell their story. ‘You don’t have to make yourself sound wonderful. Because we’re all on a common ground here. I’m here because I understand you. And these guys have understood themselves and can understand you. So, we really want to hear your story.’”
Brown reassures men “We’re not trying to judge you. We’re not trying to assess who you are. We want to know how we can help. How we can engage.”
Guidelines for Connecting
It’s often counterintuitive for guys to think that being honest and vulnerable and sharing shameful stories is going to create connection, says Flood. There’s the fear (and the lived reality) that if they appear vulnerable and/’or share feelings of inadequacy they will be ridiculed and condemned. It’s important, he says that men are able to witness other men sharing their stories. And then take the risk themselves to tell their own stories from a place of more accountability and introspection.
“We have some foundational phrases about participating in the domestic relationship group,” says Brown. “One is ‘an argument is a waste of time.’ And we make that point because you’re never going to convince someone that they’re wrong. …Yellin’ and saying ‘you’re wrong, you’re wrong,’ that’s never going to work.”
“The second one,” he continues, “is that … rarely will a comment make things better. What you say has very little impact. What makes things better—Brene Brown says this all the time—is a connection. And to be able to talk about your problem so that we share information with each other and gain by process, that’s what makes the group work. And so rarely will a comment make things better but a connection does.”
“It’s almost like you’re saying ‘if you get into the defensive arguing posture, then you lose connection,’” notes Heystek, “Discovering that connection is really so powerful.”
Toward a Healthier Masculinity
Heystek relates how when growing up, maintaining an image of being a decent athlete, good student, and “a good guy” was of utmost importance. This proved difficult when it came to developing intimate relationships. “I want to maintain the image. I don’t want to talk about vulnerable stuff or difficult things. I want to avoid the conflicts. I don’t want to talk about [my partner’s] feelings or mine. And then what happens? Don’t have much connection.”
Learning to build connections, says Flood starts with deconstructing old beliefs that say wanting intimate relationships will make men dependent, less manly, and weak. “Part of what we do in groups is just revisioning of masculinity,” he says. “Giving them [men] a healthier idea of what masculinity can be.”
That healthier masculinity is manifest in young boys. Developmental psychologist, Niobe Way writes about how boys have deep connections —they play and are affectionate with each other. But when they reach adolescence, they start to disconnect. Flood sees this as their “trying to chase this pinnacle of masculinity, of independence, rugged individualism.” This comes, he says, at the expense of pursuing their full humanity and a balanced masculinity.
The Struggle to Find Connections Outside of Group
As noted earlier in the conversation, there is a waiting list for men’s groups at the Men’s Resource Center. Why is it that men who participate in these groups find it hard to leave? What are the roadblocks? Flood asks “Do you hear guys talk about taking risks and trying to talk to their male friends differently? Or trying to start up a group at their faith community?”
“I’ve seen guys that made a really valid effort,” Brown responds. “[They] come back, ‘things are going and I’m trying,’ and ‘I found this group and I’m trying,’ and ‘I found this guy and …’ And then there comes a point where, you know, it just doesn’t take off.”
Brown isn’t discouraged. “Of course, the first or second time you try something new, may not go that well. We understand that. I don’t complain when a guy sticks around. That’s not what we do. We understand that making connections is a skill and any skill, anything you try, you do not do well at first. But as you continue to make efforts, it starts to improve. The group is a good place to work on that and not give up faith.”
Heystek shares the story of the men’s group he belongs to as an example of not giving up. “I’ve been in a men’s group, on and off, for a very long time. And there was a period of time where there were about four or five of us, and then one guy moved away and … anyway, it ended up there was just two of us. … But a lot can be gained from that. And so, for about two or three years we just maintained this connection and we would do this check-in and that kind of thing. And then eventually we got a couple of other people. Now we have more people in the group. That’s a possibility.”
Healthy Connections Result in Mental Health Benefits
There’s a sense among the three men that young men may be opening themselves up to healthier connections. Heystek illustrates this with a story.
“A couple of years ago, we were taking the train—the Empire Builder—out to the northwest. … I notice these four guys, young guys, mid to late 20s. And they’re having conversations that remind me very much of having our men’s groups. They’re talking about relationships, intimacy, vulnerability. And so, …”
Flood cuts in, “You went up to them, didn’t you?”
“I went up to them … and said ‘My name’s Al and I work in a counseling center. I don’t usually expect to hear a conversation like you guys are having except where I work.’” The young men share the connections they have with each other and explain that they’re part of a larger group of guys that get together. In this case, they’re heading to Glacier as part of a bachelor party.
“I’m like, ‘This is a bachelor party?!!! You’re going to go hiking a glacier with your buddies!’” Heystek says that one of the things that stood out to him was that only a few members of the larger group were making the trip. “They said specifically that there’s only four of them because that would increase the level of connectivity. …So that really hit home to me. The hope for young people and also their awareness that you don’t need to have 10 or 12 guys. But it’s probably good to have more than two (!) to have that kind of camaraderie!”
Flood says he views these young men as pioneers —able to do something as rugged as hiking a glacier while intentionally seeking connection with one another. He hopes that developmental psychologists (such as Niobe Way) can track the mental health benefits for young men when they don’t disconnect in pursuit of rugged individualism and independence.
He relates that his friend and co-author [of Mascupathy and Stop Hurting the Woman You Love], Charlie Donaldson, says that the mental health community has it backward when they see poor relationships as a symptom of people who are depressed and anxious.
“[Donaldson] says the men are depressed and anxious because they don’t have connections, they don’t have relationships. I think that the more we can give men the permission to make deeper connections, we’re going to see serious mental health benefits.”
Resources for Making Meaningful Connections
As noted, the Men’s Resource Center provides several in-person and online men’s support groups. Each group addresses specific issues men face. To find out which group would best fit your needs, contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call 616-456-1178. Please feel free to reach out if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.
To hear more podcasts featuring Otha Brown and Al Heystek, follow the links below: