By Rick McKain, MAC, LPC
As the leader of our Building Better Relationships group at our MARR’s Men’s Program, I have worked with our male clients for over 20 years on intimacy issues.
Regardless of which issue precedes the other, substance abuse and difficulty in intimate relationships frequently go hand in hand.
“To treat issues around intimacy and sexuality we need to go beyond the surface behavior to address the underlying emotional, psychological, and spiritual dysfunction.”
The origin of doing intimacy work with men grew out of a need that our clients at our Men’s Center were presenting. We noticed that more and more men who were dealing with substance abuse issues also had sexual addictions that needed to be addressed. There was enough of a need that we decided to establish a group to work with clients specifically on those concerns.
In the early days of that group, we restricted admission to people who met strict criteria for sexual addiction. But as the group evolved, we decided to broaden the parameters so that even if a client did not meet strict criteria for sexual addiction, but wanted to work on addressing issues preventing them from being intimate with their romantic partners, they would be able to participate.
As the group took shape over the years, the curriculum evolved to address the issues that were underlying the sexual addiction or intimacy issues. Just like treating chemical addiction, to treat issues around intimacy and sexuality we need to go beyond the surface behavior to address the underlying emotional, psychological, and spiritual dysfunction.
If we do not go deeper than the problematic behavior, we will only be operating on the level of symptom management, rather than working toward a solution.
We must work with our clients to start to answer deeper questions, like “What needs are not being met?” and “What emotional wounds are our clients attempting to address with the behaviors that prevent intimacy?”
Listen to “Vulnerability is a Sign of Masculinity”, a podcast featuring Rick McKain and other Men’s Center Staff:
The Real Issue: Do I Have What It Takes?
For most of our male clients dealing with intimacy issues, we can often trace much of the dysfunction directly to their relationships with their parents, particularly their fathers.
One of the resources we use to address this is the book You Have What it Takes by counselor and author John Eldredge. In it, he writes that the relationships between fathers and sons are characterized by the son constantly looking to the father for the answer to an important question: “Do I have what it takes?”
How a father answers this question, with or without words, has enormous power to shape how the son perceives himself.
When a person has this question answered for them positively, based on a healthy affirming relationship with their parents, they can deeply believe: “Yes, I have what it takes.” This knowledge provides them with a solid foundation for their intimate relationships going forward. They can know that their value is not dependent on another person’s feelings about them, or anything else that may be outside of themselves. This security in their own worth and value provides them with the stability to be open and vulnerable in intimate relationships. They are free to take the emotional risks required to accept others as they are and allow themselves to be seen as they are.
On the other hand, if a child is told some variation of “you are not enough,” or given no response at all, this leaves the person uncertain whether or not they do have what it takes.
“Often people’s sexual fantasies are attempts to resolve the trauma of not knowing whether they are enough.”
It is not that parents intend to answer this question negatively or intentionally withholding this answer from their children. Oftentimes, parents themselves did not have the question answered for them when they were children, and lack the capacity to answer it for their kids.
With this essential question unanswered, a person will continue to search for somebody to answer it for them. Many men carry this unanswered question into their adult relationships. Because they are relentlessly searching for somebody to tell them they are enough, they are not emotionally available to be vulnerable and intimate with their partners.
Often people’s sexual fantasies are attempts to resolve this trauma of not knowing whether they are enough. I was convinced of this by the research and writing of psychologist Mark Laser, Ph.D., who specialized in treating sexual addictions.
It may sound far-fetched at first, but think about having a psychic wound—a secret belief that you are not enough or that you are fundamentally undesirable. Many of the men I work with carry this wound around with them, and many attempt to relieve the pain by developing the fantasy in which they are sexually desired by a partner or multiple partners. Such a fantasy where one is intensely desired and pursued provides the perfect salve for this wound of feeling unwanted, except it’s the wrong medicine for the wound.
The problem is that fantasies exist only in the mind, and the relief that they bring is only temporary. Fantasies provide a false and fleeting substitute for the satisfying intimacy that we really desire and are wired to give and receive.
Failed Attempts to Answer the Question
For a teenager or a young man, the initial jolt of sexual intimacy with their partner provides a sense of closeness and belonging that seems to satisfy their question. For a while, they feel, “Yes, I am enough.” But when the novelty of this relationship wears off, they find themselves returning to their unanswered question. This can lead to a string of superficial sexual encounters, pornography usage, and risky sexual behaviors. In some cases, this pattern develops into sexual addiction and often leads away from satisfying and intimate relationships.
Like any addiction, as time goes by, the subsequent encounters provide a diminishing sense of satisfaction for the person, and compulsive patterns always eventually bring unwanted consequences. However, as with substance abuse, the person can remain caught in the cycle despite the illogical destruction of the process.
Sexual relationships are not the only places a person will look to answer this question. Their career, personal relationships, athletics, and physical training are other areas I’ve seen our clients look for reassurance that they have what it takes. How it manifests is less important than the underlying need to be reassured that they are enough.
“As a result of sharing and listening throughout the 12 weeks of the Building Better Relationships group, many of our clients not only learn about themselves, but actually experience the strength and resilience that comes through intimate relationships.”
The failed attempts to be reassured of this has played out in hundreds of different ways in the life of our clients who struggle with intimacy issues. In our group, each of them writes out these patterns through a trauma exercise, life story, and fantasy exercise, which they eventually share with the other members. Viewed together, these exercises give them a thorough understanding of the wound that they have and how they have tried to unsuccessfully resolve it through behaviors that prevent vulnerability and intimacy with their partners.
Over the course of the 12 weeks of the group, we do not have enough time to work through and resolve all the trauma. However, they are able to identify what their issues are and it lays the groundwork to continue to work on them with an individual counselor and maybe even a trauma therapist.
But perhaps most significantly, as a result of sharing and listening throughout the 12 weeks of the Building Better Relationships group, many of our clients not only learn about themselves, but actually experience the strength and resilience that comes through intimate relationships. The bond formed by men who go through this group together is so strong that frequently they maintain these intimate friendships over the course of a lifetime.
Through the process of being vulnerable and open with one another, they have begun to answer their question. They realize that they do have what it takes, and that the truly satisfying answer to the question cannot come from outside of oneself.
This builds a foundation for them to be able to be open and vulnerable with their romantic partners in a way that they were incapable of before.
Before they complete the group, they also write out their mission statement, answering the questions of what their mission is in life. Along with this, they develop a philosophy paper on inimacy, relationships, and sex. They present both of these papers on the final night of the extended group.
Both of these are personal to our clients. Like developing a belief in a higher power, like they do in Step 2, a life mission on intimacy and relationships are not dictated to them. For them to be successful, they need to feel that these statements connect to their deepest held values. They present their vision for the future of their life and intimate relationships to the group on the final evening. Because of the closeness developed in the 12 weeks of the group, these men usually remain close with each other for years to come. They are able to provide feedback and accountability after the group is over and they continue to strive toward their ideals.
Like all forms of recovery, community is vitally necessary to continue in the difficult but rewarding work.
The gap between our unrealistic fantasies and truly intimate relationships can only be crossed through the process of practicing vulnerability. Our clients learn this through first practicing this vulnerability with one another and diminishing shame. In the process they learn—yes, they have what it takes to do the brave and courageous work of carrying that vulnerability home and creating intimacy in their personal lives as well.