Growing Empathy for Men in Group Therapy

In an earlier article “Why Group Therapy for Men: 5 Benefits,” I wrote about how working with other men in a group context can be beneficial. The article raised some questions from readers: one reader said: “Ok, I’m interested but what are the mechanics of this?  How does that actually happen? Another asked “what is the group process and how does that translate to helping men in their relationships?

Great questions!   So here is a specific example of how these groups help. In a recent men’s group session, one man tells the group about a frustration that he has with his wife, Carol, that for him is emblematic of an ongoing conflict.

Todd:   she is so OCD about the house it drives me crazy.  I leave a few crumbs on the countertop and she immediately follows me into the living room where I’m trying to watch the game and starts in on me.   “were you thinking that I was going to clean up your mess for you, again?  You know I can’t stand seeing the kitchen left in total disarray.   It takes a lot less energy if you just clean as you go.   Why can’t you just do that?   I don’t ask very much of you”.     Even though I’m boiling inside (thinking I can’t believe she just said “I don’t ask very much of you”) I try not to get angry and respond calmly but I’m sure there was irritation in my voice: “honey, I’ll take care of it after the game.  It will be over soon.”   She rolls her eyes, “you’re hopeless” and stomps off.  I can hear her banging dishes as she is cleaning the kitchen herself.   The rest of the evening she is pretty icy.   I just feel like I’m always walking on eggshells and that nothing I can do will make her happy and it’s not just the kitchen.   Do any of you guys encounter this?   She does the same thing with the kids and I’m worried about how that’s impacting them.

One of the group guidelines is to avoid judgments and giving advice.   Instead, men are to mirror the part of the story that they had a reaction to, checking to see if they heard correctly and then talk about what got stirred up in them from their own experience.

Dave:  Dave mirrors/reflects back to Todd what he just said and then Dave responds: “Wow, I have a similar dynamic with my wife only in reverse.   It’s not about the kitchen but about how she leaves her clothes and shoes all over the house.  I’m always tripping over her flippin’ shoes!  She is totally ADD.  Also, she doesn’t put things back where they belong and then when I need something for a simple task I can’t find it and spend twice as long accomplishing the task.    Sometimes I think she is purposefully sabotaging me.   She is so disorganized, has no self-discipline, and doesn’t seem to understand how much better life would be if she would simply keep the clutter under control.  It’s one thing if it didn’t have an impact on me but it makes getting things done extremely difficult.   And now the clutter has become this trigger point and I just can’t relax in my own house when I see it.   Sometimes I find myself not wanting to come home.

George mirrors Dave then responds:   yeah, in my house it escalates from complaining about an irritating behavior to making it about a character flaw or moral failing and/or that is proof that I don’t care about her or love her.  “if you loved me you would clean up your crumbs… pick up your clothes etc.    Sounds just like my mother when she used to guilt me into doing things.   Makes me irate.   And by the way, my mess has nothing to do with whether or not I love her!   Ugh!

Therapist:   so what’s the need underneath your frustrations.

Todd:  I think if she could have just waited for a commercial and calmly said “honey I’d really appreciate it if you would clean up the kitchen during the commercial in a calm voice I would have been happy to do it.   I really don’t have a problem with cleaning the kitchen.   I do have a problem with my wife talking to me in such a condescending way.   And, Dave it actually really helps to see your side of it even though it’s not exactly our situation.   Much easier for me to begin to imagine it from my wife’s perspective when I hear it from you.   She has said before that she can’t really relax if things are messy.   Probably makes her crazy that I’m relaxing and she can’t because of my mess.

Dave:   I was about to say the same thing.   It really helps to hear from both of you.   I imagine when I react to my wife the way I do it probably does feel like I’m making it into a moral issue and that she has this terrible character flaw.   I imagine that feels pretty bad.  I also know, and George your comments reminded me of this, that her mother was very critical. When I take the time to think about it, I know this is something she struggles with herself and I’m just making her feel worse.  She’s not purposely doing these things to sabotage me.   And Todd I can imagine that it might go over a little better if I approached her in a more respectful and gentle way about these things.   Thanks.

This is an example of a frequent experience in the group, where a couple of men in the group identify with the experience of the antagonist in the story (not always a significant other, sometimes a friend, sibling, co-worker).   And so when they explain their side of the issue it helps to be able to see the other’s perspective.   It’s easier to hear when it comes from another man in the group than from someone who is angry.  As this happens the men are building empathy for the other person as well as for the other men in the group.

In part 2 I’ll be sharing more examples of how this kind of group therapy for men helps them in their everyday lives.

* names and circumstances have been changed to protect confidentiality.