Sitting Down and Opening Up by
Patrick Rathbun, MSSW, LICSW
I remember sitting in an old classroom the first time I attended a men’s group. Over the years, I’ve been a part of men’s groups across the country, and each has had a different flavor. I was part of a support group in South Carolina after a breakup. It was an odd experience led by a gruff former Marine and utility worker who was strongly influenced by 12-step work but without clinical credentials. Progress seemed to rely on participants’ breakdowns. My other experiences in the men’s group contained more clinical oversight. Some included strong religious components, some focused on modern masculinity and the overall shifts in roles we might feel. None were as welcoming, intellectual, supportive, and sometimes lighthearted as my previous experience in New England.
This particular group was a product of the men’s movement of the seventies, which aligned itself with feminism. We started each group with ground rules and meditation. We spoke about anonymity, non-violent language, non-judgment, and more traits conducive to group cohesion. Some of the men, most of whom were in their forties, fifties, and sixties, had been coming for years. Some, like me, were younger adults (twenties and thirties) looking for answers, especially concerning relationships. Many of the men had been through divorce and had children. Some were navigating decades-old marriages. Some were in new relationships, men asking themselves, how did I get into the same ambivalent position again? They dreamed of more distant relationships or at least more time for themselves. Some were stoic and denied regrets. Some only talked about how they mishandled previous relationships or repeated their mistakes. There were tears at times. There was anger at times and dismissiveness about the demands of wives and girlfriends. Still, we always encouraged speech free of criticism.
The facilitators were skilled, grounded, and boundaries. If participants used violent language or began to give advice (another established no-no), they’d calmly and carefully redirect. They occasionally met with some men outside of the group to help them with questions about their work, relationships, and life obstacles. They might do brief check-ins with those whose participation waned. They welcomed new members, and they wanted to grow their circle. They especially wanted men of younger generations to join.
Many of the men discussed subjects that brought up shame. Things like finances, emotional imbalance in their relationships, and ways men felt victimized, burdened, and overwhelmed by the roles and demands their partnerships put on them.
These included the ways their wives wanted to connect and limit the time they spent by themselves or with other men. You might classify much of these discussions as an attachment to a dying patriarchal notion of relationships, manhood, and emotionality. Still, to the men in those rooms, they were real, substantive, worth exploring, expressing, setting boundaries about. And the discussions amounted to heartfelt questions about roles, conflict, and communication.
What is reasonable?
What is expected?
How can I overcome my fear of weakness or the appearance of weakness?
What isn’t sustainable about the way I’m showing up?
How can I have a meaningful life when I take virtually no meaning from my work?
How do I put my past aside to benefit myself (and my loved ones’)?
Some of these questions reverberated with me, and I was in a place of discernment with my relationship. The group helped me understand myself through questions, bits of wisdom, and encouragement for deeper consideration. I was there to test the objectivity of my perspective, and I came to conclusions that led me to leave my years-long relationship and even pursue a different career. These pursuits were matters of time, but the men’s group gave me the clarity, empowerment, and self-kindness I lacked.
In my “new” field as a psychotherapist, I have led groups on mental health, self-care, suicidality, substance issues, mindfulness, boundaries, family dynamics, and more. Groups are my preferred way to work. I feel a commitment, investment, and deference to the group. You go in each time, not knowing what to expect. It is an authentic present-minded experience and one that offers you essential and hidden versions of humanity: its expansive emotional richness. Group dynamics conjure feelings, talk, creativity, introspection, support, and an expression like no other experience I’ve taken part in.
There is magic in the give and take within sessions as well as within the energetic fluctuations of one meeting. Relationships can be created, destroyed, or even reconciled. Tangents can be explored and denied, and sometimes conflicts arise, deflate, and arise again, but so does mutuality. And that is generally the point. We are there to humanize and normalize one another. The space allows us to go to new places with vulnerability and support. Sharing, listening, and being present are acts of giving. They are existential ballasts.
My experience (both personal and professional) now leads me to create Men Helping Men. A dynamic, straightforward group committed to exploring relational topics, such as vulnerability, communication, intention, shame, accepting influence, differentiation, and more common themes and mismatches within relationships. I will use what I’ve learned from group facilitation and participation as well as essential elements from the work of the Gottman Institute, Stan Tatkin, Brene Brown, Brent Atkinson, Esther Perel, Terry Real, and others.
Are you a man feeling stuck, disconnected, or frustrated in your life and relationships? Join Patrick’s upcoming group, Men Helping Men, HERE