A Circle Of Men: Why Men’s Groups?

By Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.

Why Men’s Groups?

It appears that men today are just as cut off and stuck as their predecessors. Our culture is faster and more demanding than ever before. Men find themselves caught in the rat race, struggling to keep up, and challenged to balance their lives against the demands of roles that call for them being providers, husbands and fathers. They are wondering whether they can even be there for their families to the degree that their own fathers were and they carry a perception that their fathers weren’t present enough for them. This creates internal concerns about their capacity to measure up to the standards that they have set for themselves.

It is my experience that many more men today are walking around with greater degrees of anxiety and depression manifesting in a variety of acting out behaviors often showing up as compulsive addictions. Even though many of these men will choose to suffer in silence, we are finding that there are those among this group who are also seeking solace through some form of therapeutic engagement. Many are stressed out, tired, disenchanted and despairing. They can’t keep up and feel that they are falling behind and in grave concern for the quality of their lifestyles and overall capacity to find meaning and enjoyment in their lives.

Typically, men who begin to question their lives prior to their mid 30’s are the exception rather than the rule. Younger men have tended to be more interested in their careers and external relationships than they are in exploring the hidden realms of their psyches or souls. When the younger men get involved in self-exploration they stand out as exceptional individuals indeed. As men move closer to mid-life, they sense an inner churning and longing for something more than the material trappings of the world. There is a spiritual questing, often arising from a katabasis or personal crisis that prompts men to inspect their lives, ask penetrating questions and seek meaningful answers.

When Men Gather

Those of us who are interested in men’s issues have observed that on a broad scale there is no meaningful shared passage into manhood for men today, nor has there been one for several generations. One might argue that the military provides this; however, we would be hard pressed to secure a consensus for this premise and furthermore, a limited percent of males enlist.

Historically, men as hunter-gatherers and farmers knew who they were as men. Their sons spent many hours every day with their fathers and grandfathers, learning through the process of being together what manhood was about. The elders would informally and formally induct the young men into the community of men. But as technology evolved, our great-grandfathers went from the rural farming culture to the urban industrial culture. Men moved from the farms to the cities and into less meaningful and/or unfulfilling work. This was a profoundly significant shift, because our work is such an important part of our identity.

The involuntary abandonment by fathers established that for several generations boys in our culture have been raised almost entirely by women. Women, simply because they are women, cannot teach boys about manhood. Without men, there is no possibility of any rite of passage into manhood. Therefore, for several generations, men have been losing the sense of what mythologist Michael Meade calls “gender ground”.

In May of 1982, Robert Bly’s groundbreaking interview in New Age Magazine was a lightning bolt of insight into men’s souls. He said, “Our dads weren’t there for us, so we were all raised by women, and we can’t learn about manhood from women, so we have to learn about manhood from each other.”

For centuries, men in indigenous cultures had gathered to seek counsel and perform ceremonies and rituals to initiate boys into manhood and to receive guidance from elders and to mutually support the community of men. Secret societal groups like the Masons, the Elks, Moose, Knights of Columbus and others served as opportunities for men to come together.

During the 1960’s, driven by the Vietnam War, older men and younger men became suspicious of each other, causing distrust, polarization and estrangement, eventuating in a rift in the community of men that would last for more than twenty years.

The women’s movement only served to further confuse men, causing them to question and doubt themselves. Men tended to perceive themselves through eyes that often held them with contempt. Men distrusted each other and many avoided identifying with traditional masculine values. In the 1970’s the divorce rate began to rise and families split apart, leading the way for the birth of the “age of narcissism.” The advent of the “me generation” began to blossom during the 1980’s. Many agree that the pervasive attitude of “entitlement” has come into full bloom during the first decade of the new millennium.

It was in the mid-80’s that, through the help of men such as Robert Bly, younger men began to seek the mentoring guidance of older males who understood what was going on with them. The identification with the concept of “father hunger” swept through the community of men like wildfire. Unfortunately, the media did not approach what was happening in men with respect or reverence. Men reacted to the parodies of their inner longing with shame and dropped their pursuit and retreated to their customary practices. Men cautiously reached out to other men who were exploring what had come to be called “men’s soul work.” Leader-led and leaderless men’s groups were created and have continued to act as sacred containers for men to explore their wounds, to bond and to support the evolution of men’s mental, emotional and spiritual development.

The Purpose of Men’s Groups

The purpose of a men’s group is to lend support and help for one another in learning new ways to be in relation to each other. Groups need to be a safe place to try out new behaviors, such as being more assertive, relaxed and confident. Groups should allow members the freedom to talk about unusually sensitive topics related to issues of relationship, sexuality, health, career and other intimate concerns.

The mission is to develop a process by which a group of men, who are reasonably compatible and who come together with a mutuality of intention, will learn to resolve conflict, earn trust and care for each other.

Support groups emerged out of the energy of the women’s movement and its “consciousness-raising” groups designed to liberate women from what they experienced as a male-dominated culture. From these sprang some remarkable men’s groups. Men, in the early days of the men’s movement, were avowed feminists. Self-help groups began as experimental offshoots of therapy groups and quasi-religious movements. Recovery and AA meetings are examples of some of the oldest self-help group organizations.

Of these two types of groups, support groups gather with more of a consciousness-raising personal growth, feel-good focus, while self-help groups gather to deal with a specific problem and have a coping-better-with-the-problem focus.

Therapeutic support groups are led by a trained therapist who brings his clinical expertise to the exploration of the underlying psychodynamic during the process of men supporting each other to be their personal best. In a way it might be said that the men sit on each other’s board of directors.

The Goal of Therapeutic Support Groups

Traditional forms of talk therapy are probably not the best ways to reach men. David Joliffe (1994) suggests that a better way to deliver counseling services to men is through therapy groups that allow men to tap their masculine power and energy, utilizing it in their own healing process. Hetzel, Barton, and Davenport (1994) conclude that if counselors adopt a gender-sensitive approach, it is possible to reframe behaviors traditionally perceived as problematic in male clients: resistance to expressing feelings, being overly task-oriented, and withdrawing from intimacy. A gender-sensitive leadership style can provide male clients with a fuller understanding of how gender role expectations and their socialization have influenced their lives. Even more important, the group can help them discover a greater sense of freedom and expression.

The essential ingredient in men’s groups is a willingness to stay with your group and learn through being together. This requires commitment. Without commitment the group doesn’t work. Commitment ensures the longevity necessary to build the trust and safety essential to open up, risk, and share more of who we are.

What is generally missing for us in our society is the safe space that supports our telling the truth at deeper levels. The group provides that opportunity. It is imperative that the group welcomes conflict and supports the sacred trust that empowers the members to learn and transform.

One definition of conflict is simply: “You want one thing and I want another.” So defined, conflict is a natural and important part of any relationship. The successful resolution of conflict will involve you and me in telling the often hidden truth about why we want whatever it is we happen to want. In this open sharing we come to know new aspects of each other.

As M. Scott Peck states in his book, The Different Drum: “The essential dynamic of pseudo-community is conflict-avoidance. True community is conflict-resolving.” The group must support a commitment to intimacy. Intimacy is sharing those most private thoughts, feelings, and secret parts of our selves over a long period of time. It is something we all need and crave, though few men have known the comfort or experienced the joy of true intimacy, especially with other men.

A primary goal for involvement in a men’s group is meeting the challenge of opening our selves to others and finding acceptance as a vital step toward coming to know our own power. This is not the old dominating “power over”, but the personal “power to” create our own lives, as we want them to be. Inherent in the ability to be intimate is the power to trust and love who you are at this moment and to replicate in the macrocosm of the world at large what has been gained in the microcosm of the circle of men.

(Revised – July, 2011 – may be reprinted upon request)