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Ask Dr. Helen

Coping with therapists who are unsympathetic to men, and creating intimacy in ways other than sex are among the issues on the minds of those who wrote in to Dr. Helen following her debut column. PJM's advice columnist extraordinaire responds to their questions and invites your feedback.

by
Helen Smith

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July 5, 2007 - 1:15 am

Today, I will answer a couple of questions from you, the readers. Thanks to everyone who sent questions– there were so many good ones, it was hard to choose just a few, but I hope to get to more of them as time goes on. So let’s get started! The first question is from an anonymous commenter at my site who asks:

While in therapy for depression I found myself correcting my therapist on what I found to be well meaning and not mean-spirited anti-male bias.

When I expressed that I felt that the field of psychology was biased institutionally towards men she asked me one of those leading “why” questions. To which I replied “because there aren’t enough men in your field.” She quickly changed the subject.

Over time she stopped making many of those references in our therapy sessions. I’m not sure if it was just to not upset me or because I changed her outlook.

I was facing real issues of depression based upon an un-cureable handicap and I still had to deal with a very biased world view.

What advice can you give to men dealing with situations that call for therapy but find themselves in a field that seems incapable of understanding them?

Dear Anonymous Commenter:

First, let me say that depression is a very real problem in men and leads over 24,000 men a year to kill themselves –there are only slightly more than 30,000 suicides in the US per year. So it is imperative that men get help if they suffer from depression, particularly if it is severe. That said, once men do go for help to a mental health professional, they may find that, like you, the therapist has been indoctrinated into sterotypes of how men behave and may not even be aware of it. While it is impressive that you helped the therapist lessen her stereotypes, it would be best if you could find a therapist who did not need this lesson. This negative male stereotyping is certainly not uncommon among therapists. Even the American Psychological Association’s past president has a sexist article on his website entitled, How to Raise Sons Who Won’t Create Sex Scandals. This title tells you all you need to know about how this professional feels about men. I’m sure he’s a nice man, but when he writes an article called How to Raise Daughters Who Won’t Make False Rape Allegations, I’ll eat my words.

So how do you find a therapist who understands men and their issues? Ask around if you feel comfortable. Sometimes a friend or co-worker will let you know that he is pleased with his therapist and refer the therapist to you. Another way is to call the mental health division of your insurance company as they often have counselors that you can talk with confidentially who can match you to a specialist in your area. I personally don’t think the gender of the therapist makes a big difference in treatment for men–both male and female therapists can have negative sterotypes of men–but if you feel more comfortable with a male or female, you can certainly seek out a specific gender. If you want more general tips on how to find a psychologist–go to the National Register of Health Service Providers here and scroll down for the tips. You can also locate qualified psychologists in your area at the site.

My advice is to meet with a therapist initially just to see if you get along. If after the first few sessions, he or she makes you feel uncomfortable, lets you know that “men act this way or that” without taking your individuality into account or throws out biased cliches about how men behave, it is not your job to correct her. Say, “I feel uncomfortable that you have such a negative opinion of men. It makes me wonder whether or not you have the ability to help me.” If she (or he) cannot deal directly with this statement, then you may want to change therapists. A therapist should be willing to say, “Help me understand you.” That is what we do. If you get the vibe that the therapist does not want to address the issue, does not want to change his or her behavior, or simply does not understand why you are upset, you may want to consider going elsewhere. But please do remember that there are many good and competent therapists out there who work with a variety of clients. Just make sure that you find one of them.

Finally, I agree that there seems to be an institutional bias against men in the field of psychology–just as there used to be against women years ago. That has been overcorrected and we are now left with many in the helping professions who could use some help in reversing their stereotypes of how men “should be.” As the field of PHD psychologists skews more and more away from the male perspective due to declining numbers of men in the field, it will be up to female therapists to learn to better deal with and assist male clients. In addition, universities should do what they can to recruit male psychologists and therapists–we need both men and women in the field.

The second question was emailed to me by a male reader:

“What are ways couples can demonstrate intimacy with one another that don’t involve sex? In other words, how can two people demonstrate intimacy with one another that doesn’t rely on sex as either a tool or a goal? I’m interested in hearing people’s (and your) ideas of what defines intimacy and how people can benefit from learning new ways to express it.”

That is a great question because so many of the problems that couples have involve intimacy issues outside of the bedroom. So how can one be intimate without sex? Well, there are probably as many answers as there are couples so I will start with my own. Everyone has his or own definition of what attracts them to a spouse and makes them feel that their spouse or partner is special and close to their heart.

Intimacy to me is knowing that my husband has “my back”–that is, I feel close to him because I feel that he would never hurt me purposely and has my best interests at heart. He also gives me freedom, the freedom to be myself and he does not try to change me or want me to be someone else for him. I knew that I felt intimacy with him when we were dating and I made him dinner. I am a terrible cook, the salmon I made was raw and the rice was burned but he lit up like a Christmas tree and told me it was wonderful. I knew it wasn’t, but I knew then that I could be myself with him, despite being a crummy cook, having a bad temper, being a contrarian and well, I won’t go on. The point is that intimacy to me was his acceptance and that makes me feel much closer to him than a back rub ever could. But then, there are some people such as commenter Deborah in the last column who stated, “Women love back rubs because it is a form of intimacy that is not intercourse.” So massage, footrubs, and perhaps handholding might be seen as intimate by other people.

I will turn the question back to the readers, how do you define intimacy besides the obvious? Drop a line in the comments and share your thoughts. Or if you have a question you would like answered, please leave it below or email me at askdrhelen at hotmail.com. Your questions may be edited for length and clarity.


This advice column is for educational and entertainment purposes only and does not purport to replace therapy or psychological treatment.

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee, and blogs at Dr. Helen.
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