Working with Difficult Men: Where’s the Leverage for Change?

“It used to be a man could tell what to do,” says George, who’s in his mid-50s, a Boston expat now living with his wife, Michele, in her home state of Texas. In jeans and a work shirt, he looks the part of an ordinary American Joe. 

“Go to work,” George ticks off. 

“Hold a steady job, provide for your family, protect your country if need be.” He sighs. 

“Now everything is different. Gay marriage, which is okay, I guess, but then transgendered soldiers? ‘Genderfluid’ [air quotes] children? One of Michele’s friends has a kid, 16, who walks around with his hair down, makeup, nail polish, and a lovely girlfriend. Isn’t she a lovely girl, Michele?” he asks sarcastically.

Michele looks like she’s having none of it. I think to myself that it’s a bit of a challenge for George to pull off this working-man persona with his mile-wide patrician Boston accent, the drawn-out A’s smacking of private school and privilege. 

“Let me tell you something,” he leans into me, confiding, mano a mano, two guys: “Women like it when men act like men. You’re a father. You have a son, two sons, right? You want them to be men or a couple of snowflakes?”

I decide I’ve had enough and turn to Michele. “And how would you like to respond?” I ask her guilelessly.

“Respond?” she lifts her lip.

“What George is saying,” I try again gamely. “How’s it landing on you?”

“How’s it landing on me?” she says. “I want to throw up.”

“Oh,” I let out.

“Just pack up and leave. There’s no room for me here,” she adds, picking up steam.

“But Michele,” George begins, only to be silenced by her baleful stare.

“What do you give me?” she asks, talking faster, louder.

“We have a great life, Michele,” George pleads.

“We do, George, and thank you for that, but it’s not enough. You don’t talk to me. You show no interest in my life, zero curiosity,” she ticks her points off on her fingers. 

“You barely talk to me about yourself either. You’re a closed-off human being. You don’t take the initiative to do anything. I arrange everything in our lives. All you do is argue and criticize.”

“I’m not sure. . .” he interjects.

“And we haven’t had sex in over a year!” she almost shouts.

“Well, now that’s something we might want to . . .” I start.

“Oh, George.” She curls the name in contempt, ignoring me. “I want a partner, a real partner. Not some puffed-up child.”

I look at the expression on George’s face and feel bad for him. I’ve seen that look so often in men—hurt, angry, entitled, and bewildered. Like a person with each foot on a different side of a widening chasm, George is torn between two compelling versions of what it means to be a man: one version is traditional, older, unabashedly patriarchal, and centrally concerned with hierarchy and power; the other is modern, younger, ecological, and centrally concerned with mutuality and partnership. It’s difficult to imagine a contest with higher stakes.

On the prairies, no less than in our cities, the war over masculinity threatens to split apart marriages just like George and Michele’s. The things that Michele wants from her husband—less argumentativeness, greater emotional closeness, interest in her feelings, and a willingness to express his own—simply do not appear in traditional masculinity’s playbook, leaving Michelle feeling unheard and resentful, and George feeling unappreciated and helpless.

How many Micheles bring their Georges in to see us, so that we therapists can help render them more relational? The emotional intimacy modern women crave is inimical to traditional masculinity—period. Patriarchy was never built for intimacy, but for stability, clear lineage, production, and consumption. The idea of lasting romance in marriage is historically brand new. And if we’re honest, it’s an ideal that has been driven primarily and most emphatically by women.

Women’s dissatisfaction with their men is real, understandable, and—once the man is willing—fixable. That’s great news. For 30 years, Relational Life Therapy (RLT) has helped us persuade, invite, and empower male clients like George into radically deeper levels of emotional connection. 

Men can cultivate increased empathy. Passive men can rise up and speak up. Bullying men can take a breath and come down. Charming boymen can learn that it’s not always about them. The damaged, the destructive, the dependent—through good therapy, immature men of all stripes can grow up. But we therapists must prove ourselves worthy of the challenge.

Understanding Traditional Masculinity

To better understand where we must go, we must first understand where we’re coming from. At its core, traditional masculinity rests on two pillars: the rejection of vulnerability and the delusion of dominance. Instead of trying to connect through vulnerable sharing, traditional masculinity dictates that we men win approval through our performance. 

The daring knight proves his mettle and wins the damsel. The captain of the football team walks off with the homecoming queen. Women are taught how to make connections: men are taught they must win connections through achievement. 

Being a loser means being cut off, abandoned.

These days, many men have learned to substitute performance-based esteem for healthy self-esteem. But in the traditional framework, this means ordinary acts routinely become tests of manhood, a sorting ritual declaring you worthy of inclusion or not. 

In the one-up, one-down world of men, there’s no place for “same as,” and hence no platform for real intimacy. You’re either a winner or loser: dominator or dominated, grandiose or shame-filled. And you can’t be truly intimate from either the one-down (shame-filled, “feminine”) or the one-up (grandiose, “masculine”) position. Marital intimacy requires democracy—a meeting of peers, each with his or her own needs, values, and more.

Coming into relationality means coming out of the delusion of dominance. In your life, your relationship is your emotional biosphere. You breathe it. You live within it. Yes, you can indulge yourself and emotionally pollute over there with your anger, but you must realize you’re the one who will breathe in that pollution over here in the form of your partner’s resentment or withdrawal. 

Thinking relationally is synonymous with thinking ecologically. I don’t talk to men like George about altruism, but rather about their own enlightened self-interest: happy wife, happy life. It’s in your interest to keep your biosphere healthy and clear because you’re in it.

Learning to Live Relationally

With jet-black hair over a craggy face, Matthew, in his late 60s, looked like he’d seen a few miles together with his wife, Ann, who sat ramrod straight in the chair beside him in my office. Married close to 30 years, their union was coming unglued.

“I don’t want to be here,” Ann announces right off the bat. “I don’t want to be in this room; I don’t want to be in this therapy; I don’t want to be in this marriage.” Medium height and dressed a little matronly, Ann wouldn’t necessarily stand out on the street, but I wouldn’t suggest getting in her way this morning.

“Okay,” I pick her up on it. “So why are you here? Why aren’t you talking to a lawyer?”

“Trust me,” Ann throws a cursory glance at her husband. “I have. I came today because Matt asked me to, and I want what’s best for him.”

Oh, I think to myself. This is bad. This feels like a drop-off. All couples therapists get drop-offs at some point: ostensibly, the couple is there for marital counseling, but it quickly becomes clear that partner A is delivering partner B to a willing professional so that B can get help and A can get going. I ask Matt what he wants, and he tells me he’d do anything to fix his broken marriage, so I turn back to Ann. 

“What’s he done?” I ask.

“Pardon?” she says.

“What’s he done to turn you off so?”

She laughs, incongruently, inside her cupped hands, awkward. “It isn’t just me,” she informs me after a beat. “Neither of our two daughters wants much to do with him.” Hearing Ann’s story, what becomes clear is that Matt, after 20 some years as a husband and a dozen plus as a father, is about to get fired by his entire family. And what did Matt do to deserve this treatment?

“Well,” Ann tells me, “he yells. He gets up inches from your face, barely inches, with his own face all screwed up and red. You feel like he’s going to deck you, though he never would, of course. Since the girls were tiny little things, babies, they’ve been afraid of him. That wasn’t all the time, by any means, and when he wasn’t in a rage, he was a lovely guy, a lovely dad. But this . . . this . . .” she trails off, unwilling to say more.

I look at Matt. His gaze on clasped hands, knees spread wide, he looks utterly dejected—but he’s not out of steam. As I watch, he does what many of the men who come to my office do: he argues. 

Sure, his temper is real, he admits, but it’s not all that bad or that often; he’s never ever laid a hand . . . and so on. Faced with such a typical situation, what do I do? Here are my first technical tips for working with men.

If the woman is about to walk, she gets my attention. Why? If my goal is to do what I can to save their marriage, then she’s my customer. If he was the one who wanted to walk, or if it was mutual, that would be different. 

But while there are symmetrical couples, where both partners are more or less alike in their unhappiness, and couples where the unhappy, passive man walks on eggshells around his volatile wife, there are a lot more women out there unhappy with their guys than the other way around.

I pay as much attention to issues of grandiosity in men as I do issues of shame. Why? It isn’t Matt’s shame that’s threatening to unglue this family; it’s his rage, his entitlement to control and attack. The couples I see have generally been to one, two—so far, the record is eight—therapists, and not one of them has confronted the man’s grandiosity. 

Trauma? Of course! Shame? Absolutely! But neither of these is what’s brought Ann to the edge. When faced with evidence of a man’s grandiosity, we therapists are trained to go under it, to the “underlying causes” of shame and trauma. 

We’re taught that, with enough therapeutic nurture, the grandiosity will somehow be healed and vanish. This is wishful thinking. RLT therapists don’t go under, around, or over a man’s grandiosity—we steer into it.

Grandiosity impairs judgment. It blunts empathy and leads us to underestimate negative consequences. Virtually all grandiose men minimize and rationalize their behavior. 

“It isn’t that bad” coupled with “Well, but you have to understand. . . .” To cut through these distortions and get through to these guys, an RLT therapist goes for details. In RLT, there’s a saying: “generic weak, specific strong.” 

We unearth specific examples, behaviors, and actual words, and use them like a can opener to confront the hard shell of denial. “Did you, or did you not, actually say that?”

After hearing more about Matt’s temper, I decide to return to the first specific example Ann offered. “He’s gotten up in your faces?” I ask her.

“Inches,” she answers. “Screaming full force.”

I look over at Matt, not all that warmly. “This happens episodically?” I ask Ann. She doesn’t understand. “From time to time?”

“It used to be a lot worse,” she says, and I can see Matt relax. “But it still happens.” He bristles. “Rarely,” she corrects. “But then again,” she leans toward him, not to be put off, “the girls don’t really talk to you much anymore, do they?” Matt returns his gaze to his hands.

“You earned that,” I tell Matt.

“Excuse me?” he says.

“Their distance,” I say. “Your kids. You’ve earned that. You made that happen.”

Now it’s his turn to sneer. “And their mother had nothing to do with it?” He looks at me, challenging, and I hold his gaze.

“I imagine not as much as you’d like to think,” I answer.

“Oh,” he smiles, condescending, “it’s quite a girl’s club at home.”

“Independent of all that, the impact of your own temper is on you,” I tell him. “You own this.” He looks at me like he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. My eyes still on him, I ask Ann, “How old were the girls when he started screaming at them?”

“How little?” she asks.

“Now listen, for Christ sake. Everyone yells at their kids from—.”

“That’s not what we’re talking about!” Ann forcefully cuts him off.

Good for you, I think. I’m glad to have Ann as an ally. As their therapist, in this first stage of the work—waking Matt up—one key is not to get out ahead of her. Having her with us in session, truthful and vocal, is a critical help to Matt’s healing.

I prefer to work with individual men in the context of their current relationships, using that relationship as the crucible in which the man can melt down and transform. 

What better place to experiment with increased relationality than in one’s actual relationship? I want the man’s partner—and sometimes the children—to give me the data and leverage I need. 

This is not primarily transference-based work. Although I want the man to have a corrective emotional experience with me, more important is setting him up to have ongoing corrective experiences with those he loves. But relational recovery, what some would now call the attainment of a secure attachment, can be daunting work, and many clients need convincing that it’s worth it.

Negative Leverage

Once I determine that I’m working with a difficult, grandiose man, my first concern is how to engage him in therapy. The RLT approach of gathering leverage is just a technical way of saying we pay close attention to the man’s motivation or lack thereof. 

The more grandiose the man is, the more comfortable he’ll be with his difficult behavior, with blaming others, deflecting, denying, and going tit for tat. RLT therapists engage men by skillfully shifting back and forth between the potential negative consequences of staying as he is versus the positive rewards of change.

Earlier, I stated that grandiosity impairs judgment, and generally the more grandiose a man is, the more distorted his judgment will be. (Think of mania in bipolar disorder.) Just as a traditional therapist will heal a shame-based person by supplying what’s missing—in this case, empathy for oneself—an RLT therapist will supply what’s missing for a grandiose or narcissistic client, which is empathy for others. 

I also help the men I work with begin to face the thus far denied consequences of their behaviors, which most often include their spouse’s dissatisfaction, sometimes unto marital death. Amplifying a man’s appreciation of the cost of his grandiosity is what we call negative leverage.

The other common source of negative leverage is the threat of doing damage to the man’s children. With Matt, who got close to his kids and yelled in their faces, in about our third session, I ask him a series of questions. 

“So, Matt,” I begin, turning toward him, “Who was the angry one in your family growing up? Where did you learn to scream at someone like that?”

“Well, Mom was a screamer. But I have to tell you, none of us paid that much attention to her.”

“Okay,” I say. Matt glances at his wife, who waits impatiently for more.

“Yeah,” Matt says, suddenly appearing to develop an enormous interest in straightening the crease of his pants. “Yeah, it was Dad you were afraid of.”

“Okay,” I try reassuring him. “Tell me more.” And he does: about his father’s thick belt and, with a lot of help and coaxing, what it felt like against his young skin.

“How young?” I ask.


“What’s the youngest you recall— ?”

“Hey,” Matt interjects. “I don’t do that! I have never and will never!”

“Your earliest memory of it, Matt,” I persist.

“Maybe four,” he shrugs, as if to say no big deal. “Five?”

“You’re not a small man,” I say. “How big was your dad?”

He bristles. “First of all, my father was a good man. I’m not gonna sit here and pay someone to disparage him!”

“I’m sure he was,” I say, “in many ways, but, Matt, let me ask you, here’s a check for a million dollars. It’s yours, no strings. All you have to do is go back in time to when your kids were that age and put a belt to them. Would you take it?”

Matt visibly recedes. “No,” he says flatly.

“Two million,” I press. “Ten million.”

“You can shove it up your ass,” he says, holding my gaze like he means it.

“Why wouldn’t you?” I ask.

“I just wouldn’t.”

“But why wouldn’t you?”

“I just wouldn’t,” he says, obstinately.

“Look,” I say, “You’re clearly a smart man, and a decent one.” Ann snorts under her breath, but Matt softens. “If you wouldn’t do something to a child for 10 million dollars, it’s because it’s abusive, Matt. Can you see that?” Matt shakes his head.

“He could fucking swing that thing,” he allows, almost speaking to himself.

“He taught you,” I tell him.

“Excuse me?”

“He infected you with his rage, like a virus,” I tell him. “He taught you that when a grown man gets pissed off, this is what that looks like.”

“I never once—.”

“You might as well have,” Ann pipes in.

“Ann,” I say holding up my hand. “Please. I’ve got this.”

“Screaming into their faces is bad enough,” I say. “I can prove it to you.” For the first time since I met him, Matt looks at me with receptivity. “What kind of relationship do you have with your father?” I ask.

“He’s passed.”

“You were close?” I ask, pretty certain of the answer.

“I admired him,” he says. Ann shifts in her chair.

“Close?” I repeat.

“Well, I—.”

“What kind of relationship do you want with your kids?”

“Well, at the moment—.”

“Exactly,” I say. “And do you know why?” He says nothing. I lean forward and catch his eye. “Because you have a lot to make up for, my friend”, I tell him as gently as I can. 

He looks down at the floor, the fight knocked out of him. “You of all people,” I add, “know exactly what it’s like to grow up with a raging father. Is that what you want for your kids?”

“It’s too late,” he says, deflated.

“No, it isn’t, Matt. There’s still time for you to change. You can still set things right.”

After a long, fraught silence, Matt looks up from the floor. “How?” he asks me.

“That’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard so far,” I say, smiling at him; I can’t help myself. “Now, let’s get started.”

Framing current difficulties as occurring within a multigenerational legacy is useful at this juncture. What were you raised with? Of that, what do you wish to pass on to the next generation, and what do you want to put an end to here and now? 

Many men who wouldn’t do the hard work of recovery for themselves, or for their “controlling” wives, will pick up the mantle to spare their children. I tell Matt, as I do many men, “I have a name for someone who does the work needed to transform the legacy he hands to his children. I call these men heroes”.

Couples Choreography

In the same way that RLT therapists use leverage to shift back and forth between positive and negative consequences with clients, they also shift back and forth between inside and outside—feelings and behaviors. 

More precisely, they shift between internal material and a systemic understanding of the loop the couple is caught in, their repetitive dance. By the end of a long first session, good RLT therapists can feed back to the couple an articulation of their core dynamic—their choreography—framing it in the simple formula of “the more, the more.” 

For instance, the more A pursues, the more B distances, and the more B distances, the more A pursues. It helps men to understand where the relationship may be stuck in this way, no matter if you’re seeing him with his partner or coaching him on the side in individual therapy. 

When treating a man alone, I have little interest in listening endlessly to complaints about his partner. Forgive me, but I’ve seen that kind of handholding go on for years and produce . . . not a whole lot of change. So I believe it’s critical in our work with men that we offer more than empathic holding and nurture.

Men need—and most want—guidance, examples, and mentors to show them the role they play in their choreography and what’s needed to change it. I want male therapists to be strong, loving figures for our clients, and I want no less from women therapists. 

We, male therapists, can use the man-to-man card. But I’ve seen my wife, a gifted therapist, do a great job playing the woman card, as in, “Hey, speaking as a woman, what you just did was gross. A real turnoff. Listen, it’d go better, I swear, if you’d change that tone.”

The more precise and richer I can be in my description of the man’s repeating dysfunctional stance, the greater the odds the man will buy in with me. It isn’t niceness that draws men back into therapy with us for subsequent sessions: it’s accuracy.

“You nailed me,” says 37-year-old Steven, a sparkling gay man, who was as charming as he was elusive. “I feel splayed and filleted.”

It’s one thing to tell Steve simply that he’s a distancer. It’s another to offer him something like this: 

“Steve, you’re what we call a love avoidant. You ride in a one-up, walled-off position. Intimacy is frightening for everyone, but it’s particularly scary to you. You were the achiever, a hero child: your father’s star and your mother’s confidant. Whether you know it or not, both of these jobs were a burden to you, which gets activated when someone gets close. Like now, for example. What are you feeling right now as we speak together?”

This is the kind of loving confrontation I call joining through the truth. You’re teaching the man, showing him how he blows his own foot off relationally. “Steven,” I tell him later. “You can’t just storm out of the room when Harry’s talking to you.”

“Even though,” he pushes back, “he’s either repeating himself or talking gibberish?”

I smile at him, shaking my head. “And you can’t keep putting him down and disqualifying everything he says like that! It’s entitlement in action. You’re going to lose him if you keep it up. And don’t act like you don’t care. That’s more one-up, walled-off nonsense. You’d be heartbroken and you know it.”

It’s at this juncture of loving confrontation that the man can wake up, often abruptly, and understand the spell he’s been under, which is often the spell of patriarchy itself. A lot of straight therapists would assume that because he’s gay, Steven would’ve freed himself from the biases of patriarchy. Wishful thinking! 

Members of the LGBTQ community are not immune to the influences of the code. Steve felt he had to be perfect, or he was useless. He lived on performance-based esteem. He was vicious with himself when he failed. Even dating and sex were a performance determining the measure of his worth and well-being.

Understand that the tortured gay man is a stock cliché of decade’s standing, so when I work with LGBTQ clients, I remember that, while things are indeed better, I’m still dealing with members of an oppressed minority. And as the father of a gay son, I have a personal relationship with the coming-out process, so varied from one person to the next. 

I always want to hear how the man knew that he was gay and his process of coming to terms with the challenges and gifts of it. A man’s coming-out story is the narrative of his relationship to what it means for him to be a gay man. It’s also the narrative of his relationship to masculinity. For Steve to come down from his grandiose perch, he needed to step into real vulnerability—no less because he’s gay.

Like Steve, most of my clients aren’t malevolent. They’re good-hearted and bewildered. They’d love to be a better partner, if only they knew how. That’s where we come in, not just to teach the man how—although that’s a part of it—but to awaken him to the fact that his unhappy partner has been trying to teach him all along. 

As a therapist, the trick is to cut through the man’s minimalization and denial, all the while taking as much care as possible to invite him into a new way of being, to empower him while he faces—perhaps for the first time—real remorse, rather than unhelpful shame.

The art involves telling a hard truth—“Steve, you live behind a wall of seduction and contempt. You’ve been more concerned with the gratification of your own sexual prowess than finding someone to actually stay close to”—with such profound respect for the best part of the man, his true self, his adult self, that he comes to trust you more as his therapist, not less. 

Of course, any fool can clobber a client with the truth of what she sees, but it takes skill to present the difficult behaviors or traits in a way that clearly demonstrates you’re on the man’s side, rooting for that best part of him.

We’re all imperfect humans, and RLT therapists make a point of being in the mud with our clients. To borrow from the poet W. H. Auden, we love our crooked clients with our own crooked hearts. I find it imperative when working with men to step out beyond the stiff professional boundaries of neutrality and, within good judgment, to be an actual person with them. I tell them things like, “My family calls me a narcissist in recovery,” or “Connection is my second language; selfishness is my first.” I share my own journey.

More than 30 years of working with men has convinced me that most appreciate straight talk. Show a man how he’s sinking himself relationally, help him see it, and then offer him a rope, a way out—the vast majority will grab hold, no matter if the person throwing them the lifeline is male or female. Competence trumps gender.

Therapy as Guided Emigration

James is brought to me for one last gasp by a wife who’s already filed for divorce after decades of his chronic philandering. Here’s the thing: James loves his family.

“You know, James,” I tell him, “You’re a decent guy.” He shakes his head. “No, I mean it,” I say. “I’ve worked with men who are indecent to the bone; we call them sociopaths, and let me tell you, brother, they’re cold. But you’re not, James. You’re warm to sit with. You nod, take in what I say. You’re appreciative, connected.” 

He smiles, happy to hear all this from me. “You know what’s so sad?” I ask. “I’m talking to a decent man who’s behaved indecently for the last 20 years. Will you let me help extricate the real you, the decent you, from all this crap?”

At some point in virtually every first session, I make this distinction: good man, terrible behavior. The key here is the internal condition of the therapist. You must be in a state of healthy self-esteem yourself, or this kind of loving confrontation will fall on its face. 

If you’re one-down, ashamed or afraid, the client will blow right through you. If you judge him, what one of my mentors, Pia Mellody, calls going one-up on the one-up, your client will smell it and protect himself. I cast a cool eye on James’s destructive behaviors, all the while holding him in warm regard as a flawed person, just as I am.

Once we’ve articulated the present difficulty—the man’s part of the stuck choreography—we move that stance back a generation. Where did you learn this relational stance? We do deep trauma work, inner child work, in the presence of the man’s partner. The final phase of RLT is straightforward education. 

Many therapists believe that trauma work alone will do the trick—that once the old wounds are healed, clients will instinctively know how to be intimate. I think that’s wishful thinking. In our narcissistic, patriarchal culture, few of us are taught relational skills sophisticated enough to deliver on the promise of our new romantic aspirations.

James is a love-avoidant; he operates behind walls. It isn’t that he turned his back on intimacy, but that, like many men, he never really learned what intimacy feels like. He needs to learn how to identify his wants and needs and negotiate them in his marriage, rather than gratify them in the back alley. My job is to teach him the difference between short-term gratification and the deeper pleasures of attachment itself—true connection, or relational joy.

Many of the men I treat have to learn what relational joy even is. But once they get a taste of it, it reinforces our work together, and because we’re born to be relational, because it’s the source of all happiness and satisfaction, once a man starts to, as James put it, “get the hang of this intimacy stuff,” it’s so pleasurable that it self-reinforces. 

I believe this is one reason why RLT tends to produce deep change so quickly: once we help the man step into the jet stream of relationality, it sweeps him along. In a later session, James describes spending a whole Sunday with his wife and kids, all snuggled on the couch together, binge-watching old movies. He told me it was one of the best days of his life.

“Better than chasing after 20-year-olds?” I ask.

“No contest,” he says, looking at his wife, who turns slightly away, tears in her eyes. 

His gaze is soft, loving, and rueful. “I literally had no idea,” he confesses. “I just didn’t know.”

Finally, once the man moves into his newfound state of connection, RLT therapists emphatically support it, amplifying and celebrating. Witnessing a man like James come into connection, I say to him, feels like watching someone get born. 

“Welcome to the planet Earth,” I tell him. “Congratulations. You made it through. Welcome to love.”

Sign up for our email newsletter.

Enter your details to receive the latest news from Terry straight to your inbox. You’re about to access: