The Journey to Here
I have a confession. I didn’t choose this line of work because I’m particularly adept at love. In fact, it’s exactly because of my struggles that I felt called to study relationships. To learn as much as possible about men and women. Where we’ve been. How our culture shapes and mis-shapes us. And how we can move forward together.
My early efforts were focused primarily on understanding what women want because, well, I had no idea. I was just as confused as most men I see in my office. And like most of those men, I had a profound, primal craving to love a woman deeply and completely. It made sense that to do that I’d need to know something about women. I began studying feminism. I began reading popular media. Yes, I picked up a book on the clitoris.
Most importantly, though, I began working with women in many different capacities and in all phases of life and relationship: 20-somethings navigating the dumpster fire that is online dating; fed up women on the verge of break ups; hopeful women being dumped, or worse, ghosted; engaged and newlywed women; those trying to conceive; those expecting; new mothers; bereaved mothers; women in abusive relationships; career women; empty-nesters; divorcees; widows trying to recover a sense of themselves and their capacity for intimacy and sexuality; and even those nearing the end of life.
I’ve tried my best to soak in all I can. Professionally, it has been my goal to help women recover their voice in relationship, and to help men show up. I’ve worked with hundreds of individuals and couples in my slow, sometimes exhausting, sometimes daunting crusade to bridge the intimacy gap. And by all measures I’ve had some success.
Yet, despite all I’ve learned about women, I haven’t been able to help every couple. And, tellingly, my personal relationships have often suffered. It was only recently that I began acknowledging the biggest reason why: I still have no idea what men want.
What an insane sentence to type! After all, I’ve spent 30+ years as a male. But it makes sense if I look at where I am in my own development. Patriarchy tells men we want one thing. Feminism tells men what women want. Who is telling men what we actually want? Where do men go to rediscover themselves? To redefine our lives according to the story of our own hearts?
It occurs to me that men, as a group, are collectively waking up. And in the haze of guilt over the generations of oppressing women — and perhaps our personal histories of the same — we have lost the ability to powerfully ask for what we need in relationships. And I mean what we really need. Many of us have lost the capacity to even be aware of it, much less go after it.
To even begin to formulate a list of what men crave feels strange and scary. It’s a fusion of vulnerability and weakness, fear and guilt. I’m reminded of the old truism: “Happy Wife, Happy Life,” “advice” most men seem to resentfully comply with our patently ignore. As humans, we crave intimacy, but as boys we aren’t taught much about how to be intimate, either with a partner or with ourselves. The result is a generation of men trying hopelessly to please women we do not understand, all the while failing to ask for what we need because we don’t understand ourselves.
The cycle is mutually reinforcing; a man who can’t ask for what he needs will feel increasingly dissatisfied; a man who is increasingly dissatisfied will be increasingly less generous; a woman with a man who isn’t generous will become increasingly dissatisfied and generous. And on and on we go.
My hope in generating this list is to help you interrupt that cycle, and to be intentional about how you relate to your partner. I use the term intentional, well, intentionally. My assumption has always been if I learn to give my partner what she wants, she will naturally give me what I want. This is a very unintentional way to live. For a relationship to thrive, both partners need to be active in tuning into their own desires as well as those of their partner.
This list won’t be complete, and it won’t apply to every man. I’m well aware of the drawbacks of speaking in generalities, but I also believe it naive to speak as if men and women are fundamentally the same. It reflects my understanding after working with hundreds of couples and men. It reflects the scholarly research I’ve done. It reflects the stories I’ve heard running men’s groups in private practice, drug and alcohol rehabs, and behavioral health hospitals. And it reflects my own lived experience.
This list is a plea for women to hear our longings, not as our caretakers, but as our lovers and partners. If you’re a woman loving a man, I hope you use it as waysigns into your man’s heart, knowing that your love sustains and emboldens us, giving our lives meaning and purpose. And if you’re a man, I hope you can begin to bring your voice back into relationship, not to speak over your partner, but to harmonize with her.
1) Honor Our Nervous System Differences
For all the problems that land couples in therapy, many of them are an elaboration of the same basic complaint: A man wants less and a woman wants more. Understand that we are wired differently. Our stress responses diverge, and while “more” may help you — talking more, planning more, buying more, doing more — it doesn’t always help us. The more you demand, the more ashamed and overwhelmed we feel, and the less we are able to deliver.
There’s much more to be said about these differences, but for now I would just invite women to get curious about them, and to explore connecting non-verbally — through touch, sex, movement, and shared experience — as a way of consolidating the demands on a man’s nervous system. Remember that when he feels connected to you non-verbally, he can move mountains. And when he doesn’t, he may not be able to get off the couch.
Which brings me to the next point.
2) Realize that Your Movement Nourishes Us
My field has certainly aided and abetted the idea that verbal communication is king, but while we might feel stimulated by your words, we can feel the universe through your body. When you slow down how you speak and how you move, even the simplest tasks can be inspiring.
I can still feel the sway of my partners hips as we danced in an empty parking lot on our second date. It was a romantic moment I’ll never forget. But perhaps more importantly, I’m still thinking about the way she danced around me this morning as I cleaned the kitchen. Be aware that how you move in relation to us can change our whole day. It can alter our mindset and inspire us to do great things.
3) Use Your Range in Bed
Male sexuality might be the most oversimplified aspect of our experience. It’s true that orgasm is, as some have put it, a “biological inevitabilty” for men, but ejaculating does not equal great sex. Just showing up might be enough in the beginning of a relationship, but men and women both have desires that need ongoing engagement. The bedroom is a playground for a woman to explore and show off her own multi-facets: the Divine Mother; the enticing co-ed; the hungry-eyed nympho. Find ways to creatively, lovingly, and playfully bring these to your partner.
Understand that male sexuality is about how a man feels about himself through your eyes. It’s no wonder that so many men turn to pornography to avoid feelings of rejection from the person they love. Think about that: In these cases the prospect of rejection is so noxious that a man will miss out on the prospect of sex just to avoid the prospect of feeling inadequate! I often hear from men that nothing turns him on like seeing his partner turned on. (Women rarely express the same sentiment). Knowing that you’re “into it” quiets performance anxiety, reaffirms that he is pleasing you, not hurting you, and invites his full generosity and creativity.
A woman’s lack of sexual desire is not usually an indication that she doesn’t want sex. It’s an indication that she’s less interested in the sex she believes is available to her. Realize that your man is very likely looking to connect through sex. Understand that sex is often the only avenue a man has to pursue the emotional needs of tenderness, sensuality, surrender, and affection. Acknowledging and developing these needs is part of developing an erotic life together, not just having sex together.
4) Call Us to be Warriors, Not Soldiers
Men are wired to be hunter/warriors and, somewhere, we retain this basic need. That need is often co-opted, however, and distorted into the soldier archetype — an addictive shadow of the warrior. The soldier favors the voice of external authority, while the warrior acts on the truth he finds within. The soldier must deaden his feelings in order to survive the horrors of war, while the warrior is in touch with his emotions and the grander mysteries of life and death. The soldier destroys on command. The hunter kills only to live, doing so with love and reverence.
At the end of the day, we want to be called to a place where we can be warriors — protectors, providers, defenders, hunters. We don’t want to wallow in the cold, turning to drink, drug, porn, or media to medicate our disconnection. But we also don’t really want to be given our marching orders in the form of what book to read, what seminar to go to, or even what therapist we should see to “fix” ourselves (though you can book with me here.) We want you to show us how painful it is when we don’t show up for you, and call us to that place where we can.
The challenge here — and the biggest struggle I see in women — is to stay connected to your heart when you’re confronting us. Let us feel how deeply you want love. And not just any love. Our love. This may mean showing us more pain, more vulnerability, more fear, more heartache than you’d like, but it’s worth it.
5) Find the Thing You Can Count On
The thing a man loves most is to feel that a woman trusts him. No matter how disillusioned you might be, see if you can find something, everyday, that you trust us with. And then find a way to honor that. Let us know how much it means for you to be able to count on us. These small actions tap into our provider wiring. They are acts of surrender that require courage on your part that we both respect and get turned on by.
6) Don’t settle for our bullshit, but love us with equal and opposite energy when we deliver
A common complaint I hear from men is “when I mess up, I never hear the end of it, but when I’m present and loving, she hardly notices.” Unfortunately, when I speak with women about this, I often get pushback: “He should just do those things anyway!” In a perfect world, maybe. But our relational culture right now is far less than perfect. My experience with men has been that he wants — no, that he is dying — to love you well. And if you can find ways to reward the things you like — presence, holding space, feeling into you — with deep love, appreciation, and even turn on — he will show up.
Men are often oblivious; it is part of our toxic privilege. Toxic in the way that it destroys our relationships and ultimately harms us. You don’t have to take responsibility for waking him up, just be sure you are celebrating consciousness with equal and opposite energy as you are denouncing unconsciousness.
Would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you have anything to add.
Lovingly, longingly yours,