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Basic assumptions in the treatment of men with problems in intimate relationships

by Tamir Ashman

"Embrace masculinity, while preserving femininity, and pathways to the world will open before you." (From the book of Tao)


For many years, I have been involved in facilitating workshops, long-term group sessions, and individual treatments among adult men and adolescent boys. Through working with this population, the clients have taught me about their inner world, or more precisely, the unique way in which we as men navigate intimate relationships. In fact, unintentionally and without conscious intention, I embarked on years of research, exposing myself to dozens of men, some of whom stayed briefly and others who remained for years. One weekly encounter allowed me to experience and touch, to some extent, their emotional world. Over the years, I have learned to recognize and experience the suffering of men who engage in violence. And in my view, there is therapeutic importance in understanding and empathizing with this suffering. To this day, I have not met a man who hurts his partner from a place of joy and happiness in his life, or from a place of contentment. There are always various levels of suffering present.

It is important for me to note that my empathy as a therapist does not come to justify their behavior. The man is solely responsible for his violent behavior, and living within the confines of a man suffering from domestic violence is a life of continuous suffering and terror. However, in my view, empathy and deep understanding of the roots of violent behavior in men are key to initiating change. And without empathy and belief in the ability of men to change, my work would have no meaning.

In this article, I attempt to examine the assumptions and perceptions that guide me as a therapist working with men who engage in violence within the realm of intimate relationships. Some of these assumptions undergo changes from time to time, so in a sense, I use this document as a means for personal reflection and contemplation.

In this work, there are many generalizations about the behavior of men within the realm of intimate relationships. These generalizations, by their definition, do injustice to the unique world of each of my clients. However, it is impossible to learn about phenomena and human behaviors without a process of generalization.

A. Many men find it difficult and lack the ability and skills to create intimate relationships

The therapeutic group provides a nearly laboratory-like space for me to examine how men create intimacy. I find that one of the discouraging factors in the world of men seeking help is, on the one hand, the yearning for closeness with their partners, and on the other hand, the inability to create it. The concept of intimacy is not tangible for them, and often I find that behind many outbursts, the unexpressed and deep-rooted motive stems from feelings of frustration arising from a sense of distance between the partners. The man feels a distance between himself and his partner, but the perception of this distance is interpreted and understood within the man's inner world as an attack on the shared intimacy and not as his own impairment. The man's inability to reflect on his responsibility for harming intimacy, in my opinion, stems from defense mechanisms that assist him in avoiding taking responsibility for the situation and projecting the blame onto his partner. The man subjectively and egocentrically interprets the situation as a deliberate attack from his partner, as she is the one destroying the relationship. Many men in the group conversation almost enjoy quoting the saying "A woman builds, a woman destroys," which reflects a deeply rooted social perception that implies that the exclusive power and responsibility over the couple/family system lies with the woman, and she has the power to build the home and destroy it. In my view, the important point behind this perception is the man's self-perception as lacking the ability to influence, destroy, or build the same space he shares with the woman. This statement almost attributes demonic powers of destruction and construction to the woman and hides behind it a fear of female power. Thus, in the subjective inner experience, the attacking man feels like a victim of the destructive power of the woman. And when the man's interpretation of the situation is perceived as an attack, the range of reactions narrows down to either attacking or escaping.

B. The alienation between the man and his partner reflects the quality of the relationship the man has with himself.

The word "intimacy" is derived from the Greek word "intimos," which means "internal." This definition precisely clarifies the essence of the intimate experience. It originates from the individual's inner self and is projected outward. Thus, the quality of the connection that a man creates in his external environment reflects his level of intimacy with himself.

A man who feels estranged and rejected within his internal world will experience a similar sense of emotional rejection in his close environment. I have observed that many men refuse to introspect into their external environment as a reflection of their inner world. This introspection would challenge their entire belief system about themselves. As I mentioned in the first assumption, it is more defensively narcissistic to perceive women as the ones who undermine intimacy rather than recognizing the lack of intimacy within the man himself.

The absence of the ability to create intimacy is formed in the early stages of the attachment process in boys. In many men's biographical trajectory, there is a turning point at which the son begins to dissociate from broad aspects of his identity. This dissociation process, in the long term, diminishes the emotional world of the man (a process contrary to the creation of intimacy, as the man loses the ability to connect with his emotions). The turning point in boys is mainly due to negative reinforcements from the close environment (parents, siblings) towards behaviors associated with femininity. Yisoreh Burkovich (2003) indicates that according to one of the myths related to masculinity, it is desirable for a man not to have, or at least not express, certain emotions. It can be said that society creates the man who does not feel emotions. According to various researchers, this myth is one of the reasons why many men label their emotions with distorted names, fail to identify them, and experience their emotional world as confused and perplexing.

Patients can recall the same encoded memory that initiated the process of escaping from their inner world. They recount sentences from their childhood that were said to them by their parents, such as "Why are you crying? You're behaving like a girl" or "You're offended like a girl." The son, who brings his injuries to the family communication space for the first time through emotional expression, is often rejected by one of his parents. This rejection, in my opinion, is one of the severe injustices that parents cause to their sons. It results from a lack of awareness and empathy but initiates the beginning of male emotional rejection. The son, with an extensive emotional repertoire, seeks alternatives to communicate his inner world with himself and with others. Thus, the process often begins in which the son adopts anger as a central emotion, through which he experiences his emotional presence.

The process of dissociation from the emotional system influences the way in which the son adopts words expressing emotional nuances while learning language. Many times, in encounters with men, I ask them to list all the words that express emotions. Usually, men can mention five emotions in the Hebrew language: anger, sadness, love, hate, and jealousy. In other words, most men who come for therapy lack the verbal ability to express emotional nuances.

Wittgenstein argued that our inner world is understood and defined through language, and in the absence of language, an experience cannot exist. Therefore, men experience the external and internal world through a limited linguistic prism. The absence of emotional language is a chicken-and-egg situation: the non-acceptance of the son's entire emotional spectrum by the close environment leads the son not to express emotional words, words that are perceived as illegitimate for his gender. In later adulthood, when the ability to create intimacy is tested practically, the lack of recognition of emotional language prevents the man from experiencing and communicating his emotions. And the inability to communicate one's emotions does not.

C. There is a connection between men's difficulties in the intimate space and an emotional state of latent depression

In his book "I Don't Want to Talk About It," Terrence Real refers to violent behavior as the externalization of internalized depression, which he defines as covert depression. Most men in therapy do not acknowledge that they are suffering from depression, unlike the overt depression in which a person experiences self-violence, suicidal thoughts, isolation, self-blame, and physical harm. Covert depression leads to intense action, doing mechanisms, and a restless search for stimulation. The man will project and distance his internal suffering, stemming from a loss of connection with his emotions, onto the person closest to him - his partner. One of the consequences of this reaction mechanism is that the man does not develop awareness of his own suffering and depression. The man's inability to create intimate dialogue about his suffering leads him to distance his suffering from his partner, and then, in a process often unconscious to him, through this distancing, the man momentarily frees himself from his own suffering. In other words, violent behavior operates on a similar principle - the man distances the internal suffering resulting from a loss of connection with the emotional system, causing pain to his partner. The distancing of emotional pain allows for a moment of relief. Part of group intervention is to help the man recognize his internal arrival, as reflected through the suffering he causes his partner.

D. Aggressive communication rewards the man in the short term and is destructive in the long term

The dynamics of outbursts often unfold within seconds, and the delicate fabric of intimate connection built over weeks and months can be shattered in an instant. Violent behavior serves the short-term needs of the man but is destructive to long-term communication. The violence creates a sense of conflict resolution, as the partner (especially in the early years of the relationship) often does not repeat the explicit event that triggered the man's outburst. This way, the man receives positive reinforcement for his outburst.

From a slightly different perspective, a former drug addict, who was addicted to heroin injections, described that the injection experiences create a sense of intimacy that alleviates the suffering arising from feelings of worthlessness and emptiness. Violent outbursts operate in a similar mechanism. When a man resorts to violence, he experiences relief, release, and calming of accumulated internal tension. Due to the alienating couple's space, the man cannot release internal tension by sharing his difficulties with his partner. As a result of the lack of intimate connection with himself, he cannot identify the emotions "flowing" within his emotional system. The absence of emotional perception leads to feelings of emptiness and worthlessness. From this perspective, violence serves as a temporary psychological mechanism (a kind of intimacy) that connects the man to his emotions. It is the most effective tool in the immediate term to release emotional tension and achieve a change in the couple's dynamics.

After an outburst, the man experiences a sense similar to intimacy. A whole range of feelings "opens up" within the man, including feelings of guilt, shame, regret, passion, and love. Men in therapy often talk about their feelings after an outburst, expressing a sense of calmness within them. They feel love towards their partner and have a genuine desire to compensate for their behavior. Often, after an outburst, men can engage in emotional communication with their partner, expressing their love, making promises to change their behavior, and behaving in an appeasing manner in the days following the outburst. Consequently, in the early years, couples may feel trapped and disillusioned by the "honeymoon phase." Today, I tend to understand violent behavior as a problem of interpersonal communication rather than psychopathology. In other words, a man who hits his partner is trying to communicate his emotions, depression, and feelings of internal emptiness. However, due to the absence of accessible emotional language, he expresses his inner emotional world through anger (acted out). I find reinforcement for this interpretation in the behavior of preverbal infants when an infant experiences frustration (internal or external), they express their frustration through aggressive behavior (throwing objects, screaming, physically hitting the parent). This behavior gradually disappears as the infant learns verbal language to express their inner world. When a man throws and breaks a cup during an outburst, he is (destructively) communicating his anger to his partner. Usually, anger conceals a wide range of other emotions that the haze of anger does not allow the man to observe and communicate.

Please note that this translation may not capture the full nuance and subtlety of the original text, as it is a complex topic with emotional and psychological dimensions.

E. One of the goals of the treatment: changing perceptions and treating the emotion of anger

One of the things that occupied me in working with men is the relationship with the emotion of anger. Anger is the driving emotion behind all violent outbursts. Is anger positive or negative?

Today, I approach anger in the imagery of the mathematical concept of "absolute value." It is neither positive nor negative; it simply exists. In therapeutic work, I differentiate between working with anger from the past and working with anger that arises in the present moment within personal, relational, and group contexts.

Most men I work with tend to handle anger in ineffective and destructive ways. They either suppress anger through defense mechanisms or release it through impulsive outbursts. The passive man, afraid of confrontation, keeps anger within himself, while the emotionally explosive man chooses to attack. The first approach leads to psychosomatic damage and prolonged suppression, while the second approach releases the pent-up energy of anger, but due to its quick and uncontrolled nature, it creates additional harm within the emotional system of the attacker and the recipient (the violent outburst leaves behind a trail of guilt, shame, and regret, resulting in only a temporary release).

In my opinion, one of the central goals in working with men who suffer from violent communication is to renegotiate the relationship with anger. It involves challenging the perception that anger is inherently negative, breaking the conscious connection between anger and violence, reducing the fear of anger, and transforming the group into a kind of "studio" that teaches the assertive language, which means learning to confront non-violently in the here and now.

F. The process of creating intrapersonal and interpersonal intimacy is a process of conflict resolution

One of the hidden goals of the therapy group is for the group to strive for intimacy during its developmental stages. The couple system also aims to reach intimacy and operates in a similar mechanism to the way the group moves towards intimacy – through the process of resolving conflicts.

An advanced group moves towards intimacy by dealing with a central conflict that occupies its members. Group members, whether consciously or unconsciously, invest emotional and mental energy in solving the group conflict at hand. There are universal group conflicts (such as assimilation versus individuality, acceptance versus criticism, competition for personal exposure versus fear of vulnerability and exploitation, and more), as well as conflicts unique to each group. The quality of the resolution the group chooses regarding a specific conflict will affect (accelerate, delay, or halt) the group's development towards the intimate stage.

I find a significant similarity between the process of creating intimacy within a group and the process of forming intimacy in the couple's space. In the course of their shared years, couples need to deal with numerous conflicts related to the shared space on their way to intimacy. Some conflicts are universal, while others are unique to each couple system. In order to reach intimacy, couples need to reach agreement on countless conflict-related issues (expressing criticism, dealing with disagreement situations, power dynamics, role division in the household, defining masculinity and femininity, parenting styles, personal space together and separately, sexual behaviors, leader-led dynamics, and more). Proper conflict resolution leads to a change in the couple's dynamics.

I find that men who suffer from violent problems have a low ability to resolve conflicts, and they tend to choose aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive communication styles. These men lack assertive communication skills. Avoiding conflict resolution creates a false sense of calm when, in fact, avoiding the conflict damages the relationship between the couple and results in stagnation within the couple system. The accumulated negativity and emotions ultimately explode like a time bomb. I find that many men create detour routes around conflict, dispersing "anger traps" that are not visible (e.g., hanging towels in a specific place, wasting electricity, not emptying the trash, and other trivial matters). When the partner steps on such an "anger trap," the man reacts aggressively, which is not proportionate to the situation. This does not create understanding between the couple regarding the deep essence of the conflict. For example, couples can argue for months about who will take out the garbage without understanding and seeing that behind the trivial "trash argument" lies a significant negotiation about role division within the household.

G. Men who behave aggressively in the marital space will 'clean up' violent communication patterns in their childhood in the family of origin

Carlo Strenger, in his book "Individuality: The Impossible Project," defines the therapeutic task as helping the patient to narrate and reshape the past, present, and future of the patients in order to help them break free from the repetitive patterns of behavior.

According to the intergenerational transfer perspective, a man who suffers from violence issues is exposed to an emotional atmosphere within his family of origin that affects his future relationships, leading to a similar atmosphere in his own romantic relationships. I find that almost all men who suffer from violence issues were exposed to some form of violent communication between their parents (not necessarily physical violence). The man, like a sponge, absorbs the communication patterns of his parents and the way they resolved their conflicts as a couple. Often, the parents of the man communicate through him in a way that resembles instinctive, unconscious reactions. For example, a man who witnessed his father exploding and attacking his mother after she criticized his father may react in a similar critical manner in his current relationships. A man whose father displayed passive communication patterns may continue the process of sacrificing his own needs. A man can adopt the exact opposite behavioral pattern of one of his parents. For instance, a man who grew up with an impulsive father who struggles to control his impulses may adopt the other side of the same conflict and suppress any urge within his emotional system.

Looking at intergenerational transfer in a slightly poetic and optimistic way, often the son who becomes a father continues the developmental process of the father from the point where the father ceased to develop in the eyes of his son. In this sense, not only does the apple not fall far from the tree, but from the seeds of that apple, a new tree is created. It may have similar roots, but it has the ability to choose. I quote a chilling metaphor from a patient who suffered from severe violence issues: "My father hit me with the iron side of the belt, and today, I have progressed. I hit my children with the soft side of the belt."

Often, I find that many men struggle to recall situations from their childhood. The way they recount the memory will involve understanding and justifying their father's behavior, saying things like, "Well, that's all they knew back then..." or "He had no other choice; nothing could stop him." or "It says in the Torah to spare the rod, spoil the child." or "I don't know where I would be today without the discipline my father instilled in me." "I was a difficult child," or "It wasn't violence; it was respect towards the parents." This process of justifying the injustice caused by their fathers in the past serves their current behavioral choices. In other words, a critical dialogue about their father's behavior implies criticism and self-reflection on their part as partners and fathers.

In my view, the main tool in group work to break free from that violent "fate" is a continuous process of self-awareness. Within the group process, the man learns to recognize different aspects of himself, and the group helps the individual identify the connection between the past and the present.

From a therapeutic perspective, the assumption regarding the connection between the childhood past of men and their current marital life may be problematic. The central danger lies in the fact that it may strengthen the sense of victimhood and self-pity of the man, and it may help the man to remove responsibility for his violent behavior in the present, both within the group and in his relationship with his partner and children.

One therapeutic approach to address this situation is to use the same powerful pull of the past, but in the opposite direction. In other words, the man can repair parts of his own biography by implanting "repaired" memories in the consciousness of his children, continuing from where he

H. Men who suffer from aggressive behavior in the marital space have rigid concepts about relationship and family

Behind every violent outburst by a man, in those minutes and sometimes seconds of the outburst process, the man perceives reality dichotomously. His thoughts interpret reality with his partner in a way that is focused within his own world. The man does not doubt the way he perceives reality, although there may be additional perspectives on the same situation.

For example, a man shares in a group about an outburst at home: He came back from work hungry, and in the few minutes of climbing the stairs to his house, images of an untidy dining table and empty dishes started to appear in his imagination. These imagined images created thoughts in the man's consciousness that seek to explain the imagined reality. "She's deliberately doing this to me... intentionally. She's trying to test me... She's trying to see when I'll explode... If I come home and there's no food on the table, I don't know what I'll do to her..." These thoughts are known in group therapy jargon as "negative self-talk," and they fuel the emotion of anger. So, before the external expression of the outburst, the outburst is imagined within the man's mind and receives a sort of approval for action. The internal mental process creates a justification process within the imagined reality, and when a man is unable to be flexible in his perceptions and see the internal reality from different perspectives, he becomes convinced that he holds the truth. The eruption of anger and the attack on the woman are merely a matter of time. Sometimes, this mechanism creates a feeling in the man that he is the victim of that situation, and therefore he will not feel remorse and compassion towards his attacked partner. He will close himself off in his resentment and perform internal justification for his behavior, such as "If she had behaved differently, none of this would have happened" or "She got what she wanted." When a man holds rigid positions on various issues in the realm of relationships and family, any rigid perception can become a trigger for an outburst.


In this article, I attempted to examine the belief system that guides me in working with men. The fundamental perception that guides me is that aggressive behavior and communication stem from a place of distress and suffering. This suffering arises from the man's inability to connect with his emotions, leading to a sense of alienation and estrangement within his inner world. The quality of personal intimacy within the couple's relationship reflects each individual's ability to engage in dialogue with their emotions. The man's inability to be emotionally present within the intimate system creates a sort of disability within the couple's dynamic. The man may strive for intimacy but is unable to establish emotional connection within the relationship because he lacks the capacity for emotional contact and attunement with his own needs.

From the moment we are born as boys and until we become fathers, we undergo a painful and violent process in which parts of our emotional world are severed, akin to a social "circumcision" of sorts. Sometimes I ask men how many times they have cried in their lives. Men generally do not need an additional hand to complete the counting. Their memories usually count between three to five instances of crying throughout their lives, typically associated with dramatic events that carry some level of social justification for expressing sadness (mainly related to coping with death and birth). This example vividly illustrates the essence of male suffering—exploding with laughter and bursting into tears are two opposite sides of the same coin, representing the emotional range of their lived experience. I believe that all of us would feel indignant if a social decree prohibited a certain population from expressing laughter. Yet, in practice, many men are prisoners under a hidden social law that forbids us from crying. This fact creates a relational system that is personally rooted in a sense of internal alienation within the man's world.

Returning to the second premise of the article, an intimate relationship cannot be created with a partner as long as the man is not in an intimate relationship with himself.

APA Bibliography Template:

Ashman, T. (2006). Foundational principles in therapy with men. [Electronic version]. Retrieved on October 24, 2006, from the Articles website:


Anderson, R. (2001). Clinical articles on Klein and Bion. Modan.

Burkovitz Yesur, D. (2003). Intimate violence, the emotional world of battered men. Resling.

Friedman, A. (1996). Coming from love, intimacy and power in female identity. Hakibbutz Hameuchad.

Reil, T. (1997). I don't want to talk about it. Am Oved.

Shtrenger, K. (1989). Individuality: The impossible project. Am Oved.

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