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Wrestling with Love

An Interview with Dr. Samuel Osherson

Copyright © 1997 by Bert H. Hoff

Dr. Sam Osherson is a Harvard psychologist, practicing psychotherapist, and author of Finding Our Fathers.Order on-line He was recently in Seattle on tour to promote his new book, Wrestling With Love, Order on-line where he was interviewed by Bert H. Hoff, book reviewer for Seattle M.E.N. Bert was assisted by several readers in the difficult task of paring the interview down considerably to fit these pages. Video and audio tapes of the full interview are available from Bert.

Wrestling With Love
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Finding Our Fathers
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Bert: Your earlier book, Finding Our Fathers was pioneering to many of us. It came out before the Robert Bly PBS special A Gathering of Men, before Iron John. What are your thoughts about the "menís movement" since the book first came out?

Sam: I think the key issues right now for men are ones of relationships. I find that men are struggling a lot with, not just with getting in touch with themselves, but what does it mean to be a father, a husband, a son to aging parents, male-to-male friendships. I would hope that we would begin to think seriously about what are the issues with men as they are intimate with other people in their lives.

Bert: What is your new book, Wrestling With Love, about?

Sam: Wrestling With Love is about how men struggle with intimacy in many parts of their lives. A man recently said to me, "I know how to bark at my children, I donít know how to draw them closer." He was worried that they were going to leave home angry at him. Another man who comes to mind said to me, "I always assumed that any wife of mine would work, but I never imagined that it would be like this!" A familiar statement, I think, for many men. He struggles with a sense of pride in his wifeís work, but also a sense of neediness, a sense of abandonment, a sense that family life is so different from when he was growing up. Not too long ago, a father was telling me about his fatherís 70th birthday that was coming up. He had left home and emigrated to the West Coast from New York because things had been so difficult with his father. He didnít want his father to die before things had been worked out. He asked me, "Do you think itís worth the air fare for me to go home for this party?"

To me these are the core issues that men are wrestling with, that I try to capture in Wrestling With Love. Particularly the way in which men struggle with both wanting to be intimate and to be seen, be heard, and be acknowledged, but also try to hold back and stay distant and outside of a relationship. And to me both of these things go on at the same time in menís lives. We often see how men are withdrawn from relationships, not how theyíre trying to connect.

I think that for many of us, we learn to express intimacy by being aggressive. The fundamental dilemma for men in our society, I think, is how do you be close to other people without losing your self-esteem as a man. And it goes right back to the earliest times with children. Many of us who are fathers probably have had this experience: youíre coming home from work and your five-year old son jumps on your back and wrestles you to the ground. What is the son doing? On the one hand heís wrestling his father, trying to be a superhero, but the other thing that youíre doing is wrapping yourself up in your fatherís arms. So thereís both the wish to be a boy, connected to your father, and the wish to be a big, strong superhero, expressed at the same time.

Bert: You write about how men retreat into the office and work environment.

Sam: I think for a lot of men, the family is a place where they feel very drained as well as very joyous. And a lot of us, I think, donít know quite how to balance that. A man talked to me quite recently about coming home from a very successful business trip, and having to go from being a heroic figure at work to walking into the house with his wife and children and being a man who the kids see as just a man. He talked about the loneliness and the sense of emptiness that going home brought up for him. I think a lot of us struggle with that. When there are problems in the family we end up working harder at work, because we donít know how to address some of that emptiness and struggle that we feel as men.

Bert: You write about shame.

Sam: Shame, I think, is a very important feeling in menís lives, and one that we have difficulty in labeling and understanding, precisely because it cuts to the core of what we try to do as men. In the earliest days, I think, we want to be in control and we want to show that we have our boundaries together. I think we very quickly learn, very young, that if you have too many feelings, if you cry too easily or you show too much feeling, you endanger other males. Youíre in danger of being humiliated, embarrassed, or picked on. I think all men feel shame when they are young. I think very early on we struggle with pain around our wishes to be intimate. Itís very hard for us to know what to do with that pain, because the feeling of being a little boy is so unpleasant when youíre trying to live up to being a big man. So I have found it very helpful to pay attention to the role of shame and intimacy in menís lives.

Bert: You differentiate between shame and guilt. The feelings are often confused.

Sam: Guilt relates to violating a taboo. Shame refers to failing to live up to an ideal. When you are feeling guilty, youíve done something wrong. When you are feeling ashamed, you are the problem. Thereís an old joke among psychologists that guilt is the gift that keeps on giving. But in truth I think itís shame. Because with guilt, you do penance, you try to make up for having done the wrong thing. You know what the action was you shouldnít have done, so you try to make it up. With shame, you are the problem, so itís not entirely clear what you do to correct the situation. You feel so lousy about yourself.

Bert: My father was very hard on me when I was young, and it wasnít until later that it dawned on me that he was never harder on anyone else than he was on himself.

Sam: In truth our fathers were often very hard on themselves. They were trying to communicate to us, I think, some of what it felt like for them to be a man by being so harsh on us. Mothers and fathers both worry that their sons will grow up not knowing these basic bits of wisdom about being a man, one of which is that you have to be tough enough to get the job done. It sometimes feels to me as if the only way that fathers know how to teach this is to be tough on sons. Thereís a lot of love in that toughness but it was unexpressed.

Bert: You mention that women may not realize the fear that men feel about talking about their feelings.

Sam: I think that many men, growing up, donít feel that they have permission to express feeling very directly. So that when a woman says, "Show me what youíre feeling. Open up" she doesnít realize that sheís asking the man to do something thatís very contradictory to what heís learned all these years, which is how to keep his emotions under control and get the job done.

Bert: In your book you say that Robert Bly told you, "The image of the ideal man today is the perfected woman." You wrote that men feel bombarded by the demand to become more expressive, to "show their feelings more."

Sam: One of the things I try to do in Wrestling With Love is make a distinction between expressiveness and responsiveness. Because I think a lot of men feel that theyíre just supposed to pour out feelings. Youíre supposed to have a lot of feelings, which I donít think is really the point. We can all think of people who are constantly pouring out feelings and actually that feels very oppressive. Thatís not real intimacy. What I try to do is talk about responsiveness, which is the ability to acknowledge and listen and affirm and to feel affirmed yourself. And that actually feels to me like a much more manageable example of intimacy.

When I come home from traveling my kids often come running up to me and say "Weíve missed you." For a number of years my habit was to reply, "I know." But then I realized that actually what they wanted to hear was, "I missed you too." So thatís a small change, but I think it made all the difference to my son and daughter, who wanted to hear that they mattered to me and hat I was thinking of them while I was gone.

Bert: I loved your reference to the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal a grandfatherly man. Dorothy scolds him: "You're a bad man!" The wizard explains, "Iím a good man, just a bad wizard."

Sam: I think thatís the male dilemma right there, which is that we get mixed up between being a man and being a wizard. I think that men are the lightning rods for a lot of wishes of both men and women. We look like weíre really grown up and competent, and I think everybody wants to feel that thereís somebody out there that is big and strong and can protect you and make the world orderly. And so I think we project a lot of wishes that men be like wizards. And I think a lot of men and women have trouble when men reveal themselves and talk about their vulnerabilities. But I think itís very important that we find a way to do it.

Bert: You point out in your book that there may a cost when men begin to express their feelings. The woman may begin to wonder if she can depend on him for greater protection and security. Some women, including friends of ours, wanted loving, caring gentle men rather than "macho" men, but now, many years later, they find themselves unhappy. In fact their relationship may be breaking up. Itís like thereís something missing.

Sam: I wonder if whatís missing is aggression, that in the attempts to have gentle men thereís no room for a manís, or a womanís normal aggression and the real tension in a relationship and the fact that any relationship involves both disappointment and frustration and the ability to fight, as a normal part of the relationship.

Bert: You also talk about women as "gatekeepers" to menís emotional lives and sense of self.

Sam: I think itís helpful to think about the boyís earliest relationship with his mother. I think that one of the hidden secrets of our lives as men is just how much we love and fear our mothers. For many men, mothers were the ones that they turned to for support and tenderness. A fatherís tenderness is often harder to see. A father may have defined himself as the provider or the disciplinarian and his more tender sides may not have been expressed. So that I think that at the earliest ages boys look to women as the emotional caretakers, the expressive ones in the family. And we often want our wives, I think, to play that role as well. Which can lead to a lot of confusion for men when women wonít do that or get tired of playing that role in our lives.

Bert: You pointed out that for all that feminism has contributed to our culture, it has also brought out a subtle idealization of women and a less subtle denigration or misunderstanding of men. Care to elaborate?

Sam: I think that we do idealize women. We claim that women are the caretakers of relationships, that men are not interested in relationships. We see women as the guardians of affect and mothers in the family as emotional caretakers. And I think that thereís a myth, and thereís some truth to that of course, but I think that thereís some kind of idealization of women. I know that in many families fathers are very tender. And their tenderness is not seen. Their tenderness may be captured in their toolbox. Or in the amount of time they spend in the garage working on cars. Often men, as they get older, remember moments of tenderness with their father that were unexpressed. Also many men remember their mothers as struggling with anger and frustration in the home, and have a lot of difficulty in understanding some of the non-caring aspects of their mothers, as well. So I do think we have been polarized and itemized.

One of the problems is that we talk about gender and human attributes and divide them into different genders. I think itís important to think about mastery, and competence, and also to think about care and tenderness. Part of the problem is when we identify women with care and tenderness and men with mastery and competence. I think what I would hope weíre moving towards is a society in which each person can embody both sets of attributes.

Bert: What are your thoughts on the "mythopoetic" aspects of the "menís movement" represented by James Hillman, Robert Bly, Robert Moore, and Douglas Gillette?

Sam: Many men are struggling so hard today to understand their experiences. We live in a time of such contradictory expectations for men now that we get confused as to what it means to be a man. Iím continually reminded of Mark Twainís comment, that at the age of 12 a boy starts imitating a man, and just keeps on doing that for the rest of his life. And I think we still to a lot of imitating as men. We look for models and try to imitate them. Now, what I would hope is that the images that are offered to men are healing images, one that are rooted in their own experience and that allow men the opportunity to sort out their experience and to understand who they are, what their feelings are.

I get nervous sometimes when the images that are offered men take them very far from their own experience, to a very distant time and place that very much feels disconnected from the reality struggle of being a father, or being a husband, or being a son. When the mythopoetic material is very much connected to the reality of a manís life, and when a man feels he freely chooses it as an important image, then I feel more comfortable.

Bert: You said in Finding Our Fathers, "men donít have a true opportunity as little boys to grieve over the loss of mother, to master their wishes to be female, to complete the process of individuation and separation from women." This sounds like Joseph Campbellís classic myth description of "separation-initiation-return."

Sam: One of the things that strikes me as problematic is that Iím not sure how much "return" there is in this process in our time and culture. Iím concerned in some of the direction in which the menís movement is going at times, with the separation and initiation, and then forgetting to go back to women. I think itís important for men to find a way to talk to each other. So I would hope that we donít get into a "boyís club" thing, because the heroic journey that you describe is also the "boyís club" fantasy, which is that we get a little club, close and lock the door, and donít have to deal with women. That impulse concerns me.

Bert: You write in your book, "The stereotypical image of menís groups is a bunch of guys drumming and chanting and wrestling as they strive to find the "inner warrior" and other mythic aspects of masculinity. Yet these activities donít represent what generally happens in menís groups: At most groups men talk about basic, simple life issues."

Sam: I know that in most of the menís groups that Iíve been a part of, or that Iíve led, men want to talk about concrete issues, the stuff that makes or breaks our individual lives. How do you deal with teenage kids? Sex talks with children. The ways in which marriage is being made for the better or for the worse when kids arrive. How to deal with work, and bosses, and aging.

One of the things that I have found most helpful, in terms of my own development and growth, is putting into words my own private secrets and failures and disappointments, and finding that other men struggle with them too. It doesnít mean that we find great answers, but the loneliness and sense of shame is often reduced by realizing that other men, too, got angry with their kids that day. Or a struggle with how to manage a marriage in this time, or struggle with their wives.

The most important thing is finding a way of putting into words experiences that have been held private. I love drumming. Drumming just gets me going. But, when thatís the major connector, and it doesnít go beyond drumming, then I get nervous. Because Iím wondering whereís the rest of the experience, whereís the real connection here.

Bert: In a speech reprinted in Aprilís Seattle M.E.N, Warren Farrell dismisses the mythopoetic aspect of the "menís movement" as "the two Fs -- Fathers and Feelings." He says that ultimately, the "menís movement" must become a political movement for equality. What are your thoughts on this?

Sam: Well, I think that weíve got to be very careful when we think about political movements. I feel like these are very personal, private struggles, what a man goes through, and that a lot comes from connecting your own experience with that of others. But when things get very heavily politicized I also think that thereís a cost to it, which is that there then becomes a political consciousness, a "political correctness." I think Warrenís writings are wonderful but I would be careful not to denigrate some of the connecting of experiences, of feelings, that men have been doing, and to be cautious about how quickly we move towards political movement per se. Iím a lot more interested in the personal growth opportunities at this point.

Bert: He also states that a father paying child support for a child he did not want "forces him to use his body for 18 years." He says this in reply to womenís abortion arguments that "itís my body, itís my business." He says the issue is "the rights of the female, the fetus, and the father." You touch on this issue of reproductive rights from your own experience in Finding Our Fathers. Care to comment?

Sam: Well, I think that it is a very difficult situation. My wife and I went through a series of miscarriages before the birth of our first child. That made me very, very, painfully aware of the fact that a father connects to the baby before birth, and that men are very much involved affectively with their children, often in ways that they donít understand. Iíve counseled many men who have gone through abortion experiences of their wives, their loves, infertility, and theyíre in the middle of a real grief reaction and they donít understand it, or shame, which they turn on themselves. "If I had been more of a man there wouldnít be this infertility," or "If I was more of a man, the pregnancy wouldnít have been terminated."

I think itís very important for men to be aware of this connection, and I think balancing rights is very complicated, because on the other hand the pregnancy occurs in the body of a woman. What I would hope is that we could have some dialog between the genders now, about what our responsibilities are to each other, and what our mutual connections are, because I think men are actually very vulnerable in the current climate, where they have no place in which to have their feelings heard. Sometimes itís not necessarily that the man wants to have the decision-making power, itís rather that he wants to feel acknowledged and heard in his pain or struggle around the event itself. That sometimes does not happen and itís very painful.

I think thatís at the core of a lot of male-female struggles now. Women say that men want to go back to the old days, that men donít want women in the workplace, and that men don't want women working outside the home. I donít actually find that in my travels and talks with men. I don't find that. I find that many men are very pleased that women are in the workplace, many men treasure their friendships with women, and many men are very proud of their working wives. What they do want is to feel heard. They want to feel like they can air some of the difficulties theyíre having. Sometimes when they do that they immediately get tarred with this brush of being "sexist pigs." And that, I think is very painful for a lot of men.

Bert: How do you feel about men-only or women-only retreats?

Sam: I feel mixed. Several of the events that I do every year are for men, only. Usually thatís at the request of the men who organize the event. And Iím aware of the fact that in all-male groups there are many men who say things and who connect with experience that I believe they never would have, if women were present.

On the other hand, the excesses of womenís groups that have thrown men out remind us of how painful it feels to the other gender to feel like theyíre excluded and devalued. And I know that some of the most important learning in my life has been from women. So that I often feel a loss when Iím in an all-male group. I feel a real wonderful connection, and I also wish that women were present. And Iíve found that the groups in which men and women are present together, and listening to each otherís pain and love for each other are remarkable opportunities for dialog between the genders, which is what I think we need these days. So that Iím torn. And I don't really know the resolution of this, except to say that whenever I lead an all-male group, I think of it as a beginning and not an end. Itís a first step for a lot of us, and that what happens after that is beginning to talk, not just to men but to women as well.

Sam: I was flying into Seattle yesterday and I was sitting next to a woman who was reading some diatribe about men. And I thought, "Well, now, this is ironic. Here I am coming to talk about Wrestling With Love menís issues, and Iím sitting next to a woman who is reading this nasty assault on men," And I felt to myself, why even say anything to this woman?

But as the flight went on, we began to talk, and it soon turned out, actually, that she was much more eager to hear what men are experiencing than I had first attributed to her. She even had some skepticism about this assaultive book that she was reading. I think she really wanted to know, do men really have an inner life? And we had a wonderful conversation about all this. It reminded me that every day we have the chance to begin a dialog, and we have the choice as to whether we try to take that chance or not. I find women often very deeply curious to hear more about where men are.

Bert: Sometimes I have the feeling that women are afraid or fearful of the menís movement.

Sam: Oh, well I think they are. Think how scared men were of the womenís movement. You know, you see a whole bunch of the opposite sex banding together, getting kind of huffy and puffy, and talking about how great they are and how bad the other people are. I think a lot of women feel rebuffed and hurt by what theyíre hearing from the menís movement, and I think that women often feel nervous about men expressing their pain, theyíre worried that theyíre going to lose the hero. Itís not a knock on women to suggest that everybody wants to feel like thereís somebody big and strong out there in the world. For men to start to talk about their vulnerability I think leaves a lot of women at times worrying that whoís going to take care of business.

I once worked with a delightful couple, two successful lawyers in which the wife was always at the husband to "Show your feelings. Tell me, what are you feeling?" Finally he began to talk about how he felt he was never good enough for his father, and then he starts to weep. Whereupon his wife, who was really quite savvy, turned to me and him and said, "I always wanted you to open up, but not like that!"I think her sense of him as a strong and masterful man was called into question and she worried that he was just going to become a little, crying boy.

Bert: With Fatherís Day coming up, do you have any advice for our readers who are fathers?

Sam: My advice to fathers would be to take the love that their families are willing to give them. I am very aware of how hard it is for fathers to take the gifts that kids and wives want to give them, to show their love. Sometimes you want to turn away. And I would also say to fathers to take the short amount of time involved to say to your son or daughter that you really love them. I mean, to put it into words, donít let something else say it for you. Put it into words, and let other people say it to you. That would be my advice. And to remember that itís a manageable task. It doesnít mean taking hours and days out of your busy schedule. It means just a few moments of direct eye contact.

Bert: I want to thank you very much for the interview. Itís been enjoyable.

Sam: My pleasure, Bert.

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