Frequently Asked Questions
This page aims to address the most commonly asked questions regarding MENDS and separated men. Topics covered include:
MENDS' experience has essentially confirmed that men are reluctant to talk to others about their difficulties in times of stress because of their belief that society expects men to cope with everything on their own. Men find it especially difficult to discuss their vulnerability in the presence of women.
What is unique about this program is that it has been designed by and is delivered by men, for men; built around the notion that a major factor in mens' problems in and after relationships is a product of their male conditioning. Specific male behaviours that work against men at this highly demanding time include:
Many men see themselves only in terms of their capacity to provide financial, material or work-related inputs to themselves and their relationships. Often, when these yardsticks disappear, as they do frequently in separation, men see little personal value.
Men frequently have trouble contacting and expressing their feelings and usually have few close friends and supporters who they can really talk to at this stressful time.
Many men perceive seeking support as the hallmark of a weak, deficient or defeated male, so when they are most in need of support, they are least likely to make the request.
In many cases men have a very narrow emotional support-base, often just their primary relationship partner, who in over two thirds of cases is the person who initiated the separation. Male friends frequently have great difficulty in providing the support a man needs to weather this storm….. so men often become extremely isolated and withdrawn, a process further accentuated by the widespread idea that "real men" should be independent and cope alone.
Men are action-focused; with a strong tendency to adopt a task-oriented, problem-solving and/or quick-fix approach which often doesn’t assist emotional resolution. They tend to try to "think it through" and avoid getting in touch and dealing appropriately with the feelings that come up.
Men only become aware of how self defeating this is when the tide of undealt-with-feelings becomes so overwhelming that it completely blocks their capacity to think and plan their way forward rationally. In this mode, men are often unable to provide even their legal council with a consistent and coherent brief.
Many men have internalised the doubt of emotional competence that society ascribes to men. This reaches a critical point in separation and results in a substantial loss of faith in their own judgement at a time when many critical decisions need to be made. While this is a painful time for men to regain that trust, it is also critical in their recovery.
Many men in our society are emotionally dependent upon women, a carry over from childhood, and as a result confuse intimacy and sexuality. The ability to clarify that these two important aspects of adult life can be independent is critical to men being able to form enriching new adult relationships without the limiting belief that intimacy MUST involve sex. This opens men up to growth to enjoy new friendships without anxiety and confusion. This clarity prevents much of the headlong premature rush into new partnering relationships.
Some people seem to get confused around this issue of men doing some critical foundation work on their own.
MENDS believes that men must find a safe and solid place in themselves, before they are solid enough to be in an intimate and mature relationship. We promote the notion of relationship as a meeting place for substantially solid individuals, rather than a retreat for semi-developed or co-dependent people, who don't yet know themselves and are largely unconscious of their own needs. We concur with the observation of the reputed self-esteem psychologist and author, Nathaniel Branden, who said:
"If I deny and disown the ways in which I need you, I will almost certainly be blind to the ways in which you need me and I will fail you, no matter how much I love you. If I am oblivious to my own need for nurturing, as men in particular often are, I am unlikely to be sensitive to yours. Empathy for another has its roots in self-awareness."
Nathaniel Branden - Taking Responsibility - P166, A Fireside Book by Simon & Schuster
A man doing the MENDS program recently reported going on a 3 day fishing trip with a group of male friends of many years, during which time not a one asked anything about his experience of separation and relationship breakdown. He was stunned and numbed by this experience.
It was pointed out to him how much difficulty most men have in honestly approaching the subject of a mate's relationship breakdown or problems, and being of support.
He later told one of the guys on the trip that he was surprised that no one had raised the subject, only to be told that the guys had discussed his situation before the trip and agreed that they would be helping him best by not raising the subject; indeed by actively avoiding it.
Needless to say, this was not what the separated man felt best served him, even though he readily admitted that he didn't need to spend much time on the matter, but that dealing with it the way it was, left him feeling like his massive pain was invisible or inconsequential to everyone else. That only adds to the exquisite pain most separated men experience and adds to their mental pain. They are hurting as never before in their life, in most cases, yet all their best friends either don't even seem to notice, or are incapable of raising the subject.
So what are the options in supporting a mate in separation or even considering the possibility of separation because of ongoing relationship difficulties?
Ignore it - the above story illustrates this approach. It didn't work for this man, and doesn't for most. Getting on the booze together would fit under this approach. Going out clubbing, to try to get him "laid" to forget her, is just as unhelpful. Avoiding him completely fits here, as does not calling, not having him over to visit, and suddenly dropping him off the social calendar.
Jump in boots and all - in this approach you provide little room for your mate to tell you what he is experiencing, and proceed to tell him how to "get over it". This could involve (again) getting on the booze, telling him everything that you didn't like about his X anyway, even passing along all the gossip you may have heard from your partner about what your mates X is up to.
Fuelling his pain and frustration fits here, as would validating aggressive threats.
Bite your lip and LISTEN - this is the hardest one of all, but the one that will best serve your friend.
Why so hard?
As men, we are socialized to be problem solvers and to deny pain, so what this situation presents challenges all we know. No matter how tempting, we cannot solve a mate's marital problems, so understand that early and give up the sense of inadequacy for not being able to do so. That is really hard, because many men habitually problem-solve. Your role is to be a listener!
What is the alternative to pain denial? The pain is real for your friend and is not going to pass in a few days. Not only won't denying it ease it, it will, in fact, make the situation worse. The pain of separation has been likened to a death, except that there is no funeral to go to, to get a sense of closure. The people live on; you might pass them in the street, or the supermarket, but things will never be the same again.
So using the death comparison, how do we deal with a friend who is grieving the loss (by death) of a loved one? Ignoring their pain and staying away from the funeral would not work. We get cotton-mouth as we flounder for the words to be supportive, and so often, all the wrong things come out. But how about a simple and direct "Charlie, I am sure I cannot begin to understand what you are going through right now, but I want you to know I care for you and what you are experiencing. How can I best support you at this time?"
Wasn't that hard was it? And the same approach would stand you in good stead in dealing with a mate's separation. By simply focusing on the needs and being very direct, we produce the best chance of the straight answer. No need to be clever or Superman. just human.
Now that might produce an outpouring of pain, or even anger, grief, loss or any or all of the above. That's normal. And still there is no need to fix it, or to offer advice.
Responses like: "Tell me how that feels", "What did you think about that?", "Did that approach work for you?", "Does rerunning that type of thinking help you, or make you feel worse?"
When a person is experiencing this level of pain, their thoughts echo around in their head like golf ball struck with high power inside an empty corrugated iron tank - they ricochet around unpredictably and make lots of noise.
Your objective is to provide an opportunity for the thoughts to settle enough to be translated into words and come out the mouth. Or to use our golf ball analogy: for the balls to slow down, drop to the bottom of the tank and come out a small hole on the Northern side of the tank. One less bouncing ball, reduces the noise considerably, and it seems a lot less threatening and dangerous as it drops out the hole.
Most of us have had experience of ideas that made no sense or seemed scrambled in our head, all of a sudden making sense as we put them into words to get them out our mouth. Or alternatively, ideas that seemed half reasonable in our heads, suddenly seem illogical, exaggerated or ill-formed, as we try to articulate them. With that realization, we release them, and stop or slow investing them with energy.
So that is what you do by being a good listener.. You ease the pressure and increase reality-based thinking. Notice the word LISTENER! Listeners don't talk other than to clarify. That's your role.
Australian men generally invest their emotional energy on a very narrow front - typically their partner and their children. Yes, they have males friends, and a lucky few can really "unload" with them, but most men can only really tell it like it is, (not pretend to have all the answers, shed a tear if it helps), with just a few people, without fearing ridicule or rejection.
Sadly, economic pressures on most people today means they spend less time with their children than they would prefer. Many dads figure their partner is meeting most the kid's (emotional) needs, given how exhausted he is after trying to "bring home the bacon".
So how does that change after separation?
All of a sudden, his first line of emotional connection goes - his partner. As she was his primary emotional anchor, that leaves him very light on for intimacy in his life, so his kids, who he used to see little of (but never-the-less were second cab off the emotional rank), suddenly become his first line of emotional contact.
Yes, from his ex-partner's perspective, this might look hypocritical, but when one looks at this issue from the male perspective and the expectations of traditional male roles, a quite different interpretation can make sense.
Women, by comparison, generally have a wider circle of friends, whom they can "unload" with. Further, women's close relationships are not as overshadowed by the confusion that intimacy automatically involves sexuality, that is experienced by many men because of their socialisation.
Thankfully the American term Deadbeat Dad has not gained much coinage in Australia, but most people know what is meant by the term anyway. Fathers who withdraw from their child's life are frequently seen as emotionally dead and probably poor fathering material anyway.
This perception however, generally fails closer scrutiny. Yes, there are fathers who seem able to leave children apparently without a second thought, just as some women can, but the MENDS experience is that by far the majority of dads who do withdraw, do so for very different reasons, which are easily misinterpreted, particularly from a women's perspective.
An increasing amount of research indicates that the loss of regular contact with children is very stressful to fathers, in spite of the generally held perception that fathers are not as closely bonded to children. This is made worse by the default standard of paternal contact in Court orders of one weekend in two weeks (or 2 in 14 days).
On top of the low level of contact that many dads encounter, is the common experience that the transition of children from mother to father and back, is very a stressful time for children. Sadly, in the absence of quality information (such as delivered in the MENDS program), many parents assume that this transitional stress is indicative that their former partner is failing to meet the children's needs, while the more common reality is that children are simply upset by the transition and their expectation that Mum and Dad reconcile and reunite.
Some fathers, experiencing the loss of regular contact with their children, and then observing the stress of transition, come to the erroneous assumption that their children might be happier if he "disappeared".
On one level this logic is appealing. Certainly the apparent pain seems to drop - the father does not have to witness the transitional stress of his children, and does not have the regular anguish of establishing closeness to his children, only to have a drought of two weeks and the pain of separating.
But what this version of events ignores; and what he sadly may not see for many years, if ever, is the price his children pay for his absence from their lives: the birthdays, school sports days and other special events, where the child wonders what is wrong with them that their dad is not sufficiently interested to want to see their milestones and accomplishments.
With a child's "magical thinking"; from their ego-centric world view, children frequently assume that their parents broke up and their father withdrew because of something they (the child) did wrong.
For anyone tempted to discount what this means to children, we recommend the books "Father and Child Reunion" and "The Prodigal Father".
The legacy for children who grow, or more accurately distort, in the belief that a parent did not love them, is tragic. Poor self-esteem is the most common outcome.
Children of severed relationships, who achieve physical adulthood, and bring those sorts of self-esteem problems into adult relationships frequently themselves experience difficulty in effecting real intimacy, for fear of a repeat of that early loss. That sort of damage is rarely repaired without significant counselling as an adult.
The toxic core of that difficulty is the deeply buried belief of being unlovable, which can be significantly reduced if both parents sight this possibility early in their separation and specifically plan together to reaffirm the child then and on an ongoing basis. It is extremely difficult for one parent to make up for two parents in this critical role.