It’s Monday, 1:45, and six men and I sit in a circle with our German-trained psychotherapist, an imperious woman who reminds us that she is here to help or offer guidance only if we get bogged down and that we men need to find our own way through our turmoil, which is the point of the group and the point of each of us paying $3000 per year. I’m fairly new, so before I speak, I’m seeking some level of comfort or commonality among them, and every week I come up short. I’m not yet adjusted and unsure what I should be adjusting to.
Obviously, I don’t know these men. And I doubt I’d associate with them outside this forum or be in a social situation where we’d meet. Case in point, the tanned man (our real names cannot be shared). The tanned man has the time-clocked sadness my father had at fifty-five; the greying hair above his ears, the loyalty to a global corporation and the ease of leveraged investments about him; a man who regards his goldenness as some golf-cart anhedonia, with his deck shoes, velour pullover, browning legs, white ankles, and baggy, bluish shorts; and his marriage run aground, whose chassis has been scraping the gravel for a couple years now.
He says everything he’s tried won’t move the needle, that is, between him and his wife. The strangely placid woe he wears into our sessions I find disturbing. He always sits in the room’s lone, hard-back chair, best, he says, for his sofa-ruined back, telling us, as he did last Monday, that he’s still sleeping on the leather couch in the basement where she sentenced him, hard-on in tow (an adolescent bit of humor), and where nailed above the foot of the stairs a little plaque reads, I’m not kidding, “Man Cave.”
His tortured spine is no better, he says, even after a beach-walk and the treadmill, and yet he seems relaxed becoming accustomed, I presume, to us commiserating with his fraught condition, we his brethren therapists, though there’s wariness and worry in how often his legs cross and uncross as if this is a job interview. Why do I notice all this? Why can’t I concentrate on my own shit? I’ve got plenty of it, guy-wired in me and my partner, a problem with medications.
But I’d rather observe, in my middle-child way, stay unfrayed, unfazed. At least until I’m better attuned. And how soon, before they catch on, that I’m a writer, which means I do a lot of sitting back, hands folded, feet flat on the carpet, mulling, watching, listening, and evaluating our platoon-like dynamic as a prelude to my participation, which I should understand is the reason I’m here.
Indeed, my curiosity is running way ahead because I’m starting to see that if the tanned man has been complaining about his situation for a year or two, weekly outlining the same scenario, it’s designed, in part, that he never get beyond his marital anguish, and, instead, learns with the group’s help how to live with it, the thing that’s being activated by us, living with it among like-minded men, and getting some distance from what he describes as his face-peeled, puffy-lipped, breast-enhanced wife. “I married a model,” he says, and we, his tribe, believe this explains more than half, if not most of his doom.
But don’t get him wrong, he says, for he appreciates the support of men in need who, I’m assuming, have confessed to a similar pin-pulled-from-the-grenade moment, and I think of a ship’s guy-ropes taut by the pull of the tide, easing then taut, easy-taut, the creaking sound of their near-fatal stretch and snap and unraveling, much like the tanned man’s rocking between freedom and imprisonment, the trap he’s fallen into is his doing.
How often he forgets, he says, If only he’d think before he speaks to her and his anger erupts, which he knows just fucks him up, not her, but he can’t just let fly those insults she slaps him with—I thought we’d had this fight before, or, I don’t know, you tell me, or there’s a problem here and it’s not me—abuses that instigate his snarky back-attack at her, which, he realizes, she’s gunning for, and his knife-sharp response is what she solicits and then seizes on as proof that he won’t, he cannot now, nor can he ever change. It all blows up in his face, and he descends to the basement, falling again (I’m seeing the pattern) for the upside-down shape that defines the dominance hierarchy of their union—she’s the Alpha Dog, he’s the Bitch.
In addition, he goes on, why can’t he get credit for the sweetly attentive hours he spends with her? The cordiality they used to have, their sexual romps three times a week, like last Saturday night, for instance, with a sundown movie and dinner and drinks at Jake’s at the shore. His stellar behavior that night with the door and the seat and the check, and his compliments, and his letting her speak because, and here, his shut-eyed head cranks religious-like toward the ceiling, exasperated, he says, the Lord above must be hearing his plea, why can’t he renew his marriage on his terms, why doesn’t just being together like it’s their first date work?
But, on the other hand, at least, he’s got this far, he says, and it’s better than it was. He thinks it’s because he’s conscious of what he needs to work on, and then he names them, his twin poisons—shame and self-blame—terms secure in the couples’ diagnostic manual, entries in the glossary, which is a backhanded thanks to us, Job’s comforters, since our listening to his travail helps him recalculate the travail for himself.
There, it is working.
But now arrives the rare summarizing assessment from our grandmotherly psychologist, part Freudian, part family systems interrogator, who says (and now I’m quoting since it shows we’re not being overcharged) the tanned man’s “difficulty is that [wife’s name withheld] holds him to an impossible standard of male responsibility that no man can meet, especially given her father whose abandonment she still feels, who left and divorced her mother, all when she was six. Her rage against men needs only the slightest disrespect from her husband to lash out at him and wall herself off from being hurt.”
And, I think, there it is: she rages, he withdraws; she demands, he withers; she pounces, he cowers; momma bear and cub. Shame and self-blame. The point is, she wins, she’s in it to win, while he just takes it—thus, the man cave and the getaways, to golf, to boat, to ski. The lawn care, too, stooping to weed in the sun, on their flowered and fruit-tree-filled lot, their Rancho Santa Fe Mansion, which, his being outdoors and away from her, is soul medicinal for him because that’s when the rancor stops, and he can breathe.
Yet I can’t help but wonder how has America fed and fattened this couple? Whatever import/export business he and she have, both I learn are stay-at-home execs, a pair of high-performance checkered flags, Ferrari-enabled, one-percenters maybe, and is this why they stay together—for the sake of the status? What does that matter when this self-reproaching sorrow dissolves his self-esteem, and why shouldn’t he feel so fucking worthless, he says, if this is how he feels? When he feels as bad as he does, only then will he repair the break, make amends, find a way in or out.
But though we are taught to give no advice (just listen, then speak from your own experience), by now I’ve had enough and I want to intervene. With what? My tale, which once weighed me down as much as his does him today, about my ex, many years ago, and how divorce (eventually) fixed the cracked ceiling so the asbestos stopped drifting through my dreams. She, the woman, my love, my wife, didn’t want to continue, and if she couldn’t because I wouldn’t leave, then she’d punish me, with a couch of my own. She, who threw spears of endless male culpability, the battlement behind which she arrowed her disdain, the catapult attacks to wound me so, in defeat, I’d fling myself off the tower. If I could give advice I would say to the tanned man that his marriage is over, and be glad that it’s over because it’s really over when she says it is.
Alas, sorry to say, I’m more comfortable putting off my two cents’ worth for now. I’ll hold my tongue, keep the peace as a way to hold his, embrace him and his pig-in-a-poke suffering. Yes, I do have a failure of my own, festering in my chest (that shit about medications I mentioned above), which I tell myself these men will appreciate once I stop listening to myself and confess the truth to them. I will next week, I will get to it.
Journalist, book/music critic, and memoirist Thomas Larson is the author of Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry (Swallow Press) as well as The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease (Hudson Whitman), The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ (Pegasus Press), and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative (Swallow Press). He is a twenty-year staff writer for the San Diego Reader.