Trapped in the Double Bind: Psychotherapist Eugene Kidder on Men, Masculinity, and Relationships with Women

When asked why she doesn’t write a book for men about dating Rachel Geenwald, a dating coach and the author of Have Him at Hello, answered that publishers don’t believe that men buy self-help books.  Ironically, her book is very popular among men who try to understand women better and improve their dating experience.  When I started exploring different subjects to write about for the relationship section of my blog, I noticed a lack of serious information and guidance for men regarding relationships with women. We live in a culture that discusses extensively women’s issues, with some positive and negative side affects, but neglects having meaningful discussions about men’s well-being. Men I talked to on the matter expressed their frustration at the lack of proper material and guidance and expressed a desire to learn more and have more information available to them about dating, relationships, and women. This information gap led to the publishing of my posts Matchmakers on the Challenges Men Have in the Dating Scene Today, and What Men Need to Know About Women. In this post I’m happy to share with you my interview with Eugene Kidder, a veteran psychotherapist from Seattle, who has behind him many years of experience working with men. We discussed the different conflicts that men encounter today in the different stages of relationships with women. Talking to Eugene I have become aware of so many personal and social conflicts men find themselves in today when trying to maneuver their way between contradicting influences in our culture. I hope that this interview will give both men and women tools to have a better communication between them and to grow their relationship stronger. 

Eugene Kidder is an ordained minister and a certified group psychotherapist and consultant. He studied theology at Yale University Divinity School and psychodynamic psychotherapy at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, where couples work was the primary training. Mr. Kidder favors infusing his psychotherapy work with spirituality (non-sectarian). Over the years he has augmented his training to include Jungian studies, Transactional Analysis and Hypnosis as a Therapeutic Intervention. He has practiced for 50 years in Seattle, 38 of which have been in private practice. He serves as consultant to colleagues in the conduct of both individual and group work and co-leads Men’s Groups with colleague Robert Berley, Ph.D.

What are the challenges that men have today in relationships with women?

The men’s movement, which took hold in the 1970s, has created a permanent life-changing state-of-being for men in this century, restoring dignity and generating powerful effects in their relationships with women. Yet the outcomes are not unambiguous and are in ways convoluted. 

A male patient in his 50s shared with me his relationship experience with women.  He has schooled himself assiduously in becoming more acquainted with his emotional contents, his capacity to be vulnerable, and his ability to articulate what vulnerability means for him when with a woman. He recently ended a relationship with a woman he had been seeing. In their relationship, they had made some agreements about voicing their needs and speaking about their vulnerability. This had become an extensive and rewarding reciprocal conversation for both of them/for him. Yet he found that when he chose to speak strongly and directly in the vein the woman said she most wanted to hear, i.e. to voice his vulnerability, she found him to be "too much". This has been his experience in more than one relationship.  The man is very accomplished; he consults with businesses, he can articulate his experience in depth and with clarity. So he becomes "the king of the double bind"- a major loss and frustration to have arduously embraced and enacted what he most was told he needed to do and then have it rejected. The impact on self-esteem is profound. Both the man and woman in this kind of interaction become as well too much and too little! My patient's experience illustrates the conundrum men often find in their explorations and could lead a man to say to a woman, "be careful what you ask for!" 

One concludes that men should approach a dating adventure in this light without naïveté, yet with caution, risk, and courage.

So what should men do with this paradox when women want them to be more emotional but can’t deal with it?

I spent some time in the 80's with the poet Robert Bly, One of the leaders of the Men’s Movement, attending a workshop with 109 men for a several day retreat. My imagination was captured by his observation that as men we are conditioned too much to ascend, to accomplish goals in the heights of success and power. I am seeing a man in therapy now who has been inordinately successful in business, commanding others in extravagant largess, and making millions of dollars. However, because of his exhaustive stress level, as a result of how he was doing his work, he became hungry and lost in his attachment and connection with himself and his wife. He sought stimulation and aliveness in pornography. When this was finally shared with his wife, she found it close to a deal breaker. He took matters in hand. They undertook couples work.  He joined Sexaholics Anonymous. He decided for life over success, and has enjoyed a year of sobriety and recovery. He left the high level job with a tech company where he was employed, essentially taking a Sabbatical of several months. He has reconditioned himself about his quality of care for himself and for the marriage, which has been reunited. He and his wife went off for a week vacation, before he started a new job, celebrating his choice to reckon with the destructive potential of the male expectation that "ascending the heights" is the prime value in living. My patient has discovered that, as Bly contends, a man must rather make his descent, to investigate the darker regions of the soul, where serious threats to existence, discoveries of deeper meaning and understanding, and finally capacities to reckon with powers, passions, and purposes are to be found. He calls this "the deep moist", the well of feelings and instincts. He commends any man to spend time "in the ashes" where he faces failure, loss, and emptiness. 

My psychotherapy work over the years has been to investigate unconscious influences, make them conscious and see how they illumine experience and imagination. For a man this includes addressing Kali, the witch goddess, who lives and moves in the psyche of every man. The most vicious of the Hindu goddesses - Kali is the fearful, ferocious Dark Mother, whose face and breasts are sullied with blood. She has 4 arms, a sword in one hand and the head of a demon in the other.  She has one foot on her husband's chest, the other on his thigh. She is known for her brutal rampages. 

A man remains uncertain when in the unfolding of a relationship with a woman this most dangerous archetypal figure may turn up.  It is not the woman herself that is the threat, but a dark unconscious influence that lies latently within him. In another way, if Kali has previously been vaulting about in his experience, he may project her on the current woman he is with. Always after the romantic initiative the dark forces, the shadows in each party are going to appear and demand to be confronted. When they are confronted they are an empowering influence. When they are not confronted they threaten, undermine, and sabotage what the relationship could be.

There are men who had made bad first marriage choices due to not being conscious of their own needs, some who made better second marriage judgments, and a significant number who have done "third time’s a charm". For some, the second marriage is a reaction to the first one, interestingly, in a sort of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, and have come to a wholeness and fulfillment. Second marriages sometimes serve as a transitional object on the way to integration. It is with somebody who has a little bit of the first and a little bit of something promising, and then getting to the person with whom the synthesis is taking place. In this relationship the man can touch the pathologies of the earlier stuff that couldn’t wash out over time. That’s fascinating stuff.

In the past, men were trained to hide their emotions but the Men’s Movement in the ‘70s encouraged them to be in touch with their emotions and express them. Some say it backfired on them and that it damaged their masculine image, would you agree?

Actually the awakening of emotions, the acknowledgement of the feminine in men, emerged for young people in the 60's and became the province of adults in the 70's. Bly observed a resultant deficit and impairment in what he called "the soft male". The loss was the potency of the masculine. The matter comes full circle; after investigating one's more tender emotional side, the right brain sources, it becomes necessary to reclaim the leadership of the male influence that takes initiative and authority.  When a man is aware of his emotional side he is able to take charge, assert, and confront resistance, not in a harsh and aggressively hostile way but in an assertive, competent, and confrontive way. 

So how does one balance between his emotional side and his masculine side?

Here is an example. A man I have treated for many years suffered the virulent effects of an indulgent mother and a harsh and punitive father. He elected a warlike, power basis of relationship with women, including his first marriage. In the course of his work with me he transformed his understanding of caring and compassion. He also evolved his experience of leadership and power into a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity. He recently entered a very healthy and emotionally abundant marriage. He and his wife, who has a lot of experience with dogs, decided to get a dog.  He had been struck by her thoughtful tender engaging way of training the dog. Then there was a day when she was not at home and the dog peed on the carpet. He took action, in effect to saying no to the dog. He noticed that the dog was wary of him thereafter. He thought about it. He could feel shame about it, but decided, “No, I have a different way to deal with the dog than the way she does. It has got to be OK for me to exert some aggressive influence.” He did not discount her approach, which is hers, but accepted his different approach. These transactions of the couple, in part ambiguous, illustrate in a microcosm how a man can synthesize the male potency with feminine responsiveness within himself. Then he is able to work through a conflict in the relationship with all resources in good order and in a functional way. This man's therapeutic journey has brought him to a new integrity, in which he holds responsibility, leadership, and initiative without abrogating his tender sense of vulnerability and compassion. By the way, he is now being trained to be a psychotherapist.

What should a man do when he feels that his masculinity is unbalanced in a relationship with a very powerful woman?

The question reminds me of an observation by Sam Keen, author of a book titled Fire in the Belly. He observed that a man must first establish what is his own passion and purpose in life for this journey and then decide who he will take on his voyage with him. If the sequence is reversed, it is trouble. This means that the approach the man takes depends on his comfort level with his own emotional contents. Faced with a conflict or tension with the woman, he can hold his own truth non-defensively; listen deeply to her voicing, while awaiting his own moment to speak.  He is free to express and yet contain when appropriate. The impulse to react - the more sophomoric response to discovering emotional power, spills mindlessly in trying to face a woman’s power - is self defeating, because it’s not regulated. I talk to my patients about affect regulation, which is a term for having a feeling, honoring the feeling, accepting the feeling, and then reevaluating - Is it something I must say? Is it useful to say? Or  - Is it only going to be a reactive, defensive interaction? This presents a test for both genders. I am reminded of a male therapist mentor who used to say; when in conflict with somebody, " if they are worth it, confront it. If they are not worth it, walk away. If they are not worth it and they are climbing your frame, you knock them on their ass and then walk away". That was his sort of humorous formula. 

 When I think about this same man I have referenced, who has been in long-term therapy, I notice that these days he is very astute and discerning about the women in his world. Being a very attractive guy, with a measure of charisma, he is approached by numerous women. He has developed radar for female behavior that represents a hostile or toxic energy or pathologic problems – and will stay away from them. Previously he would get enmeshed, get involved, get sucked in, out of a sense of wanting to exert his own ego, or be in power. He has now developed a wiser, more conscious, more attuned quality that says, “I’m not going there.” At one critical moment in his experience, a colleague and fellow member of an organization he belongs to came to the house during a time of personal crisis and knocked on the door, supposedly wanting to support him.  But he had already picked out that she had an agenda, so he didn’t answer the door. That’s a choice to recognize the power of a woman, but also to recognize the potential toxic and poisonous influence in her.

Are young men today willing to come to psychotherapy and work on their personal issues?

I would say that there is a greater disposition for men to seek help. When I started my practice in the ‘60s, probably at least 80% of whom I saw were women. It is exactly reversed now. Of course at my age, which is 87, I don’t see a lot of younger people, but my colleagues see younger men. And would say that there is a great inclination for young men to examine. I don't have statistics to offer, yet my colleagues concur in the observation.

Could you share what you hear from you patients about their challenges with dating?

Part of what I see is the difficulties in online dating. This is true for both men and women. When people go on a date or two and afterwards the other side won’t say if she/he would want to meet again but instead they just don’t call or answer the phone - that leaves people very vulnerable. Also, there is great disillusionment in the people I see doing online dating, facing the discrepancy between an online profile, the way a person describes what they are looking for, and who they are when they actually show up.

I also have a positive story about online dating. In addition to my psychotherapy I’m also an ordained minister. A few weeks ago I married a couple that met online, both of whom were previously married and had kids. The man described how he had arrived to the restaurant where they were meeting and he saw her from a distance and he just knew. Love at first sight. There can be a case of being in love with the idea of love and not actually knowing the person you are seeing. But in this case it was confirmed and solidified by what I have learned subsequently that there was real love there. It’s an example of healthy people.

What are the challenges that men deal with in long-term relationships?

I use myself as an example. I have been married for 64 years, and on occasion people say, “You don’t understand divorce.”  My answer is, “I do understand divorce. I have been married seven times.” There are critical developments and changes that take place in people’s life that require a different acceptance of new aspects of the other person and the marriage itself. My wife Barbara waited until our kids were at a certain age to do her training to be a therapist. We have four kids; the youngest was well on his way when she decided to do the program. It was a distance-learning program. The school was in San Francisco and the faculty would come to Seattle from Friday afternoon through Sunday and I wouldn’t see her much during that time. She attended a number of those extended weekends as part of her training, so that challenged me to deal with the changes in my responsibilities in the house while still keeping my work going. It was a process for me to accept that she would be in a more empowered place in our marriage - as a result of her going through this training and of us collaborating, as we eventually did. A long-term relationship puts us to the test at different points in life.  

Another challenge that sometimes comes up in a long-term relationship is when the midlife male who is having trouble facing mortality, chooses the denial of loss that is inevitable with the aging process by having affairs with younger women, or divorcing his wife and marrying a younger woman.  A Midlife crisis is really hard on men.

What would you suggest would be the best way to deal with a midlife crisis?

Self-investigation and spiritual influence are ways to accept death, and of course to talk about it. I also recommend reading the book Staring at the Sun by the psychoanalyst Irvin Yalom that talks about facing death.

Is there any relationship advice you would like to give women?

I’m quoting a man who was fond of saying kind of humorously, “Tell your truth but don’t keep telling it.” It’s about how a woman can voice what she needs to have heard without obsessing about it to the point where it starts sounding like a rant as opposed to sharing.  It defeats the intent of getting somebody to hear her and the man’s receptivity.

Also, learn to really listen to your partner. When a woman focuses on her anxiety about whether she is going to be included, she can miss the fact that she is actually included. The patient I mentioned earlier, who became addicted to porn, told me that his wife was complaining that he left her out of the process. It was very frustrating to him, because he’s very aware, and I believe him, that he had gone with her over the same excruciating details of what he was going through but she was having trouble listening. When she said, “You didn’t tell me that.” that was not true.  Her anxiety kicked in to such a degree that she blocked hearing what he was saying. It’s kind of an ironic dysfunction there.

And last but not least, If a man doesn’t come forward, if he doesn’t present himself, if he doesn’t do his part in maintaining the relationship, then the woman is very well advised to get out of there.

You are known as a therapist who specializes in men. In your opinion do men have different emotional needs from those of women?

Attempts to apply psychological evaluation to any segment of the society in more global terms are most likely to falter. We can see that a current trend in the culture may condition how men or women may differently experience their emotional needs, regardless of what the needs may be. Examples are the women's liberation movement and the men's movement.  In both cases changes in perception were effected both by the groundswell and its subsequent counter-reactions. These days the social media is impacting emotional perceptions in large measure, often generating distortions of the actual human experience. Nevertheless, I find that men and women share the common human need for: 1) a secure attachment; 2) emotional "holding" (physically and psychologically); 3) "personal presence" of another; 4) eye to eye engagement; 5) to be seen as one's true self; 6) passionate engagement. These are of course primary needs from our earliest life development.  I observe that men need affirmation of their nature to give, in leadership, and offering protection.  Women need to be affirmed in their receptivity as a primary feminine quality.  Yet both genders need to borrow these respective needs from the other as augmentation to their primary identity.