Counseling isn't something most men are excited to try. It's hard to convince us that we can't just figure things out on our own. But then there comes a revelation, a hidden part of a man's life comes to light. Now everything he's built is in jeopardy, and the people he's promised to love are left feeling wounded and betrayed.
I'm Fine, Really
As I write this, I'm thinking of the men out there putting on the brave face, working hard and checking all the boxes we ask them to check, and tolerating the quiet dread that sits in the back of our minds, telling us it's only a matter of time before we're found out.
I'm thinking of the men who by all accounts are happily married, engaged, or committed--but who are secret frequenters of porn sites, who keep re-downloading Tinder when they leave the house, or may even be skirting the edge of (or diving right into) an affair.
Of course, it is only a matter of time. Secrets aren't sustainable.
I'm not here to get into the morality of porn or swiping apps in themselves. The topic today is how and why men's sexual appetites can so often lead us to risk the things in our lives that we really value.
Or is sex actually just that important to us?
Despite the evolving narratives and attitudes around sex, relationships, and gender roles, a lot of guys still come of age in stories that don't let them be okay with their emotions and desires. The path for many of us has been performance-driven and shame-based. We don't see authenticity or vulnerability rewarded, even in a culture that claims to value those things.
In fact, a lot of men hear the words "authenticity" or "vulnerability" and think "weakness". But when I get the chance to hear their stories--often being told candidly for the first time--I can hardly blame them.
Inside each man is a heart longing for intimacy, truth, and freedom. But it gets locked away by the demands and expectations of systems that don't know what they want from us. That doesn't mean, however, that the heart stops desiring. And if we can't get (or don't believe we can get) the real thing, we will go for substitutes. And of those there are plenty.
See, despite what we often say about men's sex drives or 'animal' brains, sex is really the last remaining realm in which men feel allowed to explore their need for connection.
The Man Underneath
I've sat with a lot of men who've risked everything important to them and hurt the ones they loved, who don't even know why. It's not as if this was what they wanted. Sometimes even despite the grief and devastation, there's an element of relief. Somebody has finally heard the desperate voice inside.
When there's a behavior we can't control and don't understand, what's happening is that a deep, hidden-away part of us is demanding to speak, and won't be ignored anymore.
This doesn't justify anything this hidden part drives us to do, nor does it relieve us of the responsibility for what we choose--but the story matters because it holds the key to understanding and healing.
What's your story with your sexuality? In stories of pain and confusion, sex can become the only way we know how to seek connection, or to feel powerful, or to know we are capable, worthy, and wanted.
If you're like a lot of the guys who've sat with me in my office--and, if I'm honest, if you're like me in certain chapters of my life--you want to know how to fix this. Tell me the answer. Tell me what to do.
But the time has come to stop fixing. Stop trying to find the answer that explains everything. What your heart is demanding is that you start sitting with it, accepting it, and letting out the story of the man who got locked away from the world a long time ago.
He deserves that.
Mike Ensley, MA, LPCC is a professional counselor in Loveland, CO.