Oh, the Strident Male Pursuer. They are the toughest of the tough for me. The hardest client for me to get traction with. They are my Everest. They are what keep my thoughts running through every move imaginable at 9pm at night. I am sure there are lovely, gentle, flexible male pursuer therapists who might be reading this, and to you I say – you are the rare unicorns and this probably doesn’t apply to you.
I’ve started noticing a pattern with my male pursuer clients, and I wanted to write about them in case you also see clients like this and have some insights I don’t.
The Components of a Strident Male Pursuer:
1. They are pretty verbal. They enjoy talking and will come in saying things like, “I’m not the typical guy, I am more of the talker in the relationship.”
2. They TALK about vulnerability pretty well. They might come in and say, “this makes me feel insecure,” or “this makes me really anxious,” much more so than I usually see with male clients. This often gives me hope at the beginning, and I think we will get somewhere. But then I realize …
3. They talk about vulnerability, but they don’t experience their vulnerability. It’s like I’m talking with the Mayor of Vulnerability Town but they never actually live there. They talk about vulnerable emotions like insecurity and anxiety, but from a more intellectual place, not from an emotional place. And no matter what I do to try and drop them down into feeling the emotions they are talking about, I fail. I try body sensation, I try felt sense, I try conjecture, I try sharing my own feelings, I try disquisition (telling them a story about a made up client similar to them). By the end of 6 months, I am exhausted in a perpetual failing effort to get them to connect to their feelings.
4. This is not because they are bad in some way, they think they ARE connecting to their feelings and think they ARE self-aware. They have been the most emotionally in-tune and self-aware member of their family and friend group forever. Most come from trauma, and people have given them a lot of praise for being a more emotionally in-tune male and being where they are now. And it’s true, they absolutely are light years ahead of where most of them come from and what their fathers were like. Yet they are unaware of how incredibly protected and defended they are.
5. They have usually pursued some kind of therapy or self-help before coming in, and this has given them a lot of language about emotions and adds to their belief that they are the more evolved partner. Whether it’s through AA, reading books, or participating in some kind of group, they are proud of their ability to verbalize their emotional selves and proud of their self-awareness.
6. They are RIGHT. Seeing how different they are from their fathers and male friends, pursuing their own personal growth, being naturally intelligent, and knowing the “best” way to interact with each other or with their children, makes them the arbiter of all right ways to be in the house with others. Their withdrawer partner therefore feels wrong all the time. And exhausted of feeling parented by their partner.
With all of these, you could argue that regardless of gender these are Pursuer qualities. But there is something I have come across over and over with strident Male Pursuers that I don’t see with other pursuers, and that is the rigidity of their minds and relentless fixation on their partner’s behavior.
MP: “I tell her this makes me anxious and insecure, and she doesn’t change anything!”
We unpack the cycle, and realize that when he feels anxious and insecure, he tells her he’s feeling that in a lecturing, angry way, not in a vulnerable way. He doesn’t understand this, doesn’t see the difference. He knows his frustration is way different than the anger he saw in males in his life, so this doesn’t look bad to him. He's telling her how he feels, why doesn't this seem to matter to her?
I validate, and this only makes it worse. I say, “Of course you feel anxious and insecure when you see her texting her male friend, and wonder, ‘is she really mine?,’ and then you want to share that with her, but maybe it comes out a little harsh, or demanding? You start telling her how to do it better?” They seem to feel validated that it’s ok to be sharing with their partner because the magic words “anxious” and “insecure” justify their behavior. It increases their sense of rightness, but does not soften them.
No matter what I do, I can’t seem to get them to take in the perspective that they are actually pushing their partner away with their action tendency. They continue to be profoundly anchored to their partner’s behavior as the way in which they need to be soothed. “If she changed this, I would feel better.” I can help their Withdrawn partner share the impact of this on them, and do all sorts of amazing emotional reassurances, but it makes no difference, the Male Pursuer only wants to see that behavior change. Until that happens, they won’t feel safe.
After about 6 months of this, of seeing their Withdrawer partner increasingly go into their vulnerability, increasingly show up, increasingly reassure, but not seeing it affect the Male Pursuer at all, I have an individual session with the Male Pursuer.
This is what I say:
“Look, what you are is a miracle. Compared to where you came from, how you interact with your partner and others is miraculous. And this sucks, because here I come in, and I’m telling you, it is not enough. It is not enough to create the emotional safety and security you are so desperately longing for. For months, I have seen your partner try to reassure, and want to come close to you. But your mind seems to be locked into there being only two solutions: 1) my partner needs to change their behavior for me to feel safe, or 2) I have to swallow this pain and somehow get over it, which I know I can’t.
I am offering a third solution, and I know it’s a radical thought shift. This radical third option is, can I vulnerably reach for my partner, and have her emotionally reassure me, and feel better? I know I am asking you to consider something totally different to the options your mind is giving you, and it’s difficult to hear. What do you think of us working on this third path?”
I am not writing this because I think this is the best option. I’m telling you what I do, but I have no idea if it’s the best way. I get supervision constantly with these clients, and other than the advice to validate more, I haven’t heard any other tactics.
In trying to think through why this is the case, that for some reason I cannot crack through the strident Male Pursuer, versus the strident Female Pursuer, I have two theories. One is, that I am the first person who is telling them that their vulnerability is not actually vulnerable. I am trying to wedge in some feedback about something they feel really proud about, which may make it hard to take in. I don't see women have the same sense of pride in their ability to be verbal about their emotions, because it's seen as something they're supposed to do.
My second theory is based on Gottman’s research (1999) that shows that even in unhappy relationships, women still accept influence from their husbands far more than men accept influence from their wives (check out Gottman’s 12 Year Study on data for same-sex relationships). There might be something to women being more conditioned to accept influence from others that makes it easier to accept influence from me.
There is also the very real possibility that I am doing something different with these clients, or not doing something enough. I am very open to your influence, so please, share in the comments below if you have been able to work with the strident Male Pursuer successfully!
Gottman, J., Gottman, J.S. (2014) Level 1 Clinical Training, Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Seattle, WA: The Gottman Institute