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Voice Male--Winter 2006

The Next Frontier for Men's Work

Supporting Fathers, Supporting Couples

By Haji Shearer

I've been a father since 1990 and have worked in the field of family support since 1993. "Family support" is a social work perspective that emphasizes the strengths in families. This is a significant improvement over the deficits-based thinking that prevailed through much of social work's history. The deficits model tended to focus primarily on what's "wrong" with a family. It's likely that no single group of social work clients was hurt more by the deficits perspective than fathers.

This observation is based on the convergence of three factors. First is the tendency of some social workers to look down on any client; second is the fact that most social workers are women, who may be less likely to empathize with men than with women or children; and third is the reality that the male clients with whom social workers interact are generally not, shall we say, at the top of their game.

Early in my career working with families, I was inspired to specialize as an advocate for healthy father involvement. Many of the other professionals I worked with saw fathers more as a "problem" than as potential helpmates. And it's true that many men we worked with were ineffective as partners and parents due to their substance abuse, inability to control violence and anger, or just plain ignorance of effective parenting and relationship skills.

Still, there remains a societal bias against men as parents. If a mother is a drug addict or violent with her children, the various professionals drawn into working with her family tend to focus on rehabilitation, helping the woman learn new skills that could increase her success. Too often, if a father is a drug addict or violent with his children or their mother, neither the first, nor second, nor third reaction of professionals is getting him treatment--the sole response is to separate the man from his family.

As a human being and a human service professional, I value the safety of individuals and families as the highest priority in any intervention. And let me be clear: there are obviously cases where a violent or addicted family member needs to be separated from his, or her, family. Because men are statistically at greater risk of family and community violence than women, it makes sense that professionals would be more cautious with fathers than with mothers in this regard. That being said, I think the social service systems often throw out the baby with the bathwater--especially when the proverbial baby is an adult male.

The good news is that over the past decade, there has been a movement to include fathers more in family support. Because of the greater prevalence of treatment programs specifically designed for men, today when fathers are violent or addicted or lack parenting skills, there is more potential to see them as deserving of treatment--just like women presenting with the same behaviors. Many treatment programs for men, whether dealing with addiction, violence, or parenting, now use what's called the "psycho-educational group model"--in short, therapy groups. There is something powerful about being in a room with other men who are dealing with similar problems. Transformation often occurs when the isolation many men experience on a daily basis is interrupted. Knowing that others are going through difficulties similar to your own, and understand your plight, can be a liberating experience.

Support groups for fathers can be found throughout Massachusetts, the United States, and internationally. All types of fathers are welcome in most of these programs: biological, step, single, or married. Many of the relationship skill building exercises employed--such as how to understand one's own and another person's feelings, how to reflexively listen, and how to negotiate conflicts--can be used with one's children or their mother. Most men report better relationships with their co-parent and children after coming to these groups. As a group facilitator, I'm pleased when a wife or girlfriend of a graduate tells me that her relationship with her child's father improved as he participated in the group.

It has long seemed to me that the next logical step in this burgeoning fatherhood movement is to bring both mothers and fathers together in one group setting to talk about relationships and intimacy. This is not without precedent. Some churches have a couples ministry, and there are workshops for couples in human potential centers like Rowe in Massachusetts and Omega in New York. But unlike parenting, addiction recovery, and batterers' intervention programs, there has yet to evolve a critical mass of support and psycho-ed groups for couples who want to take their relationship to the next level.

I predict this will soon change--in part because of a federal initiative pumping millions of dollars into the controversial area of "marriage support," but more because it is an idea whose time has come. The 1960s and '70s gave us consciousness raising groups for women. The 1980s and '90s were a time for men to come together in small cells intended to help individuals reflect, adjust, and evolve. Now the first decades of this new millennium are poised to bring the two genders together to turbocharge the eternal quest for harmony between men and women.

Several themes will predominate as this new epoch in male-female unity emerges. First, it will be based on the equality of men and women. The analogy of the two genders operating as two wings on a bird is more appropriate than one being the head and the other being the heart. Thus men will need to develop more of their heart-based compassion, and women more of their head-based logic. We are already seeing a move in this direction with the shifting, expanding, and more widely accepted roles for men and women in the home and the workplace.

Second, the leadership of this movement for heterosexual harmony will comprise both men and women--especially couples who have weathered the storms of long-term intimacy. My wife and I have facilitated programs like this, and we also look to other couples like Terry and Lester Nelson in the Boston area and Barry and Joyce Vissell nationally who have forged their love in the crucible of conflict and are willing to share lessons learned and model long-term, passionate intimacy for other couples.

Finally, we will see a continuation of single-gender-based support groups. There will always be a need for male-only and female-only spaces where each can go to relax and recharge. Most indigenous cultures have places for men and women to meet in separate circles, and I believe that ancient tradition is worth saving. It's healthy and reaffirming--as long as neither group plays the superiority or oppression card. Men who've had opportunities to work out some of their baggage in men's groups can enter the more challenging space of couples' work with greater confidence and greater ability to communicate. Especially around issues of violence and control, prerequisite work is necessary before men can join with women from a space of love, respect, and openness.

Now, thanks to the groundbreaking work of women's and men's groups, we have a tremendous opportunity to expand the number of conscious, loving couples. The need is crucial. If we can't live in harmony in our own homes, with our best friends, what hope is there for neighbors, colleagues, or nations to coexist peacefully? I am happy to be alive at this time and to take part in the next great leap of humanity: the unfolding of widespread intimacy between men and women, especially parents, with the advent of a couples' support movement.

Haji Shearer is a licensed social worker who leads workshops for men and couples in the Boston area. He lives with his wife and two children and writes frequently for Voice Male. He can be reached at [email protected].

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