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Leading the Way From He-Man's Land : Relationships: Strong, silent types would have far more satisfying relationships if they could allow their soft side to show, says Laguna Beach therapist Steven Farmer, who has been there.

March 24, 1993|SHERRY ANGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bill Clinton's election has put a lot of pressure on macho men . With a man in the White House who gives hugs as often as handshakes, gets teary-eyed at patriotic ceremonies and shares his power with his wife, there's more demand than ever for men who are not only tough, but tender.

Clinton's willingness to show his "strong feminine side" in the political arena has made male sensitivity a hot commodity in the world of romance, according to Laguna Beach therapist Steven Farmer, who recently led a workshop on "Men, Sex and Intimacy."

It isn't easy for men who've worshiped such warrior role models as John Wayne and Rambo to adopt Clinton's brand of male magnetism, but strong, silent types would have far more satisfying relationships if they could allow their soft side to show, Farmer contends, adding that those who take the risk of shedding their emotional armor aren't likely to miss it once they've experienced real intimacy.

One of the biggest hurdles facing men who are afraid to be open and vulnerable is their early conditioning.

Most men were raised with the idea that any sign of weakness would be used against them.

Farmer, who is 45, recalled a football practice in his high school days when his coach paired him off against a lineman--the biggest player on the team--and said, "Look him in the eye and hit him when the whistle blows."

Farmer did as he was told, but the lineman didn't even blink. Then the coach said to the lineman, "Show Steven how you want to be hit."

"He hit me pretty damned hard, but I took it," Farmer recalled. "It would have been a humiliation to show any pain at all."

Men also learn stoicism from emotionally distant fathers, Farmer noted. In his book, "The Father Wound," he pointed out that his own father's remoteness taught him "that this was how to be a man."

What Farmer learned about manhood in his youth became a barrier to fulfillment in his adult relationships, he said.

He explained in his book: "I've been through two marriages and several relationships and have found myself trapped in each one by my fear of getting too close and by my inability to let go of my rigid controls over my emotions."

Farmer, who said his relationships have improved dramatically as he has opened up emotionally, told his workshop audience in Irvine that the business world's emphasis on competing and winning rather than sharing and relating reinforces the idea that success depends on a man's ability to be "numb, needless and isolated."

"The very behaviors that are necessary for intimacy--openness, vulnerability, self-disclosure--would get us destroyed if regularly displayed in the corporate environment," he said.

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One workshop participant pointed out that many of the men he's met through work have been able to let down their guard only under the influence of alcohol.

Recalling a group with whom he used to socialize after work, he said, "They'd talk about their feelings when they were anesthetized. And the next morning, when they had sobered up, they'd apologize."

Men who have become detached from their emotions are liable to use sex as a means of finding closeness, Farmer cautioned.

"We are taught not to feel, not to need ... but sex is fun. It's a place where you can really let go. So we end up sexualizing a lot of our feelings and needs."

In many cases, that means men are unable to make any distinction between sex and intimacy, Farmer said. If they feel a desire to be close to a woman, they interpret that as a signal to initiate sex. But sex doesn't necessarily lead to intimacy, and the men who assume it will often end up feeling a "gnawing emptiness," Farmer said.

Sex turned out to be a disappointing substitute for intimacy on many occasions for one workshop participant who said he went through a "promiscuous period" in his early 20s. "It was an attempt at getting a sense of closeness and belonging. But it never worked. I could never get past the sex," he said.

Now nearing 50 and going through a divorce that he attributes partly to his inability to be "emotionally available," the Orange County resident said he grew up in an unstable, sometimes violent home and learned to defend himself by cutting off his feelings. That became such a deeply ingrained habit that he carried it into his adult relationships.

"To avoid the pain of loss, it's safer to not become attached or vulnerable," he explained. "I've been called a robot in several significant relationships. Women say I seem distant, remote. I've been living out of my brain, and I've just recently started opening up more about my feelings. I've rediscovered the risk of that, but I feel more alive."

*

Bruce Belman agreed. The 50-year-old Buena Park resident, who attended Farmer's workshop, defined intimacy as "a sense of real openness and trust with another person."

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