Altering Our Relational Images: Men Finding Connection
Updated: Sep 10
According to Relational-Cultural Theory, we all develop inner constructions and expectations about ourselves and others in the context of relationships. These inner constructions and expectations are called relational images. Relational images emerge in early life and are carried into every relationship we're in. Our expectations of relationships are contained in these relational images. These relational images are also shaped by larger societal and cultural values. Relational images can be flexible or rigid. They impact whether we feel connected or disconnected in relationship. As Dr. Judith Jordan puts it, relational images bring "the past to bear on the present in a way that distorts current reality."
What are your relational images? How do they distort how you see yourself and others? Are your relational images contributing to further disconnection?
What Are Your Relational Images?
Past experiences shape the content and complexity of the relational images that men bring into therapy. How we learned to relate to our parents can be a major influence in what our relational images look like. Let's break down how this can happen.
A young boy grows up in a home where the father has a dominant and forceful personality. When the boy tries to share his opinion or express a need, it's either shot down or dismissed by the father. Over time, the boy develops a relational image of himself and other people. The image of himself is of a male who has stupid opinions and excessive needs. The image of others is that people don't care about his thoughts and don't want to hear about his needs.
Imagine the boy is a teenager in high school. He struggles to establish meaningful connection with other guys. The boy has interesting things he wants to share, but he's afraid that others will dismiss or ignore him. The boy's relational image of himself (shaped by his father) now creates disconnection as an adolescent.
Now imagine the boy has grown up. He's finished college, has started a career and is newly married. He is starting to struggle in his marriage due to his rigid relational images. The man unconsciously sees his partner through the lens of his relational image. He fears that his wife will judge his views and invalidate his needs. These fears prevent the man from being vulnerable and pursuing intimacy. Without this deeper connection, the man feels greater alienation and this reinforces his negative relational image.
Jean Baker Miller, a feminist psychiatrist, was one of the pioneers in bringing relational-cultural theory to psychology. Miller developed the concept known as condemned isolation. Condemned isolation describes the rigidity and pain associated with the relational images that prevent us from connecting with others. It can seem like our rigid relational images keep us locked out of mutual connection. Without human connection, it's easy to lose hope.
For men, condemned isolation can feel like shame. In our condemned isolation we feel less than, like something is fundamentally wrong with us. This can lead to depression, immobilization, lack of drive, and deep feelings of unworthiness and alienation. In a state of condemned isolation, a man starts to blame himself for the problems and sees himself as powerless. Under these conditions, Judith Jordan writes,
he will not risk the vulnerability necessary to make connections. The threat of further isolation is simply too great.
Condemned isolation leads to men disconnecting from themselves and others. In this state of affairs, we recognize a pernicious paradox. Relational-cultural theory refers to this as the central relational paradox.
The Central Relational Paradox
The central relational paradox describes the dominant tension experienced by a man in his struggle with connection. The central relational paradox emphasizes that while men desperately long for connection, men are terrified of being rejected and alienated. Because of this relational dread, men venture into relationships very cautiously and with their guard up. This typically involves keeping important parts of oneself separate and out of connection with others. These parts men keep out of relationship relate to the rigid relational images they have constructed over the years.
These parts of the man's self-
thoughts, behaviours, needs, desires, emotions-are often parts that have been imbued with shame in the past. Somehow, somewhere, it was communicated to us that these parts are ‘unacceptable’ or ‘bad’, and so we try to keep them hidden. We develop ‘strategies of disconnection’, that is, ways to conceal our shame-ridden parts from others.
This is the twisted logic of the central relational paradox. Men want to connect and experience intimacy with others, but they cannot experience authentic connection when they hide the parts of themselves imbued with shame. Our innate, and often necessary, tendency to protect and safeguard ourselves from rejection, stands in the way of the very connection we so deeply need and desire.
Relational Images and Therapy
As a relational-cultural therapist, I believe that we grow through and toward relationship. The men that I see in therapy are not bad or defective. Their negative thoughts, emotions and behaviors are often strategies of disconnection rooted in the traumas that gave birth to their rigid relational images. I don't judge strategies of disconnection. My desire is to help someone understand where they come from and how to move past them so that they can experience true connection.
The best way to deconstruct our destructive relational images is in the context of a safe and supportive relationship. This is my intention as a therapist. I am entering into mutual, respectful relationships with men. One of the primary benefits of therapy is the ability to construct more flexible relational images through the empathic connection with the therapist.
Remember the young man in the example above? He comes into therapy expecting me to think his ideas are stupid and invalidating his needs. Through the process of building a relationship, we can explore where those relational images came from and how they helped keep him safe. We can then process how those images have become detrimental to the client's well-being. Through vulnerability and mutual respect, the client can come to experience a relationship where his opinions are respected and his needs are welcomed. New relational images are formed. He starts to believe in his own intrinsic worth. He also starts to believe that some relationships are safe and worth pursuing.
Therapy For Men Can Help
Therapy for Men can help you as a guy understand your negative relational images. One of the ways to help you identify your strategies of disconnection is by signing up for therapy for men. A male therapist is someone your son can trust and develop a relationship with.
A male therapist can also work with you to develop goals and healthy coping strategies. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy(CBT) is one of the most effective ways to work with men. CBT is a short-term, problem focused approach. CBT is effective at treating a variety of problems.
Start Your Therapy For Men Journey with Quique Autrey: Katy, Tx & Houston
You do not have to do this alone. If you don't know what to do next, please contact me and set up your first appointment. I am here to help. I can work with you to bring healing and hope. I'm just off of I-10 and 99. I am centrally located for those living in Katy and Houston. To start your therapy for men, follow these simple steps: 1. Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling. 2. Schedule your first appointment with Quique Autrey. 3. Begin your therapy for men journey and start healing. You are not defined by your struggles. I want you to realize your true worth and potential. I want you to embrace a bright future. Imagine what life will look like for you free of struggles. The mission at Katy Teen & Family Counseling is to restore hope, happiness, and connected family relationships. I look forward to starting this process of hope and healing with you!