Men's Mental Health

Connection and Relational Health

A few weeks ago, I met up with a friend of mine, who is also a gay man, a therapist, and someone who has done a lot of work within addiction settings, particularly with other gay men. We talked about many things, including the always difficult dynamic of working within one’s own community, with the inevitable secondary trauma that comes with it. He told me about this group, whose name I won’t even mention, who defend and advocate the practice of using drugs during sex, as a way to further and deepen connection between gay men. That boiled my blood immediately. Call me crazy, but having worked within addiction myself, there is such a thing as too much drug use, and that thing is called death!

More than being angry or frustrated, I was mostly saddened by the existence of such an advocacy group. Yes, doing certain drugs during sex will definitely give you sensations, experiences, and feelings that you wouldn’t be able to reach whilst sober, but my question is: is it sustainable? By sustainability, I mean the ability to maintain a connection that continuously exists, rather than something that one experiences for a short period of time, in different occasions, and then it fades away. Is it free from harm, to yourself and others? Does it encourage experiences of wellbeing? Does it counteract shame, for example? This is what I aimed to write about in my final year of therapy training. I was working with HIV+ gay men and wanted to know how gay men experience intimacy with each other, and why the gay male community has such difficulties around sex and relationships. I mean, I knew why from my own perspective as a gay man, but I was interested in what other gay men had experienced in their own relationships with other gay men. In short, I was curious as to why so many gay men experienced fleeting moments with strangers as connection and intimacy. Why is it that sex is often used interchangeably with intimacy, when they can often be so far apart from each other?

Researching intimacy for an entire year was hard. As I was preparing to write this piece, I went back to my dissertation to check how I had defined intimacy, and when I read it now, 4 years later, my first reaction was: WTF? The definition made no sense to me now, and I bet it made no sense to me then either. It’s hard to make sense of intimacy as a gay man. Firstly, we are men. This means that we are usually raised and conditioned to not feel anything that even resembles vulnerability or sensitivity, and we’re told to measure our manhood by our leadership, domination, and sexual prowess. Anger, strength, and sexual orgasms are about the only things you can express as a man, and anything else may already be perceived as too feminine, or weak. We are taught to reject and/or dominate the feminine. I know it’s 2019, but I now work with children and I still see these dynamics playing out in my primary school’s playground on a daily basis. This binary gendering is far from over!

Adding to the lack of emotional intelligence, there is the shame that inevitable attaches itself to the life experience of most gay men. The shame about liking other men. About being more feminine, more sensitive, more emotional, weaker, not good enough, not strong enough, not worthy, being wrong and sinful, not being man enough. The shame about liking other men, ultimately means a shame about liking men in general, about liking and loving ourselves. Every minority group has an experience of this internalised shame. For gay men, it tends to be about how masculine or feminine we are, how much sex we have, what roles we play within those sexual relationships. As men in general, one of our primary avenues for connection is sex. It’s good to have lots of sex as a man. It makes you manlier, they say.  But without the emotional intelligence which many of us skipped growing up, because we were men and gay, sex will often feel like an unexpected myriad of things, because that’s the only way many men have found to channel their feelings. One of my gurus, Esther Perel, said in an interview I listened to recently that men are often only able to channel their emotions and feelings through sex. That the socio-cultural conditioning of not being allowed to express anything, eventually finds its way to the only place it can escape into: sex, which is where rationality is able to turn off momentarily.

This is all very unpopular to mention. That sex is tricky. That gay men aren’t always fabulous and ready to break into a dance routine at any chance we get. That many of the things we do actually make sex and relationships even more difficult for ourselves: the substance abuse, the sex apps, the lack of kindness to each other, the obsession with perfect gym bodies, the misogyny, the racism, the abuse, the dehumanisation. Social media has enabled us to communicate with each other, but not to connect with each other. I believe that this is a very important distinction to make. Communicating is easy – you just put whatever you want out there and that’s it. Connecting implies a bit more. A lot more, actually. Connection implies relationship, taking others into consideration, being mindful and heartful of their emotions and experiences. Connection implies sharing, questioning, learning. It’s qualitative, rather than quantitative. Think of therapy for example: why do you think we always start with weekly sessions, rather than monthly? The first few sessions, we are merely communicating with each other. We are learning about each other, we are finding ways to connect, because we’re not connected yet. Connection requires time, patience, consistency.

It’s the same with all of us. You can meet someone and experience some kind of connection, and then the next time you meet them, there’s nothing there. And then it comes back. And then it might go away again. And come back. But this only happens if you continue to communicate. Communication requires time, consistency, and sharing to be able to turn into connection. If you meet more than once, if you open up, if you allow yourself to be yourself, you will eventually move past just communicating, and begin to connect. Think of your longest friendship, of someone who is still in your life on a regular basis. Did that happen overnight? Were you best friends straight away?

The world is moving very fast, and one of the results of that movement is that we all want fast results on everything, from sex, to friendship, to love, to therapy, to jobs, to life itself. I am not here to judge anything fast, really. I’ve had a lot of fast things in my life, which used to bring a lot of shame in to my life. It has taken me years to get drunk and not feel ashamed the next morning, or to have sex with a stranger without lashing myself out emotionally. Both of those things were ways to stop me feeling emotions I didn’t know how to engage with. So, I shut my mind up…until the next day. At some point, the mind pierces through even the highest of highs, making way for all the matters of the heart that have been left behind. I always say that if your behaviour is exacerbating shame in your life, then it might be helpful to look at it and gain some perspective. Shame is extremely corrosive and dangerous, and the opposite of connection.

No amount of chemicals or hormones will stop shame or give you intimacy, if you’re not prepared to open up emotionally. At least for now, at least. Maybe in 100 years, there will be a pill or a microchip which will give us all the illusion of everything we’ve ever wanted without actually having anything. But until then, we need to become a bit more aware of what Esther Perel calls relational health. We always talk about physical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual health, but rarely about relational health. All the other types of health feel very much centred on the self, which is, of course, very important. But at what point do we need to extend our focus to others? To shift it away from ourselves and onto those around us? When and how do we start looking after our relationships? There are many things that we can only heal in relationship to others. How can we keep this dynamic healthy and balanced? How can we keep growing in our relationships?

How would you describe your relational health these days?

Are there ways in which you could make it healthier and more balanced?