Book Recommendations, Emotional abuse, Relationships, Uncategorized

On the recommendation of my colleague Wendy Kenrick, I’m currently reading Bill Eddy & Megan Hunter’s Dating Radar: Why Your Brain Says Yes to “The One” Who Will Make Your Life Hell (Unhooked Books, Scottsdale AZ, 2017). I’m reading it less for my own dating purposes, and more because it provides an an unparalleled introduction in simple language to four common “high-conflict personality” types, and what it’s like to start a relationship with one of them… generally without knowing until it’s too late that this is what you’re in for.

Billy Eddy was a therapist for 12 years before becoming a lawyer and mediator. Megan Hunter is the CEO of Unhooked Books, an expert in “high-conflict disputes and complicated relationships.” Together they are the founders of High Conflict Institute, authoring and co-authoring several books on working with, surviving, or exiting relationships with High-Conflict Personalities (HCPs). Both authors have worked often with relationships struggling in the face of uncovering one or both parties embody behavioural patterns that create chaos and upheaval when pursuing intimacy. This is just one of the books they have written to illustrate how complicated and perilous relationship with certain personality types can be, what makes them so easy to fall into (what jams a person’s “dating radar” when early warning signs might otherwise start appearing), and what it’s likely to take to stay safe within, or safely exit, such relationships.

“High-conflict people (HCPs) tend toward all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviours or threats, and blaming others. But all of this may be well-hidden from you at the start, because of their ability to jam your radar and because of your own dating blind spots (we all have them). Our goal is to help you in three ways, by showing you how to recognize:

  1. Warning signs of certain personalities that can spell love relationship danger.
  2. Ways that they can jam your radar (deceive you).
  3. Where your own blind spots might be.

We focus on four high-conflict personality types, their common characteristics in romantic relationships, their common deceptions, and their targets’ common blind spots. We give examples of how they deceive their targets and how the targets fool themselves–despite the warning signs. We want to help you steer clear of those reefs.” (pg. 2-3)

The authors approach this topic in two parts: the first examines the mechanism of relational development from the perspective of someone inadvertently involved with an HCP, while the latter half of the book looks at how each of their four identified HCP types specifically functions during initial attachment development, and on into/through the “bait and switch” turning points of the relationship once things settle into commitment and routine.

They break down their four main HCP types as follows:

Narcissist HCP Borderline HCP Antisocial/Sociopath HCP Histrionic HCP
Overly friendly
Shifts to anger
Sudden mood swings
Breaks rules & laws
Con artist
Superficial & helpless
Needs to be superior Needs to be attached Needs to dominate Needs to be center of attention

There are several factors contributing to the origin of HCPs:

    • genetic and temperament they are born with
    • early childhood upbringing
    • experiential traumas
    • the cultures into which they are born or raised

(pg. 35)

Attachment injuries or entitlements can also have a huge impact on development of dysfunctional insecurities underlying most HCP behaviours. Often HCPs aren’t even aware of their own behaviours, and don’t intend maliciousness; they simply have no tolerance for their own fears when those core insecurities get triggered by normal pairing mechanisms and relationship developments. There are similarities in their engagement styles, however, that “jam the radar” for people getting involved with them, blinding them to the chaos that’s about to ensue:

  • charm (attraction, chemistry, “spark”–the intensity of the initial courtship dance); the more lonely or desperate the target is for that attention and attachment, especially in people with low self esteem, the harder and faster they will fall victim to this jamming tactic
  • extreme compatibility and adaptability to you, your interests and values (at least initially)
  • overt/extreme sexuality/sensuality (sexual aspects of the relationship move VERY quickly, using the chemistry of sexual desire to cement the intensity of the initial bond)
  • protectiveness (of the target, specifically; a high degree of knight-in-shining-armourism can be powerful cement to a target with a history of feeling insecure and unprotected)
  • assertiveness (sometimes bordering on aggressiveness)

If these factors can jam a target’s radar, what keeps the signal clear for them?

  • Skepticism, and alert awareness; trusting your gut when it suggests that something is “too good to be true”; odds are good, it probably is. Don’t mistake the warning signs for love.
  • Watching for extremes, especially in the jamming factors listed above. There’s a heightened level of attachment and affection that is normal in the courtship phase, but if your gut tells you “This seems like a little TOO much,” then you may be unconsciously picking up on an HCP’s unconscious extreme need for coupledom.
  • Slowing things down; HCPs need a strong attachment formed quickly in order to feel like their end of the attachment is viable, and they get as swept up in the intensity of New Relationship Energy (NRE) as they want to to be. “Speed is the biggest, reddest flag.” (pg 59)

The book also offers insights into other factors that can contribute to high-conflict relationships, including addictions, certain mental health issues such as bipolar or autism spectrum disorders, paranoia (which may also exist as a factor in all of the four common HCP types).

The issue with being in relationship with HCPs is that the radar jamming means you won’t realize how bad the relationship is, until it’s so bad that there’s no way to continue rationalizing or justifying the pain and chaos you’re experiencing. The “big reveal” in some cases is swift, but in others it may be a slowly-eroding process over time. Sometimes there are signs right from the beginning, but in the spirit of swept-away NRE, we choose (at our peril) to ignore them.

“People (especially dating partners) are often totally stunned when they start seeing these patterns. “He was so nice,” they say. Or, “She was so easygoing!” It’s as if another person emerges out of their body. But the reality is that this person was always there, just covered up temporarily by their sugar-coated public persona and ability to fly under their dating partner’s radar.

In most relationships the patterns emerge gradually, while in others the transition from wonderful to awful happens overnight.” (pg. 21)

One of the final chapters details the effective strategies required to escape from a relationship with an HCP. Much of this seems drawn from Bill’s own experience as both therapist and eventually lawyer to high-conflict couples. The authors discuss how to prepare for possible (common) HCP reactions, up to and including the risks of domestic violence and harassment, and how these might escalate, providing a “field guide” to the common breakup behaviour patterns of HCPs. They also provide a step-by-step guide for managing the process as effectively as possible, including a frank discussion about restraining orders should the proverbial fecal matter hit the fan.

Overall this book is an excellent, plain-language resource about dealing with specific difficult personality types; while recognizing that all personalities exist on a spectrum, and even with HCPs not everything devolves to terrifying worst-case scenarios, the authors pull no punches. They remain empathetic to the plight of the dating partner at all times, but also reiterate frequently that HCPS simply DO NOT RECOGNIZE their own behaviours. They generally are not capable of the self-observation and reflection required to face their inner demons, their vulnerabilities and insecurities. Change is exceptionally difficult for HCPs because change first requires acknowledging there is a problem and they may be in the wrong, then making space for them to face their own indescribably intense shame and embarrassment. Remember, high-conflict behaviours develop almost exclusively as cover-up mechanisms to protect the HCP from *EVER* having to face those difficult feelings. So the onus for recognizing and choosing a healthier path by necessity lies on the dating partner. Eddy and Hunter have created an impressive body of work, both in this book and in others, for individuals and professionals supporting individuals trying to manage their HCP-entangled situations.

The small print:
Personally, I have a lot of complicated feelings about the book, if only because I recognize so many of the described behaviours from the demise of pretty much every long-term relationship I have ever had… and as my therapist once so cunningly pointed out to me, “If the only common denominator across all your failed relationships is you, then perhaps the biggest issue was NOT the other people.” (After the demise of my second marriage, I actually looked into a borderline diagnosis for myself because so much of the description rang true; not enough for diagnostics at the psychological level, but enough to give me a massive wake-up call.) Unsurprisingly, being the Adult Child of Alcoholics leaves one with dysfunctional coping mechanism–many of which fit the descriptions in this book TO A T. My largest, possibly singular, saving grace has almost certainly been some amount of hard-won capacity for self-observation and self-reflection, and the slowly-and-gracelessly increasing ?willingness? to own and correct my mistakes… and six years of remaining single until I could believe that I would be OK on my own, and not keep throwing myself into relationships because I *NEEDED* to attach to feel secure. So this book reads like a VERY uncomfortable, shame-laden personal memoir, but ultimately the value it provides as a clinical or client-facing tool for supporting those finding themselves in such relationships is certainly worth my own burning discomforts.

Book Recommendations, Community, Current Events, Emotional Intelligence

November 2015, Bataclan Theatre, Paris: a terrorist attack kills 89, including the wife of Antoine Leiris. Leiris later wrote something in a Facebook post that has become a manifesto to many who struggle with responding to this kind of attack on our basic humanity:

“So, no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. That is what you want, but to respond to your hate with anger would be to yield to the same ignorance that made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have failed. I will not change.”

July 2016, Nice, France: “a 19 tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, resulting in the deaths of 86 people[2] and the injury of 458 others.”

April 2018, Toronto Ontario: a man drove a van into pedestrians along a busy city street, killing ten and wounding 15 more. When police apprehended him shortly thereafter, he purportedly approached them, saying “Kill me.” Police refused to shoot, subduing and arresting him without further harm.

We think, “This is Canada; this isn’t supposed to happen here.”

I’ve recently been reading Bren? Brown’s latest book, “Braving the Wilderness”; it was there I first hear about Leiris and his anti-hate manifesto. She explores the experience of connection and disconnection in human relations, including the ways in which we find it easier to hate amorphous groups far more easily than we can hate individuals; how the quest for true inclusion leaves us grappling with profound fears of being or feeling excluded, and how those fears can be manipulated into creating the false dichotomy of “us versus them”, or moral exclusion.

Moral exclusion as a broad-scale social phenomenon is the basis for a variety of dehumanizing practices, in which dehumanization is “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of human treatment.” (Brown 2017, pg 72)

“Groups targeted based on their identity–gender [or orientation–KG], ideology, skin colour, ethnicity, religion, age–are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil. The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion, and dehumanization is at its core.” (Brown 2017, pg. 73)

The rhetoric that has been building south of the border since well before the last presidential election has opened the door to see this “us versus them” in harsh detail. Arguably it truly launched after 9/11 provided the US with a solid platform to vilify “Muslim terrorists”, conflating an entire culture with its most ardent and evangelical outliers and dehumanizing them all. More crucially, we’ve seen how infectious that kind of thinking is as we’ve watched it creep north of the border; we’re watching it reignite as we move into another election year of our own.

There’s always an “Us” ready to hate “Them”.

As soon as news of the van attack hit the feeds yesterday, those sides polarized, even here among the “polite Canadians”. The association of the driver (male, light-skinned) with a movement that has become tied to angry entitlement and the alt-right men’s movement has been constant fodder as people try to make sense of the senseless, try to manage their fears with information that (in theory) will explain everything. As nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the human mind abhor not having answers to, or neatly-contextualizing information explaining, major emotional experiences. We process our shock, and fear–and yes, anger–together, but in that togetherness, the polarization seems to occur seamlessly. And we want nothing more than to be on “the right side” in choosing our responses to such an event.

“Common enemy intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion. And if we live with any level of self-awareness, it’s also the kind of intimacy that leaves us with the intense regrets of an integrity hangover. […] I get that these are uncertain and threatening times. I often feel the pull of hiding out and finding safety with a crew. But it’s not working.” (Brown 2017, pg. 136)

I made the #1 Internet Citizen mistake yesterday as the news was breaking: I read the comments. Even on reputable news sources, the rampant hatred of some respondents was an unavoidable thread among the otherwise-fulsome outpouring of love, shock, support, condolences, sadness. The ideological camps were staking out their territories in UsandThemism language of anger and hatred.

Since the above sections of Bren? Brown’s book were still fresh in my mind, I kept coming back to Leiris’ letter to the Bataclan attackers:

“Of course I am devastated by grief, I grant you this little victory, but it will be short-term. I know she will accompany us every day and we will find ourselves in this paradise of free souls to which you will never have access. […] [W]e are stronger than all the armies in the world.”

As a woman, as a feminist, as someone who has experienced rampant misogyny on personal and professional levels nearly all my life, it would be so terribly, terribly simple to buy into that hate, to dehumanize Yet One More Violent Man as part of that more anonymous collective. There’s a seductive truth underlying most of our UsAndThemism: there are more than enough individual examples of anything we collectively hate to justify assuming there’s a systemic problem encompassing a LOT of individuals into some kind of cohesive larger unit. So we come to hate what we assume to be a cohesive collective, and forget (or choose not) to see the individuals within that presumed collective. We have effectively dehumanized them.

Brown talks about how, during the research process for “Braving the Wilderness”, she often felt like screaming, “Screw you and screw the pain of people who are causing pain. I will hold on to my sweet, self-righteous rage.” (pg 66)

“But to what end? [Clinging to rage and] Not caring about our own pain and the pain of others is not working? […] One response to this is “Get angry and stay angry!” I haven’t seen this advice borne out in the research What I have found is that yes, we all have the right and need to feel and own our anger. It’s an important human experience. And it’s critical to recognize that maintaining any level of rage, anger, or contempt (that favourite concoction of a little anger and a little disgust) over a long period of time is not sustainable.
“Anger is a catalyst. Holding onto it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice. […] [A]nger is a powerful catalyst, but a life-sucking companion.” (pg. 67-8)

Not responding in anger and hatred is hard; harder still when attacks hit close to home, metaphorically or geographically. Terrorism is meant to provoke fear; it’s meant to send a message of power and control, introducing a non-consensual power dynamic across a broad ideological system. Fighting back is as instinctive for some as accepting subjugation is for others, so where is the presumedly RIGHT “Us” in this mix, the one we join to stay safe?

The whole premise of Brown’s book is that in stepping outside these ideological camps to choose love over hate, and to transform anger into one of those life-sustaining alternates, we are braving our own individual, ideological wilderness. Embracing something other than UsAndThemis encampments is hard; it often feels like eschewing the safety of numbers for a unique position of disengagement from that anger and hatred. But as Leiris’ post and Brown’s research conclude, there’s a massive difference between disengagement on a systemic level, and choosing to lean in close and find the aspects of us as individuals that illustrate we’re more alike than we’re maybe comfortable admitting out loud. That illustrate that even amidst vast ideological differences, there ARE similarities of human experience in each of us to which we can relate. We may not WANT to; we may not CHOOSE to.

Brown herself admits there’s a safe harbour in staying angry and holding ourselves ideologically separate from those who hurt or anger us, who provoke us to fear and hatred. We join with others in our respective camps, believing in those superficial bonds of unified hate (in which one can argue the “Us” suddenly looks an awful lot like the “Them” we claim to despise for doing exactly the same thing). we buy into the entrenchment because, hey, safety in numbers, and we want to be in the Right Camp at the end of the day, yes?

Letting go of anger, stepping away from the entrenched encampments: this is the wilderness Brown explores. She quotes Dr. Maya Angelou:

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place–you belong every place–no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” (pg. 5)

And so… you will not have my hate.

I may be afraid. I may be angry, but I will not hate. I may not have explanations that make any sense at all, but I will not hate. I will practice leaning in close, leaning into the sharp things, and I will not hate.

You will NOT have my hate.

Book Recommendations, Family Issues

When therapists introduce ourselves to potential new clients on intake, we should talk a bit about how we operate, not just in terms of our focus modalities (“I do EMDR,” “I do CBT,” “I do short-term, solution-focused therapy,” etc.), but also the larger-scale perspectives or foundational theories that direct our work. For me, this involves talking about Systems Theory, a frame of reference in which the client(s) in the room are viewed as being the therapeutic focal point of a number of “interrelated and interdependent parts” that all manage, for better or for worse, to have an impact on each other — perhaps in the present or immediate sense, perhaps in a long-fingered reach from the past.

Wikipedia has a very sciency description of Systems Theory:

A system is a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts that is either natural or man-made. Every system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose or nature and expressed in its functioning. In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior. Changing one part of the system usually affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. For systems that are self-learning and self-adapting, the positive growth and adaptation depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment. Some systems function mainly to support other systems by aiding in the maintenance of the other system to prevent failure. The goal of systems theory is systematically discovering a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned and applied to systems at every level[…].

I’ve written in the past in reference to Murray Bowen as the grandfather of Family Systems Theory, the cornerstone of the AAMFT approach to individual and interrelational psychotherapy. He effectively synthesized a number of slow shifts in psychoanalysis away from a purely medical model of “patient-focused” attention that left the family or broader social factors “outside the immediate field of theoretical and therapeutic interest”:

Individual theory was built on a medical model with its concepts of etiology, the diagnosis of pathology in the patient, and the treatment of sickness in the individual. Also inherent in the model are the subtle implications that the patient is the helpless victim of a disease or malevolent forces outside his control.” — Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson Inc., 1985; pg. 148

In his own practice, Bowen explored with his clients the sense of their own agency within the family system, and while there is certainly a sense of powerlessness for many in the face of ancient and traditional family dynamics and power struggles, Bowen noticed some interesting processes in operation for the individuals within the system. These distill to eight core concepts of Bowen’s Systems Theory, as it applies to psychotherapy within a family or broader social network:

  1. core emotional system
  2. differentiation (or not) of the individual (in most cases, specifically the client)
  3. triangulation
  4. cut-offs
  5. projections
  6. multigenerational transmission of values and expectations
  7. child/sibling positions
  8. general emotional processing beyond the core system

When I get a chance to do the quick family of origin snapshot with new clients, I’m essentially looking for information on some combination of these points. In family systems theory, even though there may only be one client in the room, to some extent we treat the family as the core emotional system — not that we’re trying to treat or fix the family as a unit, but we are trying to understand the client in front of us from the perspective of the system in which they developed. Every one of us carries from our earliest relational models a set of implicit understandings about “how people work,” “how relationships work,” what SHOULD be important or valuable to us — these invisible values, and the expectations or entitlements we attach to them, are often instilled in us by our families, starting well before we have language; we see this kind of multigenerational transmission process starting in parents with new babies who might be highly anxious about their parenting, especially when that anxiety is something learned from or triggered by THEIR OWN PARENTS’ influence on the new family.

We use system theory to look at system harmonics and cacophony, those places where the individual elements in the system are synchronized and resonate well together, or the places where something has disrupted one or more members of the system and there is discord or disruption, often felt throughout the system in a ripple effect (if we mix Systems Theory with a little Chaos Theory, we can have a really interesting conversation about “the butterfly effect“, in which small triggering events can have huge, often not-entirely-predictable impacts elsewhere in the system… something that can definitely occur when we talk about making changes to a complex relational system).

Differentiation is often a significant disruptor to the family system. An individual decides to step away from the invisible “value mass” of family behaviours and expectations, to “become their own person”, and in doing so, relinquishes their responsibility to fulfill whatever role the system has implicitly imposed on them, sometimes to the disappointment or outrage of other members of the system. From a counselling perspective, we often find our clients struggling against a system-wide reaction to their change process, hearing little more than a “change back!” hue and cry that is all about the other members of the system confronting their own personal and herd-level anxieties. Differentiation is often the most disruptive systemic process for the simple reason that it illustrates to other members of the system that it can be done. In basic terms, differentiation is the process by which an individual reprioritizes the individual as at least equal to, if not above, the larger systemic unit. Psychoanalysis, and later other modalities like Gestalt therapy, elevated the focus on the individual above all else, encouraging distinction or separation from the broader family unit if the system was felt to be infringing on the individual to be themselves in a healthy way.

Family systems being the complex herd mentalities they are, however, many individuals who felt fused into their systems could only achieve the break by effecting a complete cut-off from the family system. Bowen and his fellow clinicians noted, however, that cut-off often created as much anxiety in the individual (and in the family system) as it seemingly addressed for being IN the system. He discussed this in therms of fusion: being emotionally bound up in the system’s values didn’t necessarily change with cut-off, because the emotional fusion is still present, even if interactions with other family members is not. Differentiation as a distinct process allows the individual to remain present within the system but with an ability to hold themselves at a safe distance from engaging in the normal family politics and dynamics; they hold more of an observational capacity, not necessarily strictly neutral but certainly with a very different form of engaging in ways that don;’t leave them feeling compelled or emotionally hooked into the system in the usual ways. Often when I’m working with clients who have emotional boundary issues with family or intimate partners, this winds up being an area of considerable focus: how do we find ways of remaining SAFELY engaged but not so severely fused into the machinations of that invisible family value mass?

One of the most important tools we introduce up front to clients struggling with systemic issues is observation. We invite and assist the clients in learning to take a step back and simply watch what goes on in the family in both crisis moments and in the smooth-sailing ones. We help them discern when triangulation occurs, often taking the form of two sides in a dispute or power struggle trying to get a third party “on side” with their perspective, or having one member of an unstable partnership introducing focus on or input from, a third person/factor (child, external adult, work, therapist…) as a way of distracting from tension in the troubled dyadic connection. It’s a truism that a two-legged stool is inherently unstable; it needs at least three legs to bear weight effectively. Tension between a partnership will run high as long as the participants have only the relationship to focus on, but as soon as there is a third target for focus by at least one partner, tension will decrease at least in the short-term (even if that third-party focus takes the form of new babies or pets, workaholism, addiction, or infidelity, until those triangulated factors start to introduce their own disruptive problems into the system).

By encouraging clients to observe and witness the systemic dynamics in action, we allow for a differentiated analysis of those observed behaviours. Rather than simply engaging by unthinking default in them as a form of self-protective “herd camouflage”, we challenge the client to consider the guiding compass question, “What kind of person do I CHOOSE to be here?”, and consider what other behavioural options might be open to them in the moment. They may continue to choose the traditional engagement, but to do so now by CHOICE rather than habit returns a sense of agency to the individual, a small kind of power that allows them to stay within the system but with a subtle shift in their engagement with that system. This is the key to Bowen’s family system: the power and agency of choice is within the CLIENT’s purview, unlike within the older psychoanalytic model that pitched the client as a helpless victim of the family’s effect on them. IN the systemic view, we acknowledge and clarify the family’s impact on the client in the room, AND we also work to shift the client’s own sense of differentiated SELF within the system.

There are many different ways we can also approach helping the client discern what is valuable within the family system to retain and honour, while also allowing them to retain some emotional distance from the weight of the projections of those values. Many clients struggle with the family’s projected expectations based on traditional gender roles, or the position of birth order in families with multiple children (the eldest son, the mother’s helper, the baby of the family, the archetypal “rebellious middle child”, to name a few of the still-common sibling position factors we encounter). Immigrant families often bring cultural factors into the system that can be difficult to process when growing up in a new context. Ongoing shifts in gendered role modelling mean “traditional” relationship roles of “bread-winner” or “home-maker” are being disrupted in some generations but not in others, creating tensions in a multigenerational family model. Different education or employment opportunities have shifted considerably between generations as well. Trying to walk a fine line between “becoming one’s own person” and “remaining a part of the family” is a struggle faced by many people (perhaps nowhere so poignantly, even brutally, by our transgender clients) as they come of age, or face challenges and transitions their own families may not have faced before.

From a systemic view, our job as therapists is to hold space in our process for all these known and impactful factors in our clients’ complex lives. A systems therapist will often tell you, there may only be one person in the room with us, but there is an invisible presence of many more, evidenced in the clients’ own behaviour models and value systems. Our work becomes rooting out the effects of those systemic dynamics, helping the client observe them when they are in operation, and creating space within the client to choose who and how they wish to be within those systems. We also implicitly create permission for the client to honour what they value in the system, and find ways to shift, unhook, or outright jettison those aspects or values that no longer work for them effectively.

For more information on the core concepts of Bowen’s Family Systems Theory (in much easier language than Wikipedia’s version manages), I recommend Roberta Gilbert’s The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking About the Individual and the Group.

Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence, Uncategorized

Returning to reading David Wexler recently, I am reminded of one of the biggest takeaways from a previous reading of his book, Men in Therapy (I’m currently reading the layman companion book, When Good Men Behave Badly). In both books, Wexler discusses the relationship pattern in which people in general, and men in particular, set up relationships as mechanisms for reflecting back at them the values they most want to see and be seen in themselves. These mirroring requirements create a subtle and problematic kind of dependency, often reducing the autonomous, individuated human being who is the partner to little more than a reflective surface. The problems surface when the Partner has the audacity to develop their own wants and needs, to offer comments or criticisms about their mates that suggest dissatisfaction, or to become busy, distracted, unavailable or unreliable as sources of emotional validation and support.

When the dependent partner starts to perceive that the reflective surface is out of alignment or broken, it impacts their security in both their self-imaging and in their relationships. And what do we do when something is out of alignment? We attempt to push it back INTO alignment. Wexler writes in detail on how men especially give the power of validating them into the hands of women partners, often without either of them realizing what is happening and without the woman’s consent to shoulder this responsibility. We all look to our partners for emotional support and validation, yes; this is human relational nature. But we don’t all act out our insecurity when the support or validation is disrupted.

Because our cultural has stunted men’s emotional development in many ways, men are often left with very few ways of expressing hurt, fear, or shame. They do well enough to a point with frustration and disappointment, but in intimate partnerships where they feel especially vulnerable, fear or shame often paired with disrupted validation processes means they misdirect those base-level feelings into more commonly-acceptable and familiar anger, and lash out. Sometimes anger becomes cold silence, but in all cases where this distorted mirror process is occurring, it’s all intended to punish the mirror for misalignment. Lacking direct engagement with each other, couples get into cycles where the disappointment of not getting core needs met turns to emotional reactivity (acting out) that can drive partners to increase distance, which in turn only increases the sense of distortion. It’s another form of what Harriet Lerner calls the distancer-pursuer dynamic, when one partner misbehaves (lashing out, withdrawing, or both) and the other partner’s task in relationship is to somehow “bring them back” to centre; in short, “You change, so *I* feel better!”

There are a lot of reasons why these kinds of imbalanced attachments form; why men in particular crave a kind of emotional vulnerability they don’t feel safe pursuing outside these rare intimate contexts, and why women raised contextually to be placators and nurturers for their own safety allow themselves to be saddled with the unspoken expectations for holding up men’s self-images. Mismatches in Love Languages, for example, can be an enormous source if this kind of distortion. Unravelling all of this in counselling requires looking at where these unarticulated expectations have become burdensome, both in the sense of men being unable (or untrained) to hold their own sense of self-worth without relying exclusively on external reflective sources, and in the sense of women adopting and accepting this degree of emotional labour as the “cost of being in relationship”, as a female friend recently put it. People can be taught how to build their own internal reflections; questions I frequently use with my clients (of all gender identities and relational roles) include these:

  • What story are you telling yourself about what happened?
  • At the end of the day, what kind of person will you wish you had been in this situation?
  • In situations like [X], what would the person you wish you could be have done?
  • What do you see in yourself that looks like that kind of person?
  • What can you do to be a little more like that kind of person?
  • Where you choose to [negative, acting-out behaviour], what do you wish you had done instead?
  • What do you think you might need to make that choice differently in future?

These aren’t cure-alls by along shot, but this kind of questioning is intended to do two things: (1) get the client to practice looking inward to their own perceptions and values, and (2) trust that they can perceive and integrate those values in ways that teach them to trust their own validation senses rather than relying on, or pushing aggressively for, externally-reflected validation. Wexler provides MANY exercises in his books for how to explore those internal distortions, and conversations that shape more effective interactions between partners trying to work past the “bad behaviours” resulting from deep insecurities.

Book Recommendations

But in the postfeminist turmoil of relationship landscapes, men have been struggling to find a way to relate intelligently, parent sensitively, and manage their emotional needs with more consciousness and depth. It’s just that many men haven’t exactly figured out a way to do all these things and still really feel like a man, or at least feel like they are integrating these higher-level qualities in a way that suits men. … [In therapy, w]e ask them to recognize that something is wrong, admit that they need help, openly discuss and express emotions, get vulnerable, and depend on someone else to help them. Unfortunately these tasks don’t typically fit with the Guy Code.
Part of what makes it even more challenging to treat men is that male psychic pain is not always broadcast as articulately as is that of women. Author William Pollack describes men’s anger as their “way of weeping.” And men also weep by drinking, withdrawing, getting irritable, developing somatic complaints, acting competitive, and philandering. ~ David Wexler, Preface, “Men In Therapy”

David Wexler was my first introduction to the specific work of inviting men into the therapeutic process, with the language of how men divert a great deal of their emotional experiences into a tiny number of limited channels of expression. It wasn’t until a few years later, coinciding with my more recent exposure and involvement in whatever wave of feminism we’re currently swimming in, that I first hear and understood the phrase, “toxic masculinity”.

I’m currently embarking on a reading binge to open up more understanding and avenues of approach that will (hopefully) provide better ways of engaging with men in the counselling office. Wexler is a great place for therapists to start, and I will be coming back to his books in future reviews. But today I am deep into a surprisingly insightful book on toxic masculinity written by a young Brit (now residing in Toronto, apparently) who lost his father to an unexpected illness about which the family knew nothing. Exploring the underpinnings of “what happened” in an effort to understand his father’s inexplicable silence, Jack Urwin wrote an article in 2014 for VICE, entitled “A Stiff Upper Lip is Killing British Men”. Overwhelming response to that article eventually pushed the 24 year old writer to expand his research and his writing into his 2016 book, “Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity.”

There’s a level of self-awareness that is required for an author to recognize the patterns of a culture in which they are themselves immersed, and yet find ways of holding up a mirror that allows sufficient reflection to observe the impacts and implications of cultural patterns and values on its participants. In looking for ways to understand why his father never disclosed his health problems to his family before his unexpected death when the author was ten, Urwin takes a microscope to the aspects of masculine behaviour and the way in which expectations any society places on men will inevitably decree what is “right and wrong” for men’s behaviour.

He starts off with neatly skewering the tradition write-off for masculine behaviours on a biological basis, and jumps fairly early into looking at how shifting economic realities helped create a landscape that has sped up the need for men to find new definitions for themselves. Urwin is British; his focus is predominantly on masculine cultural development in England, but his views extrapolate out to most Western countries, and indeed he does often look at American, at least, cultural similarities and differences in gendered development. He looks at how militarism has impacted the perception of “what is masculine” around the globe, and the ways in which popular culture have reinforced the notions of what is masculine and what is not. He also spends a great deal of time bringing in additional resources to back up his own observations on how these factors, reinforcing the ideal of masculinity prevalent in Britain’s “lad culture” (and similar masculine ideals on this side of the pond), are increasingly contributing to patterns of toxicity that cripple men who try to step aside from those limited ideals and into something more like what Wexler describes trying to achieve with men in the therapy room. In short: men are often “more scared of being uncool than dying” (pg. 66):

Men fear emasculation ? perhaps more than anything else ? so they do anything they can to ensure that the image they project to others is one of masculinity, and to reassure themselves of their own social standing as men. If someone comes along and proves me wrong, and can conclusively demonstrate that violence and aggression and risk and dangerous behaviour in men is all down to testosterone, then so be it. For now, I’ll bet you every last penny in my bank account that if all men were taught emasculation wasn’t something to fear, we’d have a much better world for everyone. ~pg. 77

One of the things that makes this book more engaging for the layperson than, say, Wexler’s textbook for therapists, is Urwin’s genuine willingness to look at his own experiences. He is aware of his own bias and narrative perspectives, and he approaches them with a blend of grace and humour that allows the reader to see the experiences he describes through his eyes. His writing style is also very crisp with some hefty doses of British humour thrown in to help temper the desperateness of the situations and statistics he’s backing up with both anecdotes and research. He admits out of the starting gate that his way of dealing with his father’s untimely death was to develop what Virginia Satir would call the “irreverent” stance; Urwin became the class clown, diverting intense sadness and grief off the boards with humour. Fourteen years later as an author, he has found his way back to an authentic vulnerability he balances against those moments of witty distraction, and the result is an engaging tone that delivers horrifying statistics in a very matter-of-fact tone, while also recognizing that humour allows his readers a safe place to decompress and process the tension of these insights before moving on to the next thing.

The biggest challenge with acknowledging and deconstructing toxic masculinity is its commonality in human culture. (There’s a whole sidebar conversation we’re only starting to have on the corresponding rise of toxic femininity, but that’s for another day.) Being able to allow men a safe place to explore having emotions beyond the limited scope allowed by “lad culture” while also educating them on the impact of their behaviour on others, is a hugely challenging task. It’s especially challenging for women, therapists or partners, because to some extent we have to recognize and step outside the recognition of our own perceptions of experiences in being on the receiving end of some of those more toxic behavioural aspects. Being able to start a conversation around what Wexler refers to as Masculine Gender Role Stress (MGRS) requires first finding out if the men in question are even aware of a performative aspect to their masculine self-identity. This is one place where a therapist can help start the conversations, at least. Furthermore, in this day and age there is still a strongly-gendered belief that men are defining themselves by their ability to earn a good living and be good providers for themselves and their families, and increasingly precarious employment situations are part of a contextual shift happening across our culture in the 21st century; those impacts on gendered definitions and coping mechanisms must also be considered.

Jack Urwin’s book provides a hugely-valuable window of insight into the costs being borne by men in the late 20th and 21st centuries as the world shifts faster than their security in their self-definitions does. Traditional supports for those definitions are eroding, and clinging harder to “traditional masculinity” (as witnessed by the rise of Men’s Rights Activists [MRAs]) is producing only bigger, hotter fights than ever. It also provides some new language for women struggling to understand the behaviours of the men in their lives, some perspective that helps explain why men keep entering into intimate relationships yet not participating on the emotional levels their partners ask of them. If you don’t mind the occasional spicy language (Urwin is free with his swearing, on occasion), then “Man Up” is going to be a handy reference guide and road map for anyone beginning to look at both the history and current scope of the issues men face, and the challenges of interacting with them in the place of greatest difficulty: their own emotional development.

Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Relationships

Somewhere along the lines, our culture took to heart a lesson we seem to indoctrinate into small children as a way of keeping the peace in home and playground: when someone does us a hurt, our job on the receiving end is to “forgive and forget”. Let it go and move on. Don’t harbour the grudge. This admonishment seems to come regardless of whether the hurt has been redressed (at all, never mind adequately), whether any repair has been attempted, whether any degree of ownership and justice have been served.

In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths sometimes baffle people who have a hard time “letting go” or forgiving the injustices, big or small, that have been done to them, even when clinging to their anger and hurt is making them miserable. I have a lot of clients who struggle with this indoctrinated precept of “forgive and forget”, whether it means forgiving parents, friends, employers/colleagues, or especially intimate partners. It has become a kind of cultural shorthand now when talking about “foregiveness” that people simply imply “…and forget” when we talk about forgiving those who we believe have harmed us. When people hurt, they don’t *want* to forget, because many people are reasonably afraid that, having been hurt once, they can be hurt again. Even if they move on to other relationships, the remembered pain and sense of hurt goes with them, and they bring that fear and mistrust into new connections. They don’t want to forget because remembering helps guard against future hurts.

But being constantly on guard is exhausting. Ask anyone who has ever suffered to the degree of being diagnosed with PTSD what it costs to remain hypervigilant, and most of them will tell you: it drains everything. When we spend all our time remembering, we have a hard time being in the present moment, because we are so consumed by the past. But letting go opens us up to being vulnerable, to *potential* future harms. For some people, that’s just not an option.

For people struggling in the sticky tar-pit of that “forgive and forget” mindset, I find the language Terry Hargrave introduced in his work on Families & Forgiveness to be ground-breaking. Hargrave suggests that “forgiveness” is one of FOUR “stations” we can move to from our place of hurt when a relationship is damaged:


Salvation (Exonarating)

Restoration (Forgiving)

Insight Understanding Giving the Opportunity for Compensation Overt Forgiving

Figure 1. The Four Stations of Forgiveness (Terry Hargrave, “Forgiving the Devil”)

Hargrave’s use of “stations” here does not carry the same implication as, say, “stations of the Cross” might, to suggest a progression from one state to the next. Rather, each of these options exists as a resting place unto itself, and may represent the total progression an individual might make in the relationship to the one they feel has harmed them. And only the final stations actually involve forgiveness as we understand it, though Hargrave does not suggest that “forgetting” is at all a necessary part of any of these stations:

[…] [F]orgiving and forgetting are two separate issues that are not connected by necessity. […] [W]e seldom forget the action that has damaged us in an unfair way, but we do tend to forget the pain that is associated with that action after we have forgiven. I believe this is true. Pain tends to fade with time after the work of forgiveness is achieved. When a person engages in the second two stations of forgiving and restores the relationship with the former relational culprit, then the pain of the past has the opportunity to fade when compared with the trustworthy and loving relationship of the present. The popular belief that if a person truly forgives another, he or she will wipe the slate clean of all memories of the incident, is simply not true. Even if it were neurologically possible on request to erase specific memory pathways in the brain that contain information about the damaged past, it would not necessarily be preferable.

Again, at the heart of […]injustice and pain is the violation of trust. If I am damage by [someone], there is a sequential deterioration of trust. If I forgive and forget, then possibly nothing will change in a relationship with an untrustworthy [person], and I will open myself up to the same type of relational damage to occur again. If I try to forget the damage, then I will not remember the necessary steps to take to prevent such damage in the future and there is a possibility that I will be “twice burned”. Trust is best restored to a relationship not when the victim and victimizer act as if no violation ever occurred; it works best when they do not forget the past and choose to live life differently [in the present and future].

The first two stations do not demand that trust in a relationship be re-established, but they can provide reflection and a frame of reference for understanding something about what happened that may shed some light on WHY it happened. This is often as far as many people safely feel they can get; they have something that feels like an explanation that makes sense, but they cannot feel safe in the act of re-establishing trust with the person who damaged them. This is often true for those coming out of toxic or abusive relationships with parents or partners (or both). Forgiveness, on the other hand, demands an active process of re-engagement and reconstruction, and active repair attempts from all parties involved. It is a riskier position to be in, because it also requires vulnerability on both sides; the one who has been hurt risks being hurt again, and the one who has effected the hurt is often bringing some degree of guilt and shame to the table that they have to confront and manage within themselves as part of the process. (Note from the therapist’s chair: it is NOT the job of the person who has been hurt to manage that guilt and shame for the other; just be aware it’s a part of the equation for whomever is sitting on the other side of the table.)

This stationed approach allows greater flexibility in presenting options to people who seem caught between the rock of “forgiveness” and the hard place of “forgetting”. As a therapist, we can give them permission to take forgetting off the table completely, and then offer not one but FOUR unique perspectives under two classes of approach (exoneration and restoration) from which to begin their work. This opens up new discussion directions and new language to explore, and often helps clients determine what they want to do that point, and how to engage with the damaging partner. It may allow them to move on from stuckness and let go of their exhausting attachment to the pain of the incident, with new options for living more fully in the present than in the past.

Article links, Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence

With the rise of conflicts in geek/con/gamer culture coming to mainstream attention in the past year or so, and the rising persistence of the feminist movement to counter male privilege best exemplified by what started as an internet backlash to “nice guys being friendzoned” and spun into a larger (still ongoing) discussion about male emotional self-management, entitlement and privilege, and the pervasiveness of “rape culture”. This has, one can imagine, made it a very interesting time for men seeking therapy on their own or being brought into counselling by their partners. In North America we’re mostly at least generally aware of the vastly-different cultural values placed on men’s emotional experiences and expressions, versus those assigned to women. It’s not even that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”, we’re simply not given the same tools or lexicon for those experiences from the ground up. And it’s not simply what men are being taught as boys directly; as long as girls are still being raised with the cultural narrative that Prince Charming will come along to rescue/validate them, there will always be an implicit expectation that boys have to be stronger and smarter than girls are in order to be able to do for girls what they for some reason are *still* being taught to believe they cannot do for themselves (can we *please* have more Self-Rescuing Princesses, and more Emotionally-Developed Princes??)

Because we have this cultural myth of male strength and control, there is precious little room for exploring the fact that men have all the same emotional experiences, to the same range and depth, that women do. They are taught almost from birth, however, that men’s emotions have to be suppressed and compressed into fewer “acceptable” channels than women, which is why men in therapy have such a difficult time putting identifying labels on any emotional experience beyond happy or angry; they don’t have the language to say what they’re feeling, assuming they can distill the experience clearly in the first place.

My first resource and insight into this topic was David Wexler’s book, Men in Therapy (written more for professionals), and When Good Men Behave Badly (general audiences).

Some more recent links that have crossed my inbox on the subject:

Big Boys Don’t Cry

Cracking the Code of Men’s Feelings

Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

Article links, Book Recommendations, Relationships

Today’s article link is a good summary of how to improve conflict management in intimate relationships.

Especially once the honeymoon phase of New Relationship Energy wears off and people start to settle into more comfortable, often less-conscious patterns of behaviour with each other, conflict starts to creep into interactions. We see each other’s less “Best Behaviour” sides and start to realize there’s more to this person than we realized in the warm hazy glow of fresh love.

John Gottman, relationship researcher, has spent 25+ years studying couples in his Love Lab and concluded that it’s not how relationships manage their similarities that determines success or failure of the relationship, it’s how we manage our differences and points of conflict. His big thing is charting how couples in heated interactions handle what he terms “repair attempts”, or ways to acknowledge conflict without letting the heat of the emotional stuff behind it burn the participants. This January 2014 article from provides a little bit of insight into how to focus on connection when fighting rather than catastrophe and division.

For more information on how to handle conflict better, I recommend John Gottman’s books, specifically The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. These kinds of tools for staying present and mindful even when the moments are turbulent and heated, are the tools most likely to build strength and resiliency into relationships, rather than reinforcing brittle and bitter entrenchments.