Relationships, Uncategorized

Dr Harriet Lerner, author of several wonderful books about relational dynamics, describes the intricate movements toward, and away from, the intensity of intimacy (especially in the sense of emotional vulnerability) as a dance. This dance is based in the idea that the closer we get to letting a partner in to seeing what we feel are our “true selves”, the more we inadvertently activate emotional defenses around our growing discomfort, potentially stalling out or actively driving away attempts at the very intimacy and connection most humans crave.

This push-me-pull-you dynamic is also sometimes illustrated by the hedgehog’s dilemma:

Both Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud have used this situation to describe what they feel is the state of the individual in relation to others in society. The hedgehog’s dilemma suggests that despite goodwill, human intimacy cannot occur without substantial mutual harm, and what results is cautious behavior and weak relationships. With the hedgehog’s dilemma, one is recommended to use moderation in affairs with others both because of self-interest, as well as out of consideration for others.

The fundamental dynamic of the hedgehog’s dilemma is based in how we attract and repel people. Lerner terms this a “distancer-pursuer” dynamic in which we begin by pursuing connection through a courtship phase, then begin to seek some separation and space once we hit too much togetherness, or too-intimate a closeness–either way, it’s generally perceived as being “too much” for us, so we push off from our partners. Sometimes this happens simultaneously, but more often than not, one person’s tolerance for intimacy and closeness tops out before the other’s does, and only one partner starts to move towards more space.

When we look at this through attachment dynamics, the push-off of the distance-seeker can often trigger insecurity in the attachment structure, and the one who is insecure or anxious in the attachment will begin to grasp or cling in an attempt to draw the retreating partner back into connection. The grasping increases intensity for the one who is already potentially in retreat, so the retreating continues until the pursuer “gives up” and stops their efforts. Often this creates a turnabout in the relational dynamic: even if the distancer is feeling overwrought by the pursuit, there is some validation in that dynamic that proves the pursuing partner is still engaged, still focused, still available and desiring interaction (of ANY kind, not always the GOOD kind, in the sense of “bad engagement is better than NO engagement”). So when the pursuit simply STOPS, the distancer may suddenly become the anxious partner trying to re-engage a disengaged one. (This is where we will sometimes see Wexler’s broken mirror syndrome come into play as one partner “acts out” in attempts to entice or manipulate a no-longer-reflective surface back into alignment in their perspective).

This dynamic can repeat throughout the lifespan of relationships, and the roles can reverse many times.

“A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression. They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and take it personally.

They criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable. They believe they have superior values. If they fail to connect, they will collapse into a cold, detached state. They are labeled needy, demanding, and nagging.

A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want physical and emotional distance. They have difficulty with vulnerability.

They respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. They see themselves as private and self-reliant. They are most approachable when they don?t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued. They are labeled unavailable, withholding, and shut down.”


“In her study of 1,400 divorced individuals over 30 years, E. Mavis Hetherington found that couples who were stuck in this mode were at the highest risk for divorce. Researcher Dr. John Gottman also noted that this destructive pattern is an extremely common cause of divorce. He claims that if left unresolved, the pursuer-distancer pattern will continue into a second marriage and subsequent intimate relationships.” — Steve Horsmon, for The Gottman Institute, March 6, 2017

Stepping outside of this dynamic can be difficult when we consider the underlying anxieties, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to let go of them. Distancers often maintain their status quo stance for long terms if the pressure of pursuit is persistent or constant, or once the pursuer’s anger becomes part of the equation; therefore the first order of business is generally finding ways to de-escalate and secure the pursuer. This effort comes with a warning to the pursuers, however: pursuers are likely to leave the relationship, seemingly abruptly, after exhausting efforts to maintain the pursuit against defensive distancing. Lerner writes extensively about working with distancers to find ways of relearning how to “turn toward” their partners, rather than turning away, while training pursuers to relax and trust that there is something true in the old adage that, “If you love something, set it free.” Attachment theory frames this in the context of working around the anxieties and intensity tolerances present in the relationship. Gottman addresses the way in which this dynamic opens the door to the Four Horsemen: Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling (Distancing). Emotionally-focused Therapy would consider this from the angle of articulating and exploring these underlying fears with as much nonjudgmental curiosity and receptivity as possible.

Changes must be driven by a desire to be a better partner, not to get some instant result or reciprocation. Pursuers are known for being outcome dependent and have a hard time making changes without expectations. Distancers are known for being stubborn and have difficulty making the first move when under pressure.” — [ibid.]

Rebuilding trust and security in the face of long-term distancer-pursuer dynamics requires commitment to understanding and trusting the potential for intimacy, and practicing vulnerability in the face of our own discomfort with intensity tolerance. When I ask couples on intake whether they’re in my office for “relationship counselling or relationship cancelling”, this is often the work that we as therapists are asking them to undertake. It’s not an easy thing to (re-)establish that trust and build security into the attachments, but oh-so-wonderful when we see clients expanding their tolerances and shifting those comfort boundaries to let their partners (back) into those intimate connections.

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
FEAR OF BEING INFERIOR FEAR OF BEING ABANDONED FEAR OF BEING DOMINATED FEAR OF BEING IGNORED
Demanding
Demeaning
Self-absorbed
Insulting
Overly friendly
Shifts to anger
Sudden mood swings
Breaks rules & laws
Deceptive
Con artist
Superficial & helpless
Attention-seeking
Exaggerates
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.

Relationships, Uncategorized

Last week In my last post* I started a topic about the impact of our work lives on a general level, specifically as that issue relates to the local High Tech community. My own observations from both within and without that particular environment and culture definitely colour my professional work with the clientele coming out of this field. As I wrote previously, an increasing number of clients are coming to me BECAUSE of that background. I don’t just speak the language; I GET IT.

One of the many, many things I understand on the personal AND the professional levels (clinical and not-clinical professions) is the innate and potentially terrible impact that working in this field can have on our intimate and family relationships. There’s nothing that suggests that people who work in High Tech are intrinsically any better or any worse at having and maintaining relationships than people employed in any other field, especially industries with high performance pressures or Just In Time (JIT) delivery models. My perspective is, therefore, entirely biased by experience and direct observation, and like any good researcher, I prefer to identify my bias right up front.

In my previous post, I wrote:

When I ask clients what their core values are organized around, they almost always list their top three-four in this order:

  1. kids (if they have any)
  2. partner(s) (if they have any)
  3. family
  4. work

But when we look at how they distribute the finite resource of their time (often the indicator of truer ?real-life? prioritization), it looks more like this:

  1. work
  2. work
  3. work
  4. everything else

Most of us at some time or other have encountered the cliche of someone being “married to their job”. We generally understand this to mean someone who regularly prioritizes their work over everything else, whether by preference or by necessity. What we don’t always look at, however, is the impact that prioritization has on the person or people waiting at home… assuming they aren’t likewise married to THEIR jobs as well.

My client base currently runs the gamut from co-op students to C-suite (Chief executive-level) officers, and the issues are, by and large, the same: stress about work performance, strain in relationships, poor sense of work/life balance. When I sit with couples who are concerned or complaining that their Busy Lives have them feeling like a slow continental drifting apart, I always ask them right up front, “What stops you from choosing to prioritize each other and this relationship (or the family) over the external factors at work here?”

In many cases, a significant peril of the High Tech world is the crushing cycle of sales promises and deliverable schedules, tied to performance reviews and bonuses. There’s no secret that IT salaries and many corporate bonus/incentive plans are a BIG part of the reason WHY so many people accept the Golden Handcuffs; money remains the #1 stress factor in relationships. The idealized, romantic notion of “success” that includes owning one’s own home with the picket fence, 2.5 dogs, maybe a kid, gets to be a little unwieldy when white collar industry sends housing prices supra-orbital. Partnering into a two+ income arrangement is often the only feasible way to afford housing. Or childcare. Or financial support for extended family; given the rising number of immigrant employees with strong family obligations in their countries of origin, we see an increasing number of non-Canadian residents working in local companies and trying to get themselves settled while sending a hefty percentage of their income back home. (The intersectional aspects of multiculturalism and relationships and gendered role expectations and work environment stresses and… there isn’t enough time in the world to dive down that set of rabbit holes.)

Behind the scenes, the expectations of management are that employees will, by implicit if not explicit requirement, drop everything to pull 60-80 hour work weeks, often on a recurring (if not entirely predictable) basis. When you add in the precarious availability of potential on-call work (in any industry), it’s difficult to make plans, to find guaranteed time for quality engagement. There’s a prevailing context of “I might not be available when you need me” that makes it challenging to build intimacy and connection. And this is before we factor in the additional hassles of needing sometimes-highly-flexible childcare to support working families with lengthy work-weeks and crunchy project deadlines.

I commonly see IT clients coming in after lengthy periods of disconnect and increasing tension, frustration, or hostility in their relationships. Communications have deteriorated because of busy-ness getting in the way of restorative time together, or the buildup of small disappointments over time into cascading frustrations or anger through the slow death by a thousand cuts. It’s not that any of these issues are exclusive to High Tech, just that the environment of working in, or in support of, High Tech Culture, seemingly exacerbates the effects of common relationship issues. Once we get to the point of illustrating the shifting incongruence of their stated values and priorities versus their day-to-day behavioural indication of priority, we can make it clear that they have a difficult choice to make, in terms of “What will you do differently to make time for prioritizing THIS relationship?”

And therein lies the challenge. Doing things differently often provokes a degree of despair initially in clients because they feel powerless to push back against the behemoth of their employer’s expectations. Women in particular feel the emotional weight of “letting the team down”, along with the divisive pull of home and family, in ways that threaten their sense of balance and self-worth. When couples stop sharing these strains with each other, preferably devoid of any expectation of our partners somehow magically “fixing” them or the situation, then we start that inevitable slow slide into disconnection and lost intimacy. We don’t have time to practice authentic vulnerability when we barely have time to see each other over coffee in the morning. Many people don’t believe they have the right to push back against employer demands, and frankly, many employers are happy to take advantage of that belief. But at the end of the day, we keep coming back to the discrepancy between stated and displayed values, and the challenge of what WILL clients do differently to move back into connection and congruence with those stated priorities?

We start with the “low-hanging fruit” of solution-focused answers: carving out time for each other, as something unique from making time for family, has to become a more-highly-exercised priority. Date nights have to become an ardently-defended part of the scheduling, and the more time we can make to repair connection and intimacy, the better. Is there a “throw money at the problem” solution or familial support opportunities available for childcare, for example, that enables clients to re-establish time for intimate connection? Is there a conversation we can prepare with team or corporate management regarding workload management? Do we need to adopt extraordinary measures for managing workplace stress or fatigue as a component in glacial relationship erosion? In session, we work on breaking down the slow buildup of frustration to re-establish that intimate connection, but the onus is on the client(s) to make time to practice and sustain these changes in between sessions.

And more often than not, the hardest part of this work for all of us is simply normalizing these stresses and frustrations. I wish frequently this WASN’T such a normal scenario, but for this area in particular, it’s pretty much par for the course with High Tech clients. When I meet with HR or executive folks who want a therapist’s perspective on what they can do to improve employee quality of life, I can guarantee the LAST thing they want to hear is the truth: please stop expecting as normal the unreasonable standards for job execution you have bought into for this industry, and projecting that deadly bullshit onto your employees to deliver. It’s debilitating, demoralizing, and destabilizing them, and it’s damaging their lives outside of work; the cascading impact on people who don’t even work for you is inescapable, and costly. They want to hear instead that they can fix everything by supplying in-office massages or yoga, or enforced mindfulness training, or more mandatory “fun, team-building” exercises–the ones often scheduled outside of work hours, thereby eating into what little personal time or homelife these employees may have left. Resentment builds quickly, and if it’s not adequately offset by salary and benefits, it’s certainly not met by upgrading cafeteria service to near-gourmet provision, or adding laundry/drycleaning services (though some clients who have worked for employers providing on-site, licensed daycare have reported that as being a singularly-game-changing factor).

Again, very few of these issues are specific to the world of software development. But the typical project cycle and sometimes-unrealistic expectations for deliverables and performance metrics, tied to some of the highest payscales of any industry (even outside of the C-suite bonuses), make it a damnably difficult work scenario from which to walk away. And it *IS* endemic to High Tech that corporate “solutions” look more like changing the physical work environment rather than changing the mental environment defining their sense of work/life balance. Not a lot of us make the leap OUT of High Tech for something… else; the Golden Handcuffs are deemed too worthwhile. And that may be true, until we start to look at the impact on more than just the immediate employees, a whopping part of the cost remains borne by those invisible shoulders of spouses, partners, children, families in general.

This NEEDS to change.


* — With apologies; I have been trying for three weeks now to find enough motivation and impetus to write, and it just hasn’t been there. “Getting back on track” is definitely a work in progress, but I’m getting there… kinda. Sorta. Eventually…

Relationships, Uncategorized

[This morning’s writing period got co-opted by some exciting developments for and within the local therapist community, so I’m pulling an oldie-but-goodie from the archive for this week’s post.]


In the world of Contextual Therapy, the core principle of relationships is that we develop or dismiss/destroy relationships on the basis of merited trust, that being trust earned from having more positive transactions than negative ones on the relational ledger. Try though some might to deny it, all relationships have ledgers, because all individuals keep tallies, whether we do it consciously or not. If we don’t keep those tallies, how do we know who to trust and who not to trust? When someone says, “I trust a person on the basis of a gut instinct”, what they are responding to is often the prompting from a subconscious consultation with their internalized ledger of transactions. The decision may be based on minimal or comparative information only (this new person behaves or otherwise reminds me of some other person to whom I already assign a high degree of merited trust) and especially in early relational transactions, may be based predominantly on unconscious or non-verbal communications that we record, analyze, and respond to equally unconsciously.

The relational ledger is a huge component of relationships. People seek professional intervention (reparative counseling, personal development, legal proceedings) generally when the balance of the ledger has tipped to, and remains consistently tipped to, the negative side of that ledger. Merited trust is dented, eroded, or absent. The damage may be on both sides of the relationship, or it may be one party’s perception that the other party is just “bad”. frequently, both in and out of therapy, one or more participants in the relationship may become focused or fixated on the other party’s negative aspects – their contributions to the negative aspect of the relational ledger.

The fixation happens because, at our core, we are cellular organisms. as such, cellular organism learn faster and more strongly from negative stimuli than from positive stimuli. Self-protective aversion is a non-conscious reaction: even single-cell protozoa will unthinkingly flinch away from a negative stimulation; there is no analysis of the dangers or possible responses required. Movement towards positive stimulation is not, however, as fast, and learning to move into positive stimulation is something that higher life forms sometimes need to be trained to do. We all seek food when hungry and warmth when cold, but in both cases, there are scientific and psychological schools of thought that label those instinctive behaviours as reactions away from the negative stimulus of “cold”, or “hunger”. We instinctively move away from pain or discomfort; moving towards something is an entirely separate set of analytical functions.

In relationships, we often witness people responding to a relational stimulus in a largely unthinking fashion. We move away from pain. Sometimes we do this by relabeling the pain as anger and changing the direction to focus it on someone or something external to ourselves. Sometimes we seek to remove the thing we identify as the source of pain from our relational radius (up to and including removing people we perceive as causing us pain). Sometimes we look inwards to find what that pain is attached to, what other times in our lives we’ve felt pain, and how we have developed the response in which we’re currently engaged as a result of repeating patterns. the latter approach is common to several therapeutic models.

Where relational ledgers come in, is the fact that because we learn fastest and most efficiently from those protozoan aversion-responses, at an almost cellular level we are programmed to retain the negative far more strongly and for far longer than we do the positive transactions. This isn’t a justification to allow people to wallow in the pain, but it’s an explanation of why it’s such a common thing for people to fixate on the negative to the detriment of any focus on the positive, and why the experience of “depression” isn’t limited to the human species. So we store far more data on the negative ledger (or at least we tend to focus on it more) than we do on the positive ledger. when a relationship comes into trouble, often it’s because the negative focus has superseded any sense of accumulated merit, and that shift in focus is what erodes the trust; it’s not that the relational transactions themselves have changed, but rather that something in the participants themselves has (for whatever reasons) caused a shift in the focus.

Frequently, young relationships hit this point after the “honeymoon phase” ends, and the participants start looking past their own romantic projections to the other party with whom they interact. That?s a difficult transition in any relationship, and one that can often lead right into what Wong & McKeen refer to in The Relationship Garden as the cycle of power struggles, in which the participants try and change each other back into those early romantic projections, or fight internally to adjust themselves to the new perceptions. Change, particularly opaque internalized changes, often leads to external behavioural changes, which are a big factor in the tipping of the relational ledger. Our protozoan selves don’t like change, change means “Unknowns” and “Differences”, and on some level, change is generalized as a negative stimulus, so we try to avoid it. Aversion may take the form of ignoring the signals and actions of change and remaining rutted in our comfort zones; it may take the form of trying to force the source of those changes to stop whatever s/he is doing to upset the status quo; it may take the form of engaging change but only on our own terms as a means of micro-managing our own fears in and of the process. It may also take the form of embracing change for change’s sake, without having a goal for change to help inform the decisions we make as part of the change process (which leads in turn to all kinds of other tensions and issues within the relationship, and is equally culpable in the disruption of balance within the relational ledger).

In times of relational tension and crisis, many of us (me included) find ourselves tallying the internally-maintained “list of grievances”, or clinging to the hurts to justify retaliatory behaviours. This is how people most commonly respond to the balance tipping towards the negative side of the relational ledger. It’s a kind of psychological narcissism (making the hurt and pain all about ourselves as a means of justifying further responses to and on the negative ledger), and leads to something called “destructive entitlement”, in which we inefficiently attempt to rebalance the ledger by forcing another party to “pay for our hurts”. (The principle of “destructive entitlement” is, by the way, a whole other post or series of posts; it sometimes ties in with legacy values we inherit from others, particularly previous generations in our family of origin, or legacy values that we inherit from chosen family or social spheres, any or all of which we respond to in ways that come only at cost to someone else.) Equally often, by the time a relationship reaches the point of drastic rebalancing on account of pervasive negative focus, one or more participants are past the point of being willing or capable of considering, or even viewing, the positive aspects of the relational ledger.

At this point in time, the first step in diffusing the tensions is giving the emotional content (the personal grievances) safe space to be expressed and acknowledged, without judgment, but more importantly, without expectation of a reactive response. a grievance is not necessarily best interpreted as a signal requiring change. Sometimes a grievance just needs to be aired and heard in order to reduce the tensions associated with the grievance. At some point thereafter, a subsequent step (not necessarily the next step, but an important one to include somewhere in the investigative process) is to force a review of the positive ledger. It may something as simple as asking, “what is it that initially attracted me to this other person? What positive factors does s/he bring to the relationship, then and now? what do I like about him/her?” the positives may not be immediately accessible in a tense or conflicted relational period, but making any entry onto the positive ledger is crucial at this juncture, creating a foothold from which balance, or at least a less-critical angle of tippage, may be more easily restored. It also forces the perceived-aggrieved party to step outside the entrenched Self and consider, even if only briefly, the merits of Other. This is a huge step not only in relationship counseling, but in any kind of mediation scenario; “consider the other person’s perspective” is a hugely important tool for breaking tension, and increasing the potential for establishing a different kind of relational modality than the one which brought the parties to their current emotionally-laden impasse in the first place.

Working one’s way out of the aggrieved entrenchment is difficult; the fact that a lot of people can’t do that on their own can’t unhook from their own emotional aversion-responses, is part of why the field of family & relationship therapy is flourishing. Part of our job as therapists is to supply the multi-directional partiality that creates safe space for each party to explore the relational ledger, assisting them to collaboratively determine what they want to do about any perceived imbalance. it occurs to me that relationship therapy is best described as “psychological archaeology”, because by the time people make it into counseling, the root issues are often lost. Individuals hit a negative stimulus, and react. People around them, perceiving the reaction as some kind of change in behaviour, will react themselves. Often this reaction/response is confrontational in nature. As soon as the original responsive party perceives confrontation, the response is often defensive, without necessarily explaining at all the original stimulus/reaction sequence (at least not in any rational way). The continuing opacity of behaviour may lead to further perceived challenges, which then cause the originator to justify the defensiveness – this is the stage at which the relational transactions are most likely to become externalized as anger and blame projected onto the other participant(s). so by the time the relationship arrives in the counsellor’s office, the participants are several stages away from the core issues, and the presenting problem – the only aspect of which many people coming into therapy are immediately conscious of – is at the tertiary level of justified anger, firmly entrenched on the negative side of the relational ledger. The archaeology comes in by way of digging past the immediate hostilities or tensions, back past the defensive responses, and looking for the root sources of the current imbalances. Treating only the tertiary stage, and trying to reset the balance of the ledger or restore the merited trust on the basis of that level of transaction, is leaving the relationship participants wide open to ongoing problems as a result of not examining the foundations of those interactions for weakness, and bringing the unconscious protozoa reactions to the light of conscious evaluation within the ledger. We respond unthinkingly to the negative; we consciously condition ourselves to consider the positive.

Relationships, Uncategorized

Have you ever had a complete conversation with someone in your head, someone not physically in the room (office, car, bathtub) with you? Most of us do; some of us even make a recurring habit of it. *raises hand guiltily*

In some ways it’s a decent way of sorting out thoughts or practicing potentially difficult things we want to say. On the other hand, as a habit it can lead to a particular kind of short-circuiting of opportunities for vulnerability and intimacy when we start to invest and even PREFER those internal conversations to actual face-to-face discussions.

I don’t remember where in my training I first came across the idea of these internal constructs; certainly the concept of them runs through a number of therapies. I do remember the first time my own therapist called me out on the practice of using these internal constructs as a shield to protect myself from having arguments with my then-partner; the givewaway was when I described unleashing a torrent of anger on the poor man for simply walking into a room, unsuspecting the rage I had built up in my head over something that started as an innocuous thing. “Going supernova” was a term my ex-husband and I came to use for those unpredictable explosions; they generally happened after I’d had plenty of time to work myself up through these invisible conversations and could or would no longer contain that vast sea of seething anger.

It’s not a bad thing in and of itself to talk to these constructs. The PROBLEM happens when the process starts to look more like this:

  • We have a thought.
  • We have feelings about that thought.
  • We start to imagine what we might want to say to the Other about those feelings (or thoughts).
  • We imagine, based on exposure and experience, what they will say and do in return.
  • In pondering that assumed response, we begin to react emotionally (in our heads).
  • We use that reactivity to justify taking a STANCE (in our heads).
  • We get entrenched in emotionally defending that stance (in our heads).
  • We leverage brilliant arguments (in our heads).
  • We imagine them counterarguing.
  • “How dare they!?”, we think (in our heads).
  • We escalate (in our heads).
  • They defend (in our heads).
  • We are positively incandescent in our righteous rage (in our heads).

…and then the Other walks in, all unknowing, and inadvertently joins the Invisible Battle Already In Progress (in our heads).

When we become emotionally invested in these internal constructs, when we habitually engage with them more readily than we do with our flesh-and-blood partners, when we rage dramatically at the invisible as if it were as real and valid is breathing, corporeal entities, THIS is Masterpiece Sock Pippet Theatre. It is also Masterpiece Sock Puppet Theatre when our conversations with the puppets result in us talking ourselves out of doing something because we anticipate rejection, obstruction, dismissal, etc., from our partners. When the sock puppets in our heads convince us that we can’t say, do, believe, have what we want, we’ve bought into that internal piece of theatre… but at what price?

We create puppets, internal 2D constructs, that only ever respond as we EXPECT and ASSUME they will. And therein lies the death of intimacy. By choosing to engage with these sock puppet versions of Others on difficult topics more commonly than we do so with their real counterparts, we deny ourselves and our partners an opportunity to practice vulnerability in relationships, shutting ourselves off from genuine intimacy in the process. Also, lashing out at, or disappointedly disconnecting from, partners without (from their perspective) clear provocation, means we’re often engaging in what appears to be “disproportionate response”, especially if we’ve worked up a serious emotional mountain from a potential molehill of a trigger.

When I worked a tech writing contract at BlackBerry a few years ago, we in the Global Product Security team had a motto that steered everything we did with vulnerability reports: “Trust, but verify.” This meant we take the report at face value, that there was an exploitable weakness in our hardware or software, but verify the report in-house with the experts before acting on the report. I have learned that this “Trust, but verify” motto also works exceptionally well when sock puppets are present in a relationship dynamic. Nowadays I challenge clients on their assumptions of how they believe a partner will think/feel/behave, and I explore when they last validated their working models by engaging a partner directly on the topics that most commonly take the stage in their respective versions of Masterpiece Sock Puppet Theatre.

The part that makes this vulnerable is that these internal models *ARE* often based in experience. Sometimes that experience is particular to the current relationship under examination; other times, it’s a response to a very generalized set of assumptions accumulated over multiple relationships (non-specific language about “all men”, “all women”, “all my relationships”, etc., are the key flags for generalizations). If the experience to date justifies *expecting* certain responses from a partner, that’s useful information; we TRUST that the client has come to this conclusion for good reason. But then we also have to VERIFY that the assumption remains valid over time, or as relationships change. This requires looking at how those triggering topics get addressed in the relationship context: is the issue with the assumptive response based in communications patterns we can change for improved reception and connection? Are there ways we can tailor the discussion to decrease reactivity in the relationship dynamic, hopefully without also introducing or increasing emotional labour on the client’s part?

Verifying internal models sometimes means we have to risk having rough conversations, so we coach clients on how to do so in safest possible terms; sometimes this is the point at which we suggest individual clients seek relational counselling or family mediation. Yes, it will almost always feel safer to interact with ONLY those sock puppets. But that won’t guarantee we’re making decisions or choosing a course of action based in the most accurate information available. Masterpiece Sock Puppet Theatre is all about self-protection and control; if we control the sock puppets, we have a sense of control over the situation, and we make decisions based on “safe” information, even if it’s unverified information in the freshest sense. To seek interactive, fresh information means putting ourselves in a vulnerable position, and there may be reasons why that is at best uncomfortable, and at worst, feel completely untenable and personally unsafe.

But we also acknowledge that we, ultimately, are NOT the Subject Matter Experts on other people, no matter how heavily we invest in our internal working models (no, not even therapists). Talking with the sock puppets can help us prepare for a tough conversation, but in the end, if we want to make INFORMED decisions, we really should ensure we have the most accurate information we can acquire from the verified source of that needful information. Before we get emotionally invested in our reaction to a decision made with a sock puppet, we should step outside the theatre and ask a real human for their input. It’s risky, but it’s also the only way we get true intimacy in relationship. We may never completely break the habit of those internal, preparatory, conversations… but when we catch ourselves having them, they can become a flag that we haven’t verified that topic or outcome with the real-life Other in the equation… and especially if it’s something important to *us*, we should probably set the sock puppets aside to address that.

Relationships, Self-Development, Uncategorized

There are some good and bad aspects to considering the difference between “I” and “we” in relationship. On the one hand, there is a general undercurrent of connectedness in “we” language that can feel intimate and close. On the other hand, however, a tendency to ONLY assume a “we” perspective means we sometimes miss something important happening with the “I”… until the “I” explodes in some fashion that probably surprises everyone involved, even the “I” in question.

We know I’m a writer, and that I believe in my mitochondria that words are incalculably important. So I listen as much for HOW people say things to me as I listen for the message threaded through/behind/underneath their language choices. It becomes REALLY apparent when I ask someone to tell me about their individual experience or feeling, thoughts, or opinions… and all of their responses are couched in “we” language. Even when I gently call attention to that language and get curious about it, if we’re not diligent in calling it out, it slides back in within a few minutes.

The discomfort of having to even THINK in terms of “I” often winds up being a struggle for women in particular, and I suspect there are myriad reasons for this:

1. Inclusive/collective pronouns speak to the idealism of the intimate unity–whether that intimacy is present in reality or not.
2. It softens the woman’s presence by obscuring or sublimating the individual; this fits with what I have observed over the years regarding women feeling selfish for even having needs, let alone articulating them, or (heavens forbid!) expecting their needs to be effectively met in relationship. We’re not yet clear of the culture that instills in women the belief that our core purpose is to sublimate our needs and care-take everyone around us.
3. It speaks to an assumption of shared values and desires that may have been verified at one point (but often not), and rarely updated or challenged over the lifetime of the relationship.
4. The speaker may struggle with the concept of “I” because of family of origin issues or programming or personal trauma, and retreat to obscuring collective pronouns as a kind of camouflage. To have individuals with differing or conflicting stances may introduce an untenable degree of tension for anxious partners especially, so “absolute we-ness” becomes a requirement for emotional safety. (From a family systems perspective, this is one of many ways in which fusion can become A Thing in relationships.)

Mr. Spock, in his tragic death scene at the end of “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan”, articulates something that has been bred into the marrow of womenkind of millennia as a silent, unquestioned expectation, yet for men (at least in this case) is the embodiment of Noble Sacrifice:

So, lemme say this again for those in the back: in men, the individual Self is All, and to sacrifice the individual Self for the Many is Noble. For women, however, to sacrifice the Self is so commonplace an expectation as to merit no wonderment at all, except to wonder that we have any sense of Self at all by now. Our sacrifice isn’t Noble; it’s Just How It Is.

With that kind of thinking at the root of our cultural values, is it any wonder that we have a hard time justifying and exonerating the “I”? I’ve already explored some rudimentary thoughts on the difference between being selfish versus self-centred, which go some way towards explaining why we come to believe the needs of the one have no place in relationship, at least until we’re so unhappy about not getting our individual needs met that we erupt from slow simmers to pyroclastic boil-overs.

Women in particular have been battling uphill against the “selfish” label for a very long time. When I’m calling attention to the undifferentiated “we” language in client sessions, upwards of 80% of the time, it’s with women. The vast majority of the time when I do, the subtext proves to be some variant of, “I must assume the needs of my partner/children/family have higher priority over my own needs, therefore I must couch my needs in safe, soft, collective language for any traction for them at all.” And more often than not, part of the communications issues driving one or more of members of the relationship into therapy stem from an increqasingly problematic assumption tied to “we-ness”: if the other half of “we” does not buy into the assumptions presented as collective thing, then what happens?? (Spoiler alert: generally the result is along the lines of, “WE” don’t do the thing “I” am trying to achieve, because “YOU” don’t want to.”) The assumption of collective consent to, or shared investment in, an idea or opinion is a common place for relationships to run aground, yet the ability to separate out the “I” from the “we” remains elusive in relationship dynamics.

When we couch our individual wants in the language of “we”, to some extent we’re giving away a degree of autonomy to someone else’s desires. If the partner resists or refuses the overture on the basis of their own individual desires, we can’t help but allow that reluctance to be the definitive answer, because we’re not good (again, I’m painting the situation with a VERY broad brush of generality here) at defending our autonomous selves. Having tied ourselves into the “we” for safety, when the other half of “we” shoots down a proposal, the proposal dies; it’s another way in which we externalize our personal locus of control. We can’t extricate ourselves far enough from the collective camouflage to assert what the originating “I” wants or intends. (My next Language Lesson post should maybe be about tackling a personal bane of relational communication, the “soft ask”, but that’s another post for another day.)

When I work with people stuck in the assumptive unity of “we-ness,” step one is often the process of reintroducing the “I” to the conversation. We sit with the feelings that come of voicing things in terms of the individual motivation, and perhaps more importantly, we explore what it feels like to make room for not one collective set of unified ideas, but two individual, hopefully complementary sets of ideas. A corollary benefit we sometimes observe is the partner’s sense of relief in being released from the claustrophobic fusion of that “we”. We work on the more insecure aspects of their individual attachments to shore up security and unity within the relationship without sacrificing the one OR the many. It’s a tricksy balancing act to develop from scratch, but not impossible, and usually each person HAS a raft of individual strengths we can leverage to accomplish this.

“But intimacy need not undermine autonomy, and vice versa; in fact, they support each other. Intimacy fosters autonomy since repeated experiences of caring connection, particularly in childhood, are critical for the development of normal ego functions, personal worth, and confidence; healthy relationships provide the ?secure base? from which we engage the world as an individual. Autonomy ? both yours and the other person?s ? nurtures intimacy in many ways, including its reassurance that you can still protect yourself when you?re wide open to another person, and by giving an extra oomph to relatedness: it makes such a difference when you know that the other person really wants to be with you.”Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Polyamory, Relationships

I was hoping by now I’d have gotten through a review reading of Amy Gahran’s book, “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator”, but life and a low-grade level of exhaustion are conspiring against me doing any serious reading of late. I’ve skimmed it, and as polyamoury in-print resources go, so far it looks like a reasonable companion to Veaux & Rickert’s “More than Two”. But even without the book, the metaphor is one I have been familiar with for a very long time (if I recall correctly, the term originated aeons ago with Franklin Veaux’s early poly writings), and using in my client work for as long as I’ve been working with clients exploring or living in non-monogamous relationship structures.

In essence, the relationship escalator metaphor illustrates our traditional-western-culture image of monogamy as a single linear progression of events:

meet => date => sexual bonding => fall in love => engagement => marriage => careers => kids => [umpteen years of monogamous togetherness] => retirement => death do us part

Obviously there are a multitude of variations on this theme, but the gist of it is the idea of that singular straight line from meeting through marriage to the ends of our lives. Just as obviously, this isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of relationship styles that we used to believe it was. We’ve been moving steadily into serial monogamy (sequential relationships) with the generally-increased acceptance of divorce and remarriage through the later decades of the 20th century. The rise of the left-and-right-swiping hookup culture made it very clear that commitment on the heels of sexual bonding isn’t even remotely required, and largely not even desired by many any more.

Some still find the current instantiation of the Sexual Revolution disconcerting; morally, many are still jealous of, or outraged by, the idea of their current partners having had lovers before they come along. While this might seem a little ridiculous for relationships forming as second or third marriages, for example, I can confirm that in couples counselling, partners will still struggle with “The Number”, especially if there is any kind of sexual disconnect in the current relationship. Sexual dysfunction and boredom are factors for which the Relationship Escalator fails to account, clearly, but these are factors that definitely impact a relationship very highly–especially if sexual bonding is a key validation point for desirability and connection.

When previously-monogamous couples begin exploring opening up their relationship to others, there are a LOT of potential challenges facing them. The fact that the Relationship Escalator has left us with a deeply indoctrinated set of linear expectations for how relationships work, it’s unsurprising that when we see our partners connecting with other lovers they way they initially connected with us, it triggers a deep fear that we will be replaced in sequence, rather than supplemented in our present place by additional relational factors. Jealousy becomes the #1 issue couples transitioning from closed to open models face; “if you treat $NEWLOVER the way you treated me, how can I trust you’re not just going to replace me with them??”

The short answer is, we don’t. Getting ourselves off the narrow path of that escalator is, if nothing else, a tremendous leap of faith in which we HAVE to trust that things will be okay, that our partner(s) are not choosing replacement but enhancement. Of the many rocks on which our ships will likely flounder, is the sense that love and desire are as finite resources as time and physical energy are. It’s true that adding other partners of any degree of investment requires time, and that no matter how much we wish otherwise, there are still only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. Therefore if we prioritize more time to a new lover (as is the commonest complaint once New Relationship Energy [NRE] is in the picture), we aren’t spending that time with our existing relationships and commitments. The sudden behavioural shift that reflects prioritization is often interpreted as decreasing interest in the existing relationship. This isn’t always true on core levels, but it is true that NRE tends to eclipse the best intentions of the unwary or unprepared.

Creating relationships beyond the narrow linearity of cultural expectations allows different relationship structures to meet different needs. From a family/relational systems perspective, most observers agree that a two-legged stool (the common monogamous model) is a very unstable structure; a three-legged stool offers a much stronger sense of balance. In Bowenian terms, this is “triangulation”, a process by which introducing a third element to a two-party system allows one or both of the original partners to reduce exclusive focus or dependence on each other, spreading expectations and need-meeting requirements now across a more diverse support system. This is in large part what happens in monogamous infidelity; a dyadic partnership fails to meet the needs of one or more of its constituents, so that need-meeting is sought elsewhere in secret contravention of standing agreements between the original dyad. But at the same time, getting the needs met elsewhere will, at least in the short term, decrease the pressure on the partnership… at least until other issues arise to take the place of whatever was missing initially.

Recognizing that it’s perhaps unrealistic to assume that one person can successfully meet ALL of our needs for ALL of our lives is a common reason why people explore non-monogamy. An additional challenge that can arise from opening up monogamy to other relational formats is dealing with the consequence of that realization. It can hurt, admitting that we’re not the be-all-and-end-all of need-meeting machines for our partners. I blame Disney and a lifetime’s worth of horribly unrealistic romance novels for instilling in us a belief that finding Mr or Ms Right meant that all our troubles were over and we’d live “happily ever after”, for ever and ever, amen.

Rising divorce/remarriage rates and skyrocketing demands for couples/relational counselling suggest quite the opposite, in fact.

And yet, the fantasy persists, often beyond the scope of all rational thought.

That fantasy is what, in my opinion, lies at the base of the Relationship Escalator’s pervasive endurance. We want to believe in the myth of “happily ever after”. Many of my relational clients are struggling with their own sense of failure, or disappointment in their partner’s inability, to meet needs in adequate fashion. They believe that monogamous happiness SHOULD be accessible if I/you/we just work HARDER, or if $PARTNER would just CHANGE into something they’ve clearly never been before, or if we ourselves could just magically meet all of their needs. Non-monogamy, for those who brave those challenging waters, reduces the tension on dyadic pairings by opening up the option of loving partners for who they are in their flawed limitations (and being loved for ours) but NOT requiring them to be everything we need them to be, if they can seek that need elsewhere without destabilizing whatever relationship we choose to maintain.

I won’t lie. Dismounting the escalator’s not an easy path to navigate. Monogamy exists largely to protect the partnership at its core, and in the non-monogamous communities there are deeply-divided camps around how ethical non-monogamy SHOULD work. Transitioning out of monogamy often looks a lot like setting up a rigid system of rules that protect “couple privilege”; at the outset this has the advantage of letting everyone involved believe they can trust in the rules to shape expectations. In truth, NRE and opaque shifts in priority-indicating behaviours mean that all the rules in the world will RARELY actually protect anything in the long run, especially once the deeper feelings that come tied to sexual bonding get involved. So, rules get broken, boundaries get tested or pushed… feelings get hurt. The escalator starts to break down because what we had presumed to be “natural progression” is being challenged or thwarted, and we don’t know what to do.

Again, I come back to something Franklin Veaux wrote years ago, describing jealousy as a “broken refrigerator”:

“Let?s assume your relationship is a refrigerator. One day, a problem arises in your relationship?the refrigerator quits working. You walk into your kitchen, there?s a puddle on the floor, and all your frozen pizzas and ice cream are a gooey mass in the bottom of the freezer. There are a few things you can do at this point, once you?ve mopped up the mess and scraped the remains of last night?s lunch out of the fridge. One solution is to fix the refrigerator; another is to replace it. A third solution is to leave the refrigerator exactly where it is and change your life around the problem??From this day forward, I will bring no frozen or refrigerated foods into this house.? In the poly community, the last option is the one most people choose. […]

Fixing the refrigerator means doing exactly that. It means saying, ?I know that I am feeling jealous. I know that the jealousy is brought about by some other emotion?some emotion that is triggered by the action that makes me jealous. I need to figure out what that other emotion is, and I need to figure out why that action triggers that emotion.?

Until you do that, you are helpless in the face of the jealousy. If you don?t understand it, there is nothing you can do to address it. Trying to understand it isn?t easy; when you?re ass-deep in alligators, it?s easy to forget that the initial goal was to drain the swamp, and when you?re entirely overwhelmed by gut-wrenching emotions that are tearing you to pieces, it?s easy to forget that these emotions are grounded in some other emotions. In the middle of jealousy, all you want is for the jealousy to stop, and you don?t care how.

So, you confuse the trigger with the cause. You believe, erroneously, that the source of the jealousy is the action that triggers it. You see your partner kiss someone, you feel jealous, you want the jealousy to stop, you pass a rule: ?No more kissing.?

Partners stuck in this loop try to force the new additions to the relationship structure to conform to a set of expectations as narrow and linear as the escalator we ourselves are trying to exit, but because we only know one model for building relationships, we’re stuck with that model until we find a way to jettison it. So we enforce excluding aspects of the known escalator: “you can’t do that thing that looks like building a relationship with someone else, because that’s what WE DO TO signify WE are in relationship.” Regardless of which partner role you find yourself in with this kind of situation, that’s a hugely craptastic place to be.

It *can* be done. And the more resources we have available to help navigate these kinds of explorations, and the more commonplace (ethical) non-monogamy becomes, the easier it slowly gets to divest ourselves of the historical fantasy of “till death do us part”. We’ve grown to accept multiple sequential marriages as a fact of life, so the myth is slowly coming apart at the seams. We’re still hung up on sexual experience and discomfort around knowing our partners have even HAD sex with others before us, let alone with others WHILE ALSO with us, and that’s going to remain a moral stumbling block for a long time to come, I suspect, just based solely on the numbers of couples who try to explore non-monogamy within a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. But so long as we can be both clear and gentle about why we might want to open up these discussions within a monogamous relationship, and as long as both partners in the originating dyad are equally willing to explore these kinds of options (one is not coercing the other), then we have tools and platforms for steering these explorations as far off the rocks as we can, and supporting transitional stages for those looking for options that don’t fit the constrained limitations of that Relationship Escalator.

Relationships, Uncategorized

A friend of mine recently asked me for my thoughts about the process of recovering relationships after a particularly disruptive and emotionally demanding situation. Specifically, how do we put Humpty Dumpty back together after a crisis has demanded all of our time and energy and focus and resources to be focused on something other than the “us”? In the aftermath of the storm, what happens then? How do we process who we’ve become on the other side while still holding the relationship together?

The answer to this question is a little complicated in that “recovery” as a process is largely contingent on two principle factors: the crisis context, and the individual resiliency of the relationship members. (I’m going to deliberately leave aside the issue of recovering from infidelity; in my not-so-humble opinion, the definitive work on recovering from that particular crisis is Janis Abram-Spring‘s book, “After the Affair”.)

Context is difficult to address as a general factor. One partner losing a job or dealing with an extended period of unemployment is a very different kind of crisis than, say, the death of a child or the diagnosis of a debilitating or fatal illness in a child or a partner. Different contexts paired with differing resiliencies (which will determine our coping strategies) often define what kinds of support we NEED to navigate both crisis and recovery… but don’t tell us what happens when we lack those resources.

Relationships are, ideally, organic and evolutionary things, in that they are meant to change over time (individual resistances to change notwithstanding). What a crisis situation does, potentially, is to force some kind of emotionally intense change on the relationship in a relatively short period of time; it often happens without warning, and therefore with little or no preparation (emotional or otherwise). The speed and degree of crisis will strain even strong and healthy relationships; in dysfunctional ones, crisis exacerbates whatever weaknesses already exist and strains what little tolerance we have for upheaval to, and sometimes past, breaking points.

Navigating recovery also looks different when the precipitating crisis was about something internal the relationship that disrupted or threatened default expectations about the attachment (discovering a partner is a drug user or alcoholic, spent all your joint savings on a questionable investment without consulting you, or is not-so-closeted Trump Supporter, for example), versus something that happened external to the relationship that managed to impact all members of the relationship to some degree (losing a job or being required to uproot and move across the continent for a job, or sudden issues with extended family members, for example).

It’s a common thing to hear people describe how their relational communication either saves or burns them in crisis situations. We already know that our communication skills are generally only as good as our ability to know what it is we’re trying to communicate in the first place, so there’s no way to know if in a crisis we’ll magically transcend our general day-to-day patterns or not. Therefore, in the post-crisis-recovery stage, it’s a reasonable assumption that whatever we were able to do under extreme circumstances will revert to whatever our baseline interactive styles were, after the fact.

Sometimes, having seen how we can band together and work well in crisis, makes that post-crisis reversion a lot harder to bear. Sometimes, if we don’t navigate the crisis itself terribly well, it really drives home the parts of the relationship that don’t work effectively in ways that we can no longer easily ignore. Either way, afterwards, things are often different, and many people don’t know what to do when confronting differences that don’t point towards the relationship being “better, stronger, faster” for having survived the storm.

There are some really important things to remember or consider from a relational standpoint when we’re confronting the aftermath of a storm:

Everybody’s wrung out and exhausted. This means very few of us are at cognitive functioning’s peak capacity. After any kind of exertion, bodies and brains need a break. There may be day-to-day necessities that must be addressed, but no-one’s going to be doing them gracefully in the aftermath. Cut yourself and your partner(s) some slack for a while to be less than “on”.

Recovery times vary. Just because you and your partner(s) are ostensibly in the same relationship, that’s never going to guarantee we all process events, crisis and otherwise, the same way to the same degree or in the same time frame. You may be ready and raring to go with a good night’s sleep; someone else may be weeks in the recovery trough before they can poke their heads back up. Make sure you check your assumptions that other crisis parties will be working “just like you” in the aftermath.

“Recovery” may mean different things to different people. Even if you came through the same set of circumstances together, everyone may see the situation differently, and there may be differences in how each of you responds to the crisis. It’s safe, therefore, to assume that recovery will look and play out differently to all involved. In the counselling room we see a variety of responses to crisis, from utter emotional chaos to absolute emotional disconnection–sometimes in the same relationship. Sometimes one party falls apart while another steps up to deal with the logistical details to pull everyone through the crisis; in the aftermath, one party may need therapy, and the other needs an equal opportunity to fall apart in a delayed emotional response. Maybe they both need therapy. Maybe there’s a grief or health-recovery process involved (how many of us catch a cold or other transient sickness once a period of stress eases off?) Some partners need to keep talking to process what happened, while others just want to forget or let go and move on, leaving the turmoil of crisis times in the rearview as quickly as possible.

Even if crisis brought us closer together in the moment, recovery might not keep us there afterward. Tied to the idea that recovery might mean different things, is the idea that who we are in crisis does not always indicate who we are, or might become, in the aftermath. If partners have differing tolerance for emotional intensity, for example, then what they are willing to handle during a crisis might be far more intensity and vulnerability afterwards, so they retreat; it’s safer, it demands less, it’s familiar and predictable than trying to integrate and sustain what we managed to handle during the storm. We perhaps communicated with great purpose and clarity when the situation demanded our full attention, but left to our own devices we see that as being too much work, too much vulnerability, too much of something we don’t want to face even without the pressure of a crisis.

Navigation in the aftermath is, obviously, not going to be an easy thing.

As with any kind of change process introduced into a relationship framework, there are some strategies that might ease the strain change will introduce.

Offer your partner(s) opportunity to reflect with you on what happened: what went well through the crisis, what you would all want to do differently in future, what you might need to do to improve resilience as individuals or as a relationship.

Discuss what each of you needs for recovery, and how best to go about getting those needs addressed effectively. This is especially crucial if you discover you need different things. If one of you needs to talk and the other just needs to forget, for example, then clearly there won’t be a lot of comfort, and possibly a lack of consent, to force “talk processing” on unwilling or unavailable partners.

Discuss expectations. Once you have all articulated recovery needs, make a plan for what meeting those needs can look like, so that everyone knows what part they can or need to play, what costs might affect the relationship, what kinds of interactions might be required (especially if they are different from pre-crisis norms). This is a negotiation process; we all have expectations for ourselves and those around us, but those around us may not always be aware of those expectations, which makes it challenging for them to meet us in them. Maybe they can help us address our underlying needs but NOT in the way we expect. It’s most useful if we can allow openness to how our needs get addressed as a collaborative process; a partner may not be able to meet our expectation exactly as expressed, but if they know what need we’re tying an expectation to, they may be able to suggest an alternative that works for everyone. And especially on the heels of a potentially resource-exhausting crisis, this negotiation process may be extra-challenging. Be patient and gentle all around. As you wouldn’t push someone in recovery from surgery to commit to doing too much too fast, don’t push anyone recovering from an emotional or relational crisis that way, either.

Recognize that intimacy and vulnerability are choices we make every day, sometimes moment-to-moment. If the crisis was something that introduced or increased distance in a relationship, then it can be hard to feel like we want to come back into connection afterward. If we feel unsupported or abandoned by our partners through a crisis situation, we’re going to have to find ways of articulating and addressing that hurt–even if we consciously choose to not make an issue of it ourselves and just “forgive and forget”–before we can focus on the relationship or reconnection. There may have to be some emotional work done to figure out why a partner wasn’t where we needed or expected them to be in crisis, and we may have to balance our own hurt/disappointment/frustration with understanding why they couldn’t be in the fire with us as we wanted them to be. At the end of the day, though, we each choose for ourselves whether we sustain the distance exacerbated by crisis, or introduce connection bids and repair attempts.

Crisis can introduce a lot of upheaval in a very short period of time; crisis recovery by design happens at a slower pace, allowing for reflection and redefinition, and retooling of current process where necessary. Knowing whether all parties involved are even starting from the same place in defining what is or is not a crisis is the first step in determining how best to get clear of stormy waters and into a calmer state. Give yourselves time, then work out what directions you need to go, individually and as a relationship, at a pace you can each sustain. Don’t allow crisis recovery processes to become the trigger for another round of crisis!

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Self-care

?You are the Hero of your own Story.?
? Joseph Campbell

Catching up with a colleague over coffee this morning, we were commiserating over a shared experience that seems to hit those of us who are somewhere post-divorce. We’ve moved on, or we’re moving on, and in encounters with The Ex, we suddenly experience an unpleasant sensation of realizing they’re HAPPY, or at least content, or having their own adventures, or… or…

It’s the sharp adjustment of recognizing that, as the heroes in our own stories, we expect that our ex-partners should be miserable, or missing us, or somehow struggling in our absence. And in finding that they’re not at all unhappy with their new status quo, WE are somehow thrust into unexpected or unwelcome re-evaluations–often unfavourable– about where we ourselves are landing. It’s at least a *common* part of a grief-and-recovery process to rewrite our stories around ourselves. Without the presence of the Other, women in particular are often discovering a centred-in-selfness that is new to them: we become Victim, Hero, Adventurer, Martyr, Rescuer–sometimes all of these roles simultaneously, sometimes sequentially, sometimes adopting one and getting mired in it.

Creating a story around our circumstances that offers a “probable hypothesis” for why things happen is what humanity does. We are a race of story tellers who don’t like gaps in our knowledge, so we fill in the blanks with plausible-sounding stories explaining why things happen. It started with the first caveman who had enough language to explain to his clan that lightning striking a nearby tree and setting it afire was the act of angry sky-beings, and continues millennia later in coffee shops all over the world as we tell ourselves stories about who and why we are the people we have become.

In part, the restructured narrative helps us move from one day to the next in the early stages of post-upheaval recovery. Part of grief processing involves the need to understand “Why?”, but lacking direct input from an uncooperative partner in the process of a relationship breakup, we will fill the void in our factual knowledge with semi-informed interpretation and assumption. When those created narratives get invested with emotional weight, they become “like facts”, and the storylines become entrenched. Being shaken out of those entrenchments when later re-encountering our exes (or any Other who played a part in significant life-altering events) generally involves having those internalized “facts” challenged by the living presence of someone behaving nothing like we expect.

If we’re the heroes of our own stories, however, that generally tends to imply that the Other must be the “villain” or antagonist of the piece, right? Our internal heroes implicitly expect that something bad happens to the Other, even if it’s just a desire to know they hurt and pine and regret and lament the pain of our absence from their lives, as we have hurt (or been angered by, or regretted) for their absence from ours. That would just be *fair*, right?

Except… it rarely seems to work that way. Unsurprisingly, people who live outside of our heads, and therefore outside the confines of our carefully-constructed narratives, never conform neatly to the confines of those tight stories. And once they, or we, have exited the relationship, they are even LESS bound by expectations to confirm, so they go off and have happy lives of their own. And when we encounter them in their happiness, it just doesn’t fit for us. (Yes, I’ve been through this process myself; I know exactly how it feels to confront this perception. I am extremely sympathetic and empathetic to friends and clients alike when they run into the same uncomfortable emotional adjustments.)

The awkward truth of this process is that we ARE filling in blanks with presumptive narratives. We do this to make ourselves feel better. How many of us can remember being children, telling ourselves stories to make the world around us seem less scary? Personally, I attribute my becoming a writer to exactly this process; I entrenched my narrative processes so deeply, I made a career out of them! Yay me, right? Up until those processes get in the way of having healthy relationships, sure.

Often times, we find these story-telling activities already exist inside relationships; we don’t have to wait until things fall apart to see them in action, that’s just when we see them take on new lives of their own. We catch the story loops in anxiety and self-esteem crises; we see them in how partners in relationship react to each other, especially when reactions seem disproportionate to the triggering events. We see them when we see reversions in behaviour to traditional patterns when we host or go home to visit our families. We adopt or revert to roles we have played, well-developed personas who fit certain requirements of the systemic storyline, or that feed into our own personal narratives about who we are, what we value (or what we’re supposed to value).

When working with narrative challenges, one of the very first tools we develop is self-observation. It’s a way of both “differentiating from the system” in Bowen Systems language, and also “externalizing the problem” in narrative therapy terms. We learn to look at what’s happening in the system, to recognize the stories spinning around us, as well as our part within them. What am I telling myself? What am I experiencing as I observe what others are doing, and what am I telling myself about those experiences? Turning off the urge to interpret, to filter our experiences into our personal narratives, is a challenge at the best of times. But in doing so, we can also unhook ourselves from a certain amount of default reactive, patterned reactions, including the unconscious urge to want other people to hurt like we have hurt in the wake of relationship breaks, for example. “If I’m unhappy, you certainly don’t deserve to be happy,” is a depressingly common refrain I hear in a lot of post-break conversations, before we get to looking at the narratives entrenching the speaker inside that unhappiness. I get it; I’ve been there, too.

So we work on making the storylines more consciously observable. Then we look at how we are hooked into them by expectations, or by our attachment to different outcomes than we’ve experienced. Breaking those down takes time, and often a lot of “reframing the narratives”; the external perspective of a therapist can be a useful tool for this process. It’s less about playing Devil’s advocate and more about offering insight into our own experiences, helping someone to “consider an idea from a different point of view, taking the evidence as it is but coming to a different conclusion.” We can use perspective-shifting questions that move from (for example) Victim/Marty roles to Hero perspectives by posing the simple question, “If you were the Hero of this story, what would you do next?” (which comes close to one of my fundamentally-important questions, “What kind of person do you CHOOSE to be in this situation?”).

Being the Hero of our own story is something we all desire, but into which we sometimes need a little help casting ourselves. Encountering others’ happiness feels like a check, or even an outright stop, as we adjust to adjacent or outright conflicting storylines that don’t fit neatly with our own. But discomfort doesn’t make it a bad thing, and if it results in us being more mindfully observing of ourselves and our narratives in the world, then we ultimately have a better sense of our Selves as we interact with those other storylines.

Yes, we can ALL be Heroes. (Even if just for one day…)

Relationships

Last week I wrote about some fundamentals of systems theory in psychotherapy; specifically, we looked at the overarching idea that to work systemically is to “hold space” for all the invisible factors we can identify as operating on the client(s) in front of us. There are a few less formal principles that many therapists will observe in our practice styles, and two of mine are:

  • Never work harder than the client, and
  • Sometimes we can ONLY work with what’s in the room.

As a Marriage & Family Therapist, sometimes the hardest thing we confront is the recognition that a relationship being presented to us isn’t in a place where we can effectively work. Normally we start from an assumption of reparation and reconciliation, working to restore damaged individual or relational aspects as best we can. We work with the native resilience inherent in the clients themselves, even if they’re not feeling it at the outset. But sometimes… sometimes what walks through the door is an intractable INTENT to end things, right then and there. It doesn’t happen so overtly a lot in my experience, but it has happened enough to note some common patterns.

The challenge to the therapist in those situations is recognizing that it’s not actually our job to save the relationship at that point, if one or both members of the relationship has announced that they are no longer going to work on repairing and rebuilding together. It’s heartbreaking to be a present witness to the pain if this comes as a surprise to either partner. We can explore the intractability as best we can and look for options to expand into some emotional damage control; it’s highly unlikely we can move into reconciliation in that immediate pain. Not impossible, but once the bomb has gone off, the receiving party needs time to process shock responses before we can do much of anything.

So the first issue to the therapist lies in understanding that we can’t draw the partner who is determined to leave back into relationship if they don’t want to be there. Sometimes we can’t even keep them in the literal room. It’s not our job to force the issue. We can’t work harder than the clients themselves in that moment; it’s not our work to do. Our role switches to damage control and emotional support, itself a hard thing to juggle with two suddenly-wildly-diverging intentions. But if what’s in the room with us is now a solid resistance to making change or doing the emotional labour of repartnering with the other half of the current relationship, then that, unfortunately, is what we have to work with.

It’s a long-held understanding in discussions about consent and power dynamics that the partner who says “No” is the one with the ultimate power in the relationship, or at least in any specific exchange. This remains true in situations when one partner says No to an entire relationship. The remaining partner can maintain denial, or bargaining, or rage, or hope, or whatever stance comes naturally to them in the moment, and we have to make space to work therapeutically to that as well… but without necessarily joining with either the bargaining partner or the defiant one. If our alliance was initially sought to work with and (theoretically) secure the relationship, then we as therapists are kind of in a stuck place should that alliance implode in our office.

And implosion does happen. The most common scene is a couple coming in with one intent to work on repair, and one intent to use the mediated discussion as a platform for announcing their exit (often as unbeknownst to the therapist as to the receiving partner). Once this kind of truth bomb gets dropped, in the immediate moment I’ve never had much success trying to entice the announcing partner to stay in an emotionally-focused space; by this point they’re just done and shut down and cutting the ties. Sometimes I can pose the question, “What would need to change for you to consider continuing the repair work?” but it’s extremely rare that we get useful answers from this state. If resistance is in the room, we get to work with resistance. Anger, fear, hurt… these are definitely in the room, and we have to work with that too (potentially more explosive on one side than the other by the time we reach implosions like this; one partner has had mental time to prepare for this, but the receiving partner is rarely in anything other than a purely reactive stance in this kind of situation).

It’s not unheard-of for therapists to end such sessions early. Sometimes it becomes apparent that we can’t effectively de-escalate the hostility in the room, especially if there’s too much shock or anger to allow either partner to engage with the available therapeutic alliance. We try to not leave either partner feeling unsupported, but on at least a couple of occasions within my own practice, it became apparent that the conversation most needing to happen was going to be with legal counsel, not therapeutic counsel. Forcing the clients to stay present in the flames of their own shock or grief is something we can do under some circumstances, but personally, I have yet to have that resolve into a useful or meaningful experience for the clients… or for myself as a therapist. And yes, sometimes we end such encounters as much to save ourselves as to release the clients; I’m human, I can admit that this is probably one of my least favourite experiences as a therapist. We often reach out to the clients for followup afterward, and it’s not uncommon to find one or both clients might reject the outreach if they feel we as therapists are also responsible for allowing the destructive breach to occur. We’re implicit in the destruction because we could not prevent it, and could not rescue one or both partners or the relationship as an entity unto itself.

That’s a hard thing as a relationship therapist to hear, but it has a kernel of truth. This is why it becomes important to understand that we should not be the ones working harder than the clients to save something at least one partner has reached a point of refusing to salvage. It’s the emotional labour equivalent of pushing on a brick wall and wondering why the wall is refusing to move for us. As much as our clients might want us to serve as the “big guns” to make movement happen, we’re only as effective as the willing engagement of BOTH parties to engage in a change process that has their own and each other’s best interests (as we understand them) at heart. Marriage therapists aren’t going to be much help if one partner shows up with a wrecking ball and the intent to demolish the relationship completely.

It’s important for clients (and therapists) to be honest about the limitations of our effectiveness. I’m sure there are miracle workers in the world, “relationship whisperers” who can chase and retrieve even the most intractable partners fro the brink of departure and destruction, who can de-escalate DefCon5 crises and bring all parties back into harmony. It’s a remarkable skillset we all work towards, but sometimes clients will still have their own ideas and agendas and escape plans. (As a side note, it’s terribly refreshing as a relational therapist to hear high-profile professional therapists like Terry Real or David Schnarch speak about their own therapeutic failures in the counselling room; there’s hope for the rest of us yet, perhaps.) There is a lot of good work we CAN do with engaged and willing clients, but once one member of a partner hits the hard limit of their engagement, we can only work with what they bring into the room — and if they don’t bring hope and that will to change, we can’t invent and install it for them, more often than not (most of us will try, though… and see previous note, re: cautioning against doing more emotional labour than the clients do).