Emotional abuse, Family Issues, Relationships, Uncategorized

“Nearly 1 in 3 children have been physically abused, while 1 in 5 have been sexually abused, and 1 in 10 suffer criminal neglect (CDC). Nearly 1 in 10 witness family violence (Safe Horizon). Half of the men who abuse their spouse also abuse their children. In cases when only one parent is abusive, the other parent will often permit the abuse or refuse to believe it. Half of homeless youth are running from abusive situations, many because of sexual abuse. […] Some parents continue to abuse their children into adulthood, while others only abuse them when they are young or for a certain period of time. Other parents leave their children in the care of relatives and re-emerge years later. Or raise their children in loving homes, only to disown them for coming out as gay, trans, or marrying outside of their religion.

That leaves millions of adult children to grapple with the decision of whether or not they should provide support to their abusive or estranged parents when they become ill or elderly.

One study of 1,000 caregivers found that 19% had been abused as children and 9% had been neglected. Caregivers of abusive parents were more likely to experience signs of clinical depression.

Some people make peace with their abusive parents, but that doesn?t mean there will ever be a healthy relationship between them.” — Michelle Daly for The Caregiver Space, Aug 11, 2015

21st century Western culture has some very, VERY conflicted ideas about elder care, especially in palliative stages of mental or physical decline.

“Can she really turn her back on an elderly, ailing parent?

That would violate a deep-seated social and cultural understanding (even, in many states, a legal obligation). Your parents did the best they could for you; when they’re old and need help, you do the best you can for them. But physically or emotionally abusive parents have already violated that convention. Is there still an ethical duty to assist them? Even “filial responsibility laws” requiring adult children to care for parents make an exception for those whose parents abandoned them or otherwise did some injury.” — Paula Span, for The New York Times, October 20, 2011


“We know relatively little about how many adults become caregivers for abusive or neglectful parents, or about why they choose to ? or not to. But thanks to a recent study, we can see that those who report having endured childhood maltreatment are more vulnerable than other caregivers to depression when tending to their abusive parents.

The researchers divided their sample into three categories: those with no history of childhood abuse or neglect; those who had been abused and were caring for their non-abusive parent; and those who had been abused and were, to borrow the study?s memorable title, ?caring for my abuser.? They also compared caregivers neglected as children with those who were not neglected.

Those who had been abused or neglected were more likely to have symptoms of depression ? like lack of appetite, insomnia, trouble concentrating, sadness and lethargy ? than those who had not been. No surprise there, perhaps.

But the link was strongest for the third category. ?The key was caring for the abusive parent,? said the lead author, Jooyoung Kong, a doctoral candidate in social work. Years later, ?they are still affected. They?re more depressed.? — Paula Span, for The New York Times, January 20, 2014

I have previously written about families as “sick systems”; the more work I do within family systems, the more convinced I become that what we are taught to believe MUST be our strongest instinctive bond is often the deliberate OR unwitting author of some of our society’s deepest and most damaging trauma. The sense of unhealthy fusion into the abuser’s care seems to have little concern for gender or birth order of the caretaking adult child(ren).

The sense of obligation and loyalty to dysfunctional family structures is a difficult thing to address when it feels like it’s rooted bone-deep in our values. As a therapist, I always start a line of questioning there: are these actually YOUR values, or are these something you were told SHOULD be your values (and if that’s the case, we have to wonder: WHO told you these had to be your values? My odds are always on the abusive elements themselves, or at least those who implicitly condone or support those systemic elements). Standing by our abusers is similar in reasoning to why women in particular tough it out with domestic violence; it’s why adult children succumb to implicit or explicit pressure to involve themselves with aging or palliative parents in the elders’ decline. We feel we SHOULD. It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated.

In looking at the advice and support available online to caregivers of abusive elders, there are some frustrating limitations placed on those who can’t afford to hire in professionals to provide the service the adult child(ren) don’t feel safe providing themselves. Suggestions of placing the ailing elders in some kind of long-term care, or hiring a care manager or non-familial legal guardian, often require the adult caregiver have the financial means to pay for these services. Even with the privilege of that kind of financial security, there may be more resentment for assuming that financial burden than alleviation of guilt for not doing the work themselves. It’s a Catch-22 that strains a lot of adult-elder relationships even in the best of circumstances.

Beyond the potential for financial burden, when these adults do take on the responsibility for some or all of that abusive eldercare, what’s the invisible price tag? Fear of decline and death may exacerbate the elder’s abusive behaviours that caregivers remember from childhood, triggering a whole new round of the abusive cycles. At best these might be simply awkward and uncomfortable, or at worst escalating (for example) as adult children now in role reversals begin to exercise their new powers in retaliatory fashion. Attempts to repair and reconcile are emotionally perilous if the elder abuser is still in denial about owning their actions or the impacts–both intended or otherwise–of their actions. Especially if the caregiver is an only child and feeling trapped on the hook of providing care or support even from a distance for an unrepentantly abusive elder, there will be precious little safety for them in this situation.

If the members of the sickened family system can step outside those old habitual patterns and fears, there might be a chance to reconcile old issues. That is an exceptionally large “IF”, however. Holding onto the hope of reconciliation can be costly; the risk of reoffence is high, therefore so is the impact of newly-redamaged or repeating disappointment or reopened wounds. Therapy can help keep a balancing, observational eye on the caretaking relationship as the situation develops. We implement a series of self-assessments and situational assessments for the caregiver, and we give explicit permission to consider alternatives. We also use therapy as a safe(r) place to vent frustrations the caregiver will preferably choose not to vent on the ailing parent. The venting space also allows the caregiver to give voice to feelings and experiences an otherwise-supportive spouse may have trouble hearing or managing for themselves, especially if the eldercare situation extends over long periods of time without respite from the care… or the abuse.

There are no clear-cut paths to “right” or “wrong” in caring for abusive elders, especially if the adult child is facing any amount of obligation-driven guilt. The sentiment “blood is thicker than water” fills a family system with a sense that the entitlement of some members to mandatory loyalty is more important than the individual mental and emotional health of other members. Often this sense of entitlement involves considerable upheaval to the caregiver’s life: relocating temporarily or long-term to be closer to ailing elders, or moving parents closer to the caregivers; full or partial financial support; intervention and/or advocacy with the parent’s medical, therapeutic, or palliative care providers; estate planning and management; acute or ongoing family mediation. All of these tasks bring their own levels of turmoil to a relationship already pockmarked or undermined by unresolved abusive behaviours, past or present.

As with any survivor of abuse, emotional support is key. Permission to consider options outside the struggle to fulfill a sense of obligation is also important. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout is a big part of supporting adult caregivers under any condition (and this also applies to those supporting the caregiver, who may burnout in their own support processes). Unpacking a sense of helpless entrapment and layers of familial guilt are work best done in therapy, even if it’s not going to be a quick process. Families will always be our most complex systems, and the ties of embedded obligation among the most difficult to unravel.

Life Transitions, Relationships, Uncategorized

A liminal space is the time between the ?what was? and the ?next.? It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing.

Over the summer, I’ve begun to develop a working relationship with Colette Fortin of Fairway Divorce Solutions, wanting to better educate myself in alternatives to traditional separation and divorce litigation for couples ending their legal or common-law marriages. Her team provides mediation services as an alternative to both traditional litigation, and collaborative divorce services. Given that, before talking with her, I hadn’t realized there was a difference between little what I knew about the collaborative approach and mediation, I’m glad we’ve opened this educational channel. I feel a lot better having a clue, now, when I talk with clients in dissolving relationships about what their options look like, and depending on HOW the dissolution is occurring, being able to aim them at a process that seems a more tailored fit for their particular situations.

This post isn’t about Colette (but do check out the Fairway Mediation blog; it is a TREASURE TROVE of information about mediated separation and divorce), and it’s not even about divorce. It’s about the scenario of separations, even “relationship breaks”, in which intimate partners suddenly find themselves in a weirdly-disconnected limbo state, a liminal space between the relationship that WAS, and the uncertainty of what’s to come.

The end of a marriage is a difficult time, even under amiable circumstances; nebulous “breaks” from a relationship aren’t much better. Expectations and rules of engagement change, often dramatically and with little warning. Outcomes are uncertain, and often we don’t even have a shared understanding of the respective desired outcomes for each partner. Is this an ending? Is this a slow exit in lieu of a fast, clean break? What are we supposed to be doing within the parameters of this break? If I wasn’t the one who initiated it, why should I be doing anything in the first place??

When these breaks and separations happen, they raise a LOT of questions for the person receiving the news (we assume the person initiating the break has already been thinking about this change for a while). First question is, naturally, “WHY??” Then typically come a lot of panicked inquiries about who-did-what-wrong-and-how-can-we-fix-this. Once the dust settles, however, we get to the meat of the matter:

1. What is this break or separation FOR?
2. Is it permanent, or is reconciliation on the table?
3. What will each of us be doing during this break (or separation if reconciliation is in any way an option)?

That third question is, I find, the most problematic for relationships on hiatus. Unsurprisingly, relationship that are failing in any part because of poor communications anywhere in the system, will also fail at communicating intentions around these kinds of disengagements. What is the intention for this break? Are you:

  • just needing time out of the stress arena to relax and decompress?
  • planning to spend the time working on your own personal issues in order to work towards a specific goal of reconciliation or exit?
  • planning to take a step back until someone ELSE (namely, your partner) does something specific to fix something in themselves that is obstructing healthy relational engagement? And if so, have you communicated the expected for of work or expected outcome of that work, required for you to step back IN at some point? Have you clarified the expected window for this work, or is this ambiguous and indefinite?

It’s far less common that I get a consistent-to-all-parties answer when I pose the question, “What’s the purpose of this break?” Even in the case of separation, if one partner is keen on reconciliation and the other is keen on exit, we’re not generally going to be on the same page. Partners are disconnected about the essential whys, about the intent, about responsibility for either the problems or the (potential) solutions, and about the purpose of the disengagement.

So, how best to navigate this liminal space? Especially if doing so under the duress of having this sprung on you by your partner?

Step one: Breathe.
Seriously, take a breath. Heck, take several. The emotional chaos is going to be big enough and upsetting enough without trying to at least mitigate the instantaneous and default patterns of reactivity. Take a beat, then think about what can or needs to happen next. (Go have a cry if you need to.)

Step two: Seek clarity.
You may not be able to effectively address the “Why??” or “What went wrong?” questions at this stage of the game, tensions and fears will be running too high for reflection to be immediately to hand as tools. If you CAN get there, great; just don’t be surprised if the tide needs to recede a fair bit past the damage-control points before those conversations can even happen, let alone make sense. Instead, focus on determining what needs to happen next. Is this a permanent break, or a temporary one? What are the ground rules and expectations in either case? Contact, no contact, limited (in which case, what are the boundaries defining those limits)? If there are kids in the picture, what will you tell them, and when, and together or separately? If this is temporary, what is the intent or expectation each of you has for the separation period? What has to occur before reconnection or reconciliation topics are allowed on the table?

Step three: See step one.
No, really. Keep breathing. This probably came as a hell of a shock.

Step four: Figure out your own next steps.
You have a few options here. One is to wait passively for your partner to figure everything out so that you can react to it, rather than organize your own response to the situation (this is that pesky internal versus external locus of control issue again). Another is to shake of the fear paralysis, leverage your resources, and figure out what your options look like, both in terms of legally preparing for a lengthy separation or potential divorce, or financial preparation if someone has to move to different living arrangements and thus shared financial responsibilities must be divided. You can put your own needs and wants into the equation, and gauge whether or not you believe the partner is willing to work with you or not, whatever plan you both choose, by how they respond to those needs and wants. You could hound the partner for the answers to the questions that will be themselves chasing you all over the place, though the odds of that working you both towards closeness and intimacy if one of you is trying desperately to get away, seem pretty low.

Step five: Hold your partner accountable. Hold YOURSELF accountable.
If you make any kind of agreement about what is expected to happen in this liminal space, be it discussing a separation agreement for real, or working on changing personal understandings and behaviours through therapy or medication or something else, the DO THE WORK. If a partner says they will undertake something specific within the context if this break, HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE (clarity in understanding what that undertaking will look like, comes in very handy with this part.) If you need to change the agreements because you cannot in good faith deliver as stated, then SAY SO. Renegotiate if necessary, even if it is hard (pro tip: it will be).

Step six: Recognize that, in most cases, passively waiting for someone else to solve all the problems will only make you bitter.
You may not have initiated or desired the break, but here we are. Abjuring responsibility for looking after yourself and your own future, even when it becomes a different future than you had envisioned up until the moment of the break, isn’t going to solve the problems either. It’s typically only going to disempower you and feel like you’ve lost all your agency, and that way leads to resentment, despair, and bitterness aimed at your partner… and probably no little bit at yourself. At the very least, figure out your short-term survival needs while the chaos is raging. Give yourself enough time for the shock to settle, then work out a longer-term plan for yourself. Have options that include the partner should they return, but make sure you have something to fall back on, planwise, if they do not.

Step seven: REMEMBER TO BREATHE.
Seriously. Because you will likely have forgotten by now.

The liminal spaces are hardest simply because they are the worst of the unknown, that are-we-or-aren’t-we kind of uncertainty that is so upsetting to many of us. Fear, uncertainty, doubt–about ourselves, our partners, the relationship overall, our future as we thought we’d planned it–can rob us of our focus and direction like few other things can. They steal our agency and leave us feeling like we’re at the mercy of someone else’s choices and actions; to some extent, we are. But we don’t have to stay that way. We may not be able to affect the outcome of a separation or break if our partners are set on getting out when we don’t want that choice of ending, but we can choose how to face these uncertain times, and how to hold ourselves open to multiple options, with at least some degree of plan we can enact in the appropriate direct when we choose to execute said plan. Sometimes, Life is what happens to us when we least expect it. We can let it steamroll us, or we can learn how to roll as best we can with it, fears notwithstanding. We choose how to face what’s happening to us, even when we can’t CHANGE what’s happening to us.

And seriously: remember to breathe.

Polyamory, Relationships, Uncategorized

A while ago (egads, where *has* the summer gone??), I wrote a little bit about the relationship escalator as a model for looking at the way most of us construct our romantic attachments. One of the ways polyfolk often subvert the traditional romantic attachment narratives is with the advent of something called “solo poly”:

Solo polyamory is a fluid category that covers a range of relationships, from the youthful ?free agent? or recent divorcee who might want to ?settle down? some day but for now wants to play the field with casual, brief, no-strings-attached connections, to the seasoned ?solo poly? who has deeply committed, intimate, and lasting relationships with one or more people. Some solo polys have relationships that they consider emotionally primary, but not primary in a logistical, rank, or rules-based sense, and others don?t want the kinds of expectations and limitations that come with a primary romantic/sexual relationship.
Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE

As my parents’ generation less than respectfully looked at it, to them it was “playing the field”, a behaviour inherently and implicitly condoned in men but abhorred in women. Multiple SEXUAL partners, simultaneously rather than sequentially? Such women are SLUTS, and no-one would want to date That Kind Of Womam!! Turns out, my parents and their ilk were, thankfully, dead wrong on that account. (*whew*)

So what exactly is solo poly? In my case, it’s this part: “deeply committed, intimate, and lasting relationships with [simultaneously multiple] people.” I haven’t had a primary or hierarchical structure since my marriage ended, and with it, my need to secure my attachments to a set and predictable structure. Each of the relationships that are currently active is encouraged by its constituents to settle into its own level of involvement and investment, ranging from casual to very intensely emotionally-invested. In a lot of ways this looks a lot like relationship anarchy, and even I have to admit, I’m not entirely convinced that’s not what I have become in my old age.

“Solo polys can love deeply — being alone can mean that solo polys are deeply in touch with themselves. In many cases solo polys intend to remain ?singleish? indefinitely because they are strongly motivated by autonomy, value their freedom, and identify primarily as individuals rather than as parts of a multi-person unity.” — Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE

One of the questions monogamous people always want to know about polyamoury is, “How the hell does it all work?” when the relationship escalator only provides one generic script, anything operating outside of that script is baffling. Even sometimes to those of us already (plausibly) off the escalator path, non-monogamy can be, quite frankly, baffling. One of the ways in which things get complicated, however, is the way in which we tend to project our expectations on relationships and relationship partners; in a poly structure, we may be getting involved with people who are not available to meet the expectations we’re bringing to the game. For most of my life, this was my particular downfall, time and time again. Romantic entanglement often follows our own internal scripts: we meet, we get swept up in NRE, everything is new and golden while we are in that happy, distracted state, and then things slowly start to settle in a more stable, sustainable, balancing act. In the escalator metaphor, this normally leads to talk of conjoined futures and committments and ritual ceremonies and milestones and such. In solo poly, we can still talk about futures, but the traditional milestones are *probably* going to be off the table. So how do we know we have committment if we’re not working in unity toward a sequence of such markers of social success?

Well, how be we just say, “I plan to be with you for a goodly long while,” then behave in congruence with that statement?

(Yes, I know. That should work just as well in monogamous culture, but sometimes there’s a reliance on the *rituals* to do the work of the individuals, so that the individuals don’t have to do any heavy lifting themselves. That’s one of the many places that the wheels come off the relational wagon, as it were.)

Divorce rates in the last 60 years have shown us that monogamous tradition is no guarantee of faithfulness and longevity. So relying on that narrowly-defined structure just doesn’t work for a lot of people any more. Eschewing the escalator doesn’t always mean being poly (solo or otherwise), but one of the things being solo poly DOES mean is that we can, if we choose, spread the needs of a long life over a broader table of options, without necessarily giving up a degree of independence and autonomy that we desire. I cannot begin to count the number of times friends and clients (and my own lips) have lamented feeling like “I have lost myself” at some point over the course of a relationship. It’s not that this doesn’t happen in polyamoury as well (relationships are relationships after all, and sometimes being poly just means we’re capable of making the same mistakes across MULTIPLE relationships simultaneously), but there’s often a very different, intimate system of checks and balances at work in a poly structure that, when the overall structure is healthy and secure, do an effective job of keeping any of its constituent members from getting too lost in something new and novel.

In healthy solo poly, each relationship tends to function best as separate and distinct attachments, even in situations where the SP is dating multiple members of another relational structure. We can look at the complexity of the system there, AND we can also look at the series of individual attachments; it’s a truism within poly circles that you can’t ACTUALLY date “a relationship”, because each member of that relationship is going to attach to you, and you to them, differently. The attachment lens makes it a little easier to view each relationship in its own uniqueness; yes, it means we’re doing relationship development and maintenance on multiple lines rather than on the singular line of a monogamous model, and it’s crucial to be aware of the impact and drain on time and emotional resources that can create. But the return on investment when it works is magnificent. (For comparison in the relationship escalator, think of how happy life is when your partnership, your kids, your professional colleagues, your best friend, and your family, are just all in sync and working well–how validating and peaceful is that?? When the give and take between all those factors *JUST WORKS* smoothly and meets all of your needs?)

The only difference in solo poly is that process is being created with multiple *intimate* partners at the same time. Why yes, that CAN be exhausting at high-demand times, but truthfully, it’s no different than juggling multiple demands from partner, kids, jobs, family members, community or volunteer obligations. Solo poly folks are every bit as responsible for working to find a balance that works for them as anyone else in any kind of relationship, including the delicate balance of tending to equate allotted time with emotional prioritization. At its core, solo poly’s relationship development and maintenance strategies don’t look any different from any other form of intimate relational development EXCEPT in terms of plurality.

It’s work at times, sure; but then again, what relationship worth having *isn’t*?

Relationships, Uncategorized

Once again, a common theme is arising from conversations I’ve had several times with clients in recent weeks, in the vein of, “My partner is finally giving me everything I’ve been asking for, so why am I still not happy?”

Well, as it happens, I have a theory about that.

Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness is a great book that presents in very accessible language a significant body of research into the experience of happiness (Knopf 2009). Read in conjunction with Martin Seligman’s work on Authentic Happiness and flourishing, theswe resources chart (among other things) the idea of how we as both individuals and broader societies establish the expectation of a “baseline” happiness against which we measure our subjective experiences.

Gilbert’s stance is rooted in the idea that each of us has a unique baseline of happiness that is reasonably fixed; this explains why some people just seem perpetually joyous, and others seem fixedly dour.

“One of the most striking findings from the booming new field of happiness research has been that people have fairly sticky baselines. With only a few exceptions, people tend to return to the same level of happiness over time, regardless of what happens to them ? even extremely good events like winning the lottery, or extremely bad events like becoming a paraplegic, only seem to bump people?s reported happiness up or down for a limited time, before they start to drift back to their baseline.”– Julia Galef, April 15 2011

In relational therapy I run with the idea of baseline, not so much as rigidly fixed points but as (in gaming lingo) a restore point to which we will naturally settle or return to after upheavals. Our baseline happiness in relationship will therefore be as much a product of our natural individual happiness baseline, as it is the general management of the overarching health and effective connectedness of the relationship. John Gottman refers to the “love bank”, Gary (Love Languages) Chapman refers to the “love tank”; both of these terms refer to what I think of as a healthy metric for “status quo” in intimate relationships.

Generally speaking, the give and take process of intimacy should keep all partners’ banks reasonably full most of the time. Being humans in sometimes surprising or unexpected situations will strain and drain those reservoirs on occasion; it just happens. Healthy relationships have established patterns for restoring and sustaining us while those tanks refill. Sometimes, however, relational DYSfunction will add to the ongoing erosion of the tanks and overall lowering of the baseline.

For example, we’ve previously explored the slow erosion of intimacy from other angles, and how we inadvertently create a slow continental drift apart from partners as we get busy and forget to practice vulnerability, or as a low-grade, persistent frustration or disappointment becomes an intractable fixture in our relational landscape. Over time, these just-below-the-point-of-confrontation issues will, in fact, decrease our overall happiness levels and relational contentment.

If the partners then one day come to realize, “We need to work on our relationship!”, they show up in the therapist’s office, hopefully willing to make some changes and do some work to get themselves back into fighting trim.

The problem I have been observing time and time again over the years, however, is this:

  • Partners engage in the change process.
  • One partner in particular may be making more effort than the other, doing everything that is asked of them, possibly trying to ear a way out of the doghouse and back into good graces after a bigger relationship issue
  • The other partner, being handed everything they say they want or have asked for continues to experience dissatisfaction or reluctance in the engagement, and eventually comes to wonder, “If I’m getting everything I want, WHY AM I NOT HAPPY???”

Part of the issue is the cagey wariness of mistrusting change efforts, but I also theorize that the baseline happiness for each relational partner is now established at VERY different levels.

In the New Relationship Energy state when everything is glowing and golden and delightful in the nascent relationship, we establish a fairly high baseline of happiness for both partners. On an completely-arbitrary happiness scale of 0 (I hate you, you asshole, and I want you to die) to 10 (I love you, you are my golden god/dess, and I never want these halcyon days to ever end), NRE baselines can often be 8 or 9, spiking to 10 or sometimes off the charts. As the relationship develops some structure and routine over time, that baseline will generally settle to something more like a steady 7, maybe a 6. Distractions like work or kids can drop the baseline to more like a 5–neither golden glory but not deepest hell, but level with the usual kinds of things pulling us up or down.

As those distractions become festering hurts or challenges or repeating disconnection and disengagement, however, one partner’s baseline may continue to erode, even while the other partner may remain blissfully unaware there’s even a problem. Ergo, by the time the partners make it to my office, they may both agree they need and want to work on the relationship, and they may both come in with equal willingness to embrace a change process… BUT THEY MAY EACH BE STARTING FROM VERY DIFFERENT BASELINES.

In these cases, the one partner who is “doing everything you asked of me” is just as baffled as the partner making the requests, as to why it feels like nothing has improved. The partner with the lower baseline may, in fact, have increased their general level of engagement and contentment in the relationship, but it does’t in any way guarantee that they have returned to previous “normal” baselines, never mind the glory days of the NRE baselines. The partner with the higher level may have likewise increased their overall baseline happiness in the relationship, and be wondering why they seem to be alone on that plateau: it’s because they are.

If Partner A is starting from a baseline of 5 and increases their relational happiness to a 7, that’s great. Partner B may also manage a 2-point increase, but if their starting baseline was a 2 or a 3, then they are barely even getting to where Partner A *started*, never mind to where Partner A has moved up.

It can become very apparent very quickly if there are discrepancies in these baseline states. “Letting a partner out of the doghouse” is a big red flag that someone may be *unwilling* to shift their baseline, or there may be complicating issues like anxiety or depression, or historic attachment injuries, to take into account. Sometimes one partner has a greater leap of faith to make that “this time something will be different.” Regardless of the confounding variables in the room, it behooves us as the therapists in the process to draw some attention to these imbalanced starting points. Couples often make the mistake of assuming that being in agreement on the need to make changes, and equally committed to doing whatever work they identify as necessary, must ALSO mean that (a) their individual ability *to change* is equal, and that (b) they begin from the same place in the happiness scale.

One of my takeaways from coming to this realization is the need I have for a single, simple assessment tool for establishing a relative (and highly subjective, since it’s self-reporting) individual baseline relationship contentment and satisfaction. There probably is such a thing either in Gottman’s or Seligman’s toolkit (or even Chapman’s), I just haven’t had time to wade into the research material to look for it yet. But having such a thing to SHOW clients some kind of simple representation of their unequal starting points seems like it would be a very good thing. I did liken it recently to the differences in starting pole or grid positions in auto racing. It’s one thing to start out in the pole position, entirely another to be starting from the back of the pack; the latter has to work considerably harder to catch up to where the former starts.

Being able to illustrate that difference is key to setting realistic expectations, and for discussing milestones and goals within the change process that are perhaps defined individually, rather than embedded in the “WE”-ness of coupledom. But it’s also going to be a piece of critical understanding ABOUT each other, something needful for developing compassion about the unique experience we each have of the other. One partner may want to keep forging ahead with changes while the other feels like the are struggling to catch up, and that can continue to build on existing frustrations and disappointments, rather than supporting the changes they came to therapy to make. Stay conscious of the differences, apply the brakes or gentle encouragements as needed, and check baselines on the INDIVIDUAL level, not the RELATIONAL level.

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.

Mental Health, Uncategorized

Pride Month (Pride Week in Kitchener-Waterloo just wrapped) often gets me thinking about intersectionality:

Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.

Intersectionality is a concept that has developed from feminist theory (specifically exploring the lived experiences of women of colour), but now provides a lens through which to look at the power dynamics inherent to, but often invisible within, ANY kind of relational system. “The personal becomes the political” when we amalgamate those individual lived experiences into a narrative that can then influence–hopefully for the better, though the road is long–both cultural thought on the broad spectrum, and political agendas that often interfere with movement towards balance and equality.

Intersectionality also gives us a framework for exploring all of the many factors exerting influence on our day-to-day relationships with ourselves, partners, family, coworkers. It’s the language of systems theory, shifted a little to consider the oppressive nature of some, often many, of these factors. Family Systems looks at the function of the family actors and values on the individual; intersectionality gives us a broader perspective in which to observe and change the oppressive impacts of racism, ableism, patriarchy, classism, etc. on the individual within those relationships. In short, the personal became the political… became the personal again, providing us with better tools to re-examine the relational from clearer perspectives.

Many psychotherapists, and certainly anyone operating from a feminist-informed perspective, has likely already been working from some degree of intersectional understanding. This is a perspective that goes beyond the therapist speak of having “an eclectic practice”, which usually means we draw from any number of intervention strategies or therapeutic modalities to help alleviate client issues. This gets into the heart of truly seeing the vast array of impacting factors on any one individual trying to function in a relationship… and doubling or trebling that with every other relational partner we add in the room.

Depending on the kind of practice we work in, we’re somewhat hampered by a variety of cultural blindspots:

  • Access to psychotherapy is often a privilege tied to income, making it a very classist resource; agencies that can offer sliding-scale fees are often hamstrung by funding to limited, severely-short-termed services. Private practitioners who can offer scaled fees, especially geared to those on low- or welfare-based income levels, are few and far between.
  • The overwhelming majority of our clients are white, even in a plausibly-multicultural urban environment, introducing a (sometimes only subtle) degree of implicit racial bias, whether we are aware of, or admit to it, or not.
  • “Middle-class black women and men were about 30% and 60% less likely, respectively, than their white middle-class counterparts to hear back from a therapist agreeing to see them. Working-class individuals fared even worse: Women and men, regardless of race, were about 70% and 80% less likely, respectively, to get an appointment, compared with white middle-class individuals.
    “Psychotherapists are not immune to the same stereotypes that we all have, and I think they could become even more relevant for psychotherapists than for other professions [both medical and nonmedical], because they are embarking on this intimate, potentially long-term relationship with these [clients],” said Heather Kugelmass, a doctoral student in sociology at Princeton University. Kugelmass is the author of the study (PDF), which was published Wednesday in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.” — “Therapists often discriminate against black and poor patients, study finds”, Carina Storr for CNN

  • Not every office space is handicap accessible for a variety of reasons–creating a very ableist environment even when we don’t mean to. (Point of disclosure: both my home office space and the Bliss office space uptown can only be accessed by means of stairs, and for a variety of reasons, not all of us can/will offer video sessions as a means of alternate access.)

Part of the ethical training to become a therapist deals with uncovering what we can about our own internal biases, but often we can only see where those biases reside by looking at what we’re NOT doing, those areas of the population we can see we’re NOT adequately addressing. Gender bias and transphobia, xenophobia and racism–some aspects of a therapist’s personal aversion may become clear during their training. It becomes the work of the training institute and supervisors to ensure that potential therapists explore those aversions and biases, pushing comfort boundaries where they can, but at the very least working to assure the therapist will Do No Harm to clientele out in the field.

The dark side of working to identify our own blind spots is the unfortunate side effect of being equally blind to how these factors potentially impact our clients, not just in terms of the therapeutic relationship (though this can become a strong tool in session; more on this in a minute) but in the broader systemic perspective. Becoming aware of therapeutic blind spot can then lead to some interesting conversations with the client about their experience of these biases on the micro and the macro levels; if the therapeutic relationship is deemed “safe enough” by the client for the conversation to happen, it opens up a level of insight to the therapist and client alike about how classism, racism, ableism, etc., impacts their ability to function in their relational contexts, their narratives about themselves, their values, their perception of their roles, their expectations for themselves and others.

Most white therapists I’ve known over the past decade don’t willingly bring these questions into the therapeutic conversation unless the client introduces the topics first. I don’t know how often I’ve heard a white therapist trot out the phrase, “I don’t see colour,” when speaking with or about clients of colour, but if racism is a system factor impacting the clients in question, then the therapist may be at fault for not being open to that discussion as it potentially affects the client. I still encounter therapists who refuse to work with queer or trans clients, or the well-meaning ones who claim that orientation or gender are no issue for THEM, and don’t know what to do with clients for whom orientation or gender identity clearly *IS* an issue.

Trans clients are often my best example of complex intersectionality; it’s never going to be “just a simple case” of depression or anxiety. The endemic issues of workplace or school bullying transfolk experience, for example, speaks to the trans/xenophobic and sexist issues that have enormous impact on self-esteem and self-image; they may not feel they can safely access support networks and services, even when those service are financially accessible to them. The entire transitional experience can be hugely impactful on a client’s social, familial, relational structures; it can threaten their employability, introducing the classism issues:

“The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that trans people are four times more likely than the general population to have an annual income of less than $10,000.” — Lara Rutherford-Morrison, “8 Statistics That Prove Why Transgender Day Of Visibility Is So Crucial”, citing National Transgender Discrimination Survey: Full Report, SEPTEMBER 11, 2012

Women, especially women of colour, experience many similar intersectional issues; many struggle against gender roles projected by a male-dominated cultural narrative. They battle in the workplace against glass ceilings imposed by traditional male-biased evaluation systems (up to and including being outright penalized for things like mat leaves), limiting their upward mobility and earning potential. Working in the bromance-laden High Tech industry, for example, introduces some significant challenges for women. Single women, and single mothers in particular, face strongly-biased class/financial and racial stigmas, even in the 21st century.

These are NOT ISOLATED FACTORS that bear zero impact on the clients and the issues they bring into therapy. It’s therefore a huge disservice for therapists to be blind, however inadvertently, to the unknown impact of these systemic influences. Practicing intersectionality doesn’t mean we turn therapy into discussions ABOUT those issues, but it does mean we really need to learn to be fearless in asking about the client’s own experiences in these areas as potentially affecting the challenges they ARE bringing into the counselling room. Our job as therapists is to check our own biases, including our own well-intended willful attempts at non-bias, at the door.

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.