Communication, Relationships

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
— every military strategist in the history of conflict, ever.

In today’s statement of the blisteringly obvious: relational communications can fall apart in a mind-boggling number of ways. “Mere words” are asked to convey an awful lot of things, from disparate meanings to unspoken intentions to the severe gravitas of emotional expectation.

When relational partners agree that change of some kind is necessary to improve the workings of their relationship, they have to use words to navigate both the agreement that change is necessary (a potentially massive undertaking in and of itself) and to create an understanding of WHAT change will look like. Early on in my practice, I noticed something perplexing: clients would talk amongst themselves and with me about ideas for how things could change, and somewhere down the road a deeply-emotional conflict would often develop from those early conversations. I also noticed this same pattern happening on less intense levels, where a conflict, or at least confusion, would arise from an errant set of expectations shaped out of a previous discussion or negotiation.

“I thought we had a plan.”
“I thought I knew what the plan was.”
“My partner didn’t stick to the plan.”
“I didn’t know there WAS a plan.”

Plan, plan, plan… something about the word was getting lost in translation, somewhere.
In more recent years, I’ve been working with emotional flags as triggers for examining expectations, the often unvoiced aspects of these relational navigations and negotiations. If someone is feeling disappointed, frustrated, annoyed, etc., my first question is always, “What were you EXPECTING?,” then looking at how (or even if) those expectations were communicated upfront. Often the precipitating conversation(s) will have discussed ideas, but the translation between what is an idea and what is The Plantm is generally shown to be where the wheels come off the wagon.

What then is the problem?

When we discuss ideas, especially in a context that has some emotional weight already present, it’s a surprisingly easy thing to attach some of that emotional weight to an idea that we then champion. We put effort into presenting and defending that idea, and if it seems like there’s a sense of support or buy in from our partner in that discussion, then we often presume we have buy-in, and therefore that we have established The Plantm, a locked-in, presumably-mutually-agreed-to set of intentions for forthcoming actions. So imagine now what happens when one person walks away assuming there is The Plantm, and getting emotionally invested in that Plan, and emotionally attached to a specific (probably the desired) outcome of The Plantm… only to find out later that the other person walked away from the same conversation believing that, while they had a great discussion about ideas, that they had NOT established any explicit commitments or even agreements to what next steps might entail.

In short, a plan is NOT A Plantm without that explicit agreement to the intended steps and a clear delineation of who’s taking responsibility for what and a mutual agreement about timelines and success criteria. I know that sounds like an awful lot of work just to make a plan for who’s going to take out the trash every week, or who’s going to drop out of the workforce to take care of a special needs child, or who’s going to have to go to therapy because the relationship needs work. The truth of the matter as I have witnessed it repeatedly over the years (and as I have been guilty of doing in my own relationships), is that a plan is NOT A Plantm just because one partner has started to emotionally invest in a specific outcome. Even a discussion that ends on a generally-sympatico attitude about the topic does not constitute a Plan unless and until there is EXPLICIT buy-in from ALL involved parties as to the details of execution, and that’s where things often fall apart.

“Achieving consensus” does NOT mean “achieving consent”.
“We have an idea” does NOT mean “we have A Plantm.”
“We are in general agreement that this thing needs to happen” does NOT equate with, “We have a detailed set of intentions with clear ownership of who will do what, when, and to what success criteria”. Yet that’s where a lot of relational discussions get hung up. “We are in agreement that this thing needs to happen” will often get taken away by one party to mean, “And now this thing will happen when and how I expect it to.” Except it oftentimes does not happen that way… hence the sense of disappointment, annoyance, irritation, etc. If the relationship has already been plagued by those kinds of feelings, this can read like further proof of the relationship’s unviable status.

When I’m working with relational partners who have been tripping on these kinds of unspoken expectations, we work backwards from the point of recognizing the disappointment. “What were you EXPECTING?” is my first question to the disappointed partner. We have to look at the difference between a general consensus on ideas, a detailed design of steps for actually implementing those ideas, and the actual consent to participate in that implementation process. (In corporate-speak, it’s the exact same process as having a customer come forward with a feature idea, the business teams collaboratively designing the internal development process and budget and scheduling to implement that feature request, then the business and the customer explicitly signing off on a contract for that development process. We all need ideas as a starting point, but ideas alone are a terrible finishing point. We need a structural understanding of what the intentions are and what the process will be, in order to provide informed consent to participate in that process. And we can’t trust that the process will even get started without that explicit, informed consent.

In short, a plan is NOT A Plantm unless and until we have active engagement and consent on all of these items. Anything short of that is a lot of Wishful Thinkingtm with a forecast of heavy Disappointment & Dissatisfactiontm.

So if in your various relationships you find you experience a lot of disappointments around people not executing to plan as expected:

  1. check in on your own expectations; what were you expecting?
  2. had you (or even, how had you) communicated those expectations?
  3. did you and the partner discuss ideas, or did you create a detailed set of executable intentions?
  4. did you both leave the discussion with explicit consent to deliver on this set of intentions, according to mutually established criteria?

If you can answer Yes to all of the above, then you absolutely had A Plantm, and you can both sit down to look at where things went wrong within the process. If you answer No to any or all of the above, then you did NOT have A Plantm, and can start to look at the steps where things didn’t follow the plan-development process to implement changes in what IS being communicated, or how.

(And yes, there is a whole different conversation about managing expectations when one partner’s ability to either communicate OR to deliver on explicitly-negotiated expectations is vastly different from the other partner’s, and how to set realistic expectations accordingly. That’s a topic for another day.)

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.

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.

Emotional Intelligence, Language, Uncategorized

This week’s post is more of an Op-Ed piece than usual; not that they all aren’t, to some extent, but I think it’s a good and important practice for therapists–all clinicians, really–to admit and own it when they decide to throw themselves into the deep end of their own biases. And we have them, don’t ever think that we don’t. When we sit with clients, it’s our job to reign them in so they don’t get in the way, but when we’re writing our own blogs, well… the gloves can come off 🙂

Disclosure: I’m a writer, always have been. I did it professional in High Tech for the better part of 25 years, concurrent with building my private practice. As such, I am KEENLY aware of the power of language when I listen to the things my clients say, both the stories they tell me about their lives, and the scripts they tell me that run in their own heads. Words have both meaning and IMPACT, and often we don’t necessarily realize how much of either we have internalized over our lives as a result of upbringing inside family or cultural values, or implicit expectations shaped by our relationships as we reach and stretch into adulthood.

Recently, I have encountered on a handful of occasions the use of the word “sacrifice” in the context of people’s relationship expectations. It comes up with clients from time to time, and recently came across a dating profile in which someone wrote, “I’m hoping to find someone where in time we come to intuitively know each other’s needs and both are willing to sacrifice our own needs for the sake of our partner.” At that point, I realized I was encountering the word often enough to be developing a kind of teeth-clenching resistance to the use of the word in relationships. I did what I sometimes do in these circumstances; where I discover new/changed reactivity to something that I used to just coast serenely past, and when I don’t know what’s changed, I poll my social Tribe for feedback. It’s very unscientific, but my Tribe is a widely-spread and broadly-experienced group of people who can offer perspectives based in their own perceptions and experiences, and suddenly I have a large parcel of information in which to compare and contrast, or centre my own Stuff.

To start with, I think the gist of my growing reaction to “sacrifice” as a word bandied about in relationships, is the underlying supposition that we treat sacrifice as a realistic expectation in terms of “this is just what we do as a regular course of action”. I find this highly problematic in the purest sense of the word:

Definition of sacrifice
1: an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially: the killing of a victim on an altar
2: something offered in sacrifice
3a: destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else
b: something given up or lost the sacrifices made by parents

I don’t think the relational context has anything to do with offerings to deities in truth, but in all of these definitions, the underlying impression is that these are things that are precious to us personally, that we are (within the relational context) expected to yield up permanently. And while I am the first person to acknowledge that there are a lot of changes that come with getting into relationship, including yielding time and attention to the presence of a partner, my current struggle is to accept that any relationship ROOTED in an expectation of “sacrifice” is starting off on a very problematic footing.

I have previously written about the 3 C’s of Resolution Management, and I think maybe it’s time to revisit the lexicon established there. It seems a healthier approach than sacrifice, to look at establishing shared relationship as a collaborative process at best, and a series of negotiated compromises at worst (where “worst” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”, but read the original post for a clearer distinction between the two). It’s my personal bias that relationship building should be building on the raw materials everyone brings to the table, to build something that is more than, or greater than, the sum of its component parts. But when we view relationships as being rooted in sacrifice (or arguably compromise, to some extent), then we’re deliberately starting out with the mentality that we must take away or yield up something precious to us as a sacrifice, to be in this relationship. It means on a very linguistically-technical level, a sense that we have to have less than what we had, or be less than who we are, in order to somehow be accepted into relational positions.

As a relationship therapist, you can see why this “lesser-than” mentality and approach to intimate relationships is troubling when it manifests as an out-of-the-starting-gate *expectation*.

In my informal poll of the social Tribe, I posed this set of questions:

“In relationships contexts, do you react differently to someone defining a relationships as “needing (or expecting) collaboration and compromise” versus defining a relationship as “need (or expecting) sacrifices”? Is it *healthy* (FSV of “healthy” that I’ll leave to the reader to define) to start relationships with an expectation of “sacrifice”?”

The responses resoundingly tended to be along the lines of, “Collaboration and compromise are reasonable expectations as explicitly-negotiated processes; sacrifice is okay as a once-in-a-blue moon response to special circumstances, but NOT as a default expectation”. I think there are circumstances in which sacrifice is a legitimate expectation: I’ve never yet met a parent who didn’t see the decision to raise a child as involving ALL KINDS of yes-we-gave-up-precious-things-on-a-pretty-much-permanent-basis sacrifices. Some of the respondents had ideas along the lines of sacrifice as a *temporary tool* rather than a permanent commitment to the loss of something individually-valued. And more than a few referred (directly or obliquely) to a certain cultural subtext that “sacrifice is a noble and virtuous act”, which, again, I’m not sure I buy as a default, broadstrokes stance. As a one-off act in exceptional circumstances, perhaps, but if it’s a cultural expectation that “sacrifice is just how we DO relationships”, I’m not sure I can buy into that as a foundational principle. And at least one respondent raised the concern about sacrifice being perceived as a very heavily gender-biased act in which women are expected to sacrifice more than men do. From a therapist’s perspective, I know that male clients report feeling the need to sacrifice at least as often as women do, and in many of the same contexts. So I don’t think the perceived *act* of sacrifice is gender-biased, but I strongly suspect (based on nothing more than a gut instinct at this moment) that *WHAT* we are expected or desired to sacrifice may very well have strong gender biases behind them.

At no time do I believe that there isn’t going to be a degree of necessary compromise when developing relationships. At the very least, in order to integrate someone into our lives, or integrate into theirs, with sufficient time and exposure to allow vulnerability and intimacy to have a chance to take root, we withdraw time from other pursuits in order to dedicate it to the new thing. We can choose to see that as sacrifice, or we can choose to see that as compromise/collaboration, depending on how it’s negotiated. There will only ever be 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, and we cannot “make time”, we can only rebalance priorities to allow new things entry onto the schedule. I often suspect that people who start out relationships with the adamant and unrelenting position of, “Take me as I am, I refuse to compromise”, do so because of a fear of the expectations for compromise or sacrifice. One the one hand, sacrifice is seen as virtuous and noble; on the other hand, in relational contexts, we fear losing autonomy and “disappearing” under the rise of The Relationship’s dominating presence and the Royal We-dom of couplehood.

I believe a healthy, effective balance lies somewhere in the middle. Usually these things also involve a long, hard look at WHY we use the language we use when we talk about expectations in relationships: where does our use of that language come from, and what weighty meanings do we ascribe both consciously and unconsciously, to their application? Do we use “sacrifice” when we mean “compromise”, or even “concession”? (Compromise is defined as, “an agreement or a settlement…that is reached by each side making concessions”.) It’s reasonable to wonder at what point are we splitting hairs in looking at the lexicon, but I can absolutely guarantee that some words carry more weight than others, and as my own recent reactions show me, we all react to words different based on the weight we apply to their meanings. I have less trouble with compromise than I do with sacrifice, and yet they both (be definition) involve yielding or conceding something in order to get an acceptable solution.

So when we look at tensions in relationship in the counselling room, we have to look at what the words mean to each individual participant, and strip them down to the meanings that trigger our emotional connections and reactions to those words. I *EXPECT* to negotiate compromises and collaborations in relationship, but I *RESENT* being told I’m expected to make sacrifices for the relationship, and yet the words bear striking similarity in meaning. So my reactions are apparently tied to internalized meanings that clearly differentiate both words.

Some days, being a writer really complicates the therapeutic process. But at the end, the thought exercises that come out of looking at words on a purely etymological level lets us get deeper into personal narratives and core value explorations. And that will never, in my opinion, be wasted effort if we walk away with clearer understandings of ourselves in and out of relationship.