Relationships, Uncategorized

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationships, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationships, Self-Development, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncategorized

“Woke is a political term of black origin which refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice.” —Wikipedia

Today’s post is borrowing, with respect and apology, a very heavily-laden term from one highly-charged political context to another. Justice and oppression are deeply concerning topics in the news right now. Many individuals are struggling to “wake up” to clearer understandings of their actions and consequences, of the impacts those consequences have when they move out from the individual to a broader societal context (when many people “normalize” a particular behaviour out to the broader group-level enactment of that behaviour, and when that behaviour has been normalized on the broad spectrum for so long that it has become embedded or entrenched as a defensible cultural VALUE). Systemic oppression is a factor hitting many people in a maddening variety of ways: sexism, racism, ableism, classism.

Add to that list: relationism.

Okay, so that one’s not really a word, but in its own way, relational systems (family or intimate/romantic) *CAN* be as oppressive as any other system we encounter. We don’t start out to enmesh ourselves in oppressive systems, but it sometimes happens so subtly we never see it coming until we start to wake up to the weight holding us back. In family dynamics, it’s not like we really have much choice for most of our formative years BUT to live in and survive families as best we can. Sometimes the erosion of connection and intimacy in our romantic relationships becomes the thing that slowly buries us under the weight of invisible expectations and assumptions and the (sometimes non-consensual) enforcement of hidden values.

When people come into counselling, either in a couple/group relational format or as individuals, those of us who work from a systemic perspective are KEENLY aware that one person pursuing individuation, or attempting to create differentiation from an oppressive system, face particular challenges. One of the first steps in any differentiation process is to step back a little from the system and simply observe it, and to observe the self as it reacts within the systemic influences: where do we feel hooked in, and where can we choose a different behaviour when we become conscious of the patterns we’re observing? What do we see in terms of systemic values in action, and how do we become aware of where we reflect those internal values outwardly, inside and outside of the system? What do we think or feel about the values we’ve internalized, and the somewhat instinctive behaviours that enact them?

We encourage clients to observe their relational systems for a while and ponder their observations once they get clear somehow of the provocative circumstances. It’s damnably difficult to make decisions about change processes while one is sitting in the discomforting fire of an actively-provoked mindset, so gaining some kind of minimum safe distance is also part of the process. With observation and distance, we gain space to make decisions and consider how best to enact changes in our own behaviour within those systems.

That’s when things get REALLY complicated.

As soon as we introduce change in our own behaviours, we invariably destabilize a carefully-balanced system of expectations and assumptions. As soon as we start to behave in what appear to our relational counterparts as unpredictable or opaque ways, they will (in clinical, formal parlance) lose their shit. Harriet Lerner, in much of her writing on the dance of connection and intimacy, refers to the “CHANGE BACK!” pressure that is the common result to one person differentiating within, or from, a system. For the person struggling to differentiate, the challenge lies in being what feels like the ONLY person who seems aware of the behaviours in operation to enforce compliance and conformity to systemic values and expectations.

We often hear relational partners lamenting in therapy about one or the other making “arbitrary decisions and changes” that are disrupting the longtime stability of their status quo. One person’s attempts to carve out and defend the new boundaries that define their individuated space from the systemic collective will, quite often, be perceived as excising themselves from said system. Especially in family and intimate relationships that have never experienced healthy boundaries, ANY boundary will be met with resistance when others encounter it by running into it unexpectedly. It’s about as pleasant as running face-first and full-tilt into a brick wall you didn’t expect to find blocking the previously-open thoroughfare. (Why yes, I do speak from some personal experience there; why do you ask? Also: Ow.)

Individual clients who are themselves trying to differentiate, trying to change themselves, struggle with how to do so while remaining within a system: how do I not alienate my partner? How do I not cut-off from my parents? How do I not estrange my children? How do I become more of the person I see myself as being, while still honouring those relationships I want to be part of, but who may not have signed up for this kind of upheaval?

These are challenging questions for any relationship to navigate. When we’re trying to change how we engage in dysfunctional systems, the pressure to stay in and confirm, to engage in the safe herd patterns, is often overpowering, and can become harsh or toxic in short order. When we “become woke” to systemic values or individual enactments of those values within a system, especially once we begin to change how we interact with those others, our tolerance for those behaviours also drops quickly, and sometimes dramatically. We may not feel safe calling them out, so we find new ways to deflect them, or remove ourselves from engagement arenas. We will be challenged at every turn, and the sicker the system, the harsher the judgments and emotional penalties. The greater the perceived cost of differentiation, the greater the risk of capitulation.

“Being woke” to systemic (dys)functions means needing to make a hard choice about our place within those systems: maintain silence and implied or complicit support for those systemic behaviours, or take a stand against them, either in terms of our own engagement with them, or attempting to introduce change across the system. When clients confront this decision point, we discuss as many options as we can identify: we do a risk/return, ROI-type analysis; we talk about the scope of change the client desires for themselves. We talk about consent, especially if their differentiation attempt involves introducing expected change on others in the system, and how to shape conversations that invite others into that change process, rather than dropping arbitrary changes.

And we spend a LOT of time sifting through the frustrations and disappointments of integrating their own observations and newfound (hard-won) perspectives into relational systems that don’t want to be as woke to those challenges as the clients are. We discuss the desire to have partners “want to change for the better as much as I do”, and how that can add a lot of pressure and tension to a relationship, to a partner who maybe isn’t so keen to wake up. It’s a lot like Morpheus and Neo discussing whether to take the red pill or the blue pill, to stay asleep in Wonderland or to wake up and see how deep the rabbit hole goes; we can only choose for ourselves, we cannot force someone else to take the pill with us.

When we look at the risks of being woke versus remaining asleep, some people make the wistful remark of wishing they could “go back” to the simpler times, before they became aware of just how much of their systemic life makes them unhappy or dissatisfied. They talk about feeling exhausted with the effort of maintaining vigilant observational posts, of defending those nascent boundaries from the pressure to “CHANGE BACK!” I gently disabuse them of the notion that we even CAN go back. At the end of the day, we can’t unknow what we know, no matter how much we wish otherwise. We have to integrate new perspectives and understandings gained from observation into every decision we make going forward; mindful self-awareness and awareness of the systems in which we operate can never be unseen. It’s the cost of being woke: once we see the “violence inherent in the system”, we either consciously choose to do something about it (or ourselves in relationship to it), or we have to willfully choose to do nothing, and then what does that say about us? Will that be something we can live with?

Being woke isn’t always a blessing. It can mean loss and distance or disconnect, but it also creates new opportunities to examine the people we chose to be, and the decisions we make, or values we enact, in becoming that person. It allows us perspective to examine and selectively maintain or jettison systemic values that we determine are no longer welcome or applicable to who we choose to be. We create inviting space to examine our behaviours within relational contexts and ensure we are congruent within ourselves, and work to improve our willingness and ability to communicate what’s going on within our new internal processes to those important relationships outside our heads.

And once we learn how to wake up in our close or intimate systems, it becomes harder to turn off the observing capacity in broader systems. Many of us become sensitive, sometimes, to the oppressive factors in broader systems, and find the same kinds of decreased tolerance and/or increased motivation to do *something*, even on a small scale, to push back against the dysfunctional aspects of those systems, and to wake up others as we go. (I freely admit, part of why I became a therapist when and how I did was, in part, to help wake people up so I didn’t have to be out here by myself… but that’s a story for another day.)

Relationships, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Self-care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Intelligence, Life Transitions, Self-care

“I know nothing stays the same, but if you’re willing to play the game, it will be coming around again.”

So, January… I see you have come around again.

New year, new month, resolute new beginnings for many. And resolute restarts for many more. But this post isn’t about resolutions, New Year’s or otherwise; the internet is full of advisory posts about resolutions at this time of year, and frankly I’m already exhausted by the idea. Instead, today’s post is about the mentality of “starting over”, specifically from the perspective of a post-relationship breakup.

The holidays can be brutal on the recently-single, but perhaps more so is the aftermath of the holidays, when it seems like *everyone* is staring down the long, dark, cold and dreary months of Winter Proper. Remove the artificial and inflated moods of the holidays, and what’s left? (Those of you who are winter enthusiasts, shush 🙂 )

Depression in the winter months is a well-documented phenomenon, at least in North America, in part because of the darkness and cold. Add in elements of 21st century social insularity, and then consider how that withdrawing almost becomes a norm when someone is grieving a breakup, or grieving the loneliness of ongoing singleness. Grief and pain are a drain on energy and motivation, and the cold snowy outdoors is, for many, already a more than sufficient reason to avoid leaving the house. This is a damnably difficult time of year to face the refrain of “new resolutions!”, or “starting over”; it all just sounds like too much effort and what’s the point?

Starting over at any age is a tough challenge, but I think the older we get, the more we believe we stand to lose when a job or a relationship goes away, for whatever reasons. The more we stand to lose, the more we fear the loss and attach to the idea of hanging onto what we can, and the more strength it seems to take every time one has to pick themselves back up again. There’s very little to say to someone in the depths of that experience that will help them visualize what “starting over” even looks like, or when they will be ready to take a step… in ANY direction other than pain-paralyzed stasis. During rough times in the past ten years, I’ve leaned hard on a mantra that taught me a wisdom in keeping efforts small and simple until I’ve been ready to do more: “One day at a time, one breath at a time; one foot in front of the other.”

I keep this article bookmarked now, because it offers some very practical perspectives on how to start over in general after losses:

  1. learn from failures
  2. leave the old attitudes behind (sometimes this is where a good therapist can be a useful ally)
  3. don’t make grandiose announcements, just do it
  4. leverage what you know DID work previously
  5. take baby steps, and celebrate the small victories as well as the big ones
  6. do things differently
  7. keep moving
  8. spin criticisms, however harsh, into constructive perspective

?I have lived in the shadow of loss?the kind of loss that can paralyze you forever. I have grieved like a professional mourner?in every waking moment, draining every ounce of my life force. I died?without leaving my body. But I came back, and now it?s your turn. I have learned to remember my past?without living in it. I am strong, electric, and alive, because I chose to dance, to laugh, to love, and to live again. I have learned that you can?t re-create the life you once had?you have to reinvent a life for yourself. And that reinvention is a gift, not a curse.” — Christina Rasmussen, Second Firsts: Live Laugh and Love Again

Learning how to remember the past without becoming persistently stuck in it is difficult work, especially when one is still mired in pain. Avoiding entrenching ourselves in our victimhood is also a challenge; it’s more comforting to believe we are the wronged parties, especially when the loss comes about unexpectedly. Too many questions (mostly in the “Why/how did this happen to me?” category) overwhelm us without answers; without answers, we believe we cannot understand, and without understanding of what went wrong, we’re afraid to move forward in case we make the same missteps and mistakes in future… and risk feeling the same pain again. Best to stay put until we KNOW things, right?

Except… some things can’t be known. And even when presented with answers, if we don’t like or don’t believe the information as presented, we engage it in a struggle to prove, disprove, pick apart, analyse, investigate. We stay stuck with the need to COMPREHEND. And if we can’t, there is no way to resolve the struggle, to free ourselves, to choose to act differently.

Starting over after romantic breakups adds some things to the list above, like choosing whether to maintain a hard or soft heart — does grief make us cynical, gun-shy, pragmatic, open-hearted, willing, eager? Starting over involves challenge and opportunity, but especially in romantic contexts also involves emotional risk; like the clich? says, “Love like you’ll never be hurt”, but how hard is that to hear when you’re still in recovery, post-breakup, even months or years later?

Recovery often becomes about the stories we tell ourselves in the aftermath, whether we stay stuck in the stories of grief and pain and loss and allow that stuckness to creep in and also infect our “forward vision”. Do we shape those narratives in negative language, or positive language? For example, consider the difference between, “I don’t ever want to feel (that kind of) pain and grief again,” and “I want to love and be loved again,” in the sense of reinforcing a negative versus positive space. “I don’t want X” only defines a specific or narrow set of experiences, even when the scope of that experience seems (however temporarily) all-encompassing. It works less effectively for crafting a useful, self-directing course TOWARD something. Saying, “I want [Y]”, on the other hand, opens a conversation about what [Y] can look like, what paths might move one from current state towards receptivity and onward toward open reception and acceptance.

Relationship therapists generally hold that intimacy is rooted in vulnerability, and vulnerability is, itself, rooted in risk-taking. Starting over after breakup involves some soul-searching questions about willingness, or potential readiness, to engage in what undoubtedly feel like emotionally-risky behaviours. The last thing most of us want to do when we’ve burned our fingers is too stick them back someplace we’re afraid will result in further burns. This is where my two core tenets, mindfulness and choice, become critical components of any “starting over” mentality. What have I learned, and what do I need to carry forward? What changes to my metrics for satisfaction and happiness do I want to make, and to my communications when things aren’t measuring up to those metrics? How do I want to ask for what I want, even if the entity I’m asking is “the universe at large”?

But the process of “starting over” must also, by necessity, make space for processing grief and the pain of whatever’s been lost. Starting over, like “moving on”, doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting about what has happened or magically stopping the feelings. Nor does it function on any kind of a set schedule. More accurately, it needs to be a process of learning how to redistribute the weight of those experiences, so that we can move without tripping over the unresolved baggage. Resolution, to me, means a maybe-sometimes-never process by which we gradually shift or improve our relationship to those prior experiences, so some lingering effects may be with us for a long time. But we can either be pinned in place under the weight of those effects, or we find a way to move in spite of them. Grief processing is its own thing, and again, this might be a place in which good therapy is useful. Working through our fears and anxieties around future “what ifs”… well, that’s the work of starting over, right there, in a nutshell.

If it were all as easy as a song lyric, life would be so much simpler, wouldn’t it? We can’t always force a tidy resolution, but we can change our relationship to the weight we carry forward. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start… not *quite* all over… again. And again. And again. As often as our hearts can stand it.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Self-Development

Lately I’ve been noting another repeating conversation with several clients who are struggling to make changes in their relationships. Whether I cover this topic with individuals or with couples, it often starts with a similar refrain:

“I’m doing all this work and making all this effort, and my partner’s making no effort at all!”

While no therapist in the world will dispute that sometimes partners DON’T engage in a change process for a variety of reasons, there are innumerable ways in which a partner might be engaging in an *incredible* amount of effort… just not where it’s visible.

One of the ways I’ve been noticing lately in which this perspective becomes hugely important in relational work, is in considering the notion that in partnerships, we have a tendency to ASSUME that our partners are enough like us that their baselines for many things are comparable (equal) to our own. Emotional baselines is a concept I’m extrapolating from Martin Seligman’s work on happiness, in which he notes that everyone has a different baseline for happiness, and while they may be able to move above or below their respective baselines as provoked by circumstances, the individual baselines to which they return are not guaranteed to be equal to anyone else’s: not a partner’s, not their family’s, not their colleagues, not their therapist’s… sometimes, not even the individual’s own expectation for where they think their baseline SHOULD be.

If we run with the assumption that happiness as an emotional experience can have wildly different individual baseline settings, then it seems to follow that ALL emotional experiences have different individual baselines. From there, recognizing we all have different baseline skillsets for self-reflection, or different baseline aptitudes for change feels like a natural corollary.

In relationships, especially those trying to change out of crisis into stability, we have to take into consideration the idea that all parties are NOT starting the process from the same place. They may be on the same page about agreeing change is necessary, and even agreeing what change is necessary, but where the wheels come off the wagon in therapy is discovering the hard way that this in no way guarantees starting from the same place to effect those changes. Ergo, the partner who can more readily engage changes in personal or interpersonal behaviours is always going to seem and feel like they are making all the effort while the other partner makes no visible effort at all.

This is where we go looking at what’s happening below each partner’s individual waterline. Anxious or avoidant partners will always struggle longer and harder to overcome their fears than a securely-attached partner, or even one who may be anxious but more motivated by fear of losing the relationship to try pretty much ANYTHING to head catastrophe off at the pass. So there may be HUGE efforts on the part of one partner, but because they involve trying to surmount the internal fear-drenched scripts and anxious narratives or negative self-talk, all of that work remains invisible to the external perspectives. It takes enormous effort for the lower baseline partner to even get up to where the higher-baseline partner is starting from… and all this time, the higher-baseline partner is moving ahead, moving away, assuming their partner is in lockstep with them, disappointed when they discover this isn’t the case. Advancements are happening, more often than not, or at least effort is occurring, but imagine starting a straight-course race in which the two runners start out with one already 50m in the lead; obviously, they’re going to move ahead at their own pace which the other runner is going to take some time to even reach the former’s starting block, never mind catch up.

We also have to consider the potential disparity in *ability* to change, and the capacity to tolerate the impact of change (uncertainty, instability, discomfort, mistrust of Self/Other/process in general, fear of failure… this is a sampling from a long list of potential effects). We already recognize that not everyone shares a common baseline for self-observation and non-judgmental self-analysis. These are key components in engaging any kind of developmental change process for the self or within relationship. Avoidance of looking into the fire of our own discomfort is going to make it considerably more of a challenge to look at what CAN change, let alone face the risk of what is intrinsically a risky, trial-and-error process with what feel like astronomically high emotional stakes.

Yeah, confronting those kinds of emotional terrors, I know *I* have historically failed to joyously embrace change processes, even ones I cognitively understood to be vast improvements on current situations.

So when we find these kinds of statements cropping up in the counselling room, we detour off the process track a little ways, and sit with the partner “in the lead” of the change process, and consider what they know or understand about their partner. There’s usually (not always, but more often than not) something we can discern about the “lagging” partner that lets us glimpse a little below the waterline to reframe what may be happening as a difference in starting points. We can then introduce a number of options to help mitigate the frustration of that perceived disparity of effort: we illustrate the potential efforts being waged internally by the partner to just get up to the other’s starting point. We introduce compassion for that catch-up effort, and consider whether there is value in slowing down the leading partner’s efforts to include more coaxing/coaching/collaborative support rather than frustration and berating, or if there are ways to stay engaged while still moving ahead at separate paces. We can introduce a variety of new communicative check-in options that encourage partners to share more transparently the experiences and challenges of their own change process and attendant emotional experiences. We build understanding (and hopefully respect) for those differential baselines, and how understanding where those baselines rest impacts almost everything about relational dynamics. We discuss whether or not baselines can be adjusted as individual work or part of the relational development work.

But at all times, we maintain a check on the assumption that all things are equal, especially in change processes. We want to believe our partners are “just like us”, but it’s the places where they are different that make relationships both some of our greatest excitement, and some of our greatest strain, but always our greatest adventures.

Relationships

“I often say to couples I see, ‘You can be right, or you can be married. Which is more important to you?’” — Terry Real

One of the more uncomfortable therapeutic aspects of working with couples in relationship crisis, is the role we therapists seem destined to forever trip around: playing referee between two teams, each utterly convinced of, and and emotionally invested in, a subjective truth based on a combination of facts and interpretations of their individual experiences. And because neither team feels safe in the vulnerability required to listen non-judgmentally and explore each other’s perceptions, they instead become entrenched in their defensive positions and the need to BE RIGHT about their subjective experience being acknowledged as the ONE TRUTH of whatever events have transpired.

Referee
Therapist need a system for throwing flags on the play in client sessions.

Entrenchment feels stable to many of us. We get to dig in our heels and lock our knees on an issue, to use anger as a defense and a fuel to hold that stance. We invest in our conviction, to the detriment of all comers against our position. It feels strong to us. It is, unfortunately, about as far from intimate as we can get. And the things we say from within those entrenched positions is likely to have a damaging effect on the relationship, short- or long-term.

I first learned about the idea of “subjective truth” in an undergraduate philosophy class, the context of the surrounding discussion long lost to the dim murk of time and a probable degree of hangover (then, not now). But I do remember the professor’s illustrating comment: “I could give the same set of facts to three different people, and have each of them extrapolate a different interpretation of those facts into what becomes for them their subjective understanding of those facts, and therefore, becomes their subjective truth.” Couples stuck in entrenchment dynamics will have the same challenge: each has an interpretation of what happened that fits their internal narratives about themselves, their partner, the relationship; each is convinced they are right, and the Other is committing some treasonous act of “revisionist history”.

“Defending our position is the opposite of addressing it. And commitment to a relationship entails addressing, processing, and resolving our personal and mutual issues. If we fear real closeness, we will run from the thought of such a process. We have to feel safe enough to look at what we might have kept hidden in ourselves or avoided addressing in our partner. Of course, most of us have the knack of not heeding what we know will require a difficult or painful response. But such denial can cost us our own sensitivity and vulnerability.” — David Richo, How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving (Shambhala Books, 2002)

Many of my clients lament, “I just want my partner to UNDERSTAND what it’s been like for me, my experience,” or point of view or perspective or the like. But instead, when a contentious topic hits the table and provokes each partner to their respective defensive entrenchments, it’s generally a signal that one or both parties are taking something personally, feeling attacked or harshly critiqued, and they are taking to the trenches because it hurts too much to stay present and explore whatever it is their partner is trying (effectively or not) to communicate.

It’s not what we like to think intimacy looks like, but this is often how it feels.

Entrenchment often means invalidating (or trying to) each other’s felt experience, their perception and perspective. This often manifests in the counselling room through myriad variations of a familiar dynamic:

Partner A: I feel really hurt when you do this.
Partner B: That’s not what I meant by that at all. [or] That’s not what happened at all. [or] That’s not my intent, you’re wrong to feel that way.
Partner A: The actions still hurt.
Partner B: You should just get over that, then, you’re reading too much (or the wrong things) into what happened. It doesn’t mean anything.
Partner A: You’re not listening to me. Fine, you just tell your version.

What’s happening in this exchange is an invalidation of an emotional experience (Partner A’s interpretation of events) in favour of an entrenched defensive stance (Partner B’s version). Partner A generally becomes equally entrenched in wanting the hurts acknowledged, while Partner B continues to refuse to engage on and explore their partner’s perspective. The invalidation that occurs on both sides of the engagement happens for a variety of reasons; some people can’t tolerate the general intensity of conflict and retreat to defensive positions at the first whiff of confrontation and conflict. Others respond to the sense of feeling critiqued or attacked with anger, either as a standalone reaction or as a mask over guilt and shame as their respective life experiences and filters have programmed them to react.

The end result is that the couple devolves into dysfunctional partnership and a power struggle, with each partner trying to emerge victorious, and RIGHT. The therapist, then, becomes the monkey in the middle, trying to de-escalate the rising reactivity in the room… and in the relationship overall.

Just another day at the office, or something.

It’s hard as a therapist to avoid getting as trapped as our clients in the “he said/she said”* dynamics of the relationship, but I’ll let you in on a little secret from the therapist’s chair: most therapists care less about revisiting (aka, getting bogged down in) the clients’ understanding of “how we got here”, and are more interested in looking at “where CAN we get to from here?”. Honestly, if we get stuck in those entrenched re-enactments, we’re not going to be any significant use to anyone in the counselling process, probably including ourselves. However, it’s also not our job to do all the work FOR our clients, so it behooves us to disrupt that pattern of stuckness as early and as often as possible. Breaking out of entrenchment means the clients themselves need to find a way of facing the risk of being shot when they climb out of the foxholes, set aside their defensive weaponry, and try to engage. Yes, that can be brutal and risky, and painful when we do, in fact, get shot. Sometimes we only get past that risky stage by a “fake it till you make it approach” aimed at de-escalating the process first and making space to try different things later.

So what lies BEYOND that painful state?

Hard decisions, for the most part. Reconnection and repair involves making the choice to relinquish those treasured entrenchments. Some clients lament feeling forced to “give up” or “give in”; they equate the loss of the entrenched stances as “taking the blame for things I didn’t (mean to) do”, or bearing what to them feels like a disproportionate amount of responsibility for a situation that it does, in fact, take two to get into. But the Terry Real quote at the top of this entry is a stark reminder that entrenchment and intimacy stand at very distant odds with each other, and sometimes we have to choose carefully the hills we want to defend and die on. Sometimes it’s not about what we *DID*, but rather about managing the unexpected emotional consequences.

People react to each other based on the smallest indicator possible: visible behaviours. How we behave triggers for others an entire landscape of internal experience, however, that carries with it weight from personal narratives, relationship histories, learned behaviours, active and latent models of expectation and value. And how a partner reacts to us comes as a result from processing all of THAT information, often unconsciously and nearly-instantaneously. But it starts with something we DID, regardless of what we might have INTENDED. Intent is material that exists below our individual waterline, obscured to others’ perceptions.

Iceberg! Dead ahead!

Breaking through reactivity to listen and engage with a partner’s concerns requires an ability to sit and sift through our own provoked reactivity, a willingness to see the trenches ahead of us and choose to NOT step into them. I won’t lie, Bob, it’s a LOT of work to see our own reactivity when it’s overwhelming us; “soldiers under hard fire” is certainly an apt description with a solid side order of “duck and cover”. Unless we’re absolutely secure in ourselves and our partnership, hearing concern or challenges around each other’s emotional states is hard to accept; no-one wants to be the partner who inflicts pain or harm on our supposed-loved ones, we can’t see ourselves as That Kind Of Person, and if we get swamped in our own guilt and sham, it’s going to be next to impossible to stay present in that heat. And from the other side of the engagement, it’s going to be a very finite, possibly very short, time we’re going to be willing to continue trying to engage with a partner whose default reaction is defensiveness, deflection, invalidation. We can’t connect with that, we feel further damaged by that invalidation, and eventually we give up.

And giving up is the death knell of intimacy, if not of the relationship as a whole.

We often have to reinvent ourselves as risk-takers in relationship. Reconnection and repair after any period of trench warfare is entirely about practicing vulnerability, of letting go of the need to be right in favour of the need to be connected to this wonderful person you’ve chosen to partner with. We’re not going to get there in one or two counselling sessions, either; it may have taken clients YEARS to get into this place, it’s going to take a potentially long time to get back out of those ruts, to fill in the trenches, to have better tools for repair than defense. But it starts with getting beyond the dynamic of righteous and indignant entrenchment, the highly-defended individual versions of “what happened” that keep us (even your therapist, from time to time) stuck, and out into the open where we can practice staying out in the open, even under fire.


* — With apologies for the binary gendered language; I promise this relational dynamic is one of the many that transcends heteronormative relationships.