People keep asking why I’m continuing to see clients in person both uptown and at the home office. It’s simple, really: the therapist’s office is the only safe space some people have. Many who might have used work to escape volatile, toxic, abusive, or outright dangerous home situations are now being told to stay home and not come to work — meaning they are trapped in the very situations that threaten them the most.
It’s unclear what protocols local shelters are enacting in a time of pandemic, but the anxiety levels around exposure and uncertain shelter occupancy arrangements will also serve to keep the vulnerable from getting clear of a dangerous home environment.
It’s the darker side of quarantine, isolation, and the desperately-needed social distancing practices: yes, we’re trying to flatten a curve and spare hospitals and treatment centres from overloading, but we’re also trapping some of the most vulnerable people in their own worst nightmares, caging them with their abusers for an indefinite period of time.
So yes, if my office is the one safe space that remains open to them, then I will take every precaution I can to protect us all for as long as I can. I will disinfect everything I can and keep to a reasonable distance across the room, but come hell or high water, for those that need us — we’ll keep the lights on for you as long as we safely can.
Google inadvertently teaches me some very interesting things. For example, as I sit down this morning to write something undoubtedly brilliant hopefully coherent about Schwartz’s application of Internal Family System’s parts theory in relationships, I type the words “love” and “redeemer” or “redemption” into my trusty search engine… and get pages upon pages of religion and faith-speak in return. Not entirely surprising, but given that the premise of “(romantic) love redeems and completes us” is so pervasive in western culture, I am surprised there wasn’t more content tying redemption tropes to romance and our expectations for romantic partners.
“Everyone is born with vulnerable parts. Most of us, however, learn early–through interactions with caretakers or through traumatic experiences–that being vulnerable is not safe. As a consequence, we lock those childlike parts away inside and make them the inner exiles of our personalities.” – Richard Schwartz, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, Trailheads Publications, 2008, pg. 55
“To all of us drowning in this empty, striving, isolated, and anxious [North] American lifestyle, the media throws the biggest life preserver of all. From watching movies or TV, or listening to songs on the radio, you’ll be convinced that everyone, sooner or later, will find their one, true, happily-ever-after relationship. The person who will heal you, complete you, and keep you afloat is out there. If the person you’re with isn’t doing that, either he or she is the wrong person altogether or you need to change him or her into the right one.
“This is an impossible load for intimate relationships to handle. The striving for money and the isolation from a circle of caring people are enough to do in many marriages–not only because both partners are depleted by the pace of life and the absence of nurturing contact, but also because to work and compete so hard, they each must become dominated by striving parts that don’t lend themselves to vulnerable intimacy. To deal with the stress of this lifestyle, we reach for the many distractions that our culture offers, which are also obstacles to, and surrogates for, intimacy.” – Schwartz, pg. 24-5
Esther Perel also talks about how North American ideals of romance often suffer because we trade the passionate, playful parts of ourselves that initially create intimacy as we explore our chosen Other, for security, stability, and comfort over the longer term of settling down together–needful things that make our exiled parts feel safely attached and protected, but which are about as “sexy” as our oldest, softest, most familiar and comfortable pyjamas and slippers. In Schwartz’s language, we surprise the exiles as they start to manifest once the spontaneous, impetuous excitement has either secured the partnership into more fixed states (living together, engagement/marriage, children, house-purchasing), or burned itself out and been supplanted by the requirements of regular life (work demands, family obligations). There is no space for those playful energies, and while the erosion of the welcome that once existed may be subtle at first, eventually it starts to feel like parts of us are being rejected by our partners, and that hurts, so we shut down the vulnerable parts and return them to their places in exile.
Where the ideals of redemption come into play is the initial expectations we place on our romantic partners to be the people who “will heal you, complete you.” This language is inherently problematic for many reasons:
“[P]artners are cut off from their Selves by being raised in a society that is so concerned with external appearances that authentic inner desires are ignored and feared. Into this nearly impossible arrangement is poured the expectation that your partner should make you happy and that if [they don’t], something is very wrong.
“These messages about your partner play into your exiles’ dreams, keeping the focus of their yearning on an external relationship rather than you. Thus, our culture’s view of romantic love as the ultimate salvation exacerbates an already difficult arrangement. Many writers have blamed the unrealistic expectations our culture heaps on [romantic partnership] as a significant reason for its high rate of collapse. I agree with that indictment to the extent that expectations perpetuate the partner-as-healer/redeemer syndrome.” – Schwartz, pg. 18
When I’m addressing with clients their experiences of dissatisfaction and disappointment in a relationship, we look at things like core needs (that, oftentimes, clients have never directly looked at or attempted to identify/define) and the expectations they have for how those needs are to be addressed by their partner. More often than not, the needs and their attendant expectations have never been explicitly articulated or negotiated with the partner, but we see plenty of evidence of the wounded exiles when those needs and expectations go unmet.
Attachment theory suggests that when we connect with others, especially intimate others in romantic partnership, for many of us it is a way of redressing early attachment injuries. These don’t need to be traumatic injuries, but simply moving to meet a craving for warmth and attention that we may implicitly feel was lacking or inconsistent in our earliest care-giving attachments. We exile those needy, unattended parts of ourselves over time, but then look, consciously or unconsciously, to romantic partners to meet that craving need for us, to redeem our wounded exiles and welcome them back into the fold. (This is generally a decent interpretation, from a parts/system perspective for what it means when a partner “completes us”–they nurture ALL our parts and create safety and welcome for the parts we have thrust out of the spotlight for being “ugly,” “damaged,” “too broken to function,” or “too terrifying to allow to surface.”
Harriet Lerner, in her book “The Dance of Intimacy,” describes a kind of dance in which we desperately want someone to rescue us from our own internal sense of unvalued despair and isolation, but as we get closer and closer to true intimacy (vulnerability), we become increasingly afraid of what happens when a romantic partner sees what we mistakenly believe to be our “true selves”, nasty warts, scars, and all. At that point, fear takes over and we inadvertently push partners back to safer distances, or close ourselves off, or sabotage the relationship in unconscious ways to “hurt you before you can hurt me.” We crave closeness that means someone allowing those wounds to surface and heal for once in our lives, but to closer we let those exiles come to the surface, the more anxious dread at “being truly seen” comes along for the ride.
We WANT to be redeemed, and then fail ourselves at the eleventh hour because we fail to let the redeemer actually make use of the all-access backstage pass we thought we wanted them to have.
When we rely on external Others to redeem those wounded exiles, we create this intricate tension rooted in needing someone else to wade in and do something magical to “fix” those wounds; we create a kind of codependent strategy in which we rely on someone else to “complete” us and accept all our parts. But our fears, those protector/firefighter parts of us that come armed with all kinds of saboteur scripts, get in the way pretty much EVERY TIME. And as soon as we start pushing people away, we are in a loop of self-fulfilling prophecy: we get defensive (sometimes aggressively so), partners retreat from us in fear, confusion, disappointment, frustration… sometimes even disgust; we see their withdrawal as validating our internal, unspoken script about how “everyone who is supposed to love us disappoints us/hurts us/betrays us/abandons us”, and we are validated further in our belief that our exiles MUST stay locked down and far, far away from the light of love and acceptance.
The healing work in a therapeutic context, regardless of whether the focus is on an individual or on a relationship, then becomes all about teaching each party to make space within themselves for welcoming their own exiles. Schwartz describes this as moving from a process of talking FROM our activated exiles (or the messy emotional chaos of exiles and protectors all trying to get air-time control in the middle of a triggering argument with another person) to talking ABOUT them. I do some of this work when I ask clients to, in essence, narrate an emotional reaction WHILE THEY ARE EXPERIENCING IT. We talk ABOUT what it’s like to feel triggered and reactive, the physical sensations, the self-observation of emotion, the scripts they hear being spooled up in their heads, rather than allowing the triggered reaction to unleash itself AT the other person or people in the room. Parts language becomes a useful tool in this narrative process especially when it gives the narrating client a way of adding some observational separation and distance: “One part of me is observing how another part really feels hot and angry, like it’s looking for something to attack. It’s angry because it feels attacked, like there’s another part that’s been hurt and needs to be protected.”
Being able to create this separation allows us to dialogue with both the attacker part and the hurt part separately, given the person who is caught up in this momentous experience a chance to unravel what’s going on for themselves, and to figure out what is necessary for calming themselves and re-centering their sense of balance. All of this can be done in the presence of the Other but doesn’t rely on the Other to sooth or validate those chaotic parts. Sometimes we’ve been able to make massive tectonic shifts just by getting one partner to introduce that self-observing narrative perspective while the Other partner bears silent witness, an abiding, compassionate, non-judgmental presence. Sometimes that’s just the starting point for different ways of being with each other that reintroduce independent security, and space to rebuild trust without the codependent fusion that Esther Perel labels the “death of intimacy”.
When we no longer rely on a partner to redeem and validate our exiled parts–when we become more adept at welcoming and managing those hurts without reliance on an external Other to complete us–it’s not that we no longer WANT to be in partnership. Rather, it becomes more about choosing to be in partnership as coherent, whole people in ourselves. We heal our own wounds, we accept our own warts and scars; we rely primarily on ourselves to soothe our internal chaos rather than forcing romantic partners into salvation roles and expectations most of them don’t expect, or have the capacity, to carry for us.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
?Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.?
? Amy Bloom
Have you ever wondered how prickly creatures like hedgehogs and porcupines ever manage to get close and snuggly with each other? The punchline to the untold joke is, “Very carefully.” If you can picture in your mind those spikes and barbs intermixing in vulnerable proximity, you’ve got a good working image of human intimacy as well.
It’s rumoured that Freud kept a statue of a porcupine on his workdesk as a reminder of a Schopenhauer fable:
“A troop of porcupines is milling about on a cold winter’s day. In order to keep from freezing, the animals move closer together. Just as they are close enough to huddle, however, they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread out, lose the advantage of commingling, and begin to shiver. This sends them back in search of each other, and the cycle repeats as they struggle to find a comfortable distance between entanglement and freezing.” — from Deborah Leupnitz, Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Intimacy and its Dilemmas, Perseus Books, 2002
There is a vibrant, powerful, push-me-pull-you dynamic to most intimate relationships; this is the Hedehog’s Dilemma. Most humans crave connection with others, regardless of whether you believe it rooted in primal, umbilical attachment or simply a principle of unity; it’s a cliche, perhaps that “no man is an island”. But the truth of our pursuit of intimate connection is a prickly process at best, because the closer most of us get to true intimacy and vulnerability, the more likely we are to push those getting close away from us, but quiet shutdowns or forceful ejections, and many ways and means in between. Perhaps it’s the fear of being seen; for others it’s the craving for close connection rubbing raw our fear of losing ourselves, of becoming something less than autonomous:
“In adulthood, when we find ourselves in an intimate relationship, we each experience again, even if only in attenuated form, those early struggles around separation and unity–the conflict between wanting to be one with another and the desire for an autonomous, independent self… each [adult] brings with her or him two people–the adult who says “I do,” and the child within who once knew both the agony and ecstasy of symbiotic union. […] Of course, as adults we know there’s no return to the old symbiotic union; of course, survival is no longer at stake in separation. But the child within feels a if this were still a reality. And the adult responds to the archaic memory of those early feelings even though they’re far from consciousness. Thus we don’t usually know what buffets us about–what makes us eager to plunge into a relationship one moment and frightens us into anxious withdrawal the next.” –Lillian Rubin, “Fears of Intimacy”, Challenge of the Heart: Love, Sex, and Intimacy in Changing Times; John Welwood, ed. Shambhala Books, 1985
The closer we get to allowing someone to truly “see us” — warts and scars and sabotaging behaviours and thought patterns and insecurities and all — the more terrified many people will become at the idea of BEING seen. We become terrified at the “what if” scenarios to follow someone catching even a glimpse of what we believe to be our core selves, our “hearts of darkness”.
The more fearful we become, the more our native defenses kick on, or into overdrive, to protect that terrified core self. That darkened spot is home to our chiefest vulnerabilities, our quintessential attachment wounds, and must be protected at all costs. Et voila! Prickliness that makes it seemingly impossible for someone to get past our defenses… right around the same time someone is probably erecting defenses against US.
“We long to be seen, understood, and cherished. But so often we have felt betrayed, hurt, and devalued. As a result, we may carry a rawness that we don’t want people to see or touch. We may not even allow ourselves to notice this place when a protective scab has numbed its presence. Confusion and conflict reign when we pull on people to soothe an inner place that we have abandoned. […] Sadly, we often perpetuate a loop in which our fear of rejection or failure or our continued isolation creates a desperation that drives us to attack or shame people to get what we want… Beneath this display of hostility, we are hurting or afraid. But instead of sweetly revealing these tender feelings, we’re on the warpath, although we’re often punching the shadows that linger from our past.” — John Amadeo, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships; Quest Books 2013
The challenge of getting through the spines and barbs of another person’s defensive strategies is developing the patience and willingness to sit in the fire of discomfort: both our own, and our partner’s. This can be made easier or more difficult depending on the shape of those defenses. Patterns of aggressive defensive can break us down over time when we’re on the receiving end, as can the internal cost of maintaining our high-drain defense systems. Intimacy is the result of vulnerability, which itself is the result of developing sufficient trust in both ourselves and our partners (and the attachment systems operating between us) to lower the defensive mechanisms, to let someone get close to our secret, core selves. David Richo refers to “erasing the storyboard” as a metaphor for detaching ourselves from the stories we carry about our personal attachment injuries:
“The more challenging surrender is to a person, to a commitment to a relationship of trust. It is said that we…have problems surrendering to someone because it feels as if we are giving up our freedom, something we may cling to as our most prized possession. This is why we so often feel a fear of closeness and commitment, actually a fear of trusting how we will feel in the midst of those experiences. […] It may take a partner a long time to convince us that it is safe to love… unreservedly. [They] will have to be willing to allow a long series of open-ended experiences, ones in which the door is continually visible and open in case we need to make a fast getaway. It may be hard for us to find someone with that kind of patience, and would we respect someone willing to be that self-sacrificing with no promise of return?” — David Richo. Daring to Trust: Opening Ourselves to Real Love and Intimacy; Shambhala Books, 2010
Learning how to detach from our beliefs about our own experiences, how to “love like we’ve never been hurt”, and to trust that our partners are building connection with us with GOOD intentions, is in many ways the core work of simply being in relationship. For many of us, the exhilaration of discovery and being seen is coloured by the fear of actually BEING SEEN, of recognizing our defensive challenges and knowing it’s going to take work to lower them. Many of us who have grown up in situations where we have learned a desire to have someone else overcome our defenses for us, are missing the opportunity to learn the scope of our own power and agency; to be overpowered still introduces uncomfortable power dynamics and potential boundary issues, whereas exerting personal agency to chose when and how we allow someone to see our vulnerable cores, is all about learning the shape of our own selves. The more we invest in a defensive stance, the more we risk remaining on the outside of powerfully intimate connection. But the intensity of the fear, the intensity of having our raw selves scrutinized by the Other and potentially judged as harshly as we judge our own faults and flaws, is often to much for people; we make an attempt, can’t stand the heat, and flee.
And so the hedgehog’s dilemma persists: we seek the warmth and closeness of others, but we can’t get around the sharp and spiky bits (ours or theirs), and we jerk away.
I’m going to step outside the usual heavy-thinking kinds of posts I normally write to offer a brief glimpse into the entirely-human world of Therapists As Human Beings. (I know most of you cognitively understand that we’re humans, but it’s surprising, in a no-not-really-kinda-way, how often clients in particular expect us to have our shit together in particular ways. Since it’s not often that folks who deal with us professionally get the chance to peek behind the curtain and recognize the foibles that make us just like everyone else, if you’re someone who doesn’t WANT to know that your therapist is human, might I recommend you click THIS LINK instead.)
So, disclosure: I turned 50 in May. I am part of the generation that didn’t grow up with a lot of childhood conveniences we take for granted in this day and age. Sometimes when in our middle aged wisdom and experience we encounter something that a schoolkid takes for granted, we can feel somewhat crushed that we’re not managing the experience as well as someone a tiny fraction of our age.
In preparation for a camping event over the Labour Day weekend, I bought a case of juice boxes at Costco. I have almost never used juice boxes, but a case of small square servings of fruit-sugared liquids is an excellent thing to take camping when you normally run into liquids/convenience issues on primitive sites. In the course of loading out, the case never made it into the vehicle and was, perforce, awaiting my return. Ergo, I’ve been drinking my way through the case of juice boxes for the last week.
And lemme tell you, nothing levels an adult ego like realizing that your “brain the size of a planet” and five decades of developing hand-eye coordination and grad-school-honed intellect and three decades worth of professional problem solving… it’s all for naught when for a week straight your Facebook posts read, “Days Since Last Juice Box Incident: 0”. Even after being scolded and schooled by a seven year old this past weekend on “Juice Box Best Practices”, I have still managed at least once a day to forget how these lethal little liquid grenades work, somehow. Much of this week’s laundry is comprised of Fruit Punch Fatalities.
So what’s going on here?
It’s both everything and nothing, really. From a mindfulness perspective, it’s the observation that I am apparently not in my best moment when it comes to maybe 60% of my juice box encounters; when you don’t pay attention to corporeal, mechanical details, it’s easy to grasp a thing that doesn’t do well when grasped. It’s a humbling reminder of vulnerability and openness to our own internal narratives around who we are and what we believe we *SHOULD* be capable of. It’s easy to feel humiliation when admitting we can’t do something a child can do in their sleep (those of you trying to teach senior parents to program a PVR, use a computer, or manage a smartphone, have almost certainly seen that humiliation in action in your parents, for example). We don’t as a species generally like admitting our failures and weaknesses, and for certain professions, those human weaknesses when exposed feel like nails in the coffins of our professional presentations to our clientele.
I’m of the (potentially contentious) opinion that embracing humility, on the other hand, is a way of maintaining balance within our sense of authentic presence. Most of us understand there is a difference between humilation and humility, but don’t always have a clear understanding of the difference:
Definition of humiliate:
:to reduce (someone) to a lower position in one’s own eyes or others’ eyes :to make (someone) ashamed or embarrassed :mortify
Humiliation is a terribly painful and destructive emotional state. It ranks very high among the things that people are afraid of. It is an overwhelming experience of shame and being degraded, usually in the eyes of others. Sometimes a person can be intentionally humiliated by another, in a sadistic attack that is intended to strip away all dignity and self-esteem. — Michael Jolkovski
Humility, on the other hand, is a relief. When individuals are able to gracefully accept that there are limits to their power and importance, and to not collapse into despair, shame, or impotent rage, this is a developmental accomplishment. It marks the move from fantasy to reality, from omnipotence to competence. It is a gift at every stage of life ? when a 2-year-old can accept that they are not actually in charge of everything, or when an aged person accepts that they need to a depend on others in a way they haven?t before. There?s a key element of being at peace. Contrary to humiliation, humility gives a person their dignity and equilibrium back. — Michael Jolkovski
There is a great deal of ego wrapped up in our adult concepts of who we should be, how we should function, what we should be able to do. To have our ego confronted with persistent failures on simple challenges — if a seven year old can wield the juice box so effortlessly, why am *I* awash in apple juice accidents?? — is almost guaranteed to feel like we are lesser, touching on that degradation mentioned under “humiliation”; our incompetence is being judged by others, we feel, and judged harshly. It feels like hot burning shame; “I’m 50 friggin’ years old, I drive a car and work and pay taxes, WHY CAN I NOT OPEN A DAMNED JUICE BOX WITHOUT CATASTROPHIC FAILURE???”
(That may or may not be an actual quote.)
There is a choice we can make when we are awash in the struggle around what we feel we SHOULD be able to manage, and what we actually experience. We’re going to feel what we feel, and if it’s the hot wash of shame and humiliation that hits us first, then so be it. But when that tide recedes, we can choose how to respond to the experience: we can judge ourselves as we imagine others are judging us, and stay bogged down in the peach punch-stained hell of our own humiliation and misery, or… we can sit with a seven year old Subject Matter Expert who probably handles more juice boxes in a month than I will handle in the course of my lifetime, and be open to what this child can teach us. In my case, I was amazed that this child had significantly more patience with me than I had been having for myself. He showed me how to carefully lift the top corners of the juice box and how to hold it so that I had some firmity of grip without grasping the weaker sides and inadvertently squeezing. He showed me twice, once on my juice box, and again on one of his own.
For myself, I could choose to be embarrassed by the necessity of this educational curve ball, or I could hold myself open to the teachings in spite of feeling more than a little ashamed at its necessity. As the definitions above suggest, one of the chiefest tenets of humility is the relief in accepting that one HAS limitations, of letting go of the ego-wrapped expectations and SHOULDS bolstering my flawed self-definition. It’s okay to be embarrassed. But we can choose, to some extent, whether that embarrassment parlays into shame and humiliation, or into humility and vulnerable authenticity.
Being able to own and embrace my own failings is, for many therapists, the largest resource pool from which our working compassion for others comes from. Sometimes we forget that we’re also flawed, and I can guarantee every one of us has flaws we actively WORK TO FORGET, because hey, no-one ever ENJOYS confronting or exposing our secret shames. But sometimes sharing them allows for a bonding experience, an opportunity to let in others who have similar flaws and weaknesses. Sometimes we can exploit our own vulnerabilities for comedic value (this is my own usual modus operandi; Virginia Satir would likely say this is my irreverent/irrelevant stance coming into play, and she’s probably not wrong; I’m okay with allowing many of my flaws to be seen, but I will spin-doctor the hell out of the presentation to increase the chances of my audience joining me in that witnessing in gentler, more tolerable ways.) Being able to separate out humiliation from humility allows us more of an opportunity for reflection; humiliation and shame are reactive default stances that close us down without much recourse for active decision-making. Humility leaves us open and relaxed in our understanding of limitations, and hopefully open to opportunities to learn from those with something to teach us, regardless of our expectations. “See the world through a child’s eyes” is a cliche because it’s true; they see and experience things so much more differently than we do that it’s good to be reminded sometimes they can teach or re-teach us so much.
So I’m going home to do more laundry, and contemplate the remaining juice boxes as a lesson in humility. They are a good reminder, in their own inauspicious, ticking-time-bomb kind of way, that what we expect of ourselves can sometimes be subverted by the simplest of things, and we can either flagellate ourselves mercilessly with shame and humiliation for failing those expectations, or we can be open to the lessons they can teach us with embarrassment rather than shame, and humility rather than humiliation.
(BTW, the Peach Punch is my favourite. Because you needed to know that.)
Last week we ended with the most basic of relational repair questions: Do you trust that your partner is NOT in this relationship to hurt you?
Letting Them Out of the Doghouse: Choosing Trust
By the time we get to a relational crisis state, that can be a difficult question to answer honestly. Ultimately most people who make it as far as a therapist’s office ARE struggling to salvage something, so more often than not, we find that at least THIS basic trust is intact enough to let us move forward. I like to use David Richo’s definitions of trust when we get to this part of the conversation:
“Adult trust is based on the proven trustworthiness of the other. Our adult trust grows best in an atmosphere of continuity and consistency. […] Thus trust takes hold in a relationship when someone shows himself to be reliable. It ends when it turns out that he is not. It begins again if he changes for the better. It ends if he changes for the worse. Yearning for someone to trust absolutely is how we keep ourselves feeling unhappy. We are forgetting the first teaching of Buddhism, that all is ultimately unreliable, impermanent, and therefore unsatisfactory, and that we suffer when we cling to something with the illusory belief that such is not so. […] Adults know that trust cannot be based on expectations or projections. Nor can others be presumed to be trustworthy because we believe we are entitled to their loyalty or have merited it. The ego has to bow in total surrender to the ruthless record of of real instances of trustworthiness or betrayal.” – David Richo, Daring to Trust: Opening Ourselves to Real Love & Intimacy, pgs. 62-3
The act of choosing to trust – and it is an active, moment-to-moment, deliberate (if not always conscious) choice – is one we work hard to break down into smaller chunks, rather than stay stuck in a nonhelpful, binary, all-or-nothing definition. But by creating a list of all the places one partner DOES chose trust, there is a clearer base for clients to review their state and the general emotional faith in the relationship. It’s hard to build hope on nothing, but rooting faith in *existing* places of trust makes it much easier to rebalance the places that hurt, with the places that don’t. Many clients will report feeling more secure once they have someone reframe their struggles in terms of this faith, because it’s so easy to lose perspective under the slow onslaught of the little cuts, and they forget the places where the relationship still has strength and resiliency.
Doing the work of discovering the places where the relationship is still good does have the effect of throwing a harsher light by contrast on the places where it is NOT good. Gottman’s work on helping couples identify core issues underlying (or undermining) repeat arguments in particular helps provide language around resolvable versus unresolvable issues, and gives us a framework for separating out the symptomatic, repetitive fights that lead to that corrosive hurt and slow disconnection from deeper issues tied to core values and the expectations we form around them. We spend a LOT of time in the reconnection and repair stage of relationship work by looking at how those expectations are thwarted over time, assuming they were ever clearly articulated and consented to in the first place. And in longer-term relationships, those expectations themselves can change over time, though it’s been my observation that core values generally do not.
One of the key tools Gottman also introduces is shifting HOW these conversations happen. In his book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he describes the difference between the harsh startup and the soft startup. If we’re challenging our clients to stay present emotionally, to be vulnerable with each other in the heart of their emotional rawness, then it would be a REALLY COOL IDEA if we could help those conversations happen without the additional challenge of one or both partners charging out of the starting gates with all guns a-blazin’.
“In contrast, a harsh startup usually begins the cycle of the four horsemen, which leads to flooding [emotional overwhelm], and, in turn, to increased emotional distance and loneliness that lets the marriage wither. Only 40 percent of the time do couples divorce because they are having frequent, devastating fights. More often, marriages end because, to avoid constant skirmishes, [partners] distance themselves so much that their friendship and sense of connection are lost. […] Softening the startup is crucial to resolving conflicts because, my research finds, discussions invariably end on the same note as they begin. That’s why 96 percent of the time I can predict the fate of a conflict discussion in the first three minutes! If you start an argument harshly–meaning you attack your [partner] verbally — you’ll end up with at least as much tension as you begin.” – John Gottman, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, pgs. 160-1
Bennett Wong & Jock McKeen recognize that one partner may have better emotional expression than the other, and recognize how disappointed expectations that the “unemotional” partner may often feel unsafe in a relationship once the more emotional partner’s expectations have reached levels of disappointment that become damaging. We have to restore relational safety in the sense of equipping both partners with an understanding that in spite of the current state of things, hurting each other is not the overarching intent. They are also big on developing explicit understandings of each other’s expectations, and while they don’t use the concept of explicit consent the way I do, that’s exactly what they are talking around:
“[P]eople learn to trust their own evaluations of others. If someone else wants to trust you, you should ask for a definition; if you are being trusted to do something you don’t want to do, don’t agree to it. Many problems in relationship could be averted if couples did not [blindly, binarily] trust each other but, rather, clarified their expectations of each other.
In place of [blind, binary] trust, couples can clarify their expectations of one another, define their boundaries and bottom lines, and enunciate the consequences that would result from breaking any of the agreements. …[E]ach person must be prepared to exercise the consequences of broken promises and generally accept any accompanying pain without blame.” – Wong & McKeen, pg. 111
Wong & McKeen’s version of trust is a little harder to swallow when understood in full (the advantage of editorializing excerpts is being able to cherry-pick my content and leave the more challenging parts out for now), but it’s a nice description of shifting the focus from opting for a default all-or-nothing trust in favour of a more nuanced set of understandings and consent boundaries. That gives us much more to work with, within the framework of making deliberate choices around WHAT do we trust our partners to do, and rebuilding faith on the basis of those agreements.
Rebuilding trust that our partners are not here to hurt us is a whole lot easier when we’re not, in fact, feeling hurt as a result of our highly-charged engagements. The truth, however, is that most of us have to be in active crisis before we recognize there’s even a problem, let alone think about doing the work to change anything that’s feeling out of sync or broken outright. David Richo writes, “The breakdown of trust in a relationship is a much more hurtful moment than the breakup of a relationship” (Richo, pg 122), making trust the central pillar in a restoration of loving intimacy. Gottman’s work is just one set of tools we use for that exploration; at a future point, I’ll also look at how Sue Johnson’s emotionally-focused approach can also strengthen existing attributes of faith as a tool for reacquainting partners with their own vulnerable intimacy.
We acknowledge at every step of the change process that it’s going to seem easier to quit and start fresh with someone than it is to re-establish secure vulnerability in an already-eroded relationship. The “starting over” process doesn’t guarantee we won’t make the same mistakes again, but the perceived lower risk of being hurt by someone we already believe will hurt us is recognized as an attractive trade off. So as therapists, we also acknowledge the unspoken aspects of desire and commitment (and, yes, stubbornness) that keeps a couple engaged in the attempt to connect and repair in spite of the fear of further pain. And in doing so, we reinforce some encouraging modelling for the partners, because if WE can see it from out here in the cheap seats, we can likely help our clients see it from deep in the muck on the inside.
Well, okay then… last week’s post on “Unmaking Love” apparently hit a nerve, resulting in some of the highest traffic we’ve seen since I started posting content regularly. I guess if I’ve depressed people by charting the slow erosion process that’s evident in many clients seeking counselling for relational issues, I should maybe turn things around and offer something positive for those who are ready to embrace the work of change. [Note: this wound up being an exceptionally LONG post, even by my wordy standards, so I’m posting it in two parts. Part 2 will autopost next week at the usual time.]
So the question: how do we remake love? What repairs intimacy damaged by slow detachments and myriad tiny, unintended hurts?
The good news is, yes, it *IS* possible to correct that slow “death by a thousand cuts.” It’s not easy, because it means recovering vulnerability and emotional rawness that we buried BECAUSE it had become too much to bear on a day-to-day basis. But with commitment and willingness to be brave from all parties involved (including the therapist), then yes, we can certainly encourage and support things shifting back towards connection. The big question becomes… HOW?
The Roles of Hope and Faith in Remaking Love
My second question (after the very provocative, “marriage counselling, or marriage cancelling” inquiry of last week) is generally along the lines of exploring whether the client(s) are approaching the change process in the spirit of hope or faith, because there can be a huge difference in engagement levels when we look closely at the difference between those two states (this is a great introduction to the lexicon-building process, BTW).
Bennet Wong and Jock McKeen, Canadian therapists and authors of “The Relationship Garden”, distinguish terminology this way:
“Hope and faith are different. Whereas faith is self-affirming and acceptance of life as it is, hope involves a dissatisfaction with self and present circumstance, and is dependent upon external events or people to provide change. People hope that life will be different, or better, or fuller; their hoping involves a lack of acceptance and a thrust toward change. In the Romance phase, hope is a common underlying theme. Dissatisfied with their basic insecurities, people commonly hope that a newfound partner will solve their problems, and that life will become better.
Hope involves a basic lack of acceptance of self and other. Indeed, in the Romance stage, awareness of the self and other are so clouded by the romantic dreams and projections that people have insufficient information to actually accept anyone or anything with any validity.
Disappointment is the other face of hope; like hope, disappointment is based in a discontentment with the present. The Romance phase is generally destined for disappointment, because the things people are trying to change probably will not alter at all; once they emerge from the swoon of Romance, they are once again faced with their basic insecurities, and their hoping flips into disappointment.” – Bennet Wong & Jock McKeen, The Relationship Garden, p. 61.
“To be in a state of hope interferes with intimacy. Hope anticipates a better circumstance in the future; hence it is rooted in a dissatisfaction and non-acceptance of the present situation. In relationships, to hope for something different is to fail to contend with the situation as it is. By contrast, faith has a profound acceptance of how things are. In faith, people acknowledge and accept themselves and their partners, and are open to interchange.
When a relationship reaches an impasse, as it frequently does, people who rely on hope will focus on the future when things will be different. Too often, such people become passive and helpless, tending to freeze action while waiting for a favourable turn of events On the other hand, when people in relationship have faith, they stay present to address themselves to the issues at hand with the assumption that they can make some positive adjustments; they know that no matter what happens, they have confidence in their abilities to handle all difficulties.” – pg. 113
It has been my experience that many clients manage to have some combination of the two, but by the time they get to someone like me, they’re likely more in the HOPE stage than the FAITH stage. Terry Real doesn’t see hope as an intrinsically problematic state:
“I have a name for this,” I tell [clients], “this dropping into the old wounds then having the capacity for difference, for healing. It’s called hope.” – Terry Real, How Can I Get Through to You, pg. 180
I prefer making the distinction between the two states; from a therapeutic position, it offers me a way to gauge whether or not a fixation on a desired future-state is acting as a motivator or as a passivity-inducing deterrent the way Jock & McKeen describe. Having both present can be a helpful thing, so long as the future fixation does NOT manifest as a lack of involvement or investment in the present moment. Therefore the first stage of the work involves, as Terry Real says, bringing the relationship members back into connection by getting them to “sit in the fire of their discomforts”, as Pema Chodron says, and actually HEAR each other’s pain. Terry Real calls this the process of learning to hold on:
“If the healthy rhythm of relationship is one of harmony, disharmony, and repair, if disillusionment is a kind of relational purgatory leading back to resolution, even transformation, most of the couples that contact me have not found the means to push all the way through. Devoid of the skills necessary to hold on, incapable of connection in the face of disconnection, instead of the healing phase of repair, these couples deteriorate. […] Couples who don’t make it through disillusionment tend to get snared by one or all of three phases of intimacy’s erosion–control, retaliation, and resignation.” – Real, pg.186
How we get to an even partially-restored connection depends entirely on the participants’ own tolerance for both the change process, and the painful things they will have to sit with while in it. Once we open the door to the accumulated detritus of a painful connection, we have to work on clearing line noise for a cleaner signal in communications. This is, on a broad scale, what John Gottman calls a repair attempt. While this can reintroduce power struggles within the relationship as each partner potentially struggles to be right more than repaired, we open the door to more effective connection bids and develop more clearly understood and articulated expectations. We aim to develop compassionate understandings around what happens when connection succeeds AND fails. This exchange has happened in my own office more times than I can count:
Me: Would you rather be right in this moment, or be repaired and connected?
Client: Why can’t I be both?
Me: You can be, just not while you’re entrenched behind your righteous NEED to be right and lobbing grenades over the wall at the enemy. When are you going to let your partner out of the doghouse, and trust they’re here in the shit WITH you?
There are a LOT of different ways to do this reparative work. Emotionally-focused therapy is a great tool for getting past the noise to the signal of core needs being flagged for attention. Working to subdue and eliminate Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling (emotional shut-down/detachment) – makes it easier to stay present for difficult conversations. But on a more fundamental level, in order to stay present we have to work on redeveloping Trust (along with a shared understanding of what that word means in all its nuanced glory to every person in the room). We start with the most basic of questions: Do you trust that your partner is NOT in this relationship to hurt you?
To see what we do with that question, stay tuned for part 2, coming next week.