Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

There’s an old cliché about people being divided into two types of listeners: those who listen for comprehension, and those who are only drawing breath waiting for their turn to talk again. It’s a truism in relational therapy that when we’re activated by stressful situations, a lot of us take a naturally defensive posture, in the sense of leaping to the defence of our position. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, there’s no defence like a good offence, as the saying goes. It’s not uncommon that people who feel trapped or attacked come out of their corners verbally swinging: jumping on the conversation and interrupting or speaking breathlessly into the barest of breaks after someone else is done talking, taking the ball back and making things immediately about themselves and their experiences or opinions.

Watching this dynamic unfold in conflicted relational communications is a significant portion of what relationship therapists do. We’re looking for places where the power struggle between the participants starts to escalate, where the knives come out, where the retreats and feints occur. And we’re listening for the Four Horsemen so we can divert the worst of the attacks into antidotes. There are many different ways we therapists cleverly divert the energy of those attacks into something that starts to de-escalate the tension. Sometimes it starts with simply calling out the incongruity of attacking someone we claim to love and choose with commitment; if the stated desire is to build love, trust, commitment, then why choose actions that hurt, divide, alienate? What happens when the participants make an effort to choose a different way of engaging?

Enter the principles of active listening and non-violent communication (NVC), something that ties in hard with the practice of emotionally-focused therapy (EFT).

NVC’s describes its core practice of listening as “receiving empathically”:

“Instead of offering empathy, we tend instead to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position and feeling. Empathy, on the other hand, requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message. We give the others the time and space they need to express themselves fully and to feel understood. There is a Buddhist saying that aptly describes this ability: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” ” – Marshall Rosenberg, “Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life,” PuddleDancer Press, Encinitas CA, 2003

Active listening, using verbal and non-verbal common reflection tactics creates empathic presence between the parties. One of the simpler ways to do this in the therapy room is to re-orient the clients towards each other. The more intense the topic and potential for conflict, the more likely it is that clients will speak to each other through the neutral third party of the therapist: looking at or facing toward the therapist, speaking to the therapist rather than directly to the partner. We are a point of de-escalation because we are assumed to be neutrally receptive, sympathetic. But *WE* want clients to be practicing these tactics directly with each other. Sometimes this means we have to teach clients how to slow down their own reactive escalation and actually read each other WITHOUT INTERPRETING, or at least without jumping to assumptive and unvalidated conclusions based on the interpretations we all generally make anyway. We can use some reflection to start, by asking each client, in turn, to tell me how they see their partner’s physical presence and encouraging each to explicitly validate their external perceptions with the partner.

EFT folds this empathetic reception into a different style of exchange between partners, following these steps:

  1. reflecting back what the speaker has shared, not as a verbatim report but rather more of a “Here’s what I’m hearing”
  2. validation (sometimes clarified by the therapist until the process clarifies for the clients)
  3. exploration of the speaker’s experience in the form of a Q&A (“evocative responding”)
  4. highlighting, or heightening, the interactions that seem more poignant or significant in the partners’ exchange (for example, reflecting through Gottman’s lens the various points of disengagement or repair attempts)
  5. infering the client’s experience, enabling or assisting the speaker to “extend and clarify that experience so that new meaning can naturally emerge” (Sue Johnson, “The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, 2nd ed.” Brunner Routledge, NY 2004)
  6. therapist self-disclose (if relevant/appropriate)
  7. restructuring or reframing the clients’ interactions based on developing understanding and compassion

The hard part for many clients in interactive crisis is that yielding the defensive battlements feels untenable. Yielding often leaves someone in crisis feeling lost, overpowered, undermined, unheard, at risk, unsafe. For many, the lashing out or refusal to hear each other’s pain is the result of an unconscious, “you hurt me so I want you to know how it feels, asshole,” knee-jerk reaction. Or there might be a shame reaction to recognizing (and not wanting to face the responsibility for) hurt we have caused, so we double-down on defensive entrenchment and find ways to avoid taking ownership for actions with painful consequences for others. By the time we get into that kind of dynamic, however, these patterns are often so deeply entrenched that restoring good faith between partners is work that has to happen before we can re-orient clients toward each other. We can deploy some short-term, strengths-based work here to re-establish some fundamentals of goodwill between the partners, getting them back into recognizing their good things between them. We need that platform brought back into focus if we’re going to have something stable on which to build a sustainable change process in the midst of ongoing crisis.

Yielding defensive stances requires rebuilding, and sometimes developing for the first time, trust; it also requires the tools to self-regulate emotional upheaval, to clarify what needs to be said and to accurately receive and respond to that information. We take each portion of this process as a one-step-at-a-time process until everyone gets a little more of a solid footing on the change processes. We acknowledge and build on baby-step successes, and we try to not let setbacks make mountains out of molehills; old habits do die hard, after all, and for many, these are habits and internal processes that can be VERY deeply rooted (like, Family of Origin deep in some cases…)

But if the clients are in the room because they both intrinsically WANT to work things out, then we use their willingness to tolerate the uncertainty as a springboard towards hope, we reconnect them with the strengths inherent in themselves and their relationship, then we begin to rebuild their relationship house with different tools. Slow but rewarding processes based in genuine empathy and compassion for each other get us the best long-term results, which graduate our couples back OUT of therapy!

Communication, Language, Relationships

[I know. I KNOW. I have been trying to complete and publish something for *MONTHS* and failing. Depression is finally inching its way up and out at least. That’s been the lion’s share of the challenge, paired with ongoing health issues, and just trying to balance all of this with both work AND a spectacular kind of renaissance in my personal life. Now if cancer would just stop robbing me of people I love, that would be just dandy, thanks…]

Noting recurring themes in therapy is often what drives the content for these posts, and lately there has been a couple of big thematic topics cropping up. One of them is observing clients of all genders in relational conversations using something I’ve come to label the “Universal We”. Women in particular are raised in a social context that programs us to consider others more than we consider ourselves; our traditional roles as nurturers and care-givers primes us for this behaviour even when it doesn’t come with the traditional baggage of being homemakers and staty-at-home parents to the sacrificial detriment of our own dreams and desires.

Women have been conditioned for I-don’t-even-know-how-long to employ “softened language”, which takes myriad forms even in modern discussions. We preface our own ideas with, “I think,” “What do you think about,” “I believe,” or “How do you feel about.” For women to be as direct and upfront in what they want, need, intend, or desire, is to be seen as aggressive, even masculine. In corporate culture, forthright women on one hand were seen as being more likely to be noticed for potential recognition and promotion, and on the otherhand reviled for not being soft and collaborative enough. Men in the corporate world don’t generally get punished for being direct; women, on the other hand, get labelled as “bossy” or “bitchy” when they start sentences with, “I want” or “I need”.

This plays out in intimate and familial relational dynamics in very interesting ways as well. When couples in particular come in with “working on our communications” as the presenting issue, these patterns are among the first I start listening for. I also listen for the presence of “We-isms”, those intentionally-inclusive pronouns that carry a weighty IMPLICIT expectation.

When people use the “Universal We,” something very specific is happening in default social programming. The speaker is offering an implicity unity-of-purpose between the parties involved. “We need to set some ground rules around Little Jamie’s bed-time schedule,” “we should make plans for the summer vacation week,” “we really need to sit down and talk about last night’s argument” — these are all examples of ways in which the speaker is putting an implied invitation to discussion in front of a partner. The problem, however, is the that suggestion following the “we” language, *IS*, in fact, a universally-agreed-upon thing (value, intention, plan, whatever).

In truth, however, what’s generally underneath such language is a core need or want on the speaker’s part, either something the speaker wants for themselves, or something the speaker wants to request specifically of the listener. “I want to set some ground rules with you…,” “Do you have time right now to make some plans for summer vacation?,” “I really need to sit down and talk with you about what happened last night.” Such direct statements and explicit invitations are challenging in a culture that has indoctrinated us with the belief that women are meant to be soft and enticing where appropriate, yielding where required. Being direct feels like we are being threatening, and many women fear what happens when they put themselves and their own desires right up front in the clear to been unequivocably seen. To be explicit is to court rejection, and that’s untenable. So we interject the implied “we” in the belief that the softer inclusive language will magically provoke our partners into correctly interpreting our request as something that involves their active participation.

Unfortunately, what I see happening in relational (and often familial) dynamics more often than not, is the speaker is trying to enlist the partner into something that might represent a shift in their usual dynamics, either by engaging in a more collaborative practice than usual, or wanting the *partner* to take on responsibility, for something that has likely traditionally fallen on the speaker to do. And what I see play out is the listener translating the universal “we” as a status quo expectation; they may hear the “we” but the implicit received message is, “Oh, [Speaker] will take care of this; they always do”. So while Speaker says “we” meaning collaborative unity or the You-the-Partner, the listener is translating the vocabulary as we-means-Speaker-because-it-has-always-been-that-way. By the time such couples get to me, the one who most commonly brings up the universal we is frustrated beyond belief by their partner’s perceived lack of engagement, while the receiving partner is baffled by having never received an explicit request or suggestion aimed specifically at THEM personally.

The clarity of communication around needs, want, and related expectations can, and frequently does, get utterly lost in something as simply as pronoun usage. Softened language is endemic in all kinds of relational dynamics, and is a line of contention in corporate dynamics. John Gottman uses the principle of the “soft startup” as a way of easing into potentially challenging topics with a partner, and while this idea has definite value (especially as a practitioner of non-violent communications), it remains problematic from a feminist and feminine agency perspective if it encourages the practice of misdirecting the intensity or urgency of the needs we’re trying to address. Years ago, a very good friend of mine encountered something similar in her partner dynamics that became a clear illustration of the problems inherent in gender-biased communication dynamics. In the course of preparing dinner for her husband and child, she realized she was out of some critical ingredient, so she asked her partner, “Do you want to tgo to the store for [X]?” To which her partner quite truthfully responded, “No.”

My friend, like many of us, was raised in a culture of the “soft ask”, another deflective tool that undermines the clarity of our communications by implying or infering rather than being a clear and explicit statement or request of our own need. Instead of saying, “I need [X], could you please go to the store for me?”, the implicit ask tries to get the listener onside with making our need their need or want, so of COURSE they’ll want to go to the store.

Yeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaah… except when that runs afoul of someone who does NOT want to go to the store. Or sit down and debrief the most recent argument. Or make time to plan the summer vacation. Or whatever the implicit ask is trying to get them onside with.

And yet women in particular do this to ourselves ALL THE TIME. As a therapist, I’m only starting to catch *myself* when I use universal we-isms with my clients. It’s actually extremely problematic for therapists and any professional in a power dynamic with their clients, because while there are some potential points in which we share experiences, perspectives, feelings with our clients, the universal we isn’t always a great tool for joining them in a therapeutic alliance. I suspect most of us do it to normalize the client’s experience somehow, but I’m also aware that the disproportionate majority of therapists are WOMEN, so now I’m completely suspicious of how WE (delibate usage there) are applying that pronoun.

So what do I do with this once I observe its persistent presence in the room?

First of all, I call attention to it, and explore the speaker’s awareness of the pattern. We then clarify the intentions behind the usage. More often than not, it’s an intent to put a request for something the speaker wants or needs directly onto the listener. Sometimes the speaker is aware of a fear of provoking conflict or rejection, but more often than not it’s simply a learned pattern (as with my friend, this was just the way women in her family in particular had always operated, and to some extent the same pattern was reinforced in her corporate experiences as well). Then we work on deliberately correcting occurences of the pattern in therapeutic conversations, encouraging a movement from the universal we to the “clarified I”. (This is another application of the principle moving from an external locus of control to an internal one, but that one may take a whole ‘nuther post to explain.) We observe the new pattern in the field for a while and see what shifts in partner engagement and/or expectations, and we can adjust the communications around intent and expectation from there.

The dynamic of how we present our ideas and needs in relationship is obscured by strong traditions around these heavily-gendered models, and for many women and non-binary folks, there is an implied safety in assuming we can onside our supporters with inclusive language and implicit, invitational expressions. but we also have to balance out the likelihood of the implied communications going awry on the receiver’s end for reasons we may not be able to see or work around without challenging the receiver’s internal filters, an act that can seem too close to provocation, aggression, threat of conflict and rejection.

Sometimes the neutral third party of the therapist is a key component in shifting dynamics for partners afraid of taking up space in relationships, and sometimes really all we as allies need to do is hold up the observational mirror of to the behaviours and reflect what we’re seeing for clarification purposes. After that, we can unravel and reknit the intentions into something far clearer, stronger (without being aggressive), and more directly engaging.

Communication, Relationships, self-perception

There’s an old warhorse of a trope that I first encountered in the poly communities that, thanks to various (sub)cultural overlaps, rears its head in certain monogamous circles these days as well. You may have heard it; it goes something like this: “All your relationship problems will be solved if you just COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE!”

Yeah… no, not really.

I mean, as a relationship therapist it’s kind of my job to work with people who come in and say, “I/we want to improve our communications within our relationship,” and it’s work that’s both rewarding and fulfilling, generally (on both sides of the therapy process, even). So it’s not that improving communication DOESN’T solve problems, because improving the articulation and reception process CAN change things significantly.

The epiphany I had a while ago, as I was trying to articulate any one of the many reasons I have come to hate this particular trope (other than its oversimplification of how *easy* it implies communication SHOULD be), is this:

We can only ever be as good at communication in general, as our ability to recognize and understand what it is we’re trying to communicate.

Let me illustrate this with an example from my own life, because this epiphany pretty much encapsulates a big part of the communications failure on my part of my marriage’s collapse.

We can only communicate what we know. If we can communicate that much effectively, that’s great; that can be a LOT of useful information to give and receive and integrate into personal and relational understandings. But when things continue to bamboozle us or upset status quo AND WE DON’T KNOW WHY, then there’s a limit to how much information we can communicate about what’s going on. In my case, I knew I was thrashing emotionally, but I couldn’t say why. I could talk about a lot of things–for all the relationship’s natural flaws, one thing we did well was “talk about our feeeeeeeelings”. But the things I couldn’t talk about were the things even I couldn’t see and therefore didn’t understand… and they were the things I was, unfortunately, highly reactive to in the final stages of the collapse. I didn’t know then what I know now, for example, about attachment theory (especially in the area of early attachment injury) or common issues around being an adult child of alcoholics, let alone the intersectionality between those two topics. I didn’t know then what I know now about self-regulation of anxiety through meditation practices as simple as mindful breathing and body scans. I didn’t know then what I know now about entering into communication attempts with statements of intent for the conversation (or at least, I/we weren’t practicing that consistently).

The point is, there is always so much more TO know that we simply can’t communicate, because we can’t see it (yet). It’s not uncommon to get one or more members of a relationship in the counselling room and have someone own the fact that one or the other is not prone to a lot of self-observation or self-reflection. And therein lies a massive part of the problem. If you’re not looking inward, then what, exactly, do you know about yourself *TO* communicate to a partner? And this doesn’t even begin to cover what happens when someone who is self-observant and self-reflective but far too wrapped up in anxiety to share those thoughts and observations effectively with a partner. Another issue that contributed to capsizing my marriage was an issue from my partner who struggled to disclose information at times.

So:

  1. Just because stuff is happening in our internal landscape, doesn’t mean we’re observing it.
  2. Even if we’re observing it, it doesn’t mean we’re reflecting on it as a way of trying to better understand ourselves and what’s happening inside us.
  3. And even if we’re reflecting on it, we might not feel safe or secure in disclosing those observations and reflections.
  4. And even if we do feel safe and secure in making those vulnerable disclosures, it doesn’t always mean we have the SKILLS to effectively engage in conversation about them.

When clients come into therapy, they’re usually assuming we start with that final point: working on the communications SKILLS to articulate something important about their experiences to a partner. But when the communications skills don’t always fix the problems as presented on intake, the same clients often come back frustrated with the process, with each other, with the therapist. And that’s when we have to start working backwards through the rest of the list to discern whether the things we’re talking about are actually the things needing to be discussed.

Sometimes therapists can observe places where words and nonverbal information seem incongruous, but honestly, the onus needs to be on the clients themselves to up their game when it comes to internal work. And this can be a difficult challenge for a variety of reasons, starting as simply as, “I don’t know how”. Since we can only communicate what we know, this gives us two avenues to start: What do I know about myself because of what I can *observe* about myself, and what do I know about myself because of what I interpret or believe or tell myself? Neither avenue ever presents a full story, because people are generally more complicated than that, especially in times of distress or crisis. However, we can approach both observable behaviours, and the interpretable aspects (motivations, beliefs, scripts, etc.) with an open-minded, non-judgmental curiosity: where does that behaviour or thought come from? What do we feel like it motivates us to do? What feelings or additional thoughts do we observe being associated with, or triggered by, the catalyst? Do we recognize it as being a component of larger patterns? Can we separate out the catalyst thought or action from what we feel are default reactions, to see other potential available options?

An analogy borrowed from the realm of astronomy comes in handy here: there’s a lot of stuff out in the depths of space that we can’t actually *see*. So from an “observable phenomenon” perspective, we can’t actually look at a thing and know it for what it is. But what we CAN observe, is the impact the invisible thing has on objects we CAN see; for example, something exerting a significant gravitic force on bodies in a solar system will cause the orbiting bodies of that system to shift in their transit paths. We may not be able to see what’s causing the shift, but we’ll certainly notice when one or more celestial bodies make relatively sudden, incongruous shifts in their expected movements. In cognitive psychology terms: we may not be able to see what’s causing a reactive behaviour, but the fact that we can see and experience the behaviour will strongly suggest there is something invisible provoking it.

This is where, when luxury of time permits, we can delve deeper into the emotional experience of the moment: does it feel like anything else we remember experiencing? How do we feel now about those earlier experiences, and are we seeing any similarities in our current situation, both in terms of the perceived triggers, and in the perceived reactions? What can we share about those observations? There’s potentially a lot of cognitive and emotional processing that comes as part of the package when learning to develop the self-observation and self-reflection skills; observation means learning to see what’s happening in and to us, and reflection means finding ways to think about/assess/analyze the experience and sort it into something meaningful to us. And we have to do all of that work, ideally, BEFORE we even get to the point of trying to articulate that information to someone living OUTSIDE our own heads.

So far, we’re still just looking at figuring out how to handle the self observation/self-reflection part. We haven’t even begun to tackle the aspect of learning HOW we communicate: how do we know *TO* communicate? How do we decide WHAT to say, how much do we selectively self-edit (and at what cost)? How well do any of us articulate our thoughts and feelings at best of times, never mind at the worst? Do we make effort to effectively shape the INTENT of any communication process we engage?

This sounds like a tremendous amount of work, doesn’t it?

It certainly can be. After the marriage ended, I spent six months intensely, and other year a little less intensely, digging as deeply as I could get on my own and with my own therapist, into what we uncovered about where some of the invisible baggage I was dragging around came from. That was a hugely painful time of confronting a lot of moments of, “How the hell did I not know this about myself??” or “Why the hell couldn’t I have figured this part out BEFORE everything went sideways??” And I watch my clients struggle, time and again, with the same frustrations. The discovered information is never wasted, but it doesn’t always come to light in time to reverse course, either; and when partners, even armed with new perspectives and understanding about themselves, can’t summon enough energy or belief in things being different to mount a new development plan for the relationship, it can be hard to avoid wondering, why bother?

It’s this complexity that fuels my growing dislike of the “communicate, communicate, communicate” adage. It strikes me as a dangerously reductionist approach to something that is anything but simple for many people, creating an almost caricature-like presentation that leaves some people feeling like failures because “we talk and talk and talk, but nothing gets any better”. Communication as an intimate process has to be effective in and of itself, absolutely; but beyond that, we have to do the work to effectively understand WHAT needs to be communicated. So the next time the phrase crops up (especially if you move in circles where it’s bound to crop up eventually, possibly repeatedly), consider this as a response:

Communicate! = Do we know WHAT to communicate?
Communicate! = Do we know HOW to communicate?
Communicate! = Do we know WHY we communicate? (the *INTENT* or expected outcome)

It’s not just about the talking. It’s as much about saying the useful and needful things, and it’s about how we shape those communications, as it is about simply making the effort to talk in the first place.

Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

“Irene and Bill reversed the usual roles. In my clinical practice over the years about one out of every four couples presents with the woman as the flagrant offender and the man in the subservient position. When I claim that women in our culture tend to be raised with more relational skill than men, I do not mean to gloss over the nuance and and variation between different couples, nor to whitewash women’s immaturity. There is no shortage of abrasive women in our society. In marriages like Billy and Irene’s the dynamic of contempt remains essentially unchanged, while the [genders] of the actors reverse. The women in such pairs ride the one-up position, often railing against the same “feminine” qualities in their mates that are despised by culture at large. Their husbands are “too weak,” “too nice,” “can’t stand up for themselves”. And the men in these couples tend to manage and enable, just like traditional wives.” — Terry Real, How Can I Get Through to You? pg. 192

Hello. My name is Karen. I’m a Twenty-five Percenter.

Normally being part of a smaller, elite group is associated with privilege and luxury, but in this case, it’s more like a tar pit of pain and shame. Nothing new, but yesterday I was reading Terry Real’s writing on “Love’s Assassin’s” (a chapter in the book cited above) and it reminded me, and reclarified, a number of truly damaging behavioural patterns that have cost me relationships on more than one occasion, including my marriage. I spent a LOT of time and therapy in the aftermath of that particular failure trying to suss out what I had been failing to grasp before the final death knells. We were very good at communicating, but in truth we’re only as good at communicating as we are at KNOWING what we’re trying to communicate. And when we can’t peel the onion down far enough to get to raw core things, we’re not exactly going to be great at communicating what needs to be known about those deeply-intimate parts of ourselves. If we can’t see that deeply, we can’t really expect others to see for us… and yet, that very expectation lies at the heart of a relational craving for true intimacy. The closer we come to being truly seen, however, the more our anti-vulnerability defense system, honed over a lifetime’s worth of real and perceived hurts, kicks up. The more intimate we grow in our relationships, and the closer our partners get to seeing our core vulnerabilities, the more terrified we become of what those Others might actually see. The deepest things we hide and fear… how can they bear to witness those deep secrets and ever still possibly LOVE us??

“Men and women who sustain real love do not find themselves blissfully devoid of their old issues. They find themselves, just like the unfortunate ones, thrown back into wounds they’d rather not face. But, unlike the unfortunate ones, they face them. Same drama, different outcome. I call this last possibility repair. If the promise phase [of relationship] offered love without knowledge, and disillusionment brings us knowledge without love, repair offers the possibility of knowing love, mature love, the conjunction of truth and affection. Seeing, and feeling acutely, our partner’s flaws and limitations, we nonetheless choose not to withdraw from them We succeed in navigating the vagaries of harmony, disharmony, and restoration–the essential rhythm of relationship” –pg. 180

“…if disillusionment is a kind of relational purgatory leading back to resolution, even transformation, most of the couples that contact me have not found a way to push all the way through. Devoid of the skills necessary to hold on, incapable of disconnection in the face of disconnection, instead of the healing phase of repair, these couples deteriorate. If relational recovery is medicine, such stalled intimacy, the inability to push through disillusionment to repair, is the disease. […] Couples who don’t make it through disillusionment tend to get snared by one or all three of phases of intimacy’s erosion — control, retaliation, and resignation.” — pg 186

“Revenge [retaliation] is really a perverse form of communication, a twisted attempt at repair. We want to ‘make the person feel’ what they made us feel. Why? Though we rarely admit it, it is so they might understand. So that they might ‘get’ what they’ve done and feel remorse. Unaccountability evokes punitive impulses in most of us. We want to bring the shameless one to [their] knees, see [them] humbled. But we also want [them] to open [their] heart, so that there might be some resolution. The punch line of most revenge fantasies comes when the hurtful one falls to the floor sobbing and begs for forgiveness.
Don’t hold your breath.” — pg. 189

Real describes how most couples in healthier states of operation will move between harmony, disharmony, and repair in both short- and long-term cycles, from the course of a dinner together up through the entire life cycle of the relationship. Likewise, couples stuck in disillusionment will often shift between control, retaliation, and resignation, though long-term resignation, viewed as a disengaged, apathetic stance, is often a veritable death-knell for a relationship; certain a bell tolling for the passing of any opportunity for real intimacy.

Retaliation in particular is an insidious thing. The twistedness that Real describes in his writing comes (as I have experienced it, and witnessed it repeatedly in my own clients) from a craving for connected communion, that conjoined place in which the Other COMPLETELY UNDERSTANDS what I have experienced: all my pain and rage and grief and whatever else comes along in the mix. I want the Other to KNOW without any doubt on the same bone-deep level as I do, the impact of what has transpired. And since we can’t re-enact for the Other an entire lifetime of development that lead to my experiencing and interpreting the situation the way that I did, the shorthand version is to retaliate in some way, to deliver unto the Other some kind of hurt that will force the Other feel what a reasonable approximation of what I felt. Children practice retaliation almost unconsciously; adults often have social and behavioural overrides but in times of deep strain will revert to that kind of instinctive lashing out. Over time, and often relating to the “slow death by a thousand cuts” effect, it becomes the default pattern. It’s almost like a knee-jerk reaction, you-hurt-me-I-kick-out-at-you, but there is a point, however swift and unconscious, at which we have to make a choice about how we will respond to a trigger. The deeper the emotional impact, the more likely we will be overwhelmed and less conscious of responses, so the more likely we’ll attack first and think later… if at all.

Yes, it’s an entirely counter-productive reaction, if what we really crave as humans is connection and contact. That’s why Real’s description as being the “twisted” form of connection makes sense. We really do want someone to understand what we feel, but we go about it in all the wrong ways, and create more pain and division than the closeness we think we want, but fear.

John Gottman writes, “The goal of repair is to understand what went wrong, and how to make your next conversation more constructive.” The difficulty with managing repair in a disillusionment state is that one or both partners are often no longer willing to hear connection attempts. It becomes less about risking intimacy, and more about making sure the offender understands the offended’s perspective in excruciating detail. It becomes the effort of forcing one partner to acknowledge and take responsibility for whatever sin has been presumed; in essence, for the partner entrenched in the hurt and wrongdoing, who is lashing out, the relationship has BECOME the problem. At this point, it’s very difficult to escape the cycle.

The role of the therapist in this kind of presenting cycle, once we can identify it, starts with a little more refereeing than many of us like, but all of us who work with couples especially sometimes find necessary. I have a “Ground Zero” rule in my office: I will not tolerate open contempt between partners. Argue, sure; but when things proceed to active disrespect and contempt in front of me, I draw a line and stop the fight. On a bad day, sometimes someone walks out. On a good day, though, we get to have discussions like this:

me: When this relationship started, did either of you get into it to be unhappy?
Client 1: No, of course not.
me: Did either of you get into it believing the other person’s intention was to do you harm?
Client 2: No. Never.
me: Do either of you believe right now that the other person INTENDS to do you harm?
Client 2: No, but he just does the—
me: No, let’s just sit with this ONE thought for a moment, just this. Think about it. “My partner does not INTEND me harm.” Repeat that for me, please, both of you.
Clients: [reluctant mumbling]
me: How does it feel to hear those words in your own mouths and ears?
Client 2: Hard to believe.
me: What does it suggest is possible, then, if we start from the idea that the INTENT is NOT harm?
Clients: [crickets chirp… but at least the argument does not resume]

Moving a conflicted client or couple from retaliative confrontational mode to uncomfortable silence is the easy part. It’s a relational equivalent of the Christmas Armistice of 1914, a temporary cessation of hostility along defined battle lines. But we have to start somewhere, and sometimes even the simple act of reminding clients that there are moments of stillness like this available to them, is a gift in itself. From there, the repair attempt in the smaller sense is the act of turning to each other and saying, “I don’t know how the hell to fix this, but I know I want to try, because I still want to be connected with you.” In the bigger-picture sense, the work is less about unravelling the specifics of why the fights start; if we get stuck at the symptomatic level, we’ll never get to address the vulnerable cores we’re protecting through hostility and aggressive defenses. I don’t know who Gloria stole it from all those years ago, but I distinctly remember when she told me, as her client, “The things we’re fighting about are almost never the things we’re fighting about”, and this is especially true of recurring argument topics. So sometimes the therapist’s job is to throw the symptom-level diversions out the window and push clients out of their comfort zones, into those spaces where we catch glimpses of those vulnerable cores: What *IS* the emotional cost faced when confronting the idea that one’s partner doesn’t value what we value? Where do we get stuck in the loop of, “not valuing my VALUES = not valuing ME”?

Gottman also raises a good point, when it comes to shaping clients’ expectations about how repair attempts work:

“What our marriage has taught us is that the simple act of making repair attempts isn’t enough. Knowing your spouse by understanding their needs, especially in the context of conflict, will help you devise ways to more effectively de-escalate an argument.

Know how your partner receives love
Maybe your spouse responds well to gifts, and so during a cool-down period after a fight you go buy her a flower or her favorite coffee drink from Starbucks. Maybe your spouse craves affirmation, and so during a fight you seek to reassure him how much you love him, even when you’re angry about something he did.

Knowing how your partner receives love and what they need to repair from conflict is like having a secret weapon tailored just to them and their happiness.

Of course, simply making a good repair attempt doesn’t ensure success. It’s also incumbent upon the other spouse to recognize and accept the attempt. And if only one person in a marriage is habitually making the effort to resolve the conflict, the imbalance may take its toll over time. Both spouses need to do the work toward dissolving negativity and, when possible, resolving conflict.”

To step outside the retaliation efforts, where being angry and aggressive at least makes us feel strong (even at the cost of creating a nonconsensual one-up dynamic), especially when we recognize we may have to do it repeatedly before our partner trusts us enough to receive the repair attempt in good faith, is damnably difficult. If your native attachment style is one of insecurity (as mine was), it’s bordering on inconceivable.

But not unfixable. That’s the best news.

It does mean letting go of entrenched stances of the Offender and Offended, or the Blamer and Placator (to use Virginia Satir’s stances; in the dance of intimacy, though, not everyone’s a placator. By the time a relationship hits the disillusionment stage and is on a collision course for resignation, odds are good at least one party has simply “yielded the field” in disconnected apathy.) It means coming back to the table in good faith in an attempt to hear the desire for connection as being stronger than the desire to retaliate. It means being open to the risk ON BOTH SIDES of being hurt, but developing some new, or at least different, patterns of resiliency. We need to work on changing the default scripts from “You don’t value/love/respect/listen to me” on the part of the Offended, to “This is not the worst thing in the world, and it doesn’t mean what I want to tell myself it means”. And it means teaching the partner on the receiving end of the retaliation, different ways of responding that put some safer boundaries around managing the emotional energy (their own, and deflecting the retaliator’s anger more effectively back to where it belongs) in the confrontation.

How to allow for intimacy and connection while also allowing space for anger, hurt, and frustration in the moment, is incredibly challenging work. It’s work many of us were at best poorly-equipped to deal with as families, schools, workplaces, and intimate partners all, directly or indirectly, led us to a culture-wide message that “anger is inappropriate”. So we lash out in other ways, nasty manipulations and emotional attacks meant to give voice to something we don’t know how to express more effectively, or to tolerate effectively when we face it. But it is a CHOICE, in the moment, whether we respond with retaliation or with repair. Both will cost us, I can’t lie about that fact. But only one choice remains congruent with any belief that we do not get into intimate relationships with the INTENT to cause each other harm.

And the work of restoring balance, of moving back towards intimacy, starts with making a choice in support of that congruence. If partners cannot make that choice, then I will be the first person to observe that such a relationship will never thrive, and perhaps not survive.

It’s a choice. It’s that deceptively simple. And that painfully difficult. And, from my own experience, that devastatingly costly when we make the wrong choice. If anyone wonders where my near-infinite compassion for working with couples struggling in this same stuck place comes from, that’s pretty much it, in a nutshell.

Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

[This is the continuance of last week’s post, available here.]

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.

Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

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.

Communication, Language, Relationships

Some communities I support live and die by the tenet that all problems can be resolved if you just, “communicate, communicate, communicate!” But I can tell in no uncertain terms, rooted in both professional and personal experience, that we can talk among ourselves until the cows come home, but it’s less about simply communicating, and entirely about communicating *effectively*, that makes or breaks successful information management within intimate relationships. And the number one culprit I have witnessed time and again is the fact that partners assume they know what each other means when using certain words… and when those assumptions prove faulty and come back to bite our arses, things get messy in a hurry. We all use the same *words*, but what we lack is a shared lexicon of understanding what those words mean to our partners. Trust me when I say that even the most subtle of differences in interpretations can have the biggest of impacts on relationship stability.

When partners in particular come in together, one of the most common things I (and probably other relationship therapists) hear is, “We want to work on/improve our communication”. There are entire cases of relationship and self-help books in any bookstore, pages and pages of recommendations on Amazon, and probably numerous books in every therapist’s office on this subject. I prefer to start with a simple question, though admittedly I’m surprised (even after seven years in private practice) by how often it catches people off-guard:

“What do you mean by, ‘communicate’?”

As soon as I get a blank stare from even one of them, I know we’re in trouble.

Partners often assume in therapy they will work out their problems, but it’s kind of hard to even figure out what the problem might be when we’re not using the same words in the same ways to identify the perceived issues Clients will use words like, “communication”, “trust”, “intimacy”, and even “love” (and when we get into the poly and kink communities, we even have to add “sex” to the list), and assume that as long as they are using the same word, that they must be on the same page meaning-wise. One or two questions further into the conversation, it becomes painfully apparent when they’re not even in the same ballpark. Personally, I like to be subtle and ask sneaky questions like, “So, when YOU use that word, what does it mean to YOU?” of each partner. Once in a while I hit the jackpot and they are in agreement, at least until/unless we encounter incongruencies in actions that suggest there’s a deeper point at which interpretations stray.

You keep using that word.

Words like those listed above, I refer to as “umbrella terms”, words that can encompass a mind-boggling array of definitions. Our default personal interpretations are often based in an intricate combination of early models and personal experiences, so there is absolutely NO WAY to guarantee that your partner’s informing biases are going to be 100% identical to your own, no matter how similarly you view the rest of the world. And yet, we assume, to our detriment, that anyone we’re going to love and connect our lives with, will be Just Like Us… until we learn they are NOT.

In many relationship styles, I have to start with conversations like this:

Client 1: We’re having intimacy issues.
Me: How are you defining intimacy? Are we talking about sex here, or emotional vulnerability, or something else?
Client 2 (awkwardly): Sex.
Me: Okay, so let’s label “sex” as “sex”, just to be very clear from the outset what we’re talking about here.

Or:
Client 1: We’re having intimacy issues.
Me: How are you defining intimacy? Are we talking about sex here, or emotional vulnerability, or something else?
Client 2 (angrily): We never talk to each other.
Me: Never at all? Or never about certain topics? Or never in certain desired ways?
Client 1: Oh, we talk all the time, we just never resolve anything, so we’re always angry or silent.
Me: So, what we’re discussing here sounds like an unclear set of expectations and processes around resolutions, that might be getting in the way of feeling emotionally closer to each other?
Client 2: No, it’s not that; I feel emotionally close most of the time; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be so angry and hurt. But every time I try to get him to tell me how he’s feeling, he just yells about feeling nagged and how he’s doing all of these things I don’t seem to appreciate, then he shuts down.
Me: So you chase him to talk to you about feelings, and it seems like he retreats from you somehow?
Clients: We don’t really know. / I guess so.

Both of these experiences are being filed under “intimacy” in the partners’ starting lexicon, but based on how they are describing “intimacy issues” (and this is in no way an unusual or rare conversation in my office, though the variations are numerous), it’s apparent that they both expect “intimacy” to be part of the relationship equation but don’t have the same definition of what that entails, and the definition is usually more clearly defined in their minds by the problems that occur when “intimacy” isn’t working like they expect it should.

In the poly/swinger and kink communities, it’s surprising (in a no-not-really kind of way) how often we find partners running aground on different definitions of “sex”. In a monogamous culture, intimacy and sex are often inextricably intertwined, usually until someone like a therapist questions whether there’s a difference between physical intimacy (sex) and emotional intimacy, and if sex with other people is strictly forbidden by monogamous relationship boundaries, is *emotional* vulnerability with others likewise verboten? But in communities where sexual interactions with others are permissible, we often find ourselves having to have the discussion around, “How are you defining sex?” For some, that means any kind of genital contact in either direction, for others it’s limited to specific actions (like standard genital intercourse or masturbation). I’ve had clients trying to define sex by the intent to orgasm, which leads to such lexiconically-important questions like, “So, if orgasm doesn’t occur, is it still defined as ‘sex’?”

As you might imagine, getting into word-level definitions can get us all down a rabbit-hole very quickly. So as the therapist in the room, it’s my job to make sure we focus on two things: (a) deterring partner judgment about each other’s default definitions, and (b) only pursuing them to understand where the expectations tied to each respective, differing definition is leading the relationship into tension. For therapists who use narrative approaches to relational challenges (including individual identity within a relational system, be it intimate partnership, family, or collegial systems), language is a KEY factor to understanding the client’s perspective. I also have an added layer of interest in words stemming from being a writer all my life, including professionally in high tech for the better part of twenty-five years. I’m keenly aware that words have power, so terminology we use in our private spheres sheds a great deal of insight on the values that inform the expectations tied to our language use. But when many of us can’t get past, “we’re using the same words, so why are we still arguing about [X]?”, it sometimes requires some outside perspective and guidance to help us peel past the sense that for all the communicating we do in relationship, we sometimes feel like we just don’t get anywhere, or at least nowhere good.

This is why a relationship’s success is often less about, “communicate, communicate, communicate!”, and more about understanding WHAT we’re saying to each other when we do have conversations on important topics. The words we use are important, not just as a marker against which to measure actions for congruent intentions, but in and of themselves when they contain markers to what lies underneath the words. I often tell my clients that words are important, but the real meat of most matters is buried under the words, and that’s what we have to dig for. We can’t simply take for granted that my word means the same as your word, when your experiences are going to shape a different set of values and expectations than mine probably did, and we need to consider and respect those differences… even when we can’t see them initially, just the disturbance caused when we run aground on them.

Communication, Relationships, Uncategorized

One good thing about being a therapist with one foot in traditional monogamous culture, and one in the poly community (and one in the BDSM community+) is that I have an opportunity to bring some interesting perspectives from one culture to another. Often these are concepts that we’d think *SHOULD* be obvious across the entire relationship spectrum, but you’d be amazed at how often this isn’t the case at all. One of the biggest places where I am persistently surprised by the lack of awareness is understanding the importance of consent within relationships. We are increasing societal awareness around consent and sex as we battle back against rape culture and certain types of gendered entitlement or toxic behaviours, and the poly and BDSM communities claim themselves to be positively steeped in consent awareness. I often discover that even within seemingly healthy relationships, however, the idea of “consent” — what it means, what it looks like, how it functions in monogamous relationships — is something that has eluded a lot of conscious consideration until someone directly brings it into focus (like, say, a therapist).

For example, some couples come into counselling with issues around dealing with a partner’s “negativity”, citing how one partner comes home from work every day and just immediately begins to unload a laundry list of all the unpleasantness of the day on the other partner, who may or may not be in a place themselves to receive that unloaded crap, and who may or may not know how to block or deflect it. My first question to couples outlining that kind of behavioural pattern is almost invariably to the unloading partner: “Do you have your partner’s consent to unload on them like that?”

Almost as invariably, what I get in response is a blank look, and the tentative question, “What do you mean, do I have their *consent*?”

“I mean, do you have their permission to dump all of your bad day on them? Have they consented to receive that load of toxic goo on their heads? Have you checked in to see if they’re ready and willing to receive? Or are you just making an assumption, or worse, just dumping without even considering whether or not they’re ready and willing to receive?”

Unwanted interactions are unwanted interactions, whether we’re talking about sharing negativity or emotional overwhelm, or sexual pressure, or even just assumptions. While some degree of these will always be unavoidable in relationship, there is a point at which we need to step back and check in with our partners about our interactions. Often we build up a tolerance to irritations over time, but sometimes relationships end abruptly (and often as a surprise to at least one partner) because we lose tolerance for the slow “death by a thousand cuts” of our unaddressed frustrations and distresses. A lot of these strains are the result of behaviours that push past our boundaries, behaviours we have not consented to receive, but we don’t know how to stop.

Maybe we don’t know how to stop them because we just don’t know how to say no to intimate partners. Maybe we don’t know how simply because we’ve never had someone model healthy boundary defense to us. Or maybe we just assume that putting up with the annoying shit our partners do (and yes, this really does often go both ways) is simply an implicit expectation of being in relationship; we feel that it’s our job as an intimate partner to tolerate or allow unwelcome behaviours to persist. This is implicit consent, when we don’t explicitly say, “Yes, this I expressly permit”, but rather we simply say nothing against unwanted actions. This is the root of the cliche, “Silence equals consent” – implicit consent and assumptions that silence implies consent are a surprising part of apparently-healthy, “normal” monogamous relationship dynamics. It’s also, perhaps unsurprisingly, still a heavily gender-biased dynamic in which women yield against presumptive behaviour more commonly than men, as least in terms of the perspective gained from couples coming into counselling. Out in the real world, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s maybe more balanced than that. But in therapy, we’re still fighting the feminist battle of teaching women how to say “no”, how to stand up for their own limits, and how to feel safe in enacting or withdrawing consent in their relationships as an active process. Boundary violations, and implicit consent violations in specific, are some of the major contributors to sick systemsn relationships.

I do believe consent works best as an active process, rather than a one-and-done, binary state where the assumption is either “all consent for everything is granted” or “no consent for anything is granted” (I may have written about trust in that sense; if not, I’ll add it to the floating list of “future blog topics”). But we don’t tend to think consciously of consent at all in the grander workings of a relationship, let’s break down some of the simple places where consent becomes a key factor in our interactions:

Do I have my partner’s consent to engage in affectionate physical contact or sexual interaction whenever *I* want? How do I know that belief/assumption to be true? Have I checked in with that belief/assumption lately?
Do I assume that belief/assumption to be constantly applicable? How will I determine if there are times when perhaps consent has been withdrawn?

Do I have my partner’s consent to engage in verbal offloads about topics that are of intense interest to me but perhaps not to them? How do I know that belief/assumption to be true? Have I checked in with that belief/assumption lately?
Do I assume that belief/assumption to be constantly applicable? How will I determine if there are times when perhaps consent has been withdrawn?

Do I have my partner’s consent to assume a particular distribution of emotional labour (or any kind of labour, really)? How do I know that belief/assumption to be true? Have I checked in with that belief/assumption lately?
Do I assume that belief/assumption to be constantly applicable? How will I determine if there are times when perhaps consent has been withdrawn?

These are just three common areas where consent and assumptions about permission tend to get couples into trouble. We often come into relationship with assumptions about how relationships will work, and when we’re lucky, we find partners who assumptions more or less jive with our own. We don’t always think to check in explicitly bout what’s allowed and under what circumstance, and what is not; or if we do, we might do it conscientiously at the outset of new relationships, when NRE opens all horizons to exploration, but once we settle into relational routine, we frequently forget to go back and actively monitor those initial agreements and the assumptions we build atop them. (Confession time: I’m as guilty of that as the next person; it’s one reason why I keep my own therapist on retainer… and speed dial.)

So when couples come into the office looking at improving their communications, some of the primary foundational pieces we have to look at are the implicit assumptions about consent, and how those boundaries are expressed initially and defended thereafter. Are they even articulated at all? As consent boundaries, are they deliberately presented as permeable or impermeable? Perhaps more importantly, in practice are the consent boundaries viewed and respected by both partners as permeable or impermeable? Trust me when I say, it’s a terribly common issue for one partner to say, “This is a hard limit, NONE SHALL PASS!”, but in practice, under pressure (implicit or explicit) from the other partner allows that boundary to erode, shift, and become permeable to the point of relative non-existence. A lot of resentment that builds between over time partners can often be traced to places where these kinds of consent boundaries have been compromised somehow.

So, how do we learn to recognize consent boundaries in monogamous relationships, and how do we learn to defend them once we recognize they’re even a thing? That’s where a relationship therapist can come in handy, especially one who will blog about these aspects in coming weeks 🙂 Stay tuned!


+ — I know, that makes it sound like I’m a three-legged therapist, which I am most decidedly not; I just dance like one.

Article links, Communication

There is a kind of truism that floats around periodically:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Often when couples come to counselling with “lack of intimacy” issues, or “improving communications” goals, one of the places we might look first is at how relationship partners fight. Frequently we discover that the process by which they argue is one in which they (consciously or unconsciously) shut each other down, attack and retreat, defend entrenched positions for the purpose of being “right” or “victorious” rather than closely bonded, vulnerable, or intimate. Unfortunately, these arguments styles are only reinforcing patterns of disengagement and emotional pain, making it increasingly difficult to “come back from the brink” the longer these fighting styles continue.

There are a lot of reasons why people get stuck in these entrenchments, and often figuring out why is a big part of couples counselling; therapists will often do the background digging while also introducing new tactics and changed processes into how a couple might deal with conflicts. Changing behaviours without necessarily understanding how they twisted or broke in the first place can sometimes result in at best a bandaid solution: we can address what’s bleeding today, but the wounds festering under the surface will continue to eat away at the sense of connection if we’re not careful.

The fear of being wrong, the fear of not being heard, the perceived risks inherent in being vulnerable enough to even be open to an opponent’s perspective, let alone admitting they might be valid—these are all feelings that get in the way of changing how we engage during relational arguments. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to sit on top of one’s own emotional rollercoaster and explore understanding someone else’s perceptions and perspectives, especially in a heated moment. To figure out how to best approach being open and vulnerable when we’re feeling attacked is a core principle in Emotionally-focused Therapy (EFT), but its roots lie in the kinds of intentional interviewing approaches developed first as ancient requirements of philosophical debate and ideological critiquing.

Daniel Dennett provides an excellent summary of the four principles of engaging well in moments of debate and criticism, engagement rules that also apply very well to changing relationship argument styles:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

When we spend our time “listening to reply” rather than “listening to understand”, we close ourselves off to the other person in the exchange. We’re too busy formulating our response, marshalling our own defenses, readying our own attacks. We’re probably operating from a place of emotional reactivity rather than the FAR more difficult place of receptivity. After all, who *LIKES* to be criticised, especialled in intimate relationships? So when we feel like we’re being attacked (critiqued), it’s natural for many of us to go on the defensive while preparing to return fire… and at that point, most of us aren’t in a place where we feel like being open and vulnerable is really a Good Idea.

But learning to reframe and return the things we listen for, while difficult, yes, is hugely worthwhile in terms of allowing each participant in the argument to feel heard and understood, even validated. We don’t have to agree, necessarily, with the perspective being offered, but in order to change how we fight (and improve communications overall) we do have to allow that ours is not the only perspective on the board, nor is it going to signal the end of the world if the other perspective is valid, or even (dare we say it?) right. Changing how we listen to allow for inclusion of other people and perspectives is a big part of making improvements that move us back towards healthy intimacy.

Activism, Communication, Language

Maybe it’s because I have always been a writer, but *language* is hugely important to me, and tied very closely to what I listen for when hearing people’s stories, exploring their narratives. How people use certain words can indicate something with significant value to them, while to others the same word might not mean anything remotely so weighty. More and more, I am becoming aware of the language implanted in our communications that indicates not just our personal values, but the implicit nuances of our cultural values as well.

For example, if you want a very simply-illustratable lesson on how deeply embedded sexism is in our culture, try listening for and, if you use such terms yourself, eradicating slang and insulting language based on any of the following: male genitalia, female genitalia, hygiene products for either, sexual acts (queer, het, other; especially terms meant to convey degrees of implied shaming). The not so subtle dismissal of another human being as something reduced to constituent parts, implicitly ridiculed or associated with heavily-judged-as-shameful acts, is a cultural practice that keeps us from seeing each other as whole selves.

When someone utters a statement like, “Bob’s such a dick,” what is the speaker saying about Bob? What is the implication of the speaker’s value for male genitalia in general, if they are being compared unfavourably with a certain person’s behaviours? Does the speaker feel that way about male genitalia they may know, or even possess? One of the harshest words I know to describe a human being has always been to call another a “cunt”—which raises the question, when did female genitalia become such a deliberately harsh label? We all come out of one, probably half the population harbours urge or desire to get back into one… yet it is such a derogatory term that many people, women especially, cringe on hearing it? And into the 21st century, why do such terms still persist?

We don’t all have to march in large crowds to make a difference; sometimes the most profound changes start with the unconscious language that comes out of our brains and mouths. If we consciously refrain from using such language, we don’t implicitly condone it in others. If we actively challenge its usage in others, we are committing a political act: drawing a line, defining a boundary. “This is not acceptable.” Clean our own houses first, perhaps, before (or even while) we agitate for others to clean theirs.