Life Transitions, Relationships, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And seriously: remember to breathe.

Emotional Intelligence, Life Transitions, Self-care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community, Life Transitions, Self-Development, Uncategorized

A colleague of mine and I were reflecting recently on our respective middle-aged women clients who are grappling simultaneously with perimenopause, empty-nesting impacts on their intimate partnered relationships, job issues and the looming shadows of the second halves of their lives. Laurie commented that she was noticing women clients using this stage of their lives as a period of discernment. I figured I understood what she meant from the context of the discussion, but at the same time, “discenment” is more than just simple decision-making, so, being the Word Nerd that I am, it behooved me to both look at the word itself, and reconsider what I thought I was understanding about its deployment in the context of the discussion.

Turns out, there’s a lot more nuance to the word than my internal working definition of “a more in-depth analytical process underlying decision making”.

Discern, the verb:
1a: to detect with the eyes
b: to detect with senses other than vision
2: to recognize or identify as separate and distinct
3: to come to know or recognize mentally

Discernment, the noun:
1: the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure
2: an act of perceiving or discerning something

Google definition of dis·cern·ment
1. the ability to judge well. “an astonishing lack of discernment”
2. (in Christian contexts) perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding. “without providing for a time of healing and discernment, there will be no hope of living through this present moment without a shattering of our common life”

There are several aspects of these definitions that fascinate me in the context of applying the word to a midlife assessment process, especially such as I witness in women around me:

  • recognizing or identifying as separate and distinct
  • developing an ability to grasp and comprehend what is obscure
  • developing non-judgmental perspective with a view to obtaining direction and understanding (spiritual or otherwise)

The classic midlife crisis, as previously discussed, is most commonly seen as a catastrophic adjustment in relational and personal understanding. It’s a time when big changes occur, sometimes as knee-jerk reactions, and sometimes as calculated preaption responses. A friend of mine in a local service organization, told me recently that the single largest group of new members most service clubs take in annually are men in their 40s-50s. Service clubs report this being a confluence of factors, many of them tied to traditional masculine definition through actions, things men *DO*:

  • kids are older and more self-sufficient, or leaving/left home
  • more disposable time
  • more expendable income
  • a need to have “extracurricular activities” that look good padding out resumes for “C-Suite”-level executive or Board of Directors positions
  • a need to have something in place that will provide direction in terms of social and activity purposes after retirement (especially for candidates for early retirement)

Women, while they will also seek service club memberships for many of the same reasons at similar life stages, apparently don’t pursue these clubs in anything like the same numbers as men. The women to whom I’m exposed (personally and professionally) seem to see middle age as an opportunity or provocation for increasing self-reflection. It’s like we come of age and use our midlife point as the trigger to redefine what we know about who we are, why we are, what our lives mean to us as our bodies change out from under us in uncomfortable, unpleasant ways. Shifting from our “fertile years” into menopause means confronting a shift in our definition from Mother to… Crone, at a time when many of us still perceive ourselves as far from Old.

There has been a cultural shift as the Baby Boomers have aged into retirement that everything that happens from midlife on isn’t necessarily the death knell it once seemed to be. Retiring even at 65 means a significant stretch of life ahead of us, and 55 even more. Retiring men fret about what to do with their days, and as their boredom begins to blossom, they are frequently underfoot on the home front, or trying to assert some presence/input/control in the home sphere… and the women who have traditionally been the homesphere managers and controllers are increasingly finding they’ve Just Had Enough. These women are more commonly saying, “I just got done taking care of my kids, I’m damned well not going to take care of HIM now, too!”, but the process of watching their partners move from purposeful to less-purposeful lives is raising a lot of questions for themselves, too.

As I cooked dinner the other night, I thought about the women I had been talking to. They’re just entering, slogging through or just leaving their 40s. They belong to Generation X, born roughly during the baby bust, from 1965 to 1984, the Title IX babies who were the first women in their families to go to college. Or go away to college. Or to live on their own, launch a career, marry in their late 20s (or never) or choose to stay home with their children. They’re a Latina executive in California, a white stay-at-home mom in Virginia who grows her own organic vegetables, an African-American writer in Texas, an Indian-American corporate vice president who grew up in the suburbs of New York, and dozens more. They’re smart. They’re grateful for what they have. They’re also exhausted. Some of them are terrified. A few of them are wondering what the point is.

I called my best friend, a reporter a few years older than me who grew up in the Midwest. She has three children and lives on a quiet, leafy street in Washington, D.C., with her boyfriend. They recently adopted a dog.
“Hey,” I said, happy to have caught her on a break from her job, “do you know anyone having a midlife crisis I could talk to?”

The phone was silent for a second.

Finally, she said, “I’m trying to think of any woman I know who’s not.”
Ada Calhoun, “The New Midlife Crisis: Why (and How) It’s Hitting Gen X Women”

Somewhere between the perimenopausal PHYSICAL transition and the retirement SOCIAL transitions, women are increasingly grappling with the destabilization, undermining, chaotic shifts in their identities. Middle-aged women suddenly find themselves social “invisible” in an extremely ageist culture. Menopause robs us of our identity as fertile creatures, menstruation being the one thing that sets us so far apart from men as to create unsurpassable gulfs in cross-gender comprehension; even those of us who never had or wanted children feels the shift as a curse we’ve been contending with since we were 12 or 13 first becomes wildly unpredictable, then disappears altogether. Most of us rejoice that absence, but the meaning, the impact of a self-descriptive, narrative level, is a different issue entirely. But it’s happening to women at a time when, on some societal levels, we’re just “coming into our own power” in our careers, at least in industries that allow equal advancement for all genders. Many of my friends experiencing perimenopause as they move up corporate ladders or across fields into other companies (or, in my case, across to another complete field) spin terrible, or terribly funny, tales of hot flashes and sweats or bouts of incontinence in meetings and interviews, or the disruptions of their personal AND professional relationships from hormonally-driven mood swings. We may be delighted to get past the symptomology, but things can often be as complicated afterwards when we’re left alone with the questions, “Well then… who *AM* I now?”

The discernment phase, then, is sparked by a multitude of shifts in a woman’s life. Men ask, “What do I *DO*?”; women ask, “What do I *MEAN*?” (…which is not to say they won’t also get to a point of also asking, “What do I do?”, but it’s not the typical starting point in a discernment process, rather more the outcome state as a result of the reflection).

Coming back to the three points that interested me, midlife individuation and differentiation mean a new opportunity for women to reconsider who they are inside or outside the family or group structures of their lives. They may find themselves examining their roles or functions within the relational partnership now that childcare is not the relationship’s primary focus. They may discover a lack of direction in their professional lives once their internal sense of meaning and purpose, especially if they are encountering any kind of glass ceiling effect in their chosen industry. What does it mean to be a “good employee” if any advancement path is limited by the very fact of their gender? What does it mean to be a woman in a world where these invisible boundaries and implicit expectations (from employers, colleagues, clients, families, and intimate partners alike) dictate what we’re PERMITTED to be? And what does it mean to be a woman “of a certain age” trying to function in a professional context when society in general is trying to render us invisible?

The discernment phase is one in which we as therapists see a lot of women “waking up” to a predicament of emptiness. The need to fill that emptiness is often what drives us into relationship in the first place, but over time, the relationship itself can become dissatisfying, disillusioned, disconnected. One of the questions either partner will often pose at this stage is, “Is it worth the work to effect repair and reconnection?” Men in therapy will often lament not understanding what it is their disconnected partner wants them to do; if they only know what to *DO*, they could do it, and everything will be all right. Women, however… it’s not about the doing, it’s about the hearing. Being effectively validated by a partner *MEANS* something significant to them; it tells them something about both their own value to the partner, and about the partner’s willingness to show that value, in ways that are substantially different than “If you tell me to just help out around the house more, that will make everything better, right?”

Wrong.

Ask a person in this stage of life, what is meaningful to them, and it might be an interesting experience to observe their reactions as they try to figure out what YOU mean, then try to figure out their answer. Ask a woman in the discernment phase, what is meaningful to her, and odds are good you may be the first person to have ever invited her to consider such esotericism. “My marriage, my kids.” Maybe, “My work.” Okay, so if we take away the ROLES of “Mom, Wife, Employee”, what’s left? Who is the person at the core of those roles, and what is meaningful to her? Marriages change into parallel lives rather than twined intimacy, kids grow up and (hopefully) move out, jobs may be less than satisfying. What, then, is left as our meaning in all of the space leftover?

Michael White‘s narrative therapy includes a process called a “definitional ceremony” that becomes useful, if not downright significant, to the community of women waking themselves up into this lengthy space and time of their lives, wondering what it’s all supposed to mean:

“These ceremonies are rituals that acknowledge and ‘regrade’ people’s lives in contrast to many rituals in contemporary culture that judge and degrade people’s lives. In many of these degrading rituals, people’s lives are measured against socially constructed norms, and they are judged to be inadequate, incompetent, disordered, and often a failure in terms of their identities. Definitional ceremonies provide people with the option of telling or performing the stories of their lives before an audience of carefully chosen outsider witnesses. […] It is not the place of outsider witnesses to form opinions, give advice, make declarations, or introduce moral stories or homilies. Rather, outsider witnesses engage one another in conversations about the expressions of the telling they were drawn to, about the images these expressions evoked, about the personal experiences that resonated with these expressions, and about their sense of how their lives have been touched by the expressions.
In these outsider witness retellings, what people give value to in their acts of living is re-presented in ways that are powerfully resonant and highly acknowledging. Additionally, it is through these retellings that people experience their lives as joined around shared and precious themes in ways that significantly thicken the counterplots of their existence.” — Michael White, Maps of Narrative Practice

White is addressing a particular psychotherapeutic practice, but this use of the outsider witnesses also speaks very strongly to the phenomenon many women in this discernment phase pursue in the course of developing their own “tribe” or social connections. Midlife transitions provide their own definitional rituals, even if most of them seem, from a broader cultural perspective, informal, unconscious, or covert. Often starting from looking for socio-emotional connection and forms of support not accessible through family or employment connections, this deliberate tribal development is a part of how women moving through conscious discernment begin to reshape their environment. These outsider witnesses become sounding boards, reflective surfaces and sanity checks. These tribes speak to helping develop that third point, the non-judgmental perspective; women moving into discernment don’t always have answers for self-defining questions, so their tribes become the safe spaces in which they work out their clarified values and direction. Sometimes the outsider witnesses include professional therapeutic support as well, and those in the discernment stage look to uncover what has possibly been obscured in their lives by “putting pieces together” from such diverse resources in new ways. In the office I visualize this as spilling a bag of children’s letter blocks onto a table, and moving the pieces around until we spell something that resonates with the client. Women in discernment stages are likewise seeking something, some kind of meaning or purpose that that resonates.

Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of the Applied Positive Psychology movement, suggests that meaning is a fundamental element of well-being, and that it is not strictly subjective in its value (Seligman, 2011). Likewise, he also suggests that “positive relationships” are also a critical component of well-being, so it becomes very unsurprising that when women — anyone, really — feel they are in an unsatisfying or unsupportive relationship, they seek to establish both positive relationships and meaning (subjective or objective) as a way of resetting themselves for the next stages of their lives. It’s no coincidence that the highest-growing age group experiencing divorce, then, is the 50+ age group.

Women in this discernment process are uncovering themselves: values and needs and dreams that have quite possibly been buried by relational expectations for their entire lives (family of origin, their own family units, social/cultural expectations and messaging, etc.). Chogyam Trungpa writes often about “awakening the sanity we are born with“, describing how we strip away these layers of messages and imposed values to uncover our authentic selves. Women have, in many ways, been doing this work in a less-well-documented way for generations; sometimes we’re privileged enough to be able to break free entirely from the obscuring structures imposed on us; sometimes we find effective ways of achieving discernment, redefinition, and renewed headings in personal development, within the context of our existing valued relationships. Sometimes we’re not free to make that scope of change, but we can think about who and how we are within those relationships in new ways, and perhaps shift how we chose to relate and operate inside those potentially-inescapable contexts. In doing so, potentially for the first times in conscious memory they are invited to see themselves as distinct entities from the systems in which they are members (implicitly or explicitly). And in seeing themselves as something both part-of-yet-distinct-from, there is also an invitation to consider HOW we operate within those systems: what is meaningful to each of US?

With women living longer, there is a lot more to life from “middle age” onward than historically women have been granted. It would be nice if we had better tools to prepare ourselves to enjoy that “second half” in spite of the physical and relational changes that normal life process force on us, but historically, we’re not well-armed. Discernment therefore remains a largely individualized, somewhat-haphazard phase without clear processes and direction. But more and more women in middle age, both peri- and post-menopause, are beginning conversations that render us less invisible to *each other*, at least. And in doing so, in finding more of these communities and relationships with other women in the same boat, we find meaning in the shared experiences, those aspects of our stories that resonate.

We are not alone. And that’s the biggest joy in this entire transitional phase. We are NOT alone.

Life Transitions, Relationships

I had started the year with the self-directed research project of studying male depression and toxic masculinity, a seemingly-increasingly-timely subject for our times, between what we witnessed with the rise of a shifting attitude towards rape culture and gendered power dynamics (that may have started within the gaming community to some extent, but has spilled the river banks, as it were, into more mainstream conversations), the political circus south of the border and all of the gendered power struggles that surfaced there, and now we see systemic hatred and “Us versus Them”-isms reaching levels of violence we haven’t seen in a generation and a half as entire groups of people start to find their voices and push back against systemic intolerances both subtle and overt.

This plays out on the microcosmic scale in the therapy office with clients coming in to give voice to their own experiences, often for the first times in their lives. Recently I have been privileged to sit with a number of people who have been struggling to get out from under patterns of behaviour that, over the course of a lifetime, have led to what a friend of mine refers to as “complicity in their own subjugation”. Some of these clients are men, and it’s been refreshing to see them recognize their own patterns, relating them to traditional masculinity binds they been resisting (consciously or unconsciously) most of their lives, and struggling to *be* better partners.

On the other side of that equation are the women, trying to find their voices in a world that has left both men and women increasingly unsure of the roles they’re “supposed” to play once we start to strip out some of the traditionally-gendered underpinnings and expectations… but without replacing them with clear new guidelines. Terry Real, in “How Can I Get Through to you: Closing the Intimacy Gap between Men and Women”, writes:

Since Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking research, the idea that girls approaching adolescence “lose their voice,” that they learn to back away from conflict and swallow the truth, has become virtually a cultural axiom. But it takes factoring male development back into the analysis, understanding the patriarchal cultural influences on both sexes, before it occurs to us to ask the next critical question: When girls are inducted into womanhood, what is it exactly that they have to say that must be silenced? What is the truth that women carry that cannot be spoken? The answer is simple and chilling. Girls, women–and also young boys–all share this in common: none may speak the truth about men.

[…] What is the open secret that everyone around the man sees but from which he himself must be protected? It is the dance of contempt itself,
the dynamics of patriarchy as they play out, unacknowledged, inside the man’s skin.

–pg. 90-91

Real goes on to describe what I am seeing time and time again play out with my own clients as they struggle to establish some sense of autonomous self and rediscover their own voices, bubbling up through the mud of years or decades of complicit unhappiness.

Pia [Mellody] observed that there wasn’t one form of childhood abuse, but rather two. What Pia called “disempowering abuse” is the one we can all readily identify. It is made of of transactions that shame a child, hurt him, physically or psychologically, make him feel unwanted, helpless, unworthy. What Pia has called “false empowerment,” by contrast, is comprised of transactions that pump up a child’s grandiosity, or at the least, that do not actively hold it in check. Pia’s genius was in understanding that falsely empowering a child is also a form of abuse. Failure to supply appropriate guidance and limits does a grave disservice to a child, and represents a serious breach in parental responsibility. The combination of these two kinds of abuse lie at the core of the conspiracy about men.

–pg. 93


Anna and Mirriam* are two clients I have met recently, both women in their late 60s or early 70s, who are on the brink of leaving their respective marriages. Their stories are remarkably similar, and in them I hear not only echoes of my mother’s experience, but residual resonances with my own process of trying to sort out who I was/am supposed to be in relationship with men. Both women have been married for 40ish years, raised families, sacrificed many of their own dreams to raise children and support their husbands’ careers over their own aspirations. Like my mother, they’re of a generation that was taught rigid, gendered expectations about the roles we play. Both Anna and Mirriam are meeting with me because they are deeply, profoundly unhappy in their marriages. They both feel like they’ve “tried everything” over the years to get their husbands to change, or to try to find their own space within the limited confines of those gendered roles. As one might expect, the reality of retirement as it throws married couples back into each other’s space on a 24/7 basis after years of a careful balance between one sphere of control being external to “home”, and the other being the home and family sphere itself, is excruciating.

These women, and probably millions like them across the world where such gender-biased roles still have influence, feel desperate to be seen and heard as something other than an adjunct, an accessory, to their partners’ worlds. Men, who often define themselves more by what they DO than who they ARE, struggle with the transition to retirement because it takes away the bulk of their life’s worth of “doing”, and therefore also threatens their self-definition. Unsurprisingly, many women in this age range are likewise struggling as newly-retired husbands attempt to exert the control they are used to having outside the home, in a sphere that for probably decades has NOT been their principle domain. The resulting power struggle drives a wedge between partners, or widens a gulf already dug by decades of silent tolerance for a thousand tiny but unresolved hurts, and eventually, someone (usually the woman) winds up in therapy, or the lawyer’s office… or both. To understand who this pervasive silence saps the love and intimacy out of a marriage, we turn to Terry Real again:

Repudiating the inner vulnerability that is made up of equal parts of humanity and trauma, boys learn to punish in others what they dare not risk showing themselves. It is this unacknowledged superimposition of grandiosity on shame, this burying of hurt boy inside hurting man, the sweet vulnerable self wrapped in the armor of denial, walled off behind business, work, drink, or rage, the hidden “feminine” inside the bluff “masculine”, that is the truth about men that dare not be uttered. And why must it remain unspoken? Because women and children fear triggering either extreme grandiosity or shame in the men they depend on. They fear that the very act of naming these states, of unmasking their effects, will escalate them. And their fears are far from groundless. And yet, while speaking may trigger explosion, the destructive power of silence works like a slow-moving poison, infecting not just the women who still themselves, but the sons and daughters who watch as well, passing on to the next generation…burdens no youngster should be asked to carry.

–pg. 95

Women like my clients are maintaining silence because all attempts in the past to introduce themselves as equal partners to be seen and heard, or to request, require, demand, beg for emotional connection and intimacy with their partners, have been met with various forms of rejection, abuse, or violence. Over the years, their cries have muted to whispers and silence, and then one day, when they’ve felt they’ve had enough, they begin to look for a door marked exit. The strong ones deliver ultimatums to often-stunned partners who claim to have not seen any indications there was anything wrong, admissions that will often send wives desperate for connection into intense emotional spirals.

“I’ve been shouting myself hoarse for forty years,” said Mirriam, “and he pats me on the hand and tells me I’m over-reacting to nothing, that it’s all in my head.”

“He looks through me like I’m not even there,” Anna whispers through her tears. Even with me, she has trouble holding her voice at a normal conversational tone, and seems surprised when I voice anger on her behalf, though grateful that *someone* can.

Grandiosity pushed to extremes ends in homicide, shame in suicide. Both states are potentially lethal. This double-edged threat stops the truth in a woman’s mouth. Afraid of being hurt, afraid of hurting someone she loves, she backs down. Caretaking is, after all, her mandate, her primary training since birth. … The problem for women (or anyone inhabiting the caretaking side of the dynamic) is that while their empathic connection to the disowned “feminine”, the vulnerable, in the other is exaggerated, the connection to their own vulnerability, to self-care, is attenuated. In this way, many women, caring more deeply for the little boy in the man than the man does himself, find themselves bathed in sympathy for that hidden boy even while being psychologically, and sometimes physically, harmed by the man.

–pg. 99

Having women partners call them out for bad behaviours in relationship threatens many men’s self-identity and brings either a rage or shame response, so women, especially those who might have already encountered those kinds of response patterns in family or early relationship experiences, learn to be hyper-vigilant to such moods. They caretake situations to avoid rocking the boat and, along the way, suppress their own needs in the name of maintaining not just family “harmony” and in no small measure, their own personal safety. It’s no small wonder then that forty years into marriage, the box at the back of the closet into which they’ve been stuffing their own dreams, desires, wants, needs, finally starts to overflow like a boiling pot. One of the first things I do with sitting in witness with these clients is normalize the process by which we become silent, and in recognizing the normalization, begin to explore how they feel on a general level about the pattern of silencing they’ve experienced. It’s often much easier to begin such exploration at a general, cultural level before a client feels safe owning such experiences, such intensity of feeling, for themselves. It’s hugely common for women clients to be unable or unwilling to recognize or own their own anger, for example. They will use disarming or diminutizing language to express something cognitively, and in that we discern the stories they’ve been telling themselves, the unconscious scripts they’ve been following, for YEARS. And we know they’re cognitive layers trying to distance or disconnect from the actual feeling, because probably 4 times out of 5, at this point a client will completely dissolve somehow into an intense emotional reaction that is largely at odds with the cognitive overlay.

It’s a very difficult process to admit that one has a voice, let alone (re-)learn to use it. For many of these clients, these women, who have been suppressing for decades, the ship on which any hope of repair rests has sailed. That’s not to say things cannot change for the better, but the lion’s share of the effort involves training frightened women to take emotional risks in the face of a partner who is potentially unraveling in their own way as life transitions change everything they knew, and if the partner isn’t dealing with that internal turmoil effectively themselves, a client suddenly introducing new, unexpected boundaries where previously none existed and demanding respectful adherence and (gasp!) CONSENT where previously none has been necessary, is more likely going to make things worse before anything gets better. We cannot force truculent partners to change, especially if we look at them through the lens of gendered baggage trapping us all to some extent in the roles we play and better understand what’s potentially happening on the inside of their heads while we’re beating against the barricades on the outside.

I have never not been honest with a client facing this kind of effort: we cannot predict how the change process will go, and we cannot guarantee the partner will be as willing to engage the change process as you are… if at all. Some women will understandably find the process of departure a simpler and more palatable choice; some will stay and fight for their marriages and, more importantly, their spaces and voices within them. And it’s important to recognize, from a therapeutic position, that these role-based issues are not strictly limited to an older generation, though some of the entitlement-based expectations are more entrenched; my younger client couples are finding an easier time exploring and expressing a more equally-distributed power base, and women in general are finding more of their own voices. But even with my 20-somethings, I see residual cultural baggage around women being able to ask for what they want and need, cropping up to stunt some of their intimate interactions. We’re not out of the woods yet, especially as younger men are currently being trapped between legacy cultural traditions surrounding “masculinity” and a more feminist approach to equality and egalitarianism that’s leaving them without a clear way forward into self-esteem and self-identity — a chaotic state they then carry forward into their relationships in troubling ways.

But we do have tools now, and language, for sorting through the years of silence and suppression. Getting clients into therapy where these experiences can be validated is the hard part for the client; sitting with them while they confront the choice of staying the same and coping, or leaving and starting over at any age is often the hard part for the therapist. But it is a great privilege to be the space, the safety, and sometimes the first voice allowing and encouraging these clients, these women especially (but the men as well who are also struggling to give voice to what they themselves have been burying for most of their lives), to speak up. In many ways, these clients are the ones who best illustrate how it’s less about the “therapeutic interventions” we professionals bring to the exchange, and entirely about making space for the relationship to be pre-eminent instead. So many of these clients have never felt, or forgotten what it feels like, to be seen and heard for themselves in all their beauty… and all their pain.

And thus, the work begins.


* — Names are changed to protect client confidentiality.

Emotional Intelligence, Life Transitions, Self-Development

This morning I’m thinking about the term “midlife crisis”, both in terms of the ambiguity of the term “midlife”, and, well, I guess, the nature of “crisis”. Since Tuesday mornings often roll around before I’ve actually figured out what the weekly blog topic is going to be, my “creative process”, such as it is, involves sitting down in my independent downtown favourite coffee shop and staring out the big front windows while I reflect on any developing themes from the past or previous weeks while pretending I can absorb scandalous amounts of coffee through osmosis. On a whim, I googled the term “midlife crisis”, in part because of a couple of lingering experiences this past week, in part because, hey, *I’m* fifty and my own life has been something of a challenge for the past five years, many of my friends are sliding slowly into (or through, or just edging out of) this age range, and because it’s Tuesday and I need to write about SOMETHING.

Imagine my surprise when a hefty percentage of the search results come back with variations on the theme of the myth of midlife crisis”. “Myth??” I thought to myself. “I don’t freaking think so.” [Character point: Our Humble Narrator may be a little tightly-wound and emotionally reactive before she’s had coffee.]

Less surprisingly, it starts to make a kind of sense when I come back to consider the readings from the perspective of last week’s post: it’s all in the definitions of the words we use. For one thing, “midlife” is a VERY broadly-defined age range; while it has settled through common social usage to be “in one’s 40s”, different studies of social mental health and happiness have encompassed participants from their late 20s to their mid-70s:

“More than a quarter said they had experienced a midlife crisis, a term they were free to define for themselves. The average age of crisis was 46. Some said their crisis was because they realized time was slipping away from them. Others blamed it on a divorce. Others said it was prompted by losing a job.

“Most boiled down to ‘something happened that made me re-evalute my life,’ ” Wethington says. “That’s a pretty minimal definition.” She considers herself in the camp of sociologists who believe the midlife crisis is a myth.”

— as reported here.

Sooooo… okay. I’m definitely in the camp that believes, as much from a professional perspective as a personal one, that something(s) happens one day that makes us re-evaluate our lives. For me it was a separation/divorce coupled with struggling through a protracted career transition; for many, it’s the onset of “empty nest syndrome”, or the challenge of confronting own mortality through dealing with aging or dying parents. The definition of “crisis” itself is open to some debate; sometimes it’s the difference between a swift, singular stroke (death, sudden relationship endings, job loss) versus the “death by a thousand cuts” of slow, progressive unhappiness and dissatisfaction that one day simply hits a breaking point. This past week I had two new clients in this latter category that underlined the idea that a singular crisis event and a crisis point are not exactly the same things, but can provoke the same kind of provocative, potentially catastrophic, drive to change SOMETHING.

Why change?

Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who among other things coined the phrases “identity crisis” and “generativity.” Erikson described generativity as, “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” Between the ages of 40 to 65, Erikson theorized that we all face the existential question, “Can I make my life count?” and the psychosocial crisis of “generativity vs. stagnation.” “

as reported here.

The kinds of change that we have culturally connected to this notion of the “midlife crisis” encompass a number of different plausible needs: the knee-jerk reaction to getting old, or to not being where our cultural narratives told us we SHOULD be by our mid-40s; the knee-jerk reactions to discovering we did everything we were told we SHOULD do, so why don’t we feel happy? The reaction to having invested 18-22 years in raising children to be independent people, without having invested the same work into our partnered relationships and, in the echoing stillness of that now-empty nest, wondering “Why don’t we ever talk to each other? What do we still have in common? WHO IS THIS STRANGER IN MY BED??” The reaction to struggling to find personal fulfillment through the external validation of work or volunteer or extended family involvements, and confronting dissatisfaction with one or more of those facets suddenly failing us, or the slow recognition that they have NEVER fulfilled us…

The list of agents provocateurs goes on, but the gist is, essentially something points out to us that we’re not where we thought we coulda/shoulda/woulda been by now when we followed the script like we were expected to. The two clients I saw last week who started this train of thought for me were both women in a slightly-later-than-midlife state who were finally dealing with similar issues as they and their partners cruised roughly into retirement–another life state-change that often provokes major adjustments and realizations for many. So we recognize, possibly for the first time, that we’re not happy with where we’re at, and for many who make it into therapy at this stage, it’s the first time they may have given themselves permission to ADMIT aloud that they are not happy. But because our culture is still very much geared toward a capitalist-heavy “pursuit of happiness” mindset in which individual happiness is, paradoxically, both the be all and end all of our existence and yet the thing we are most expected to sacrifice in pursuit of being a Good Partner, Good Family, Good Employee, yadda yadda yadda… we thrash around trying to find a reasonable path out of the conundrum of trying to recognize our own happiness and contentment and peace of mind as distinct from the weight of internalized cultural baggage. This moment of awakening, especially when it provokes a path of awakening change, is what Chogyam Trungpa refers to as “recovering the sanity we are born with”.

Many things happen with clients who are coming to a therapist at this point in their lives. Often, we have to start in the short term with shoring them up in the face of a precipitating crisis event–death, divorce, departures, dissastisfaction. Then we begin the deeper work of making some kind of meaning of the events and their responses, perhaps deconstructing some of their internalized, potentially-inherited narratives and values that have been shaken by these events. This part is like doing a structural assessment on a building after an earthquake: we need to figure out what part of the foundation is still solid, and what parts of the remaining structure need to be replaced with something better-designed to handle what’s happening, or what’s to come. This work is often a split between narrative therapy, and reconstructuring self-identity through deliberate work around identifying and articulating individual needs and wants. We’ll often do some ongoing work around rebuilding self-esteem, especially in situations where the crisis (as a singular event or ongoing progression) has eroded the client’s confidence in Self or personal agency. And above all, we normalize that many of these crises, regardless of when in the life cycle they happen, are GOING TO BE traumatic for many people. Catastrophic adjustments are the ones we never see coming and generally don’t prepare for, assuming we knew HOW to prepare effectively in the first place.

There definitely is a sense of life transitions for many of us, right around now; regardless of how or why we awaken to this sense, and how well we process the sense of urgency that drives that from “awareness” to “crisis” on a seeming-moment’s notice, most of us will face some kind of critical thrashing experience that brings an opportunity to assess and evaluate ourselves. We’re not always going to be receptive to the goad, nor graceful in how we weather the adjustments to come. But there are resources to get us through these changes that can be more helpful than the cliched responses popularized in mass media. Not all of us can afford red sports cars or traipsing off to Thailand to discover ourselves, but there are always ways to connect with support and resources to help steer us through the worst of the thrashing. Self-peace is a worthy goal when we find effective ways of weathering the storms, even if we need a helping hand to get through them.