Attachments, Relationships, Uncategorized

Google inadvertently teaches me some very interesting things. For example, as I sit down this morning to write something undoubtedly brilliant hopefully coherent about Schwartz’s application of Internal Family System’s parts theory in relationships, I type the words “love” and “redeemer” or “redemption” into my trusty search engine… and get pages upon pages of religion and faith-speak in return. Not entirely surprising, but given that the premise of “(romantic) love redeems and completes us” is so pervasive in western culture, I am surprised there wasn’t more content tying redemption tropes to romance and our expectations for romantic partners.

“Everyone is born with vulnerable parts. Most of us, however, learn early–through interactions with caretakers or through traumatic experiences–that being vulnerable is not safe. As a consequence, we lock those childlike parts away inside and make them the inner exiles of our personalities.” – Richard Schwartz, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, Trailheads Publications, 2008, pg. 55

“To all of us drowning in this empty, striving, isolated, and anxious [North] American lifestyle, the media throws the biggest life preserver of all. From watching movies or TV, or listening to songs on the radio, you’ll be convinced that everyone, sooner or later, will find their one, true, happily-ever-after relationship. The person who will heal you, complete you, and keep you afloat is out there. If the person you’re with isn’t doing that, either he or she is the wrong person altogether or you need to change him or her into the right one.

“This is an impossible load for intimate relationships to handle. The striving for money and the isolation from a circle of caring people are enough to do in many marriages–not only because both partners are depleted by the pace of life and the absence of nurturing contact, but also because to work and compete so hard, they each must become dominated by striving parts that don’t lend themselves to vulnerable intimacy. To deal with the stress of this lifestyle, we reach for the many distractions that our culture offers, which are also obstacles to, and surrogates for, intimacy.” – Schwartz, pg. 24-5

Esther Perel also talks about how North American ideals of romance often suffer because we trade the passionate, playful parts of ourselves that initially create intimacy as we explore our chosen Other, for security, stability, and comfort over the longer term of settling down together–needful things that make our exiled parts feel safely attached and protected, but which are about as “sexy” as our oldest, softest, most familiar and comfortable pyjamas and slippers. In Schwartz’s language, we surprise the exiles as they start to manifest once the spontaneous, impetuous excitement has either secured the partnership into more fixed states (living together, engagement/marriage, children, house-purchasing), or burned itself out and been supplanted by the requirements of regular life (work demands, family obligations). There is no space for those playful energies, and while the erosion of the welcome that once existed may be subtle at first, eventually it starts to feel like parts of us are being rejected by our partners, and that hurts, so we shut down the vulnerable parts and return them to their places in exile.

Where the ideals of redemption come into play is the initial expectations we place on our romantic partners to be the people who “will heal you, complete you.” This language is inherently problematic for many reasons:

“[P]artners are cut off from their Selves by being raised in a society that is so concerned with external appearances that authentic inner desires are ignored and feared. Into this nearly impossible arrangement is poured the expectation that your partner should make you happy and that if [they don’t], something is very wrong.

“These messages about your partner play into your exiles’ dreams, keeping the focus of their yearning on an external relationship rather than you. Thus, our culture’s view of romantic love as the ultimate salvation exacerbates an already difficult arrangement. Many writers have blamed the unrealistic expectations our culture heaps on [romantic partnership] as a significant reason for its high rate of collapse. I agree with that indictment to the extent that expectations perpetuate the partner-as-healer/redeemer syndrome.” – Schwartz, pg. 18

When I’m addressing with clients their experiences of dissatisfaction and disappointment in a relationship, we look at things like core needs (that, oftentimes, clients have never directly looked at or attempted to identify/define) and the expectations they have for how those needs are to be addressed by their partner. More often than not, the needs and their attendant expectations have never been explicitly articulated or negotiated with the partner, but we see plenty of evidence of the wounded exiles when those needs and expectations go unmet.

Attachment theory suggests that when we connect with others, especially intimate others in romantic partnership, for many of us it is a way of redressing early attachment injuries. These don’t need to be traumatic injuries, but simply moving to meet a craving for warmth and attention that we may implicitly feel was lacking or inconsistent in our earliest care-giving attachments. We exile those needy, unattended parts of ourselves over time, but then look, consciously or unconsciously, to romantic partners to meet that craving need for us, to redeem our wounded exiles and welcome them back into the fold. (This is generally a decent interpretation, from a parts/system perspective for what it means when a partner “completes us”–they nurture ALL our parts and create safety and welcome for the parts we have thrust out of the spotlight for being “ugly,” “damaged,” “too broken to function,” or “too terrifying to allow to surface.”

Harriet Lerner, in her book “The Dance of Intimacy,” describes a kind of dance in which we desperately want someone to rescue us from our own internal sense of unvalued despair and isolation, but as we get closer and closer to true intimacy (vulnerability), we become increasingly afraid of what happens when a romantic partner sees what we mistakenly believe to be our “true selves”, nasty warts, scars, and all. At that point, fear takes over and we inadvertently push partners back to safer distances, or close ourselves off, or sabotage the relationship in unconscious ways to “hurt you before you can hurt me.” We crave closeness that means someone allowing those wounds to surface and heal for once in our lives, but to closer we let those exiles come to the surface, the more anxious dread at “being truly seen” comes along for the ride.

We WANT to be redeemed, and then fail ourselves at the eleventh hour because we fail to let the redeemer actually make use of the all-access backstage pass we thought we wanted them to have.

When we rely on external Others to redeem those wounded exiles, we create this intricate tension rooted in needing someone else to wade in and do something magical to “fix” those wounds; we create a kind of codependent strategy in which we rely on someone else to “complete” us and accept all our parts. But our fears, those protector/firefighter parts of us that come armed with all kinds of saboteur scripts, get in the way pretty much EVERY TIME. And as soon as we start pushing people away, we are in a loop of self-fulfilling prophecy: we get defensive (sometimes aggressively so), partners retreat from us in fear, confusion, disappointment, frustration… sometimes even disgust; we see their withdrawal as validating our internal, unspoken script about how “everyone who is supposed to love us disappoints us/hurts us/betrays us/abandons us”, and we are validated further in our belief that our exiles MUST stay locked down and far, far away from the light of love and acceptance.

The healing work in a therapeutic context, regardless of whether the focus is on an individual or on a relationship, then becomes all about teaching each party to make space within themselves for welcoming their own exiles. Schwartz describes this as moving from a process of talking FROM our activated exiles (or the messy emotional chaos of exiles and protectors all trying to get air-time control in the middle of a triggering argument with another person) to talking ABOUT them. I do some of this work when I ask clients to, in essence, narrate an emotional reaction WHILE THEY ARE EXPERIENCING IT. We talk ABOUT what it’s like to feel triggered and reactive, the physical sensations, the self-observation of emotion, the scripts they hear being spooled up in their heads, rather than allowing the triggered reaction to unleash itself AT the other person or people in the room. Parts language becomes a useful tool in this narrative process especially when it gives the narrating client a way of adding some observational separation and distance: “One part of me is observing how another part really feels hot and angry, like it’s looking for something to attack. It’s angry because it feels attacked, like there’s another part that’s been hurt and needs to be protected.”

Being able to create this separation allows us to dialogue with both the attacker part and the hurt part separately, given the person who is caught up in this momentous experience a chance to unravel what’s going on for themselves, and to figure out what is necessary for calming themselves and re-centering their sense of balance. All of this can be done in the presence of the Other but doesn’t rely on the Other to sooth or validate those chaotic parts. Sometimes we’ve been able to make massive tectonic shifts just by getting one partner to introduce that self-observing narrative perspective while the Other partner bears silent witness, an abiding, compassionate, non-judgmental presence. Sometimes that’s just the starting point for different ways of being with each other that reintroduce independent security, and space to rebuild trust without the codependent fusion that Esther Perel labels the “death of intimacy”.

When we no longer rely on a partner to redeem and validate our exiled parts–when we become more adept at welcoming and managing those hurts without reliance on an external Other to complete us–it’s not that we no longer WANT to be in partnership. Rather, it becomes more about choosing to be in partnership as coherent, whole people in ourselves. We heal our own wounds, we accept our own warts and scars; we rely primarily on ourselves to soothe our internal chaos rather than forcing romantic partners into salvation roles and expectations most of them don’t expect, or have the capacity, to carry for us.

Emotional Intelligence, Self-care, self-perception, Uncategorized

“It might be hard to know that your therapist is as crazy as you are.” — Mike Fidler, MSW, RSW

It’s a bit of a truism in the therapeutic world that most of our compassion and no small amount of our ability to relate to our clients stems from our own personal experiences. (Not that we need overtly-relatable personal experience to BE a decent therapist, just that… it certainly helps with the perspective, even if it also risks the complication of personal experiential biases kicking in.)

So in the spirit of full disclosure, here’s a little bit of humanizing back story about Yerz Trooly:

While I have long known that I have depression, I had always thought it was mild, cyclical, and eminently manageable without significant therapeutic or pharmaceutical intervention. It wasn’t until VERY recently that I came back to a question my GP asked me over a year ago that I, to my embarrassment, discounted at the time:

“Do you think maybe you fit the label of “high-functioning depression?” she wondered.

“Yeah, maybe. Probably,” I said. “But as long as I’m functional, that’s good, right? It can’t be all that bad.”

Let me now say: It can, dear readers, be utterly, damnably, catastrophic.


“A recent survey by the British Psychological Society found that 46 percent of psychologists and psycho-therapists suffered from depression and 49.5 percent reported felt they were failures. The overall picture is one of burnout, low morale and high levels of stress (70 percent) and depression in a key workforce that is responsible for improving public mental health.

“Since American psychologists are treating the same general public with the same mental issues, it would not be surprising to find similar high rates of depression and feelings of failure. (The most recent major American survey published in 1994, found 61 percent of psychologists clinically depressed and 29 percent with suicidal thoughts.)” — William L. Mace Ph.D., for Psychology Today, Apr 27, 2016


“High-functioning depression isn’t a true medical diagnosis; you won’t find it listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of the mental health profession. But it is popping up on treatment center websites and health blogs as a way to characterize people with low mood, low energy, and anxiety, experts say.

“It’s a useful term, says Johnny Williamson, MD, medical director of the Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center in Lemont, Illinois, because it’s “readily understandable” and encompasses people who don’t necessarily fit neatly into traditional diagnostic categories.

“What qualifies as high-functioning depression is somewhat subjective. People often fill three or four main roles in their lives: vocation (meaning work or school); intimate partner or spouse; parent; and friend or community member, explains Michael Thase, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and co-author of Beating the Blues: New Approaches to Overcoming Dysthymia and Chronic Mild Depression. Assessing how active you are in your roles can help a mental health professional gauge high-functioning depression, he says. “You may notice that there’s a hole in this person’s extracurricular life.”

“Steven Huprich, PhD, professor of psychology at University of Detroit Mercy, says there may be something in a person’s nature–“a particular type of negative self-image”–fueling his or her chronic unhappiness. “If somebody came to me and said, ‘I think I have high-functioning depression,’ chances are not only would I hear about mood symptoms, but I’d probably hear something about being kind of perfectionistic, feeling guilty a lot, feeling self-critical,” he says.” — Karen Pallarito, for Health, February 07, 2018


“High-functioning depression, or dysthymia, may be harder to detect than major depressive disorder (MDD) because the people living with it are often high achievers who make you think everything is all right all the time.” […]

“For people with high-functioning depression, the “invisible illness” aspect of the mental state can feel particularly searing. A few years ago, after shoulder surgery, my arm was in a sling. People fell over themselves to cluck with sympathy at my pain—socially sanctioned pain. It felt good to be the object of so much caring.

But on the days when listening to the sorrows of others exacerbates my own and I feel spent, I typically stay silent, not wanting to advertise my own vulnerability. Why is it so much easier to let others in on pain when it’s physical?” — Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, for PSYCOM, Sep 11, 2018


The problem with the high-function aspect of High-functioning Depression is that it doesn’t look like the debilitating kinds of behaviours most people associate with depression. Or in some cases (like mine) there are physical health conditions (like perimenopause) with symptomology that masks the impact of depression, or makes it impossible to tell the difference between PM symptoms and HFD symptoms. When the health issues mask the psychological ones, especially if the health issues are perceived to be transient, the narrative EASILY slides into one of, “Just ride it out, this is just a temporary thing.” The unfortunate result is a misatribution of cause, and therefore a failure to effectively diagnose and treat the more devastating issue. Eventually, the lack of cope that is the key component of the high-functioning script fails utterly, and in ways that are even more difficult to recover from, than if the depressive aspect had been caught and dealt with from the get-go.

Therapists, really anyone working in the mental health field, are hamstrung in very particular ways by this high-functioning aspect. The staggering numbers of therapists in therapy themselves for depression tells a haunting story if we consider those are just the REPORTED cases. I am my own best example of therapists who are late to the party, in terms of recognizing, acknowledging, and bending to the need for treatment, of their own depression. We are often the WORST people for believing we have to buy into the myth of “having our shit together” to be the support our clients need, and to model more effective mental health practices (individually or within our relationships) for friends and family around us. In short, we buy into our own PR, and we suffer for it in significant numbers.

Imposter Syndrome is another factor that I suspect (based on nothing more than purely observational, anecdotal “evidence”) figures strongly into HFD. Imposter Syndrome occurs across all professions and all walks of life, specifically affecting those in positions of increased or increasing responsibility and authority. The greater the sense of responsibility and authority, the more likely it is that the individual in question will feel anxious about being “found out” or discovered to be less able than others believe them to be. This fear of discovery often drives us (yes, I include myself in this august and populous group) to do everything we can to “be worthy”, to meet the standards we feel are expected of us by those who look to us to perform in our roles… even if we don’t know or haven’t validated what those expectations actually entail. But because we strive so hard to meet that worthiness, we tell ourselves that we cannot fail, we are not ALLOWED to fail, that failure will lead to discovery of our own incompetence… and voila, we’re binding ourselves into the script of “must be high-functioning OR ELSE”, often at the cost of our own equilibrium and mental health.

So what leads to the breaking points? How does someone caught up in the whirlwind of staying functional-at-all-costs finally get around that cycle? As with a lot of depression disorders, there are many things that can pull a sufferer out of the darkness, including, simply time. For me, the epiphany came as the result of a LONG period of draining demands that built inexorably over time well beyond the tolerance point, yet still sustained. There was a singular, precipitating incident that triggered a realization that something that SHOULD have been exceptionally terrifying and upsetting wasn’t producing really any kind of emotional response. I had flatlined, emotionally. More importantly, looking backward, I realized I had been flatlining for a while–able to function in caretaking roles in other relationships (personal and professional), but ultimately seeing those as ways of distracting myself from my own eroding state of health–and doubling-down on the “Just Ride It Out” script. I knew there was a problem, but I didn’t do my own homework to separate out the dogpile, so I didn’t have to admit there was something IN the dogpile that needed to be addressed differently.

In short, it took recognizing that I was NOT responding to stimuli at all (let alone “appropriately”) that forced me to realize just how disconnected I had become, and how much was being locked in a box buried deep below the surface, just so I could function from one day to the next. Like the flipping of a switch, I very clearly had one thought that hit me like a sledgehammer: “Holy shit. I am really VERY NOT OKAY.”

And admitting that was the crucial turning point. (Of course, by the time Pandora realizes what’s in the box, it’s too late to close the lid on that shit, and now we have to actually, y’know, DEAL with it.)


“While “high-functioning depression” isn’t an official term for any of them, and has even been debated on social media, it’s what many like Judge use to describe their condition. Part of the reason is that they don’t fit the stereotypical image of a depressed person, the one put forward in antidepressant ads and TV dramas. They may not be skipping work, withdrawing from social activities, feeling hopeless or crying all the time. In fact, they may be honors students in college, business executives, physicians, journalists, startup employees, or any of a variety of seemingly confident, successful individuals. […]

“On the surface, high-functioning depression may seem like it’s easier to deal with, but it can persist for years, leading to more functional impairment over time than acute episodes of major depression, Craske says. Research has shown that the low self-esteem, lack of energy, irritability, and decrease in productivity that accompanies persistent depression is associated with significant long-term social dysfunction, psychiatric hospitalizations, and high rates of suicide attempts. And, ironically, persistent depression also puts people at a higher risk for major depressive episodes with more severe symptoms.” — Knvul Sheikh, for Tonic, Oct 16 2017


“Because high functioning depression so often flies under the radar, many people either don’t seek help until their condition has progressed to a severe state or their clinician doesn’t recognize the severity of their illness, leading to inadequate treatment. If this is your experience, residential treatment can provide the best path toward recovery.” — Elisabet Kvarnstrom, for Bridges to Recovery, June 6, 2017

Because residential programs are a luxury many of us can’t afford–not just in terms of expense, but also many of us can’t afford to be not working for the length of time any kind of residential or in-patient program demands–we have to consider what intensive treatment options ARE affordable. It might involve revisiting discussions about, or changing up existing prescriptions for, anti-depressant medications. It almost certainly involves getting in with a good therapist. Yes, even therapists have therapists of our own (and yes, sometimes even therapists don’t want to call their own therapists to admit there’s maybe a wee problem and could we please come in at their first available opportunity… I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that regard. *looks around the room shiftily*). It also seems extremely important to consider one of the comments above, about looking for the “hole in this person’s extracurricular life”, to see what’s missing. High-functioning individuals, whether driven by Imposter Syndrome or not, often lack balance across their various roles. The gaps and places where they are ignoring, subsuming, deflecting, or otherwise compartmentalizing their needs then becomes a place to explore, to consider why those absences have been permitted to occur.

Because HFD is not clinically differentiated from any other depressive disorders, the treatment modalities are likely to be the same. Medication as determined in consultation with medical or psychiatric professionals, psychotherapy, lifestyle shifts if necessary. None of which is going to be easy for those of us who have taken so long to get to the point of even admitting there’s a problem in the first place. This comic comes up as hugely relevant, and highly descriptive, a lot for many of us, frankly:

No, we’re fine. Really. Ignore the fact that we’re on fire.

So be gentle with those of us who are hitting this point, or starting our way back from where we’ve wandered into the weeds. It’s hard enough to make the admission that we’re not healthy, let alone reach out to ask for help with what we’re realizing. People struggling with depression are already likely overwhelmed with where they’re at, and sorting out what feelings need what assistance is just “altogether too much”. When the depressed individual is able to articulate what they can, hopefully they will (Note to Self: take my own damned advice), and maybe they will be able to ask for something specific.

And always consider that just because someone is BEHAVING like they have all their shit together, their internal truth may be very, very different.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

“Sometimes our most intimate space is in the distance between us.”

This is a statement that came out of my mouth with clients not too long ago as we were starting to look at some of the inherent complications that arise when couples become too tightly fused to each other in their quest to build security, trust, comfort into their intimate attachment. I still encounter with terrifying frequency–as much inside the counselling office as outside in cultural mores and media messaging–that we require partnerships to somehow “complete” us. That the height of romantic entanglement is a state in which “I don’t know where I end and you begin”.

Personally, I used to love that enmeshment state of New Relationship Energy. If I’m being honest with myself, I still do. However, I now *ALSO* recognize it as the breeding ground for some exceptionally, enormously-unrealistic, and potentially destructive beliefs and entitlements around boundaries… and the inevitable boundary violations that occur when one is unconscious of, or inconsistent in defending, effective boundaries around their emotional and psychological well-being. Coincidentally, this statement came about a scant 24 hours before I started reading Esther Perel’s “Mating in Captivity” for the first time, a book I’ve been intending to read since it came out in 2006 (her second book, “State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” has also been sitting on my To Be Read pile since *IT* debuted a year ago).

When the universe starts handing me these kinds of seemingly-disparate nuggets, it’s because it wants me to connect the dots on something. So as I am getting into the Esther Perel reading, and watching the ever-amazing Jada Pinkett-Smith discuss her marriage to actor Will Smith in a two-part installment of her web series, “Red Table Talks” (part one is here, part two is here), I’m coming to realize we’re on the brink of a potentially large shift about how we view and pursue intimacy.

Murray Bowen, the father of Family Systems Theory, discusses at length the value of healthy differentiation of Self when any individual within a system finds ways to create space and autonomy within the system by changing how they participate around new, more effective boundaries. In discussing his scale for differentiating Self, he writes,

“This scale is an effort to classify all levels of human functioning, from lowest possible levels to the highest potential level, on a single dimension… It has nothing to do with emotional health or illness or pathology. There are people low on the scale who keep their lives in equilibrium without…symptoms, and there are some higher on the scale who develop symptoms under severe stress… The scale has no correlation with intelligence or socioeconomic levels… The greater the degree of undifferentiation (no-self), the greater the emotional fusion into a common self with others (undifferentiated ego mass). Fusion in the context of a personal or shared relationship with others and it reaches its greatest intensity in the emotional interdependency of marriage.” Murray Bowen, “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,” New Jersey, 1978, p. 472 [emphasis mine]

This fusion within a relational system takes many forms; looking through an attachment lens, one of the most common dynamics of fusion is the distancer-pursuer dynamic of an anxious-secure or anxious-anxious attachment pair. There is a sense of anxiety when an individual transfers from one system (such as a family of origin) to an intimate relational system. Even if the originating system is busted and dysfunctional, there is a familiarity in certain types of connections that provide comfort and security a la “the Devil we know”. Unsurprisingly, we’ll try to recreate the same sense of closeness and familiarity in our intimate relationships, sometimes employing the same kinds of bonding mechanisms learned in the family of origin. If our bonding attempts are uncomfortable to our partner, the partner withdraws or tries to set up new boundaries around engagement… setting the anxious partner into a spiral that can only be resolved by trying to clutch harder to the separating partner.

The upshot of this “dance of connection” (as per Harriet Lerner’s term for this dynamic) is that modern love seeks to equate intimacy with fusion, the inseparable, potentially insufferable closeness that allows for absolutely no distance between us. There is nothing allowed to be unknown, because in the unknown lies uncertainty, and that is intolerable. We substitute comfort and safety for passion and excitement, then wonder why our relationships over the long term start to feel as provocative and sexy as a pair of worn and comfortable socks. Where has the excitement gone? Where has the playful eroticism that made the early era of the relationship so delicious, gone? How do we get that back??

This is where the Esther Perel reading comes into play. Her contention through “Mating in Captivity” is that in generating these states of fusion, exchanging uncertainty and insecurity for a state of entitlement and absolute entanglement on every level, we destroy the very environment that passion and eroticism require in which to live and flourish:

“The mandate of intimacy, when taken too far, can resemble coercion. In my own work, I see couples who no longer wait for an invitation into their partner’s interiority, but instead demand admittance, as if they are entitled to unrestricted access into the private thoughts of their loved ones. Intimacy becomes intrusion rather than closeness–intimacy with an injunction. […]

“Some couples take this one step further, confusing intimacy with control. What passes for care is actually covert surveillance… This kind of interrogation feigns closeness and confuses insignificant details with a deeper sense of knowledge. I am often amazed at how couples can be up on the minute details of each other’s lives, but haven’t had a meaningful conversation in years. In fact, such transparency can often spell the end of curiosity. It’s as if this stream of questions replaces more thoughtful ans authentically interesting inquiry.
“When the impulse to share become obligatory, when personal boundaries are no longer respected, when only the shared space of togetherness is acknowledged and the private space is denied, fusion replaces intimacy and possession co-opts love. Deprived of enigma, intimacy becomes cruel when it excludes any possibility of discovery. Where there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.” (Esther Perel, “Mating in Captivity”, New York 2006, p. 43-4)

“Yet in our efforts to establish intimacy we often seek to eliminate otherness, thereby precluding the space necessary for desire to flourish. We seek intimacy to protect ourselves from feeling alone; and yet, creating the distance essential to eroticism means stepping back from the comfort of our partner and feeling more alone.
“I suggest that our inability to tolerate our separateness–and the fundamental insecurity it engenders–is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship. Instead of always striving for closeness, I argue that couples may be better off cultivating their separate selves…There is beauty in an image that highlights a connection to oneself , rather than a distance from one’s partner. In our mutual intimacy we make love, we have children, and we share physical space and interests. Indeed, we blend the essential parts of our lives. But “essential” does not mean “all.” Personal intimacy demarcates a private zone, one that requires tolerance and respect. It is a space–physical, emotional, intellectual–that belongs only to me. […]
“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting… But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.” (p. 36-7)

It’s interesting to watch couples react to the concept of INCREASING the distance between them at a time when their instincts (for at least ONE of them) are screaming, “NOOOOOOOOOOO, WE MUST BE EVEN CLOSER THEN EVER BEFORE TO FIX ALL OUR INTIMACY PROBLEMS! I MUST BE ALL UP IN YOUR BUSINESS AND HAVE YOU SHOW ME YOU WANT TO BE ALL UP IN MINE!!!”

And, of course, this never works.

Whether it’s the unrealistic expectation of a reciprocal desire to live inside each other’s heads 24/7, or the unrealistic expectation of a reciprocal definition of privacy boundaries (which, BTW, are PERFECTLY NORMAL and HEALTHY things to have in *healthy* relationships), or whether we have different expectations for how this eternal fusion actually looks on a day-to-day basis, or one partner breaks down and flees in the night with a desperate cry of, “JUST GIVE ME SOME FUCKING SPACE, WILL YOU??!?”— I really cannot begin to count all the ways in which the insatiable need for fusion as a substitute for legitimate intimacy fails us at each and every turn.

When we smother ourselves, our relationships, our partners out of a fear of the distance, we lose the distinct entities we were when we ignited the energy initially bringing us together. Perel’s stance is that in pursuing security and comfort, we sacrifice passion and eroticism by deny the space required to maintain a degree of mystery and uncertainty. Anxious attachments cannot settle and become secure without eradicating all uncertainties, without seizing the seams and trying to seal all perceived rifts by force of will… until “secure and comfortable” becomes “stabilized… and boring”.

(And before anyone asks, yes, this happens in poly relationships, too; it’s not a question of how MANY partners you have, but what your own attachment style in any of those relationships typically looks like, or how security/anxiety responses get activated.)

So, consider this: smothering a fire with a blanket puts the flames out. On the one hand, that keeps you safe, but on the other hand, you’ve lost a source of heat and light that might have been serving a valuable purpose to those enjoying it. The question is, did you put out the fire because you were afraid it would consume you and everything you love if you didn’t? Could you learn to tolerate the fear if it meant being able to sustainably (non-destructively) enjoy the heat and light that the fire brings? We can have distance, and space, and air, and fire, and heat, and passion… without burning the house down.

But it takes rethinking how we define and pursue intimacy to do it.

Uncategorized

This fall I am embarking on two separate professional development (education and training) pursuits, one long planned and the other rather spontaneous. I’ll have more about finally taking the Gottman Institute Levels 1 & 2 training programs later in November, assuming my brain doesn’t explode with drinking from the firehose while on course. Before then, however, I’m unexpectedly but delightedly finding myself down the very deep rabbit hole of Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS). One of my partners pointed me in this direction as a result of some of their own personal work, but given my background in systems theory, family systems in specific, it’s kind of a wonder I hadn’t crossed paths with IFS long before now.

In essence a “system” is a bunch of interconnected parts that can and do influence other system components both directly and remotely. Sometimes the influence is harmonious and the affected parts resonate in sync; sometimes the influence is discordant and jarring, and the constituent members of the system create friction, tension, or even breakage. In a healthy system, each part maintains its own discrete spatial and behavioural boundaries when interacting with other parts of the system, though as we see in many types of systems, boundary violations can rapidly become a system-wide problem as parts start to behave erratically or destructively.

“In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior. Changing one part of the system usually affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. For systems that are self-learning and self-adapting, the positive growth and adaptation depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment. Some systems function mainly to support other systems by aiding in the maintenance of the other system to prevent failure. The goal of systems theory is systematically discovering a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned and applied to systems at every level of nesting, and in every field for achieving optimized equifinality.[1]” —Wikipedia

A FAMILY system looks specifically at the interconnected constituent members involved with and influencing a specific individual–usually my client(s). Family of Origin is usually the biggest source of our internalized values and beliefs/expectations about how people work, how parents and parenting work, how intimate relationships work. Even if we’re too young to understand much of the dynamics, we observe and create or invest in stories about both what we observe and what we’re taught, even when there are discrepancies in those models. A lot of my therapeutic work uses family system modelling to uncover some of the background to my clients or their current challenges and dilemmas. I use an analogy from my long years in software development to explain the value of looking backward into our origin stories before we look forward to a change process: before we can change existing pieces of code in a software package, we have to understand why that code is there in the first place. What was it meant to do? Are there any dependencies we need to investigate to loop in or remove with impending code updates? Is this a critical function that must be replaced, or is it old, superfluous functionality that we can afford to dump completely? Is the original functionality relevant or is it interfering with desired functionality?

These questions remain important when we look at how an INTERNAL family system works. Richard Schwartz, the progenitor of IFS, apologizes often for the fact that his descriptions of our internalized parts sometimes sound like he’s describing completely individuated personalities. This is not, he assures his audience repeatedly, about having some kind of dissociative identity disorder. It’s simply a way of recognizing that certain internal behavioural patterns serve distinct and unique purposes, just like human individuals in a relational system likewise inhabit distinct roles and places within that system.

There are three types of parts in IFS:

The exiles are the deeply-internalized (often to the point of compartmentalizing right out of the picture) attachment wounds that have never been adequately identified or addressed, and therefore never really given opportunity to heal. These may be early childhood issues and traumas, or emotional or psychological injuries garnered through other critically damaging experiences as adults. These are the pains we work hardest to bury so that we don’t have to deal with either the root pain, or with the fear of what that pain might cause us to do when it surfaces.

The protectors, sometimes called the firefighters, are the behaviours we adopt over time to suppress or distract the exiled pain, to keep us from looking at it or having to be disrupted by it. This is the level on which we develop our reactive coping stances, including the maladaptive ones like addictions or binge/purge behaviours, or losing ourselves in work, sex, relationships, hobbies–anything that distracts us from the pain.

The managers are the behaviours that we develop in our outward interactions with the world around us in ways that are intended to protect us. Their job is to manage the interface to others in ways that don’t trigger the exiled hurts or the protective coping strategies that mitigate those core hurts. Manager behaviours include everything from outward anger and belligerence meant to keep everyone at a Minimum Safe Distance, to compulsive care-takers who assume that “Keep Everyone Else Happy At All Costs” = “keeping myself safe from their displeasure/disappointment.”

Most of the time, the only parts of another person that those on the outside get to interact with are the manager parts, the behaviours specifically tasked with managing external interactions. For example, in individual with an angry or abusive alcoholic partner generally gets faced with the anger and abusive behaviours; they can probably see the drinking but they can’t call that out or challenge or explore it directly. The angry Manager part gets in the way every time, and drives partners back or away. The alcoholism is the Protector part, trying to self-medicate and suppress an Exiled part buried somewhere deeper in the system (fear or shame, typically).

Somewhere at the centre of all of these parts, Schwartz posits, is the core Self. Within the Self are the roots of our sense of being, which Schwartz identifies as calm, connection, compassion, and curiosity. When we can get the Managers and Protectors out of the way more effectively, we have an opportunity to heal the old wounds by bringing them into this space within the Self. IFS provides a framework to become first aware of, then acquainted with, all of the parts in systemic orbit around this core identity, working eventually towards discovering ways of more effectively smoothing out the discordance into a more-balanced, whole self.

–from Don Mangus’ “It Only Hurts When I Smirk” (click image to link)

One of the reasons why IFS resonates with me as strongly as it does is, I suspect, how it echoes many of the precepts set out by Chogyam Trungpa in his work, “Uncovering the Sanity We Are Born With.” The intersection of Eastern Buddhism and Western psychology is largely concerned with uncovering and freeing “the authentic Self” by exploring and gently uprooting the collective neuroses throttling our authentic Self over the course of our lifelong interactions with others’ expectations and projected values. IFS as a framework also provides externalizing language that gives clients some distanced perspectives on their own behaviours. Sometimes this shift is subtle, a nuanced change. Sometimes it’s earth-shattering for the client to move from, “I am an angry person” to “There’s a PART of me that is angry all the time”, a shift that represents meeting a Manager part and recognizing there’s almost certainly more going on there than just the anger. And THAT’s a shift that opens up considerable opportunities for curiosity, and maybe even a little bit of peace: if only PART of me is angry all the time, I wonder what the rest of my parts are doing? Can I connect with any of those other parts and explore them for a while, or invite them to take over for a bit?

Working within the IFS framework therefore involves sitting in a multi-way exploration of these parts; this is where it feels a little more like multiple personalities at the table, as we get curious about the purpose and function of each part in its process. We acknowledge it and ask it to step aside so that we can glimpse or interact with whatever’s buried under under that layer. I liken it to the layers of an onion, something that becomes VERY important when I confront people on their communications challenges: we’re only as good at communicating as we are at knowing WHAT it is we’re trying to communicate. And if we only know ourselves to the level of our outward Manager behaviours, that’s all we know to communicate. That’s the barest tip of a very large and complicated iceberg, and what’s BELOW the waterline is the stuff that’s probably complicating or making us miserable in relationships. But we don’t (yet) know what’s going on down there, behind the Managers and Protectors, so there’s no effective way *TO* communicate all of that.

When we lose our authentic Self like that, it’s very hard to be in healthy relationship. Rediscovering our core, exploring and learning about it, then developing the skills to communicate that understanding to others, is something IFS therapy can certainly help navigate. There is nothing more vulnerable than exploring our authentic Selves, and vulnerability is the heart of intimacy. This is as true for our relationships with ourselves as it is within our relationships with others.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

Humanity is a bunch of curious monkeys. It’s in our nature to question things, to look for explanations to experiences that make sense of those experiences (we’ll leave aside for now the utmost importance of pursuing or ignoring scientifically *accurate and relevant* explanations). It’s totally okay when the first exposure to something results in not understanding it. Coming to understanding is a personal growth opportunity and process that we have to actively choose to undertake–we have to WANT to know why something is or does what it is or does. When faced with questions of Why or How, it’s totally okay to not know the answers even when those questions are about ourselves.

It’s okay to not know the answers… up to a point. After that, however, “I don’t know” starts to become an increasingly problematic response. There’s genuinely not knowing the answer to a question, and then there’s deliberately avoiding learning or sharing the answer for fear it means we’re locked into or committing to that being the ONLY answer, implying a singular, correct response we have to get right.

What happens when one uses “I don’t know” as a way of avoiding committing to specific answers or presumably-limited paths forward?

I can answer this one best from my own personal experience as a recovering committmentphobe:

It goes very, very poorly.

It’s a lot easier for me to spot the pattern of fearful, stubborn entrenchment now than it ever was when I was the one clinging to “I don’t know”, but I imagine it’s every bit as harsh and terrifying when I call my own clients out as it was when I got called out for it. The problem with “I don’t know” as a long-term answer is the implication that we’re not doing the work of developing self-understanding. We’re not trying, or we’re actively avoiding, to discern and share information that is immediately relevant to our partners and the functioning of our relationships. “I don’t know” for many becomes coded language for, “I don’t want to commit to an answer on this topic”. In my case, it became a way of avoiding ownership and responsibility for my own actions when questions about my motivations or behaviours arose; but it also avoided my taking ownership or responsibility for committing to a change, ANY change. “I don’t know” leaves open all the doors of possibility, because until we have an answer then (on some quantum level) ALL options remain possible. “I don’t know” was a favourite tune for my own internal brain weasels to dance to. And it frustrated the everlovin’ hell out more than one of my partners over the years… just as I watch it frustrate, upset, or disrupt partnerships coming into my office now as clients.

In and of itself it’s not a bad answer. When it remains the long-term answer to questions like, “What do you WANT this relationship to look like?” or “What are you willing to do differently going forward from here?”, however, it’s anathema (if not outright death) to connection and intimacy. “I don’t know” becomes a way of holding the relationship hostage at a distance: “we can go no further and get no closer, because I cannot/will not do the work to answer these questions.” The partner who is unable or unwilling to face the answers becomes a gatekeeper for the entire relationship, because–and I observe this to be the truth most of the time–they are afraid. WHAT they (we, I) are afraid of, is highly contextual, and variable. Sometimes it’s an unwillingness to be held to one option. Sometimes its a fear of committing to trying something and getting it wrong, if the perception of trial and failure is equated with things only ever getting worse for the failure. If the fears are strong enough, the gatekeeping and distancing can seem insurmountable obstacles to progressing towards intimacy. Overcoming those fears seems an unobtainable goal to the fearful. Ultimately, the partners end up in a stalemate.

That distancing fear serves a purpose:

“If there is one over riding reason why our world and relationships are in such a mess, is that we try to get rid of our anxiety, fear and shame as fast as possible, regardless of the long term consequences. In doing so, we blame and shame others and in countless ways, we unwittingly act against ourselves. We confuse our fear driven thoughts with what is right, best, necessary or true.”
― Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

In the moment, it will often seem like there is no better antidote for fear than to simply not engage it: hold it away from us where we don’t have to look at it, or do anything about it. “I don’t know” means not having done the homework, and potentially not doing the homework going forward, either. As long as the gatekeeper holds themselves in limbo, they can hold off confronting their fear. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of the health of the relationship over the long term, often in the short term as well.

“If you pay attention, you may find that it is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable, so you avoid doing the thing that will evoke fear and other disquieting emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid.”
― Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

Sometimes, doing our own homework is the bravest thing we can do.

Emotional abuse, Family Issues, Relationships, Uncategorized

“Nearly 1 in 3 children have been physically abused, while 1 in 5 have been sexually abused, and 1 in 10 suffer criminal neglect (CDC). Nearly 1 in 10 witness family violence (Safe Horizon). Half of the men who abuse their spouse also abuse their children. In cases when only one parent is abusive, the other parent will often permit the abuse or refuse to believe it. Half of homeless youth are running from abusive situations, many because of sexual abuse. […] Some parents continue to abuse their children into adulthood, while others only abuse them when they are young or for a certain period of time. Other parents leave their children in the care of relatives and re-emerge years later. Or raise their children in loving homes, only to disown them for coming out as gay, trans, or marrying outside of their religion.

That leaves millions of adult children to grapple with the decision of whether or not they should provide support to their abusive or estranged parents when they become ill or elderly.

One study of 1,000 caregivers found that 19% had been abused as children and 9% had been neglected. Caregivers of abusive parents were more likely to experience signs of clinical depression.

Some people make peace with their abusive parents, but that doesn’t mean there will ever be a healthy relationship between them.” — Michelle Daly for The Caregiver Space, Aug 11, 2015

21st century Western culture has some very, VERY conflicted ideas about elder care, especially in palliative stages of mental or physical decline.

“Can she really turn her back on an elderly, ailing parent?

That would violate a deep-seated social and cultural understanding (even, in many states, a legal obligation). Your parents did the best they could for you; when they’re old and need help, you do the best you can for them. But physically or emotionally abusive parents have already violated that convention. Is there still an ethical duty to assist them? Even “filial responsibility laws” requiring adult children to care for parents make an exception for those whose parents abandoned them or otherwise did some injury.” — Paula Span, for The New York Times, October 20, 2011


“We know relatively little about how many adults become caregivers for abusive or neglectful parents, or about why they choose to — or not to. But thanks to a recent study, we can see that those who report having endured childhood maltreatment are more vulnerable than other caregivers to depression when tending to their abusive parents.

The researchers divided their sample into three categories: those with no history of childhood abuse or neglect; those who had been abused and were caring for their non-abusive parent; and those who had been abused and were, to borrow the study’s memorable title, “caring for my abuser.” They also compared caregivers neglected as children with those who were not neglected.

Those who had been abused or neglected were more likely to have symptoms of depression — like lack of appetite, insomnia, trouble concentrating, sadness and lethargy — than those who had not been. No surprise there, perhaps.

But the link was strongest for the third category. “The key was caring for the abusive parent,” said the lead author, Jooyoung Kong, a doctoral candidate in social work. Years later, “they are still affected. They’re more depressed.” — Paula Span, for The New York Times, January 20, 2014

I have previously written about families as “sick systems”; the more work I do within family systems, the more convinced I become that what we are taught to believe MUST be our strongest instinctive bond is often the deliberate OR unwitting author of some of our society’s deepest and most damaging trauma. The sense of unhealthy fusion into the abuser’s care seems to have little concern for gender or birth order of the caretaking adult child(ren).

The sense of obligation and loyalty to dysfunctional family structures is a difficult thing to address when it feels like it’s rooted bone-deep in our values. As a therapist, I always start a line of questioning there: are these actually YOUR values, or are these something you were told SHOULD be your values (and if that’s the case, we have to wonder: WHO told you these had to be your values? My odds are always on the abusive elements themselves, or at least those who implicitly condone or support those systemic elements). Standing by our abusers is similar in reasoning to why women in particular tough it out with domestic violence; it’s why adult children succumb to implicit or explicit pressure to involve themselves with aging or palliative parents in the elders’ decline. We feel we SHOULD. It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated.

In looking at the advice and support available online to caregivers of abusive elders, there are some frustrating limitations placed on those who can’t afford to hire in professionals to provide the service the adult child(ren) don’t feel safe providing themselves. Suggestions of placing the ailing elders in some kind of long-term care, or hiring a care manager or non-familial legal guardian, often require the adult caregiver have the financial means to pay for these services. Even with the privilege of that kind of financial security, there may be more resentment for assuming that financial burden than alleviation of guilt for not doing the work themselves. It’s a Catch-22 that strains a lot of adult-elder relationships even in the best of circumstances.

Beyond the potential for financial burden, when these adults do take on the responsibility for some or all of that abusive eldercare, what’s the invisible price tag? Fear of decline and death may exacerbate the elder’s abusive behaviours that caregivers remember from childhood, triggering a whole new round of the abusive cycles. At best these might be simply awkward and uncomfortable, or at worst escalating (for example) as adult children now in role reversals begin to exercise their new powers in retaliatory fashion. Attempts to repair and reconcile are emotionally perilous if the elder abuser is still in denial about owning their actions or the impacts–both intended or otherwise–of their actions. Especially if the caregiver is an only child and feeling trapped on the hook of providing care or support even from a distance for an unrepentantly abusive elder, there will be precious little safety for them in this situation.

If the members of the sickened family system can step outside those old habitual patterns and fears, there might be a chance to reconcile old issues. That is an exceptionally large “IF”, however. Holding onto the hope of reconciliation can be costly; the risk of reoffence is high, therefore so is the impact of newly-redamaged or repeating disappointment or reopened wounds. Therapy can help keep a balancing, observational eye on the caretaking relationship as the situation develops. We implement a series of self-assessments and situational assessments for the caregiver, and we give explicit permission to consider alternatives. We also use therapy as a safe(r) place to vent frustrations the caregiver will preferably choose not to vent on the ailing parent. The venting space also allows the caregiver to give voice to feelings and experiences an otherwise-supportive spouse may have trouble hearing or managing for themselves, especially if the eldercare situation extends over long periods of time without respite from the care… or the abuse.

There are no clear-cut paths to “right” or “wrong” in caring for abusive elders, especially if the adult child is facing any amount of obligation-driven guilt. The sentiment “blood is thicker than water” fills a family system with a sense that the entitlement of some members to mandatory loyalty is more important than the individual mental and emotional health of other members. Often this sense of entitlement involves considerable upheaval to the caregiver’s life: relocating temporarily or long-term to be closer to ailing elders, or moving parents closer to the caregivers; full or partial financial support; intervention and/or advocacy with the parent’s medical, therapeutic, or palliative care providers; estate planning and management; acute or ongoing family mediation. All of these tasks bring their own levels of turmoil to a relationship already pockmarked or undermined by unresolved abusive behaviours, past or present.

As with any survivor of abuse, emotional support is key. Permission to consider options outside the struggle to fulfill a sense of obligation is also important. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout is a big part of supporting adult caregivers under any condition (and this also applies to those supporting the caregiver, who may burnout in their own support processes). Unpacking a sense of helpless entrapment and layers of familial guilt are work best done in therapy, even if it’s not going to be a quick process. Families will always be our most complex systems, and the ties of embedded obligation among the most difficult to unravel.

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.

Polyamory, Relationships, Uncategorized

A while ago (egads, where *has* the summer gone??), I wrote a little bit about the relationship escalator as a model for looking at the way most of us construct our romantic attachments. One of the ways polyfolk often subvert the traditional romantic attachment narratives is with the advent of something called “solo poly”:

Solo polyamory is a fluid category that covers a range of relationships, from the youthful “free agent” or recent divorcee who might want to “settle down” some day but for now wants to play the field with casual, brief, no-strings-attached connections, to the seasoned “solo poly” who has deeply committed, intimate, and lasting relationships with one or more people. Some solo polys have relationships that they consider emotionally primary, but not primary in a logistical, rank, or rules-based sense, and others don’t want the kinds of expectations and limitations that come with a primary romantic/sexual relationship.
Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE

As my parents’ generation less than respectfully looked at it, to them it was “playing the field”, a behaviour inherently and implicitly condoned in men but abhorred in women. Multiple SEXUAL partners, simultaneously rather than sequentially? Such women are SLUTS, and no-one would want to date That Kind Of Womam!! Turns out, my parents and their ilk were, thankfully, dead wrong on that account. (*whew*)

So what exactly is solo poly? In my case, it’s this part: “deeply committed, intimate, and lasting relationships with [simultaneously multiple] people.” I haven’t had a primary or hierarchical structure since my marriage ended, and with it, my need to secure my attachments to a set and predictable structure. Each of the relationships that are currently active is encouraged by its constituents to settle into its own level of involvement and investment, ranging from casual to very intensely emotionally-invested. In a lot of ways this looks a lot like relationship anarchy, and even I have to admit, I’m not entirely convinced that’s not what I have become in my old age.

“Solo polys can love deeply — being alone can mean that solo polys are deeply in touch with themselves. In many cases solo polys intend to remain “singleish” indefinitely because they are strongly motivated by autonomy, value their freedom, and identify primarily as individuals rather than as parts of a multi-person unity.” — Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE

One of the questions monogamous people always want to know about polyamoury is, “How the hell does it all work?” when the relationship escalator only provides one generic script, anything operating outside of that script is baffling. Even sometimes to those of us already (plausibly) off the escalator path, non-monogamy can be, quite frankly, baffling. One of the ways in which things get complicated, however, is the way in which we tend to project our expectations on relationships and relationship partners; in a poly structure, we may be getting involved with people who are not available to meet the expectations we’re bringing to the game. For most of my life, this was my particular downfall, time and time again. Romantic entanglement often follows our own internal scripts: we meet, we get swept up in NRE, everything is new and golden while we are in that happy, distracted state, and then things slowly start to settle in a more stable, sustainable, balancing act. In the escalator metaphor, this normally leads to talk of conjoined futures and committments and ritual ceremonies and milestones and such. In solo poly, we can still talk about futures, but the traditional milestones are *probably* going to be off the table. So how do we know we have committment if we’re not working in unity toward a sequence of such markers of social success?

Well, how be we just say, “I plan to be with you for a goodly long while,” then behave in congruence with that statement?

(Yes, I know. That should work just as well in monogamous culture, but sometimes there’s a reliance on the *rituals* to do the work of the individuals, so that the individuals don’t have to do any heavy lifting themselves. That’s one of the many places that the wheels come off the relational wagon, as it were.)

Divorce rates in the last 60 years have shown us that monogamous tradition is no guarantee of faithfulness and longevity. So relying on that narrowly-defined structure just doesn’t work for a lot of people any more. Eschewing the escalator doesn’t always mean being poly (solo or otherwise), but one of the things being solo poly DOES mean is that we can, if we choose, spread the needs of a long life over a broader table of options, without necessarily giving up a degree of independence and autonomy that we desire. I cannot begin to count the number of times friends and clients (and my own lips) have lamented feeling like “I have lost myself” at some point over the course of a relationship. It’s not that this doesn’t happen in polyamoury as well (relationships are relationships after all, and sometimes being poly just means we’re capable of making the same mistakes across MULTIPLE relationships simultaneously), but there’s often a very different, intimate system of checks and balances at work in a poly structure that, when the overall structure is healthy and secure, do an effective job of keeping any of its constituent members from getting too lost in something new and novel.

In healthy solo poly, each relationship tends to function best as separate and distinct attachments, even in situations where the SP is dating multiple members of another relational structure. We can look at the complexity of the system there, AND we can also look at the series of individual attachments; it’s a truism within poly circles that you can’t ACTUALLY date “a relationship”, because each member of that relationship is going to attach to you, and you to them, differently. The attachment lens makes it a little easier to view each relationship in its own uniqueness; yes, it means we’re doing relationship development and maintenance on multiple lines rather than on the singular line of a monogamous model, and it’s crucial to be aware of the impact and drain on time and emotional resources that can create. But the return on investment when it works is magnificent. (For comparison in the relationship escalator, think of how happy life is when your partnership, your kids, your professional colleagues, your best friend, and your family, are just all in sync and working well–how validating and peaceful is that?? When the give and take between all those factors *JUST WORKS* smoothly and meets all of your needs?)

The only difference in solo poly is that process is being created with multiple *intimate* partners at the same time. Why yes, that CAN be exhausting at high-demand times, but truthfully, it’s no different than juggling multiple demands from partner, kids, jobs, family members, community or volunteer obligations. Solo poly folks are every bit as responsible for working to find a balance that works for them as anyone else in any kind of relationship, including the delicate balance of tending to equate allotted time with emotional prioritization. At its core, solo poly’s relationship development and maintenance strategies don’t look any different from any other form of intimate relational development EXCEPT in terms of plurality.

It’s work at times, sure; but then again, what relationship worth having *isn’t*?

Relationships, Uncategorized

Once again, a common theme is arising from conversations I’ve had several times with clients in recent weeks, in the vein of, “My partner is finally giving me everything I’ve been asking for, so why am I still not happy?”

Well, as it happens, I have a theory about that.

Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness is a great book that presents in very accessible language a significant body of research into the experience of happiness (Knopf 2009). Read in conjunction with Martin Seligman’s work on Authentic Happiness and flourishing, theswe resources chart (among other things) the idea of how we as both individuals and broader societies establish the expectation of a “baseline” happiness against which we measure our subjective experiences.

Gilbert’s stance is rooted in the idea that each of us has a unique baseline of happiness that is reasonably fixed; this explains why some people just seem perpetually joyous, and others seem fixedly dour.

“One of the most striking findings from the booming new field of happiness research has been that people have fairly sticky baselines. With only a few exceptions, people tend to return to the same level of happiness over time, regardless of what happens to them — even extremely good events like winning the lottery, or extremely bad events like becoming a paraplegic, only seem to bump people’s reported happiness up or down for a limited time, before they start to drift back to their baseline.”– Julia Galef, April 15 2011

In relational therapy I run with the idea of baseline, not so much as rigidly fixed points but as (in gaming lingo) a restore point to which we will naturally settle or return to after upheavals. Our baseline happiness in relationship will therefore be as much a product of our natural individual happiness baseline, as it is the general management of the overarching health and effective connectedness of the relationship. John Gottman refers to the “love bank”, Gary (Love Languages) Chapman refers to the “love tank”; both of these terms refer to what I think of as a healthy metric for “status quo” in intimate relationships.

Generally speaking, the give and take process of intimacy should keep all partners’ banks reasonably full most of the time. Being humans in sometimes surprising or unexpected situations will strain and drain those reservoirs on occasion; it just happens. Healthy relationships have established patterns for restoring and sustaining us while those tanks refill. Sometimes, however, relational DYSfunction will add to the ongoing erosion of the tanks and overall lowering of the baseline.

For example, we’ve previously explored the slow erosion of intimacy from other angles, and how we inadvertently create a slow continental drift apart from partners as we get busy and forget to practice vulnerability, or as a low-grade, persistent frustration or disappointment becomes an intractable fixture in our relational landscape. Over time, these just-below-the-point-of-confrontation issues will, in fact, decrease our overall happiness levels and relational contentment.

If the partners then one day come to realize, “We need to work on our relationship!”, they show up in the therapist’s office, hopefully willing to make some changes and do some work to get themselves back into fighting trim.

The problem I have been observing time and time again over the years, however, is this:

  • Partners engage in the change process.
  • One partner in particular may be making more effort than the other, doing everything that is asked of them, possibly trying to ear a way out of the doghouse and back into good graces after a bigger relationship issue
  • The other partner, being handed everything they say they want or have asked for continues to experience dissatisfaction or reluctance in the engagement, and eventually comes to wonder, “If I’m getting everything I want, WHY AM I NOT HAPPY???”

Part of the issue is the cagey wariness of mistrusting change efforts, but I also theorize that the baseline happiness for each relational partner is now established at VERY different levels.

In the New Relationship Energy state when everything is glowing and golden and delightful in the nascent relationship, we establish a fairly high baseline of happiness for both partners. On an completely-arbitrary happiness scale of 0 (I hate you, you asshole, and I want you to die) to 10 (I love you, you are my golden god/dess, and I never want these halcyon days to ever end), NRE baselines can often be 8 or 9, spiking to 10 or sometimes off the charts. As the relationship develops some structure and routine over time, that baseline will generally settle to something more like a steady 7, maybe a 6. Distractions like work or kids can drop the baseline to more like a 5–neither golden glory but not deepest hell, but level with the usual kinds of things pulling us up or down.

As those distractions become festering hurts or challenges or repeating disconnection and disengagement, however, one partner’s baseline may continue to erode, even while the other partner may remain blissfully unaware there’s even a problem. Ergo, by the time the partners make it to my office, they may both agree they need and want to work on the relationship, and they may both come in with equal willingness to embrace a change process… BUT THEY MAY EACH BE STARTING FROM VERY DIFFERENT BASELINES.

In these cases, the one partner who is “doing everything you asked of me” is just as baffled as the partner making the requests, as to why it feels like nothing has improved. The partner with the lower baseline may, in fact, have increased their general level of engagement and contentment in the relationship, but it does’t in any way guarantee that they have returned to previous “normal” baselines, never mind the glory days of the NRE baselines. The partner with the higher level may have likewise increased their overall baseline happiness in the relationship, and be wondering why they seem to be alone on that plateau: it’s because they are.

If Partner A is starting from a baseline of 5 and increases their relational happiness to a 7, that’s great. Partner B may also manage a 2-point increase, but if their starting baseline was a 2 or a 3, then they are barely even getting to where Partner A *started*, never mind to where Partner A has moved up.

It can become very apparent very quickly if there are discrepancies in these baseline states. “Letting a partner out of the doghouse” is a big red flag that someone may be *unwilling* to shift their baseline, or there may be complicating issues like anxiety or depression, or historic attachment injuries, to take into account. Sometimes one partner has a greater leap of faith to make that “this time something will be different.” Regardless of the confounding variables in the room, it behooves us as the therapists in the process to draw some attention to these imbalanced starting points. Couples often make the mistake of assuming that being in agreement on the need to make changes, and equally committed to doing whatever work they identify as necessary, must ALSO mean that (a) their individual ability *to change* is equal, and that (b) they begin from the same place in the happiness scale.

One of my takeaways from coming to this realization is the need I have for a single, simple assessment tool for establishing a relative (and highly subjective, since it’s self-reporting) individual baseline relationship contentment and satisfaction. There probably is such a thing either in Gottman’s or Seligman’s toolkit (or even Chapman’s), I just haven’t had time to wade into the research material to look for it yet. But having such a thing to SHOW clients some kind of simple representation of their unequal starting points seems like it would be a very good thing. I did liken it recently to the differences in starting pole or grid positions in auto racing. It’s one thing to start out in the pole position, entirely another to be starting from the back of the pack; the latter has to work considerably harder to catch up to where the former starts.

Being able to illustrate that difference is key to setting realistic expectations, and for discussing milestones and goals within the change process that are perhaps defined individually, rather than embedded in the “WE”-ness of coupledom. But it’s also going to be a piece of critical understanding ABOUT each other, something needful for developing compassion about the unique experience we each have of the other. One partner may want to keep forging ahead with changes while the other feels like the are struggling to catch up, and that can continue to build on existing frustrations and disappointments, rather than supporting the changes they came to therapy to make. Stay conscious of the differences, apply the brakes or gentle encouragements as needed, and check baselines on the INDIVIDUAL level, not the RELATIONAL level.

Relationships, Uncategorized

Dr Harriet Lerner, author of several wonderful books about relational dynamics, describes the intricate movements toward, and away from, the intensity of intimacy (especially in the sense of emotional vulnerability) as a dance. This dance is based in the idea that the closer we get to letting a partner in to seeing what we feel are our “true selves”, the more we inadvertently activate emotional defenses around our growing discomfort, potentially stalling out or actively driving away attempts at the very intimacy and connection most humans crave.

This push-me-pull-you dynamic is also sometimes illustrated by the hedgehog’s dilemma:

Both Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud have used this situation to describe what they feel is the state of the individual in relation to others in society. The hedgehog’s dilemma suggests that despite goodwill, human intimacy cannot occur without substantial mutual harm, and what results is cautious behavior and weak relationships. With the hedgehog’s dilemma, one is recommended to use moderation in affairs with others both because of self-interest, as well as out of consideration for others.

The fundamental dynamic of the hedgehog’s dilemma is based in how we attract and repel people. Lerner terms this a “distancer-pursuer” dynamic in which we begin by pursuing connection through a courtship phase, then begin to seek some separation and space once we hit too much togetherness, or too-intimate a closeness–either way, it’s generally perceived as being “too much” for us, so we push off from our partners. Sometimes this happens simultaneously, but more often than not, one person’s tolerance for intimacy and closeness tops out before the other’s does, and only one partner starts to move towards more space.

When we look at this through attachment dynamics, the push-off of the distance-seeker can often trigger insecurity in the attachment structure, and the one who is insecure or anxious in the attachment will begin to grasp or cling in an attempt to draw the retreating partner back into connection. The grasping increases intensity for the one who is already potentially in retreat, so the retreating continues until the pursuer “gives up” and stops their efforts. Often this creates a turnabout in the relational dynamic: even if the distancer is feeling overwrought by the pursuit, there is some validation in that dynamic that proves the pursuing partner is still engaged, still focused, still available and desiring interaction (of ANY kind, not always the GOOD kind, in the sense of “bad engagement is better than NO engagement”). So when the pursuit simply STOPS, the distancer may suddenly become the anxious partner trying to re-engage a disengaged one. (This is where we will sometimes see Wexler’s broken mirror syndrome come into play as one partner “acts out” in attempts to entice or manipulate a no-longer-reflective surface back into alignment in their perspective).

This dynamic can repeat throughout the lifespan of relationships, and the roles can reverse many times.

“A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression. They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and take it personally.

They criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable. They believe they have superior values. If they fail to connect, they will collapse into a cold, detached state. They are labeled needy, demanding, and nagging.

A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want physical and emotional distance. They have difficulty with vulnerability.

They respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. They see themselves as private and self-reliant. They are most approachable when they don’t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued. They are labeled unavailable, withholding, and shut down.”


“In her study of 1,400 divorced individuals over 30 years, E. Mavis Hetherington found that couples who were stuck in this mode were at the highest risk for divorce. Researcher Dr. John Gottman also noted that this destructive pattern is an extremely common cause of divorce. He claims that if left unresolved, the pursuer-distancer pattern will continue into a second marriage and subsequent intimate relationships.” — Steve Horsmon, for The Gottman Institute, March 6, 2017

Stepping outside of this dynamic can be difficult when we consider the underlying anxieties, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to let go of them. Distancers often maintain their status quo stance for long terms if the pressure of pursuit is persistent or constant, or once the pursuer’s anger becomes part of the equation; therefore the first order of business is generally finding ways to de-escalate and secure the pursuer. This effort comes with a warning to the pursuers, however: pursuers are likely to leave the relationship, seemingly abruptly, after exhausting efforts to maintain the pursuit against defensive distancing. Lerner writes extensively about working with distancers to find ways of relearning how to “turn toward” their partners, rather than turning away, while training pursuers to relax and trust that there is something true in the old adage that, “If you love something, set it free.” Attachment theory frames this in the context of working around the anxieties and intensity tolerances present in the relationship. Gottman addresses the way in which this dynamic opens the door to the Four Horsemen: Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling (Distancing). Emotionally-focused Therapy would consider this from the angle of articulating and exploring these underlying fears with as much nonjudgmental curiosity and receptivity as possible.

Changes must be driven by a desire to be a better partner, not to get some instant result or reciprocation. Pursuers are known for being outcome dependent and have a hard time making changes without expectations. Distancers are known for being stubborn and have difficulty making the first move when under pressure.” — [ibid.]

Rebuilding trust and security in the face of long-term distancer-pursuer dynamics requires commitment to understanding and trusting the potential for intimacy, and practicing vulnerability in the face of our own discomfort with intensity tolerance. When I ask couples on intake whether they’re in my office for “relationship counselling or relationship cancelling”, this is often the work that we as therapists are asking them to undertake. It’s not an easy thing to (re-)establish that trust and build security into the attachments, but oh-so-wonderful when we see clients expanding their tolerances and shifting those comfort boundaries to let their partners (back) into those intimate connections.