Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not unfixable. That’s the best news.

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

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

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

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

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

There is a common relational myth that used to float around about how “women marry their fathers and men marry their mothers”. It’s true that many of us unconsciously gravitate towards partners who embody traits and behaviours that feel familiar and therefore comforting (or controllable), whether they be healthy and effective behaviours or not.

Something that *IS* a truism in human behaviour is that we form relationships according to the invisible models we carry forward from our earliest experiences, usually based on what we observe and internalize from our parents’ or adult caregivers’ relationships. These models then show up in our own adult relationships as unconscious influences that can sometimes work against us as much as for us. If we feel like we were emotionally neglected by a parent, for example, we might find ourselves in adult relationship, seeking someone who reminds us of that parent, and trying to prove through that similar-seeming relationship that we ARE worthy of the love we didn’t get the first time around, or that we ARE capable of attracting and holding onto attention from a similar kind of personality. When we use adult relationships to heal early attachment injuries, for example, we’re appropriating an inappropriate platform to act out or address some very unfinished emotional business that often has far less to do withe this current relationship than it does with a degree of accrued pain that predates it.

So what, exactly, is an attachment injury?

“By definition an Attachment Injury (AI) is a relational trauma – an event [that] shatters the attachment bond between intimates. One partner violates the expectation that the other will offer comfort and caring at a time of urgent need. This pivotal event redefines the relationship as unsafe and untrustworthy from that moment on.

In a safe, secure bond, hurts happen and hurts are repaired. Injured partners reach safely to share their pain. Offending partners tune into injured partners’ pain and reach back to them in an attuned way that shows they truly feel the painful impact of the event. Emotionally attuned reaching and responding restores the bond. However, when couples cannot walk the path towards repairing a broken bond and rebuilding trust, they spiral into a distancing dance. Failure to respond to a hurtful event, whether seemingly large (as when an affair with one’s best friend is discovered) or seemingly small (such as when a call for help is ignored) – remains as a pivotal moment that redefines the relationship as unsafe and untrustworthy.”
–Lorrie Brubacher, originally published as a “Toolbox” article in the ICEEFT EFT Community News, Spring 2015; sourced from Carolina EFT

This kind of relational hurt happens all the time, from slights we seem to brush off to catastrophic betrayals such as adultery. John Gottman writes at length about how he determines couples’ success or failure rates based on how well the couple handles these repair attempts and connection bids. But when the repairs and connection bids fail, one or both parties may internalize the disconnect in the relationship as an attachment injury: something that can hurt a great deal in the moment, and if it is perceived as part of a larger pattern, becomes something that at best creates a divisive wedge in the couple, and at worst becomes outright corrosive and destructive when the unacknowledged pain becomes too great to manage and we become reactive and volatile, emotionally or physically.

Something we see with frightening regularity when working with adult attachment issues in clients’ current relationships, is that the holding or nursing of unacknowledged hurts is a pattern that goes much further back in the individual or couple history. Kids who grow up in homes where they perceive parents don’t hear or make time for the child’s experiences, grow up to become adults who don’t know how to express their emotional pains, or already carry the belief that they don’t want to burden a partner with their experiences, so they bottle things up inside. But instead of creating the closeness and vulnerable intimacy most of us crave, or claim to crave, in romantic partnerships, the lack of vulnerability, the lack of trusting partners to hear and assist us, creates only further isolation.

Putting aside the weird and awkward Oedipal/Electra issues that Greek mythology teaches us about killing one parent and marrying the other, most of us don’t LITERALLY go looking to marry a parent. But it’s surprising how many of us fall into familiar patterns of relationship as if *THIS TIME*, we’ll be able to fix the things that hurt us, that we couldn’t address effectively, the last time. This is something I have long suspected (even longer than I’ve been a therapist) underlies the trend in people to “have a type” of person they get involved with; familiarity seems comforting, and we feel we know how to interact safely with “this type” or “that type” of person. (We’ll leave aside for a moment the classic definition of “insanity”, namely doing the same thing over and over and over with the hard-held belief that this time something will somehow magically be different; I digress.)

Sometimes these attachment injuries don’t have to go all the way back to our families of origin (though our patterns of decision making around reactions and responses to these hurts often do). For example, couples dealing with an infidelity may find that the partner who has been cheated on has difficulty “letting go and just moving on with fixing the relationship”. In looking at the situation that enabled the infidelity to occur, we look at the patterns of connection in the couple prior to that point to look for places where the connections have been secure, and where the attachments may have been injured and unaddressed, or inadequately repaired. I often find that if the “injured” half of the couple cannot identify a set of success criteria that would allow them to safely make the statement, “I trust that this will never happen again”, the inability to choose trust is often tied to a series of unaddressed hurts through the relationship history that, on a MUCH BIGGER scope than just the infidelity itself might suggest, prevent the injured party from being able to safely resume the attachment. So it’s not just the one betrayal we need to repair in session, but rather a successive pattern of attachment injuries that probably exists on both sides of the relational rift.

When these patterns of attachment injuries come into any new relationship with us from previous experiences, it’s like bringing the ghosts and skeletons of all our previous relationship hurts along in among all our other baggage. When we are reluctant to openly trust new partners “because I’ve been hurt before”, that’s an example of how we allow our previous attachment injuries to haunt us into our present relationships. When we bring entire laundry lists of hurts and grievances into the latest fight with our partner over not taking the garbage out, that’s another example of how our unaddressed attachment injuries become much bigger than the current trigger (and why we as therapists often reiterate to our clients that “the thing you’re fighting about isn’t really the thing you’re fighting about”).

Emotionally-focused techniques often help clients struggling with attachment injuries find ways of articulating the things that hurt, and the impact of those experiences, as well as helping clients who struggle to remain present with a partner’s emotional Stuff without either taking it personally or being overwhelmed by it. We work to unravel the belief that fixing relationship hurts and attachment injuries is about setting a series of Herculean tasks your partner must perform in order to be deemed worthy of you choosing to return your trust to them, and less about being able to enter some emotionally painful space and have that pain heard and acknowledged, appropriately and effectively, by all parties involved. Sometimes there are change behaviours to negotiate, but often couples in this path find that recovery and repair become less about the actions, and more about the listening and reception of the emotional experiences, that goes further toward addressing the fundamental pain of the disconnection.