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.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Self-Development

Lately I’ve been noting another repeating conversation with several clients who are struggling to make changes in their relationships. Whether I cover this topic with individuals or with couples, it often starts with a similar refrain:

“I’m doing all this work and making all this effort, and my partner’s making no effort at all!”

While no therapist in the world will dispute that sometimes partners DON’T engage in a change process for a variety of reasons, there are innumerable ways in which a partner might be engaging in an *incredible* amount of effort… just not where it’s visible.

One of the ways I’ve been noticing lately in which this perspective becomes hugely important in relational work, is in considering the notion that in partnerships, we have a tendency to ASSUME that our partners are enough like us that their baselines for many things are comparable (equal) to our own. Emotional baselines is a concept I’m extrapolating from Martin Seligman’s work on happiness, in which he notes that everyone has a different baseline for happiness, and while they may be able to move above or below their respective baselines as provoked by circumstances, the individual baselines to which they return are not guaranteed to be equal to anyone else’s: not a partner’s, not their family’s, not their colleagues, not their therapist’s… sometimes, not even the individual’s own expectation for where they think their baseline SHOULD be.

If we run with the assumption that happiness as an emotional experience can have wildly different individual baseline settings, then it seems to follow that ALL emotional experiences have different individual baselines. From there, recognizing we all have different baseline skillsets for self-reflection, or different baseline aptitudes for change feels like a natural corollary.

In relationships, especially those trying to change out of crisis into stability, we have to take into consideration the idea that all parties are NOT starting the process from the same place. They may be on the same page about agreeing change is necessary, and even agreeing what change is necessary, but where the wheels come off the wagon in therapy is discovering the hard way that this in no way guarantees starting from the same place to effect those changes. Ergo, the partner who can more readily engage changes in personal or interpersonal behaviours is always going to seem and feel like they are making all the effort while the other partner makes no visible effort at all.

This is where we go looking at what’s happening below each partner’s individual waterline. Anxious or avoidant partners will always struggle longer and harder to overcome their fears than a securely-attached partner, or even one who may be anxious but more motivated by fear of losing the relationship to try pretty much ANYTHING to head catastrophe off at the pass. So there may be HUGE efforts on the part of one partner, but because they involve trying to surmount the internal fear-drenched scripts and anxious narratives or negative self-talk, all of that work remains invisible to the external perspectives. It takes enormous effort for the lower baseline partner to even get up to where the higher-baseline partner is starting from… and all this time, the higher-baseline partner is moving ahead, moving away, assuming their partner is in lockstep with them, disappointed when they discover this isn’t the case. Advancements are happening, more often than not, or at least effort is occurring, but imagine starting a straight-course race in which the two runners start out with one already 50m in the lead; obviously, they’re going to move ahead at their own pace which the other runner is going to take some time to even reach the former’s starting block, never mind catch up.

We also have to consider the potential disparity in *ability* to change, and the capacity to tolerate the impact of change (uncertainty, instability, discomfort, mistrust of Self/Other/process in general, fear of failure… this is a sampling from a long list of potential effects). We already recognize that not everyone shares a common baseline for self-observation and non-judgmental self-analysis. These are key components in engaging any kind of developmental change process for the self or within relationship. Avoidance of looking into the fire of our own discomfort is going to make it considerably more of a challenge to look at what CAN change, let alone face the risk of what is intrinsically a risky, trial-and-error process with what feel like astronomically high emotional stakes.

Yeah, confronting those kinds of emotional terrors, I know *I* have historically failed to joyously embrace change processes, even ones I cognitively understood to be vast improvements on current situations.

So when we find these kinds of statements cropping up in the counselling room, we detour off the process track a little ways, and sit with the partner “in the lead” of the change process, and consider what they know or understand about their partner. There’s usually (not always, but more often than not) something we can discern about the “lagging” partner that lets us glimpse a little below the waterline to reframe what may be happening as a difference in starting points. We can then introduce a number of options to help mitigate the frustration of that perceived disparity of effort: we illustrate the potential efforts being waged internally by the partner to just get up to the other’s starting point. We introduce compassion for that catch-up effort, and consider whether there is value in slowing down the leading partner’s efforts to include more coaxing/coaching/collaborative support rather than frustration and berating, or if there are ways to stay engaged while still moving ahead at separate paces. We can introduce a variety of new communicative check-in options that encourage partners to share more transparently the experiences and challenges of their own change process and attendant emotional experiences. We build understanding (and hopefully respect) for those differential baselines, and how understanding where those baselines rest impacts almost everything about relational dynamics. We discuss whether or not baselines can be adjusted as individual work or part of the relational development work.

But at all times, we maintain a check on the assumption that all things are equal, especially in change processes. We want to believe our partners are “just like us”, but it’s the places where they are different that make relationships both some of our greatest excitement, and some of our greatest strain, but always our greatest adventures.

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

“Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.”
― Amy Bloom

Have you ever wondered how prickly creatures like hedgehogs and porcupines ever manage to get close and snuggly with each other? The punchline to the untold joke is, “Very carefully.” If you can picture in your mind those spikes and barbs intermixing in vulnerable proximity, you’ve got a good working image of human intimacy as well.

It’s rumoured that Freud kept a statue of a porcupine on his workdesk as a reminder of a Schopenhauer fable:

“A troop of porcupines is milling about on a cold winter’s day. In order to keep from freezing, the animals move closer together. Just as they are close enough to huddle, however, they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread out, lose the advantage of commingling, and begin to shiver. This sends them back in search of each other, and the cycle repeats as they struggle to find a comfortable distance between entanglement and freezing.” — from Deborah Leupnitz, Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Intimacy and its Dilemmas, Perseus Books, 2002

There is a vibrant, powerful, push-me-pull-you dynamic to most intimate relationships; this is the Hedehog’s Dilemma. Most humans crave connection with others, regardless of whether you believe it rooted in primal, umbilical attachment or simply a principle of unity; it’s a cliche, perhaps that “no man is an island”. But the truth of our pursuit of intimate connection is a prickly process at best, because the closer most of us get to true intimacy and vulnerability, the more likely we are to push those getting close away from us, but quiet shutdowns or forceful ejections, and many ways and means in between. Perhaps it’s the fear of being seen; for others it’s the craving for close connection rubbing raw our fear of losing ourselves, of becoming something less than autonomous:

“In adulthood, when we find ourselves in an intimate relationship, we each experience again, even if only in attenuated form, those early struggles around separation and unity–the conflict between wanting to be one with another and the desire for an autonomous, independent self… each [adult] brings with her or him two people–the adult who says “I do,” and the child within who once knew both the agony and ecstasy of symbiotic union. […] Of course, as adults we know there’s no return to the old symbiotic union; of course, survival is no longer at stake in separation. But the child within feels a if this were still a reality. And the adult responds to the archaic memory of those early feelings even though they’re far from consciousness. Thus we don’t usually know what buffets us about–what makes us eager to plunge into a relationship one moment and frightens us into anxious withdrawal the next.” –Lillian Rubin, “Fears of Intimacy”, Challenge of the Heart: Love, Sex, and Intimacy in Changing Times; John Welwood, ed. Shambhala Books, 1985

The closer we get to allowing someone to truly “see us” — warts and scars and sabotaging behaviours and thought patterns and insecurities and all — the more terrified many people will become at the idea of BEING seen. We become terrified at the “what if” scenarios to follow someone catching even a glimpse of what we believe to be our core selves, our “hearts of darkness”.

The more fearful we become, the more our native defenses kick on, or into overdrive, to protect that terrified core self. That darkened spot is home to our chiefest vulnerabilities, our quintessential attachment wounds, and must be protected at all costs. Et voila! Prickliness that makes it seemingly impossible for someone to get past our defenses… right around the same time someone is probably erecting defenses against US.

“We long to be seen, understood, and cherished. But so often we have felt betrayed, hurt, and devalued. As a result, we may carry a rawness that we don’t want people to see or touch. We may not even allow ourselves to notice this place when a protective scab has numbed its presence. Confusion and conflict reign when we pull on people to soothe an inner place that we have abandoned. […] Sadly, we often perpetuate a loop in which our fear of rejection or failure or our continued isolation creates a desperation that drives us to attack or shame people to get what we want… Beneath this display of hostility, we are hurting or afraid. But instead of sweetly revealing these tender feelings, we’re on the warpath, although we’re often punching the shadows that linger from our past.” — John Amadeo, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships; Quest Books 2013

The challenge of getting through the spines and barbs of another person’s defensive strategies is developing the patience and willingness to sit in the fire of discomfort: both our own, and our partner’s. This can be made easier or more difficult depending on the shape of those defenses. Patterns of aggressive defensive can break us down over time when we’re on the receiving end, as can the internal cost of maintaining our high-drain defense systems. Intimacy is the result of vulnerability, which itself is the result of developing sufficient trust in both ourselves and our partners (and the attachment systems operating between us) to lower the defensive mechanisms, to let someone get close to our secret, core selves. David Richo refers to “erasing the storyboard” as a metaphor for detaching ourselves from the stories we carry about our personal attachment injuries:

“The more challenging surrender is to a person, to a commitment to a relationship of trust. It is said that we…have problems surrendering to someone because it feels as if we are giving up our freedom, something we may cling to as our most prized possession. This is why we so often feel a fear of closeness and commitment, actually a fear of trusting how we will feel in the midst of those experiences. […] It may take a partner a long time to convince us that it is safe to love… unreservedly. [They] will have to be willing to allow a long series of open-ended experiences, ones in which the door is continually visible and open in case we need to make a fast getaway. It may be hard for us to find someone with that kind of patience, and would we respect someone willing to be that self-sacrificing with no promise of return?” — David Richo. Daring to Trust: Opening Ourselves to Real Love and Intimacy; Shambhala Books, 2010

Learning how to detach from our beliefs about our own experiences, how to “love like we’ve never been hurt”, and to trust that our partners are building connection with us with GOOD intentions, is in many ways the core work of simply being in relationship. For many of us, the exhilaration of discovery and being seen is coloured by the fear of actually BEING SEEN, of recognizing our defensive challenges and knowing it’s going to take work to lower them. Many of us who have grown up in situations where we have learned a desire to have someone else overcome our defenses for us, are missing the opportunity to learn the scope of our own power and agency; to be overpowered still introduces uncomfortable power dynamics and potential boundary issues, whereas exerting personal agency to chose when and how we allow someone to see our vulnerable cores, is all about learning the shape of our own selves. The more we invest in a defensive stance, the more we risk remaining on the outside of powerfully intimate connection. But the intensity of the fear, the intensity of having our raw selves scrutinized by the Other and potentially judged as harshly as we judge our own faults and flaws, is often to much for people; we make an attempt, can’t stand the heat, and flee.

And so the hedgehog’s dilemma persists: we seek the warmth and closeness of others, but we can’t get around the sharp and spiky bits (ours or theirs), and we jerk away.

Intimacy is truly a prickly business.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

Plato thought what we see in the physical world is a dim reflection of the true ideal thing. For example circular objects are crude approximations to the ideal perfect circle. Platonic analysis aims to understand the physical world in terms of the ideals that capture the real essence that is dimly reflected in physical existence. — from here

It’s not very often I get to break out dead Greek philosophers before I finish my first coffee of the day. I’ve been reminded recently of a profound and repetitive pattern in relationship work that definitely gets in the way of effective intimacy, and that is the projection of some form of idealized partner in between us and the real, living, breathing, flawed human being(s) we’re partnered with.

The core of the Platonic ideal is that what we experience through the lenses of our flawed human-world existence, is simply a pale copy of an Ideal Version that exists on another plane to which we have no access. (Fans of Canadian fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay may be familiar with his “stacked worlds” in which all his novel settings are but pale copies in varying removes from the “perfect realm” of Fionavar.) I had opportunity recently to observe in action a series of client behaviours that reminded me that we sometimes similarly carry in our minds an ideal version of our partners that causes us significant frustration or distress when the reality and the ideal fall out of sync.

“My partner just never behaves the way I expect them to!”
“Why can’t they just be the better person I believe they can be??”
“I tried to change them.”

For better or for worse, most of us carry some kind of “romantic ideal partner” in our heads. This is the basic shape of the partner we wish to have, a perfect fit for all our needs and wants, the mold into which we then try to fit any human partners we acquire. Sometimes we do a reasonable job of adjusting our expectations down from that idealized, “perfect version” to fit the actual human we wake up to in the mornings, but sometimes we can’t let go of the ideals enough to fit ourselves in with this other imperfect human being.

(For the record, this happens almost as often with parents projecting their dreams and ideals onto their children as it does between romantic partners, and works out about as well as you’d think, when children fail to absorb and conform to those projections. This post concerns itself with the adult romantic version of the projection dynamic.)

There are all kinds of conversation triggers that indicate the presence of an idealized blockade. The sample quotes above are some of the more obvious ones I’ve encountered. Often we uncover a sense of what the speaker thinks or believes the Other COULD be, if only they were someone other than their imperfect selves. This method of projecting the idealized Other into a relationship is an absolute obstacle to authenticity and intimacy. If we insist on only interacting with the idealized Other, we set ourselves up for a great deal of frustration. Unsurprisingly, significant tension and eventual disconnect are what most commonly spool out from trying to force a partner to conform to our ideals (this is a major underpinning of Wexler’s “broken mirror syndrome”, for example) without a great deal of negotiation and consent.

There are a lot of theories swirling around the question of WHY we adhere to the ideal of the Other. Some theorists suggest we adapt our early, new-relationship-energy-fueled perceptions that our new partners are perfect and flawless into deep yearnings rooted in our earliest caregivers, looking for the perfect union or synthesis of need and provision on all levels. We carry an invisible internal model of that perfect provision:

As emotional bonding with our first caregiver follows us throughout our whole life and the child we carry inside us cries for love, feeling the need to love and be loved, we end up idealizing the other person without understanding it. We subconsciously want to revive the archetypal bond with our mother and more specifically the first year of our life[…] We project onto the person in front of us everything we want and miss. The empirical knowledge we have for the other person is then getting distorted, complemented, and enriched at will, namely according to our personal needs. Our partner is unintentionally turned into all the things we need him to be, things usually far away from what he really is. — Iro Dimitriou, “Looking for the Idealized Other

Spiritual theorists suggest it is a form of humanity’s drive to seek reunification with a divine Other that takes the shape of seeking “completion of self” through bonding with idealized Other:

Each is loved more profoundly in the ideal Other because each’s true self is realized through its unity with this ideal beloved; each’s agency is unified in this ideal Other, the abiding attention by whom, and the abiding intention of whom, purifies, joins, and sustains the manifold interactions of the universal community. — James Hart, The Person and the Common Life: Studies in a Husserlian Social Ethics

In both cases, we seek the ideal Other as a means of completing something in ourselves, addressing our internal needs in the most satisfying way possible. The ideal Other is the partner we desire above all else, the perfection we feel we deserve. The problems arise in confronting the uncomfortable truth that neither we nor our partners *are* perfect. How do we manage ourselves and our relationships when we realize that our partners cannot perfectly meet our needs?

In a projection scenario, what happens is that the disappointed partners continue to superimpose the idealized version between themselves and the source of their frustration. They come into the counselling offices seeking help with coping but what they really want is the secret trick to make partners conform perfectly to our needs and wants. “Tell me how to make my partner change!”

The problem isn’t necessarily that our partners won’t change, so much as it is our own stubborn refusal to accept what *IS* over the what *COULD BE*. I often ask my clients, “Knowing everything that you know about your partner right here and now, today, including all the thorny parts that are driving you nutty, is this someone you WANT to be in relationship with?”, because if someone can’t separate out what they see in real-time from the projection of that unrealistic Platonic Ideal, then we have a problem that isn’t about the relationship so much as it is an unyielding outcome attachment. If partners are only allowed to occupy the limited, confining space we make for them in our idealizations, then we’re not really allowing our partners or ourselves to be authentically in the relationship with our wounds, warts, and war stories. We may feel we deserve better. We refuse to let go of what the Other SHOULD BE, in our opinions, to the detriment of learning to see what really is.

It’s like getting into a relationship with someone, stapling a mask of a superhero to their face, and then never allowing them to be anyone BUT that mask. The implications and repercussions of any failure to conform to that constrained Ideal include personal dysregulation and overall destabilization of the relationship across a spectrum of severity.

This is the very antithesis of vulnerability, the core component of intimacy. It completely abnegates the potential for authenticity all around. The message we send by sticking to our projected Ideal Other is, “Who you really are is not good enough.” And if that’s a message you send to your flawed and human partners… why are you in relationship with them, then?

Working with clients to dismantle the projections is difficult work. We have to consider and discover (as best we can) where the need for the projection originates. We don’t really care where the projection itself comes from; why a client refuses to relinquish it, is the more important therapeutic question; like many defensive mechanisms, it was likely created to serve a purpose, but that original purpose may now be obstructing paths to mature relational intimacies. Being open to the less-ideal qualities of our partners means learning to sit with, and examine, the tensions and discomforts generated by encountering places where they are not what we expect, or not what we want. We balance what we know of them with what we know of our own needs, and we consider how to explore those intersections where the disconnect seems most problematic. What has been communicated and what has not? Is the message articulated effectively? Can we determine any obvious (or discoverable) blocks to reception of our connection attempts on the partner’s side? If our standard response to a partner’s failure to accept our idealized Other is to become critical, or manipulative to the end of forcing compliance and conformity with our needs, partners may understandably become resistant to their partners, or at least to their projections, over time. That potential resistance has to be taken into account when shaping expectations for any restoration phase.

Teaching clients how to let go of their projections, however, means teaching them how to open themselves up to the experience of the Authentic Other. We do this by reintroducing curiosity as a tool for navigating the rough waters between “What We Thought We Knew” (the projection) and “What Is Really In Front of Us” (the authentic other). We rebalance emotional investments by moving effort from “I must force you to comply so I don’t feel insecure” (Harriet Lerner’s “You change so I feel better!” dysfunctional relationship’s rallying cry) to, “How do *I* see, and choose to relate to, the actual person in front of me?”. We challenge clients to be better with (which is NOT the same as “be GOOD with”) the instability of dealing with another autonomous individual by strengthening their own internal sense of Self.

But always, we come back to breaking through the projection. We hold that there is a place to value ideals, but on a day-to-day basis, we have to relate effectively to the *real* Other who occupies that space with us. We can continue to choose to wield projections as obstructions to intimacy, or we can choose to explore and develop vulnerable connection.

What do you choose?

(There’s a whole related conversation I have with the *partners* of those who get stuck in patterns of Idealized Othering, on how to stand their ground and defend boundaries against the projections, but that’s a post topic for another day.)

Attachments, Relationships

[O]ur marriage wasn’t hellish, it was simply dispiriting. My wife and I didn’t hate each other, we simply got on each other’s nerves. Over the years we each had accumulated a store of minor unresolved grievances. Our marriage was a mechanism so encrusted with small disappointments and petty grudges that its parts no longer closed. — John Taylor, Falling: The Story of One Marriage

So go love’s small murders, tiny, everyday escalations of injury reacted to by disconnection, causing more injury, until one fast-forwards to a couple whose initial passion has become so “encrusted” with disappointment that they barely function as a couple any longer. …[I]n relational recovery we are drawn to the cumulative effect of such everyday lesions […] they are also the media through which the couple’s unique downward spiral plays itself out. The degeneration of connection that spans years is made up of tiny incidents of disconnect that span mere moments. — Terry Real, How Can I Get Close to You (pg. 147-8)

Many different kinds of precipitating events might be called “crisis” when it comes to managing the breakdowns in intimate relationships, unmaking love, but comparatively few relational crises actually arrive on the heels of catastrophic events like a death or disclosed infidelity. Perhaps the more heartbreaking stories are the ones achieved by the slow erosion of intimacy in a relationship. Rather than a swift, surgically-precise sword stroke dismembering the partnership, there is a glacially slow process by which the thousand tiny cuts of our daily interactions go unaddressed until the cumulative pain of the unrepaired hurts becomes too much to bear.

Most intimate relationships begin with a degree of delight in responsiveness to each other. There is passionate connection and a willingness to be vulnerable, each to the limits of their own comfort and skill with vulnerability. Sometimes there is a discrepancy in those limits, or the responses aren’t what we anticipate or expect. Someone begins to push a little, and the recipient of the push resists, reacting or withdrawing; Harriet Lerner refers to versions of this dynamic as the “distancer/pursuer” dance, in which one might return the push with something that also stings the initiating partner. Little resistances, little jabs. Things our culture has taught us to shrug off, but not so much how to repair, become over time a pattern of behaviours that “encrust” the relationship so heavily that, as Taylor writes from his own experience, “its parts no longer close”.

Sometimes we allow the gulf to grow because the risk of of failure or pain in a connection attempt is too high, if we anticipate rejection and have no resiliency to hear another “no”. Sometimes we actively withhold connection once the pain of myriad little hurts becomes burdensome. One of the ways this withholding most commonly occurs in partner relationships is the demise of a sexual relationship. As Dr David Schnarch says, “If you’re going to torture your mate, sex seems to be one of the most popular ways to do it, whether it’s by the partner who wants more sex or no sex at all.”

There is a cliche that surfaces from time to time in heteronormative relationships to the effect that, “women need intimacy to feel safe in sexual desire; men need sexual connection in order to feel safe enough to consider emotional vulnerability.” It’s not limited to heteronormative relationships; it’s an endemic behaviour, rooted in simple power struggles, across ALL types of intimate sexual relationships. When the sense of vulnerable connection in a relationship begins to slowly erode, one of the first lighthouse indicators is the slow but pervasive shift in a couple’s sexual activity. That’s not to say it’s the only, or even the strongest indicator; there are a LOT of factors that can impact relational desire and sexuality, especially over time. But the connection between a lack of emotional intimacy and a lack of sex in relationships is extremely common. I’ve been in relationships myself where the dynamic has been a partner saying, “I don’t feel close to you, I need sex to feel like we’re all right”, and me saying, “I don’t really like you right now, so no, sex isn’t going to happen,” but with neither of us doing a particularly great job of circling back to address whatever the initial hurtful cut was. We fixate instead on the pressure for/absence of the superficial connectors instead; we treat the symptoms, rather than the dis-ease.

“We never have sex anymore,” a wife in a couple said to me on intake not too long ago.
“She’s never interested when I offer, so I just stopped offering. I can only hear no so many times before I get the hint,” said the husband. “Rejection’s *SO* not sexy.”

On further discussion, it becomes readily apparent when couples don’t have anything else in their relationship to hold them together, either. Often, they used to do a lot of things together, in the early dating years, but as time progressed other things–work, kids, extracurricular volunteerism or family support commitments–claimed their attention and they had little or no time in which they made an effort to stay *together* as partners. One partner’s distraction or exhaustion became another partner’s sense of rejection, and the unaddressed rejections became the reason why the hurt partner withdrew from the distracted partner, who then had to deal with their own sense of rejection and bewildered hurt…

This is, in a nutshell, the dance of intimacy, as Harriet Lerner describes in her series of relationship books. As partners recognize this sense of disconnect, they might begin to act out in small ways as an ineffective means of hurting their partner as they perceive themselves to have been hurt. Schnarch says: “your partner probably already knows what you want, and the fact you’re not getting it means he or she doesn’t want to give it to you” (as quoted here). There may be a sustained distancer/pursuer dynamic in which one partner pursues the other partner into retreat for a while, then gives up and withdraws themselves, which lures the distancing partner into a pursuing role-reversal. But each retreat, each breach of intimacy, is a small rejection or cut into the body of our attachment. The resulting hurt is cumulative and, by the straw-on-camel’s-back breaking point, utterly catastrophic.

There are a lot of ways in which therapists work to bring this dynamic to heel, hopefully bringing the couple back in intimate connection in the process. The hardest part of reopening connection is the need to recreate vulnerability, something that is acknowledged by clients as their greatest therapeutic struggle. Reopening vulnerability means talking about the pain of those thousand cuts, addressing and validating how much it hurts to be out of the intimate loop, and how much fear is in the picture when it comes time to talk about scrambling over the hurdle towards reconnection. This is John Gottman’s “repair attempt”, writ large across the face of the relationship. We HAVE TO talk about grief, shame, the responsibility for decisions made. I have clients who are looking at 30-40+ years of slowly-dissolving intimacy through a sequence of tiny, silent decisions on both sides of the divide, and struggling to see any value in even trying one more time to make things better. I have clients who are a year or two into dating someone who struggle with the same issues. The work of triggering intimacy is the work of *Romance*, but the work of maintaining and repairing intimacy, like maintenance and repair on a vehicle, is the ongoing work of *Relationship*. That’s the part many people seem to overlook, or forget. Once Romance has sealed us into a pattern, we assume the work is done.

And in those moments of faulty assumption… that’s where the unmmaking of love, the death of a thousand cuts, begins.

In the end, we can look at all the different ways by which a couple can find themselves poised on this brink of catastrophe but the most important choice clients, individually or together, can make here is, “Are we here for marriage counselling, or marriage cancelling?” (Hat-tip to my own therapist of many years, the Satir expert Gloria Taylor, for pinning me on my own intake with that question, a million years ago. It’s been an important tool in my own intake repertoire ever since.) Sometimes the work of re-attaching what seems like a fully-amputated limb is too much to face, and sometimes both parties remain hopeful AND willing AND *capable* of doing the reconstructive, “re-intimating” work. We work with what’s in the room, what the clients bring in themselves. Sometimes it’s rage and pain, sometimes fear and shame, sometimes frustration twined in hope and desire. We start where we are, and to quote Pema Chodron:

When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality. ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Difficult Times

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.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

Two people in relationship; one of them throws up their hands in despair and exclaims, “This relationship is a disaster! Everything is crap! How could you not have noticed all the problems we’re having??” The other one looks deer-in-the-headlights startled, and asks, “What problems? I thought everything was great??”

Witness in action one of the most common scenarios that will send couples into counselling: the Disparate Perceptions Issue, or, as I like to call it, Attachment Style Mismatches 101.

We tend to perceive a “relationship” as a singular entity, some amorphous thing into which two or more people enter and merge and become the mythical, “you-complete-me”, boundaryless One. In practice, however, we remain singular entities with connections to each other, and from an attachment perspective, those connections can be exceptionally different. Person A may have a secure attachment to Person B, whereas Person B is anxious and insecure in their attachment to A. Between them they view what they have established together as A Relationship, and what they also have under the hood are two potentially-conflicting attachment styles that will filter and skew how each of them perceives the general state and health of the relationship.

In the cliched and gender-biased “tradition” of the anxious woman and the disconnected (avoidant) male partner dynamic, we see this clash of attachment style in full bloom as one partner frets and micromanages issues while the other partner retreats or stonewalls emotional engagements until someone gets unhappy enough to say something.

(Note: this dynamic is not limited to this cliched traditional structure. We actually see the anxious/avoidant and anxious/secure attachment styles in relational dynamics of ALL SORTS. But sometimes cliches are useful for illustrative purposes, and I only have so many words allotted per blog post, so bear with me.)

By the time the relationship gets to a counsellor, neither one of them can understand the other’s point of view. How could A have not seen all these problems? I don’t know what B is talking about, everything is fine from where I sit. I’ve figured out a really useful metaphor for explaining to people how this works from an attachment perspective, once I’ve dropped the bomb on them that what they view as a singular Relationship is a potential fiction masking the multiplicity of attachments going on behind the scenes.

Think of a big, multi-lane roadway. For Ontarians, I’ll use the 401 as my example. We think of the 401 as a singular entity called a highway. In truth, what we see as a highway is actually two distinct directions of traffic, each one busy in its own right and moving at its own pace. Imagine what happens when construction or mishap constricts or shuts down traffic on one side of the roadway, but not the other. The impacted side gets snarled for miles and miles while driver frustration and rage rises; the other side might notice, might slow down a little, but otherwise continues on about its own business with significantly less impact to its overall flow.

Relationships, when viewed from the attachment angle, function similarly. One attachment can be in profound distress without the other attachment(s) being equally, or even similarly, affected. I tend to believe we actually do ourselves a serious disservice when we insist on viewing relationships as singular entities simply BECAUSE it blinds us to the different experiences each participant in the connection has with other people in that connection. An insecure partner is going to have a very different attachment to a partner than a secure or avoidant partner will have, but couples will often come into therapy with an expectation that because one of them can see a problem or series of issues, that the other partner can/should/must be able to see exactly the same thing(s). But attachment filters will pretty much guarantee that this is just not true. Emotional traffic has crashed to a halt on one side of the relationship, while the other side continues to sail blithely or securely on by.

When we break the notion of A Relationship out into individual attachment styles like the divided lanes on a highway, we can introduce new lexicon around defining differentiated perspectives and communication dynamics. We can begin to consider how different attachment styles impact our expectations for our partners, and how those expectations are communicated within the relationship. We can also explore more effectively how each partner recognizes and responds to distress calls within the partnership in ways that (hopefully) don’t diminish the individual needs for trust and security (there’s a whole other post or posts on how this can play out among the different attachment styles). We can help individuals investigate how their particular attachment style may contribute to connection bid and repair attempt processes and give them an established frame of reference to help them modify their own behaviours to improve those processes (i.e., normalizing client experiences by showing them, “this isn’t just you, you’re not broken; these kinds of issues are common to people with this attachment style”).

And eventually, with time and practice, we can help clients learn how to unsnarl their own attachment jams and let traffic move back up to a smooth flow in their relationship. (There’s a whole sidebar’s worth of imagery around relationship therapists as “highway traffic cops”, but until someone actually lets me drive the high-speed modified police cars, I’m just going to leave that entire topic alone.)

Uncategorized

For many years, I was a firm believer in the working distinction between faith and hope that I first learned from Bennet Wong & Jock McKeen’s The Relationship Garden:

Hope and faith are different. Whereas hope involves a dissatisfaction with self and present circumstances and is dependent on external events or people to provide change, faith is self-affirming and accepting of life as it is. In Romance, people hope that life will be better, or fuller; their hoping involves a lack of acceptance and a thrust toward change.
Disappointment is the other face of hope like hope, disappointment is based in a discontent with the present. The Romance phase is generally destined for disappointment, because the things that people are trying to change probably will not alter at all; once they emerge from the swoon of Romance, they are once again faced with their basic insecurities, and their hoping flips into disappointment. (pg 84, Joining: The New Relationship Garden)

To be in a state of hope interferes with intimacy. Hope anticipates a better circumstance in future; hence it is rooted in a dissatisfaction and non-acceptance of the present situation. In relationships, to hope for something different is to fail to contend with the situation as it is. […] When relationships reach an impasse, as they frequently do, people who rely on hope will focus on the future when things will be different. Too often, such people become passive and helpless, tending to freeze action while waiting for a favourable turn of events. On the other hand, when people in relationship have faith, they stay present to address themselves to the issues at hand with the assumption that they can make some positive adjustments; they have confidence in their capabilities to handle all difficulties. (pg. 133)

Since my first encounters with this distinction, I’ve come to feel that we require a balance of both in healthy relationships. Hope for better states of being is often a motivation to begin making those adjustments in the present; I don’t believe faith and hope to be mutually exclusive, but rather complementary counterparts of an effective change process. After all, if you don’t know what the hoped-for target actually looks like, then how do you develop faith and confidence in the idea that current changes are moving you in the right direction, or doing so effectively?

Where things get really tricky when discussing this distinction (balanced or otherwise) with others, however, it rapidly becomes clear when we’re addressing someone who is fixated on a particular future thing, be it a person, event, or situational outcome. Such people have generally emotionally invested so much in a particular outcome that they have no capacity to consider alternates or options beyond their fixated target. As a result, should the desired outcome not come about as hoped, the weight of that heavy emotional investment collapses on itself and crushes them; there is no resiliency.

It’s hard to help people get comfortable enough in their own anxieties and secure enough in their relational attachments to learn how to stay present. Part of the work involved eases people into identifying their outcome attachments, the particularly-invested reliance on things going a particular way, then looking at what fears may be tied to any other potential outcome on the table. It’s usually in this kind of conversation we often hear people say things like, “There were no other options,”, or “I had no choice” (this is almost always code for, “I didn’t like or want any of the other options available, so I didn’t want to see/acknowledge/consider/believe in them as options”).

Next we consider with the individual the disempowering lack of agency that goes with investing all their emotional energy on a situational outcome that relies on someone else’s control to make the desired changes. Wong & McKeen certainly hit a nail on the head with their observation that most often, hope is predicated on someone else doing something to make us feel better. And giving away all our power to others is one of the most striking ways in which we render ourselves utterly miserable.

The first two Noble Truths in Buddhism (yes, I keep coming back to this 🙂 ) are that all life is suffering, and that suffering is rooted in our attachments. Outcome attachment, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I wanted to get out of working in High Tech and be a full-time therapist, for example, and I hoped that one day I’d be able to do this as a full-time thing. What I also had, however, was faith in my perseverance, and faith (some days stronger than others) that I could handle the workload of juggling two careers until I could find the “perfect opportunity” to let go of the ties to IT. We really work best when we hold the tension of both faith and hope in balance. where it becomes a subtle but pervasive kind of self-sabotage is when we forget we have to take care of the present tense. In relationships, we can get so fixated on “some day this will all just be BETTER” or “some day my partner will just magically BE the idealized version of them that I want them to be” that we forget we have to deal effectively with the day-to-day emotional tides and communication requirements.

When we get caught on the hook of those attachments, at the point at which, according to Wong & McKeen, we flip from hope to disappointment, is a brief but poignant point of pain and grief for many of us. It’s the point at which we have to confront the fear of not-having, the fear of being denied something we want. There will often be a lot of other narratives triggered at that point as well, but those are posts for other days. In Buddhist terms, this point is called shenpa:

The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated “attachment,” but a more descriptive translation might be “hooked.” When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa “that sticky feeling.” It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us. – Pema Chodron, “How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked”

Humanity, as a general state, is all about avoiding its own discomfort. Religions that provide any explanation for afterlife (resurrection, reincarnation, or otherwise) are often thought to have roots in providing a target hope that counters the anxiety around our own existence. Investing in hoped-for futures explains why people play games of chance like lotteries and stock markets as much as it explains why we get into relationships: if we win big in love or Lotto 649, we’ll be happy (or happIER) *then*, right?

So, now the this-is-why-you-subscribe-to-these-posts question and answer: What the hell are we supposed to do about these attachments, once we’re aware we have the damned things?

Self-reflection, be it through meditation or other forms of self-focusing rumination, increases our awareness of the presence of these little mental gremlins. It also provides us a platform to listen for, and to, the stories we tell ourselves about the things that we want/expect/demand from our futures. WHY is the emotional investment so profound? What are the options we’re NOT looking at, and why do we discount them? (Sometimes it’s really difficult to look into willful blind spots when we’re talking about outcome attachments, especially when dealing with fixated-on-the-future mindsets. This is one place where working with a professional can be useful for perspective.) Then we get to work on deconstructing those narratives and looking for cracks where we can introduce other options to consider. We can take a direct, very cognitive-behaviour tactic here by introducing counter-narratives to introduce whenever we catch ourselves getting all wrapped up in exclusionary, future-tense hoping; “What’s going on right now that I don’t like, that’s prompting this future fixation?” “What can I see as options for adjustment in the here-and-now?” “What among these options are within MY power to enact?” “What can I shift in my emotional relationship to what’s happening in the here-and-now to make it easier to accept the way things are *right now*, while still giving me room to manoeuvre myself towards a more hoped-for outcome?”

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits provides a nice overview of the components he identifies as being crucial to learning to let go of our attachments, while in no way downplaying the challenges to the process. Learning to stay in the heat of our own discomfort is what Pema Chodron calls, “leaning into the sharp things”. Our ability to hook ourselves to the point of emotional chaos or disaster on rigid, specific outcomes isn’t necessarily one of humanity’s more endearing traits, but the idea of not-wanting is so utterly inalienable to many of us that the notion of non-attachment just boggles people. I contend that it’s not the waning that is problematic; even Buddhists want things. The difference is in learning to not fixate immovably on something that is not yet present in our current context, to the exclusion of all other options and choices. Closing ourselves to potential, fixating on rigidity, sacrificing present-tense resilience as we distract ourselves with rosy futures… these are all things that we can adjust and move on from, if we’re willing to be brave, and to have faith in ourselves as dynamic beings.