Life Transitions, Relationships, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And seriously: remember to breathe.

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.