Relationships, Uncategorized

A friend of mine recently asked me for my thoughts about the process of recovering relationships after a particularly disruptive and emotionally demanding situation. Specifically, how do we put Humpty Dumpty back together after a crisis has demanded all of our time and energy and focus and resources to be focused on something other than the “us”? In the aftermath of the storm, what happens then? How do we process who we’ve become on the other side while still holding the relationship together?

The answer to this question is a little complicated in that “recovery” as a process is largely contingent on two principle factors: the crisis context, and the individual resiliency of the relationship members. (I’m going to deliberately leave aside the issue of recovering from infidelity; in my not-so-humble opinion, the definitive work on recovering from that particular crisis is Janis Abram-Spring‘s book, “After the Affair”.)

Context is difficult to address as a general factor. One partner losing a job or dealing with an extended period of unemployment is a very different kind of crisis than, say, the death of a child or the diagnosis of a debilitating or fatal illness in a child or a partner. Different contexts paired with differing resiliencies (which will determine our coping strategies) often define what kinds of support we NEED to navigate both crisis and recovery… but don’t tell us what happens when we lack those resources.

Relationships are, ideally, organic and evolutionary things, in that they are meant to change over time (individual resistances to change notwithstanding). What a crisis situation does, potentially, is to force some kind of emotionally intense change on the relationship in a relatively short period of time; it often happens without warning, and therefore with little or no preparation (emotional or otherwise). The speed and degree of crisis will strain even strong and healthy relationships; in dysfunctional ones, crisis exacerbates whatever weaknesses already exist and strains what little tolerance we have for upheaval to, and sometimes past, breaking points.

Navigating recovery also looks different when the precipitating crisis was about something internal the relationship that disrupted or threatened default expectations about the attachment (discovering a partner is a drug user or alcoholic, spent all your joint savings on a questionable investment without consulting you, or is not-so-closeted Trump Supporter, for example), versus something that happened external to the relationship that managed to impact all members of the relationship to some degree (losing a job or being required to uproot and move across the continent for a job, or sudden issues with extended family members, for example).

It’s a common thing to hear people describe how their relational communication either saves or burns them in crisis situations. We already know that our communication skills are generally only as good as our ability to know what it is we’re trying to communicate in the first place, so there’s no way to know if in a crisis we’ll magically transcend our general day-to-day patterns or not. Therefore, in the post-crisis-recovery stage, it’s a reasonable assumption that whatever we were able to do under extreme circumstances will revert to whatever our baseline interactive styles were, after the fact.

Sometimes, having seen how we can band together and work well in crisis, makes that post-crisis reversion a lot harder to bear. Sometimes, if we don’t navigate the crisis itself terribly well, it really drives home the parts of the relationship that don’t work effectively in ways that we can no longer easily ignore. Either way, afterwards, things are often different, and many people don’t know what to do when confronting differences that don’t point towards the relationship being “better, stronger, faster” for having survived the storm.

There are some really important things to remember or consider from a relational standpoint when we’re confronting the aftermath of a storm:

Everybody’s wrung out and exhausted. This means very few of us are at cognitive functioning’s peak capacity. After any kind of exertion, bodies and brains need a break. There may be day-to-day necessities that must be addressed, but no-one’s going to be doing them gracefully in the aftermath. Cut yourself and your partner(s) some slack for a while to be less than “on”.

Recovery times vary. Just because you and your partner(s) are ostensibly in the same relationship, that’s never going to guarantee we all process events, crisis and otherwise, the same way to the same degree or in the same time frame. You may be ready and raring to go with a good night’s sleep; someone else may be weeks in the recovery trough before they can poke their heads back up. Make sure you check your assumptions that other crisis parties will be working “just like you” in the aftermath.

“Recovery” may mean different things to different people. Even if you came through the same set of circumstances together, everyone may see the situation differently, and there may be differences in how each of you responds to the crisis. It’s safe, therefore, to assume that recovery will look and play out differently to all involved. In the counselling room we see a variety of responses to crisis, from utter emotional chaos to absolute emotional disconnection–sometimes in the same relationship. Sometimes one party falls apart while another steps up to deal with the logistical details to pull everyone through the crisis; in the aftermath, one party may need therapy, and the other needs an equal opportunity to fall apart in a delayed emotional response. Maybe they both need therapy. Maybe there’s a grief or health-recovery process involved (how many of us catch a cold or other transient sickness once a period of stress eases off?) Some partners need to keep talking to process what happened, while others just want to forget or let go and move on, leaving the turmoil of crisis times in the rearview as quickly as possible.

Even if crisis brought us closer together in the moment, recovery might not keep us there afterward. Tied to the idea that recovery might mean different things, is the idea that who we are in crisis does not always indicate who we are, or might become, in the aftermath. If partners have differing tolerance for emotional intensity, for example, then what they are willing to handle during a crisis might be far more intensity and vulnerability afterwards, so they retreat; it’s safer, it demands less, it’s familiar and predictable than trying to integrate and sustain what we managed to handle during the storm. We perhaps communicated with great purpose and clarity when the situation demanded our full attention, but left to our own devices we see that as being too much work, too much vulnerability, too much of something we don’t want to face even without the pressure of a crisis.

Navigation in the aftermath is, obviously, not going to be an easy thing.

As with any kind of change process introduced into a relationship framework, there are some strategies that might ease the strain change will introduce.

Offer your partner(s) opportunity to reflect with you on what happened: what went well through the crisis, what you would all want to do differently in future, what you might need to do to improve resilience as individuals or as a relationship.

Discuss what each of you needs for recovery, and how best to go about getting those needs addressed effectively. This is especially crucial if you discover you need different things. If one of you needs to talk and the other just needs to forget, for example, then clearly there won’t be a lot of comfort, and possibly a lack of consent, to force “talk processing” on unwilling or unavailable partners.

Discuss expectations. Once you have all articulated recovery needs, make a plan for what meeting those needs can look like, so that everyone knows what part they can or need to play, what costs might affect the relationship, what kinds of interactions might be required (especially if they are different from pre-crisis norms). This is a negotiation process; we all have expectations for ourselves and those around us, but those around us may not always be aware of those expectations, which makes it challenging for them to meet us in them. Maybe they can help us address our underlying needs but NOT in the way we expect. It’s most useful if we can allow openness to how our needs get addressed as a collaborative process; a partner may not be able to meet our expectation exactly as expressed, but if they know what need we’re tying an expectation to, they may be able to suggest an alternative that works for everyone. And especially on the heels of a potentially resource-exhausting crisis, this negotiation process may be extra-challenging. Be patient and gentle all around. As you wouldn’t push someone in recovery from surgery to commit to doing too much too fast, don’t push anyone recovering from an emotional or relational crisis that way, either.

Recognize that intimacy and vulnerability are choices we make every day, sometimes moment-to-moment. If the crisis was something that introduced or increased distance in a relationship, then it can be hard to feel like we want to come back into connection afterward. If we feel unsupported or abandoned by our partners through a crisis situation, we’re going to have to find ways of articulating and addressing that hurt–even if we consciously choose to not make an issue of it ourselves and just “forgive and forget”–before we can focus on the relationship or reconnection. There may have to be some emotional work done to figure out why a partner wasn’t where we needed or expected them to be in crisis, and we may have to balance our own hurt/disappointment/frustration with understanding why they couldn’t be in the fire with us as we wanted them to be. At the end of the day, though, we each choose for ourselves whether we sustain the distance exacerbated by crisis, or introduce connection bids and repair attempts.

Crisis can introduce a lot of upheaval in a very short period of time; crisis recovery by design happens at a slower pace, allowing for reflection and redefinition, and retooling of current process where necessary. Knowing whether all parties involved are even starting from the same place in defining what is or is not a crisis is the first step in determining how best to get clear of stormy waters and into a calmer state. Give yourselves time, then work out what directions you need to go, individually and as a relationship, at a pace you can each sustain. Don’t allow crisis recovery processes to become the trigger for another round of crisis!

Communication, Relationships, self-perception

There’s an old warhorse of a trope that I first encountered in the poly communities that, thanks to various (sub)cultural overlaps, rears its head in certain monogamous circles these days as well. You may have heard it; it goes something like this: “All your relationship problems will be solved if you just COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE!”

Yeah… no, not really.

I mean, as a relationship therapist it’s kind of my job to work with people who come in and say, “I/we want to improve our communications within our relationship,” and it’s work that’s both rewarding and fulfilling, generally (on both sides of the therapy process, even). So it’s not that improving communication DOESN’T solve problems, because improving the articulation and reception process CAN change things significantly.

The epiphany I had a while ago, as I was trying to articulate any one of the many reasons I have come to hate this particular trope (other than its oversimplification of how *easy* it implies communication SHOULD be), is this:

We can only ever be as good at communication in general, as our ability to recognize and understand what it is we’re trying to communicate.

Let me illustrate this with an example from my own life, because this epiphany pretty much encapsulates a big part of the communications failure on my part of my marriage’s collapse.

We can only communicate what we know. If we can communicate that much effectively, that’s great; that can be a LOT of useful information to give and receive and integrate into personal and relational understandings. But when things continue to bamboozle us or upset status quo AND WE DON’T KNOW WHY, then there’s a limit to how much information we can communicate about what’s going on. In my case, I knew I was thrashing emotionally, but I couldn’t say why. I could talk about a lot of things–for all the relationship’s natural flaws, one thing we did well was “talk about our feeeeeeeelings”. But the things I couldn’t talk about were the things even I couldn’t see and therefore didn’t understand… and they were the things I was, unfortunately, highly reactive to in the final stages of the collapse. I didn’t know then what I know now, for example, about attachment theory (especially in the area of early attachment injury) or common issues around being an adult child of alcoholics, let alone the intersectionality between those two topics. I didn’t know then what I know now about self-regulation of anxiety through meditation practices as simple as mindful breathing and body scans. I didn’t know then what I know now about entering into communication attempts with statements of intent for the conversation (or at least, I/we weren’t practicing that consistently).

The point is, there is always so much more TO know that we simply can’t communicate, because we can’t see it (yet). It’s not uncommon to get one or more members of a relationship in the counselling room and have someone own the fact that one or the other is not prone to a lot of self-observation or self-reflection. And therein lies a massive part of the problem. If you’re not looking inward, then what, exactly, do you know about yourself *TO* communicate to a partner? And this doesn’t even begin to cover what happens when someone who is self-observant and self-reflective but far too wrapped up in anxiety to share those thoughts and observations effectively with a partner. Another issue that contributed to capsizing my marriage was an issue from my partner who struggled to disclose information at times.

So:

  1. Just because stuff is happening in our internal landscape, doesn’t mean we’re observing it.
  2. Even if we’re observing it, it doesn’t mean we’re reflecting on it as a way of trying to better understand ourselves and what’s happening inside us.
  3. And even if we’re reflecting on it, we might not feel safe or secure in disclosing those observations and reflections.
  4. And even if we do feel safe and secure in making those vulnerable disclosures, it doesn’t always mean we have the SKILLS to effectively engage in conversation about them.

When clients come into therapy, they’re usually assuming we start with that final point: working on the communications SKILLS to articulate something important about their experiences to a partner. But when the communications skills don’t always fix the problems as presented on intake, the same clients often come back frustrated with the process, with each other, with the therapist. And that’s when we have to start working backwards through the rest of the list to discern whether the things we’re talking about are actually the things needing to be discussed.

Sometimes therapists can observe places where words and nonverbal information seem incongruous, but honestly, the onus needs to be on the clients themselves to up their game when it comes to internal work. And this can be a difficult challenge for a variety of reasons, starting as simply as, “I don’t know how”. Since we can only communicate what we know, this gives us two avenues to start: What do I know about myself because of what I can *observe* about myself, and what do I know about myself because of what I interpret or believe or tell myself? Neither avenue ever presents a full story, because people are generally more complicated than that, especially in times of distress or crisis. However, we can approach both observable behaviours, and the interpretable aspects (motivations, beliefs, scripts, etc.) with an open-minded, non-judgmental curiosity: where does that behaviour or thought come from? What do we feel like it motivates us to do? What feelings or additional thoughts do we observe being associated with, or triggered by, the catalyst? Do we recognize it as being a component of larger patterns? Can we separate out the catalyst thought or action from what we feel are default reactions, to see other potential available options?

An analogy borrowed from the realm of astronomy comes in handy here: there’s a lot of stuff out in the depths of space that we can’t actually *see*. So from an “observable phenomenon” perspective, we can’t actually look at a thing and know it for what it is. But what we CAN observe, is the impact the invisible thing has on objects we CAN see; for example, something exerting a significant gravitic force on bodies in a solar system will cause the orbiting bodies of that system to shift in their transit paths. We may not be able to see what’s causing the shift, but we’ll certainly notice when one or more celestial bodies make relatively sudden, incongruous shifts in their expected movements. In cognitive psychology terms: we may not be able to see what’s causing a reactive behaviour, but the fact that we can see and experience the behaviour will strongly suggest there is something invisible provoking it.

This is where, when luxury of time permits, we can delve deeper into the emotional experience of the moment: does it feel like anything else we remember experiencing? How do we feel now about those earlier experiences, and are we seeing any similarities in our current situation, both in terms of the perceived triggers, and in the perceived reactions? What can we share about those observations? There’s potentially a lot of cognitive and emotional processing that comes as part of the package when learning to develop the self-observation and self-reflection skills; observation means learning to see what’s happening in and to us, and reflection means finding ways to think about/assess/analyze the experience and sort it into something meaningful to us. And we have to do all of that work, ideally, BEFORE we even get to the point of trying to articulate that information to someone living OUTSIDE our own heads.

So far, we’re still just looking at figuring out how to handle the self observation/self-reflection part. We haven’t even begun to tackle the aspect of learning HOW we communicate: how do we know *TO* communicate? How do we decide WHAT to say, how much do we selectively self-edit (and at what cost)? How well do any of us articulate our thoughts and feelings at best of times, never mind at the worst? Do we make effort to effectively shape the INTENT of any communication process we engage?

This sounds like a tremendous amount of work, doesn’t it?

It certainly can be. After the marriage ended, I spent six months intensely, and other year a little less intensely, digging as deeply as I could get on my own and with my own therapist, into what we uncovered about where some of the invisible baggage I was dragging around came from. That was a hugely painful time of confronting a lot of moments of, “How the hell did I not know this about myself??” or “Why the hell couldn’t I have figured this part out BEFORE everything went sideways??” And I watch my clients struggle, time and again, with the same frustrations. The discovered information is never wasted, but it doesn’t always come to light in time to reverse course, either; and when partners, even armed with new perspectives and understanding about themselves, can’t summon enough energy or belief in things being different to mount a new development plan for the relationship, it can be hard to avoid wondering, why bother?

It’s this complexity that fuels my growing dislike of the “communicate, communicate, communicate” adage. It strikes me as a dangerously reductionist approach to something that is anything but simple for many people, creating an almost caricature-like presentation that leaves some people feeling like failures because “we talk and talk and talk, but nothing gets any better”. Communication as an intimate process has to be effective in and of itself, absolutely; but beyond that, we have to do the work to effectively understand WHAT needs to be communicated. So the next time the phrase crops up (especially if you move in circles where it’s bound to crop up eventually, possibly repeatedly), consider this as a response:

Communicate! = Do we know WHAT to communicate?
Communicate! = Do we know HOW to communicate?
Communicate! = Do we know WHY we communicate? (the *INTENT* or expected outcome)

It’s not just about the talking. It’s as much about saying the useful and needful things, and it’s about how we shape those communications, as it is about simply making the effort to talk in the first place.

Communication, Language, Relationships

Some communities I support live and die by the tenet that all problems can be resolved if you just, “communicate, communicate, communicate!” But I can tell in no uncertain terms, rooted in both professional and personal experience, that we can talk among ourselves until the cows come home, but it’s less about simply communicating, and entirely about communicating *effectively*, that makes or breaks successful information management within intimate relationships. And the number one culprit I have witnessed time and again is the fact that partners assume they know what each other means when using certain words… and when those assumptions prove faulty and come back to bite our arses, things get messy in a hurry. We all use the same *words*, but what we lack is a shared lexicon of understanding what those words mean to our partners. Trust me when I say that even the most subtle of differences in interpretations can have the biggest of impacts on relationship stability.

When partners in particular come in together, one of the most common things I (and probably other relationship therapists) hear is, “We want to work on/improve our communication”. There are entire cases of relationship and self-help books in any bookstore, pages and pages of recommendations on Amazon, and probably numerous books in every therapist’s office on this subject. I prefer to start with a simple question, though admittedly I’m surprised (even after seven years in private practice) by how often it catches people off-guard:

“What do you mean by, ‘communicate’?”

As soon as I get a blank stare from even one of them, I know we’re in trouble.

Partners often assume in therapy they will work out their problems, but it’s kind of hard to even figure out what the problem might be when we’re not using the same words in the same ways to identify the perceived issues Clients will use words like, “communication”, “trust”, “intimacy”, and even “love” (and when we get into the poly and kink communities, we even have to add “sex” to the list), and assume that as long as they are using the same word, that they must be on the same page meaning-wise. One or two questions further into the conversation, it becomes painfully apparent when they’re not even in the same ballpark. Personally, I like to be subtle and ask sneaky questions like, “So, when YOU use that word, what does it mean to YOU?” of each partner. Once in a while I hit the jackpot and they are in agreement, at least until/unless we encounter incongruencies in actions that suggest there’s a deeper point at which interpretations stray.

You keep using that word.

Words like those listed above, I refer to as “umbrella terms”, words that can encompass a mind-boggling array of definitions. Our default personal interpretations are often based in an intricate combination of early models and personal experiences, so there is absolutely NO WAY to guarantee that your partner’s informing biases are going to be 100% identical to your own, no matter how similarly you view the rest of the world. And yet, we assume, to our detriment, that anyone we’re going to love and connect our lives with, will be Just Like Us… until we learn they are NOT.

In many relationship styles, I have to start with conversations like this:

Client 1: We’re having intimacy issues.
Me: How are you defining intimacy? Are we talking about sex here, or emotional vulnerability, or something else?
Client 2 (awkwardly): Sex.
Me: Okay, so let’s label “sex” as “sex”, just to be very clear from the outset what we’re talking about here.

Or:
Client 1: We’re having intimacy issues.
Me: How are you defining intimacy? Are we talking about sex here, or emotional vulnerability, or something else?
Client 2 (angrily): We never talk to each other.
Me: Never at all? Or never about certain topics? Or never in certain desired ways?
Client 1: Oh, we talk all the time, we just never resolve anything, so we’re always angry or silent.
Me: So, what we’re discussing here sounds like an unclear set of expectations and processes around resolutions, that might be getting in the way of feeling emotionally closer to each other?
Client 2: No, it’s not that; I feel emotionally close most of the time; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be so angry and hurt. But every time I try to get him to tell me how he’s feeling, he just yells about feeling nagged and how he’s doing all of these things I don’t seem to appreciate, then he shuts down.
Me: So you chase him to talk to you about feelings, and it seems like he retreats from you somehow?
Clients: We don’t really know. / I guess so.

Both of these experiences are being filed under “intimacy” in the partners’ starting lexicon, but based on how they are describing “intimacy issues” (and this is in no way an unusual or rare conversation in my office, though the variations are numerous), it’s apparent that they both expect “intimacy” to be part of the relationship equation but don’t have the same definition of what that entails, and the definition is usually more clearly defined in their minds by the problems that occur when “intimacy” isn’t working like they expect it should.

In the poly/swinger and kink communities, it’s surprising (in a no-not-really kind of way) how often we find partners running aground on different definitions of “sex”. In a monogamous culture, intimacy and sex are often inextricably intertwined, usually until someone like a therapist questions whether there’s a difference between physical intimacy (sex) and emotional intimacy, and if sex with other people is strictly forbidden by monogamous relationship boundaries, is *emotional* vulnerability with others likewise verboten? But in communities where sexual interactions with others are permissible, we often find ourselves having to have the discussion around, “How are you defining sex?” For some, that means any kind of genital contact in either direction, for others it’s limited to specific actions (like standard genital intercourse or masturbation). I’ve had clients trying to define sex by the intent to orgasm, which leads to such lexiconically-important questions like, “So, if orgasm doesn’t occur, is it still defined as ‘sex’?”

As you might imagine, getting into word-level definitions can get us all down a rabbit-hole very quickly. So as the therapist in the room, it’s my job to make sure we focus on two things: (a) deterring partner judgment about each other’s default definitions, and (b) only pursuing them to understand where the expectations tied to each respective, differing definition is leading the relationship into tension. For therapists who use narrative approaches to relational challenges (including individual identity within a relational system, be it intimate partnership, family, or collegial systems), language is a KEY factor to understanding the client’s perspective. I also have an added layer of interest in words stemming from being a writer all my life, including professionally in high tech for the better part of twenty-five years. I’m keenly aware that words have power, so terminology we use in our private spheres sheds a great deal of insight on the values that inform the expectations tied to our language use. But when many of us can’t get past, “we’re using the same words, so why are we still arguing about [X]?”, it sometimes requires some outside perspective and guidance to help us peel past the sense that for all the communicating we do in relationship, we sometimes feel like we just don’t get anywhere, or at least nowhere good.

This is why a relationship’s success is often less about, “communicate, communicate, communicate!”, and more about understanding WHAT we’re saying to each other when we do have conversations on important topics. The words we use are important, not just as a marker against which to measure actions for congruent intentions, but in and of themselves when they contain markers to what lies underneath the words. I often tell my clients that words are important, but the real meat of most matters is buried under the words, and that’s what we have to dig for. We can’t simply take for granted that my word means the same as your word, when your experiences are going to shape a different set of values and expectations than mine probably did, and we need to consider and respect those differences… even when we can’t see them initially, just the disturbance caused when we run aground on them.

Communication, Relationships, Uncategorized

One good thing about being a therapist with one foot in traditional monogamous culture, and one in the poly community (and one in the BDSM community+) is that I have an opportunity to bring some interesting perspectives from one culture to another. Often these are concepts that we’d think *SHOULD* be obvious across the entire relationship spectrum, but you’d be amazed at how often this isn’t the case at all. One of the biggest places where I am persistently surprised by the lack of awareness is understanding the importance of consent within relationships. We are increasing societal awareness around consent and sex as we battle back against rape culture and certain types of gendered entitlement or toxic behaviours, and the poly and BDSM communities claim themselves to be positively steeped in consent awareness. I often discover that even within seemingly healthy relationships, however, the idea of “consent” — what it means, what it looks like, how it functions in monogamous relationships — is something that has eluded a lot of conscious consideration until someone directly brings it into focus (like, say, a therapist).

For example, some couples come into counselling with issues around dealing with a partner’s “negativity”, citing how one partner comes home from work every day and just immediately begins to unload a laundry list of all the unpleasantness of the day on the other partner, who may or may not be in a place themselves to receive that unloaded crap, and who may or may not know how to block or deflect it. My first question to couples outlining that kind of behavioural pattern is almost invariably to the unloading partner: “Do you have your partner’s consent to unload on them like that?”

Almost as invariably, what I get in response is a blank look, and the tentative question, “What do you mean, do I have their *consent*?”

“I mean, do you have their permission to dump all of your bad day on them? Have they consented to receive that load of toxic goo on their heads? Have you checked in to see if they’re ready and willing to receive? Or are you just making an assumption, or worse, just dumping without even considering whether or not they’re ready and willing to receive?”

Unwanted interactions are unwanted interactions, whether we’re talking about sharing negativity or emotional overwhelm, or sexual pressure, or even just assumptions. While some degree of these will always be unavoidable in relationship, there is a point at which we need to step back and check in with our partners about our interactions. Often we build up a tolerance to irritations over time, but sometimes relationships end abruptly (and often as a surprise to at least one partner) because we lose tolerance for the slow “death by a thousand cuts” of our unaddressed frustrations and distresses. A lot of these strains are the result of behaviours that push past our boundaries, behaviours we have not consented to receive, but we don’t know how to stop.

Maybe we don’t know how to stop them because we just don’t know how to say no to intimate partners. Maybe we don’t know how simply because we’ve never had someone model healthy boundary defense to us. Or maybe we just assume that putting up with the annoying shit our partners do (and yes, this really does often go both ways) is simply an implicit expectation of being in relationship; we feel that it’s our job as an intimate partner to tolerate or allow unwelcome behaviours to persist. This is implicit consent, when we don’t explicitly say, “Yes, this I expressly permit”, but rather we simply say nothing against unwanted actions. This is the root of the cliche, “Silence equals consent” – implicit consent and assumptions that silence implies consent are a surprising part of apparently-healthy, “normal” monogamous relationship dynamics. It’s also, perhaps unsurprisingly, still a heavily gender-biased dynamic in which women yield against presumptive behaviour more commonly than men, as least in terms of the perspective gained from couples coming into counselling. Out in the real world, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s maybe more balanced than that. But in therapy, we’re still fighting the feminist battle of teaching women how to say “no”, how to stand up for their own limits, and how to feel safe in enacting or withdrawing consent in their relationships as an active process. Boundary violations, and implicit consent violations in specific, are some of the major contributors to sick systemsn relationships.

I do believe consent works best as an active process, rather than a one-and-done, binary state where the assumption is either “all consent for everything is granted” or “no consent for anything is granted” (I may have written about trust in that sense; if not, I’ll add it to the floating list of “future blog topics”). But we don’t tend to think consciously of consent at all in the grander workings of a relationship, let’s break down some of the simple places where consent becomes a key factor in our interactions:

Do I have my partner’s consent to engage in affectionate physical contact or sexual interaction whenever *I* want? How do I know that belief/assumption to be true? Have I checked in with that belief/assumption lately?
Do I assume that belief/assumption to be constantly applicable? How will I determine if there are times when perhaps consent has been withdrawn?

Do I have my partner’s consent to engage in verbal offloads about topics that are of intense interest to me but perhaps not to them? How do I know that belief/assumption to be true? Have I checked in with that belief/assumption lately?
Do I assume that belief/assumption to be constantly applicable? How will I determine if there are times when perhaps consent has been withdrawn?

Do I have my partner’s consent to assume a particular distribution of emotional labour (or any kind of labour, really)? How do I know that belief/assumption to be true? Have I checked in with that belief/assumption lately?
Do I assume that belief/assumption to be constantly applicable? How will I determine if there are times when perhaps consent has been withdrawn?

These are just three common areas where consent and assumptions about permission tend to get couples into trouble. We often come into relationship with assumptions about how relationships will work, and when we’re lucky, we find partners who assumptions more or less jive with our own. We don’t always think to check in explicitly bout what’s allowed and under what circumstance, and what is not; or if we do, we might do it conscientiously at the outset of new relationships, when NRE opens all horizons to exploration, but once we settle into relational routine, we frequently forget to go back and actively monitor those initial agreements and the assumptions we build atop them. (Confession time: I’m as guilty of that as the next person; it’s one reason why I keep my own therapist on retainer… and speed dial.)

So when couples come into the office looking at improving their communications, some of the primary foundational pieces we have to look at are the implicit assumptions about consent, and how those boundaries are expressed initially and defended thereafter. Are they even articulated at all? As consent boundaries, are they deliberately presented as permeable or impermeable? Perhaps more importantly, in practice are the consent boundaries viewed and respected by both partners as permeable or impermeable? Trust me when I say, it’s a terribly common issue for one partner to say, “This is a hard limit, NONE SHALL PASS!”, but in practice, under pressure (implicit or explicit) from the other partner allows that boundary to erode, shift, and become permeable to the point of relative non-existence. A lot of resentment that builds between over time partners can often be traced to places where these kinds of consent boundaries have been compromised somehow.

So, how do we learn to recognize consent boundaries in monogamous relationships, and how do we learn to defend them once we recognize they’re even a thing? That’s where a relationship therapist can come in handy, especially one who will blog about these aspects in coming weeks 🙂 Stay tuned!


+ — I know, that makes it sound like I’m a three-legged therapist, which I am most decidedly not; I just dance like one.

Article links, Communication

There is a kind of truism that floats around periodically:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Often when couples come to counselling with “lack of intimacy” issues, or “improving communications” goals, one of the places we might look first is at how relationship partners fight. Frequently we discover that the process by which they argue is one in which they (consciously or unconsciously) shut each other down, attack and retreat, defend entrenched positions for the purpose of being “right” or “victorious” rather than closely bonded, vulnerable, or intimate. Unfortunately, these arguments styles are only reinforcing patterns of disengagement and emotional pain, making it increasingly difficult to “come back from the brink” the longer these fighting styles continue.

There are a lot of reasons why people get stuck in these entrenchments, and often figuring out why is a big part of couples counselling; therapists will often do the background digging while also introducing new tactics and changed processes into how a couple might deal with conflicts. Changing behaviours without necessarily understanding how they twisted or broke in the first place can sometimes result in at best a bandaid solution: we can address what’s bleeding today, but the wounds festering under the surface will continue to eat away at the sense of connection if we’re not careful.

The fear of being wrong, the fear of not being heard, the perceived risks inherent in being vulnerable enough to even be open to an opponent’s perspective, let alone admitting they might be valid—these are all feelings that get in the way of changing how we engage during relational arguments. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to sit on top of one’s own emotional rollercoaster and explore understanding someone else’s perceptions and perspectives, especially in a heated moment. To figure out how to best approach being open and vulnerable when we’re feeling attacked is a core principle in Emotionally-focused Therapy (EFT), but its roots lie in the kinds of intentional interviewing approaches developed first as ancient requirements of philosophical debate and ideological critiquing.

Daniel Dennett provides an excellent summary of the four principles of engaging well in moments of debate and criticism, engagement rules that also apply very well to changing relationship argument styles:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

When we spend our time “listening to reply” rather than “listening to understand”, we close ourselves off to the other person in the exchange. We’re too busy formulating our response, marshalling our own defenses, readying our own attacks. We’re probably operating from a place of emotional reactivity rather than the FAR more difficult place of receptivity. After all, who *LIKES* to be criticised, especialled in intimate relationships? So when we feel like we’re being attacked (critiqued), it’s natural for many of us to go on the defensive while preparing to return fire… and at that point, most of us aren’t in a place where we feel like being open and vulnerable is really a Good Idea.

But learning to reframe and return the things we listen for, while difficult, yes, is hugely worthwhile in terms of allowing each participant in the argument to feel heard and understood, even validated. We don’t have to agree, necessarily, with the perspective being offered, but in order to change how we fight (and improve communications overall) we do have to allow that ours is not the only perspective on the board, nor is it going to signal the end of the world if the other perspective is valid, or even (dare we say it?) right. Changing how we listen to allow for inclusion of other people and perspectives is a big part of making improvements that move us back towards healthy intimacy.

Article links, Communication, Relationships

Most Marriage & Family Therapists (MFTs) and psychotherapists who deal with couples’ counselling often come aboard once there’s a problem within the relationship that requires addressing. Couples heading into commitments and marriages will more often seek premarital counselling from their chosen officiants or more familiar spiritual caregivers, but MFTS are increasingly privileged to have the chance to work with clients embarking on these kinds of commitment processes. It’s a great deal of fun, most of the time, to sit with clients who are puzzling through interesting questions that explore themselves or their partners, topics or areas of interest on which they may never have had the inspiration to reflect before. Sometimes these discussions lead to increased understanding and closeness; sometimes they lead to uncovering differences of opinion or values that generate discomfort, and it’s our job to help our clients navigate both types of experience.

The types of questions that form the core of premarital counselling vary; there are some good resources in general you can Google if you’re looking to start some of these conversations yourself. A very recent article from the New York Times provides a really nice set of topics to explore that’s worth sharing. It covers uncomfortable topics around the values for sharing debt, the impact of experiences with exes, autonomy and shared interests, parental relationship models, sex and pornography, and more. Relationships in the 21st century are a little different than they were in out parents’ and grandparents’ generations, when gender models and relationship values were often VERY different, and “obedience” was still an expected part of marriage vows. The value for communication through the process of shared discovery is vastly more important now, recognized as a critical factor in the success or failure of relationships more and more every day. “Improving communications” is probably one of the most common issues couples in crisis report as a goal for relationship counselling.

If more couples would seek premarital counselling — individually or with their partners, in private sessions or group workshops — perhaps we might arm them with better tools for navigating the evolutionary landscape of their partnership over time. Advanced preparation might decrease the number of couples arriving at therapists’ office already in the fire of conflict, and that would be A-OK by most therapists.

Communication, Relationships

The 3 C’s of Conflict Management is something I began to noodle on years ago in personal blog posts. It also came up in my grad school classes from time to time in different formats, including a “5Cs” version that IMO is really just the 3Cs with a couple of expansion packs. Having the concept  arise in the class context totally validated what I’ve been apparently thinking about the 3Cs for years. In conflict management, or any kind of mediation exercise, there are three principle decision models: Capitulation, Compromise, and Collaboration (the 5C version also lists Consensus and Co-existence, but in my experience, both can be achieved through any of the original three options). One class wit suggested Conflagration as a potential model of conflict, and while that’s technically a possibility, it’s more often the signal of immediate termination for the relationship in question, rather than any state in which the relationship might feasibly continue for an indeterminate period of time.

In my own personal relationship lexicon, Capitulation is “The act of surrendering or yielding; in relationship terms, capitulation often means simply giving in or giving up in a negotiation or confrontational situation for the sake of ending the conflict as quickly as possible, whether you have achieved the desired results or not (and generally the party who capitulates is the party who “gives up” the most, in exchange for early termination of a tense situation). In Capitulation, one party gets what is desired, and the other party generally does not.” Individuals with a history of low self-esteem or a low threshold for conflict are more likely to capitulate on a position than defend a line; this could be for any number of reasons, most commonly out of one form of fear or another: fear of abandonment is a big one, in which non-capitulation will cost someone the relationship s/he wants to maintain, even if it largely toxic. Teenage girls are particularly susceptible to this, but it’s a pattern that manifests in both men and women, often learned very early in the family of origin as a need to please one’s parents or caregivers.

Compromise is “consent reached by mutual concessions; everyone gives up something in order to achieve a tolerable closure to a negotiation or confrontation. Unlike Capitulation, compromise often means that neither party gets exactly what is desired, but both sides can usually accept the sacrifices made on the personal level to gain some degree of acceptable overall closure or balance.” Compromise represents a common-ground approach to relational conflict management in particular, as the nature of the power struggle generally involves someone driving for either a clear “victory” (such as might be achieved if one partner forces another’s capitulation) or a sense of “parity”, in which each partner must give up something in order for one or both partners to feel a sense of equality or “balance of fairness”. A previous lover used to describe this state as “No-one gets what s/he wants, but at least everybody gets something they can live with.” It’s often the less-tactful way of establishing peace, but often as a zero-sum game in which both parties have to *lose* something in order to gain something else.

Unfortunately, in both capitulation and compromise, when there is *any* sense that someone has to sacrifice a want or a need in order to achieve balance and the impression of peace, that state of calm is inevitably temporary at best. When core needs in particular are being sacrificed, there is often a subtle biofeedback loop that gets set in motion, because we all constantly move to get our needs and wants met, whether we realize it or not. I have been documenting for many years my battles with my own inner weasels, which are the anthropomorphic versions of those internal motivations, the little voices that urge me to do things I rationally know I should not do, but find myself acting on anyway. In following my weasels, I would compromise myself, giving up a moral high ground for a short term immoral or amoral itch-scratching. I would often find myself in this kind of situation, as so many of us do, because I have compromised myself elsewhere in a relationship, giving up something I wanted (for better or for worse) because my wanting that thing somehow upset my partner and introduced conflict and tension. So I would have either capitulation or compromised in order to end the conflict, without necessarily finding out whether those decision models were the most effective choice for my situation within the relationship.

Which brings me to Collaboration, or (as it has often been termed here) “collaborative solutions”: “A joint process shared by two or more people to examine all the known or discoverable needs in any given situation, the known or discoverable options available for addressing those needs, and discussing how each of those outcomes addresses or affects the needs in question. In theory (and with practice) the discussions will yield increased understanding and trust that make mutual Agreement and Buy-in to any jointly-designed proposal not only possible, but likely. Both (all) parties must be equally involved in the process of examining and proposing solutions, must stay Present while discussing needs, and be honest about their buy-in, for any solution to be truly collaborative. Unlike Capitulation or Compromise, the result of collaborative solutions is all parties feeling like they have achieved what they wanted, that their individual Needs have been met, and the results support and sustain the relationship.”

For collaboration to work effectively in relationships, it requires a lot of things from the participants:

  • self-awareness (you can’t collaborate effectively unless you know your own wants and needs, and understand what you have to offer),
  • vulnerability (a willingness to engage the process in good faith and to put your own needs on the table without subterfuge or manipulation),
  • compassion and empathy (the willing engagement of your partner’s needs and wants as they are presented to you in good faith),
  • an authentic desire to find collaborative solutions (this isn’t about forcing someone to capitulate to your fears just because their needs may provoke your internal fears; “sacrifice” is NOT the initial intent in collaboration),
  • and full presence in the engagement (being willing to stay focused on the process work, and not go haring off into fearful blame-storming or aggression; this isn’t about you, this isn’t about me, this is about the “us” of the relationship).

Collaboration is most likely the best means of achieving “together decisions”, because by their very nature, collaborations require partners to work together to achieve something that brings value to them and to the relationship, not decreases the perceived sense of value, nor diminishes individual position(s) within the relationship. True collaboration requires authentic buy-in from both parties to the belief that all needs are being respected, not lip-service to an agreement that actually disregards or fails to meet identified needs from the outset.


The reason I don’t include Consensus and Co-existence is because I consider them to be corollary to the three models above. The idea of consensus in a dyadic (2-partner) system is a little silly; as soon as both parties agree on something, you have consensus, regardless of which of the three principle decision models generates the agreement. Consensus works better in larger structures; it’s a better decision model for certain types of decisions within poly structures, for example, in which more than two potentially diverging viewpoints are required to be in agreement before a decision is enacted. Co-existence, on the other hand, is more likely to be the result of a failed decision model than a decision model itself. When partners fail to make “together choices”, they will increasingly make “apart choices”, and the slow continental drift that results from those “apart choices” can eventually result in partners living more like room-mates than like romantic intimates; vulnerability suffers, engagement erodes, collective buy-in becomes something that happens to other people. One can choose co-existence; one term for it in relational therapy is “parallel lives”. It’s not a relationship style that attracts proponents of authentic and intimate relationships; however it can become what those proponents find themselves in should they fail to make effective collaborations a lifelong habit in their authentic and intimate relationships.

Relationships

You know your world is too small when a friend in northern Virgina blogs something that sends a coworker into my office in Waterloo to shake his fist at me in a “shoot the messenger” kind of way.

The NoVa friend wrote:
“And indeed, we have discovered that some of our well used communication tools are, well … broken. In talking to [me] and [my partner] this weekend they pointed out something very simple – “tools break”. I tend to think of relationship/communication tools as handy, reliable and vaguely unbreakable – but that’s a fault in my thinking. I got lazy, we got lazy – whatever it is, I forgot that everything needs a tune up now and then.”

Having the friend’s words thusly reinforced by the coworker’s reaction, it surprises me (in a “this-really-shouldn’t-have-surprised-me” kind of way) to learn that people don’t realize that all things wear down – and sometimes break – over time and with repeated, occasionally forceful, use. As with workshop tools, so too with relationship tools.

Human beings are not carved in stone, and those actively pursuing any path of self-awareness and improvement are even more dynamic, in terms of changing things in themselves and their environments. It stands to reason, in my mind at least, that tools that worked at one stage may cease to work later on as needs change, as communications evolve, as faith and trust are established and change. Blunt-work tools that worked when a relationship was new and you spent most of your time just trying to hammer in *any* kind of process, generally get refined over time as you build trust and intimacy. But most people who have established long-term relationships also know that, after a while, it’s easy to get lazy and take things for granted… you start making assumptions, communicating from those assumptions, and BOOM! Suddenly things that worked even a few weeks ago suddenly seem to not be working at all.

There are two things to consider when you’ve reached that point.

a) Did the tools actually stop working, or
b) did you just stop applying the tools with as much care and attention as you used to apply?

If a), you might want to sit down with the other party(parties) in the relationship, and work back to what changed – what knot in the wood or pocket in the stone did you hit to cause that previously-fine chisel to turn in your hands and break? Why wasn’t the change communicated immediately (either by the person in whom the change occurred, or in the partner who may have noticed it and “let the little things slip until they became big things”, for example)? Was it a fear that kept notification of change under the rug? Or did everybody just miss it, by not being conscious of needs, and actions towards those needs?

If b) you might want to look at your own methods of communication, your own needs. Why did you stop driving that particular process? Did your needs change, did you start acting towards changed needs? Were you just getting tired of “all work, all the time” in terms of relationship management? Did you assume that falling back on patterns of expectation without any complaint from your partner meant that everything was OK, or worse, “all better”? Or did you stop because you felt you weren’t getting anywhere with your efforts – the return was no longer worth the investment of effort?

In either event, realizing that tools *can* stop working appears to be something of an earth-shaking revelation for people. I suspect that’s in part because we’re (some of us) reasonably new at this “conscious application of tools” business, and so, having met with a degree of success in our limited experiments to date, we trust they are universally infallible, and stop doing the homework, as it were. “Ah, I’ve hired a math tutor to get me through the exam – I don’t have to worry about learning this stuff for myself anymore, because the tools I get from the tutor will fix all my problems” – only to discover that those tools fix you for this year’s algebra course, but do absolutely nothing for you next year when you move on to calculus… unless what you learned was better tools for *learning*, and not the short-cut, learn-by-rote formulaic fixes.

When you learn how to create tools as well as wield them, it’s much like learning how to learn in school. You can’t take a single formula and apply it across all problems and all people; you’re better off at the very least learning how to observe people, and how to notice and communicate change. Learning how to analyze processes and risks to implement some kind of process for managing those risks, is another level of process complexity some people won’t want to see value in, let alone implement, let alone check in on regularly to see how well those tools are working, let alone fix the tools when they break.

Nothing is static; everything changes. You can get mired in the adherence to the ideal of stability, bury your head in the sand against the inevitability of change, assume that things you create will never fail you – or you can embrace the fact that change is something over which you have little control, other than control of how you manage the opportunities that change presents. Being fixated on unchangeability and reluctant to constantly re-evaluate, upgrade, or completely toss outgrown tools is simply another way we cling to things we shouldn’t, and close ourselves off in our little boxes of hurt and confusion and anger.

Tools break. Be prepared for that, in the mind and in the relationship, as much as in the hand and in the workshop. The question of how you will deal with those breakages goes a long way towards informing the kind of character you are, the Stuff of which you are made.

Copyright 2006, 2011 KGrierson

Relationships

In the world of Contextual Therapy, the core principle of relationships is that we develop or dismiss/destroy relationships on the basis of merited trust, that being trust earned from having more positive transactions than negative ones on the relational ledger. Try though some might to deny it, all relationships have ledgers, because all individuals keep tallies, whether we do it consciously or not. If we don’t keep those tallies, how do we know who to trust and who not to trust? When someone says, “I trust a person on the basis of a gut instinct”, what they are responding to is often the prompting from a subconscious consultation with their internalized ledger of transactions. The decision may be based on minimal or comparative information only (this new person behaves or otherwise reminds me of some other person to whom I already assign a high degree of merited trust) and especially in early relational transactions, may be based predominantly on unconscious or non-verbal communications that we record, analyze, and respond to equally unconsciously.

The relational ledger is a huge component of relationships. People seek professional intervention (reparative counseling, personal development, legal proceedings) generally when the balance of the ledger has tipped to, and remains consistently tipped to, the negative side of that ledger. Merited trust is dented, eroded, or absent. The damage may be on both sides of the relationship, or it may be one party’s perception that the other party is just “bad”. frequently, both in and out of therapy, one or more participants in the relationship may become focused or fixated on the other party’s negative aspects – their contributions to the negative aspect of the relational ledger.

The fixation happens because, at our core, we are cellular organisms. as such, cellular organism learn faster and more strongly from negative stimuli than from positive stimuli. Self-protective aversion is a non-conscious reaction: even single-cell protozoa will unthinkingly flinch away from a negative stimulation; there is no analysis of the dangers or possible responses required. Movement towards positive stimulation is not, however, as fast, and learning to move into positive stimulation is something that higher life forms sometimes need to be trained to do. We all seek food when hungry and warmth when cold, but in both cases, there are scientific and psychological schools of thought that label those instinctive behaviours as reactions away from the negative stimulus of “cold”, or “hunger”. We instinctively move away from pain or discomfort; moving towards something is an entirely separate set of analytical functions.

In relationships, we often witness people responding to a relational stimulus in a largely unthinking fashion. We move away from pain. Sometimes we do this by relabeling the pain as anger and changing the direction to focus it on someone or something external to ourselves. Sometimes we seek to remove the thing we identify as the source of pain from our relational radius (up to and including removing people we perceive as causing us pain). Sometimes we look inwards to find what that pain is attached to, what other times in our lives we’ve felt pain, and how we have developed the response in which we’re currently engaged as a result of repeating patterns. the latter approach is common to several therapeutic models.

Where relational ledgers come in, is the fact that because we learn fastest and most efficiently from those protozoan aversion-responses, at an almost cellular level we are programmed to retain the negative far more strongly and for far longer than we do the positive transactions. This isn’t a justification to allow people to wallow in the pain, but it’s an explanation of why it’s such a common thing for people to fixate on the negative to the detriment of any focus on the positive, and why the experience of “depression” isn’t limited to the human species. So we store far more data on the negative ledger (or at least we tend to focus on it more) than we do on the positive ledger. when a relationship comes into trouble, often it’s because the negative focus has superseded any sense of accumulated merit, and that shift in focus is what erodes the trust; it’s not that the relational transactions themselves have changed, but rather that something in the participants themselves has (for whatever reasons) caused a shift in the focus.

Frequently, young relationships hit this point after the “honeymoon phase” ends, and the participants start looking past their own romantic projections to the other party with whom they interact. That’s a difficult transition in any relationship, and one that can often lead right into what Wong & McKeen refer to in The Relationship Garden as the cycle of power struggles, in which the participants try and change each other back into those early romantic projections, or fight internally to adjust themselves to the new perceptions. Change, particularly opaque internalized changes, often leads to external behavioural changes, which are a big factor in the tipping of the relational ledger. Our protozoan selves don’t like change, change means “Unknowns” and “Differences”, and on some level, change is generalized as a negative stimulus, so we try to avoid it. Aversion may take the form of ignoring the signals and actions of change and remaining rutted in our comfort zones; it may take the form of trying to force the source of those changes to stop whatever s/he is doing to upset the status quo; it may take the form of engaging change but only on our own terms as a means of micro-managing our own fears in and of the process. It may also take the form of embracing change for change’s sake, without having a goal for change to help inform the decisions we make as part of the change process (which leads in turn to all kinds of other tensions and issues within the relationship, and is equally culpable in the disruption of balance within the relational ledger).

In times of relational tension and crisis, many of us (me included) find ourselves tallying the internally-maintained “list of grievances”, or clinging to the hurts to justify retaliatory behaviours. This is how people most commonly respond to the balance tipping towards the negative side of the relational ledger. It’s a kind of psychological narcissism (making the hurt and pain all about ourselves as a means of justifying further responses to and on the negative ledger), and leads to something called “destructive entitlement”, in which we inefficiently attempt to rebalance the ledger by forcing another party to “pay for our hurts”. (The principle of “destructive entitlement” is, by the way, a whole other post or series of posts; it sometimes ties in with legacy values we inherit from others, particularly previous generations in our family of origin, or legacy values that we inherit from chosen family or social spheres, any or all of which we respond to in ways that come only at cost to someone else.) Equally often, by the time a relationship reaches the point of drastic rebalancing on account of pervasive negative focus, one or more participants are past the point of being willing or capable of considering, or even viewing, the positive aspects of the relational ledger.

At this point in time, the first step in diffusing the tensions is giving the emotional content (the personal grievances) safe space to be expressed and acknowledged, without judgment, but more importantly, without expectation of a reactive response. a grievance is not necessarily best interpreted as a signal requiring change. Sometimes a grievance just needs to be aired and heard in order to reduce the tensions associated with the grievance. At some point thereafter, a subsequent step (not necessarily the next step, but an important one to include somewhere in the investigative process) is to force a review of the positive ledger. It may something as simple as asking, “what is it that initially attracted me to this other person? What positive factors does s/he bring to the relationship, then and now? what do I like about him/her?” the positives may not be immediately accessible in a tense or conflicted relational period, but making any entry onto the positive ledger is crucial at this juncture, creating a foothold from which balance, or at least a less-critical angle of tippage, may be more easily restored. It also forces the perceived-aggrieved party to step outside the entrenched Self and consider, even if only briefly, the merits of Other. This is a huge step not only in relationship counseling, but in any kind of mediation scenario; “consider the other person’s perspective” is a hugely important tool for breaking tension, and increasing the potential for establishing a different kind of relational modality than the one which brought the parties to their current emotionally-laden impasse in the first place.

Working one’s way out of the aggrieved entrenchment is difficult; the fact that a lot of people can’t do that on their own can’t unhook from their own emotional aversion-responses, is part of why the field of family & relationship therapy is flourishing. Part of our job as therapists is to supply the multi-directional partiality that creates safe space for each party to explore the relational ledger, assisting them to collaboratively determine what they want to do about any perceived imbalance. it occurs to me that relationship therapy is best described as “psychological archeology”, because by the time people make it into counseling, the root issues are often lost. Individuals hit a negative stimulus, and react. People around them, perceiving the reaction as some kind of change in behaviour, will react themselves. Often this reaction/response is confrontational in nature. As soon as the original responsive party perceives confrontation, the response is often defensive, without necessarily explaining at all the original stimulus/reaction sequence (at least not in any rational way). The continuing opacity of behaviour may lead to further perceived challenges, which then cause the originator to justify the defensiveness – this is the stage at which the relational transactions are most likely to become externalized as anger and blame projected onto the other participant(s). so by the time the relationship arrives in the counsellor’s office, the participants are several stages away from the core issues, and the presenting problem – the only aspect of which many people coming into therapy are immediately conscious of – is at the tertiary level of justified anger, firmly entrenched on the negative side of the relational ledger. The archeology comes in by way of digging past the immediate hostilities or tensions, back past the defensive responses, and looking for the root sources of the current imbalances. Treating only the tertiary stage, and trying to reset the balance of the ledger or restore the merited trust on the basis of that level of transaction, is leaving the relationship participants wide open to ongoing problems as a result of not examining the foundations of those interactions for weakness, and bringing the unconscious protozoa reactions to the light of conscious evaluation within the ledger. We respond unthinkingly to the negative; we consciously condition ourselves to consider the positive.

Copyright 2008, 2011 KGrierson