Emotional abuse, Family Issues, Relationships, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Transitions, Relationships

I had started the year with the self-directed research project of studying male depression and toxic masculinity, a seemingly-increasingly-timely subject for our times, between what we witnessed with the rise of a shifting attitude towards rape culture and gendered power dynamics (that may have started within the gaming community to some extent, but has spilled the river banks, as it were, into more mainstream conversations), the political circus south of the border and all of the gendered power struggles that surfaced there, and now we see systemic hatred and “Us versus Them”-isms reaching levels of violence we haven’t seen in a generation and a half as entire groups of people start to find their voices and push back against systemic intolerances both subtle and overt.

This plays out on the microcosmic scale in the therapy office with clients coming in to give voice to their own experiences, often for the first times in their lives. Recently I have been privileged to sit with a number of people who have been struggling to get out from under patterns of behaviour that, over the course of a lifetime, have led to what a friend of mine refers to as “complicity in their own subjugation”. Some of these clients are men, and it’s been refreshing to see them recognize their own patterns, relating them to traditional masculinity binds they been resisting (consciously or unconsciously) most of their lives, and struggling to *be* better partners.

On the other side of that equation are the women, trying to find their voices in a world that has left both men and women increasingly unsure of the roles they’re “supposed” to play once we start to strip out some of the traditionally-gendered underpinnings and expectations… but without replacing them with clear new guidelines. Terry Real, in “How Can I Get Through to you: Closing the Intimacy Gap between Men and Women”, writes:

Since Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking research, the idea that girls approaching adolescence “lose their voice,” that they learn to back away from conflict and swallow the truth, has become virtually a cultural axiom. But it takes factoring male development back into the analysis, understanding the patriarchal cultural influences on both sexes, before it occurs to us to ask the next critical question: When girls are inducted into womanhood, what is it exactly that they have to say that must be silenced? What is the truth that women carry that cannot be spoken? The answer is simple and chilling. Girls, women–and also young boys–all share this in common: none may speak the truth about men.

[…] What is the open secret that everyone around the man sees but from which he himself must be protected? It is the dance of contempt itself,
the dynamics of patriarchy as they play out, unacknowledged, inside the man’s skin.

–pg. 90-91

Real goes on to describe what I am seeing time and time again play out with my own clients as they struggle to establish some sense of autonomous self and rediscover their own voices, bubbling up through the mud of years or decades of complicit unhappiness.

Pia [Mellody] observed that there wasn’t one form of childhood abuse, but rather two. What Pia called “disempowering abuse” is the one we can all readily identify. It is made of of transactions that shame a child, hurt him, physically or psychologically, make him feel unwanted, helpless, unworthy. What Pia has called “false empowerment,” by contrast, is comprised of transactions that pump up a child’s grandiosity, or at the least, that do not actively hold it in check. Pia’s genius was in understanding that falsely empowering a child is also a form of abuse. Failure to supply appropriate guidance and limits does a grave disservice to a child, and represents a serious breach in parental responsibility. The combination of these two kinds of abuse lie at the core of the conspiracy about men.

–pg. 93


Anna and Mirriam* are two clients I have met recently, both women in their late 60s or early 70s, who are on the brink of leaving their respective marriages. Their stories are remarkably similar, and in them I hear not only echoes of my mother’s experience, but residual resonances with my own process of trying to sort out who I was/am supposed to be in relationship with men. Both women have been married for 40ish years, raised families, sacrificed many of their own dreams to raise children and support their husbands’ careers over their own aspirations. Like my mother, they’re of a generation that was taught rigid, gendered expectations about the roles we play. Both Anna and Mirriam are meeting with me because they are deeply, profoundly unhappy in their marriages. They both feel like they’ve “tried everything” over the years to get their husbands to change, or to try to find their own space within the limited confines of those gendered roles. As one might expect, the reality of retirement as it throws married couples back into each other’s space on a 24/7 basis after years of a careful balance between one sphere of control being external to “home”, and the other being the home and family sphere itself, is excruciating.

These women, and probably millions like them across the world where such gender-biased roles still have influence, feel desperate to be seen and heard as something other than an adjunct, an accessory, to their partners’ worlds. Men, who often define themselves more by what they DO than who they ARE, struggle with the transition to retirement because it takes away the bulk of their life’s worth of “doing”, and therefore also threatens their self-definition. Unsurprisingly, many women in this age range are likewise struggling as newly-retired husbands attempt to exert the control they are used to having outside the home, in a sphere that for probably decades has NOT been their principle domain. The resulting power struggle drives a wedge between partners, or widens a gulf already dug by decades of silent tolerance for a thousand tiny but unresolved hurts, and eventually, someone (usually the woman) winds up in therapy, or the lawyer’s office… or both. To understand who this pervasive silence saps the love and intimacy out of a marriage, we turn to Terry Real again:

Repudiating the inner vulnerability that is made up of equal parts of humanity and trauma, boys learn to punish in others what they dare not risk showing themselves. It is this unacknowledged superimposition of grandiosity on shame, this burying of hurt boy inside hurting man, the sweet vulnerable self wrapped in the armor of denial, walled off behind business, work, drink, or rage, the hidden “feminine” inside the bluff “masculine”, that is the truth about men that dare not be uttered. And why must it remain unspoken? Because women and children fear triggering either extreme grandiosity or shame in the men they depend on. They fear that the very act of naming these states, of unmasking their effects, will escalate them. And their fears are far from groundless. And yet, while speaking may trigger explosion, the destructive power of silence works like a slow-moving poison, infecting not just the women who still themselves, but the sons and daughters who watch as well, passing on to the next generation…burdens no youngster should be asked to carry.

–pg. 95

Women like my clients are maintaining silence because all attempts in the past to introduce themselves as equal partners to be seen and heard, or to request, require, demand, beg for emotional connection and intimacy with their partners, have been met with various forms of rejection, abuse, or violence. Over the years, their cries have muted to whispers and silence, and then one day, when they’ve felt they’ve had enough, they begin to look for a door marked exit. The strong ones deliver ultimatums to often-stunned partners who claim to have not seen any indications there was anything wrong, admissions that will often send wives desperate for connection into intense emotional spirals.

“I’ve been shouting myself hoarse for forty years,” said Mirriam, “and he pats me on the hand and tells me I’m over-reacting to nothing, that it’s all in my head.”

“He looks through me like I’m not even there,” Anna whispers through her tears. Even with me, she has trouble holding her voice at a normal conversational tone, and seems surprised when I voice anger on her behalf, though grateful that *someone* can.

Grandiosity pushed to extremes ends in homicide, shame in suicide. Both states are potentially lethal. This double-edged threat stops the truth in a woman’s mouth. Afraid of being hurt, afraid of hurting someone she loves, she backs down. Caretaking is, after all, her mandate, her primary training since birth. … The problem for women (or anyone inhabiting the caretaking side of the dynamic) is that while their empathic connection to the disowned “feminine”, the vulnerable, in the other is exaggerated, the connection to their own vulnerability, to self-care, is attenuated. In this way, many women, caring more deeply for the little boy in the man than the man does himself, find themselves bathed in sympathy for that hidden boy even while being psychologically, and sometimes physically, harmed by the man.

–pg. 99

Having women partners call them out for bad behaviours in relationship threatens many men’s self-identity and brings either a rage or shame response, so women, especially those who might have already encountered those kinds of response patterns in family or early relationship experiences, learn to be hyper-vigilant to such moods. They caretake situations to avoid rocking the boat and, along the way, suppress their own needs in the name of maintaining not just family “harmony” and in no small measure, their own personal safety. It’s no small wonder then that forty years into marriage, the box at the back of the closet into which they’ve been stuffing their own dreams, desires, wants, needs, finally starts to overflow like a boiling pot. One of the first things I do with sitting in witness with these clients is normalize the process by which we become silent, and in recognizing the normalization, begin to explore how they feel on a general level about the pattern of silencing they’ve experienced. It’s often much easier to begin such exploration at a general, cultural level before a client feels safe owning such experiences, such intensity of feeling, for themselves. It’s hugely common for women clients to be unable or unwilling to recognize or own their own anger, for example. They will use disarming or diminutizing language to express something cognitively, and in that we discern the stories they’ve been telling themselves, the unconscious scripts they’ve been following, for YEARS. And we know they’re cognitive layers trying to distance or disconnect from the actual feeling, because probably 4 times out of 5, at this point a client will completely dissolve somehow into an intense emotional reaction that is largely at odds with the cognitive overlay.

It’s a very difficult process to admit that one has a voice, let alone (re-)learn to use it. For many of these clients, these women, who have been suppressing for decades, the ship on which any hope of repair rests has sailed. That’s not to say things cannot change for the better, but the lion’s share of the effort involves training frightened women to take emotional risks in the face of a partner who is potentially unraveling in their own way as life transitions change everything they knew, and if the partner isn’t dealing with that internal turmoil effectively themselves, a client suddenly introducing new, unexpected boundaries where previously none existed and demanding respectful adherence and (gasp!) CONSENT where previously none has been necessary, is more likely going to make things worse before anything gets better. We cannot force truculent partners to change, especially if we look at them through the lens of gendered baggage trapping us all to some extent in the roles we play and better understand what’s potentially happening on the inside of their heads while we’re beating against the barricades on the outside.

I have never not been honest with a client facing this kind of effort: we cannot predict how the change process will go, and we cannot guarantee the partner will be as willing to engage the change process as you are… if at all. Some women will understandably find the process of departure a simpler and more palatable choice; some will stay and fight for their marriages and, more importantly, their spaces and voices within them. And it’s important to recognize, from a therapeutic position, that these role-based issues are not strictly limited to an older generation, though some of the entitlement-based expectations are more entrenched; my younger client couples are finding an easier time exploring and expressing a more equally-distributed power base, and women in general are finding more of their own voices. But even with my 20-somethings, I see residual cultural baggage around women being able to ask for what they want and need, cropping up to stunt some of their intimate interactions. We’re not out of the woods yet, especially as younger men are currently being trapped between legacy cultural traditions surrounding “masculinity” and a more feminist approach to equality and egalitarianism that’s leaving them without a clear way forward into self-esteem and self-identity — a chaotic state they then carry forward into their relationships in troubling ways.

But we do have tools now, and language, for sorting through the years of silence and suppression. Getting clients into therapy where these experiences can be validated is the hard part for the client; sitting with them while they confront the choice of staying the same and coping, or leaving and starting over at any age is often the hard part for the therapist. But it is a great privilege to be the space, the safety, and sometimes the first voice allowing and encouraging these clients, these women especially (but the men as well who are also struggling to give voice to what they themselves have been burying for most of their lives), to speak up. In many ways, these clients are the ones who best illustrate how it’s less about the “therapeutic interventions” we professionals bring to the exchange, and entirely about making space for the relationship to be pre-eminent instead. So many of these clients have never felt, or forgotten what it feels like, to be seen and heard for themselves in all their beauty… and all their pain.

And thus, the work begins.


* — Names are changed to protect client confidentiality.

Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Relationships, self-perception, Uncategorized

I’m not saying Freud was right to blame everything on our mothers (his misogynistic views on women are well documented), but he did have the root of an idea that Murray Bowen leveraged decades later into Family Systems Theory. Sometimes it’s easy to trace our personal challenges as adults to specific events or traumas tied to our personal histories, but other times it’s a far more subtle, potentially insidious thing to trace the nuanced impact of internalized behavioural models and “invisible values” inherited from our family systems.

Even clients who have no notable red-flag-raising events in their loving, textbook-perfect families can be surprised at just how much of their behaviour *can* be tied directly back to how they were raised, or what they experienced in the home where they grew up. One of the most common examples of this that we see in relationship counselling with individuals, couples, or poly groups, comes from people who present as happy, seemingly-well-adjusted people from families where the parents never fought, who come into counselling because they have issues connecting with their partners, or because they are anxious in their attachments, and they can’t figure out why. “My parents never argued” is probably the single most common indicator that this was likely to be a family with unhealthy coping strategies for tension and conflict, up to and including outright avoidance of contention. Given that kids inherently use their family of origin as models for behavioural development in most things inter-relational and (once they are adults) and intimacy-building, it’s unsurprising that otherwise “happy home” kids grow into adults who don’t do well with emotional intensity or all-out conflict.

I use the family of origin “snapshot” fairly extensively with many of my clients. It helps me create a picture of the client in terms of where they come from, what kinds of models they grew up with, what kinds of default responses might have been programmed in for emotional self- or co-regulation within the family system from a potentially early age. Within the first session or two, we don a verbal sketch of the principle members of the system: mom and dad, siblings, step-parents and blended family members. If there are interesting things in parental histories that seem impactful on the client’s development, we often look at the relationship between parents and grandparents as well. This tells us what family values might have been passed (or shoved) down from that generation onto the parents that potentially informed how the parents raised their own kids, at least one of whom is now sitting in my office in crisis. It’s this part of the process that’s more about the art of reconstruction, interpreting what we can discern about the family behaviours through the lens of Bowen’s System Theory into a narrative that sheds a little light on why my otherwise-happy client can’t now seem to tolerate any kind of disagreement in the relationship, and falls into an anxious fugue at anything even remotely suggesting that conflict is present.

The family of origin snapshot also sheds some light on intersibling dynamics that may impact personal development into adulthood. Looking at where the client falls in a multi-child birth order, for example, might tell us something about issues like “middle child syndrome” (perhaps the client IS the middle child, or was heavily impacted by a middle child’s behaviours), or parentification of an eldest child. Unconscious parental favouritism can have a huge impact on how kids in such a family develop into adults, as can being the “normal” child in a family that also includes a differently-abled, ill, or developmentally-handicapped child.

Sometimes the family of origin snapshot can pinpoint exact historical incidents that manifest as seemingly-disconnected physical trauma much later in life. Sometimes the group portrait makes it very clear up front that there is a systemic behavioural pattern that has produced challenging or toxic patterns in the client’s own adult life and relationships; toxic parenting or corrosive sibling rivalries will also have a profound effect on how the adult client has come to view relationships.

Once we have created the word picture of the family and the set players on the stage, we use that construct to look at how the client perceives both their role in relational drama, and how they are likely to interpret the behaviours of others around them based on what their families taught them. This runs the gamut from uncovering anxious narrative of imperfection to ego-invested narratives of “Of course I’m always right”, to “Love mean we never fight, doesn’t it? So if we’re fighting all the time, why does my partner hate me??” Because this is an interpretation, I make it clear to the clients when we do this work that just because we construct a narrative explanation that resonates with the information as we perceive it, that doesn’t mean it’s the truth, or that it’s the only truth. We put all the pieces on the board: what the client can relay about their own lived experience, what the therapist can bring in terms of clinical education and observational perspective, and we move the pieces of information around on the board until we have a storyline that explains what is known in a way that fits with both shared and unshared information (clients *ALWAYS* have more information in their heads than they share verbally in therapy; that’s just a truism of the work). Theories that don’t fit get tossed and we start again; the therapist’s own flexibility and refusal to get stuck on their own perspectives becomes a key component here, just as the client’s own willingness to see their long-held historical snapshot explained in a new perspective is important.

This part of shifting perspective is part of the narrative reframing process in which we challenge the client’s understanding of “how things work” on which they have quite likely based their adult values and decision-making models. And if they are coming into therapy because their internal models don’t seem to be influencing or sustaining the kinds of connections they say they want to have in their lives and relationships, the family of origin snapshots will go a long way towards potential roots of the problem. When we change the historical perspective, we also open the opportunity to change how the client relates to both their own history and, perhaps more importantly, the future of their own relationships. For example, a client coming from what they described on intake as, “really close and super-happy home” was struggling with the surprise dissolution of the parental marriage at the same time as the client was facing a power struggle in their own marriage. Because they feel they “turned out just fine” from this “super-happy home”, to the client it was apparent that the parenting strategies that raised them “are obviously the right ones, so if I’m using them to raise *MY* child, I’m obviously right, aren’t I?” But when we circled back around to the dissolution of the parental marriage and all the conflict that was engendering in the family, we had cause to wonder about how it was that the parents were so unhappy for so long that dissolution finally seemed the only option. That led to a conversation about emotional suppression and what that taught my client about emotional suppression and emotional validation, and we began to see how the parental choices had informed my client’s development… and how if we began to see the parental model as potentially deeply flawed in new or still-unseen ways, what did that mean for how my client had internalized that “perfect parenting model” that was at the heart of their own relationship power struggle? Suddenly, simply by looking at the family of origin snapshot from a new angle, we had a whole new perspective on what was happening for the *CLIENT* in terms of attempting to implement a flawed model, or a flawed understanding of an imperfect model.

It’s common for clients to wonder why their families become important to me as a therapist when we’re talking about what they perceive as disconnected issues. I explain about my Systems Theory background, and how it’s part of my job to hold in mid the potential impact these other factors might have on our work. It’s a lot like radio astronomy, I tell them; there are a lot of important objects out in deep space, like black holes, that we can’t see directly, but we can see and measure the effect they have on the things we *CAN* see. Family impacts on client issues work the same way; we can only determine the impact those factors have when we observe the client’s behaviours as an adult. And I freely admit, the times when my clients are most likely to perceive what therapists do as Pure Magictm is when we can put the pieces of their intake story through the Family System Theory filter and feed back to them an enhanced reflection that suddenly “explains so much”. Being able to see light bulbs or couch bombs go off in client’s heads is, I also admit, a big secret part of why we therapists Do What We Do. We love those moments when the revised narrative gains a toehold, and the new vista opens up for the client; it’s one of the things that makes it easier for clients to go forward into the work they’ve come to do. It’s like we’re the mountain sherpas who, by showing them a new understanding of the past, have opened up an unexpected path to go forward from there… and simply catching a glimpse of the path, that new understanding, gives the client tremendous hope that they’re in the right place to do the right work.

Some days, what we do really does seem like a kind of magic 🙂

Family Issues, Technology, Uncategorized

Do you use your smartphone or other devices in front of your children? This may be having a very different impact on those relationships than you think… or want.

““What stood out was that in a subset of caregivers using the device almost through the entire meal, how negative their interactions could become with the kids,” she says. While the study did not code or quantify the reactions, Radesky says that there were “a lot of instances where there was very little interaction, harsh interaction or negative interaction” between the adults and the children. “That’s simply unfair to the children,” says Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson of Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog.”

Family Issues, Relationships

There are times when being a prolific LJ poster, even one who tries with some diligence to use the tagging system, can’t find what I’m looking for in the morass of data piled on over the course of a dozen years (tomorrow is my official 12th LJversary, actually; how cool is that??).

Recently family foibles a friend is experience triggered a bunch of thoughts about transactional affection, which is, by and large, another term in my head for what I have previously explored as “relationship ledgers“:

“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.”

It’s not just the list of grievances for which we sometimes keep score; sometimes it’s all of the Good Deeds we’ve done. In my friend’s situation, a family member tallied a lengthy list of “things I did for you”, within a very clear context of the implicit expectation of, “…and therefore you owe me [X]”, where [X] resolves to affection, respect, attention, prioritization… any one of a number of values.

Within a family system, contextually most of us are taught that unconditional love and respect is something we as children owe our parents, and that love and support are owed to us by our parents. Within a cultural system, we see this pattern writ large recently as issues of “Nice Guy Syndrome”, for example. In both systemic contexts, the script being followed is that, “I did something nice for you, therefore I *EXPECT* you to do something nice for me”, with all kinds of variable expectations around what that “something nice” is supposed to look like, even if never explicitly stated, negotiated, or consented to. This is what I have come to label as “transactional affection”. In any transaction, something is given with the expectation of something in return. Commerce is a series of financial transactions for goods or services in return. Relational transactions are less clearly defined, but no less-laden with expectations. And therein lies the big problem.

It’s always nice to receive positive interactions, be it compliments, gifts, affection, deeper intimacy, etc.; some people are adept at giving such things without attaching an expectation to it, but in my experience (personal and clinical), such true altruism is incredibly rare. Parents *expect* that their children will love and revere them, no matter what. When their children start to differentiate from the family system, that creates a backlash because in part (I suspect) the parental expectation of being loved and revered is no longer guaranteed, and that creates a kind of doubt or distress that all the effort was for what, exactly?

Transactional affection also exists outside of family systems, in all kinds of social and relational systems. Friends do things for friends, immediately or eventually expecting “favours” to be returned. Ever helped a friend move then asked them to help you move in return? To some extent, the very framework of real-time social networks are founded on this kind of interwoven support, which is no bad thing. Where it becomes problematic in ANY system is when someone in the system starts keeping score and using perceived transactional disparities in the ledger as a stick to “get what they feel they are owed” from someone else in the system. Families in particular get really tetchy when it comes to transactional ledgers, because value systems are often based in inherited values for what constitutes “fair”, what looks like “love”, meanings for “duty and obligation”, and sometimes those inherited values blind some members of the system to the fact that the differentiating individuals might have developed different values for any and all of those concepts… meaning the nature of the transactions also change. One of you is still trading in old British coin, the other in new Canadian dollars. Unsurprisingly, those coins and dollars no longer carry equal weight, and expectations tied to those words have to be renegotiated as the system around them evolves.

Likewise in intimate relationships, much woe I see in and out of the counselling office seems tied to the process of “keeping score”, especially when one partner uses the score card to justify a hard or distant stance out of hurt, fear, or spite. Commonly, I hear the despairing cry of, “All the things I do for you, why don’t you ever/you never do anything nice for me?” or “I’ve met all your needs, it’s not fair that you’re not meeting mine.”

Something that has to happen is a conversation about the difference between “equal” and “fair”. Transactional affection always presumes that effort put out will be rewarded by equal or greater effort in return. Fair, on the other hand, is a discussion about options; what is the need to be met, and if I cannot do the thing you explicitly expect, what else might I be able to offer that can, or comes close? How can we manage it if what I have to offer does NOT meet the need as expected?” In short, the process of defining the value of the transaction becomes a collaborative effort, not a prescriptive (and often invisible) set of assumptions.

It’s my growing suspicion as I write these thoughts out that relational ledgers (transactional affection) is ALL ABOUT outcome attachment, specifically, seeing as a return on one’s own efforts and investments a very specific desired outcome, and being anywhere from disappointed to downright pyroclastic f thwarted in “getting what I deserve”, “getting what’s mine by right”, or even “getting what I deserve”. This attachment to outcome, and failure to manage the intensity of disappointment when expected outcomes don’t manifest as assumed, is nowhere more clear than in the internet-wide phenomenon that was The Nice Guy Issue, in which self-reporting “nice guys” on dating sites and elsewhere lamented at great length about putting time and energy into being great friends with a woman IN THE HOPE AND EXPECTATIONS that she would then fall in love with them instead of Some Other guy, and how put out they felt that their obvious efforts were not being rewarded.

This is transactional affection in its core state.

“I do all this for you, of *COURSE* you owe me in return. Wait, what do you mean you have your own thoughts and feelings on the subject…???”

“I am your parent, I did all of these things for you my child, of *COURSE* you owe me unquestioning respect and affection in return. Wait, what do you mean you have your own thoughts and feelings on the subject…???”

Unraveling the implicit, sometimes hereditary expectations and assumptions built into a transactional system is hard work, I’m not going to lie. (I’m also not going to tell you I’m an expert at it myself; if I were, I might still be married, personally. But I digress…) First of all, you have to go through the process of letting go of an expectation of equal, in favour of a floating and flexible understanding of fair, and sometimes that means letting go of the scorecard while trying to start from where you are right now. A lot of people won’t let go of that stance-justification; many have no clue who they are without it. Score cards give them purpose, even if toxic ones.

If the transactional ledger is writ full of negative things, in which one party keeps track of all the negatives about another person(s), then you have to make every effort to create a positive ledger as well. Only living in the negatives while never acknowledging the positives is a kind of darkness in which no-one thrives in. John Gottman has come up with a mind-bogglingly accurate statistical model for relationship success and failure, with in the neighbourhood of a 94% accuracy. As part of his model, he stipulates,

“In the world of relationships, the most important numbers to learn are: five to one. That is the ratio of positive interactions to negative ones that predicts whether a marriage will last or become one of the sad statistics of divorce.”

While this kind of transaction system isn’t entirely within the same context as transactional affection, it does provide a framework for reflecting on positives within the context of moving out of a negative-based transactional ledger. It also begins to provide a framework for talking about individual interpretations of value (specifically, degree of emotional investment) for those transactions. “I am offering you positive interactions” often comes with the unvoiced expectation that, in a relationship or family system, we’re all in this together, so, “I’m expecting you to do the same in return.” Is that mutually understood and agreed upon? Is what’s being offered coming from a sense of love, is it a gift, or is it a transaction with the implied obligation of something in return? Have we each a clear understanding of that implied obligation, and do we each consent to the transaction on the basis of that expectation? What are our options if that’s not the case?

We begin to change how these conversations happen, not out of a need to nit-pick so much as a need to understand and be open to shifting from a transactional score card to something based more in flexible, collaborative, and above all, explicitly-shared understandings. Differentiation is never easy, and challenging the ledger is definitely hard work given the likelihood that *someone* in the system is using it as a justification for interactive behaviours. But it is necessary for systemic health that things be balanced fairly, and not with a rigid sense of what’s equal. That kind of implicit scoring system only guarantees almost everyone stays miserable for the duration.

Article links, Family Issues, Relationships

I’ve found myself saying this a lot recently, and I’ll keep saying it if it makes a difference for someone who needs to hear it:

Biology and genetics are no longer sufficient excuse for feeling compelled to remain part of a sick system.

Sometimes a “family” (biological *OR* chosen) is the single most toxic and dangerous environment there can be. As a human being, you’re entitled to safety and respect for your personhood. If that’s threatened by your own family — GET OUT, get safe, and heal.

In this case, a “sick system” is one that manipulates one or more participants into remaining fused in the relationship, constrained to support the manipulative relationship partner even to the other participant’s own detriment (unhappiness, ill health, depression, risk of violence, etc.), but all in the guise of love and care. It’s a form of gaslighting, or rather, gaslighting is a common tactic in creating and sustaining sick systems: make someone doubt themselves so much that it only seems safe if they rely on you for perspective. Abusive or emotionally-manipulative parents and care-givers will do this to children, other family members, and to their partners; romantic partners can do this to each other.

One of the best descriptions of sick systems I’ve ever encountered is found on LiveJournal:

A sick system has four basic rules […] All of [which] work together to make a bad workplace or a bad relationship addictive. You’re run off your feet putting out fires and keeping things going, your own world will collapse if you stop, and every so often you succeed for a moment and create something bigger than yourself. Things will get better soon. You can’t stop believing that. If you stop believing, you won’t be able to go on, and you can’t not go on because everything you have and everything you are is tied into making this thing work. You can’t see any way out because there are always all these things stopping you, and you could try this thing but that would take time and money, and you don’t have either, and you’ve been told that you’ll get both eventually when that other thing happens, and pushing won’t make that thing happen so it’s better to keep your head down and wait. After a while the stress and panic feel normal, so when you’re not riding the edge, you feel twitchy because you know that the lull doesn’t mean things are better, it means you’re not aware yet of what’s going wrong. And the system or the partner always, always obliges with a new crisis.

The same author later wrote a companion piece to examine the qualities of the people most likely to become trapped in such a relational sick system, available here. These qualities do not guarantee you *will* become trapped in these kinds of dangerously-destructive relationships, but they seem to be the common characteristics of those who find themselves stuck.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks when its a *family* system is the pervasive cultural belief that because it’s *FAMILY*, we *HAVE* to remain loyal. This is absolutely not true. In truth, it never has been, but it’s one of the great cultural myths we propagate from one generation to the next: from one level of sick system to another. “Family above all others”. So how does a person finally waking up to the reality of the system’s destructive nature get free of it? Escaping the gravitic pull and emotional enmeshment of a sick system is hard, but necessary. Gaining perspective from friends outside the system is often how change starts, followed by seeking professional help if you can. Sometimes a complete cut-off is the only way to enforce new self-protective and self-respecting boundaries from toxicity and violence, and that’s a hard thing to hold up in the face of pressure to remain loyal, to remain compliant to the herd, to avoid ostracization from other members of the system with whom you have healthier relationships (but who conform to the systemic expectations).

One has to begin a process that Murray Bowen (father of modern family systems theory) termed, “differentiation”, the gaining of self within the system or, if not possible to achieve selfhood within the family system, then outside of it. It starts with creating new boundaries and defending them, of valuing yourself as a whole person inside those boundaries who is individually deserving of love, compassion, and respect. If those things are not to be found within the system through the larger change process of differentiation, they can only be found outside. A sick system almost never changes for the sake of the differentiating individual; a sick system exists solely to sustain its own sickness. That’s the trap, ultimately: you can almost never change the perpetrator, no matter how much love and care you bring to them.

In addition to Issendai’s articles above and the wikipedia definition of “gaslighting”, I also highly recommend the following readings:

Emotional manipulation: how to recognize and free ourselves from it

When parents are too toxic to tolerate (NYTimes article)

The Guide to Strong Boundaries

Love is NOT Enough