Relationships, Uncategorized

Once again, a common theme is arising from conversations I’ve had several times with clients in recent weeks, in the vein of, “My partner is finally giving me everything I’ve been asking for, so why am I still not happy?”

Well, as it happens, I have a theory about that.

Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness is a great book that presents in very accessible language a significant body of research into the experience of happiness (Knopf 2009). Read in conjunction with Martin Seligman’s work on Authentic Happiness and flourishing, theswe resources chart (among other things) the idea of how we as both individuals and broader societies establish the expectation of a “baseline” happiness against which we measure our subjective experiences.

Gilbert’s stance is rooted in the idea that each of us has a unique baseline of happiness that is reasonably fixed; this explains why some people just seem perpetually joyous, and others seem fixedly dour.

“One of the most striking findings from the booming new field of happiness research has been that people have fairly sticky baselines. With only a few exceptions, people tend to return to the same level of happiness over time, regardless of what happens to them — even extremely good events like winning the lottery, or extremely bad events like becoming a paraplegic, only seem to bump people’s reported happiness up or down for a limited time, before they start to drift back to their baseline.”– Julia Galef, April 15 2011

In relational therapy I run with the idea of baseline, not so much as rigidly fixed points but as (in gaming lingo) a restore point to which we will naturally settle or return to after upheavals. Our baseline happiness in relationship will therefore be as much a product of our natural individual happiness baseline, as it is the general management of the overarching health and effective connectedness of the relationship. John Gottman refers to the “love bank”, Gary (Love Languages) Chapman refers to the “love tank”; both of these terms refer to what I think of as a healthy metric for “status quo” in intimate relationships.

Generally speaking, the give and take process of intimacy should keep all partners’ banks reasonably full most of the time. Being humans in sometimes surprising or unexpected situations will strain and drain those reservoirs on occasion; it just happens. Healthy relationships have established patterns for restoring and sustaining us while those tanks refill. Sometimes, however, relational DYSfunction will add to the ongoing erosion of the tanks and overall lowering of the baseline.

For example, we’ve previously explored the slow erosion of intimacy from other angles, and how we inadvertently create a slow continental drift apart from partners as we get busy and forget to practice vulnerability, or as a low-grade, persistent frustration or disappointment becomes an intractable fixture in our relational landscape. Over time, these just-below-the-point-of-confrontation issues will, in fact, decrease our overall happiness levels and relational contentment.

If the partners then one day come to realize, “We need to work on our relationship!”, they show up in the therapist’s office, hopefully willing to make some changes and do some work to get themselves back into fighting trim.

The problem I have been observing time and time again over the years, however, is this:

  • Partners engage in the change process.
  • One partner in particular may be making more effort than the other, doing everything that is asked of them, possibly trying to ear a way out of the doghouse and back into good graces after a bigger relationship issue
  • The other partner, being handed everything they say they want or have asked for continues to experience dissatisfaction or reluctance in the engagement, and eventually comes to wonder, “If I’m getting everything I want, WHY AM I NOT HAPPY???”

Part of the issue is the cagey wariness of mistrusting change efforts, but I also theorize that the baseline happiness for each relational partner is now established at VERY different levels.

In the New Relationship Energy state when everything is glowing and golden and delightful in the nascent relationship, we establish a fairly high baseline of happiness for both partners. On an completely-arbitrary happiness scale of 0 (I hate you, you asshole, and I want you to die) to 10 (I love you, you are my golden god/dess, and I never want these halcyon days to ever end), NRE baselines can often be 8 or 9, spiking to 10 or sometimes off the charts. As the relationship develops some structure and routine over time, that baseline will generally settle to something more like a steady 7, maybe a 6. Distractions like work or kids can drop the baseline to more like a 5–neither golden glory but not deepest hell, but level with the usual kinds of things pulling us up or down.

As those distractions become festering hurts or challenges or repeating disconnection and disengagement, however, one partner’s baseline may continue to erode, even while the other partner may remain blissfully unaware there’s even a problem. Ergo, by the time the partners make it to my office, they may both agree they need and want to work on the relationship, and they may both come in with equal willingness to embrace a change process… BUT THEY MAY EACH BE STARTING FROM VERY DIFFERENT BASELINES.

In these cases, the one partner who is “doing everything you asked of me” is just as baffled as the partner making the requests, as to why it feels like nothing has improved. The partner with the lower baseline may, in fact, have increased their general level of engagement and contentment in the relationship, but it does’t in any way guarantee that they have returned to previous “normal” baselines, never mind the glory days of the NRE baselines. The partner with the higher level may have likewise increased their overall baseline happiness in the relationship, and be wondering why they seem to be alone on that plateau: it’s because they are.

If Partner A is starting from a baseline of 5 and increases their relational happiness to a 7, that’s great. Partner B may also manage a 2-point increase, but if their starting baseline was a 2 or a 3, then they are barely even getting to where Partner A *started*, never mind to where Partner A has moved up.

It can become very apparent very quickly if there are discrepancies in these baseline states. “Letting a partner out of the doghouse” is a big red flag that someone may be *unwilling* to shift their baseline, or there may be complicating issues like anxiety or depression, or historic attachment injuries, to take into account. Sometimes one partner has a greater leap of faith to make that “this time something will be different.” Regardless of the confounding variables in the room, it behooves us as the therapists in the process to draw some attention to these imbalanced starting points. Couples often make the mistake of assuming that being in agreement on the need to make changes, and equally committed to doing whatever work they identify as necessary, must ALSO mean that (a) their individual ability *to change* is equal, and that (b) they begin from the same place in the happiness scale.

One of my takeaways from coming to this realization is the need I have for a single, simple assessment tool for establishing a relative (and highly subjective, since it’s self-reporting) individual baseline relationship contentment and satisfaction. There probably is such a thing either in Gottman’s or Seligman’s toolkit (or even Chapman’s), I just haven’t had time to wade into the research material to look for it yet. But having such a thing to SHOW clients some kind of simple representation of their unequal starting points seems like it would be a very good thing. I did liken it recently to the differences in starting pole or grid positions in auto racing. It’s one thing to start out in the pole position, entirely another to be starting from the back of the pack; the latter has to work considerably harder to catch up to where the former starts.

Being able to illustrate that difference is key to setting realistic expectations, and for discussing milestones and goals within the change process that are perhaps defined individually, rather than embedded in the “WE”-ness of coupledom. But it’s also going to be a piece of critical understanding ABOUT each other, something needful for developing compassion about the unique experience we each have of the other. One partner may want to keep forging ahead with changes while the other feels like the are struggling to catch up, and that can continue to build on existing frustrations and disappointments, rather than supporting the changes they came to therapy to make. Stay conscious of the differences, apply the brakes or gentle encouragements as needed, and check baselines on the INDIVIDUAL level, not the RELATIONAL level.

Relationships, Uncategorized

Dr Harriet Lerner, author of several wonderful books about relational dynamics, describes the intricate movements toward, and away from, the intensity of intimacy (especially in the sense of emotional vulnerability) as a dance. This dance is based in the idea that the closer we get to letting a partner in to seeing what we feel are our “true selves”, the more we inadvertently activate emotional defenses around our growing discomfort, potentially stalling out or actively driving away attempts at the very intimacy and connection most humans crave.

This push-me-pull-you dynamic is also sometimes illustrated by the hedgehog’s dilemma:

Both Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud have used this situation to describe what they feel is the state of the individual in relation to others in society. The hedgehog’s dilemma suggests that despite goodwill, human intimacy cannot occur without substantial mutual harm, and what results is cautious behavior and weak relationships. With the hedgehog’s dilemma, one is recommended to use moderation in affairs with others both because of self-interest, as well as out of consideration for others.

The fundamental dynamic of the hedgehog’s dilemma is based in how we attract and repel people. Lerner terms this a “distancer-pursuer” dynamic in which we begin by pursuing connection through a courtship phase, then begin to seek some separation and space once we hit too much togetherness, or too-intimate a closeness–either way, it’s generally perceived as being “too much” for us, so we push off from our partners. Sometimes this happens simultaneously, but more often than not, one person’s tolerance for intimacy and closeness tops out before the other’s does, and only one partner starts to move towards more space.

When we look at this through attachment dynamics, the push-off of the distance-seeker can often trigger insecurity in the attachment structure, and the one who is insecure or anxious in the attachment will begin to grasp or cling in an attempt to draw the retreating partner back into connection. The grasping increases intensity for the one who is already potentially in retreat, so the retreating continues until the pursuer “gives up” and stops their efforts. Often this creates a turnabout in the relational dynamic: even if the distancer is feeling overwrought by the pursuit, there is some validation in that dynamic that proves the pursuing partner is still engaged, still focused, still available and desiring interaction (of ANY kind, not always the GOOD kind, in the sense of “bad engagement is better than NO engagement”). So when the pursuit simply STOPS, the distancer may suddenly become the anxious partner trying to re-engage a disengaged one. (This is where we will sometimes see Wexler’s broken mirror syndrome come into play as one partner “acts out” in attempts to entice or manipulate a no-longer-reflective surface back into alignment in their perspective).

This dynamic can repeat throughout the lifespan of relationships, and the roles can reverse many times.

“A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression. They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and take it personally.

They criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable. They believe they have superior values. If they fail to connect, they will collapse into a cold, detached state. They are labeled needy, demanding, and nagging.

A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want physical and emotional distance. They have difficulty with vulnerability.

They respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. They see themselves as private and self-reliant. They are most approachable when they don’t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued. They are labeled unavailable, withholding, and shut down.”


“In her study of 1,400 divorced individuals over 30 years, E. Mavis Hetherington found that couples who were stuck in this mode were at the highest risk for divorce. Researcher Dr. John Gottman also noted that this destructive pattern is an extremely common cause of divorce. He claims that if left unresolved, the pursuer-distancer pattern will continue into a second marriage and subsequent intimate relationships.” — Steve Horsmon, for The Gottman Institute, March 6, 2017

Stepping outside of this dynamic can be difficult when we consider the underlying anxieties, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to let go of them. Distancers often maintain their status quo stance for long terms if the pressure of pursuit is persistent or constant, or once the pursuer’s anger becomes part of the equation; therefore the first order of business is generally finding ways to de-escalate and secure the pursuer. This effort comes with a warning to the pursuers, however: pursuers are likely to leave the relationship, seemingly abruptly, after exhausting efforts to maintain the pursuit against defensive distancing. Lerner writes extensively about working with distancers to find ways of relearning how to “turn toward” their partners, rather than turning away, while training pursuers to relax and trust that there is something true in the old adage that, “If you love something, set it free.” Attachment theory frames this in the context of working around the anxieties and intensity tolerances present in the relationship. Gottman addresses the way in which this dynamic opens the door to the Four Horsemen: Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling (Distancing). Emotionally-focused Therapy would consider this from the angle of articulating and exploring these underlying fears with as much nonjudgmental curiosity and receptivity as possible.

Changes must be driven by a desire to be a better partner, not to get some instant result or reciprocation. Pursuers are known for being outcome dependent and have a hard time making changes without expectations. Distancers are known for being stubborn and have difficulty making the first move when under pressure.” — [ibid.]

Rebuilding trust and security in the face of long-term distancer-pursuer dynamics requires commitment to understanding and trusting the potential for intimacy, and practicing vulnerability in the face of our own discomfort with intensity tolerance. When I ask couples on intake whether they’re in my office for “relationship counselling or relationship cancelling”, this is often the work that we as therapists are asking them to undertake. It’s not an easy thing to (re-)establish that trust and build security into the attachments, but oh-so-wonderful when we see clients expanding their tolerances and shifting those comfort boundaries to let their partners (back) into those intimate connections.

Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not unfixable. That’s the best news.

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

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

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

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

Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

[This is the continuance of last week’s post, available here.]

Last week we ended with the most basic of relational repair questions:
Do you trust that your partner is NOT in this relationship to hurt you?

Letting Them Out of the Doghouse: Choosing Trust

By the time we get to a relational crisis state, that can be a difficult question to answer honestly. Ultimately most people who make it as far as a therapist’s office ARE struggling to salvage something, so more often than not, we find that at least THIS basic trust is intact enough to let us move forward. I like to use David Richo’s definitions of trust when we get to this part of the conversation:

“Adult trust is based on the proven trustworthiness of the other. Our adult trust grows best in an atmosphere of continuity and consistency. […] Thus trust takes hold in a relationship when someone shows himself to be reliable. It ends when it turns out that he is not. It begins again if he changes for the better. It ends if he changes for the worse. Yearning for someone to trust absolutely is how we keep ourselves feeling unhappy. We are forgetting the first teaching of Buddhism, that all is ultimately unreliable, impermanent, and therefore unsatisfactory, and that we suffer when we cling to something with the illusory belief that such is not so. […] Adults know that trust cannot be based on expectations or projections. Nor can others be presumed to be trustworthy because we believe we are entitled to their loyalty or have merited it. The ego has to bow in total surrender to the ruthless record of of real instances of trustworthiness or betrayal.” – David Richo, Daring to Trust: Opening Ourselves to Real Love & Intimacy, pgs. 62-3

The act of choosing to trust – and it is an active, moment-to-moment, deliberate (if not always conscious) choice – is one we work hard to break down into smaller chunks, rather than stay stuck in a nonhelpful, binary, all-or-nothing definition. But by creating a list of all the places one partner DOES chose trust, there is a clearer base for clients to review their state and the general emotional faith in the relationship. It’s hard to build hope on nothing, but rooting faith in *existing* places of trust makes it much easier to rebalance the places that hurt, with the places that don’t. Many clients will report feeling more secure once they have someone reframe their struggles in terms of this faith, because it’s so easy to lose perspective under the slow onslaught of the little cuts, and they forget the places where the relationship still has strength and resiliency.

Doing the work of discovering the places where the relationship is still good does have the effect of throwing a harsher light by contrast on the places where it is NOT good. Gottman’s work on helping couples identify core issues underlying (or undermining) repeat arguments in particular helps provide language around resolvable versus unresolvable issues, and gives us a framework for separating out the symptomatic, repetitive fights that lead to that corrosive hurt and slow disconnection from deeper issues tied to core values and the expectations we form around them. We spend a LOT of time in the reconnection and repair stage of relationship work by looking at how those expectations are thwarted over time, assuming they were ever clearly articulated and consented to in the first place. And in longer-term relationships, those expectations themselves can change over time, though it’s been my observation that core values generally do not.

One of the key tools Gottman also introduces is shifting HOW these conversations happen. In his book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he describes the difference between the harsh startup and the soft startup. If we’re challenging our clients to stay present emotionally, to be vulnerable with each other in the heart of their emotional rawness, then it would be a REALLY COOL IDEA if we could help those conversations happen without the additional challenge of one or both partners charging out of the starting gates with all guns a-blazin’.

“In contrast, a harsh startup usually begins the cycle of the four horsemen, which leads to flooding [emotional overwhelm], and, in turn, to increased emotional distance and loneliness that lets the marriage wither. Only 40 percent of the time do couples divorce because they are having frequent, devastating fights. More often, marriages end because, to avoid constant skirmishes, [partners] distance themselves so much that their friendship and sense of connection are lost. […] Softening the startup is crucial to resolving conflicts because, my research finds, discussions invariably end on the same note as they begin. That’s why 96 percent of the time I can predict the fate of a conflict discussion in the first three minutes! If you start an argument harshly–meaning you attack your [partner] verbally — you’ll end up with at least as much tension as you begin.” – John Gottman, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, pgs. 160-1

Bennett Wong & Jock McKeen recognize that one partner may have better emotional expression than the other, and recognize how disappointed expectations that the “unemotional” partner may often feel unsafe in a relationship once the more emotional partner’s expectations have reached levels of disappointment that become damaging. We have to restore relational safety in the sense of equipping both partners with an understanding that in spite of the current state of things, hurting each other is not the overarching intent. They are also big on developing explicit understandings of each other’s expectations, and while they don’t use the concept of explicit consent the way I do, that’s exactly what they are talking around:

“[P]eople learn to trust their own evaluations of others. If someone else wants to trust you, you should ask for a definition; if you are being trusted to do something you don’t want to do, don’t agree to it. Many problems in relationship could be averted if couples did not [blindly, binarily] trust each other but, rather, clarified their expectations of each other.

In place of [blind, binary] trust, couples can clarify their expectations of one another, define their boundaries and bottom lines, and enunciate the consequences that would result from breaking any of the agreements. …[E]ach person must be prepared to exercise the consequences of broken promises and generally accept any accompanying pain without blame.” – Wong & McKeen, pg. 111

Wong & McKeen’s version of trust is a little harder to swallow when understood in full (the advantage of editorializing excerpts is being able to cherry-pick my content and leave the more challenging parts out for now), but it’s a nice description of shifting the focus from opting for a default all-or-nothing trust in favour of a more nuanced set of understandings and consent boundaries. That gives us much more to work with, within the framework of making deliberate choices around WHAT do we trust our partners to do, and rebuilding faith on the basis of those agreements.

Rebuilding trust that our partners are not here to hurt us is a whole lot easier when we’re not, in fact, feeling hurt as a result of our highly-charged engagements. The truth, however, is that most of us have to be in active crisis before we recognize there’s even a problem, let alone think about doing the work to change anything that’s feeling out of sync or broken outright. David Richo writes, “The breakdown of trust in a relationship is a much more hurtful moment than the breakup of a relationship” (Richo, pg 122), making trust the central pillar in a restoration of loving intimacy. Gottman’s work is just one set of tools we use for that exploration; at a future point, I’ll also look at how Sue Johnson’s emotionally-focused approach can also strengthen existing attributes of faith as a tool for reacquainting partners with their own vulnerable intimacy.

We acknowledge at every step of the change process that it’s going to seem easier to quit and start fresh with someone than it is to re-establish secure vulnerability in an already-eroded relationship. The “starting over” process doesn’t guarantee we won’t make the same mistakes again, but the perceived lower risk of being hurt by someone we already believe will hurt us is recognized as an attractive trade off. So as therapists, we also acknowledge the unspoken aspects of desire and commitment (and, yes, stubbornness) that keeps a couple engaged in the attempt to connect and repair in spite of the fear of further pain. And in doing so, we reinforce some encouraging modelling for the partners, because if WE can see it from out here in the cheap seats, we can likely help our clients see it from deep in the muck on the inside.

Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

Well, okay then… last week’s post on “Unmaking Love” apparently hit a nerve, resulting in some of the highest traffic we’ve seen since I started posting content regularly. I guess if I’ve depressed people by charting the slow erosion process that’s evident in many clients seeking counselling for relational issues, I should maybe turn things around and offer something positive for those who are ready to embrace the work of change. [Note: this wound up being an exceptionally LONG post, even by my wordy standards, so I’m posting it in two parts. Part 2 will autopost next week at the usual time.]

So the question: how do we remake love? What repairs intimacy damaged by slow detachments and myriad tiny, unintended hurts?

The good news is, yes, it *IS* possible to correct that slow “death by a thousand cuts.” It’s not easy, because it means recovering vulnerability and emotional rawness that we buried BECAUSE it had become too much to bear on a day-to-day basis. But with commitment and willingness to be brave from all parties involved (including the therapist), then yes, we can certainly encourage and support things shifting back towards connection. The big question becomes… HOW?

The Roles of Hope and Faith in Remaking Love

My second question (after the very provocative, “marriage counselling, or marriage cancelling” inquiry of last week) is generally along the lines of exploring whether the client(s) are approaching the change process in the spirit of hope or faith, because there can be a huge difference in engagement levels when we look closely at the difference between those two states (this is a great introduction to the lexicon-building process, BTW).

Bennet Wong and Jock McKeen, Canadian therapists and authors of “The Relationship Garden”, distinguish terminology this way:

“Hope and faith are different. Whereas faith is self-affirming and acceptance of life as it is, hope involves a dissatisfaction with self and present circumstance, and is dependent upon external events or people to provide change. People hope that life will be different, or better, or fuller; their hoping involves a lack of acceptance and a thrust toward change. In the Romance phase, hope is a common underlying theme. Dissatisfied with their basic insecurities, people commonly hope that a newfound partner will solve their problems, and that life will become better.

Hope involves a basic lack of acceptance of self and other. Indeed, in the Romance stage, awareness of the self and other are so clouded by the romantic dreams and projections that people have insufficient information to actually accept anyone or anything with any validity.

Disappointment is the other face of hope; like hope, disappointment is based in a discontentment with the present. The Romance phase is generally destined for disappointment, because the things people are trying to change probably will not alter at all; once they emerge from the swoon of Romance, they are once again faced with their basic insecurities, and their hoping flips into disappointment.” – Bennet Wong & Jock McKeen, The Relationship Garden, p. 61.

“To be in a state of hope interferes with intimacy. Hope anticipates a better circumstance in the future; hence it is rooted in a dissatisfaction and non-acceptance of the present situation. In relationships, to hope for something different is to fail to contend with the situation as it is. By contrast, faith has a profound acceptance of how things are. In faith, people acknowledge and accept themselves and their partners, and are open to interchange.

When a relationship reaches an impasse, as it frequently does, people who rely on hope will focus on the future when things will be different. Too often, such people become passive and helpless, tending to freeze action while waiting for a favourable turn of events On the other hand, when people in relationship have faith, they stay present to address themselves to the issues at hand with the assumption that they can make some positive adjustments; they know that no matter what happens, they have confidence in their abilities to handle all difficulties.” – pg. 113

It has been my experience that many clients manage to have some combination of the two, but by the time they get to someone like me, they’re likely more in the HOPE stage than the FAITH stage. Terry Real doesn’t see hope as an intrinsically problematic state:

“I have a name for this,” I tell [clients], “this dropping into the old wounds then having the capacity for difference, for healing. It’s called hope.” – Terry Real, How Can I Get Through to You, pg. 180

I prefer making the distinction between the two states; from a therapeutic position, it offers me a way to gauge whether or not a fixation on a desired future-state is acting as a motivator or as a passivity-inducing deterrent the way Jock & McKeen describe. Having both present can be a helpful thing, so long as the future fixation does NOT manifest as a lack of involvement or investment in the present moment. Therefore the first stage of the work involves, as Terry Real says, bringing the relationship members back into connection by getting them to “sit in the fire of their discomforts”, as Pema Chodron says, and actually HEAR each other’s pain. Terry Real calls this the process of learning to hold on:

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

How we get to an even partially-restored connection depends entirely on the participants’ own tolerance for both the change process, and the painful things they will have to sit with while in it. Once we open the door to the accumulated detritus of a painful connection, we have to work on clearing line noise for a cleaner signal in communications. This is, on a broad scale, what John Gottman calls a repair attempt. While this can reintroduce power struggles within the relationship as each partner potentially struggles to be right more than repaired, we open the door to more effective connection bids and develop more clearly understood and articulated expectations. We aim to develop compassionate understandings around what happens when connection succeeds AND fails. This exchange has happened in my own office more times than I can count:

Me: Would you rather be right in this moment, or be repaired and connected?
Client: Why can’t I be both?
Me: You can be, just not while you’re entrenched behind your righteous NEED to be right and lobbing grenades over the wall at the enemy. When are you going to let your partner out of the doghouse, and trust they’re here in the shit WITH you?

There are a LOT of different ways to do this reparative work. Emotionally-focused therapy is a great tool for getting past the noise to the signal of core needs being flagged for attention. Working to subdue and eliminate Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling (emotional shut-down/detachment) – makes it easier to stay present for difficult conversations. But on a more fundamental level, in order to stay present we have to work on redeveloping Trust (along with a shared understanding of what that word means in all its nuanced glory to every person in the room). We start with the most basic of questions:
Do you trust that your partner is NOT in this relationship to hurt you?

To see what we do with that question, stay tuned for part 2, coming next week.