Relationships

“I often say to couples I see, ‘You can be right, or you can be married. Which is more important to you?’” — Terry Real

One of the more uncomfortable therapeutic aspects of working with couples in relationship crisis, is the role we therapists seem destined to forever trip around: playing referee between two teams, each utterly convinced of, and and emotionally invested in, a subjective truth based on a combination of facts and interpretations of their individual experiences. And because neither team feels safe in the vulnerability required to listen non-judgmentally and explore each other’s perceptions, they instead become entrenched in their defensive positions and the need to BE RIGHT about their subjective experience being acknowledged as the ONE TRUTH of whatever events have transpired.

Referee
Therapist need a system for throwing flags on the play in client sessions.

Entrenchment feels stable to many of us. We get to dig in our heels and lock our knees on an issue, to use anger as a defense and a fuel to hold that stance. We invest in our conviction, to the detriment of all comers against our position. It feels strong to us. It is, unfortunately, about as far from intimate as we can get. And the things we say from within those entrenched positions is likely to have a damaging effect on the relationship, short- or long-term.

I first learned about the idea of “subjective truth” in an undergraduate philosophy class, the context of the surrounding discussion long lost to the dim murk of time and a probable degree of hangover (then, not now). But I do remember the professor’s illustrating comment: “I could give the same set of facts to three different people, and have each of them extrapolate a different interpretation of those facts into what becomes for them their subjective understanding of those facts, and therefore, becomes their subjective truth.” Couples stuck in entrenchment dynamics will have the same challenge: each has an interpretation of what happened that fits their internal narratives about themselves, their partner, the relationship; each is convinced they are right, and the Other is committing some treasonous act of “revisionist history”.

“Defending our position is the opposite of addressing it. And commitment to a relationship entails addressing, processing, and resolving our personal and mutual issues. If we fear real closeness, we will run from the thought of such a process. We have to feel safe enough to look at what we might have kept hidden in ourselves or avoided addressing in our partner. Of course, most of us have the knack of not heeding what we know will require a difficult or painful response. But such denial can cost us our own sensitivity and vulnerability.” — David Richo, How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving (Shambhala Books, 2002)

Many of my clients lament, “I just want my partner to UNDERSTAND what it’s been like for me, my experience,” or point of view or perspective or the like. But instead, when a contentious topic hits the table and provokes each partner to their respective defensive entrenchments, it’s generally a signal that one or both parties are taking something personally, feeling attacked or harshly critiqued, and they are taking to the trenches because it hurts too much to stay present and explore whatever it is their partner is trying (effectively or not) to communicate.

It’s not what we like to think intimacy looks like, but this is often how it feels.

Entrenchment often means invalidating (or trying to) each other’s felt experience, their perception and perspective. This often manifests in the counselling room through myriad variations of a familiar dynamic:

Partner A: I feel really hurt when you do this.
Partner B: That’s not what I meant by that at all. [or] That’s not what happened at all. [or] That’s not my intent, you’re wrong to feel that way.
Partner A: The actions still hurt.
Partner B: You should just get over that, then, you’re reading too much (or the wrong things) into what happened. It doesn’t mean anything.
Partner A: You’re not listening to me. Fine, you just tell your version.

What’s happening in this exchange is an invalidation of an emotional experience (Partner A’s interpretation of events) in favour of an entrenched defensive stance (Partner B’s version). Partner A generally becomes equally entrenched in wanting the hurts acknowledged, while Partner B continues to refuse to engage on and explore their partner’s perspective. The invalidation that occurs on both sides of the engagement happens for a variety of reasons; some people can’t tolerate the general intensity of conflict and retreat to defensive positions at the first whiff of confrontation and conflict. Others respond to the sense of feeling critiqued or attacked with anger, either as a standalone reaction or as a mask over guilt and shame as their respective life experiences and filters have programmed them to react.

The end result is that the couple devolves into dysfunctional partnership and a power struggle, with each partner trying to emerge victorious, and RIGHT. The therapist, then, becomes the monkey in the middle, trying to de-escalate the rising reactivity in the room… and in the relationship overall.

Just another day at the office, or something.

It’s hard as a therapist to avoid getting as trapped as our clients in the “he said/she said”* dynamics of the relationship, but I’ll let you in on a little secret from the therapist’s chair: most therapists care less about revisiting (aka, getting bogged down in) the clients’ understanding of “how we got here”, and are more interested in looking at “where CAN we get to from here?”. Honestly, if we get stuck in those entrenched re-enactments, we’re not going to be any significant use to anyone in the counselling process, probably including ourselves. However, it’s also not our job to do all the work FOR our clients, so it behooves us to disrupt that pattern of stuckness as early and as often as possible. Breaking out of entrenchment means the clients themselves need to find a way of facing the risk of being shot when they climb out of the foxholes, set aside their defensive weaponry, and try to engage. Yes, that can be brutal and risky, and painful when we do, in fact, get shot. Sometimes we only get past that risky stage by a “fake it till you make it approach” aimed at de-escalating the process first and making space to try different things later.

So what lies BEYOND that painful state?

Hard decisions, for the most part. Reconnection and repair involves making the choice to relinquish those treasured entrenchments. Some clients lament feeling forced to “give up” or “give in”; they equate the loss of the entrenched stances as “taking the blame for things I didn’t (mean to) do”, or bearing what to them feels like a disproportionate amount of responsibility for a situation that it does, in fact, take two to get into. But the Terry Real quote at the top of this entry is a stark reminder that entrenchment and intimacy stand at very distant odds with each other, and sometimes we have to choose carefully the hills we want to defend and die on. Sometimes it’s not about what we *DID*, but rather about managing the unexpected emotional consequences.

People react to each other based on the smallest indicator possible: visible behaviours. How we behave triggers for others an entire landscape of internal experience, however, that carries with it weight from personal narratives, relationship histories, learned behaviours, active and latent models of expectation and value. And how a partner reacts to us comes as a result from processing all of THAT information, often unconsciously and nearly-instantaneously. But it starts with something we DID, regardless of what we might have INTENDED. Intent is material that exists below our individual waterline, obscured to others’ perceptions.

Iceberg! Dead ahead!

Breaking through reactivity to listen and engage with a partner’s concerns requires an ability to sit and sift through our own provoked reactivity, a willingness to see the trenches ahead of us and choose to NOT step into them. I won’t lie, Bob, it’s a LOT of work to see our own reactivity when it’s overwhelming us; “soldiers under hard fire” is certainly an apt description with a solid side order of “duck and cover”. Unless we’re absolutely secure in ourselves and our partnership, hearing concern or challenges around each other’s emotional states is hard to accept; no-one wants to be the partner who inflicts pain or harm on our supposed-loved ones, we can’t see ourselves as That Kind Of Person, and if we get swamped in our own guilt and sham, it’s going to be next to impossible to stay present in that heat. And from the other side of the engagement, it’s going to be a very finite, possibly very short, time we’re going to be willing to continue trying to engage with a partner whose default reaction is defensiveness, deflection, invalidation. We can’t connect with that, we feel further damaged by that invalidation, and eventually we give up.

And giving up is the death knell of intimacy, if not of the relationship as a whole.

We often have to reinvent ourselves as risk-takers in relationship. Reconnection and repair after any period of trench warfare is entirely about practicing vulnerability, of letting go of the need to be right in favour of the need to be connected to this wonderful person you’ve chosen to partner with. We’re not going to get there in one or two counselling sessions, either; it may have taken clients YEARS to get into this place, it’s going to take a potentially long time to get back out of those ruts, to fill in the trenches, to have better tools for repair than defense. But it starts with getting beyond the dynamic of righteous and indignant entrenchment, the highly-defended individual versions of “what happened” that keep us (even your therapist, from time to time) stuck, and out into the open where we can practice staying out in the open, even under fire.


* — With apologies for the binary gendered language; I promise this relational dynamic is one of the many that transcends heteronormative relationships.

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intimacy is truly a prickly business.

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.

Attachments, Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Article links, Communication

There is a kind of truism that floats around periodically:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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