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

One nebulous advantage of being a Marriage & Family Therapist, trained in family systems theory, is that we have ample opportunity to explore our own origin stories, as well as those of our clients. We gain new perspectives or information that reframes our understanding about where we come from, and how that changes our perception of who and how we are in the world.

In psychotherapy, there are generally some firm boundaries around “safe and effective use of Self” for therapists that are all about understanding and/or mitigating how WHO we are impacts HOW we are in our work with our clients. Understanding the formative and often invisible impacts of our families of origin can be a part of that work, as our early models often influence our values and inter-relational patterns in all kinds of relationships. We don’t use it necessarily as an excuse to talk about ourselves in client sessions, though careful and limited use of personally-relatable anecdotes can be a useful tool for illustrating to clients just how much we do (or don’t) *get them*.

Then again, I’m also a writer by trade long before I was a therapist, and a principle tenet of writing is to “write what you know”. Since people are often curious about how therapists wind up becoming therapists, I thought I’d for once break the silence around personal stories, and share my own origin story. In doing so, it also helps me recognize that a lot of this has the ring of well-honed narrative, meaning that every time I tell some of these stories, I’m (subtly, perhaps) reinforcing those storylines and their underlying values in my head. I’m also giving myself an opportunity, however, to reflect on those storylines a little more and see whether there’s anything to be altered in the current moment, applying years’ worth of reflection to temper something I’ve been telling myself, in many cases, literally all my adult life. As an exercise, I’m going to bold the parts of it that are the internalized scripts, the narrative lines that I’ve carried and polished the longest.

WHO AM I, a story by Karen, age 50 and 3/4

To start with, my family structure itself was odd. My parents met in Toronto in 1965 when my recently-divorced mother and her four-year-old daughter were trying to make a new life for themselves. The mid-60s weren’t exactly hospitable years for divorcees and single mothers, and my mom has admitted that what she was looking for was financial support more than romance. My mother’s first daughter was a handful, however, and sometime just before my parents met, my mom made her daughter a ward of the Crown; in short, voluntarily relinquished her into the fostercare system. Mom had also had a second child out of wedlock after the marriage ended; he was given up for adoption at birth.

My father was working as an industrial architect with a side passion for big-band jazz. I’ve got ancient newsclippings of my dad on an upright base playing with a then-unknown black kid by the name of Oscar Peterson on the piano. My dad was 17 years older than my mom. They connected through unknown-to-me circumstance. Two years later, they had me; I was planned. I grew up knowing about my half-sister, as she came and went from my life on whirlwind visits. I don’t remember how old I was when I discovered the birth documents for my half-brother, probably around 8 or so, but thereafter I know I internalized the idea that “I was the one she/they kept”. I also internalized the idea that if they gave away two other babies, obviously they could give ME away any time they wanted, too.

As a young adult, I took to describing my homelife as a “Cold War zone”. My relationship with each of my parents was okay and as “normal” as one might expect for the 70s and 80s–their relationship with each other was a different story. Of note: my parents were never married; they both commented over the years that having each been burned by previous marital heartaches, there seemed no good reason to go through the motions a second time. The scripted line was, “They lived together for 19 years, and hated each other for 17 of them,” which, while lacking in the accuracy of the minutiae, certainly encompasses the overarching tension of my homelife. My parents never slept in the same bed, and round about the time we moved into a small town when I was 7.5, they didn’t even sleep in the same room on the same floor of the house. Mom always maintained it was because of Dad’s snoring (which was prodigious), but I never believed that was all, or even the bulk of her reasoning.

It’s worth noting: I never knew my dad’s family. His parents were long dead before I was born, as was one of his sisters (Scarlet Fever in her case); what family he had through his remaining sister was scattered on the East Coast. I have a vague memory of meeting a couple of his cousins or nephew/niece when I was very young, but I remember their dog better than I remember them. I also met the daughter of his first wife once in my early teens when she came west to visit, but that once was all the exposure I had until I tracked her down through FB last year to inform her of Dad’s passing. My mother’s family is its own tale of dire dysfunction, including her alcoholic mother with undiagnosed suicidal depression (though some of my mother’s tales ring the bells of Borderline Personality Disorder); my mother tells of the day my grandmother tried to kill herself by driving the family car off the road… with my mother and her younger brother loose in the back seat. My grandfather was unwilling to confront or deal with his wife’s obvious mental health issues, so he didn’t intervene even when she beat her daughter or emotionally terrorized either child. MY mother finally fled as a teenager, as soon as she was old enough to work to support herself. She married young; her first husband was an abusive alcoholic. She was 20 when her first daughter was born.

Both of my parents were high-functioning alcoholics. My mother also suffered from undiagnosed depression. Neither of my parents finished high school. Dad enlisted in the army at 18, which got him to Europe for the last rounds of WWII. His work ethic meant both a workaholic, emotionally-unavailable father-figure, and that my university education was paid for long before I graduated high school, about which I was constantly reminded, and an investment I promptly lost by failing out of my first year of university. I was the first generation of the family to attend university; between my mother’s and her brother’s kids (her 2 daughters, his 2 sons), only two of us completed undergrad. I’m the only one with a post-grad degree. None of us has had a stable, successful marriage (including our parents). Only one of the four of us ever had kids. The eldest in both sets of siblings has significant mental health issues including drug or alcohol issues and numerous run-ins during “troubled youth” with law enforcement. That left myself and my younger cousin to be the “good kids” in a widespread system of familial dysfunction. My running joke for a long time was that David (said cousin) and I were the white sheep of the family, notable for our rarity.

So… that’s the bare-bone systemic model in which I grew up. Even glossing over so many details about the intergenerational and inherited trauma normal to family systems, that’s a lot of self-defining scripting I’m carrying forward into my adult life, the echos of which still occasionally rattle the windows and shake the walls of my current life.

When we dig into the narratives I’ve bolded, there’s an incredible amount of tension touching on several aspects of my core family dynamics:

  • The incredible pressure of growing up as “the one they kept”, believing that if they could give the other children away, I had to be EXTRA GOOD to make sure that didn’t happen to me.
  • The weight of expectation tied to my going to university, even if I proved terribly unready for the responsibility of “being launched”.
  • Being the Adult Child of Alcoholics (OMG, I don’t even know where to start with what I’ve learned about this one, but here’s a good suggestion).
  • The dynamic of seemingly overbonded mother and underbonded father (and let me tell you, THAT dynamic has been a major undermining factor of EVERY heterosexual relationship I have ever had, including both my marriages).
  • Undiagnosed mental health issues galore, up to and including my own until-recently-admitted depression and anxiety.
  • The “Cold War” aspect of my parents’ relationship as the foundational model I took away for “how intimate partnerships should look” (and my own deeply-disconnecting behaviours when stressed in relationship).

It’s not uncommon that “relationship issues” such as faltering intimacy or communications challenges in relationship are what drive an individual or partners into a therapist’s office. One of the reasons the family of origin snapshot is such an integral part of my own intake process is that it shapes for me a picture of the significant early and formative influences on the participants in the current conversation.

Having spent so much time navel-gazing my own origin story, and listening over the years to how I tell my origin story, I’ve learned something about how to listen for those polished-sounding phrases, lines and phrases that crop up time and time again in conversation. I can’t always put my finger on what it is about a particular choice of wording in a client’s story that sets my Spidey-senses tingling, but my accuracy is (in my not-so-humble opinion) better than just average in catching the tones. There’s just something about a precise choice of words; or something about how they all run together like a phrase we haven’t actually had to think about constructing for a long time, dropped in the midst of an otherwise thoughtful conversation.

(I’m not ruling out the idea that I’m just projecting onto my own clients, at least some of the time; on a good day, I’m self-aware enough to be aware that’s a potential inadvertent-thing-wot-therapists do, yo.)

We all have these stories, these pieces of personal narrative we just carry with us as shorthand descriptions of things that actually carry an incredible significance to those willing to get past the polish and gleam of scripting. I joke sometimes that my job as a therapist is to be a “professional disruptive influence”, and more often than not, what I’m looking to disrupt is the attachments we invest in those safe scripts. Scripts around our origin stories, like any other experience, in many ways function as cages that contain complex emotional experiences. Language is a tool we use to define and shape experience into something we can wrap our heads around. Dispassionate versus passionate language and delivery, for example, is discernible through listening to word choice as well as tone. Applying language to an experience is, in and of itself, a very cognitive process, and in pushing emotional experience through cognitive filters, we already begin to separate ourselves from the immediacy of the lived and felt experience. Our word choice actually informs our brain how we want to qualify and quantify that experience; we can use language to embrace or distance our selves from the feelings. Our origin stories are the stories we have been practicing and polishing the longest of all our scripts. Sometimes we need to just scrape off the years of accumulated polish to see the actual grain and bones of the experience underneath, to understand what happened in different lights and perspectives, and maybe learn something new about ourselves in the process.

Communication, Language, Relationships

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

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

“What do you mean by, ‘communicate’?”

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

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

You keep using that word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Intelligence, Language, Uncategorized

This week’s post is more of an Op-Ed piece than usual; not that they all aren’t, to some extent, but I think it’s a good and important practice for therapists–all clinicians, really–to admit and own it when they decide to throw themselves into the deep end of their own biases. And we have them, don’t ever think that we don’t. When we sit with clients, it’s our job to reign them in so they don’t get in the way, but when we’re writing our own blogs, well… the gloves can come off 🙂

Disclosure: I’m a writer, always have been. I did it professional in High Tech for the better part of 25 years, concurrent with building my private practice. As such, I am KEENLY aware of the power of language when I listen to the things my clients say, both the stories they tell me about their lives, and the scripts they tell me that run in their own heads. Words have both meaning and IMPACT, and often we don’t necessarily realize how much of either we have internalized over our lives as a result of upbringing inside family or cultural values, or implicit expectations shaped by our relationships as we reach and stretch into adulthood.

Recently, I have encountered on a handful of occasions the use of the word “sacrifice” in the context of people’s relationship expectations. It comes up with clients from time to time, and recently came across a dating profile in which someone wrote, “I’m hoping to find someone where in time we come to intuitively know each other’s needs and both are willing to sacrifice our own needs for the sake of our partner.” At that point, I realized I was encountering the word often enough to be developing a kind of teeth-clenching resistance to the use of the word in relationships. I did what I sometimes do in these circumstances; where I discover new/changed reactivity to something that I used to just coast serenely past, and when I don’t know what’s changed, I poll my social Tribe for feedback. It’s very unscientific, but my Tribe is a widely-spread and broadly-experienced group of people who can offer perspectives based in their own perceptions and experiences, and suddenly I have a large parcel of information in which to compare and contrast, or centre my own Stuff.

To start with, I think the gist of my growing reaction to “sacrifice” as a word bandied about in relationships, is the underlying supposition that we treat sacrifice as a realistic expectation in terms of “this is just what we do as a regular course of action”. I find this highly problematic in the purest sense of the word:

Definition of sacrifice
1: an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially: the killing of a victim on an altar
2: something offered in sacrifice
3a: destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else
b: something given up or lost the sacrifices made by parents

I don’t think the relational context has anything to do with offerings to deities in truth, but in all of these definitions, the underlying impression is that these are things that are precious to us personally, that we are (within the relational context) expected to yield up permanently. And while I am the first person to acknowledge that there are a lot of changes that come with getting into relationship, including yielding time and attention to the presence of a partner, my current struggle is to accept that any relationship ROOTED in an expectation of “sacrifice” is starting off on a very problematic footing.

I have previously written about the 3 C’s of Resolution Management, and I think maybe it’s time to revisit the lexicon established there. It seems a healthier approach than sacrifice, to look at establishing shared relationship as a collaborative process at best, and a series of negotiated compromises at worst (where “worst” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”, but read the original post for a clearer distinction between the two). It’s my personal bias that relationship building should be building on the raw materials everyone brings to the table, to build something that is more than, or greater than, the sum of its component parts. But when we view relationships as being rooted in sacrifice (or arguably compromise, to some extent), then we’re deliberately starting out with the mentality that we must take away or yield up something precious to us as a sacrifice, to be in this relationship. It means on a very linguistically-technical level, a sense that we have to have less than what we had, or be less than who we are, in order to somehow be accepted into relational positions.

As a relationship therapist, you can see why this “lesser-than” mentality and approach to intimate relationships is troubling when it manifests as an out-of-the-starting-gate *expectation*.

In my informal poll of the social Tribe, I posed this set of questions:

“In relationships contexts, do you react differently to someone defining a relationships as “needing (or expecting) collaboration and compromise” versus defining a relationship as “need (or expecting) sacrifices”? Is it *healthy* (FSV of “healthy” that I’ll leave to the reader to define) to start relationships with an expectation of “sacrifice”?”

The responses resoundingly tended to be along the lines of, “Collaboration and compromise are reasonable expectations as explicitly-negotiated processes; sacrifice is okay as a once-in-a-blue moon response to special circumstances, but NOT as a default expectation”. I think there are circumstances in which sacrifice is a legitimate expectation: I’ve never yet met a parent who didn’t see the decision to raise a child as involving ALL KINDS of yes-we-gave-up-precious-things-on-a-pretty-much-permanent-basis sacrifices. Some of the respondents had ideas along the lines of sacrifice as a *temporary tool* rather than a permanent commitment to the loss of something individually-valued. And more than a few referred (directly or obliquely) to a certain cultural subtext that “sacrifice is a noble and virtuous act”, which, again, I’m not sure I buy as a default, broadstrokes stance. As a one-off act in exceptional circumstances, perhaps, but if it’s a cultural expectation that “sacrifice is just how we DO relationships”, I’m not sure I can buy into that as a foundational principle. And at least one respondent raised the concern about sacrifice being perceived as a very heavily gender-biased act in which women are expected to sacrifice more than men do. From a therapist’s perspective, I know that male clients report feeling the need to sacrifice at least as often as women do, and in many of the same contexts. So I don’t think the perceived *act* of sacrifice is gender-biased, but I strongly suspect (based on nothing more than a gut instinct at this moment) that *WHAT* we are expected or desired to sacrifice may very well have strong gender biases behind them.

At no time do I believe that there isn’t going to be a degree of necessary compromise when developing relationships. At the very least, in order to integrate someone into our lives, or integrate into theirs, with sufficient time and exposure to allow vulnerability and intimacy to have a chance to take root, we withdraw time from other pursuits in order to dedicate it to the new thing. We can choose to see that as sacrifice, or we can choose to see that as compromise/collaboration, depending on how it’s negotiated. There will only ever be 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, and we cannot “make time”, we can only rebalance priorities to allow new things entry onto the schedule. I often suspect that people who start out relationships with the adamant and unrelenting position of, “Take me as I am, I refuse to compromise”, do so because of a fear of the expectations for compromise or sacrifice. One the one hand, sacrifice is seen as virtuous and noble; on the other hand, in relational contexts, we fear losing autonomy and “disappearing” under the rise of The Relationship’s dominating presence and the Royal We-dom of couplehood.

I believe a healthy, effective balance lies somewhere in the middle. Usually these things also involve a long, hard look at WHY we use the language we use when we talk about expectations in relationships: where does our use of that language come from, and what weighty meanings do we ascribe both consciously and unconsciously, to their application? Do we use “sacrifice” when we mean “compromise”, or even “concession”? (Compromise is defined as, “an agreement or a settlement…that is reached by each side making concessions”.) It’s reasonable to wonder at what point are we splitting hairs in looking at the lexicon, but I can absolutely guarantee that some words carry more weight than others, and as my own recent reactions show me, we all react to words different based on the weight we apply to their meanings. I have less trouble with compromise than I do with sacrifice, and yet they both (be definition) involve yielding or conceding something in order to get an acceptable solution.

So when we look at tensions in relationship in the counselling room, we have to look at what the words mean to each individual participant, and strip them down to the meanings that trigger our emotional connections and reactions to those words. I *EXPECT* to negotiate compromises and collaborations in relationship, but I *RESENT* being told I’m expected to make sacrifices for the relationship, and yet the words bear striking similarity in meaning. So my reactions are apparently tied to internalized meanings that clearly differentiate both words.

Some days, being a writer really complicates the therapeutic process. But at the end, the thought exercises that come out of looking at words on a purely etymological level lets us get deeper into personal narratives and core value explorations. And that will never, in my opinion, be wasted effort if we walk away with clearer understandings of ourselves in and out of relationship.