Polyamory, Relationships

I was hoping by now I’d have gotten through a review reading of Amy Gahran’s book, “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator”, but life and a low-grade level of exhaustion are conspiring against me doing any serious reading of late. I’ve skimmed it, and as polyamoury in-print resources go, so far it looks like a reasonable companion to Veaux & Rickert’s “More than Two”. But even without the book, the metaphor is one I have been familiar with for a very long time (if I recall correctly, the term originated aeons ago with Franklin Veaux’s early poly writings), and using in my client work for as long as I’ve been working with clients exploring or living in non-monogamous relationship structures.

In essence, the relationship escalator metaphor illustrates our traditional-western-culture image of monogamy as a single linear progression of events:

meet => date => sexual bonding => fall in love => engagement => marriage => careers => kids => [umpteen years of monogamous togetherness] => retirement => death do us part

Obviously there are a multitude of variations on this theme, but the gist of it is the idea of that singular straight line from meeting through marriage to the ends of our lives. Just as obviously, this isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of relationship styles that we used to believe it was. We’ve been moving steadily into serial monogamy (sequential relationships) with the generally-increased acceptance of divorce and remarriage through the later decades of the 20th century. The rise of the left-and-right-swiping hookup culture made it very clear that commitment on the heels of sexual bonding isn’t even remotely required, and largely not even desired by many any more.

Some still find the current instantiation of the Sexual Revolution disconcerting; morally, many are still jealous of, or outraged by, the idea of their current partners having had lovers before they come along. While this might seem a little ridiculous for relationships forming as second or third marriages, for example, I can confirm that in couples counselling, partners will still struggle with “The Number”, especially if there is any kind of sexual disconnect in the current relationship. Sexual dysfunction and boredom are factors for which the Relationship Escalator fails to account, clearly, but these are factors that definitely impact a relationship very highly–especially if sexual bonding is a key validation point for desirability and connection.

When previously-monogamous couples begin exploring opening up their relationship to others, there are a LOT of potential challenges facing them. The fact that the Relationship Escalator has left us with a deeply indoctrinated set of linear expectations for how relationships work, it’s unsurprising that when we see our partners connecting with other lovers they way they initially connected with us, it triggers a deep fear that we will be replaced in sequence, rather than supplemented in our present place by additional relational factors. Jealousy becomes the #1 issue couples transitioning from closed to open models face; “if you treat $NEWLOVER the way you treated me, how can I trust you’re not just going to replace me with them??”

The short answer is, we don’t. Getting ourselves off the narrow path of that escalator is, if nothing else, a tremendous leap of faith in which we HAVE to trust that things will be okay, that our partner(s) are not choosing replacement but enhancement. Of the many rocks on which our ships will likely flounder, is the sense that love and desire are as finite resources as time and physical energy are. It’s true that adding other partners of any degree of investment requires time, and that no matter how much we wish otherwise, there are still only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. Therefore if we prioritize more time to a new lover (as is the commonest complaint once New Relationship Energy [NRE] is in the picture), we aren’t spending that time with our existing relationships and commitments. The sudden behavioural shift that reflects prioritization is often interpreted as decreasing interest in the existing relationship. This isn’t always true on core levels, but it is true that NRE tends to eclipse the best intentions of the unwary or unprepared.

Creating relationships beyond the narrow linearity of cultural expectations allows different relationship structures to meet different needs. From a family/relational systems perspective, most observers agree that a two-legged stool (the common monogamous model) is a very unstable structure; a three-legged stool offers a much stronger sense of balance. In Bowenian terms, this is “triangulation”, a process by which introducing a third element to a two-party system allows one or both of the original partners to reduce exclusive focus or dependence on each other, spreading expectations and need-meeting requirements now across a more diverse support system. This is in large part what happens in monogamous infidelity; a dyadic partnership fails to meet the needs of one or more of its constituents, so that need-meeting is sought elsewhere in secret contravention of standing agreements between the original dyad. But at the same time, getting the needs met elsewhere will, at least in the short term, decrease the pressure on the partnership… at least until other issues arise to take the place of whatever was missing initially.

Recognizing that it’s perhaps unrealistic to assume that one person can successfully meet ALL of our needs for ALL of our lives is a common reason why people explore non-monogamy. An additional challenge that can arise from opening up monogamy to other relational formats is dealing with the consequence of that realization. It can hurt, admitting that we’re not the be-all-and-end-all of need-meeting machines for our partners. I blame Disney and a lifetime’s worth of horribly unrealistic romance novels for instilling in us a belief that finding Mr or Ms Right meant that all our troubles were over and we’d live “happily ever after”, for ever and ever, amen.

Rising divorce/remarriage rates and skyrocketing demands for couples/relational counselling suggest quite the opposite, in fact.

And yet, the fantasy persists, often beyond the scope of all rational thought.

That fantasy is what, in my opinion, lies at the base of the Relationship Escalator’s pervasive endurance. We want to believe in the myth of “happily ever after”. Many of my relational clients are struggling with their own sense of failure, or disappointment in their partner’s inability, to meet needs in adequate fashion. They believe that monogamous happiness SHOULD be accessible if I/you/we just work HARDER, or if $PARTNER would just CHANGE into something they’ve clearly never been before, or if we ourselves could just magically meet all of their needs. Non-monogamy, for those who brave those challenging waters, reduces the tension on dyadic pairings by opening up the option of loving partners for who they are in their flawed limitations (and being loved for ours) but NOT requiring them to be everything we need them to be, if they can seek that need elsewhere without destabilizing whatever relationship we choose to maintain.

I won’t lie. Dismounting the escalator’s not an easy path to navigate. Monogamy exists largely to protect the partnership at its core, and in the non-monogamous communities there are deeply-divided camps around how ethical non-monogamy SHOULD work. Transitioning out of monogamy often looks a lot like setting up a rigid system of rules that protect “couple privilege”; at the outset this has the advantage of letting everyone involved believe they can trust in the rules to shape expectations. In truth, NRE and opaque shifts in priority-indicating behaviours mean that all the rules in the world will RARELY actually protect anything in the long run, especially once the deeper feelings that come tied to sexual bonding get involved. So, rules get broken, boundaries get tested or pushed… feelings get hurt. The escalator starts to break down because what we had presumed to be “natural progression” is being challenged or thwarted, and we don’t know what to do.

Again, I come back to something Franklin Veaux wrote years ago, describing jealousy as a “broken refrigerator”:

“Let’s assume your relationship is a refrigerator. One day, a problem arises in your relationship—the refrigerator quits working. You walk into your kitchen, there’s a puddle on the floor, and all your frozen pizzas and ice cream are a gooey mass in the bottom of the freezer. There are a few things you can do at this point, once you’ve mopped up the mess and scraped the remains of last night’s lunch out of the fridge. One solution is to fix the refrigerator; another is to replace it. A third solution is to leave the refrigerator exactly where it is and change your life around the problem—“From this day forward, I will bring no frozen or refrigerated foods into this house.” In the poly community, the last option is the one most people choose. […]

Fixing the refrigerator means doing exactly that. It means saying, “I know that I am feeling jealous. I know that the jealousy is brought about by some other emotion—some emotion that is triggered by the action that makes me jealous. I need to figure out what that other emotion is, and I need to figure out why that action triggers that emotion.”

Until you do that, you are helpless in the face of the jealousy. If you don’t understand it, there is nothing you can do to address it. Trying to understand it isn’t easy; when you’re ass-deep in alligators, it’s easy to forget that the initial goal was to drain the swamp, and when you’re entirely overwhelmed by gut-wrenching emotions that are tearing you to pieces, it’s easy to forget that these emotions are grounded in some other emotions. In the middle of jealousy, all you want is for the jealousy to stop, and you don’t care how.

So, you confuse the trigger with the cause. You believe, erroneously, that the source of the jealousy is the action that triggers it. You see your partner kiss someone, you feel jealous, you want the jealousy to stop, you pass a rule: “No more kissing.”

Partners stuck in this loop try to force the new additions to the relationship structure to conform to a set of expectations as narrow and linear as the escalator we ourselves are trying to exit, but because we only know one model for building relationships, we’re stuck with that model until we find a way to jettison it. So we enforce excluding aspects of the known escalator: “you can’t do that thing that looks like building a relationship with someone else, because that’s what WE DO TO signify WE are in relationship.” Regardless of which partner role you find yourself in with this kind of situation, that’s a hugely craptastic place to be.

It *can* be done. And the more resources we have available to help navigate these kinds of explorations, and the more commonplace (ethical) non-monogamy becomes, the easier it slowly gets to divest ourselves of the historical fantasy of “till death do us part”. We’ve grown to accept multiple sequential marriages as a fact of life, so the myth is slowly coming apart at the seams. We’re still hung up on sexual experience and discomfort around knowing our partners have even HAD sex with others before us, let alone with others WHILE ALSO with us, and that’s going to remain a moral stumbling block for a long time to come, I suspect, just based solely on the numbers of couples who try to explore non-monogamy within a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. But so long as we can be both clear and gentle about why we might want to open up these discussions within a monogamous relationship, and as long as both partners in the originating dyad are equally willing to explore these kinds of options (one is not coercing the other), then we have tools and platforms for steering these explorations as far off the rocks as we can, and supporting transitional stages for those looking for options that don’t fit the constrained limitations of that Relationship Escalator.

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.

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.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

Plato thought what we see in the physical world is a dim reflection of the true ideal thing. For example circular objects are crude approximations to the ideal perfect circle. Platonic analysis aims to understand the physical world in terms of the ideals that capture the real essence that is dimly reflected in physical existence. — from here

It’s not very often I get to break out dead Greek philosophers before I finish my first coffee of the day. I’ve been reminded recently of a profound and repetitive pattern in relationship work that definitely gets in the way of effective intimacy, and that is the projection of some form of idealized partner in between us and the real, living, breathing, flawed human being(s) we’re partnered with.

The core of the Platonic ideal is that what we experience through the lenses of our flawed human-world existence, is simply a pale copy of an Ideal Version that exists on another plane to which we have no access. (Fans of Canadian fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay may be familiar with his “stacked worlds” in which all his novel settings are but pale copies in varying removes from the “perfect realm” of Fionavar.) I had opportunity recently to observe in action a series of client behaviours that reminded me that we sometimes similarly carry in our minds an ideal version of our partners that causes us significant frustration or distress when the reality and the ideal fall out of sync.

“My partner just never behaves the way I expect them to!”
“Why can’t they just be the better person I believe they can be??”
“I tried to change them.”

For better or for worse, most of us carry some kind of “romantic ideal partner” in our heads. This is the basic shape of the partner we wish to have, a perfect fit for all our needs and wants, the mold into which we then try to fit any human partners we acquire. Sometimes we do a reasonable job of adjusting our expectations down from that idealized, “perfect version” to fit the actual human we wake up to in the mornings, but sometimes we can’t let go of the ideals enough to fit ourselves in with this other imperfect human being.

(For the record, this happens almost as often with parents projecting their dreams and ideals onto their children as it does between romantic partners, and works out about as well as you’d think, when children fail to absorb and conform to those projections. This post concerns itself with the adult romantic version of the projection dynamic.)

There are all kinds of conversation triggers that indicate the presence of an idealized blockade. The sample quotes above are some of the more obvious ones I’ve encountered. Often we uncover a sense of what the speaker thinks or believes the Other COULD be, if only they were someone other than their imperfect selves. This method of projecting the idealized Other into a relationship is an absolute obstacle to authenticity and intimacy. If we insist on only interacting with the idealized Other, we set ourselves up for a great deal of frustration. Unsurprisingly, significant tension and eventual disconnect are what most commonly spool out from trying to force a partner to conform to our ideals (this is a major underpinning of Wexler’s “broken mirror syndrome”, for example) without a great deal of negotiation and consent.

There are a lot of theories swirling around the question of WHY we adhere to the ideal of the Other. Some theorists suggest we adapt our early, new-relationship-energy-fueled perceptions that our new partners are perfect and flawless into deep yearnings rooted in our earliest caregivers, looking for the perfect union or synthesis of need and provision on all levels. We carry an invisible internal model of that perfect provision:

As emotional bonding with our first caregiver follows us throughout our whole life and the child we carry inside us cries for love, feeling the need to love and be loved, we end up idealizing the other person without understanding it. We subconsciously want to revive the archetypal bond with our mother and more specifically the first year of our life[…] We project onto the person in front of us everything we want and miss. The empirical knowledge we have for the other person is then getting distorted, complemented, and enriched at will, namely according to our personal needs. Our partner is unintentionally turned into all the things we need him to be, things usually far away from what he really is. — Iro Dimitriou, “Looking for the Idealized Other

Spiritual theorists suggest it is a form of humanity’s drive to seek reunification with a divine Other that takes the shape of seeking “completion of self” through bonding with idealized Other:

Each is loved more profoundly in the ideal Other because each’s true self is realized through its unity with this ideal beloved; each’s agency is unified in this ideal Other, the abiding attention by whom, and the abiding intention of whom, purifies, joins, and sustains the manifold interactions of the universal community. — James Hart, The Person and the Common Life: Studies in a Husserlian Social Ethics

In both cases, we seek the ideal Other as a means of completing something in ourselves, addressing our internal needs in the most satisfying way possible. The ideal Other is the partner we desire above all else, the perfection we feel we deserve. The problems arise in confronting the uncomfortable truth that neither we nor our partners *are* perfect. How do we manage ourselves and our relationships when we realize that our partners cannot perfectly meet our needs?

In a projection scenario, what happens is that the disappointed partners continue to superimpose the idealized version between themselves and the source of their frustration. They come into the counselling offices seeking help with coping but what they really want is the secret trick to make partners conform perfectly to our needs and wants. “Tell me how to make my partner change!”

The problem isn’t necessarily that our partners won’t change, so much as it is our own stubborn refusal to accept what *IS* over the what *COULD BE*. I often ask my clients, “Knowing everything that you know about your partner right here and now, today, including all the thorny parts that are driving you nutty, is this someone you WANT to be in relationship with?”, because if someone can’t separate out what they see in real-time from the projection of that unrealistic Platonic Ideal, then we have a problem that isn’t about the relationship so much as it is an unyielding outcome attachment. If partners are only allowed to occupy the limited, confining space we make for them in our idealizations, then we’re not really allowing our partners or ourselves to be authentically in the relationship with our wounds, warts, and war stories. We may feel we deserve better. We refuse to let go of what the Other SHOULD BE, in our opinions, to the detriment of learning to see what really is.

It’s like getting into a relationship with someone, stapling a mask of a superhero to their face, and then never allowing them to be anyone BUT that mask. The implications and repercussions of any failure to conform to that constrained Ideal include personal dysregulation and overall destabilization of the relationship across a spectrum of severity.

This is the very antithesis of vulnerability, the core component of intimacy. It completely abnegates the potential for authenticity all around. The message we send by sticking to our projected Ideal Other is, “Who you really are is not good enough.” And if that’s a message you send to your flawed and human partners… why are you in relationship with them, then?

Working with clients to dismantle the projections is difficult work. We have to consider and discover (as best we can) where the need for the projection originates. We don’t really care where the projection itself comes from; why a client refuses to relinquish it, is the more important therapeutic question; like many defensive mechanisms, it was likely created to serve a purpose, but that original purpose may now be obstructing paths to mature relational intimacies. Being open to the less-ideal qualities of our partners means learning to sit with, and examine, the tensions and discomforts generated by encountering places where they are not what we expect, or not what we want. We balance what we know of them with what we know of our own needs, and we consider how to explore those intersections where the disconnect seems most problematic. What has been communicated and what has not? Is the message articulated effectively? Can we determine any obvious (or discoverable) blocks to reception of our connection attempts on the partner’s side? If our standard response to a partner’s failure to accept our idealized Other is to become critical, or manipulative to the end of forcing compliance and conformity with our needs, partners may understandably become resistant to their partners, or at least to their projections, over time. That potential resistance has to be taken into account when shaping expectations for any restoration phase.

Teaching clients how to let go of their projections, however, means teaching them how to open themselves up to the experience of the Authentic Other. We do this by reintroducing curiosity as a tool for navigating the rough waters between “What We Thought We Knew” (the projection) and “What Is Really In Front of Us” (the authentic other). We rebalance emotional investments by moving effort from “I must force you to comply so I don’t feel insecure” (Harriet Lerner’s “You change so I feel better!” dysfunctional relationship’s rallying cry) to, “How do *I* see, and choose to relate to, the actual person in front of me?”. We challenge clients to be better with (which is NOT the same as “be GOOD with”) the instability of dealing with another autonomous individual by strengthening their own internal sense of Self.

But always, we come back to breaking through the projection. We hold that there is a place to value ideals, but on a day-to-day basis, we have to relate effectively to the *real* Other who occupies that space with us. We can continue to choose to wield projections as obstructions to intimacy, or we can choose to explore and develop vulnerable connection.

What do you choose?

(There’s a whole related conversation I have with the *partners* of those who get stuck in patterns of Idealized Othering, on how to stand their ground and defend boundaries against the projections, but that’s a post topic for another day.)

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

It was reading bell hooks’ “All About Love: New Visions” that first introduced me to the idea of substituting care for love, specifically in the realm of substituting caregiving/caretaking in place of true intimate (romantic) love, in platonic friendships, and in familial relationships as well. The ideals of caring, caregiving, and caretaking seem indelibly intertwined in our culture, bound up in the complex realms of the transactional nature of emotional attachment, trading often-exorbitant emotional caring labour for the perception of security and protection. But it has become apparent in the course of numerous conversations lately, both in and out of the counselling office, that the issue is far more complex than a simple substitution of “care for love”. And it has been dawning on me over the past few weeks that we’re looking at a kind of emotional labour crisis in which expectations are tied to nebulous definitions for caregiving and caretaking , with emotional boundaries potentially being trampled in many directions at once.

There’s a commmon refrain I hear in two variants in both platonic and intimate relationships alike:
Variant 1: “I do all of these things for you, and you never acknowledge or appreciate them!”
Variant 2: “So-and-so keeps stepping in to try and do things for me or fix things for me that I never asked for and that I don’t want, that don’t meet my needs, then gets angry at me and calls me ungrateful [etc.] when I say, please don’t do that anymore!”

Either of these sound at all familiar?

After I’d listened to a friend recently describing an interaction with a friend of theirs along the lines of variant #2, it occurred to me to wonder about how we perceive care, both in terms of what we receive and in what we do for or offer (give to) others. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a major difference between the act of GIVING care versus the act of TAKING care, though part of the problem in sussing out the nuanced differentiation is that culturally, we seem to use both terms interchangeably.

For a clearer sense of potential differences, we can start with the basics of linguistic construction. There is a significant difference in how we perceive the acts of giving care to others, and taking care from others. We tend to see both as kind and noble acts, imbued with good and helpful intent. So from the start, I look at the actions involved:

When I GIVE something, is it an offering, a gift, or an imposition? Does the receiver have the right of refusal? Do I assume consent or do I seek it implicitly? Do I actually know for certain if what I am offering is something the recipient wants or needs? How did I validate that knowing?

When I TAKE something from another person, including their care about something, do I have their consent to do so? Do I know that what I’m doing is desired on their part? How have I confirmed or validated that knowledge with them?

In listening to the perspectives of people on whom caretaking in particular has been perpetuated, what becomes clearer in my mind is the notion that the caretakers often seem more motivated by the appearance of taking care, of being seen as “the good friend/partner/spouse/etc/”, and being validated as such, than by doing what the intended recipient of that caring behaviour might actually desire. The biggest flaw in the process when I’m listening to either side describe how these situations unfold, is a lack of explicit discussion and consent around what would be helpful TO THE RECIPIENT of the caring action. Caregivers will more often be inclined to ask first, then act: “What can I do to assist you?”; caretakers will often be more inclined to act first, then get upset if the action is not responded to as enthusiastically as imagined: “Oh I’ll do this really cool thing for X to make them feel better!”

The thing about caretakers is the hidden agenda aspect, often tied to an almost self-destructive behavioural pattern that pushes the caretaker to levels of self-sacrifice in the pursuit of something in return that may never have been consented to by the relational partner(s) in question.

In a nutshell, caretaking is a hallmark of codependency and is rooted in insecurity and a need to be in control. Caregiving is an expression of kindness and love. — Elizabeth Kupferman, RN, LMHC, LPC

Caring = giving to another from love, for the joy of it – as a free gift

Caretaking = giving to get love, giving with an agenda attached, giving yourself up

Even though the actions of caring and the actions of caretaking might look exactly the same, the intention behind each is totally different, so the energy of the actions is also completely different.

Sandy is a caretaker. She is constantly doing things for others – sometimes because they ask her to and other times because she believes that is what they want and expect. The problem is that Sandy often abandons herself to give to others, and then expects others to give back to her and fill the emptiness within her caused by her self-abandonment. — Dr. Margaret Paul

Looked at this way, caretaking becomes a fairly toxic form of transactional affection, one that abnegates both self-care and healthy, effective communications processes. It often rests on a presumption that the caretaker knows more about what the recipient wants or needs, or believes they “know what’s best for them”. And when we break down how that presumptiveness works in most relational dynamics, we often find that it has less to do with the recipient at all, and almost everything to do with how the caretaker will be perceived for the act of taking that care.; in short, it’s more about making themselves feel good or look good because they did what they believe to be the right thing, rather than asking the recipient and risking having all efforts and energies diverted by the recipient not accepting the care as intended.

(This is also an excellent example of how David Wexler’s broken or distorted mirror syndrome works, up to and including the caretaker “acting out” when the perceived care attempt is rejected, declined, or received less than perfectly.)

If we are genuinely moved to take care from the shoulders of another, we should first consider the following questions:
1. Do I really have the capacity to take on this effort?
2. Do I have the recipient’s consent to engage in this act?
3. Have I verified that my choice in actions is, in fact, both desired by the recipient and likely the most effective action option available?
4. Is there some way I can *give* care and support to the recipient so they learn to effectively manage this care themselves?
5. Am I aware of looking for something specific in response to taking this care away from the other person? How will I feel or respond in the absence of that expected feedback? Is the other aware of my expectation?

Sometimes it’s hard to be honest about who the process is intended to benefit, simply because outwardly the efforts are all directed at alleviating stress or strain from another. But it’s hard to be on the receiving end of caretaking when those efforts are NOT helpful, not effectively directed at what we know our own needs to be. It’s like receiving that awkwardly-unattractive hand-knit Christmas sweater from Aunt Agatha: you know she means well and thought you’d really appreciate it, but it’s not anything you’d ever wear and goes with nothing else in your closet. Really, that gift is more about Aunt Agatha’s wanting to make and gift that awkwardly-unattractive Christmas sweater, and less about her thinking of you and what would truly fit with your personal style and needs. Caretakers want you to want their gifts as much as they want to gift them, and that is the set of strings that comes attached to that care: I want you to validate me and my efforts for having done the thing, whether this was a thing you wanted done or not.

How do we deal best with those we recognize as caretakers, especially if those efforts are beginning to strain the relationship?

First, recognize there are probably a number of different boundary violations happening beneath the surface. If you’re on the receiving end of a caretaker’s attention, there may need to be some discussions around what is welcome and what is problematic, in terms of what you appreciate and welcome in terms of “helpful” intents.

Secondly, if you suspect the caretaking isues are in your court, consider the following symptoms:

What are some of the signs that you may be caretaking?

  • Others often accuse you of crossing personal boundaries, or meddling. But you believe you know what’s best for others.
  • Other people’s ability to take care of themselves seems unlikely. So, you tend to solve their problems without first giving them the chance to try it themselves.
  • Solving other people’s problems comes with strings attached, expecting something in return (whether unconscious or not). After all, you sacrificed all your energy and time for them.
  • You constantly feel stressed, exhausted, frustrated, and even depressed.
  • Needy people are drawn to you like a magnet.
  • You’re often judgmental.
  • You don’t take care of yourself because you think that’s selfish.

Nancy Ryan, MA LMFT, Relationship Therapist

Helping others is a great thing, but helping others to the detriment of ourselves and our own needs, especially if our internal programming leads us to believe that self-care is “selfish”, is problematic. That’s the point at which the caring process lands in jeopardy; we take care of others because we now NEED THEM TO CARE FOR US, because we cannot allow self-care to render us “selfish”. It’s a big, nasty, self-propelling downward spiral if left unaddressed or unmanaged. Those are the kinds of invisible expectations that rapidly unbalance any kind of relationship. So from a therapeutic perspective, we have to draw gentle attention to both the “selfish” narratives and find a framework in which to reprogram those, but we also need to make clear and observe the expectations, to get those articulated and negotiated like any other relational need; without clear consent attached to the expectation, we have little recourse for getting the underlying needs met by our partners.

It seems time to make sure there’s clarification about the terminology, as a starting point. There is a considerable difference in how we perceive something being given, versus something being taken. If you want to GIVE care, then make the offer, and make it in good faith, with no strings attached. If you find yourself more inclined to TAKE care of (or from) others, then perhaps it’s worth some self-observational reflection to determine how and why that happens, and what’s the real intent behind the taking.

(And don’t substitute either for authentic intimacy and love; but for more on bell hooks’ far more articulate thoughts on *that* subject, read “All About Love”.)

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, self-perception

The more I work with adult clients raised in environments where parental or caretaker love was NOT present, or was inconsistent at best, the more I come to recognize a stance in many of my clients in which they have learned to substitute “being needed” for authentic love. Substituting need for love can manifest in many different ways, but often embodies a significant portion of care-taking for others as a core practice, as if to say, “If I can prove my value to you through taking care of you, you’ll just love me, right?”

What happens instead, however, is a slippery slope of enablement and reinforcing potential entitlements. How this plays out in a lot of relational dynamics (at least insofar as we therapists see it in the counselling office) looks like this:

A caretaker personality is often hyper-attentive, or hyper-vigilant, to the moods of a partner. At the earliest signs of partner distress, the care-taker is *right in there*, sometimes asking explicitly, “What can I do for you? How can I help you? What do you need from me?” More commonly, however, the care-taker often guesses or tries to anticipate what needs are going unaddressed, to take care of them BEFORE the distressed partner can increase distress (either internally at themselves or outwardly at the care-taker or other vulnerable others). While this care-taking practice seems a noble gesture, the problems it introduces are manifold.

First, it removes responsibility for practicing emotional self awareness and self-regulation from the distressed party; they never learn how to manage themselves or their own needs. Secondly, it creates undue stress on the care-taker, not only because they’ve taken on emotional labour that, truthfully, isn’t theirs to manage, but also because it generally encourages care-takers to compartmentalize or bury their OWN needs, anxieties, or distresses without effectively addressing them. Third, it reinforces the codependent fusion by reinforcing the notion that neither can effectively exist without the other, since a care-taker by definitions must have others to care for in order to feel validated, and they believe the Other cannot exist without them to manage every little detail for them (something those Others may often be too willing to accept if it means less work for them to handle on some front or other).

It may be true that very few of us *LIKE* seeing our partners in distress, but there’s a massive difference between being ready to assist, or simply bearing witness, and moving in to “fix” things for another. When I was a teenager taking swimming lessons up to and including training as a lifeguard, the VERY FIRST lesson they teach us about rescuing drowning swimmers is that it’s a REALLY BAD IDEA to get close enough to the drowning swimmer to make contact. The swimmer in their panic will grab on to the rescue attempt and completely overwhelm the rescuer… and they both drown. So lifeguards are trained to use a “reverse and ready” position that lets them push a flotation device to the swimmer and instruct them to grab and hang on until they are calm enough to be assisted back to safety. This analogy is one of the most powerful ones I can give to care-takers who insist on swimming in after distressed partners, then wonder why they always feel so overwhelmed by their efforts, almost to the point of drowning themselves.

This state of emotional enmeshment, where care-takers deflect or defer their own anxiety by hyper-attentively managing others’ distress is something Murray Bowen identified in (family) systems as “fusion”:

“Fusion or lack of differentiation is where individual choices are set aside in service of achieving harmony in the system” (Brown, 1999)

Fusion is where “people form intense relationships with others and their actions depend largely on the condition of the relationships at any given time…Decisions depend on what others think and whether the decision will disturb the fusion of the existing relationships.” (Papero, 2000)

Care-takers come by this fusion through their early training; they learn that they cannot be emotional safe, acknowledged and validated for any reason other than a service they can provide. Parentified children, for example, or displaced children, often internalize early on a strong sense that they are valuable for what they DO, rather than simply for being lovable and worthwhile people in their own right. (The displacement may happen within the family system for a variety of reasons, such as parental preference for a first-born or male child over a female child; or one child is perceived as a “problem” child while other children might be left to manage on their own or manage the family while the parents cope with the “problem”; children may also feel ostracized in a variety of ways by their care-takers for not conforming to or complying with both explicit and implicit systemic values.) They learn to fear what happens if they do NOT provide the service they believe is expected of them. Seeing loved ones in emotional distress may trigger intense surges in their own anxiety; perhaps their own early care-takers tended to act out with violence in distress, so any emotional distress in the adult client is intolerable, for fear of such violences returning. Or the adult client may simply not recognize the value of anything other than performing service; if they themselves have no memorable experience of being loved for themselves, they may be unable to distinguish a difference between “being needed” and “being loved”, and the idea of not being needed to take care of someone threatens their very self-definition and sense of self-worth.

It’s a tricky thing to suss out what’s happening with clients who fall into the category of “substituting need for love”, because the patterns are hard to verify in the light of things like Gary Chapman’s Love Languages identifying “acts of service” as a bone fide love language. Where we start to see the substitution becoming problematic is when the underlying attachments themselves become a struggle to manage; care-takers doing this kind of substitution often have anxious attachments in which any failure of the partner to validate the care-takers efforts become a source of significant distress in the care-taker themselves. There is no healthy sense of differentiation between the care-taker and the target when the smallest bump in this “transference of care” can send one or both parties into distress. It’s too easy for the receiving partner to simply become complacent with being cared for, especially if it means they never have to learn to self-manage their own distress when someone else is always there to take care of things for them. And it certainly seems a common social pattern for individuals to gravitate into relationships with complimentary, familiar care-taking patterns. The patterns in and of themselves may not be problematic, but they bring with them a weighty potential for invisible expectations and unspoken needs around reflecting validation. Care-takers will sometimes chase target recipients even if the relationship as a whole is one they recognize on some level as unhealthy for them; that’s certainly a Big Red Flag in the therapy room that we’re dealing with someone who is potentially chasing validation for being needed, and a historical or Family of Origin snapshot will tell us in very short order whether or not the client recognizes the experience of being loved, or if they respond more to being needed.

To be clear, in healthy intimate relationships, there is generally a balance of love and need, and sometimes there is less need than love. When need overshadows love, however, or subsumes it completely, we stand at high risk for having less stable, less satisfactory relationships overall. In therapy we might find that care-takers who only (or predominantly) identify with meeting needs more than recognizing love as their primary avenue of attachment are insecure not only in their relationships, but in themselves. We see a lot of co-morbid symptoms tied to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and profound exhaustion, with a potential raft of physical/health issues that often come along for the ride with ANY of these mental health challenges. Unraveling this convoluted self-identity can be a lengthy process; there are no “silver bullet solutions” when countering a lifetime’s worth of programming around a person’s sense of intrinsic sense of worth. We start with the basics of Human Worth, and look at how those lessons may have been twisted early on, reinforced by a lifetime’s worth of relationship practices, and how the errant substitution of need for love is probably sabotaging self and self-in-relationship in the client’s current situations. We can unravel understandings and begin the work of creating a new sense of self, but as with all things, it takes time and patience, and a willingness to self-love that can sometimes be every bit as challenging as loving others

But the work is worthwhile, however difficult. We are all worthy of love, not just because of what we DO for others, but simply because as people we have a value all our own. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of that fact, and taught (as we maybe weren’t in early life) to see that in and for ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communication, Relationships, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

Two people in relationship; one of them throws up their hands in despair and exclaims, “This relationship is a disaster! Everything is crap! How could you not have noticed all the problems we’re having??” The other one looks deer-in-the-headlights startled, and asks, “What problems? I thought everything was great??”

Witness in action one of the most common scenarios that will send couples into counselling: the Disparate Perceptions Issue, or, as I like to call it, Attachment Style Mismatches 101.

We tend to perceive a “relationship” as a singular entity, some amorphous thing into which two or more people enter and merge and become the mythical, “you-complete-me”, boundaryless One. In practice, however, we remain singular entities with connections to each other, and from an attachment perspective, those connections can be exceptionally different. Person A may have a secure attachment to Person B, whereas Person B is anxious and insecure in their attachment to A. Between them they view what they have established together as A Relationship, and what they also have under the hood are two potentially-conflicting attachment styles that will filter and skew how each of them perceives the general state and health of the relationship.

In the cliched and gender-biased “tradition” of the anxious woman and the disconnected (avoidant) male partner dynamic, we see this clash of attachment style in full bloom as one partner frets and micromanages issues while the other partner retreats or stonewalls emotional engagements until someone gets unhappy enough to say something.

(Note: this dynamic is not limited to this cliched traditional structure. We actually see the anxious/avoidant and anxious/secure attachment styles in relational dynamics of ALL SORTS. But sometimes cliches are useful for illustrative purposes, and I only have so many words allotted per blog post, so bear with me.)

By the time the relationship gets to a counsellor, neither one of them can understand the other’s point of view. How could A have not seen all these problems? I don’t know what B is talking about, everything is fine from where I sit. I’ve figured out a really useful metaphor for explaining to people how this works from an attachment perspective, once I’ve dropped the bomb on them that what they view as a singular Relationship is a potential fiction masking the multiplicity of attachments going on behind the scenes.

Think of a big, multi-lane roadway. For Ontarians, I’ll use the 401 as my example. We think of the 401 as a singular entity called a highway. In truth, what we see as a highway is actually two distinct directions of traffic, each one busy in its own right and moving at its own pace. Imagine what happens when construction or mishap constricts or shuts down traffic on one side of the roadway, but not the other. The impacted side gets snarled for miles and miles while driver frustration and rage rises; the other side might notice, might slow down a little, but otherwise continues on about its own business with significantly less impact to its overall flow.

Relationships, when viewed from the attachment angle, function similarly. One attachment can be in profound distress without the other attachment(s) being equally, or even similarly, affected. I tend to believe we actually do ourselves a serious disservice when we insist on viewing relationships as singular entities simply BECAUSE it blinds us to the different experiences each participant in the connection has with other people in that connection. An insecure partner is going to have a very different attachment to a partner than a secure or avoidant partner will have, but couples will often come into therapy with an expectation that because one of them can see a problem or series of issues, that the other partner can/should/must be able to see exactly the same thing(s). But attachment filters will pretty much guarantee that this is just not true. Emotional traffic has crashed to a halt on one side of the relationship, while the other side continues to sail blithely or securely on by.

When we break the notion of A Relationship out into individual attachment styles like the divided lanes on a highway, we can introduce new lexicon around defining differentiated perspectives and communication dynamics. We can begin to consider how different attachment styles impact our expectations for our partners, and how those expectations are communicated within the relationship. We can also explore more effectively how each partner recognizes and responds to distress calls within the partnership in ways that (hopefully) don’t diminish the individual needs for trust and security (there’s a whole other post or posts on how this can play out among the different attachment styles). We can help individuals investigate how their particular attachment style may contribute to connection bid and repair attempt processes and give them an established frame of reference to help them modify their own behaviours to improve those processes (i.e., normalizing client experiences by showing them, “this isn’t just you, you’re not broken; these kinds of issues are common to people with this attachment style”).

And eventually, with time and practice, we can help clients learn how to unsnarl their own attachment jams and let traffic move back up to a smooth flow in their relationship. (There’s a whole sidebar’s worth of imagery around relationship therapists as “highway traffic cops”, but until someone actually lets me drive the high-speed modified police cars, I’m just going to leave that entire topic alone.)

Family Issues, Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is transactional affection in its core state.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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