Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

There’s an old cliché about people being divided into two types of listeners: those who listen for comprehension, and those who are only drawing breath waiting for their turn to talk again. It’s a truism in relational therapy that when we’re activated by stressful situations, a lot of us take a naturally defensive posture, in the sense of leaping to the defence of our position. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, there’s no defence like a good offence, as the saying goes. It’s not uncommon that people who feel trapped or attacked come out of their corners verbally swinging: jumping on the conversation and interrupting or speaking breathlessly into the barest of breaks after someone else is done talking, taking the ball back and making things immediately about themselves and their experiences or opinions.

Watching this dynamic unfold in conflicted relational communications is a significant portion of what relationship therapists do. We’re looking for places where the power struggle between the participants starts to escalate, where the knives come out, where the retreats and feints occur. And we’re listening for the Four Horsemen so we can divert the worst of the attacks into antidotes. There are many different ways we therapists cleverly divert the energy of those attacks into something that starts to de-escalate the tension. Sometimes it starts with simply calling out the incongruity of attacking someone we claim to love and choose with commitment; if the stated desire is to build love, trust, commitment, then why choose actions that hurt, divide, alienate? What happens when the participants make an effort to choose a different way of engaging?

Enter the principles of active listening and non-violent communication (NVC), something that ties in hard with the practice of emotionally-focused therapy (EFT).

NVC’s describes its core practice of listening as “receiving empathically”:

“Instead of offering empathy, we tend instead to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position and feeling. Empathy, on the other hand, requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message. We give the others the time and space they need to express themselves fully and to feel understood. There is a Buddhist saying that aptly describes this ability: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” ” – Marshall Rosenberg, “Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life,” PuddleDancer Press, Encinitas CA, 2003

Active listening, using verbal and non-verbal common reflection tactics creates empathic presence between the parties. One of the simpler ways to do this in the therapy room is to re-orient the clients towards each other. The more intense the topic and potential for conflict, the more likely it is that clients will speak to each other through the neutral third party of the therapist: looking at or facing toward the therapist, speaking to the therapist rather than directly to the partner. We are a point of de-escalation because we are assumed to be neutrally receptive, sympathetic. But *WE* want clients to be practicing these tactics directly with each other. Sometimes this means we have to teach clients how to slow down their own reactive escalation and actually read each other WITHOUT INTERPRETING, or at least without jumping to assumptive and unvalidated conclusions based on the interpretations we all generally make anyway. We can use some reflection to start, by asking each client, in turn, to tell me how they see their partner’s physical presence and encouraging each to explicitly validate their external perceptions with the partner.

EFT folds this empathetic reception into a different style of exchange between partners, following these steps:

  1. reflecting back what the speaker has shared, not as a verbatim report but rather more of a “Here’s what I’m hearing”
  2. validation (sometimes clarified by the therapist until the process clarifies for the clients)
  3. exploration of the speaker’s experience in the form of a Q&A (“evocative responding”)
  4. highlighting, or heightening, the interactions that seem more poignant or significant in the partners’ exchange (for example, reflecting through Gottman’s lens the various points of disengagement or repair attempts)
  5. infering the client’s experience, enabling or assisting the speaker to “extend and clarify that experience so that new meaning can naturally emerge” (Sue Johnson, “The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, 2nd ed.” Brunner Routledge, NY 2004)
  6. therapist self-disclose (if relevant/appropriate)
  7. restructuring or reframing the clients’ interactions based on developing understanding and compassion

The hard part for many clients in interactive crisis is that yielding the defensive battlements feels untenable. Yielding often leaves someone in crisis feeling lost, overpowered, undermined, unheard, at risk, unsafe. For many, the lashing out or refusal to hear each other’s pain is the result of an unconscious, “you hurt me so I want you to know how it feels, asshole,” knee-jerk reaction. Or there might be a shame reaction to recognizing (and not wanting to face the responsibility for) hurt we have caused, so we double-down on defensive entrenchment and find ways to avoid taking ownership for actions with painful consequences for others. By the time we get into that kind of dynamic, however, these patterns are often so deeply entrenched that restoring good faith between partners is work that has to happen before we can re-orient clients toward each other. We can deploy some short-term, strengths-based work here to re-establish some fundamentals of goodwill between the partners, getting them back into recognizing their good things between them. We need that platform brought back into focus if we’re going to have something stable on which to build a sustainable change process in the midst of ongoing crisis.

Yielding defensive stances requires rebuilding, and sometimes developing for the first time, trust; it also requires the tools to self-regulate emotional upheaval, to clarify what needs to be said and to accurately receive and respond to that information. We take each portion of this process as a one-step-at-a-time process until everyone gets a little more of a solid footing on the change processes. We acknowledge and build on baby-step successes, and we try to not let setbacks make mountains out of molehills; old habits do die hard, after all, and for many, these are habits and internal processes that can be VERY deeply rooted (like, Family of Origin deep in some cases…)

But if the clients are in the room because they both intrinsically WANT to work things out, then we use their willingness to tolerate the uncertainty as a springboard towards hope, we reconnect them with the strengths inherent in themselves and their relationship, then we begin to rebuild their relationship house with different tools. Slow but rewarding processes based in genuine empathy and compassion for each other get us the best long-term results, which graduate our couples back OUT of therapy!

Communication, Language, Relationships

[I know. I KNOW. I have been trying to complete and publish something for *MONTHS* and failing. Depression is finally inching its way up and out at least. That’s been the lion’s share of the challenge, paired with ongoing health issues, and just trying to balance all of this with both work AND a spectacular kind of renaissance in my personal life. Now if cancer would just stop robbing me of people I love, that would be just dandy, thanks…]

Noting recurring themes in therapy is often what drives the content for these posts, and lately there has been a couple of big thematic topics cropping up. One of them is observing clients of all genders in relational conversations using something I’ve come to label the “Universal We”. Women in particular are raised in a social context that programs us to consider others more than we consider ourselves; our traditional roles as nurturers and care-givers primes us for this behaviour even when it doesn’t come with the traditional baggage of being homemakers and staty-at-home parents to the sacrificial detriment of our own dreams and desires.

Women have been conditioned for I-don’t-even-know-how-long to employ “softened language”, which takes myriad forms even in modern discussions. We preface our own ideas with, “I think,” “What do you think about,” “I believe,” or “How do you feel about.” For women to be as direct and upfront in what they want, need, intend, or desire, is to be seen as aggressive, even masculine. In corporate culture, forthright women on one hand were seen as being more likely to be noticed for potential recognition and promotion, and on the otherhand reviled for not being soft and collaborative enough. Men in the corporate world don’t generally get punished for being direct; women, on the other hand, get labelled as “bossy” or “bitchy” when they start sentences with, “I want” or “I need”.

This plays out in intimate and familial relational dynamics in very interesting ways as well. When couples in particular come in with “working on our communications” as the presenting issue, these patterns are among the first I start listening for. I also listen for the presence of “We-isms”, those intentionally-inclusive pronouns that carry a weighty IMPLICIT expectation.

When people use the “Universal We,” something very specific is happening in default social programming. The speaker is offering an implicity unity-of-purpose between the parties involved. “We need to set some ground rules around Little Jamie’s bed-time schedule,” “we should make plans for the summer vacation week,” “we really need to sit down and talk about last night’s argument” — these are all examples of ways in which the speaker is putting an implied invitation to discussion in front of a partner. The problem, however, is the that suggestion following the “we” language, *IS*, in fact, a universally-agreed-upon thing (value, intention, plan, whatever).

In truth, however, what’s generally underneath such language is a core need or want on the speaker’s part, either something the speaker wants for themselves, or something the speaker wants to request specifically of the listener. “I want to set some ground rules with you…,” “Do you have time right now to make some plans for summer vacation?,” “I really need to sit down and talk with you about what happened last night.” Such direct statements and explicit invitations are challenging in a culture that has indoctrinated us with the belief that women are meant to be soft and enticing where appropriate, yielding where required. Being direct feels like we are being threatening, and many women fear what happens when they put themselves and their own desires right up front in the clear to been unequivocably seen. To be explicit is to court rejection, and that’s untenable. So we interject the implied “we” in the belief that the softer inclusive language will magically provoke our partners into correctly interpreting our request as something that involves their active participation.

Unfortunately, what I see happening in relational (and often familial) dynamics more often than not, is the speaker is trying to enlist the partner into something that might represent a shift in their usual dynamics, either by engaging in a more collaborative practice than usual, or wanting the *partner* to take on responsibility, for something that has likely traditionally fallen on the speaker to do. And what I see play out is the listener translating the universal “we” as a status quo expectation; they may hear the “we” but the implicit received message is, “Oh, [Speaker] will take care of this; they always do”. So while Speaker says “we” meaning collaborative unity or the You-the-Partner, the listener is translating the vocabulary as we-means-Speaker-because-it-has-always-been-that-way. By the time such couples get to me, the one who most commonly brings up the universal we is frustrated beyond belief by their partner’s perceived lack of engagement, while the receiving partner is baffled by having never received an explicit request or suggestion aimed specifically at THEM personally.

The clarity of communication around needs, want, and related expectations can, and frequently does, get utterly lost in something as simply as pronoun usage. Softened language is endemic in all kinds of relational dynamics, and is a line of contention in corporate dynamics. John Gottman uses the principle of the “soft startup” as a way of easing into potentially challenging topics with a partner, and while this idea has definite value (especially as a practitioner of non-violent communications), it remains problematic from a feminist and feminine agency perspective if it encourages the practice of misdirecting the intensity or urgency of the needs we’re trying to address. Years ago, a very good friend of mine encountered something similar in her partner dynamics that became a clear illustration of the problems inherent in gender-biased communication dynamics. In the course of preparing dinner for her husband and child, she realized she was out of some critical ingredient, so she asked her partner, “Do you want to tgo to the store for [X]?” To which her partner quite truthfully responded, “No.”

My friend, like many of us, was raised in a culture of the “soft ask”, another deflective tool that undermines the clarity of our communications by implying or infering rather than being a clear and explicit statement or request of our own need. Instead of saying, “I need [X], could you please go to the store for me?”, the implicit ask tries to get the listener onside with making our need their need or want, so of COURSE they’ll want to go to the store.

Yeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaah… except when that runs afoul of someone who does NOT want to go to the store. Or sit down and debrief the most recent argument. Or make time to plan the summer vacation. Or whatever the implicit ask is trying to get them onside with.

And yet women in particular do this to ourselves ALL THE TIME. As a therapist, I’m only starting to catch *myself* when I use universal we-isms with my clients. It’s actually extremely problematic for therapists and any professional in a power dynamic with their clients, because while there are some potential points in which we share experiences, perspectives, feelings with our clients, the universal we isn’t always a great tool for joining them in a therapeutic alliance. I suspect most of us do it to normalize the client’s experience somehow, but I’m also aware that the disproportionate majority of therapists are WOMEN, so now I’m completely suspicious of how WE (delibate usage there) are applying that pronoun.

So what do I do with this once I observe its persistent presence in the room?

First of all, I call attention to it, and explore the speaker’s awareness of the pattern. We then clarify the intentions behind the usage. More often than not, it’s an intent to put a request for something the speaker wants or needs directly onto the listener. Sometimes the speaker is aware of a fear of provoking conflict or rejection, but more often than not it’s simply a learned pattern (as with my friend, this was just the way women in her family in particular had always operated, and to some extent the same pattern was reinforced in her corporate experiences as well). Then we work on deliberately correcting occurences of the pattern in therapeutic conversations, encouraging a movement from the universal we to the “clarified I”. (This is another application of the principle moving from an external locus of control to an internal one, but that one may take a whole ‘nuther post to explain.) We observe the new pattern in the field for a while and see what shifts in partner engagement and/or expectations, and we can adjust the communications around intent and expectation from there.

The dynamic of how we present our ideas and needs in relationship is obscured by strong traditions around these heavily-gendered models, and for many women and non-binary folks, there is an implied safety in assuming we can onside our supporters with inclusive language and implicit, invitational expressions. but we also have to balance out the likelihood of the implied communications going awry on the receiver’s end for reasons we may not be able to see or work around without challenging the receiver’s internal filters, an act that can seem too close to provocation, aggression, threat of conflict and rejection.

Sometimes the neutral third party of the therapist is a key component in shifting dynamics for partners afraid of taking up space in relationships, and sometimes really all we as allies need to do is hold up the observational mirror of to the behaviours and reflect what we’re seeing for clarification purposes. After that, we can unravel and reknit the intentions into something far clearer, stronger (without being aggressive), and more directly engaging.

Attachments, Relationships, Uncategorized

Google inadvertently teaches me some very interesting things. For example, as I sit down this morning to write something undoubtedly brilliant hopefully coherent about Schwartz’s application of Internal Family System’s parts theory in relationships, I type the words “love” and “redeemer” or “redemption” into my trusty search engine… and get pages upon pages of religion and faith-speak in return. Not entirely surprising, but given that the premise of “(romantic) love redeems and completes us” is so pervasive in western culture, I am surprised there wasn’t more content tying redemption tropes to romance and our expectations for romantic partners.

“Everyone is born with vulnerable parts. Most of us, however, learn early–through interactions with caretakers or through traumatic experiences–that being vulnerable is not safe. As a consequence, we lock those childlike parts away inside and make them the inner exiles of our personalities.” – Richard Schwartz, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, Trailheads Publications, 2008, pg. 55

“To all of us drowning in this empty, striving, isolated, and anxious [North] American lifestyle, the media throws the biggest life preserver of all. From watching movies or TV, or listening to songs on the radio, you’ll be convinced that everyone, sooner or later, will find their one, true, happily-ever-after relationship. The person who will heal you, complete you, and keep you afloat is out there. If the person you’re with isn’t doing that, either he or she is the wrong person altogether or you need to change him or her into the right one.

“This is an impossible load for intimate relationships to handle. The striving for money and the isolation from a circle of caring people are enough to do in many marriages–not only because both partners are depleted by the pace of life and the absence of nurturing contact, but also because to work and compete so hard, they each must become dominated by striving parts that don’t lend themselves to vulnerable intimacy. To deal with the stress of this lifestyle, we reach for the many distractions that our culture offers, which are also obstacles to, and surrogates for, intimacy.” – Schwartz, pg. 24-5

Esther Perel also talks about how North American ideals of romance often suffer because we trade the passionate, playful parts of ourselves that initially create intimacy as we explore our chosen Other, for security, stability, and comfort over the longer term of settling down together–needful things that make our exiled parts feel safely attached and protected, but which are about as “sexy” as our oldest, softest, most familiar and comfortable pyjamas and slippers. In Schwartz’s language, we surprise the exiles as they start to manifest once the spontaneous, impetuous excitement has either secured the partnership into more fixed states (living together, engagement/marriage, children, house-purchasing), or burned itself out and been supplanted by the requirements of regular life (work demands, family obligations). There is no space for those playful energies, and while the erosion of the welcome that once existed may be subtle at first, eventually it starts to feel like parts of us are being rejected by our partners, and that hurts, so we shut down the vulnerable parts and return them to their places in exile.

Where the ideals of redemption come into play is the initial expectations we place on our romantic partners to be the people who “will heal you, complete you.” This language is inherently problematic for many reasons:

“[P]artners are cut off from their Selves by being raised in a society that is so concerned with external appearances that authentic inner desires are ignored and feared. Into this nearly impossible arrangement is poured the expectation that your partner should make you happy and that if [they don’t], something is very wrong.

“These messages about your partner play into your exiles’ dreams, keeping the focus of their yearning on an external relationship rather than you. Thus, our culture’s view of romantic love as the ultimate salvation exacerbates an already difficult arrangement. Many writers have blamed the unrealistic expectations our culture heaps on [romantic partnership] as a significant reason for its high rate of collapse. I agree with that indictment to the extent that expectations perpetuate the partner-as-healer/redeemer syndrome.” – Schwartz, pg. 18

When I’m addressing with clients their experiences of dissatisfaction and disappointment in a relationship, we look at things like core needs (that, oftentimes, clients have never directly looked at or attempted to identify/define) and the expectations they have for how those needs are to be addressed by their partner. More often than not, the needs and their attendant expectations have never been explicitly articulated or negotiated with the partner, but we see plenty of evidence of the wounded exiles when those needs and expectations go unmet.

Attachment theory suggests that when we connect with others, especially intimate others in romantic partnership, for many of us it is a way of redressing early attachment injuries. These don’t need to be traumatic injuries, but simply moving to meet a craving for warmth and attention that we may implicitly feel was lacking or inconsistent in our earliest care-giving attachments. We exile those needy, unattended parts of ourselves over time, but then look, consciously or unconsciously, to romantic partners to meet that craving need for us, to redeem our wounded exiles and welcome them back into the fold. (This is generally a decent interpretation, from a parts/system perspective for what it means when a partner “completes us”–they nurture ALL our parts and create safety and welcome for the parts we have thrust out of the spotlight for being “ugly,” “damaged,” “too broken to function,” or “too terrifying to allow to surface.”

Harriet Lerner, in her book “The Dance of Intimacy,” describes a kind of dance in which we desperately want someone to rescue us from our own internal sense of unvalued despair and isolation, but as we get closer and closer to true intimacy (vulnerability), we become increasingly afraid of what happens when a romantic partner sees what we mistakenly believe to be our “true selves”, nasty warts, scars, and all. At that point, fear takes over and we inadvertently push partners back to safer distances, or close ourselves off, or sabotage the relationship in unconscious ways to “hurt you before you can hurt me.” We crave closeness that means someone allowing those wounds to surface and heal for once in our lives, but to closer we let those exiles come to the surface, the more anxious dread at “being truly seen” comes along for the ride.

We WANT to be redeemed, and then fail ourselves at the eleventh hour because we fail to let the redeemer actually make use of the all-access backstage pass we thought we wanted them to have.

When we rely on external Others to redeem those wounded exiles, we create this intricate tension rooted in needing someone else to wade in and do something magical to “fix” those wounds; we create a kind of codependent strategy in which we rely on someone else to “complete” us and accept all our parts. But our fears, those protector/firefighter parts of us that come armed with all kinds of saboteur scripts, get in the way pretty much EVERY TIME. And as soon as we start pushing people away, we are in a loop of self-fulfilling prophecy: we get defensive (sometimes aggressively so), partners retreat from us in fear, confusion, disappointment, frustration… sometimes even disgust; we see their withdrawal as validating our internal, unspoken script about how “everyone who is supposed to love us disappoints us/hurts us/betrays us/abandons us”, and we are validated further in our belief that our exiles MUST stay locked down and far, far away from the light of love and acceptance.

The healing work in a therapeutic context, regardless of whether the focus is on an individual or on a relationship, then becomes all about teaching each party to make space within themselves for welcoming their own exiles. Schwartz describes this as moving from a process of talking FROM our activated exiles (or the messy emotional chaos of exiles and protectors all trying to get air-time control in the middle of a triggering argument with another person) to talking ABOUT them. I do some of this work when I ask clients to, in essence, narrate an emotional reaction WHILE THEY ARE EXPERIENCING IT. We talk ABOUT what it’s like to feel triggered and reactive, the physical sensations, the self-observation of emotion, the scripts they hear being spooled up in their heads, rather than allowing the triggered reaction to unleash itself AT the other person or people in the room. Parts language becomes a useful tool in this narrative process especially when it gives the narrating client a way of adding some observational separation and distance: “One part of me is observing how another part really feels hot and angry, like it’s looking for something to attack. It’s angry because it feels attacked, like there’s another part that’s been hurt and needs to be protected.”

Being able to create this separation allows us to dialogue with both the attacker part and the hurt part separately, given the person who is caught up in this momentous experience a chance to unravel what’s going on for themselves, and to figure out what is necessary for calming themselves and re-centering their sense of balance. All of this can be done in the presence of the Other but doesn’t rely on the Other to sooth or validate those chaotic parts. Sometimes we’ve been able to make massive tectonic shifts just by getting one partner to introduce that self-observing narrative perspective while the Other partner bears silent witness, an abiding, compassionate, non-judgmental presence. Sometimes that’s just the starting point for different ways of being with each other that reintroduce independent security, and space to rebuild trust without the codependent fusion that Esther Perel labels the “death of intimacy”.

When we no longer rely on a partner to redeem and validate our exiled parts–when we become more adept at welcoming and managing those hurts without reliance on an external Other to complete us–it’s not that we no longer WANT to be in partnership. Rather, it becomes more about choosing to be in partnership as coherent, whole people in ourselves. We heal our own wounds, we accept our own warts and scars; we rely primarily on ourselves to soothe our internal chaos rather than forcing romantic partners into salvation roles and expectations most of them don’t expect, or have the capacity, to carry for us.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

Humanity is a bunch of curious monkeys. It’s in our nature to question things, to look for explanations to experiences that make sense of those experiences (we’ll leave aside for now the utmost importance of pursuing or ignoring scientifically *accurate and relevant* explanations). It’s totally okay when the first exposure to something results in not understanding it. Coming to understanding is a personal growth opportunity and process that we have to actively choose to undertake–we have to WANT to know why something is or does what it is or does. When faced with questions of Why or How, it’s totally okay to not know the answers even when those questions are about ourselves.

It’s okay to not know the answers… up to a point. After that, however, “I don’t know” starts to become an increasingly problematic response. There’s genuinely not knowing the answer to a question, and then there’s deliberately avoiding learning or sharing the answer for fear it means we’re locked into or committing to that being the ONLY answer, implying a singular, correct response we have to get right.

What happens when one uses “I don’t know” as a way of avoiding committing to specific answers or presumably-limited paths forward?

I can answer this one best from my own personal experience as a recovering committmentphobe:

It goes very, very poorly.

It’s a lot easier for me to spot the pattern of fearful, stubborn entrenchment now than it ever was when I was the one clinging to “I don’t know”, but I imagine it’s every bit as harsh and terrifying when I call my own clients out as it was when I got called out for it. The problem with “I don’t know” as a long-term answer is the implication that we’re not doing the work of developing self-understanding. We’re not trying, or we’re actively avoiding, to discern and share information that is immediately relevant to our partners and the functioning of our relationships. “I don’t know” for many becomes coded language for, “I don’t want to commit to an answer on this topic”. In my case, it became a way of avoiding ownership and responsibility for my own actions when questions about my motivations or behaviours arose; but it also avoided my taking ownership or responsibility for committing to a change, ANY change. “I don’t know” leaves open all the doors of possibility, because until we have an answer then (on some quantum level) ALL options remain possible. “I don’t know” was a favourite tune for my own internal brain weasels to dance to. And it frustrated the everlovin’ hell out more than one of my partners over the years… just as I watch it frustrate, upset, or disrupt partnerships coming into my office now as clients.

In and of itself it’s not a bad answer. When it remains the long-term answer to questions like, “What do you WANT this relationship to look like?” or “What are you willing to do differently going forward from here?”, however, it’s anathema (if not outright death) to connection and intimacy. “I don’t know” becomes a way of holding the relationship hostage at a distance: “we can go no further and get no closer, because I cannot/will not do the work to answer these questions.” The partner who is unable or unwilling to face the answers becomes a gatekeeper for the entire relationship, because–and I observe this to be the truth most of the time–they are afraid. WHAT they (we, I) are afraid of, is highly contextual, and variable. Sometimes it’s an unwillingness to be held to one option. Sometimes its a fear of committing to trying something and getting it wrong, if the perception of trial and failure is equated with things only ever getting worse for the failure. If the fears are strong enough, the gatekeeping and distancing can seem insurmountable obstacles to progressing towards intimacy. Overcoming those fears seems an unobtainable goal to the fearful. Ultimately, the partners end up in a stalemate.

That distancing fear serves a purpose:

“If there is one over riding reason why our world and relationships are in such a mess, is that we try to get rid of our anxiety, fear and shame as fast as possible, regardless of the long term consequences. In doing so, we blame and shame others and in countless ways, we unwittingly act against ourselves. We confuse our fear driven thoughts with what is right, best, necessary or true.”
― Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

In the moment, it will often seem like there is no better antidote for fear than to simply not engage it: hold it away from us where we don’t have to look at it, or do anything about it. “I don’t know” means not having done the homework, and potentially not doing the homework going forward, either. As long as the gatekeeper holds themselves in limbo, they can hold off confronting their fear. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of the health of the relationship over the long term, often in the short term as well.

“If you pay attention, you may find that it is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable, so you avoid doing the thing that will evoke fear and other disquieting emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid.”
― Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

Sometimes, doing our own homework is the bravest thing we can do.

Life Transitions, Relationships, Uncategorized

A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing.

Over the summer, I’ve begun to develop a working relationship with Colette Fortin of Fairway Divorce Solutions, wanting to better educate myself in alternatives to traditional separation and divorce litigation for couples ending their legal or common-law marriages. Her team provides mediation services as an alternative to both traditional litigation, and collaborative divorce services. Given that, before talking with her, I hadn’t realized there was a difference between little what I knew about the collaborative approach and mediation, I’m glad we’ve opened this educational channel. I feel a lot better having a clue, now, when I talk with clients in dissolving relationships about what their options look like, and depending on HOW the dissolution is occurring, being able to aim them at a process that seems a more tailored fit for their particular situations.

This post isn’t about Colette (but do check out the Fairway Mediation blog; it is a TREASURE TROVE of information about mediated separation and divorce), and it’s not even about divorce. It’s about the scenario of separations, even “relationship breaks”, in which intimate partners suddenly find themselves in a weirdly-disconnected limbo state, a liminal space between the relationship that WAS, and the uncertainty of what’s to come.

The end of a marriage is a difficult time, even under amiable circumstances; nebulous “breaks” from a relationship aren’t much better. Expectations and rules of engagement change, often dramatically and with little warning. Outcomes are uncertain, and often we don’t even have a shared understanding of the respective desired outcomes for each partner. Is this an ending? Is this a slow exit in lieu of a fast, clean break? What are we supposed to be doing within the parameters of this break? If I wasn’t the one who initiated it, why should I be doing anything in the first place??

When these breaks and separations happen, they raise a LOT of questions for the person receiving the news (we assume the person initiating the break has already been thinking about this change for a while). First question is, naturally, “WHY??” Then typically come a lot of panicked inquiries about who-did-what-wrong-and-how-can-we-fix-this. Once the dust settles, however, we get to the meat of the matter:

1. What is this break or separation FOR?
2. Is it permanent, or is reconciliation on the table?
3. What will each of us be doing during this break (or separation if reconciliation is in any way an option)?

That third question is, I find, the most problematic for relationships on hiatus. Unsurprisingly, relationship that are failing in any part because of poor communications anywhere in the system, will also fail at communicating intentions around these kinds of disengagements. What is the intention for this break? Are you:

  • just needing time out of the stress arena to relax and decompress?
  • planning to spend the time working on your own personal issues in order to work towards a specific goal of reconciliation or exit?
  • planning to take a step back until someone ELSE (namely, your partner) does something specific to fix something in themselves that is obstructing healthy relational engagement? And if so, have you communicated the expected for of work or expected outcome of that work, required for you to step back IN at some point? Have you clarified the expected window for this work, or is this ambiguous and indefinite?

It’s far less common that I get a consistent-to-all-parties answer when I pose the question, “What’s the purpose of this break?” Even in the case of separation, if one partner is keen on reconciliation and the other is keen on exit, we’re not generally going to be on the same page. Partners are disconnected about the essential whys, about the intent, about responsibility for either the problems or the (potential) solutions, and about the purpose of the disengagement.

So, how best to navigate this liminal space? Especially if doing so under the duress of having this sprung on you by your partner?

Step one: Breathe.
Seriously, take a breath. Heck, take several. The emotional chaos is going to be big enough and upsetting enough without trying to at least mitigate the instantaneous and default patterns of reactivity. Take a beat, then think about what can or needs to happen next. (Go have a cry if you need to.)

Step two: Seek clarity.
You may not be able to effectively address the “Why??” or “What went wrong?” questions at this stage of the game, tensions and fears will be running too high for reflection to be immediately to hand as tools. If you CAN get there, great; just don’t be surprised if the tide needs to recede a fair bit past the damage-control points before those conversations can even happen, let alone make sense. Instead, focus on determining what needs to happen next. Is this a permanent break, or a temporary one? What are the ground rules and expectations in either case? Contact, no contact, limited (in which case, what are the boundaries defining those limits)? If there are kids in the picture, what will you tell them, and when, and together or separately? If this is temporary, what is the intent or expectation each of you has for the separation period? What has to occur before reconnection or reconciliation topics are allowed on the table?

Step three: See step one.
No, really. Keep breathing. This probably came as a hell of a shock.

Step four: Figure out your own next steps.
You have a few options here. One is to wait passively for your partner to figure everything out so that you can react to it, rather than organize your own response to the situation (this is that pesky internal versus external locus of control issue again). Another is to shake of the fear paralysis, leverage your resources, and figure out what your options look like, both in terms of legally preparing for a lengthy separation or potential divorce, or financial preparation if someone has to move to different living arrangements and thus shared financial responsibilities must be divided. You can put your own needs and wants into the equation, and gauge whether or not you believe the partner is willing to work with you or not, whatever plan you both choose, by how they respond to those needs and wants. You could hound the partner for the answers to the questions that will be themselves chasing you all over the place, though the odds of that working you both towards closeness and intimacy if one of you is trying desperately to get away, seem pretty low.

Step five: Hold your partner accountable. Hold YOURSELF accountable.
If you make any kind of agreement about what is expected to happen in this liminal space, be it discussing a separation agreement for real, or working on changing personal understandings and behaviours through therapy or medication or something else, the DO THE WORK. If a partner says they will undertake something specific within the context if this break, HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE (clarity in understanding what that undertaking will look like, comes in very handy with this part.) If you need to change the agreements because you cannot in good faith deliver as stated, then SAY SO. Renegotiate if necessary, even if it is hard (pro tip: it will be).

Step six: Recognize that, in most cases, passively waiting for someone else to solve all the problems will only make you bitter.
You may not have initiated or desired the break, but here we are. Abjuring responsibility for looking after yourself and your own future, even when it becomes a different future than you had envisioned up until the moment of the break, isn’t going to solve the problems either. It’s typically only going to disempower you and feel like you’ve lost all your agency, and that way leads to resentment, despair, and bitterness aimed at your partner… and probably no little bit at yourself. At the very least, figure out your short-term survival needs while the chaos is raging. Give yourself enough time for the shock to settle, then work out a longer-term plan for yourself. Have options that include the partner should they return, but make sure you have something to fall back on, planwise, if they do not.

Step seven: REMEMBER TO BREATHE.
Seriously. Because you will likely have forgotten by now.

The liminal spaces are hardest simply because they are the worst of the unknown, that are-we-or-aren’t-we kind of uncertainty that is so upsetting to many of us. Fear, uncertainty, doubt–about ourselves, our partners, the relationship overall, our future as we thought we’d planned it–can rob us of our focus and direction like few other things can. They steal our agency and leave us feeling like we’re at the mercy of someone else’s choices and actions; to some extent, we are. But we don’t have to stay that way. We may not be able to affect the outcome of a separation or break if our partners are set on getting out when we don’t want that choice of ending, but we can choose how to face these uncertain times, and how to hold ourselves open to multiple options, with at least some degree of plan we can enact in the appropriate direct when we choose to execute said plan. Sometimes, Life is what happens to us when we least expect it. We can let it steamroll us, or we can learn how to roll as best we can with it, fears notwithstanding. We choose how to face what’s happening to us, even when we can’t CHANGE what’s happening to us.

And seriously: remember to breathe.

Relationships, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationships, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Book Recommendations, Emotional abuse, Relationships, Uncategorized

On the recommendation of my colleague Wendy Kenrick, I’m currently reading Bill Eddy & Megan Hunter’s Dating Radar: Why Your Brain Says Yes to “The One” Who Will Make Your Life Hell (Unhooked Books, Scottsdale AZ, 2017). I’m reading it less for my own dating purposes, and more because it provides an an unparalleled introduction in simple language to four common “high-conflict personality” types, and what it’s like to start a relationship with one of them… generally without knowing until it’s too late that this is what you’re in for.

Billy Eddy was a therapist for 12 years before becoming a lawyer and mediator. Megan Hunter is the CEO of Unhooked Books, an expert in “high-conflict disputes and complicated relationships.” Together they are the founders of High Conflict Institute, authoring and co-authoring several books on working with, surviving, or exiting relationships with High-Conflict Personalities (HCPs). Both authors have worked often with relationships struggling in the face of uncovering one or both parties embody behavioural patterns that create chaos and upheaval when pursuing intimacy. This is just one of the books they have written to illustrate how complicated and perilous relationship with certain personality types can be, what makes them so easy to fall into (what jams a person’s “dating radar” when early warning signs might otherwise start appearing), and what it’s likely to take to stay safe within, or safely exit, such relationships.

“High-conflict people (HCPs) tend toward all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviours or threats, and blaming others. But all of this may be well-hidden from you at the start, because of their ability to jam your radar and because of your own dating blind spots (we all have them). Our goal is to help you in three ways, by showing you how to recognize:

  1. Warning signs of certain personalities that can spell love relationship danger.
  2. Ways that they can jam your radar (deceive you).
  3. Where your own blind spots might be.

We focus on four high-conflict personality types, their common characteristics in romantic relationships, their common deceptions, and their targets’ common blind spots. We give examples of how they deceive their targets and how the targets fool themselves–despite the warning signs. We want to help you steer clear of those reefs.” (pg. 2-3)

The authors approach this topic in two parts: the first examines the mechanism of relational development from the perspective of someone inadvertently involved with an HCP, while the latter half of the book looks at how each of their four identified HCP types specifically functions during initial attachment development, and on into/through the “bait and switch” turning points of the relationship once things settle into commitment and routine.

They break down their four main HCP types as follows:

Narcissist HCP Borderline HCP Antisocial/Sociopath HCP Histrionic HCP
FEAR OF BEING INFERIOR FEAR OF BEING ABANDONED FEAR OF BEING DOMINATED FEAR OF BEING IGNORED
Demanding
Demeaning
Self-absorbed
Insulting
Overly friendly
Shifts to anger
Sudden mood swings
Breaks rules & laws
Deceptive
Con artist
Superficial & helpless
Attention-seeking
Exaggerates
Needs to be superior Needs to be attached Needs to dominate Needs to be center of attention

There are several factors contributing to the origin of HCPs:

    • genetic and temperament they are born with
    • early childhood upbringing
    • experiential traumas
    • the cultures into which they are born or raised

(pg. 35)

Attachment injuries or entitlements can also have a huge impact on development of dysfunctional insecurities underlying most HCP behaviours. Often HCPs aren’t even aware of their own behaviours, and don’t intend maliciousness; they simply have no tolerance for their own fears when those core insecurities get triggered by normal pairing mechanisms and relationship developments. There are similarities in their engagement styles, however, that “jam the radar” for people getting involved with them, blinding them to the chaos that’s about to ensue:

  • charm (attraction, chemistry, “spark”–the intensity of the initial courtship dance); the more lonely or desperate the target is for that attention and attachment, especially in people with low self esteem, the harder and faster they will fall victim to this jamming tactic
  • extreme compatibility and adaptability to you, your interests and values (at least initially)
  • overt/extreme sexuality/sensuality (sexual aspects of the relationship move VERY quickly, using the chemistry of sexual desire to cement the intensity of the initial bond)
  • protectiveness (of the target, specifically; a high degree of knight-in-shining-armourism can be powerful cement to a target with a history of feeling insecure and unprotected)
  • assertiveness (sometimes bordering on aggressiveness)

If these factors can jam a target’s radar, what keeps the signal clear for them?

  • Skepticism, and alert awareness; trusting your gut when it suggests that something is “too good to be true”; odds are good, it probably is. Don’t mistake the warning signs for love.
  • Watching for extremes, especially in the jamming factors listed above. There’s a heightened level of attachment and affection that is normal in the courtship phase, but if your gut tells you “This seems like a little TOO much,” then you may be unconsciously picking up on an HCP’s unconscious extreme need for coupledom.
  • Slowing things down; HCPs need a strong attachment formed quickly in order to feel like their end of the attachment is viable, and they get as swept up in the intensity of New Relationship Energy (NRE) as they want to to be. “Speed is the biggest, reddest flag.” (pg 59)

The book also offers insights into other factors that can contribute to high-conflict relationships, including addictions, certain mental health issues such as bipolar or autism spectrum disorders, paranoia (which may also exist as a factor in all of the four common HCP types).

The issue with being in relationship with HCPs is that the radar jamming means you won’t realize how bad the relationship is, until it’s so bad that there’s no way to continue rationalizing or justifying the pain and chaos you’re experiencing. The “big reveal” in some cases is swift, but in others it may be a slowly-eroding process over time. Sometimes there are signs right from the beginning, but in the spirit of swept-away NRE, we choose (at our peril) to ignore them.

“People (especially dating partners) are often totally stunned when they start seeing these patterns. “He was so nice,” they say. Or, “She was so easygoing!” It’s as if another person emerges out of their body. But the reality is that this person was always there, just covered up temporarily by their sugar-coated public persona and ability to fly under their dating partner’s radar.

In most relationships the patterns emerge gradually, while in others the transition from wonderful to awful happens overnight.” (pg. 21)

One of the final chapters details the effective strategies required to escape from a relationship with an HCP. Much of this seems drawn from Bill’s own experience as both therapist and eventually lawyer to high-conflict couples. The authors discuss how to prepare for possible (common) HCP reactions, up to and including the risks of domestic violence and harassment, and how these might escalate, providing a “field guide” to the common breakup behaviour patterns of HCPs. They also provide a step-by-step guide for managing the process as effectively as possible, including a frank discussion about restraining orders should the proverbial fecal matter hit the fan.

Overall this book is an excellent, plain-language resource about dealing with specific difficult personality types; while recognizing that all personalities exist on a spectrum, and even with HCPs not everything devolves to terrifying worst-case scenarios, the authors pull no punches. They remain empathetic to the plight of the dating partner at all times, but also reiterate frequently that HCPS simply DO NOT RECOGNIZE their own behaviours. They generally are not capable of the self-observation and reflection required to face their inner demons, their vulnerabilities and insecurities. Change is exceptionally difficult for HCPs because change first requires acknowledging there is a problem and they may be in the wrong, then making space for them to face their own indescribably intense shame and embarrassment. Remember, high-conflict behaviours develop almost exclusively as cover-up mechanisms to protect the HCP from *EVER* having to face those difficult feelings. So the onus for recognizing and choosing a healthier path by necessity lies on the dating partner. Eddy and Hunter have created an impressive body of work, both in this book and in others, for individuals and professionals supporting individuals trying to manage their HCP-entangled situations.


The small print:
Personally, I have a lot of complicated feelings about the book, if only because I recognize so many of the described behaviours from the demise of pretty much every long-term relationship I have ever had… and as my therapist once so cunningly pointed out to me, “If the only common denominator across all your failed relationships is you, then perhaps the biggest issue was NOT the other people.” (After the demise of my second marriage, I actually looked into a borderline diagnosis for myself because so much of the description rang true; not enough for diagnostics at the psychological level, but enough to give me a massive wake-up call.) Unsurprisingly, being the Adult Child of Alcoholics leaves one with dysfunctional coping mechanism–many of which fit the descriptions in this book TO A T. My largest, possibly singular, saving grace has almost certainly been some amount of hard-won capacity for self-observation and self-reflection, and the slowly-and-gracelessly increasing ?willingness? to own and correct my mistakes… and six years of remaining single until I could believe that I would be OK on my own, and not keep throwing myself into relationships because I *NEEDED* to attach to feel secure. So this book reads like a VERY uncomfortable, shame-laden personal memoir, but ultimately the value it provides as a clinical or client-facing tool for supporting those finding themselves in such relationships is certainly worth my own burning discomforts.

Relationships, Uncategorized

Last week In my last post* I started a topic about the impact of our work lives on a general level, specifically as that issue relates to the local High Tech community. My own observations from both within and without that particular environment and culture definitely colour my professional work with the clientele coming out of this field. As I wrote previously, an increasing number of clients are coming to me BECAUSE of that background. I don’t just speak the language; I GET IT.

One of the many, many things I understand on the personal AND the professional levels (clinical and not-clinical professions) is the innate and potentially terrible impact that working in this field can have on our intimate and family relationships. There’s nothing that suggests that people who work in High Tech are intrinsically any better or any worse at having and maintaining relationships than people employed in any other field, especially industries with high performance pressures or Just In Time (JIT) delivery models. My perspective is, therefore, entirely biased by experience and direct observation, and like any good researcher, I prefer to identify my bias right up front.

In my previous post, I wrote:

When I ask clients what their core values are organized around, they almost always list their top three-four in this order:

  1. kids (if they have any)
  2. partner(s) (if they have any)
  3. family
  4. work

But when we look at how they distribute the finite resource of their time (often the indicator of truer “real-life” prioritization), it looks more like this:

  1. work
  2. work
  3. work
  4. everything else

Most of us at some time or other have encountered the cliche of someone being “married to their job”. We generally understand this to mean someone who regularly prioritizes their work over everything else, whether by preference or by necessity. What we don’t always look at, however, is the impact that prioritization has on the person or people waiting at home… assuming they aren’t likewise married to THEIR jobs as well.

My client base currently runs the gamut from co-op students to C-suite (Chief executive-level) officers, and the issues are, by and large, the same: stress about work performance, strain in relationships, poor sense of work/life balance. When I sit with couples who are concerned or complaining that their Busy Lives have them feeling like a slow continental drifting apart, I always ask them right up front, “What stops you from choosing to prioritize each other and this relationship (or the family) over the external factors at work here?”

In many cases, a significant peril of the High Tech world is the crushing cycle of sales promises and deliverable schedules, tied to performance reviews and bonuses. There’s no secret that IT salaries and many corporate bonus/incentive plans are a BIG part of the reason WHY so many people accept the Golden Handcuffs; money remains the #1 stress factor in relationships. The idealized, romantic notion of “success” that includes owning one’s own home with the picket fence, 2.5 dogs, maybe a kid, gets to be a little unwieldy when white collar industry sends housing prices supra-orbital. Partnering into a two+ income arrangement is often the only feasible way to afford housing. Or childcare. Or financial support for extended family; given the rising number of immigrant employees with strong family obligations in their countries of origin, we see an increasing number of non-Canadian residents working in local companies and trying to get themselves settled while sending a hefty percentage of their income back home. (The intersectional aspects of multiculturalism and relationships and gendered role expectations and work environment stresses and… there isn’t enough time in the world to dive down that set of rabbit holes.)

Behind the scenes, the expectations of management are that employees will, by implicit if not explicit requirement, drop everything to pull 60-80 hour work weeks, often on a recurring (if not entirely predictable) basis. When you add in the precarious availability of potential on-call work (in any industry), it’s difficult to make plans, to find guaranteed time for quality engagement. There’s a prevailing context of “I might not be available when you need me” that makes it challenging to build intimacy and connection. And this is before we factor in the additional hassles of needing sometimes-highly-flexible childcare to support working families with lengthy work-weeks and crunchy project deadlines.

I commonly see IT clients coming in after lengthy periods of disconnect and increasing tension, frustration, or hostility in their relationships. Communications have deteriorated because of busy-ness getting in the way of restorative time together, or the buildup of small disappointments over time into cascading frustrations or anger through the slow death by a thousand cuts. It’s not that any of these issues are exclusive to High Tech, just that the environment of working in, or in support of, High Tech Culture, seemingly exacerbates the effects of common relationship issues. Once we get to the point of illustrating the shifting incongruence of their stated values and priorities versus their day-to-day behavioural indication of priority, we can make it clear that they have a difficult choice to make, in terms of “What will you do differently to make time for prioritizing THIS relationship?”

And therein lies the challenge. Doing things differently often provokes a degree of despair initially in clients because they feel powerless to push back against the behemoth of their employer’s expectations. Women in particular feel the emotional weight of “letting the team down”, along with the divisive pull of home and family, in ways that threaten their sense of balance and self-worth. When couples stop sharing these strains with each other, preferably devoid of any expectation of our partners somehow magically “fixing” them or the situation, then we start that inevitable slow slide into disconnection and lost intimacy. We don’t have time to practice authentic vulnerability when we barely have time to see each other over coffee in the morning. Many people don’t believe they have the right to push back against employer demands, and frankly, many employers are happy to take advantage of that belief. But at the end of the day, we keep coming back to the discrepancy between stated and displayed values, and the challenge of what WILL clients do differently to move back into connection and congruence with those stated priorities?

We start with the “low-hanging fruit” of solution-focused answers: carving out time for each other, as something unique from making time for family, has to become a more-highly-exercised priority. Date nights have to become an ardently-defended part of the scheduling, and the more time we can make to repair connection and intimacy, the better. Is there a “throw money at the problem” solution or familial support opportunities available for childcare, for example, that enables clients to re-establish time for intimate connection? Is there a conversation we can prepare with team or corporate management regarding workload management? Do we need to adopt extraordinary measures for managing workplace stress or fatigue as a component in glacial relationship erosion? In session, we work on breaking down the slow buildup of frustration to re-establish that intimate connection, but the onus is on the client(s) to make time to practice and sustain these changes in between sessions.

And more often than not, the hardest part of this work for all of us is simply normalizing these stresses and frustrations. I wish frequently this WASN’T such a normal scenario, but for this area in particular, it’s pretty much par for the course with High Tech clients. When I meet with HR or executive folks who want a therapist’s perspective on what they can do to improve employee quality of life, I can guarantee the LAST thing they want to hear is the truth: please stop expecting as normal the unreasonable standards for job execution you have bought into for this industry, and projecting that deadly bullshit onto your employees to deliver. It’s debilitating, demoralizing, and destabilizing them, and it’s damaging their lives outside of work; the cascading impact on people who don’t even work for you is inescapable, and costly. They want to hear instead that they can fix everything by supplying in-office massages or yoga, or enforced mindfulness training, or more mandatory “fun, team-building” exercises–the ones often scheduled outside of work hours, thereby eating into what little personal time or homelife these employees may have left. Resentment builds quickly, and if it’s not adequately offset by salary and benefits, it’s certainly not met by upgrading cafeteria service to near-gourmet provision, or adding laundry/drycleaning services (though some clients who have worked for employers providing on-site, licensed daycare have reported that as being a singularly-game-changing factor).

Again, very few of these issues are specific to the world of software development. But the typical project cycle and sometimes-unrealistic expectations for deliverables and performance metrics, tied to some of the highest payscales of any industry (even outside of the C-suite bonuses), make it a damnably difficult work scenario from which to walk away. And it *IS* endemic to High Tech that corporate “solutions” look more like changing the physical work environment rather than changing the mental environment defining their sense of work/life balance. Not a lot of us make the leap OUT of High Tech for something… else; the Golden Handcuffs are deemed too worthwhile. And that may be true, until we start to look at the impact on more than just the immediate employees, a whopping part of the cost remains borne by those invisible shoulders of spouses, partners, children, families in general.

This NEEDS to change.


* — With apologies; I have been trying for three weeks now to find enough motivation and impetus to write, and it just hasn’t been there. “Getting back on track” is definitely a work in progress, but I’m getting there… kinda. Sorta. Eventually…

Relationships, Uncategorized

[This morning’s writing period got co-opted by some exciting developments for and within the local therapist community, so I’m pulling an oldie-but-goodie from the archive for this week’s post.]


In the world of Contextual Therapy, the core principle of relationships is that we develop or dismiss/destroy relationships on the basis of merited trust, that being trust earned from having more positive transactions than negative ones on the relational ledger. Try though some might to deny it, all relationships have ledgers, because all individuals keep tallies, whether we do it consciously or not. If we don’t keep those tallies, how do we know who to trust and who not to trust? When someone says, “I trust a person on the basis of a gut instinct”, what they are responding to is often the prompting from a subconscious consultation with their internalized ledger of transactions. The decision may be based on minimal or comparative information only (this new person behaves or otherwise reminds me of some other person to whom I already assign a high degree of merited trust) and especially in early relational transactions, may be based predominantly on unconscious or non-verbal communications that we record, analyze, and respond to equally unconsciously.

The relational ledger is a huge component of relationships. People seek professional intervention (reparative counseling, personal development, legal proceedings) generally when the balance of the ledger has tipped to, and remains consistently tipped to, the negative side of that ledger. Merited trust is dented, eroded, or absent. The damage may be on both sides of the relationship, or it may be one party’s perception that the other party is just “bad”. frequently, both in and out of therapy, one or more participants in the relationship may become focused or fixated on the other party’s negative aspects – their contributions to the negative aspect of the relational ledger.

The fixation happens because, at our core, we are cellular organisms. as such, cellular organism learn faster and more strongly from negative stimuli than from positive stimuli. Self-protective aversion is a non-conscious reaction: even single-cell protozoa will unthinkingly flinch away from a negative stimulation; there is no analysis of the dangers or possible responses required. Movement towards positive stimulation is not, however, as fast, and learning to move into positive stimulation is something that higher life forms sometimes need to be trained to do. We all seek food when hungry and warmth when cold, but in both cases, there are scientific and psychological schools of thought that label those instinctive behaviours as reactions away from the negative stimulus of “cold”, or “hunger”. We instinctively move away from pain or discomfort; moving towards something is an entirely separate set of analytical functions.

In relationships, we often witness people responding to a relational stimulus in a largely unthinking fashion. We move away from pain. Sometimes we do this by relabeling the pain as anger and changing the direction to focus it on someone or something external to ourselves. Sometimes we seek to remove the thing we identify as the source of pain from our relational radius (up to and including removing people we perceive as causing us pain). Sometimes we look inwards to find what that pain is attached to, what other times in our lives we’ve felt pain, and how we have developed the response in which we’re currently engaged as a result of repeating patterns. the latter approach is common to several therapeutic models.

Where relational ledgers come in, is the fact that because we learn fastest and most efficiently from those protozoan aversion-responses, at an almost cellular level we are programmed to retain the negative far more strongly and for far longer than we do the positive transactions. This isn’t a justification to allow people to wallow in the pain, but it’s an explanation of why it’s such a common thing for people to fixate on the negative to the detriment of any focus on the positive, and why the experience of “depression” isn’t limited to the human species. So we store far more data on the negative ledger (or at least we tend to focus on it more) than we do on the positive ledger. when a relationship comes into trouble, often it’s because the negative focus has superseded any sense of accumulated merit, and that shift in focus is what erodes the trust; it’s not that the relational transactions themselves have changed, but rather that something in the participants themselves has (for whatever reasons) caused a shift in the focus.

Frequently, young relationships hit this point after the “honeymoon phase” ends, and the participants start looking past their own romantic projections to the other party with whom they interact. That’s a difficult transition in any relationship, and one that can often lead right into what Wong & McKeen refer to in The Relationship Garden as the cycle of power struggles, in which the participants try and change each other back into those early romantic projections, or fight internally to adjust themselves to the new perceptions. Change, particularly opaque internalized changes, often leads to external behavioural changes, which are a big factor in the tipping of the relational ledger. Our protozoan selves don’t like change, change means “Unknowns” and “Differences”, and on some level, change is generalized as a negative stimulus, so we try to avoid it. Aversion may take the form of ignoring the signals and actions of change and remaining rutted in our comfort zones; it may take the form of trying to force the source of those changes to stop whatever s/he is doing to upset the status quo; it may take the form of engaging change but only on our own terms as a means of micro-managing our own fears in and of the process. It may also take the form of embracing change for change’s sake, without having a goal for change to help inform the decisions we make as part of the change process (which leads in turn to all kinds of other tensions and issues within the relationship, and is equally culpable in the disruption of balance within the relational ledger).

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.

At this point in time, the first step in diffusing the tensions is giving the emotional content (the personal grievances) safe space to be expressed and acknowledged, without judgment, but more importantly, without expectation of a reactive response. a grievance is not necessarily best interpreted as a signal requiring change. Sometimes a grievance just needs to be aired and heard in order to reduce the tensions associated with the grievance. At some point thereafter, a subsequent step (not necessarily the next step, but an important one to include somewhere in the investigative process) is to force a review of the positive ledger. It may something as simple as asking, “what is it that initially attracted me to this other person? What positive factors does s/he bring to the relationship, then and now? what do I like about him/her?” the positives may not be immediately accessible in a tense or conflicted relational period, but making any entry onto the positive ledger is crucial at this juncture, creating a foothold from which balance, or at least a less-critical angle of tippage, may be more easily restored. It also forces the perceived-aggrieved party to step outside the entrenched Self and consider, even if only briefly, the merits of Other. This is a huge step not only in relationship counseling, but in any kind of mediation scenario; “consider the other person’s perspective” is a hugely important tool for breaking tension, and increasing the potential for establishing a different kind of relational modality than the one which brought the parties to their current emotionally-laden impasse in the first place.

Working one’s way out of the aggrieved entrenchment is difficult; the fact that a lot of people can’t do that on their own can’t unhook from their own emotional aversion-responses, is part of why the field of family & relationship therapy is flourishing. Part of our job as therapists is to supply the multi-directional partiality that creates safe space for each party to explore the relational ledger, assisting them to collaboratively determine what they want to do about any perceived imbalance. it occurs to me that relationship therapy is best described as “psychological archaeology”, because by the time people make it into counseling, the root issues are often lost. Individuals hit a negative stimulus, and react. People around them, perceiving the reaction as some kind of change in behaviour, will react themselves. Often this reaction/response is confrontational in nature. As soon as the original responsive party perceives confrontation, the response is often defensive, without necessarily explaining at all the original stimulus/reaction sequence (at least not in any rational way). The continuing opacity of behaviour may lead to further perceived challenges, which then cause the originator to justify the defensiveness – this is the stage at which the relational transactions are most likely to become externalized as anger and blame projected onto the other participant(s). so by the time the relationship arrives in the counsellor’s office, the participants are several stages away from the core issues, and the presenting problem – the only aspect of which many people coming into therapy are immediately conscious of – is at the tertiary level of justified anger, firmly entrenched on the negative side of the relational ledger. The archaeology comes in by way of digging past the immediate hostilities or tensions, back past the defensive responses, and looking for the root sources of the current imbalances. Treating only the tertiary stage, and trying to reset the balance of the ledger or restore the merited trust on the basis of that level of transaction, is leaving the relationship participants wide open to ongoing problems as a result of not examining the foundations of those interactions for weakness, and bringing the unconscious protozoa reactions to the light of conscious evaluation within the ledger. We respond unthinkingly to the negative; we consciously condition ourselves to consider the positive.