Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just another day at the office, or something.

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

So what lies BEYOND that painful state?

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

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

Iceberg! Dead ahead!

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

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

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


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

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, 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.

Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence, Uncategorized

Returning to reading David Wexler recently, I am reminded of one of the biggest takeaways from a previous reading of his book, Men in Therapy (I’m currently reading the layman companion book, When Good Men Behave Badly). In both books, Wexler discusses the relationship pattern in which people in general, and men in particular, set up relationships as mechanisms for reflecting back at them the values they most want to see and be seen in themselves. These mirroring requirements create a subtle and problematic kind of dependency, often reducing the autonomous, individuated human being who is the partner to little more than a reflective surface. The problems surface when the Partner has the audacity to develop their own wants and needs, to offer comments or criticisms about their mates that suggest dissatisfaction, or to become busy, distracted, unavailable or unreliable as sources of emotional validation and support.

When the dependent partner starts to perceive that the reflective surface is out of alignment or broken, it impacts their security in both their self-imaging and in their relationships. And what do we do when something is out of alignment? We attempt to push it back INTO alignment. Wexler writes in detail on how men especially give the power of validating them into the hands of women partners, often without either of them realizing what is happening and without the woman’s consent to shoulder this responsibility. We all look to our partners for emotional support and validation, yes; this is human relational nature. But we don’t all act out our insecurity when the support or validation is disrupted.

Because our cultural has stunted men’s emotional development in many ways, men are often left with very few ways of expressing hurt, fear, or shame. They do well enough to a point with frustration and disappointment, but in intimate partnerships where they feel especially vulnerable, fear or shame often paired with disrupted validation processes means they misdirect those base-level feelings into more commonly-acceptable and familiar anger, and lash out. Sometimes anger becomes cold silence, but in all cases where this distorted mirror process is occurring, it’s all intended to punish the mirror for misalignment. Lacking direct engagement with each other, couples get into cycles where the disappointment of not getting core needs met turns to emotional reactivity (acting out) that can drive partners to increase distance, which in turn only increases the sense of distortion. It’s another form of what Harriet Lerner calls the distancer-pursuer dynamic, when one partner misbehaves (lashing out, withdrawing, or both) and the other partner’s task in relationship is to somehow “bring them back” to centre; in short, “You change, so *I* feel better!”

There are a lot of reasons why these kinds of imbalanced attachments form; why men in particular crave a kind of emotional vulnerability they don’t feel safe pursuing outside these rare intimate contexts, and why women raised contextually to be placators and nurturers for their own safety allow themselves to be saddled with the unspoken expectations for holding up men’s self-images. Mismatches in Love Languages, for example, can be an enormous source if this kind of distortion. Unravelling all of this in counselling requires looking at where these unarticulated expectations have become burdensome, both in the sense of men being unable (or untrained) to hold their own sense of self-worth without relying exclusively on external reflective sources, and in the sense of women adopting and accepting this degree of emotional labour as the “cost of being in relationship”, as a female friend recently put it. People can be taught how to build their own internal reflections; questions I frequently use with my clients (of all gender identities and relational roles) include these:

  • What story are you telling yourself about what happened?
  • At the end of the day, what kind of person will you wish you had been in this situation?
  • In situations like [X], what would the person you wish you could be have done?
  • What do you see in yourself that looks like that kind of person?
  • What can you do to be a little more like that kind of person?
  • Where you choose to [negative, acting-out behaviour], what do you wish you had done instead?
  • What do you think you might need to make that choice differently in future?

These aren’t cure-alls by along shot, but this kind of questioning is intended to do two things: (1) get the client to practice looking inward to their own perceptions and values, and (2) trust that they can perceive and integrate those values in ways that teach them to trust their own validation senses rather than relying on, or pushing aggressively for, externally-reflected validation. Wexler provides MANY exercises in his books for how to explore those internal distortions, and conversations that shape more effective interactions between partners trying to work past the “bad behaviours” resulting from deep insecurities.

Article links, Communication

There is a kind of truism that floats around periodically:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

Someone once explained the difference between theoretical mathematics and physics, and applied mathematics and physics, as the difference between assumptions and concrete knowledge. In theoretical math/physics, there are hypotheses that are fitted with variables based on assumptions, to see if any of them shore up the equation. When one set of assumptions fails, another is fitted into the equation to see if *it* works instead. (I’m neither a mathematician more a physicist, so my understanding of this process is suspect at best; I like to say, “I have two degrees in Not Good At Math”.)

In applied math/physics, however, you can’t have equations based on unknown or assumed variables, however; you HAVE to solve for the unknowns in order to apply the equation. Engineering, for example, requires all variable be known before anything is built because if an *assumption* is introduced that later proves to be wrong, things go to hell in a handbasket very very swiftly. Matthew once told me the legend of the Engineering Iron Ring: engineers signed off on a bridge once that was built on faulty equations; it fell down, and lives were lost. (Wikipedia repeats that legend, but dispels it as the root of the Iron Ring itself.) The Iron Rings are meant to symbolize engineers’ civic responsibility to remove as much risk as possible by making sure they do NOT build on unknowns or assumed principles. They MUST solve for the unknowns before putting people’s lives and well-being at risk.

Unsurprisingly, it is no different when building relationships, interpersonal bridges between separate lives. Or at least, it *should* be no different, but in truth, we make assumptions and interpretations then build wildly-creative things on top of those assumptive variables ALL THE TIME. I often say that, as much as Nature abhors a vacuum, the human mind hates one even more so when there are gaps in our understanding of other people, for example, we have two choices when it comes to solving for the unknown in the equation: we can either seek direct information from the source (which, while only as good as the source’s self-awareness, is still at least coming from the source), or we can circumvent the courage and intimacy required in connecting with another human being and PRESUME we know what’s going on. We assume an understanding that is based on OUR experiences and expectations, on what WE ourselves would do or want in that situation… and then we make decisions and choose courses of actions based on our SELF-sourced assumptions, and continue on.

One of my counselling instructors in grad school referred to this as “sock puppet conversations”. Instead of taking the risk of having conversations with people *outside* our heads, we create “sock puppets” to stand in for those other people in our internal conversations, and pretend what we’re getting is externally-validated data while ignoring the fact we’re talking to the mental equivalent of our own hand.

We fail to effectively solve for the unknown, because we make assumptions instead. We think they’re safer choices because they spare us from having to interact in potentially vulnerable or intimate ways with another human being, but what we’re doing is swapping risk up front for risk later on if (when) we then proceed on a course of decision/action based on incomplete or incorrect or just plain unknown information… information that might prove critical to the success of whatever follows, information that might put at risk the lives and well-being of the people involved in the relationship.

People who take actions on my behalf without first ascertaining if those actions are (a) what I want, or (b) valid or welcome actions in the moment or situation at large, are engaging in theoretical relationships; they have failed to solve the unknowns in the equation (i.e., my *actual* needs and wants). Even if what they’re doing is intended to be nice and helpful, if it’s the wrong thing at the wrong time then it’s still an extremely risky venture, like trying to pave the road across a bridge when you haven’t finished building all the valley-spanning underpinnings first. At that point, when someone is acting without knowledge of what is actually appropriate to ALL parties in the situation, it becomes apparent that perhaps what they’re offering is not a bridge to another human being, but rather a free-standing platform that is all about them, what THEY have to offer, how good THEY are at taking care of other people (without first ascertaining if care-taking is wanted, or if their version of care-taking is appropriate to the situation or other individuals). It’s more often at times like that about THEM assuaging their own anxieties — that much becomes clear because if they were LESS anxious about the situation, it would have been more likely they would have come seeking directly-sourced information in lieu of assumptions.

Let me provide an example of this kind of interaction from a too-common communication pattern I see a lot:

“I don’t know what’s going on with you, but you must be angry at me, so I’m just going to give you the cold shoulder/stonewall you/leave you alone/be mad back at you until you get it out of your system/tell me what’s wrong/treat me better.”

[statement of ignorance/unknowing] [assumption/presumption] [decision/action based on presumption]

A subtler, more insidious version of this script within a family relationship system might look a lot like this:

“I don’t know if this is actually what you want, but I presume as a parent it’s my duty to take care of my (even adult) kids, so I’m going to do all these things for you that you didn’t explicitly request.”

[statement of ignorance/unknowing] [assumption/presumption] [decision/action based on presumption]

(And here we have the option of taking a massive detour into the toxicity of expectations tied to something I’ll call “transactional affection”, and also tied to boundary issues — as implicit expectations so often are — but I’m trying to keep things to one hot mess of a topic at a time, so I’ll try to remember to come back to transactions in a later post.)

What’s happening in these kinds of scenarios is that someone is creating a sock puppet of you, and having a relationship with the theoretical-you they have created: a theoretical-you that looks and functions as *THEY* assume you will work, not guaranteeably how you yourself work. That is a theoretical relationship. The bridge’s underpinnings are built on unsolved-for equations with potentially whopping huge gaps in provable, factual, reliably-sourced information (again, assuming the source is, in fact even remotely reliable, and yes, there’s irony there).

In applied relationships, the principle remains to solve for the unknown through more effective processes. Optimally this involves confirming assumptions against the source BEFORE engaging in any decision-making or resulting actions tied to potentially-erroneous assumptions. It involves building supportive processes for vulnerability and intimacy, for willing engagement, and curiosity that invites and encourages one’s partner to share their own inside information. The addage (as I so often reiterate to many of my clients) goes , “You cannot make informed decisions without *information*.” And in differentiating between theoretical and applied relationships with real OTHER PEOPLE, it’s crucial to let go of the thinking that unconfirmed assumptions are qualified information. They are a form of information, absolutely, but not qualified. Qualifiable, absolutely… but only through the effort of engaging the other person(s) for exploration and confirmation.

In truth, almost every relationship will fall somewhere between theoretical and applied status. What’s important to remember is that we’re NOT dealing with sock puppets, and there’s an inherent danger in making assumptions just because they feel safer in the moment. Intimacy is rooted in vulnerabilities, and vulnerabilities mean taking chances, including the chance that our assumption does not, in fact, solve for the equation in front of us. Sharing information is a form of vulnerability; stepping aside from our assumptions to be open to learning something new, something outside our presumptions, something we may even dislike learning (about ourselves or the other person), and being willing to deal with the implications of having and understanding the information we have shared. Relationship underpinnings are understandings of valid and viable information, sought and shared, verified or validated within the context of other things we know about the relationship and its participants. I’m trying to think of any other branch of applied math or physics where the known data set needs to be revalidated or recalibrated semi-regularly, but with any evolutionary system (humans and relationships both exemplifying such), and I’ve just had friends in the field tell me through FB that generally in mathematics at least, there’s not revalidating of known data, but it happens all the time in both theoretical and applied physics, so… this may be the point at which at least my mathematics analogy falls apart 🙂

Relationships

Copyright 2009, 2011 KGrierson

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about choice, especially in how it relates to validation in relationships, which in turn relates to how people self-soothe (or don’t) their anxieties through either self-validation or other-validation. This in turn has lead to examining motivations for selecting relationships, both monogamous and polyamorous. (If you’ve read or are reading David Schnarch, you’ll have a better understanding of terms I’ve only got space and time to define fairly superficially; consider this further incentive to buy or library-loan yourself a copy of Passionate Marriage to learn in more depth what I’m about to go on about.)

David Schnarch’s phrase “emotional terrorism” is a loaded phrase, especially when the lights come on and one realizes it’s a loaded phrase pointing most annoyingly at oneself. Inasmuch as we all generally make some astounding leaps in personal growth as we grow older, we all carry numerous human anxieties that connect at a molecular level to the equally-human need for validation.

Validation, in this sense, means an acknowledgment that one is a “good and worthy person” (as measured by a vague and often indeterminate set of personal values, the impact of which we may or may not be consciously aware). In the clichéd sense that “no individual is an island”, we all seek validation as a means of measuring ourselves in and against the world we inhabit, amidst the people with whom we share common space, be it a family, a workplace, a church, a community theatre company, a marriage or other intimate relationship. Schnarch conveniently illustrates the difference between self-validation and other-validation as the difference between being grounded and centred in a strong sense of Self, or being dependent on others to be mirrors reflecting back at us the things we think we want them to see.
When others don’t show us that we’re as good as we want to believe ourselves to be, other-validated individuals are easily crushed, and the more importance and value placed on the Other in the equation, the greater the despair when the mirror fails us. Self-validated people, however, can stand more easily in the absence of mirrors; they’re less concerned with other people’s reactions to them, ride the waves of social contact more easily, maintain a sense of balance that better weathers the unpredictable, surprising slings and arrows of life’s outrageous fortunes. They don’t need other people’s company or noise to drown out the anxieties in their heads – that doesn’t mean they don’t have anxieties, just that they are far better at self-soothing than people who depend on constant reassurance from others to soothe anxieties.

How does this relate to choice, specifically relationship choice?

Firstly, consider what I mean by “relationship CHOICE”.

Do you pursue specific individuals with a specific intent to create and maintain a particular type of relationships from the outset? Or do you “just fall into” relationships because you get comfortable with a person, and one thing leads to another, and next thing you know there’s a UHaul truck and a moving party and someone else’s toothbrush now lives permanently in your bathroom?

Do you *choose* to have relationships as a conscious decision, or do you decide not to think about them and just let them happen? Do you wonder if your partner(s) chose you to be *with you*, or got into the relationship more to avoid being alone, or to get away from some other form of untenable situation (for example, the White Knight rescues the Damsel in Distress from a Dastardly Family Situation, and she says, “Oh, thank you, Mr Knight, but I have no money, how can I ever repay you??” Cue the “bow-chicka -wow-wow” music, and three weeks’ worth of Gratuitous Gratitude Sex later, you’re both in a relationship because, really, what else is there to do in the country?)

Choice and validation are immutably connected by the simple fact that if you did not consciously *choose* to be with your partner, or one day you start to fear that s/he did not *choose* to be with you, that realization is going to cue a huge sky-rocketing anxiety for most people, especially if it comes after a long-term relationship (marriage or otherwise) has been established. That kind of fearful anxiety can tear relationships apart, because it cuts to the core of our need for validation:

If someone didn’t choose me, is it because I’m not good enough to be chosen?

If I’m not good enough to have been chosen, how can i now trust what my partner has been showing or telling me all this time, if I’m not the person my partner actively chose or chooses?

For almost all of my early significant relationships (2 in high school, 3 university/post, including my first marriage), I did not choose my partners because they themselves were people I wanted to be with. First and foremost, I fell into relationships without thinking about it. If I choose them it was because they could, in one way or another, take care of me. They soothed my anxieties and supported me long before I had a clue how to do so personally, professionally, spiritually, financially… any way you can think of. In one case, the relationship started less because he was someone I wanted to date, and more because we engaged a fantasy first, and he reflected back at me an image of myself I was trying on for size. Turns out, I wasn’t enamoured of that image, but by the time I came to that conclusion, we’d already moved in together and were hitting the rough seas that would eventually send us to our own relationship counseling.

There are a lot of relationships of both open and illicit natures that come about because an individual simply responds unconsciously to another person’s attraction. Sometimes it’s not even an explicitly sexual attraction being offered, yet it provokes a conditioned response, one that people often learn in their teens or early years, to respond to sexually as a means of trying to engage or anchor more of that positive-seeming reflection (“If I sleep with him/her, maybe s/he’ll like me more”). This conditioned response is as equally true for men as for women, in my experience.

In those moments, we don’t choose the person, we choose the image, the validation; it’s a subtle but profoundly-influencing objectification at work in that kind of choice. If the person offering the validation to us changes, we often cannot accept the change, and fight the loss of that validation it avidly. Change means a shift or distortion in the reflection; Other-based validation wavers, becomes inconsistent or absent, and our Other-based sense of self-definition is jeopardized, or evaporates completely. We struggle to change to Other person back to the person who gave us the sense of validation in the first place, often encountering resistance to the change-back message. When we are the ones who are changing, potentially throwing someone else’s Other-dependent source of validation into uncertainty, we hear or experience the “Change Back!” message ourselves. When we hear the cry, “Change Back!” during the process of personal growth or differentiation, what we’re really doing is trying to force the changing Other back into the mirror frame so that the distortion goes away and we can restore normalcy by seeing the reflections of our selves as we expect to see them.

This dependency is emotional fusion at work, the kind of fusion that stifles growth and thwarts healthy development. It engenders and relies on emotional dependency on others to soothe anxieties, and we become emotional terrorists when our mirrors fail to show us what we want to see. This has been the pattern of normal relationships for as long as there have been relationships. Relationships can destabilize frighteningly quickly when specific things in a person’s world feel threatened, and most of us will react with varying degrees of emotional violence to force the quickest course-correction to put things back where we need them to be. That’s what Schnarch means by “emotional terrorist”. It’s not a pretty thing, even when it gets the short-term job done. Often the best we can do is to at least recognize when it’s happening, sometimes even in the moment, sometimes in time to at least make conscious choices about our responses to that attending anxiety. Learning to self-soothe the anxieties before they spike so enormously is a job reminiscent of pushing rope up a steep incline; it can be done, but it’s a lot of painfully-useless-seeming-at-the-time work.

So how does this all relate to developing poly relationships?

In complex systems, two is an inherently unstable configuration; three is more stable because more options provide more options for interaction, and in architectural geometry, the leaning angles of a three- or more-sided figure balance the structure. In short: a two-legged stool is unstable; a two-legged ladder cannot stand on its own. Add a third leg, however…

In Bowenian family systems, adding a third party to a dyadic (two-membered) relationship almost immediately reduces the stress between the two members of the dyad, by providing a third party to focus on (a child, for example, or a sibling, parent, coworker, job, pet, etc.) or to confide in (in the case of an adult family member, friend, or lover). Adultery, in its own way, reduces the stress within a marriage by enabling one partner to meet immediate needs elsewhere, reducing the pressure — in this case, for sex — on the spouse to provide sexual contact. While the adultery example is rife with other problems, it does provide a very clear illustration of how a third party can help bleed away some stressors and pressures within a relationship.

In polyamory, there are multiple intimate relationships present in the relational network, and any one of them can serve as a stabilizer or destabilizer, depending on the relationship skills of those involved, for any other relationship in the intimate network (the “system”). Imagine how this, then, becomes an extremely important factor for Other-validated individuals: now there is not just *one* relational partner from whom one receives back mirrored validation, but potentially *many* partners. The crucially-important stabilizing factor is that if one relational angle then fails to mirror as expected, there will always be an assumed other lover(s) to turn to fill in the gap, thus ensuring that anxieties in such an Other-validated person never spikes so highly as to disrupt the functioning of the system as a whole.

When people talk about “selecting for type” their mates and lovers, often what they have is a certain type of personality they will seek out that best reflects their expected mirrored sense of Self. That’s why people tend to gravitate towards a particular predilection for personality types like “the good girl/the bad boy”, to stereotype a popular few. Those “types” are likely to offer particular views back at us that we expect to see that mesh with our own internalized senses of self. Abused spouses return time and again to abusive partners because the abuser reflects back at the victim the victim’s own sense of self, validating what the victim “knows” about him/herself.

We seek out, consciously or otherwise, lovers and partners who reflect back at us what we think we know about ourselves, as a way of validating ourselves. It’s a form of “confirmational bias” in which we only see what we already believe; seeing anything new about ourselves, and being open to the possibilities of being something other than what we expect, is tremendously, impossibly scary to a lot of people, and the lengths to which people go to avoid seeing themselves in new ways is truly awe-full.

Some people date for breadth, not depth, if you can say so without taking the obvious innuendo-laden tangents. Putting more people in one’s “intimate sphere” means more mirrors, increasing the odds that one can establish a stabilizing-if-superficial exposure when feeling anxious, rather than improving the internal ability to self-soothe. People who do this often won’t let anyone get close enough to become mirrors of things we do not want to see in ourselves, especially if those uncomfortable reflections and perceptions already occur at home in the primary relationship(s).

Lovers became objectified, serving as distractions and diversions from current or ongoing relationship work. Lovers who are too much work, because they threaten stability at home or detract from Self- or relational work we need to be doing elsewhere, are cut loose or held off to cool their heels in long intervals between dates. They are welcome as Other-validation until they became too challenging to an existing, ineffective, impression of the individual’s sense of Self.

Even for lovers who aren’t a lot of work, long intervals also meant a degree of perceived security for some. Lack of frequency is one way we controlled our own emotional investment levels, playing it cool and casual in order to avoid the temptation to “fall in love” or get uncontrolled NRE goo all over my nice clean life. Of course it works… to a point. For myself, the breaking point was realizing that even though I am ostensibly involved with a lot of people, I’m really not “involved” at all. It’s hard to have good, authentic relationships with people you genuinely like through the cocoon of armour and misdirected desires. It’s also impossible to have authentic relationships with people when you let them — nay, when you *rely* on them to — do all the work of managing your anxieties for you.

Honestly… I don’t think this is an uncommon pattern, in or out of the poly community. Seeking validation from others is such an insidious need that permeates so much of our unconscious motivations in relationships that it’s really difficult to peel back the layers of intentional self-misdirection to look at what we’re really doing: in effect, making ineffectual choices that meet a short-term, anxiety-based need, while encouraging our other-dependencies and undifferentiated perceptions of self-in-relation-to-other. For me, the uphill slog to learn the difference between raw emotional content, and the active response to that content has been a necessary part of sorting out my own tools for self-soothing. We all have anxieties; they are huge and well-defined by the number of hidden land mines connected to them. Learning to trust *ourselves* when they go off is, for most of us, a work in progress. But the key lesson to note here is: we CAN learn to trust ourselves instead of relying on partners, say, to change their behaviours in order to soothe our anxieties. Learning to stay present in the moment of those fearful surges is crucial, because when we can’t stay with them and soothe them, the only thing left is to shut them in a box and go distract ourselves with someone or something else. Distraction soothes to an extent, but the raging beast is still awake, and still raging behind a door we now can’t open or even look at, for fear of setting the anxiety surge loose all over again.

People who live like that eventually become nothing but a hallway of doors they cannot open, I think. I don’t want that to be me.

So it all comes back to looking at the choices we make in relationships:

How do I choose partners in the first place? Can I clearly identify whether I am, or am not, responding to a need to see myself validated by them as attractive and desirable? (Trust me, as I ease into my mid-40s and the Realm of the Cougar, this actually becomes the kind of stuff I find I have to think about). Am I expecting a potential lover to validate something that isn’t being validated in my primary relationship? Am I looking for the relationship equivalent of a pacifier or soother? Do I just want someone to be with when my partner is elsewhere so I don’t have to deal with soothing myself alone (often more of a driving motivation for more non-primary relationships than many of us will admit)? How am I behaving when the selected-for-unavailability-lovers actually prove to be as unavailable to me as I fear? What happens when I really *am* alone?

Some things have changed for the better. Schnarch also distinguishes between “genital prime” and “sexual prime”, taking our standard common societal impression of “sexual prime” and transferring that to “genital prime” (when men’s refractory period is fastest, and women’s genital response is also faster and/or more pronounced). Schnarch’s concept of “sexual prime”, however, is all about availability for emotional intimacy that only comes with experience and willing effort to be vulnerable; he uses a lot of language reminiscent of Goleman’s emotional intelligence; the crossover concepts are hard to miss, actually. In Schnarch’s opinion and experience, individuals and couples don’t reach his version of “sexual prime” until they’re old enough to have some profound relationship and self-definition experience under their belts: in their 40s and 50s and beyond.
This gives me some hope for an easier future, at least. the fact that my partner and I have made such a career out of doing the hard work of building a more conscious and authentic relationship (which is not to say we don’t still have Good Days and Bad Days, even recently) makes it easier to take the things that work out into the field of other relationships and make more conscious, functional decisions about how and why I engage those relationships. Mind you, the fact that I have no consistent label that I can apply across the board to the rapidly-decreasing number of people I’m arguably “dating” means I’m pretty much doing the work of treating each relationship as an individual thing from the get-go. That’s perhaps a more effective, consciously-mindful way of approaching the relationships… it’s a bucketload of work though.

Since my corollary relationships aren’t currently ones that cause me any anxiety, the work of self-soothing occurs mostly at home, and mostly at my partner’s expense. The work of the next indeterminate-while involves looking more closely at what anxieties get spiked by what kinds of triggers (some of that work we’ve already done in other situational contexts), and figure out for myself what I can learn to do as effective self-soothing when those fears get out of hand and explode messily, because they’re going to keep happening. These kinds of fears and anxieties are rooted so deeply that they don’t come up with the usual kind of weed-pulling tools. It’s also important to note that self-soothing fear and anxiety isn’t the same as “letting someone off the hook” for his or her part in the anxiety-spiking situation in the first place, but it does help clear space for a more effective manner of communicating that needs to happen in the resolution process. There is a time and place for channeling rage and fury into a situation, and a time and place for… something else. I’d like to be able to keep both as tools selected by choice than to depend solely on one manner of response as the only available, pre-programmed option. I prefer the effects I get when I know I’ve chosen the response consciously.

Also in progress for some time now is a decreasing dependency on others for my validation. This is not to say I don’t enjoy the ego boosts when they happen (who *doesn’t* enjoy positive responses to a flirtation or soul-searching tome of a blog post?), but I don’t *need* them like I used to. I don’t get crushed when my crushes don’t reciprocate interest. I don’t get crushed when lovers don’t make contact for months at a time (though I suspect there’s something complicated going on there that *is* wired to a residual mirrored validation issue, but that’s a tangent for another time). I don’t rely so much any more on other people’s responses to me to shape the space that I can fill; I define my own space more effectively by myself these days. This doesn’t mean I’m not interested in intimate relationships, rather the opposite; but now I pursue relationships because I want to and because I choose to, not because I *need* to in order to feel desired or desirable. Being secure enough in my Self to choose things, rather than being restricted to the limited options of pre-programmed responses, gives me far more… well, choices.

Being (relatively) free of anxiety-driven dependencies doesn’t diminish my interest in those intimate and engaged relationships; quite the contrary. It does increase my opportunities to be something other than an emotional terrorist struggling to keep the mirrors from distorting the limited external-based view of my Self. It also invites me to be “all that *I* can be”, without having to struggle into combat fatigues at the drop of a wrongly-worded comment and write more blog posts before 8am than most people write in a. Not having to be always in my armour and on the defensive against those shifting perspectives and availability of the Other is liberating, a revolution from the inside out.

And those relationships I choose to have for more effective reasons than dependency will, I think, be the stronger for it.