It’s Not That What You Did Was Really, Really Bad…

It’s not that what you did was really really bad…it’s that what you did really, really hurt me.

We human creatures are creatures after all.  Staying away from danger is what all creatures do by instinct and we have a lot of nerve endings exposed to our loved one.  We all have “raw spots” as Dr. Sue Johnson elegantly phrases it.  All of us.  Some, because of early ravages may have very sensitive places within and it really doesn’t take a lot of threatening or hurtful contact to make us collapse in self protection like a sea anemone.

If we fight about whether “you did something wrong” and “I demand an apology” we are going to spin ourselves up (and away from each other) very quickly.  I can try again and again to try to get you to see (and admit) that you did something really, really bad.  Yet, you either start to justify yourself or get angry back at me, or both.  I get so mad back at you because you refuse to acknowledge what you did.  And on it goes.

I believe that the way out of this self perpetuating and exhausting (and dispiriting and lonely) cycle is to shift to a true statement that the other person may be able to hear and respond to in a way that makes them feel safe to you again.  That statement would run something like this, “What you did really, really hurt me.”  You’ve got to let your partner see where your sensitive places are. Over and over, I have seen, and read about, and spoken to colleagues about intimate partners in stress and conflict who shift their thinking and speaking in this way who settle down.    They begin to allow the natural attractive force of their bond to overcome the centrifugal force of the conflict.  That shift needs to take time and usually it’s best to do this with the help of a couples therapist.  These are ubersensitive places for us.  We need to approach them cautiously and with respect.  The real stuff down there is (pick one) fragile, scary, raw, threatening…the opposite  of comfortable.  We’ve got to protect ourselves, and if the sensitivity seems big, then the self-protection will be big too.  It’s not easy to say “you hurt me” when the hurt is so deep.  It’s way safer to say “what you did is incredibly bad.”  That won’t get us closer, though and usually we will need a calm guide to help us find those words – find that emotion and talk about it.  That’s why it’s called Emotionally Focused Therapy and not something else.

Cutting Yourself Off from a Toxic Family Member

Many of us are forced to navigate the very turbulent waters of a relationship with a toxic family member.  It can be a parent, a sibling or, even more heartbreaking, a child.  I have noticed over the years that therapists are far more encouraging of such a cutoff than is society, as a whole.  As a therapist, I must say I, also, fall squarely on the side of those who support cutoff, when necessary.

The work of Murray Bowen was central to my education and early training in the field.  Bowen was a brilliant and very original thinker and spent a goodly amount of energy exploring the magnetic psychological relationships within one’s family of origin.  There are 8 essential precepts of Bowenian thought and one of them involves the discouragement of emotional cutoff.  In Bowen’s world, cutoff prevents us from working through and resolving the earliest of our emotional relationships, leaving us vulnerable to being upended when these relationships – or their echo in our current lives – assert themselves. I have come to believe that this position is not tenable.  Just as the orthodox Freudian can wrongly attribute deep distress only to childhood fantasies, Bowen, I believe, under-appreciates the freedom and relief that can be experienced by stopping a relationship with a toxic family member.  While “society” may bombard us with its incessant “shoulds,” as in, “How can you abandon your parent? sibling? child?” – the answer is quite simply, “I must do it so that I can flourish in my own life and not be derailed by the consistent drama and pain associated with a relationship which, after all, is not voluntary.

This insight was clearly and eloquently stated in a recent Washington Post opinion piece by Harriet Brown, a Syracuse University journalism professor.  I encourage you to hear what she has to say.  There is enormous freedom in the voluntary estrangement from the toxic family member who brings you grief.  This will almost always be difficult, as the exceedingly strong force of guilt pushes you back into a destructive and distracting relationship.  This is where a counselor who can support you in your quest for freedom and self-actualization may be the most important person for you during this journey.