Struggling with Emotion in Emotionally Focused Therapy

Intimate bonds may be about many different things – shared goals and interests, a “contract” is honored by both partners, “fair fighting” rules and many other elements discussed over the years by a wide array of experts and observers.  However, one thing that sets a committed intimate relationship apart from almost every other relationship is its ability to touch our deepest emotions.  Many is the time I have heard a partner in the depth of distressbrake – experiencing fear, anger or shattering confusion – say to their partner, “I don’t get this way with anyone else!”  That is no doubt true.  Yet, the statement is not so much a reflection of what is wrong with the relationship as it is of what is important about the relationship.  To be human is to be vulnerable.  No mammal is vulnerable as an infant for a longer time than humans beings.  Also, because of our unique and massive brains – particularly the prefrontal cortex (right behind our forehead), we have a fundamental need for emotional attunement from our primary caregivers.  Just look at this video about the “Still Face Experiment” to get an idea of the power of this need.  We can amass all of the money and power available, and maybe by doing this, we never have to acknowledge and visit this vulnerable space inside of us – a vulnerability that comes with our humanity.

Jigsaw Puzzles – Part Deux

During the holiday season over the last three years, I have begun my own little tradition of putting together a work of great art jigsaw puzzle.  The first was Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.  I did it with my daughter and her then-boyfriend and I was going to frame it when we finished and give it to him…then I lost a piece in transit!  That was a bummer, but the puzzle was loads of fun to do.  I had these insights (for me) during the puzzle construction process that I had all over again last year when I did Van Gogh’s Cafe in Arles.  (Seen here.)  And again this year while I’m working on a super hard painting by Renoir.  Like,

  1. I am so grateful for my sense of sight.  Doing a puzzle of a great master of art gets me into the fine details of what these guys were doing.  What looks on first glance like a blazing yellow awning, upon the closer examination a jigsaw puzzle requires, displays flashes of red or different shades of yellow and white.   It is a real treat for the eyes.
  2. There are times when I really, really want a piece to fit.  As hard as I will it, there’s just no fit.  And I want to jam the piece in, but know that’s silly because – it doesn’t fit.  Move on.  Find the piece that fits. You’re not going to force your desired outcome.
  3. The puzzle and I are in a mano a mano competition.  I am trying to fit the pieces together and the puzzle frustrates my efforts.  I put a piece where I know it will fit – and it doesn’t.  “You won that one, puzzle.”  Then I find the piece that fits, and popping it in place is just so satisfying.  “Gotcha!”   In the beginning, the puzzle has its greatest advantage.  No piece is fit together.  I’ve got to figure out where each of these different colored and shaped pieces go.  The process is methodical and slow.  The puzzle laughs  at me.  But ever so slowly, the pieces fall into place and the shapes make the puzzle a little easier – until, finally, I pop in the last piece.  “Good game, puzzle.”  It feels like a competition.  A friendly competition.

I am now done for the holidays.  My Renoir painting is only about 10% finished.  I have slid it onto a board and put it under my bed….until next Thanksgiving.  And then it’s you and me, puzzle.  Just you and me.

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.

Couples Therapy – The Easy Stuff

Good couples therapy is complex, demanding and very, very rewarding.  I’ve been at it for many years, now, and the gratification that comes with helping two people in conflict and deep distress find each other again and re-bond is just immense.  Yet, what I have found, as well, is that many parts of helping couples is pretty straightforward and kind of easy.  Noting, and reflecting back to people, some of the natural errors of thinking – their mistaken expectations – which only gets them in trouble comes up all the time.  Here are some examples:

  • Many times, a person will say or do something that is incredibly hurtful to their partner and their defense is often, “I didn’t do it on purpose.”  That comment never mollifies the wounded partner.  After all, if a person did miss the anniversary or leave a mess in the kitchen (despite the pleas of the other to be more aware of that), then they are either very angry (which needs to be talked about) or they are simply a sociopath (which means that the relationship is fundamentally destructive and the wounded person has some serious deciding to do).  The part that hurts is the sense of neglect and not being valuable or cared for.  That’s the issue to be addressed.  It doesn’t help that the behavior wasn’t intentional.
  • Many people still believe that “if I have to ask for it, it doesn’t mean anything.”  They labor under the inevitably heartbreaking belief that to be truly loved means the other person can anticipate your needs, they know you that well.  Maybe one day in the far distant future pre-marital counseling will include a procedure which permits us to mind read our partner (although I don’t think anybody would really want that).  In any event, that capacity does not currently exist and it is not how adult people show love to each other.  To expect love to be shown by knowing what we need without us having to tell you about it is, I believe, part of the magical thinking of childhood and that’s where we get this sadly deceptive belief.  The honest to goodness truth is that many loving partners are overjoyed at the prospect of providing something to their lover, if they knew what was needed.  We do have to ask for what we need.  The disappointment comes when we are clear about our need and our partner refuses to provide.  Again, that may be a result of anger or high defensiveness (which needs to be talked about), but from what I’ve seen, people want to show their love.
  • Many couples let their connection just slip away.  They take their relationship for granted.  I have witnessed this frequently.  Bill Doherty Ph.D., perhaps the Dean of American couples therapists has written an excellent book, Take Back Your Marriage, which is built around this very theme.  Take back your marriage from your children, from work, from the computer, etc.  I am lucky enough to practice in Bellevue, WA, where many couples are high functioning and extremely busy.  I will often ask them to recount their interactions over the past week and they will say that they were so busy that there isn’t much to report.  They hardly saw each other during the week.  If people allow this to disconnect to become embedded into their relationship, they will drift away from each other and the next time they look up, their partner will be so far away that they will lose hope of ever getting them close again.  That’s when the discussion of consistent “marital rituals” comes in and that, too, is a pretty easy problem to identify and discuss.

Jigsaw Puzzles

Well, well, well.  It has been a long time since my last post.  I am proud to say that my last blog, back in June of 2016, was instrumental in the wave of votes that kept Donald Trump out of the White House.  Imagine the disaster that would have been.  By now, he probably would have lowered the level of public discourse with his comments and tweets that….oh, who knows…he’d probably have retweeted anti-Muslim hate videos and supported a conservative pedophile for Senate.  Well, all I can say is, “You’re welcome.”

So how have I been spending the last year and a half?  Pretty much the same as before, but after working on my book, I was kind of written out for a while.  Something I have been doing most recently is working on a jigsaw puzzle of Van Gogh’s lovely painting of a Paris cafe at night.  Three thoughts accompany me as I slowly construct the puzzle from the thousand pieces that started as a pile on my table.

First thought: If you want to become awed and amazed by an artist’s work with color, get a jigsaw puzzle of their work.  Each little piece is just a splash of one or a number of colors.  Gazing at the piece alone, you can never quite gather what it depicts.  However, when I insert the splash of colors into its rightful place, the greater image materializes.  Working such a puzzle allows me to walk with the artist in his own creative process and, with a guy like Van Gogh, note how quickly he must have created a deeply evocative image with just a few brush strokes.  Try it.  It is very relaxing.

Second thought: If you want to deepen your Myers-Briggs Sensing function (or simply satisfy its needs), work a jigsaw puzzle.  First, it is a feast for the senses – more specifically, vision.  I have said to myself many, many times during the past few weeks how blessed I am to have sight, so I can enjoy this process.  Also, the careful organization that a jigsaw puzzle requires promotes the strengths of Sensing.  Detail, care, organization – all are there to be massaged.  Last night I took all the orange and golden pieces and set to work on the middle portion of the picture.  I was so happy to have the available pieces right there in front of me for easy pickins.

Third thought: Many times, I would take a piece that looked like it belonged right there, only to find that it was too big for the space provided.  There was a part of me that wanted to jam it in so it would fit.  But obviously, you can’t do that.  This put me in mind of people who willfully refuse to see what is right there in front of them and insist on jamming a piece into place that manifestly does not belong.  Hmm, seems like I started this post with just this topic!  Anit-abortion pedophile for Senate, anybody?

It’s Summer! Time to Speak Out

My goodness!  I looked at the date of my last post and see I’ve been asleep at the wheel for a while.  Well, Spring has been lovely here in the Northwest.  It comes earlier every year – buds sprouting in February are lovely, and a warning of more dramatic changes to come.  We are also in a political season, spun so tight  and amped to such volume that it invades every corner or our psyches.  Do therapists have a responsibility to engage politically, or should we keep silent, so as not to offend or distress those we are pledged to support?  That is an important question which has found airing in forums from the New York Times to a noted therapists’ own web site.Notrump

In March, the New York Times ran an essay encouraging psychotherapists not to disregard the social and economic stresses (and injustices) suffered by their clients.  It is entitled Why Therapists Should Talk Politics and it is linked here.  Turning our gaze to the Midwest, we come to William Doherty,  a remarkable man who I have known for years as one of America’s deans of marital therapy.  His classic Take Back Your Marriage is an oft-recommended book to my clients.  I recently came upon an effort by Doherty and others at University of Minnesota, where he has taught for years, to promote social responsibility and healing in the Citizen Professional Center.  Their efforts are wide and inspiring (well, to me) and include Balance4Success which describes its mission as: This initiative (started in 2005) involves parents in Apple Valley and nearby suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul organizing with a mission to liberate their kids from out of control sports schedules and to change the culture of hyper-competitive childhood by replacing busyness with balance. Other efforts include: STORKS: Sisters Together  in Overachieving Raising Kids which describes itself as targeting at-risk urban single pregnant teens in North Minneapolis. Its mission is to promote healthy child development in children with teenage mothers and to provide community support for young single mothers and Baby Boomers for Balanced Health Care which describes its mission as follows: This group of citizen Baby Boomers believes that out-of-control health care spending will bankrupt our country unless we all take responsibility for changing how we think about and use health care.

Doherty recently began a movement among mental health professionals to stand up to and speak out against the threat of Trumpism.  The Citizen Therapist site is here.  it contains a manifesto which therapists throughout the country are invited to endorse.  It states quite clearly that Trumpism:

  • Is antithetical to everything we stand for as therapists
  • Is inconsistent with democracy, with the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, and with emotionally healthy living
  • Promotes hyper-masculinity, public hostility, the cult of the Strong Man, and the denigration of women
  • Presents a threat beyond a single election; the next demagogue may be less outrageous- and thus even more dangerous

I have signed this manifesto and joined a growing number of therapists throughout the country saying firmly that I reject the message, tone and “solutions” by the man who wants to ban entry to this country of people based on their faith; who wants to wall us off from the world and promises chaos and unbridled hatred in the name of fighting “political correctness” and prays on our fears.

I have long been a lover of American History.  In our nearly 250 years, this country has been the home of intense debate between the left and the right – between Federalists and Republicans, free market advocates and those who promote more government oversight, international interventionists and isolationists…and so many more.  However, the toxicity of our public discourse has currently been embodied in Donald Trump.  It should be rejected.

Love and Fear

I’m going to be spending a week at this beautiful spot next week – away from the incessant, assaultive  demands of electronics and media.  I know I’ll laugh at myself the first time my friend, David, and I have a discussion about something and I’ll wonder, “Who was it that said that?” and I’ll reach f025or my phone to Google the answer and then realize that this is exactly why I was there in the first place – not to be near a cell phone tower.  I know what books I’ll bring with me and I’m planning the menus for the five nights.  Maybe the best thing about camping is how everything tastes great – franks and beans…you name it.  One thing that I will welcome next week is a respite from the aura of fear that has descended like a thick, gray blanket on our public consciousness.

Public fear is much like the private fear I see in my office on a daily basis.  I am convinced that the driving force that unsettles so many marriages and intimate relationships is quite simply – fear.  It may be the fear of something concrete and nameable.  However, usually what I observe is more something that lies deeper within us.  When that attachment bond – upon which our inner security seems to depend – is shaken – is cast into serious doubt – we shift into a desperate, often ragged, attempt to regain that safety.  This comes in many forms.  I have seen these efforts expressed as rage, as utter abandonment hijacks one person’s well-being.  I have seen it, as well, in the silent withdrawal of the partner who, like Boticelli’s St. Sebastian, feels riddled with the arrows of criticism and unhappiness aimed at them by their partner.  One thing is certain.  The intensity of the fear is directly proportional to the level of anger, judgment or withdrawal.  When we are fearful, we react.  Our only goal at that moment is safety.  Abraham Maslow, in his famous Hierarchy of Needs, identified “safety” as a primary need, after basic physiological sustenance.  If we are starving, the only thing we need – that which dominates and overwhelms our consciousness – is food.  That need being satisfied, we are able to summon the psychological resources to seek out higher needs, which ends with living the highest expression of ourself in this life.  However, second in Maslow’s pyramid is “safety” and, just as with food and shelter, if this need is threatened, we will mobilize all we have available to us to satisfy that need.  Only when the anxiety – the fear – is abated, can we turn to higher, better, ends.  On the personal level, this includes listening and empathizing with the worries and fears of our partner.  On a broader level, it is building a more inclusive and tolerant society.

Years ago I heard a colleague share what seemed at the time to be an overly simplistic personal equation. That was my mistake.  He said, “We are motivated either by love or fear.  Fear distances us from love, but love, when embraced, will vanquish fear.”  This love isn’t simply sexual love or being “in love.” It is an opening of our heart to another person.  It is the certainty that whatever another person may need, fundamentally, we have inside of us to provide.  We have the power – the capacity – to ease another’s pain – and their fear.  When I see that realization gleam in the eye of an individual in relationship distress, that distress always lessens.  I witness love conquering fear.  I’m going to mull on that further in the mountains next week, away from the noxious fog of fear that is being pumped into our society during this terribly overheated election year.

What are Your Real “Interests” When You Divorce?

Lawyers are habituated to getting to the bottom line.  Extraneous details are disregarded as dross and distraction.  Of course, typical of the breed, the average lawyer will look to monetary outcome as the overriding measure of this bottom line.  In personal injury cases, for example, it is all about the amount of settlement or verdict (if settlement is not achieved).  This “monetization” of outcome is repeated in just about every kind of legal dispute.  This focus applies, to often devastating effect, in the family law arena, as well.  To be sure, there are lots of financidepressedteenal elements in a divorce resolution, each of which a person can get more of, or less of.  How much alimony will be paid?  Working husband wants to pay only $750, while long-unemployed wife says she needs $2,000.  Perhaps the people have agreed that the wife will be awarded the family home.  Predictably, she will obtain an appraisal which marks its value at $400,000 and her disputing spouse will counter with his $650,000 appraisal.  In Washington state, where community property is divided in a “fair and equitable,” rather than equal manner, the person who has little current earning capacity will push for 60% of the joint property while the employed spouse will seek a 50/50 division and inch up slowly to agreeing to 51%, then 52%, etc.

Family lawyer are inured to the notion that a client’s interests are financial – and while that is a huge part of any divorce client’s concerns, it is by no means an exclusive, or even primary interest.

It has long been recognized that the one overriding variable which will predict a child’s well-being after their parents’ divorce is the degree to which that child is shielded from parental conflict.   Bear in mind, this is not about parents choosing not to scream at each other in front of the child – that behavior is never justified.  Nor is any negative statement about the other parent to, or in front of, the children.  Yet a more common, and far subtler harm can be inflicted if the parents fight like warriors over a divorce settlement so that “he won’t win this time, like he always did” or “she won’t get away with this.”  The battle of wills in even a moderately difficult divorce, in which two adults struggle with the urges and needs of a younger psyche – as if the other person is more a parent than another vulnerable adult, when coupled with the fear attending almost every severing of this intimate bond, will often lock people into a miasma of pain and resentment, which simply cannot be hidden from the children.  Be they adorable 5 year olds or teenagers struggling to find their identity, any set-up in which loving Dad will be experienced as a betrayal of Mom and loving Mom will cause pain to Dad sets up an intolerable conflict of loyalties for children who almost always love each parent deeply and desperately.  Children will almost always crack under the strain.

I often wonder how a parent, who dug their heels in for that extra $30,000, would respond to this question, after seeing their beloved child succumb to depression or alcohol/drug abuse or premature sexuality or behavior problems in school or poor grades: “If you could pay $30,000 to someone right now who could make your child okay again, would you do it?”

That’s why framing interests of divorcing people in terms of dollars or minutes of residential time with a child misses the biggest, non-monetary, interest of them all.  We need to keep that in mind as lawyers and the divorcing, proceed down this shattered, and shattering, path.

On Vulnerability, Safety and Cats

catFirst, let me be clear, I am a dog person.  I am allergic to cats and never understood them.  I tip my cap to the feline fans.  Why do I mention this?  Read on and you will understand.

So much can be gained through the safety engendered by personal disclosure.  It is undeniable that when we get to know another person, we are less likely to succumb to stereotypes and projections of what is going on inside of them.  In his excellent book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni notes that the first step towards establishing a cohesive team is the establishment of trust.  He tells us that the barrier to this trust is the need to appear invulnerable.  The solution: Display some vulnerability.  How to do this?

Well, in the work-world an abundance of vulnerability is unwise and unnecessary.  Yet, even such seemingly bland disclosures as where one grew up and their number of siblings can be a low-risk and valuable instrument of bonding.  I recently was privileged to run a retreat for a local collaborative group and that simple “share” opened the door to later, much more significant personal disclosures about the relationships within the group.  In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, the real breakthroughs of connection come when enough safety has been created as a platform, allowing the individuals to open up long withheld (often even from themselves) yearnings and vulnerabilities.  These, of course will go quite a bit deeper than those aforesaid workplace disclosures.

Some months ago the New York Times ran a story about a study by psychologist Arthur Aron, which held that “sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure” deepened relationships.  In order to demonstrate the power of this hypothesis, Aron crated 36 questions which he said were guaranteed to jump-start the deepening of intimacy in any relationship.  They are in three clusters, each diving a bit deeper than the one before.  Cluster 1 Questions include: Would you like to be famous?  In what way? and Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say?  Why?  Cluster 2 Questions include: What is your most treasured memory?  and  How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?  Cluster 3 Questions include: Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share ______” and What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?   Here is the article and those 36 questions.

Now AS FOR CATS.  Clearly, this does not work only for human relationships as you can clearly see in this YouTube video.