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 distress – 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.
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,
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
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.
I’m writing a book.
Actually, I’m well into the process and expect for it to be available in August. I have titled it Divorce (or Not): A Guide, and its 300+ pages will cover much of what I have pondered, and learned, professionally over the past 40 years. Each step in the process of conceiving, creating and honing this book has been rich with the gems I have uncovered about both how to approach such a project and, well, my own darned self. For anyone who has felt they wanted to write a book, but has not put fingertip to keyboard, here is a brief description of my experience.
1. Conception: Many of us have at least one book marinating inside our heads. If you have ever said, “I’d like to write a book,” then you’ve got one resting comfortably inside your cranium. That is step one.
2. Blurting: I finally goosed myself into writing when I sat down in April, 2014 and prepared a Table of Contents, which was a good outline for what I wanted to say. Then, I just blurted. I spent about five months simply getting it out of my head and into my computer. I knew it did not matter how it sounded because nobody was going to see it but me.
3. First Refinement Phase(s): Once out there, I started to laboriously review, reorganize and clean up what I had written. Again, this was for my eyes only.
4. First Feedback Phase: Once I felt okay with it, I sent my work product out to a handful of dear, and smart, friends for feedback. I was initially nervous about this step, but had recently bought a great book Thanks for the Feedback – The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well and it helped gird my loins for external comment on my baby. People were generous and spot-on with a number of their comments. In response, I put the book through a massive re-organization and re-write. I shared the new approach with a smaller group of people because, to be honest, I was afraid of burning people out. After all, it is quite the gift of time and energy to read someone else’s work and give thoughtful, cogent feedback. After positive comment, I was ready to find an editor.
5. Working With an Editor: Thus, the title of this blog post. A web search brought me to the site of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild, and after a fairly thorough vetting process I chose my current favorite person in the entire world (FPITEW) other than my wife and daughter (FPITEWOTMWAD), Jennifer D. Munro. Last week, I finished reviewing her comments and I don’t think a day went by that I failed to send her an ardent appreciative email. A good editor projects such care onto your creation. The process of improving the work product while maintaining the writer’s voice is challenging and if you are lucky, you will find that combination of skill and kindness. (It didn’t hurt that Jennifer liked my sense of humor.) I believe I am an excellent writer. I enjoy the process and for years have received uniformly positive feedback. I believe this affirmation gave me the confidence to embark on the project in the first place. Yet, I have learned a great deal about writing and the places I can improve, markedly, through Jennifer’s kind and rapier-sharp feedback. There were many places throughout my review of her “track changes” comments that I thought, “This comment is appropriate and helpful. I can imagine it having been made by someone with a harsher hand and instead of learning an important lesson I can use in the future, I would have been chagrined, embarrassed, defensive and dispirited. I’d had enough of that kind of treatment in my first year in law school many years ago.”
So here’s to you Jennifer Munro. Every cent I pay you for your service is the best money I ever spent.
Spring is the time we talk of renewal, with buds just bursting to open to the warming weather. The denuded trees coming alive again with color and life excite the senses. The population circling Green Lake multiplies from the few stalwarts who walk the three-mile circumference rain or shine…or rain…to crowds celebrating the turn of the season. Yet, while I have come to love the renewal of Spring (having experienced little by way of seasonal shift during years in Southern California), it is Autumn that truly sets my heart alight. Professionally, the summer is a slack time. We had a chance to travel a bit – mostly locally, with one September trip to Lisbon with old friends. And now the leaves have turned and many are strewn in growing piles in our backyard. I recall when our lovely 21 year old daughter would explode with excitement as a kid at the prospect of jumping on big piles of leaves. The air smells so fresh. We are moving to a cozier time of year and as I write this the rain is falling outside, a candle is on the table and Tellemann is on Pandora. Perhaps it is because of our rhythm being dictated by school schedules, but things do seem to start up again in September after dozing during the summer. Thus, clients begin returning to the office and this work which is so fascinating and gratifying is renewed. New ideas for blog-posts start to percolate to the top of my consciousness and Autumn Resolutions get set. My book project will finally move to the place I can send the draft out to friends and colleagues for feedback. New marketing ideas come to the fore. New books to read are going to start piling up by the bed, or on my IPhone, as I am a big lover of Audible. Currently, I’m listening to and loving Flight Behavior written and read by Barbara Kingsolver and looking forward to the next one up – The Boys in the Boat, which my wife tells me is fantastic. I love reading history, and Rick Pearlstein’s book about the 60’s and 70’s, Nixonland, is a voyage back to a time I lived and have forgotten. Being in Berkeley during those years, I really wasn’t aware of how freaked out middle American was by the often violent changes occurring then. I turn 65 in a week and am finally starting to belatedly figure out what I have to do about Medicare. I am feeling quite blessed to be at this stage of life, healthy, loving my work, adoring my family and they tolerating my frequent ridiculousness. So, on to Fall, engagement and life. May you be blessed with love and the flow of your life in the coming months.
William Doherty is a nationally recognized authority in marital therapy who has written a host of really helpful books – my favorite being Take Back Your Marriage. Doherty came to speak to the annual conference of the Washington Association of Marriage and Family Therapy on 3/3 and introduced a room full of raptly attentive marital therapists to Discernment Counseling. “How do we deal with the couple,” Doherty asks, “where one partner is leaning into the marriage and the other is leaning out?” To attempt conventional marital therapy in such situations is an invitation to disappointment on everyone’s part. So Doherty has devised a powerful approach in which he works mostly separately with each partner. The referral often comes from divorce lawyers and in situations in which the “leaning out” partner is feeling done, but is willing to at least speak to someone because some ambivalence (if even ever-so-slight) remains. The partners agree that divorce will be off the table for six months as they work to see if reconciliation is even possible. The benefit of this kind of work is that that therapist can have open and very candid conversations with each person about the consequences of divorce; their own role in bringing the marriage to its current state and whether each is willing to make an all out effort to see if the marriage can be brought back. Studies have shown that of divorcing couples, fully 30% have at least one partner who is ambivalent and in 10%, both parties are. For more information, you can check out Doherty’s Couples on the Brink website.
John Gottman has observed that, on average, couples come in for counseling after they have been experiencing serious problems in their relationship for 6 years. That means that when you sit in that client’s chair for the first time, you probably will be feeling angry, hurt and hopeless. You will probably feel blamed by your partner. You may be trying desperately to save your relationship – or you may be almost out the door and have agreed to give this one more shot. You might have had a horrible fight recently that leaves both partners exhausted and wounded. So now I’m going to share a prejudice of mine: People who seek the help of a therapist for couples work should see someone who is specifically trained to work with couples. A therapist who is really good at working with individuals, may not be so helpful with couples. Teaching communication skills can be very useful, for sure, but every couple brings with them a rich and complex dynamic. It is this dynamic (or system….or cycle) that a therapist needs to understand and touch. When we are stressed in our relationship we already feel alone and isolated. Working with couples from an individual perspective only strengthens this sense of isolation, I think. There are a number of wonderful ways to think about, and work with, couples in distress. Many like Susan Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. Others develop an expertise in John Gottman’s approach. Still others use Brent Atkinson’s Emotionally Intelligent Couples Therapy approach, or Dan Wile’s Collaborative Couples Therapy. I prefer Johnson’s work, spiced by the work of these other exceptional and gifted people. There are certainly more kinds of couples therapy out there. My suggestion is that whoever you work with, make sure they have specific training and focus in an approach to couples therapy.
Heard a great story on NPR this morning on parenting teens.