Criticism’s Damage

I had a personal experience recently which helped me gain a deeper understanding of criticism and its impact on an intimate relationship.  My wife and I were driving somewhere we had never been.  I had a map and when we stopped for gas, she suggested I ask for directions.  I felt comfortable and confident in my understanding of the map and told her it wasn’t necessary.  Of course, we got lost!  The combination of having no idea where we were and low blood sugar caused her to snipe at me, “You are so arrogant!  You won’t even ask for directions.”  Now understand, my wife is the kindest person I know (and the person who comes in second is way back there in the distance).  I’m a very lucky person to have her in my life.  These kinds of barbs are almost unheard of in our relationship, going in either direction.  Indeed, she apologized for it shortly afterward and her remorse for the intemperance was legitimate.

Still, I could not let it go.  I experienced myself folding back into myself and I really didn’t want to be around her or have anything to do with her for a couple of hours.  She’d ask if I was still mad and I’d say that I didn’t want to talk about it…because I didn’t want to talk about it.  I was emotionally shaken.  I had a dark cloud hanging over me and not only couldn’t shake it, I had not desire to shake it.  This state lasted until that night and, still, it hung on in lighter form until I awoke the next day and felt fine and reconnected.  I’m glad I was allowed to go into my shell and not have that become an issue, only to escalate our emotions and time was permitted to salve my wound.

But what was that wound?  I certainly understood that the next day, looking back at my strong reaction.  During many years of my childhood, I was the target of pretty consistent criticism.  We all have our own themes and I recall mine as having the flavor of, “You have so much potential, but you ___________ .  That blank would be filled in with a criticism of my character in some way.  Over the years, I was able to put the lie to those internalized barbs that would, for so many years, deflate my sense of confidence and well-being.  Yet, that one critical barb from the person closest in the world to me (and that’s an important part of this) felt like a scab being violently ripped off, exposing my raw, pulsing vulnerability to the open air (and wind and dirt and rubbing and….anything that was further damage).  So I had to fold up into myself and let the wound heal.  For those hours, the world was suddenly transformed into a profoundly unsafe place and retreat was the only remedy.

I can say with great confidence that my experience of early, chronic, and painful criticism has been shared by many (perhaps most) of us.  John Gottman has identified criticism as one of his Four Horsemen of marriage apocalypse.  I understood from my recent experience why that may be so.  Also, and most importantly for my work, couples in distress often enter my office with one partner, not knowing how to make connection with a disconnected spouse, criticize incessantly.  It is a reflection not of meanness or ill will.  Rather this reflects an almost desperate effort to make connection and overcome a feeling of utter isolation and abandonment.   The critical partner is not the “bad guy.”  However in their pain of abandonment, it is hard for the criticized partner to find the words to help them understand the ancient and existential pain that can be experienced from being on the receiving end.  I hope that my own experience recently will help me find better ways to assist the criticized partner describe their wound in ways that the other can understand without feeling blamed or judged.  That, after all, is one of the primary goals of couples therapy.

Life……Happens

When I meet with a couple for the first time there are a couple of things I want to understand about them from the outset – aside from what brinstormgs them to my office now.  The first element of any assessment is their interactive process.  How do these people relate?  Are they volatile (or exercising a lot of self control not to be volatile in my presence)?  How quickly does one or the other person become emotionally reactive and when that happens, what does their partner do in their own reaction?  Emotionally Focused Couples Therapists, in their early interactions with a couple in distress, are ever vigilant for indications of this particular pair’s cycle.  It’s at the heart of the healing work we do and it’s darn near guaranteed, that if a therapist can help a couple understand the process by which each becomes emotionally reactive to the other (and then is responded to with an equally emotional reaction) we have traveled leagues in the direction of creating safety and an emotionally calmer domestic environment.  But there’s yet another critical part of any assessment of a couple in distress.

How is life treating them?

By this question, I mean, what sorts of natural stresses or traumas are they experiencing?  When life transmits a blow that would knock anyone off their feet, it is natural that this will contribute to the stress that two people will experience – and reflect in a wicked interactive cycle of fear and distress.  Pregnancy and birth of a first baby is one of those experiences.  “We never argued like this before little Mitzi came alone,” is not an uncommon cry in my office.  A couple who decided to marry only after they discovered their pregnancy is another example of a powerful life stressor.  (Life stressors can be thought of as a finger that plucks a guitar string, setting it to vibrating energetically.)  I have worked with a number of couples that found one partner, or both, moving to a new locality, away from their network of care and support.  The dislocation of such an experience will cause people to bounce around in some psychic earthquake that can register beyond Richter scale readings.  Illness or other challenges besetting a child, job loss or any other blow to people’s financial security, falling victim to a crime, deployment to and return from active military service, illness or disability of a parent – these and other thunderstorms that inundate people with worry and woe cannot help but set off the cycle of anxiety and painful interactions described here as a cycle.  Almost always, when people come into my office, they have their subjects that they are struggling over.  Yet to take that “10,000 foot view” of the problem, it is easy to see how a major life challenge has left people exposed, vulnerable and so easily subject to the interactive cycle of distress that reaches through the doors and windows of their home and infects their lives and renders them fearful and miserable.  It is always helpful to give ourselves a break and understand the impact of life as it …. happens.

It’s Not Complicated – Acknowledgment Rules!

I often hear clients in couples therapy ask for “tools.”  I’m usually a bit wary of these requests, because exercises and tools tend to get shed and forgotten when jagged conflict blasts through the windows and doors.  “I” statements that sound so sensible and helpful in a therapist’s office morph, with high stress and conflict into, “I think you’re a thoughtequationless piece of crap,” or worse.  However, there is one set of rules that are so reliable they could be reduced to a mathematical formulas.

Partners in chronic conflict are beset with a firm fixation on their hurts, disappointments and violations, experienced at the hands of the other.  We try so desperately hard to get the other to understand how their behavior hurts us.  Yet, with dogged consistency, the other will either argue back, shut down or (maybe this is the worst) agree that they should do better and then continue the same dispiriting behavior.  Any of these responses are guaranteed to stimulate within us a need to repeat the message with greater volume and intensity.   So here are some basic rules that will help extricate struggling intimates from this maddening cycle.  Rule 1: Acknowledging what your partner is doing right =:Lowering of the stress between you. Rule 2: Lowering the stress between you + acknowledgment = Increase in the behavior you are seeking.  Rule 3: Continuing to mostly point out your partner’s shortcomings will lead to continued troubling behavior from them as they give up on trying to satisfy and please you.

While this rule also applies if you are dealing with a recalcitrant kid or a frustratingly under-performing employee, we see it almost all the time with couples in distress.  Think back of the last time you wanted to give to someone you cared about.  How did it feel when their face beamed and you knew you had satisfied them?  Now think of the last time you made the same attempt to please them and they not only failed to acknowledge your effort in their direction, but criticized you?  Just like an unwavering mathematical formula – just as surely as E=mc² – you will discourage further efforts with criticism and encourage further efforts with acknowledgment.  Of course, the highly distressed and frustrated individual might respond, “That’s all well and good, but why should I have to bow down and kiss his/her feet if they do only what I’ve been asking for over and over and over again?”  The answer is…the formula.  If you want positive behavior, acknowledge it.  U.W.’s John Gottman says that a solid relationship has a ratio of 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction.  That’s close to the relationship of positives to negatives you’re looking for.

It is also important to know that the loneliness, hurt or distance you have been experiencing – and trying to get your partner to understand – will be much more easily transmitted and taken in if  the level of anger, dissatisfaction and despair are lowered and your intimate environment becomes safer.  Acknowledgment doesn’t have to include brass bands and hosannas. Usually that’s not really called for anyway.  Yet, a nod and a statement of acknowledgment and appreciation will be infinitely more effective in getting the behavior and care one craves than a reminder of how hurtful or disappointment that person is.  I’d suggest, as a tool, you try it for a week or two and see if it doesn’t start shifting your partner’s behavior.  It might be incremental at first, but remember that almost no significant change is dramatic.  Our lives are organic.  Every change is incremental – but one block adds to another and over time a strong structure is in place – built day-after-day with those incremental positive changes.

Therapy Thoughts – How Often to Come In?

There was a time when I would be very accommodating to couples who wanted to come in every other week or every three weeks.  The reasons calendar.were certainly understandable.  Finances are always a consideration.  Many couples are very busy and have to work to squeeze in a couples therapy appointment when they can.  Two jobs and children will do that to you!  Then, a while ago, I realized that this was a big mistake and a disservice to my couples.  Here’s why –

Albert Einstein shared this brilliant insight: We cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created the problem.  No better words could describe effective relationship therapy. In a prior post I discussed the rule that what couples are talking about really isn’t what they are talking about.  To repeat what I said there, people come into a therapist’s office locked into this repeated disagreement that is driving them nuts.  A very common example many of us have experienced involves division of household chores.  The woman, usually, complains (often bitterly) that he does not help around the house.  She feels like his maid and she is very angry about that.  The man will often respond that this is just not so.  Why, just two days ago, he did all the dishes after dinner and she gives him no credit for the mowing, gutter work and other chores he performs.  Her exasperated reply is that he doesn’t understand.  It’s the day-to-day chores that keep the house running that all fall on her.  He gets defensive and comes up with more evidence of his own contributions.    Many maddening couples’ conflicts look like debates.  One person states their side.  The other responds by stating their side.  The first repeats what they said to begin with, maybe trying to say it a different way, maybe ladling on more supportive evidence.  Whatever the words that spill forth, these conflicts usually reduce down to “I’m right,.”  “No, I’m right.” “No, I’m right.”   Like I said earlier, it drives these poor people nuts.  The chance of a satisfying resolution falls just behind that of Donald Trump converting to Islam and losing the wig.

One of the keys to effective Emotionally Focused Therapy is the dawning understanding by each partner that the process of their conflict is what needs healing.  They will never resolve the content of their disagreements without understanding and finding the safety to share the needs that underlie the cycle of conflict.  The content is a proxy for what’s really eating at each of them.  Understanding their particular cycle will almost always lower the anxiety and energy which fuels the intense and painful conflicts they endure.  Yet, this is a new way of thinking.  Without consistent reminders and the efforts of a therapist who can point out who the raging disputes over……whatever is upsetting them, a couple will fall back into the thinking that brought them into the therapist’s office to start with.  Thus, if couples only come in once every two or three or four weeks during the initial phase of this work, they will almost never get it.  They will spin round and round in their cycle.  They’ll maybe get it during a particular meeting, but then completely lose the thread if the gap is greater than a week.  So, really, in this kind of work, any schedule for meetings that extends beyond one week, is, I believe, a waste of time and money.  My recommendation – don’t engage in relationship counseling (particularly Emotionally Focused Therapy) unless you are willing to devote the first three or four months to weekly meetings.

Therapy Thoughts – Ending Sessions

door.closeCouples therapy sessions last anywhere from one hour to 90 minutes.  Any less than an hour isn’t enough time for themes to develop in the room and people given enough space to explore them together to a satisfying resolution.   Plenty of times, an important subject isn’t raised, or sensitive button pushed, until midway through a meeting and ending on the 50 minute or hour mark feels like an abrupt and unsettling “hard stop.”  More frequently than I, or other couples therapists, would like to admit or experience, even the 90 minute duration won’t end in a nice feeling of something valuable having been tied up, with the clients released back into their world carrying a helpful insight into each other or with a meaningful connection made.  I think one difference between an experienced couples therapist and a newer professional is the ability to manage our own anxiety when a session ends with that unsettling static still in the air.  One person may be holding back (more) tears.  The other may be get up from their seat and hand you their payment in stony silence.  A worry passes through the therapist’s mind, “Will they come back?  Did I blow it somehow?”  Well, welcome to the world of the therapist as a living, breathing person.  We want to help – that’s why we’re in this business.  So, you can imagine the uneasiness when a couples session ends with simmering anger and complicated feelings still spinning within and between the partners.  It’s important for everyone to take a deep breath and realize that these harsh-feeling endings are not a disaster for clients or the work you are doing.  Almost never will a couple feel so distressed after a session that they will decide to abandon the couples therapy altogether.  In fact, oftentimes, couples return the next week and report that they found a way to work through that difficult patch and, while the therapist is all ready to continue with the theme that ended the last session, the people have come in with something entirely different to talk about.  While it is important for therapists not to become anxious about unfinished endings, it is equally important for couples who emerge from such sessions to understand that it’s okay and normal in the world of couples work to periodically end on an off-note.  It happens.  It will be okay.

The Talking Stick

During the weekend of October 24-26, I attended the annual conference of the International Academy of Collaborative Professstick.talkingionals (IACP) in Vancouver.  I was fortunate to be accepted as a speaker and received a gift which upon returning home, I opened to find a talking stick.  It is a beautiful piece of art with feathers tied to an end with a leather thong.  For those unfamiliar with the talking stick, many indigenous American cultures use this tool when a group of people are meeting to discuss…..well, just about anything.  The stick is passed around and when it is in a person’s grasp, only he or she may speak.  There can be no interruptions, side-talk or other distractions.  There is one person who speaks and the role of all others is to listen.   This process – of providing space for people to express themselves without interruption – is essential to any dispute resolution process – be it couples therapy, divorce mediation or a larger group process.   I always tell people who sit in my office – so full of anxiety about the specter of conflict that hovers in the room – that I will keep the other from interrupting so that each has a space to speak.  I have not hesitated to get up in between people if the sparks start to fly.  “You can do this – you have done this – quite well on your own.  You don’t need to pay me to do this in my office.  My role here is to keep this place safe, so if you are listening to what the other is saying and you believe it is not accurate or you need to defend yourself, please hold it and you will have your opportunity.”  This rule, together with a chiding reminder that conflict is made safer and resolvable when each person talks about their own experience, helps move a process which initially may seem frightening or overwhelming to a platform of acceptance.

That Intuitive Sense of Safety

As one who has worked in the field oembracef intimate relationships for many years, one abiding fascination of mine is the question: What draws us to our partner?    Sadly, many who are in conflict and estranged don’t remember, or dismiss the idea that they were really attracted at all.  As Dan Gilbert says in his wonderful book Stumbling to Happiness, we see both the past and the future through our present experience.  So if we’re really alienated from our lover, we have an almost impossible time thinking of how we felt when we were first drawn to that person.  However, I have observed another reality in my work.

When we get beyond the physical attraction and compatibility, I find over and over that what drew individuals to one another is the force of an intuitive sense of safety.  Like magnetic attraction, it is unseen and not easily measured, while at the same time, it is intense in its invisible strength.   Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is based upon Attachment.   This is a deep need in the center of our being for connection and it exists in all of its intensity when we are infants and persists until our dying day.  However, many of us (perhaps most of us) had these tender, vital and consuming needs thwarted when we were very young.  This left many with a deep, yet not consciously recognized, sense of shame for our fundamental being (after all this is what was rejected when these needs were unfulfilled).  Perhaps we may not resonate to the word or notion of “shame” but somewhere inside we carry some combination and gradation of feeling completely alone or inadequate or unlovable.  We may silently despair of ever being with another person and being truly accepted – to find that safe harbor where we don’t have to protect ourselves from buffeting winds of judgment or rejection “if they really knew what was inside.”  Most of us who carry these wounds inside, learn to cope and carry on.  We can be very attractive, smart, sociable, supportive, accomplished or supremely self-sufficient.  Any one or a combination of these attributes – or any number of others – help us get through life.  Yet, there is a niggling voice, if we are attuned to it, which yearns for a safe place – “where I can be myself.”

I think what often draws us into the intense bond of an adult intimate relationship is that the voice whispers to us (so that whether we actually hear it, the voice registers) that “Here, you have found someone who understands.”  Somehow, you intuitively sense that this person may have experienced loss, or fear, or shame in the recesses of their early life that somehow resonates with your own and that they are safe.  If this is so, then it certainly explains the intensity of the hurt, anger and sense of betrayal when, in the throes of the inevitable intimate conflict, this person flips from uniquely safe, to dreadfully unsafe.  To have taken the risk to open up, only to be judged and rejected is horribly destabilizing.

But there is good news!  With time and working with a good couples therapist, we can find that the judgment and rejection were actually the reaction of their partner to their own fears and pain of feeling rejected themselves.  It takes time, but that safety can be regained.   This will be the subject of future posts.

The 69%

John Gottman is the pre-eminent researcher of intimate couples – both in conflict and getting along.  One of Gottman’s insights – and onedifferences I find of, perhaps, the greatest value – is this: Of all the couples he has studied – with those who separate after a brief time together to those who are together for 60 years (and through all those years others marvel at what a strong, enduring bond they display) – among all of these couples, roughly 69% of their conflicts are perpetual.  They will never be resolved.  Put another way, if each person is waiting for the other to just compromise (“If they’ll move a little toward me, I’ll move toward them.”) each will be continually disappointed, irritated and estranged.  It’s just not going to happen – for either person.  The areas of conflict  are myriad and examples provided by Gottman include differences in: Approach to finances; Preferred love-making style or frequency; Approach to child-rearing; Sociability; Relationship to extended family or in-laws; Emotional expressiveness; Work before play vs. Play before work; Neatness/Organization; Private time vs. Alone time; Punctuality; Activity level; Religious observance and Approach to conflict.

Think about it.  Of these differences (and others) about 69% will be there on the first day of the relationship and remain until the 60th year.  “Why, then, don’t all relationships blow apart?” you might ask.  Excellent question.  The couples who endure and thrive are those who are able understand and appreciate the underlying values that support the other’s approach.  Also, it is so important to understand that the other’s persistence in making their way through the world in their way is not a rejection of us or a statement that we are not important (after all they are probably feeling that they are not important to us because if they were, we would not be so upset about them being the way they are).  I have seen many people sigh with relief, and lower their shoulders in relaxation at the understanding that this difference is not a toxic and irredeemable flaw in their relationship, but, rather just something that comes with all connections between two different people and which is shared by long, long term relationships.

Vive la Difference

Many years ago, John Gray, made a mark (and a gazillion dollars) with his hugely popular Men are from Mars, Women are from Venumanandwomans.   Between its hardcovers (and I recall it being in hardback for a long, long time – well after most personal growth/self help books had gone into paperback) Gray talked about the many fundamental differences between men and women.  For years after its release, I listened to experienced marital therapists dismiss him and his book as overly simplistic.  While there may be some truth to that, I think it’s hard to ignore the reality that the two sexes do seem to process the world differently……as a general rule.  There are always going to be exceptions to these rules, but some things do seem to be gender related.  One example is the way women often prefer to talk things out.  If something has happened in her life, she wants to be able to talk it through, being pretty confident that she can come up with a solution herself as she airs out the experience.  He, on the other hand, likes to drive for solutions.  Any problem raised is an invitation to come up with a solution.  When one person interacts with the other, the solution-seeker may get frustrated by the continued recounting of the problem, while the problem-discusser is frustrated by the other’s quick-cut to a solution.  It feels like she’s being shut down.  Well, we are lucky to have this problem described and solved in a two-minute YouTube video.  If you have not seen this yet, enjoy.

In or Out

As the New Year dawns there are those among us who are now facing the deepest question and ultimate personal challenge.  Do I stay in my relationship/marriage or do I leave?  The uncertainty is hugely destabilizing – but then, how can it not be, with so much on the line and no clear answer?  I want to share a conversation I had recently with a man seeking couples counseling to get out of his marriage (to get help breaking the news).  He was sure that he wanted out, but when he talked about the reasons he had come to this conclusion, I kept thinking to myself, “Wow!  I’ve worked successfully with couples to overcome that issue.”  I often tell couples I am counseling, who are in distress, that when people get swept up in their continuous cycle of conflict and frustration, if left to their own devices, they will probably blow apart.  I realized in the conversation that I feel pretty confident about helping distressed couples turn a corner to reconnect and deepen their bond.  So I asked him, “If I could tell you with complete confidence that if you worked on your marriage with me you could reconnect with your partner and have the kind of relationship you long for….would you want to do that with this person?”  I have asked that question before and sometimes I receive an answer along the lines of, “I’m excited about that….though doubtful.”  That’s something to work with…even if the person is very doubtful.  However, if you sleep on that notion and conclude that you don’t want to have that with this particular person, even if it can be achieved, that seems like a pretty telling answer.

In a way, it’s a “trust your gut” question.  I have written an earlier post about the divorce decision and viewing it as an impermeable barrier that, once you cross it, you really can’t return.  This is another view of the question from a different angle.  Asking yourself the question above may help you know.  I hope this is of some small help because I know the limbo of uncertainty is a dreadful place to be.