Many years ago, John Gray, made a mark (and a gazillion dollars) with his hugely popular Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. 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.
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.
Those of us who have suffered with depression isolate. We cannot bear contact with others. It’s as if our brains are exquisitely sensitive to touch. Nobody can understand the depth and the utter truth of our dark, endless despair. When we are in an intimate relationship the complications can magnify. We can’t really isolate. In the depth of a depressive episode, we maintain such a focus on our horrible inner pain that the very notion that we have an impact on another is hard to fathom – well, we easily see ourselves as a burden on others – but we don’t understand the depression as something other than ourselves. Depression is an illness that challenges the relationship. It is not the depressed person who challenges the relationship. A good web article on this subject may be found here: Depression and intimate relationships My wish for all depression sufferers who struggle in your marriages is that you embrace the reality that this darkness is not you and that with treatment you can come to know that the pain is not permanent – it can pass and you can recover a life that allows kindness, peace and joy to touch your heart. Having a loving partner who will join with you is among your greatest gifts.
How comfortable are we being close in our intimate relationships? Do our internal alarm bells go off frequently as we feel our partner pulling away from us? Or is it the opposite – we begin to sweat when they seek to be too close. Do our partners describe us as “clingy” or “aloof?”
Many of us struggle to one degree or another with connections. We often repeat the same dramas and frustrations in our relationships, if we allow ourselves to get close enough to risk the pain or aggravation to begin with – a risk that we willingly take for the love, comfort and companionship we gain. As with so much in life, there is nothing inherently wrong with our tendencies in one direction or another. The trouble, and pain, often arise when, as we so often will, find ourselves bonding with someone who has a contrasting style. Our need for space will feel to our partner like heartlessness and even contempt. (It’s hard to feel contempt from our partner and not freak out.) On the other side, our need for assurance will feel to our partner as clinginess. (It’s hard to feel that intensity and not close up and withdraw.) However, as is usually the case one person is not contemptuous and the other isn’t clingy. It’s the terribly painful cycle that gets triggered. There is an interesting test available on the web here: Adult Attachment Style which can give you and your partner some insight into your tendencies and where the gaps may be which you can fill in with understanding and compassion.
I have frequently said that a turning point in my marriage came when my on-the-go wife accepted my naps. For the first couple of years my afternoon fade into crankiness bucked up against her “How can you waste perfectly good day time,” plea. Eventually, to the blessed relief of my amygdala and the balance of life in the cosmos, weekend naps were accorded their rightful place in our home. I came across another confirmation in Slate today – an article which describes how lack of sleep contributes to heightened couple conflict.
Fatigue isn’t the only other stressor that may tax a couple. I have worked with couples who have no time with each other and haven’t since their first of three children came along or who have suffered with financial setbacks that have necessitated pulling back on a previously comfortable lifestyle or who have opened their home to one’s parents. While the heart of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is the exploration and calming of attachment-related anxieties and wounds inflicted in the whipsaw-like cycle which grabs the couple, we can never ignore the presence of stressors which attack and challenge connection we all hope to maintain in our relationships. Many years ago, Holmes and Rahe engaged in a study which attempted to identify and rate the intensity of various life stressors. A review of these events is an excellent summary of the kinds of external “psycho-social stressors” which can put pressure on a relationship and result in conflict over repeated issues – which may just be seen as symptomatic of the stress as much as (or more than) anything else. These include: trouble with the law, bankruptcy, illness, trouble with in-laws, beginning or ending a job, a child leaving home (or hitting adolescence), change in residence, change in work situation and loss of a close friend, among others. This is why, in any assessment of intimate stress, we must always ask, “What is happening now in your lives? Has anything changed recently?”
In Emotionally Focused Therapy, we speak of a cycle which captures the couple in distress. Often there will be a partner caught in the cycle who will experience deep, visceral anxiety over being left alone. That feeling of utter isolation has brought to my mind an iconic scene from Kubrick’s classic 2001 – A Space Odyssey. Frank, one of the two astronauts on the craft which is run by the malevolent computer, HAL, is performing repairs outside. HAL manages to cut Frank’s life-line and we see this desperate figure floating out into nothingness. The spot we see on the right is Frank, struggling for air….unmoored……lost. This is the image that strikes me when I hear of the desperation of the partner who feels emotionally abandoned in the relationship. She (not always, but often she) will struggle against this panic. It is Frank’s panic as he disappears into a vacuum.
So often, when one partner experiences the panic of isolation in the void the response will be heightened protest – a very intense effort to achieve some connection….some oxygen. This may be experienced by the other partner as attack. His (not always, but often his) experience brings to mind the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan. The thousands of landing craft approaching the beach. Reinforced steel doors shield the soldiers from any assaults. Then, with a spin of a locking-wheel, the door swings down to create a ramp for the the soldiers to disembark. However, many of these men are decimated by machine gun fire before they can move a muscle. It is a violent assault and you want to swing those doors back up to protect the men. People who experience themselves to be the target of the anger and desperation of their partners, tend to (emotionally) curl up in a self-protective ball. Often, withdrawal to “safety” is the only conceivable step.
Thus, begins the cycle of pursuit/protest and withdrawal/protection that so many couples bring with them to couples therapy. The task we face is to slow down this rapdily spinning cycle. Over time, if we can slow it down, we can begin to create some safety in the couple’s interaction. One will feel less dismissed/abandoned/despised and the other will feel less attacked/demeaned/despised. Slowly we begin to incorporate a positive momentum in couples interactions. We create a positive cycle. I imagine a propellor on the Titanic. The scene from the movie can be accessed on the web. In a panic, the watchmen phone down to the engine room. These people have no time to reverse the course of the great ship. We watch the propellers slow to a stop and then reverse themselves.
The hope of the work we do, is to support couples in their passage from propellers spinning in their cycle at full speed – slowing to a stop – then picking back up at full speed, supporting a positive cycle.
Thank you James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick – marital theorists all!
Dan Wile, Ph.D. is a remarkably gifted – and funny – couples therapist who has written a number of fine books on the realities of joining our lives together. Two of his classics are After the Fight and After the Honeymoon. Here is what Wile has to say about the inevitable differences that arise between us in relationship:
“Paul married Alice and Alice gets loud at parties and Paul, who is shy, hates that. But if Paul had married Susan, he and Susan would have gotten into a fight before they even got to the party. That’s because Paul is always late and Susan hates to be kept waiting. She would feel taken for granted, which she is very sensitive about. Paul would see her complaining about this as her attempt to dominate him, which he is very sensitive about. If Paul had married Gail, they wouldn’t have even gone to the party because they would still be upset about an argument they had the day before about Paul’s not helping with the housework. To Gail when Paul does not help she feels abandoned, which she is sensitive about, and to Paul, Gail’s complaining is an attempt at domination, which he is sensitive about. The same is true about Alice. If she had married Steve, she would have the opposite problem, because Steve gets drunk at parties and she would get so angry at his drinking that they would get into a fight about it. If she had married Lou, she and Lou would have enjoyed the party but then when they got home the trouble would begin when Lou wanted sex because he always wants sex when he wants to feel closer, but sex is something Alice wants when she already feels close.”
“…there is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.”
Beef No. 2 – Martial Therapists are not umpires. Their job is not to hear each person’s complaints and to decide which one is more right than the other. It is this belief that both clients and some couples counselors embrace that makes couples therapy the least successful therapy with the highest failure rate. However, those trained in a specific approach to couples therapy (of which there are a handful), are remarkably more successful. Clients enter couples counseling with both a great certainty and a great fear. The certainty is that the problems the couple are experiencing are mostly because of their partner. The fear is that they, themselves, will be blamed. Blame and shame – these are the boulders on the shoulders of the individuals commencing couples therapy. Any therapist who tries to impart to each person, “If you do a little more of this or a little less of that you will improve your relationship,” will ultimately do more harm than good. What a shame that therapists (mostly trained in individual therapy – and often quite good at individual therapy) create an environment of blame and defensiveness that will usually result in one person feeling more identified as a problem, unheard, shamed and definitely unsafe. This doesn’t have to be, but couples therapists have to avoid becoming overly engaged in the tangle of content.
I think couples in conflict often engage in two conversations. One is overt, constantly repeated and endlessly frustrating. The other is almost always unsaid – and unacknowledged. If we can get to that second conversation, we can find the peace and connection we so desperately need in our intimate relationships. Instead, we get all tangled up in the conversation that doesn’t go anywhere. Like birds flitting back and forth above us, what we see is that which transfixes us and grabs our attention. I have seen it over and over again in my office – the sad, ever-so-discouraging dance of the upper conversation that almost guarantees that both people will just….feel….bad and not feel heard by the other. This conversation is always about something. “You don’t help around the house …..I do too help. What about last week when you were tired and I vacuumed downstairs…..Oh great, thanks a lot – am I supposed to bow down because you vacuumed once?” “How come you aren’t even trying to go back to work to bring in some money?…..I have tried. You just don’t know what it’s like out there….You aren’t doing nearly enough….You have no idea what I have done.” These conversations don’t go anywhere because they aren’t’ about what’s really going on inside for each person.
The real conversation – the one that can get somewhere – is the attachment conversation. It is about our needs that are deep and tug at our hearts. These are also needs that can be satisfied once there is a safe way to express them. They can be the need to feel truly cared for – or to feel competent and valued – or to know your partner is not going anywhere. They are almost always about the need to be actually seen and still loved and accepted. This most critical and meaningful conversation can be very difficult to have without the help of a relationship professional. My bias (and observation) is that Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is a wonderful platform upon which these “conversations for connection,” in Sue Johnson’s words, can occur.
I hear it so often in my office. One partner or the other (usually both) will report that in the height of some nasty fight they escalated into, one of them said something so wounding that the target is still bruised. He or she struggles with how to make sense of a world where they are supposed to be working on their relationship and at the same time things are said which couldn’t feel more destructive. It’s heartbreaking to see the pain that good people can inflict on one another when they have escalated to the outer reaches of their own cycle. It is an inescapable fact that when two people are reacting to each other from the raw and vulnerable places inside – and they are swept up in their cycle of fear, anger and reactivity, they can spin so fast (almost instantaneously) that both feel out of control. It is for sure that these deeply hurtful statements aren’t made during a placid dinner conversation right after, “Please pass the peas.” These missiles that are launched almost always occur when the cycle is spinning so fast, that the centrifugal force of both people’s emotional reactivity throws them to the extreme edge of their experience. So, rather than mull on the thing said, it’s far more helpful to view the statements as symptomatic of a cycle that has gone from “zero to 60” in a nanosceond. The path to healing is to begin to find ways to catch ourselves at the very beginning stages of this emotionally reactive cycle – to slow it down at the outset and step out of this tightly choreographed automatic dance.