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 twindshield.1he 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.

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.

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.

Attachment as a Hardwired Emotion (Part 3)

neurons.3The seventh basic emotion circuit that was found by Jaak Panksepp (see prior posts) is what he, unfortunately, calls the “panic” circuit.  He calls it that because of the panicked reaction of young animals who are separated from their mothers.  I prefer to call it by its more appropriate and descriptive name, the Attachment Circuit.   Panksepp describes the distressed cries of animals – identical to the distressed cries of separated young, which are evoked by the stimulation of a particular neuronal circuit in the brain.  The distress is caused by separation.  The resolution of the distress is caused by reunification.  Panksepp’s work confirms what has been argued by attachment therapists like Dr. Sue Johnson – the co-developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy.  We have a deep and biologically determined need for connection.  When that connection is threatened, we become distressed and anxious.  When we become distressed and anxious, we are inclined to react automatically.  This is the painful dance that we see in the distressing cycle we almost always observe with couples who are in conflict.  Brent Atkinson, a marital therapist and author, has created an entire approach to couples therapy based on Panksepp’s  work.  Atkinson repeats that individuals are overtaken by the intensity of their emotional reactivity.  This is precisely the same kind of description that Sue Johnson uses to describe how a couple is overtaken by the force of their cycle.  Imagine, when both people’s brain circuits are firing so fast and strong that they are swept up into the maelstrom, seemingly without any control – at least not until they are helped to s….l….o…..w it down and realize when they, themselves, are being overtaken by these strong, automatic, emotional discharges in the brain.  The belief of emotionally focused therapists is that once we are able to slow it down and gain awareness of our process, we can create safety for ourselves and our partner.  That’s at least what goes on in my office, anyway.

Emotions That Are “Hardwired” (Part 2)

neurons.2Research neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, has been studying the anatomical basis of emotions for many years.  It has been a challenging task for many reasons.  For one, the scientific community has not been in agreement as to what comprises an “emotion” – whether they exist at all and, if so, how to describe them.  Another question is raised by those who claim (passionately I might add) that emotions are environmental and not inherently physiological.   This is not what Panksepp has found.  In fact, he has been able to identify 7 different brain circuits which correspond with discrete emotional responses.  Further, he provides us with extremely reasonable ideas about the evolutionary basis for the development of each of these emotional circuits.  While he freely concedes that there may be more to be discovered in the future, those which he identifies at this stage are:

  1. Seeking: This is the drive to explore the world – to gain stimulation and sustenance from the environment.  Interestingly the nerves’ receptors for the neurotransmitter which is most associated with this behavior (dopamine) are severely compromised or destroyed by the use of drugs such as cocaine, which explains the incredible lethargy after prolonged use and the need to keep snorting or smoking in order to maintain a baseline of alertness.
  2. Rage: Panksepp found that anger is a primary emotional experience, as it is put into service when the animal is being constrained.  It is a natural reaction to the experience of being cornered and, indeed, his representative picture is of the hissing cat backed into a corner.   This is different from the anger we often describe as our reaction when a lover hurts our feelings or betrays us.  The difference is interesting and worth further thought and discussion.
  3. Fear: This is a basic self-protective mechanism.  Our brain is programmed to protect us and get us the heck outta there when we are faced with threats to our existence.  It’s the old “our ancestors split when they saw a saber-tooth tiger roaming close-by.”  What Panksepp also observed, interestingly, was that when this circuit was chronically and continually activated, the organism lapsed into a state of anxiety – which, then can be defined as the low level, continuous expression of the fear circuit.
  4. Nurturance:  This is the classic maternal care circuit.  When it is stimulated, the body produces a load of oxytocin, which has been called “the cuddle hormone.”  It is also true that this circuit is activated, and we are bathed in oxytocin, when we are feeling close and loving to a partner.  The evolutionary basis for survival of the species is pretty self evident, here.
  5. Rough and Tumble Play:  Panksepp observed the animals in his lab spontaneously engaging in such play.  It is the expression of a physiological need to experience joy.  He associates human laughter to the activation of this circuit.  The evolutionary value of the play circuit is more speculative, but Panksepp suggests that it may facilitate basic socialization.
  6. Lust:  The drive to seek out and find a mate is perhaps the most fundamental evolutionary imperative.  Panksepp describes many, many courting rituals and other behaviors which are reflective of the stimulation of this circuit.

Panksepp has been able to generate these emotional responses, from rage to fear to sexuality, by stimulating discrete parts of the brain with mini-electrodes.  This would seem to add proof to his theories.   The seventh and final hardwired emotion really forms the basis of the couples therapy I do and I will leave that discussion to the next post.

What it Means to Have Something “Hardwired” (Part 1)

neurons.1 Listen to psychologists talk and you will often hear about how some behavior or attitude is “hardwired.”  It’s a pretty descriptive term – particularly since the brain is an organ characterized by electrical circuits.  For another example, just consider the most popular adage among neuroscientists over the past dozen years or so, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  It suggests a certain immutable permanence in ways we think or act.  Consider all the incredible identical twin studies in which they are separated at birth and meet decades later to find that they are wearing the same color, are married to women with the same name, pursue the same career and have named their children identically.  One great example involves two brothers reunited after 39 years.  Each was incredibly fastidious and detailed – compulsively neat and orderly in every respect.  They were both completely convinced that their character was a function of nurture rather than nature.  The first was asked why he was like that and he replied, “My mother is the reason!  She was exactly the same way and I was raised to be compulsively neat.”  The other replied, “My mother is the reason!  She was so disorganized and such a slob that I had to be this way just to survive.”

Among the researchers who have been studying the brain’s inherent (“hardwired”) character is a man named Jaak Panksepp.  His work with animals is incredible.  One fascinating observation he shares in his book Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions involves the problem they had with rats who were very distressed and active after their cages were cleaned by a certain lab tech.  After some investigation, they found that the tech had housecats and some of the dander was carried with him to the lab.  What is fascinating is that these rats were born and bred in the lab.  They had never seen a cat in their lives….nor had their parents or grandparents.  They had been separated from actual exposure to a natural predator  by many generations.  Still, they reacted strongly to the scent of the cat.  That’s one great example of being “hardwired.”  What is even more important for us, is that Panksepp has found that certain emotions are hardwired into our brains.  This will be the subject of a later post.

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.

Guys and Letting It Go

man.letting.goOne of the big goals in relationship work is to help shift people who are intimately bonded from a place of defensiveness and anger to one of connection and safety.  It’s a process and requires patience, but it is a goal many have achieved.  One of the steps along the journey occurs when one partner will shift, if just for a moment, from that hard, self-protective, space and reach out to the other.  The gesture may be a glimpse of vulnerability, or word of tenderness.  It is what Gottman calls a “repair attempt” and when a couple is clicking, these repair attempts are acknowledged and reciprocated and the temperature lowers to safe levels.

However, one thing I have noticed over time is that men, more than women, tend to respond to the softening from their partner with a continued recitation of old hurts and past insults.  I often wonder at this tenacious grip on earlier pains in the face of (what seems to me at least to be) ardent attempts by their partner to reach out.  It seems to me that what these men are saying is that they still don’t think their partners really, deeply, understand the pain they experienced (and if my partner doesn’t understand the depth of the pain I experienced, how can I believe and trust that they will not strike out again).  This dilemma points to one important goal in any successful couples therapy, which is to help the partner understand that when he brings up these old wounds it is not because he wants to continue fighting.  He just desperately needs assurance that his partner is safe for him and she gets how their conflict just knocks him off his feet.  He needs to hear that she does not want to hurt him so deeply and will be very careful – even if she is, herself, hurt or frightened.   It may be a slow, halting process, but once that trust begins to settle in he will almost always find himself free to be who he has always wanted to be in this complex, rich, intimate dance.