Lawyers and Personal Conflict

angry.couple.1I like lawyers.  Some of my oldest, dearest friends are lawyers.  It’s really the same thing that has me coming back year after year to teach counseling skilargumentls to law students.  Lawyers, as people, are smart, funny, generally very positive and full of life.  This is even more so for law students – with their youth and energy.   Yet one thing has always bemused me about lawyers – They are a conflict resolution profession that hates interpersonal conflict.  Take mediation, for example.  The classic approach to mediation is to sit the disputing people down together and have them talk to each other.  The mediator’s job is to help this process by creating a safe environment where each person will have their space to express what’s on their mind and help in phrasing it in a way that is both true for the speaker and also said in way that can be heard without defensiveness.  It is almost guaranteed that if we are accused of something (or feel we are being accused) we will automatically become defensive and the speaker will be hugely frustrated at the fact that they are not being heard.  This is just one of the realities of interpersonal conflict resolution – helping people speak to each other in a productive fashion.  Lawyers, however, find the possibility of sitting in the presence of emotion that can become hot and possibly escalate to be too potentially destructive, so they choose, almost invariably, to separate the people (or groups) in argumentdispute.   This is kind of consistent with one of the most poignant elements of lawyers’ discomfort with conflict – how they fight at home.

One of the real problems with legal training is that lawyers feel they have to “win” an argument.  Often by “winning” this means being able to explain their position either clearly enough or with enough supportive evidence (and examples from the past) that their partner will ultimately relent and admit that they are right.  So how does one deal with the reality that you don’t “win” marital arguments?  When what is at stake is each person’s deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities, “winning” seems beside the point.  It certainly won’t get us what we want, which is peace and connection.  I wrote a blog post about a year or so ago about the two different conversations couples have when they are in conflict.  The one that we try to win is the unwinnable one.  How’s that for a conundrum?  The way out of it, I think, is to understand that no relationship will touch on our deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities like our intimate partnership.  If we are going to have these feelings, this is going to be the place.  Learning to understand them, express them, listen to them and connect with them, while often uncomfortable, is the way out of that maze.

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.

The Moment I Knew

doneRecently, Huffington Post put a slideshow on their “Divorce” page that was very enlightening.  They asked readers to respond with “the moment I knew my marriage was over.”  There are over 150 responses in  that slide show and, boy, do they range far and wide!  Yet they do tend to fall into a discrete number of set categories.

One category is the “I just woke up one morning and knew.”  That’s a hard one to work with, as I often liken the decision that the relationship is over to a campfire (appropriate image for the Northwest).  At the end of the night, after staring at a brilliant, dancing flame hovering over intense, glowing embers, we turn in – and upon awakening, sometimes the logs are still there, charred, but partly intact.  If you lift one up you may see a bit of life that, if blown upon intensely enough, will start to smoke and a flame may emerge.  However, other times, it may have rained overnight and in the morning, we emerge from our tent to find a dead fire.  No amount of effort will revive anything.  The fire is simply……gone.  That’s like the woman who responded, “when I took my wedding ring off and couldn’t bring myself to put it back on.”

There’s another category which Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy calls, “relationship traumas.”  Infidelity is, of course, a leading (and searing) relationship trauma.  It is difficult, but by no means impossible, to heal from this, but that’s another story for another day (post).  There are others, however.  Some people responded that they were facing a health crisis and their spouse was unresponsive or disappeared.  An example is, “The moment I knew was when I went into the hospital for emergency surgery and nearly died.  I was in the hospital for 6 days.  He didn’t visit once.  I got no calls and all of two texts.  People I barely knew at least called.”  Others describe an incredibly demeaning statement or attitude, like the one respondent who said, “”when I was picked for a prestigious conference in NY – he didn’t congratulate – asked who would watch the kids.”  Others relate statements made by their partner that just floor them, like one who replied, “When he said he’d divorce me if I went to console my best friend (who is like a sister) after the passing of her mother.”  For sure, these are all blows and there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done if the marriage can overcome the trauma of one spouse’s sense of utter abandonment at a moment of deepest need.  Yet, when I read these kinds of posts, I don’t automatically think, “Well that marriage is over!”  Actually, that’s the way I found myself responding to many of these posts.  Many of the wounds that people describe are sharp and deep and they absolutely need to be talked about.  Honest remorse and forgiveness are necessary and entirely possible, but, again, I don’t think people are able to do this on their own – or for that matter in an office of a couples counselor who acts as an umpire and decides who is right and who is wrong.  It’s really fascinating and heart-full work.  That’s why I love it so.

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.

The Weight of Depression

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.

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.

Couples Counseling and the High Funtioning Woman

Many (most) women who come into my office with their partners  to work on their troubled relationships are quite high functioning.  At least from my observations, these woman really display a skill in multi-tasking.  Sometimes, this remarkable functionality keeps her busy – so busy that I get the impression that she’s racing to keep ahead of something.  While I am not a fan of long dissections of our childhood to get at what is going on now, I also believe its impossible to understand that now without some flavor of the past.  Our families of origin are where we learn our earliest and most indelible lessons.  True or false – here is where we first learn about ourselves in the world.   Are intimate relationships safe?  Am I worthy of love?  How do others really see me?

The highly effective woman will often come into my office with the most poignant, powerful dilemma.  On the one hand, she has gotten it done throughout her life – often in the face of an utter absence of love and support from her important caretaker(s).  She grew up believing that there was nobody she could ever really lean on.  In fact, the idea of really leaning on anyone is so frightening – What if they can’t or don’t want to be there for me.  What if my need is an imposition or a reason for them to judge and dismiss me as not worthy of love.  Better I take care of myself.

Yet that is exactly what a close, bonded, adult attachment relationship is – Knowing that you will be there to catch me if I fall.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be taken care of.  There are lots of ways that can happen for us.  Guys need it in their ways.  He may think of it in terms of sex or as being okay and still loved even if he screws something up.  She may just need to know that she can collapse every once in a while – to be exhausted or overwhelmed or scared and it’ll be okay.  She will be okay.  She will still be seen as strong, worthy, desired – still be loved.

Adult Attachment

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.