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Beyond The Honeymoon Phase: Cultivating Passion in Enduring Relationships

Beyond The Honeymoon Phase: Cultivating Passion in Enduring Relationships

            At some point in most of our lives, we fall in love. Whether we come crashing into love with a storm of fireworks, or if it develops more subtly over time, it's hard to mistake that sensation of love. We are fueled by passion, sexual connection, shared interests and the discovery of each others' mind, heart, body & soul.

            Oftentimes, it can be challenging for couples to carry this enormous energy forward past what we commonly refer to as the "honeymoon phase." When the honeymoon phase is over, the "highs" of love may dissipate as we gain footing in our worldly lives. The question remains as to whether we take the giant step to carry forward in this relationship, or if we let go.

            Clinical Psychologist Randi Gunther, PhD. observes that there are certain patterns to watch out for early on in a relationship, that if they are attended to, can produce a more fruitful, long-lasting relationship on our quest for "the one."

1.   How to Heal from Missed Connections: Early on in a relationship, we often find ourselves with our senses tuned more finely to the needs of our partner than our own. However, as we progress into the third or fourth month of a relationship, we may not have the same urgency we once did in connecting with our partner. Seeing as new lovers often hold back complaints with each other, these missed connections can go unnoticed without effective communication strategies.

Gunther suggests that we remain open to discussing these missed connections with each other; whether one partner is preoccupied by work or a family obligation, or even something more serious, naming these missed connections and how they affect oneself can be a crucial key in preventing resentment and hurt from boiling beneath the surface. Be patient and understanding with your lover, but remember to name your own needs as well!

2.   How to Navigate Faultfinding: One of the most toxic features of any relationship arises when gentle criticisms morph into bitter blame and irritation. At the same time, it's important that we name what's bothering us in a relationship, because a healthy, heart-centered challenge can be a powerful tool for growth, individually and in response to our partners.

We may often have unrealistic ideals about our new relationship being a savior from the troubles of our past relationships. If a lover is speaking negatively about prior relationships, we gain a vital clue as to what hurt our partner in the past. However, it's important that any discussions between partners about irritating moods or behavior patterns comes from a place of compassion and authenticity, not resentment and unreachable expectations.

3.   "Ghosting" Vs. Titration, or How To Hold Spaciousness in a Relationship: When loving relationships begin, it can be hard to distance ourselves from the connection we have with our partner. The phrase "head over heels" speaks of how far we're often willing to go to be near our partner.

Yet over time, we may find our partner disappearing from our line of communication unexpectedly. We ourselves might pull away, whether that comes from an insecurity, a period of doubt, or a lack of trust. Things might feel off when these disappearing behaviors are so dissimilar to the ecstatic sparks of early love.

In this scenario as well, we run into the healing power of honesty & open communication; a gentle nudge to check in with our partner about this distancing. Partners who have no secrets to hide are often ready and willing to own up to the change, and address any emotional ramifications it may have caused.

It's important to remember that separation is often natural and necessary after being deeply intimate with a partner for an amount of time. If we're swimming in a pool, it's useful to get out now and then so we don't turn into raisins. The same can be said about relationships, and I refer to this as the allowing of titration, or breathing room. Momentary disconnects may even strengthen a bond of love, because it speaks to the respect of our partner as an individual. Honest communication is key! (Are you noticing a theme here?)

4.   How to Develop Patience in a Worthy Relationship: At the beginning of a new relationship, patience often appears infinite for both parties, and it can be hard to see the flaws in our significant other. Over time, we may experience more reactiveness or defensiveness with our partner, which is completely normal by itself. The key is to monitor our own reactiveness in heated moments.

Sometimes these quick bursts of impatience build gradually, and sometimes they appear out of nowhere. When this arises in your relationship, it can be a sign that emotional resiliency is waning. Once partners are able to recognize this and name it, profound healing can occur. These sort of relational challenges are an excellent reason to seek individual or couples counseling, as one's reactiveness may link to early childhood trauma that is being stirred by the partner.

Together, the search for the underlying cause of a lack of patience in a relationship can be an insightful and healing journey. By facing these problems with open eyes and an open heart, we may allow ourselves to fall in love more deeply.

5.   Managing Decreased Energy: New lovers often experience a grand and powerful energy together. This energy stirs physical passion and chemistry, and it makes an impact on the environment around it as well!

Over time, as lovers become more secure with each other, they may being to "know what to expect" from their partner, thereby lessening the sense of discovery that leads to passionate energy. It's fantastic to feel secure in a partnership, but it's also important to cultivate a genuine interest in the ever-changing lives of our partner.

Gunther writes, "When partners become aware that their relationship is losing energy, they must reevaluate why that is happening. Is it truly a lack of interest, or perhaps even too much security? Is there the possibility that one or the other partner is now giving the best of themselves elsewhere, content to use the relationship more to just refuel?" Once you begin to ask yourselves these challenging questions, a door opens to deeper satisfaction in the relationship.

6.   Healing from Loss of Affection: Warmth and affection are two of the most powerful factors in sustaining a love relationship. While this magic may run rampant in the early stages of a relationship, a struggling relationship may show warning sines of affection waning. This could manifest as a decreased sex drive, less eye contact, and emotional distancing.

What's most important here is to step back from the temptation to respond with frustration, anger, or blame. The felt sense of rejection can be quite painful, and responses such as these only serve to push one's partner further away.

If you are experiencing decreased affection in a relationship, it may be time to check in with yourself and your needs. A gentle re-invitation to intimacy may be all that is needed to bridge the gap. Fundamentally, as long as these challenges are met without blame, shaming, or anger, the wounds can heal.

 

            After the initial joys of the honeymoon phase transform into something more stable, sober, and enduring, it's crucial to keep an open line of communication between partners. It's always worth re-assessing your own values if you genuinely feel that the relationship is not going to work out. Ending a relationship before resentment begins to boil can be one of the greatest gifts to yourself and your partner.

            However, if you decide to stick it through, remember to be patient both with your partner and yourself. Expect challenges, annoyances, and quibbles, but remember your own powerful inner tool of open communication and honesty. Through being willing to discuss problems and own up to your own challenges in a relationship, you can move forward with your partner from a place of integrity and wholesome love.

 Greg Tilden, AMFT, is an intake coordinator at The SF Marriage and Couples Center and 2018 graduate of the California Institute of Integral Studies. As a person who is passionate about holding space for people to find their own inner tools for wellness and self-development, he contributes his work to SFMCC and Amador Institute, Inc. Greg envisions the process of therapy a fun, co-creative & curious endeavor. In his spare time, he enjoys astrology, tarot, creating and appreciating music & art, and exploring nature. 

Greg Tilden, AMFT, is an intake coordinator at The SF Marriage and Couples Center and 2018 graduate of the California Institute of Integral Studies. As a person who is passionate about holding space for people to find their own inner tools for wellness and self-development, he contributes his work to SFMCC and Amador Institute, Inc. Greg envisions the process of therapy a fun, co-creative & curious endeavor. In his spare time, he enjoys astrology, tarot, creating and appreciating music & art, and exploring nature. 

 

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Constantly Fighting with Your Partner?

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Constantly Fighting With Your Partner?

 

Do you and your partner have a hard time communicating? Do simple conversations seem to end up in an argument? Do you find yourself choosing not to talk at all just to prevent conflict? Have you lost hope or doubt that you will ever be able to have productive and meaningful conversations with your partner again?

 

First of all, you’re not alone. This dynamic, as frustrating as it is, is not uncommon. Many couples get to a point where they experience this same kind of distance and volatility in their relationship. And yes, it is completely and utterly maddening, not to mention exhausting. Other feelings may also come up such as anger, sadness, powerlessness, and hopelessness.

 

You may have judgment toward yourself or your partner. You may fear for the future of your relationship. You may feel a sense of guilt that your constant fighting is impacting the kids and other members of the family.

 

And yet, you still can’t seem to get out of this cycle.

 

Why???

 

In order to understand it, you have to look past the content of the fights, past the words to see what’s really happening. What is going on underneath? This isn’t an easy task and this is one way therapy can help.

 

Therapy can help you see that what is actually happening between you and your partner (and what you are communicating to each other however unsuccessfully) is a reflection of unmet emotional needs.

 

When an emotional need is not met, we become angry, sad, defensive. We may feel alone, hurt and abandoned and react in a way that is really just us trying to protect ourselves from further hurt. However, the way we enact this protectiveness is not necessarily productive. Our self-protection takes the form of minimizing our partner, lashing out, isolating ourselves, using substances, numbing, holding on to every past offense and almost expecting to be hurt or disappointed so we’re not caught off guard, so we’re not stung by the surprise of being hurt, so we’re “prepared.” We don’t trust our partner not to hurt us again, so we put a wall up.

 

TRUST has been broken.

 

To make matters worse, our partners don’t always see the hurt underneath our protective mechanisms. All they see is the minimizing, the lashing out, the isolating, the substance use, etc. and naturally, they have their own reaction and urge to protect themselves. Their reaction may take the form of distancing, lashing back, shutting down, micromanaging, bringing up the past, etc. making it hard for us to see that, like us, there is also hurt and vulnerability underneath these behaviors, so instead of responding to their hurt from a compassionate place, we react to their behavior. This time we might yell louder, criticize, blame and so on and so forth.

 

If this sounds familiar, it is very likely

 

You and your partner are caught in a cycle.

 

Your ways of protecting yourselves are triggering each other. This cycle gets played out over and over maybe with different conversations or maybe with the same conversation. Somehow, without warning, you find yourselves in it again and again.

 

Many of us don’t realize this is what’s happening. We can’t see past our intense emotions. We’re preoccupied with who’s right and who’s wrong, so focused on defending and justifying ourselves not realizing we are only exacerbating the disconnection and drifting further and further apart.

 

So how do we stop this cycle?

 

First, we need to understand there are other factors at play. For instance, one reason we don’t just communicate our emotional needs to our partner is simply that many of us don’t know how. We’re not well-versed in emotions and have not developed the language and skill to name our vulnerability. This is another way therapy can help – by developing your emotional vocabulary and teaching you how to communicate in an honest, genuine, sensitive and vulnerable way. This may be really uncomfortable at first, but with the support of a therapist/ally, it can get easier over time.

 

And of course, the other reason we don’t just communicate our emotional needs is because many times we don’t know what those are. There are so many different feelings muddied together, it can be difficult to sort out all the nuanced emotions.

 

Part of the work is getting to know yourself.

 

Therapy can help you develop the self-awareness and curiosity to sort out what’s going on for you and help you discover:

·      what triggers you

·      what your protective mechanisms look like

·      what behaviors you exhibit that trigger your partner

·      how you behave when stressed

·      how you behave when you’ve had ample self-care

·      what connection looks like to you

·      when you feel most vulnerable.

 

Understanding yourself on this level is necessary for the relationship. It can provide clarity for both you and your partner. It can help you soften and have compassion toward each other.

 

Of course, self-awareness is especially hard in the heat of an argument. Things are happening so fast. In a matter of seconds, a simple conversation about what’s for dinner explodes into a shouting match and unending laundry list of every offense to date. This is why it’s so important to slow down.

 

SSSSSLLLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOOOWWWW.

 

Practice the Pause.

 

Pausing allows us the space and time to not say the mean thing we were about to say just then. It allows us to actually think about how to be different in this moment and respond from a conscious place instead of reacting from a triggered place. It gives us the opportunity to remember our partner’s triggers and be sensitive to them.

  Monica Ramil, MA, AMFT  is a therapist at SF Marriage and Couples Center. Monica specializes in couples therapy and marriage counseling. 

Monica Ramil, MA, AMFT is a therapist at SF Marriage and Couples Center. Monica specializes in couples therapy and marriage counseling. 

 

When we respond in a conscious way and share our vulnerability, it can be easier for our partner to take us in. It can be the difference between their wall/defense coming down ever-so-slightly or shooting right back up. Small successes are key. It is in these successes that we slowly start to heal each other and learn to trust one another again. Acknowledging these successes aloud also helps motivate both partners to keep the momentum going shifting the dynamic over time from maladaptive to a place of connection and closeness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Four Tips for Improving Communication in Your Relationship

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Four Tips for Improving Communication in Your Relationship

 

Many of the couples I see in my practice struggle with communication or a lack of intimacy and connection. They say that they don’t feel heard by their significant other, that they spend hours arguing without resolving anything, or it feels like they’re just roommates. Engaging in these patterns over the course of years can erode the trust, care and love that was once the foundation of the relationship. Over time, these negative interaction cycles can cause people to have a fixed idea in their mind of who their partner is. She’s the critical, demanding wife or he’s the neglectful, controlling husband. With each player typecast a certain way, it’s difficult to hear what they’re actually saying because it’s being filtered through a distorted lens. When the message intended to be sent by the speaker, isn’t the same as the message heard by the listener, communication breaks down.

 

Here are 5 tips to improve communication and connection in your relationship.

 

1.     Let your partner know what you’re thinking and feeling

 

Sounds obvious right? But couples often find that they keep more vulnerable thoughts and feelings to themselves out of fear that they could hurt their partner or the relationship. It’s easy to get comfortable with the status quo in a long-term relationship or marriage. The relationship operates on auto-pilot and the things your partner does that bother you are silently tolerated because bringing it up feels petty or you worry that it can turn into an argument. The truth is that disclosing vulnerable thoughts and feelings to your partner, even if it means risking that security, is what builds intimacy and a deeper connection. When you keep things to yourself to keep the peace, relationships become stale. Conflict, done in a healthy way, can keep the passion alive because it means that people are revealing their true selves to their intimate partner.  

 

2.     Edit out negative thoughts and verbal exchanges that are not constructive

 

Let’s say that your husband consistently comes home late from work and doesn’t call to let you know. This makes you angry and you think that he is selfish for doing this. That doesn’t mean calling him selfish is good communication because that’s what you’re thinking in the moment. Unbridled self-expression can be destructive to relationships as well.

 

A more productive way to communicate how you’re feeling is to use an I-statement which are statements that begin with the word “I” that describe how you feel or what you need or desire. Instead of saying “You’re so selfish for coming home late again and not calling,” you can say, “When you come home late and don’t call, I feel frustrated because I end up having to take care of the kids by myself and I feel alone. I need you to call me if you’re going to be late.” It’s also important to keep the conversation to one topic and avoid the temptation to bring up every instance in the past where you thought he was selfish.  

 

3.     Be an active listener  

 

If you’re the listener or on the receiving end of these statements, your natural inclination might be to become defensive. However, that is most likely going to make your partner feel unheard and will escalate the argument. Instead, be an active listener. Demonstrate to your partner that you heard what they said by paraphrasing back to them what they said. You can start this by saying, “What I heard you say is…” Try not to add in any of your own perspective or interpretation at this time. Let the focus be entirely on listening to your partner.  

 

4.     Validate your partner

 

Validating your partner means communicating to them that what they are thinking or feeling makes sense to you. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree 100% with what they are saying. You might only be able to validate a part of what they are saying. For example “It makes sense to me that you would feel alone when I don’t call and you take care of the kids by yourself. I’ll make more of an effort to call you when I’m going to be late.”

 

When finished, thank your partner for listening and ask them if they would like to reply. If so, reverse roles and one person will be the listener and the other will be the speaker.  

 

Having a structured conversation like this might feel challenging, especially in the heat of the moment or when you’re already feeling upset. Using these tools takes practice and in the beginning, it can be helpful to try using them in a neutral setting such as a couples therapist’s office, so there’s a third party who can facilitate. If you’d like to find out more about how I can help you improve communication in your relationship, please get in touch today.   

 

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Sharing the Play by Play to Build Intimacy

Using the ‘Play by Play’ of our Minds to Build Intimacy

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Couples often come to counseling feeling distant and wanting connection. They want to feel closer to their partner but don’t know how.  Sometimes there is a real sense of loss.  The closeness or emotional intimacy that used to be so accessible has disappeared.  There can be a fear that you’ll never recover it and that it is gone forever.

 

There is a lot that we experience in every moment.  There are thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, worries and fears that we’re taught to hide.  Sometimes we get so good at this that we are even unsure ourselves of what is going on.  It can take really slowing down and getting curious about what is coming up for us, and then feeling safe enough to share it with another person.   Sharing can be hard if we are afraid of being judged, or hurting someone.  We fear that if we share what is true it will create more distance, the opposite of what we want.    

 

I often tell couples that building intimacy by sharing what is vulnerable can seem counter intuitive, and the way to connection is to share what I call a “play by play” of the mind.  These are the things that we usually keep to ourselves.  For example you come home and want to connect to your partner and they are in the middle of reading.  You want them to notice that you have a want for connection without saying anything.  They don’t notice.  It’s easy to assume that this means they don’t want to connect.  You may feel rejected and either lash out or withdraw creating distance between you and your partner. 

 

Sharing the ‘play by play’ means first turning towards yourself and recognizing both the want that you had and the feeling of rejection, and soothing this unmet need.  When there is space to talk to your partner, you can share the experience you had without blame.  Sharing what is vulnerable and authentic gives our partner an opening into how we operate and can create a space of compassion and empathy between you.

This is an art that takes practice.  Couple’s counseling can be a safe space to practice this vulnerable sharing.  I draw from the work of Marshall Rosenberg’s ‘Non Violent Communication’ to provide the vocabulary to express both the feelings and unmet needs. These tools help couples navigate through what could get in the way of intimacy.

 

 Daniella Beznicki, MFT is a couples therapist in San Francisco at The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center.

Daniella Beznicki, MFT is a couples therapist in San Francisco at The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center.

This is an art that takes practice.  Couple’s counseling can be a safe space to practice this vulnerable sharing.  I draw from the work of Marshall Rosenberg’s ‘Non Violent Communication’ to provide the vocabulary to express both the feelings and unmet needs. These tools help couples navigate through what could get in the way of intimacy.

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Getting out of Repetitious Communication: How to understand your partner without agreeing with them

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Getting out of Repetitious Communication

Many theories of couples counseling have something in common; a structured format for communication. This is something that can be learned and practiced on your own, and it helps to fine tune the details with the support of a therapist.

Why is this helpful? Because it slows the process down from escalating out of control, and it gives the speaker a more complete sense of feeling heard. Do you ever feel like you or your partner sound like a broken record? This may because you or they don’t have enough confidence that their words are getting through to their partner.

Reflective listening is a powerful tool for couples. It involves reflecting back what you heard your partner say before responding with your own point. Once your partner knows you heard and understand what they said, they are then able to open themselves up more to listen to what you have to say.

You can understand your partner without necessarily agreeing with them! This is a key point because if you strongly disagree with your partner, you wouldn’t want to give the impression that you agree. But you can still acknowledge that they have their own viewpoint, and acknowledge what that viewpoint is. This goes a long way towards lowering their defenses.

Say, for example, you often leave the cap off of the toothpaste. In your mind, you’re just going to use it again tomorrow so why does it matter? Your partner asks you to put the cap on after every use, because she fears bacteria. If you respond with, “No one’s ever died from their toothpaste,” soon you’re off to the races arguing about germs and the original issue gets lost.

So what does reflective listening look like? Imagine how the conversation might go differently if you responded with, “So what you’re saying is that you’d like me to put the cap back on each time, because you’re afraid of getting germs. Do I have that right?”

Once you reflect back what you hear, there’s still room for you to express your own points. Ask for your partner to reflect back to you what they heard, as well. You might be surprised by how good it feels to receive!

Try this the next time you interact with your partner. It’s better to practice on low-stakes issues before tackling the highly charged issues.  Once you’ve practiced a few times, you’re ready to integrate this tool into your home life and enjoy a more supportive way of communicating!

 Olivia Stadler, MFT intern is a clinician at The SF Marriage and Couples Center. Olivia offers sliding scale therapy for couples and individuals. 

Olivia Stadler, MFT intern is a clinician at The SF Marriage and Couples Center. Olivia offers sliding scale therapy for couples and individuals. 

Try this the next time you interact with your partner. It’s better to practice on low-stakes issues before tackling the highly charged issues.  Once you’ve practiced a few times, you’re ready to integrate this tool into your home life and enjoy a more supportive way of communicating!

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Don't Cross That Line: Setting Boundaries with Someone You Love?

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Don’t cross that line!?

The idea of setting boundaries with someone you love might seem mysterious, frightening, or even counter-intuitive. Why would you want to set a boundary with someone you’re close to? Don’t you want the “opposite”…openness, trust and flexibility? What is a boundary? Isn’t a boundary just a “new age” term for a wall?

 

Walls prohibit connection

Walls can stop the flow of communication and connection between two or more people. Very little passes in or out. Walls often promote difference, mistrust, and isolation. Walls are divisive…”bad feelings” are outside. The “good feelings” are inside. Walls are an unconscious and convenient way for us to expel our fears into a mythical “someone else.” You might feel better thinking all the danger is somewhere outside you. More likely, this fantasy leaves you feeling lonely, isolated, and disconnected. You were trying to protect yourself…but something went wrong.

 

What kind of wall am I talking about here?

“He’s late again. He told me he’d be on time to pick me up.  Here I’ve been waiting in the cold for 30 minutes. I must not matter to him. Maybe he doesn’t really love me. Or he doesn’t respect my time. I’m going to give him the silent treatment in the car. Punish him. Make him feel badly.”

 

Seems like you have every right to feel angry. You don’t feel respected or cared for. He’s doing something that triggers a feeling of not being valued. So right there, there’s a great deal of valuable information that needs to be processed and communicated, but instead, a wall goes up.

 

It might feel uncomfortable or even impossible to let someone know we are angry, feel dismissed, or that more vulnerable feelings are being evoked. So instead, you protect yourself with a wall. He’s wrong--he’s bad. You’re right--you’re good. When the wall goes up, though, communication stops. Feelings aren’t expressed or shared. No one knows what happened, but everyone senses something went badly. No one feels good. With a wall up, connection is broken. No one knows what happened…and that won’t likely change.

 

Boundaries promote connection

Boundaries are permeable. Information and feelings flow through…in ways that you control, limit, and are comfortable with. Boundaries teach others how you want to be treated. They are helpful to those around you…they can understand, and give you, what you want. Boundaries allow others to engage with you in a meaningful and connecting way. Boundaries bring you closer, and allow others to get closer to you in ways that feel comfortable, understandable, and nurturing.

 

What would a boundary sound like in the example above?

“He’s late again…I must not matter to him. Maybe he doesn’t really love me… This is going be awkward…but he needs to know this is a boundary for me. He needs to know that being on time is important to me. I care about him and us. I also care about my needs and my time. I’m going to ask him how we can create a commitment to each other that respects both our needs.”

 

It’s a substantially different thought process. There’s less division and more consideration for your feelings, wants, and desires. The valuable information, how you feel and what you want, can be communicated. And you invite input and create space for what’s going on for your partner. Feelings are expressed or shared. Limits are set in a way that invites engagement. You don’t want to be kept waiting—you DO want to feel closer to your partner because you care. Your partner knows what’s going on for you, what you want, and can begin to understand if and how he can provide that to you. Most likely…he wants you to be happy and loved. If he only knew what you really wanted.

 

My favorite boundary of all

“No, thank you.” It’s simple. Direct. Effective. It doesn’t need much else. In fact, the more that follows it, the weaker the boundary becomes. The more people want to negotiate your answer. Consider the following two invitations, from a co-worker that you’re not interested in spending time with.

 

Wanna grab a drink after work? “No, thanks. I appreciate the offer.”

 

Wanna grab a drink after work? “No, thanks. I’ve got to do laundry tonight, and I haven’t called my mother in three weeks, so I’m feeling guilty. And I don’t like going out on work days.”

In the first example, there’s not too much to say after that. It’s kind. Considerate. And most of all, considerate of your wants and needs. It also communicates that you recognize offering is sometimes risky and vulnerable.

In the second example, there’s a lot of “tap dancing.” The communication is confusing. The door is left open. Would you want to go on a non-work night?

 

What’s next

 Learning to set boundaries, for some people, is uncomfortable and new. Practice. Perfection is not a goal. Ask your friends how they set boundaries. You might begin to see that some friends do and others don’t. Notice how you experience them. Practice with a close, significant other and invite feedback. (Let them know you’re practicing ahead of time. It can decrease some of the performance anxiety.) How was it for them? What did they hear and feel? And, importantly, how did you feel afterward? I have discovered that setting boundaries, when done with compassionate and care, connects me to others—I want to be with. Sounds good to me!

 

 

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So.. What Brings You To Couples' Therapy?

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So... What brings you to Couples' Therapy?

 

As simple as this question sounds, many couples come to therapy without a clear sense of what they want, or, if they've been fighting a lot, without the faith that their conflicts or problems can be resolved. They may come too angry or discouraged to talk openly about what they feel and want. Other couples may be so resentful, they focus on what they want their partner to change, instead of what they actually want for their relationship. Sometimes a couple has different perspectives about what they need, or may disagree about the goals of therapy. If you are considering couples' therapy, you may discover that your goals for therapy are actually much different than you expected.

Here are a few questions to help you gain clarity about your goals for Couples’ Therapy:

 

1) Are you committed to being in this relationship?

Do you feel committed to your relationship and are you interested, motivated or willing to work things out? Do you feel checked out as if you have one foot out the door? Be honest with yourself. Even if you’re hurting or have lost confidence in your relationship, you may find you are open to working through these things with your partner. You may find a sense of renewed closeness and optimism as you work together to address your difficulties or conflicts.  On the other hand, you may feel that your relationship cannot be repaired. If so, couples’ therapy can support you to split amicably. Whatever your situation, check in with yourself about your willingness to commit.

 

2) What would you like your partner to understand? 

Sometimes we repeat the same request over and over to our partner and it seems they still don't get it. Maybe you've been trying to tell them how leaving their dishes in the sink drives you crazy. Maybe you've been dropping hint after hint that you want or need more help with the kids. Whatever it is, it's likely you want them to empathize with you and really understand your feelings. This is reasonable to want from your partner. What would be really helpful is for you to also understand your own underlying feelings. Let's take the first example above. Yes, the dishes drive you crazy...but what's underneath that? Do you feel unappreciated? Taken advantage of? Neglected? Does it impact how loving you feel toward your partner? Reflecting on these questions can help you figure out your goals for therapy and help you communicate these goals with your partner.

 

What do you need to repair past offenses or infidelity?

Maybe you need a verbal commitment from your partner assuring you they will do whatever it takes to regain your trust. Maybe you want to know that your partner will be truly open to hearing you out and learning more about what you have experienced. Having a sense of what you need can be very helpful for both you and your partner. It can give you self-awareness and empowerment while helping you clarify what you need to reconcile. You may also find that your relationship can not be salvaged. This is okay, too. There is clarity in this. Understanding and communicating your readiness or openness to repair can be very empowering.

 

3) What are you willing to change about yourself?

This one might be triggering for some. "Why do I need to change? She's the one that messed up!" While I understand the conviction, unfortunately, this attitude is not likely to get you the results you want. Whether or not we want to admit it, relationships are about compromise. In order to get, you must also give. Which of your partner's behaviors do you want to see more/less of? What do you think you could do to support these changes? This might mean biting your tongue when you’re upset because you tend to say hurtful things you don’t mean or this could mean being more vocally appreciative of your partner. In what ways are you willing to stretch yourself? What efforts are you willing to put forth in order to have the kind of relationship you want?

 Monica Ramil, MFT intern is a therapist at The SF Marriage and Couples Center.  Monica provides sliding scale therapy to individuals and couples. 

Monica Ramil, MFT intern is a therapist at The SF Marriage and Couples Center.  Monica provides sliding scale therapy to individuals and couples. 

 

 

 

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Re-Writing the Narrative of Happily Ever After

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Re-Writing the Narrative of Happily Ever After

Our culture—filled with online dating and notions of love at first sight—is extremely excited by, even possibly obsessed, by the idea of love. However, these stories of love tend to disproportionately highlight the beginning of love, when it’s exciting and seems that nothing could go wrong and the rest is easeful history.

From my early days of watching Snow White and Beauty and the Beast, I am all too familiar with the narrative of living happily ever after. In fact, I used to believe it was my given right as the princess and protagonist of my own fairytale, that I meet a charming prince or princess and effortlessly live happily ever after. Sadly, I have seen this happily-ever-after-myth—the standard that I find many of us (perhaps even unconsciously) hold our relationships to—gets in the way of doing the work for the rewarding payoff of long-term love. The idea that true love should be effortless has, in my opinion, led to many premature unions and premature separations.

This widely preached and broadly held notion of love, combined with the seemingly endless supply of potential partners found at the swipe of a finger make for many a relationship casualty.

Interestingly, love has only recently become the sole and paramount reason for unions in the Western world. In fact, if we look back at history (or at other cultures), marriage and lifelong partnership were not determined around love and emotion, but rather around reasons such as land, joining families, politics. I am not purporting that these reasons were any more reasonable than our norm today, but simply hope to point out that love has recently made it to the top in our society, without us truly understanding what that means.

What is a prince(ss) to do?

First, I think it is our duty to re-write the narrative of love and not let our love stories end at the beginning, but daringly continue in the uncharted waters of long-term partnership. This is not to say that long-term love itself is a myth, but rather, it may look different than what we have been taught to think.

Secondly, doing away with the hope for perfection is paramount. With two (or more) people coming together—bringing their disparate hopes, fears and attachment styles to a relationship—there are bound to be disagreements, hurt feelings, and a great need to seek to understand our partners and likewise feel that we are understood. I find that many relationships are filled with projection around what we think, hope and expect the other to be. Those projections result in true selves going unseen.

After the honeymoon phase and after the rose-colored glasses (of projection) come off that we are faced with a real person, full of flaws and insecurities—sometimes much like our own. If a longer-term relationship is what we are after (and it often is) this is our chance to work a little harder to mold our relationship into what we want, rather than chasing a fantasy. How might we do this?

Bringing awareness to the ways we have incorporated the myth of happily-ever-after into our lives is an important step in unveiling the subtle ways we promote it in our beliefs systems and behaviors. In this vein, checking our assumptions of what we think love is and what we want it to look like for each of us in crucial. Furthermore, discussing these hopes and needs with our partners will likely avoid confusion and unmet expectations down the road. Lastly giving ourselves and our partners permission to be messy in relationship alleviates so much pressure and allows us to bring more of ourselves to the relationship, rather than just the parts of ourselves that are “acceptable,” neat and perfect.

While this may sound like more work, introspection and communication than Sleeping Beauty might have put in, the reward is a true connection with another in all of their vulnerabilities and authenticity and likewise to feel seen for all that we are in our full and true selves. In this way, I find that working on love, and continually putting effort into a relationship can be ever-more rewarding than aiming for perfect love.

In re-writing the narrative of love we can be liberated from the myth of happily-ever-after and therefore do not have to despair when things get rocky in our relationships. Instead, we can see these moments for what they are: part of what is means to love another rather than the devastation of a perfect fairytale. With this line of thinking, we can use these moments of challenge as opportunities for learning, connection, and growth.

 Ava Henderson is a therapist at the San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. Ava provides sliding scale therapy to individuals and couples. 

Ava Henderson is a therapist at the San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. Ava provides sliding scale therapy to individuals and couples. 

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Alone and Holy: Does Not Prepare You for Being in a Relationship

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Alone and Holy

I spent many years alone, living by myself, meditating, eating by myself, and walking by myself. I was my own best friend and proud that I was able to gain such internal peace and holiness.

Just when I was ready to celebrate my enlightenment, I began to include others in my life, romantically. “I am Zen now,” I thought, “I am ready to be in a relationship now”. All of those articles that talked about working on yourself before entering into a relationship, all of those articles that talked about becoming your own whole person so that you don’t need anyone to complete you, they all encouraged me to learn to be alone before joining with another.

 

Well, being alone, as holy as it can get, did not prepare me for being with someone. All of the internal peace within me vanished when I was hungry and my partner and I could not choose a restaurant to eat at. For years I chose what to eat and when to eat and there was no discussion about it with someone else. It was a peaceful process. But now two people were choosing and I didn’t like pizza and I wasn’t even hungry yet. But we had this dinner planned and it was time to eat. Wanting to be peaceful, I sucked it up, kept my complaints inside, and forced the pizza in. And then I felt sick and resented my partner. And so when my partner didn’t want to walk me home that night because he had something planned that he had to run to, I burst.

 

“I ate a whole pizza for you!”…That’s what I wanted to say. Instead I said, “You can’t even walk me home?!” I felt abandoned and not seen. But I was my own best friend all of these years! Where is that inner best friend to comfort me and hang out with me instead now? I kept telling myself, “I’m complete by myself. I don’t need him to walk me home.” But I wanted him to walk me home and it hurt that he didn’t and my inner best friend could not fill in that night.

 

After a few incidences like that I realized…I could be alone again and be holy. But I could be even more holy is if I can be with someone, face my dark sides, my selfishness, and my neediness and other “nesses” that I didn’t even know I had inside, and continue to love my partner and myself in the process.

Taking time to get to know yourself is good. But don’t expect that it will prepare you for being in a relationship. Being in the relationship will prepare you for being in that relationship. Also, it’s not always about being holy :)

 

 Elham Farhodi, MFT intern is a therapist at The SF Marriage and Couples Center. She offers sliding scale therapy to couples and individuals who can't afford full fee. 

Elham Farhodi, MFT intern is a therapist at The SF Marriage and Couples Center. She offers sliding scale therapy to couples and individuals who can't afford full fee. 

Taking time to get to know yourself is good. But don’t expect that it will prepare you for being in a relationship. Being in the relationship will prepare you for being in that relationship. Also, it’s not always about being holy :)

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Thinking about expanding the family? How to think through this life altering decision

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Thinking about Expanding the Family? How to think through this life-altering decision.

 

The pressure of the “next step” in your relationship can be daunting, especially when that next step is a conversation about whether or not to have children. The desire to have children is not as commonplace as it once was. Research shows a decline in the birth rate overall, and more couples are choosing not to have kids, or having them later on in life. Perhaps the initial desire to postpone parenthood is financially related, but apprehension can also stem from the potential that this addition will strain a romantic relationship.

 

The noise can be incredibly overwhelming to sift through, and makes it difficult to locate your own feelings amidst the clatter. We can feel pressure consciously through opinions from family, peers, and by biological confines; as well as unconsciously by way of social constructs. Even as society moves away from a “typical” lifestyle, parenthood remains the social default, something couples may feel pressured to choose because the path is culturally expected. Your partner might be going through a parallel experience, but maybe neither of you have felt comfortable enough to share this process with the other. Maybe you are both undecided? Maybe one of you wants multiple children, or no children? Maybe you are just not ready, but know children are somewhere in the future?

 

Weighing these big decisions in a relationship can be challenging. What do you do when you are at this point, and how do you reach out to one another?

 

First, self-exploration…

Prior to approaching your partner, I believe self-exploration will be helpful to assess your own feelings and clarity about expanding your family. The importance of this step is that when you are ready to open up, you will be able to approach your partner from an authentic place. To gain a deeper understanding of how to engage your inner-voice, and break through personal defenses does require commitment and courage. This is getting in contact with your desires, fears, and possible hesitations. Personal therapy and mindfulness practices can be great approaches to help guide you. 

 

Then we can start the conversation

One of the many useful frameworks when having this conversation is to use Rosenberg’s four steps of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Using this method is an invitation to speak from your authentic self without needing to defend yourself. NVC also gives partners the opportunity to engage in compassionate receiving, learning how to remain grounded and open, so the other feels validation. Let’s take a closer look at the steps.

 

Step 1: Observations without evaluations

            Think about this step as a way to open up the conversation, and explore the thoughts that each of you have about expanding the family. You are not going to come away with any definitive answers, but more that you desire to unfold the topic through your own observations, without introducing any judgment or evaluation.

 

 

Step 2: Feelings – Distinguishing feelings from thoughts

            We tend to think about our feelings by way of our thoughts, and that can be distracting for partners to connect with. This is the time for you to express your feelings that surfaced when you did self-exploration, focusing on words that describe your inner experience rather than words that describe your interpretations, thoughts, and assessments. How are you feeling about starting a family? Get deeper and share these words. Allowing your vulnerable side to be present often helps soften and deepen the contact.   

 

Step 3: Needs– Acknowledgement of our needs

            Now that you have shared your feelings, you can go an additional step and speak to your needs that are behind these feelings. These are our deepest and most important requirements. They can be as simple as a need for shelter or food, and as complex as desiring a sense of community. In relation to this conversation, your need could be that you want to be a parent. Another need could be to have equality in the partnership prior to making any decisions. If we don’t value our needs than our partners will not be able to respond to them.

 

Step 4: Requests – Being clear about what you want

            You have had a chance to open up the dialogue, share your feelings, and speak to your needs, now we are at the place of making a request. Knowing your objective before you request will be important. In this situation, you can request a response to what you have shared, such as a reflection. You can even ask for check-ins about this topic every week. When we are able to express a clear request, we raise the likelihood that the person listening to us will experience choice in their response. This choice will make a request very different from a demand, and your partner will be more available to the idea.

 

Keep in mind that your partner could be going through their own process, and this discussion will go back and forth as someone initiating, while the other receives. Opening up a conversation like this will be an evolving process; for very few couples, is this a one-time exchange. Be willing to engage in dialogue, and focus on exploring and listening versus testing and judging.

 

Deepening the connection

Learning how to work through difficult conversations can be life-altering for your relationship. Couples counseling is a space that allows you to learn how to engage in new ways of communication, such as NVC. Within the space, couples develop tools to shift from places of crisis to places of positive management. As you continue this journey with your partner, remember this: when we are able to build connection through challenging conversations, we then have greater latitude for creativity and exploration to get deeper, and can build loving and lasting relationships. 

 Smitha Gandra, MFT intern is a therapist at the SF Marriage and Couples Center.  She offers sliding scale therapy to individuals and couples. 

Smitha Gandra, MFT intern is a therapist at the SF Marriage and Couples Center.  She offers sliding scale therapy to individuals and couples. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Love and Money Part 2: Money Talks

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Love and Money Part 2: Money Talks

People say “money talks” to describe the power of money to persuade, to control an argument or end it. In this blog I want to explore how to communicate effectively about money, and its power in romantic relationships. I think it is important to this discussion to acknowledge the inflated importance money has come to have in our society (here and here are articles about the way greed is ruining us and our planet). Romantic relationships are perhaps the area of life in which money’s dominance should be most questioned. However, the might that money holds in the world outside our personal relationships ensures that it “talks” loudly in even our most intimate relationships where one might hope emotional labor and emotional intelligence might hold more sway.  I will outline below how to navigate talking about money in relationships.

Most of this will be about preparation and less about the actual meat of the conversation. Because money is equated with power, the topic could not be more loaded for each of us. Nothing is more explosive than love and money in combination. Love brings up our deepest, tenderest needs for closeness and fears of rejection and money can stir feelings of ruthlessness, powerlessness and/or suspicion. Therefore, most of having talks about money is about examining all of the charges it holds for us in relationships. If we can dismantle this internal field of landmines, we can get so much farther. If you want more specifics on how to have more open, empathic communication in general, including how to conduct the meaty part of the money conversation check out this blog. I recommend you use the process I described there for all serious money conversations.

            To prepare for dialogues about dollars, chats about cash, spars about spending or any such occasion, I strongly recommend you begin by reflecting on your own lifelong relationship with the material world. And yes, I do mean the whole material world, cause in this case the metaphor matters. Material, Matter, Money - they all etymologically trace to the Mother, some mother or goddess that refers to the archetypal Great Mother, who psychologically relates to our experience of our mother, when she seemed like a goddess, in our infancy. This is why money and infantile power and needs for intimacy are such a sticky wicket. The first “other” we meet in relationship (regardless, of course of their actual gender, which could be anything) sets the tone for us relationally, but also (and less often exposited) sets the tone for how we relate to the material world. So I (and you and you and you) relate to wealth the way I relate to my body, to the earth, to food, etc. If I historically employed dissociative defenses in my relationship with my overwhelming, anxious mother (yeah, maybe I have) then I am also likely to be clumsy/unconsciously self-destructive of my body, careless with money/self-sabotaging and checked out in conversations about money (yeah, ok I am). Similarly, according to your own unique relationship with your first care-giver, you learn how to relate to food, your body, success and money. Do you feel entitled around these things, like a beggar always on the outside, over-fed or undeserving?  These patterns are likely to be pervasive, often unconscious, and they will likely surface in your closest relationships.

            As important as the infant-parent dyadic influences on our developing psyches are, they exist within a societal context of deeper significance and more gravitas. Our class background and brand of social conditioning about money creates our beliefs about what constitutes valid labor, whether or not sharing is a virtue, how money should be spent, passed on, saved etc. These beliefs come with a set of ethics about what is right to do with money. These are bound to come into conflict with the ethics your partner(s) was raised with at some point. Underneath these beliefs are unconscious felt-senses that are compelling and explosive. I have had to face a deep, hungry feeling related to having been raised poor. I have faced it many times in relationship if I feel like a partner’s actions or ways of being threaten my subsistence. We are all built with triggers around money, places where we become irrational. That is why in addition to all of this psychological work it is vital to know as many data points as possible about your actual financial situation. Granted this is not simple and we’ll look at the complexities more in a minute. For now, suffice it to say that facts and numbers help to check us and are informative of how our distortions might be functioning. We must always be especially attuned to the differences between our perceptions and the facts, as these distortions can inform us of other factors in us or in the relationship. Imagine the following example:

            Ari was raised in a lower middle-class family with security around the essentials, but little else. After working very hard to build a restaurant business with no higher education, they partner with Shane, a visual artist, who was raised in much greater wealth with every opportunity and encouragement to succeed. Ari perpetually feels like they work longer hours and harder than Shane, but how can these things be compared? When the couple tracks their hours of work for two weeks, it turns out Shane puts in more hours between studio time, networking with gallery owners and collaborators and coming up with new project ideas. Once this data comes to surface, the reality can be explored. Ari can then perhaps pass through recognition that Shane counting networking brunches and cocktails and sitting in the bathtub ‘getting ideas” goes against his ethical structure for what work looks like. If Ari continues to follow this thread hopefully they can come to separate the resentments they feel from Shane and experience their own sense of loss and appreciation over how hard they have had to work in life. Hopefully, in the process Shane can stay open to understanding the differences and inequalities between them and not get lost in defensiveness about their entitlement. If Shane can stay open, they may be able to help Ari overcome their need to work so hard, and relax into their new level of greater financial security.

            The point is to examine the places where we “feel like” whatever thing – if we feel like our partner spends more frivolously, earns less than they should, doesn’t work as hard, takes our work for granted or anything else that seems to fall in the category of suspicion, judgments or resentments, these feelings are worth examination. Having some data is helpful to the process. It is by no means the end of the conversation. If I feel like I work more than my partner and I earn more money and this is supported by the numbers, so what? That is another matter. If my partner (the lower earner) struggles with a disability or mental health condition, or if they are driven passionately to do things that society simply doesn’t value like teaching, activism or art this may challenge my societally/family conditioned values on meritocracy and sharing resources. This is going to be even more difficult and simultaneously more important if my own success is built on work I don’t truly enjoy or if I feel like I can never achieve perfect enough success myself.

In the U.S., institutional power and privilege structures maintain the relative fixity of social classes while upholding a mythology of individual achievement. This causes most who have not achieved material success to feel like they have failed and those who have garnered luxury to feel like they have earned it. Both the feeling of failure on one end and that of validity/entitlement on the other can exist in spades despite facts to the contrary. If you are partnered with someone who has radically different capacities for what society deems valid forms of labor than you do, you need to be prepared to break down some of the garbage you have been fed about what constitutes valuable labor. Start here, here and here to challenge your assumptions and educate yourself about emotional labor and productivity. This may make the facts feel less important or not at all important. Though I still believe they are of use as a reference point. Once you can acknowledge any discrepancy between incomes, and then explore different levels of ability and opportunity you can approach the whole truth of your situation. Sometimes, we throw up smoke screens to avoid facing these truths because they are really painful. What if the truth is I am trading my labor in the world and the money I make from it for your sexual and emotional labor? Does that mean my sex or my emotions are worth less and I am being used for money? This is the core of valuelessness that lives under a lot of folks’ entitlement to sexual and emotional labor. For all the edifice of success and wealth one may have built, there is some part that is often driven by feelings of deep inadequacy. It is common for this to play out in relationship in the form of projection, where the one who provides the emotional/sexual labor is made to feel worthless, so that the high-earner never has to face those feelings themself.

There are no ready-made answers to solve the issues once these deeper truths are uncovered. But, at least once the core fears and wounding have been uncovered, all parties in the relationship can undertake working with their part. The longer these things stay hidden, buried in either assumptions without facts, or facts without context the more couples spend miring in fights that are not really about whatever matter is supposedly at hand. Though I of course have all my own biases, I will say that I believe in generosity as an extension of love and compassion and I do not believe gifts of money are any grander than generosity with time, listening, sharing spirituality, sexuality, creativity or knowledge. I encourage you all to sincerely and vulnerably acknowledge all your partner brings to your relationship when discussing money. This should be more than lip-service and actually mean your partner is equal and valid in their contributions and respected in decision-making about money. If after all of this talking and thinking together and contextualizing, you still feel your partnership is not fair or right for you, it is your responsibility to work with your partner(s) to either find boundaries around spending/earning that feel acceptable or end the relationship in as kind a way as possible, and that may mean some financial support. We will break-up/divorce questions in the next blog. But, let’s speak here to possible boundaries you might set to maintain and/or restore balance in your relationship. No answers are the “right” ones for every relationship, these are just suggestions you might try. I will explore one option in depth, not because I think it’s better, but because I believe it is the most emotionally loaded. I will then provide resource for implementing different organizational strategies.

Keeping finances separate. This is a boundary easier drawn initially than re-drawn after blending finances. So the simplest advice I can give you is to think very carefully and move slowly toward combining bank accounts and expenses. Many very seriously committed partners never mix money pools these days. Independence works well enough if you have similar incomes/earning capacities. The problems come when those are different, even temporarily. If you have been in love with someone for fifteen years, would you really leave them on their own financially as they struggled through crippling PTSD following an assault, cancer treatment, prolonged unemployment or any of the catastrophic things that can befall us in a lifetime? I hope again here to advocate for compassionate generosity toward our loved ones. I do not encourage anyone to bankrupt themselves to give to others. Boundaries can become very fluid in relationships where money is shared without stated limits. There should be no shame in asking for what you need. There should also be no shame in saying, “Sorry, I really can’t.” Yet, we experience boatloads of shame for both. It can be very hard to face the fact that you are in over your head trying to support someone.

Even if you have been partially or completely supporting a loved one, it is not too late for you to draw boundaries. To be compassionate here I recommend you work with a therapist and/or mediator to help you come up with a plan for the separation of your finances. All parties should feel empowered to speak to their own needs and interests and feel supported to get a fair outcome. I strongly recommend you do not try to have this conversation without outside support. It may be very difficult or impossible to maintain the relationship throughout the process of financially separating. The plan must honor the needs and concerns of the party with less resource. Withdrawing from the work force for even a short period of time has real life consequences on folk’s employability. If you have been supporting someone financially, understand that it is a huge deal for you to remove that resource all of a sudden. Whether you are aiming to continue the relationship with new financial boundaries or end the relationship, please try to work out a transition plan with them. This is much more likely to be satisfactory to both parties with some form of mediation. Perhaps you can agree to support your partner through some form of training for employment, or help to connect them to community resources or both in addition to providing transitional monetary support. I might recommend finding a therapist who has worked narratively, or in another strengths-based modality to help the partner with the least resources connect with their untapped/unclaimed strengths and resources.

 Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center.

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center.

            So many other well considered strategies, tips and thoughts are already out there, please read here and here and here for a few ideas. Please look them over with your partner(s) and discuss. Next time we’ll look more closely at how to separate finances in break-ups and divorces.

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Love and Money Part 1: Conundrums

Love and Money, Part 1 of 3: Conundrums

            As I have written before, marriage was created as a business transaction to expand influence, solve family conflicts, build empires and amass riches. Long before romantic love was a thing (see Joseph Campbell speak to its origins briefly here), marriage existed as more-or-less a political institution that mediated the merging of estates and granted permission for the creation of an additional resource, children. In fact, the word we use, ‘money,’ can be etymologically traced to Juno, the wife of Zeus. This speaks to the socio-politically lopsided and strangely interdependent nature of love and money. Juno, the wife is money (i.e. a material object, property, coin for trade or use). This article drops some interesting facts about the history of marriage and our long path to greater equality within that institution. Though I am grateful for the information it presents so concisely, I am not sure I believe we are way past inequality and gender roles as the author seems to suggest.

Regardless of whatever degree of equality we have achieved, I still notice a great deal of sensitivity in female (cis and trans) friends and clients when they feel they are being regarded as property or ‘sex objects.’ There is a corresponding sensitivity in men (yep, cis and trans) if they feel they are being used for their money and not valued for their authentic selves. So, I have started with this context to acknowledge that the history of love and money comes with quite a lot of baggage. Again, though I have spoken here of men and women, these same dynamics can show up in queer relationships, especially those entrenched in enacting gender roles or working with dynamics that have historically been gendered, such as breadwinner, or home-maker.

In this blog I will explore some of the common love and money troubles and tangles in relationships. In the next blog I will suggest specific communication strategies for money talks (here’s a refresher on some good communication basics). Finally, in a third blog I will approach topics around meaningfully sorting out money matters in break-ups and divorces. The history of women having been property and men having been a meal ticket figures saliently into almost all intersections of love and money, so I will try not to refer to it too often, as long as you can promise to keep it in mind and not underestimatehistory’s influence on your current situation. The intergenerational transmission of memories is such a thoroughly researched thing at this point, I found too many articles to know what to tag here. If you are curious just do a search. Suffice it to say, we all have ties to the past that live in us still and seek healing.

 

Love & Money Conundrum No.1: Different Socio-Economic Class Backgrounds. My partner and I are from fairly different economic backgrounds. I grew up poor with high school graduate parents. She was raised in an upper-middle class family in which both parents had doctoral degrees. This has been perhaps the most elusive-to-describe, and yet ever-present difference between us. Through this relationship and many conversations across socio-economic differences in groups, I have learned some of the primary ways class difference appears in relationships. Because we all relate differently to our foundations (some adhere, some rebel, most do both in complex ways), I am going to try to name the core feelings that seem to be imparted by different experiences of class privilege or lack thereof. When I give examples, just know there are lots of other ways those could look, but notice the core feelings motivating the expression, as these feelings are what we all must learn to attend to in ourselves. I will also be referring to “poor” and “wealthy” people. Yes, of course there are folks in the middle, but that is becoming a smaller segment of the populations all the time and I thing in feeling tone, most of us grew up either feeling like “haves” or “have-nots.” Yes, it’s more complex than that, but we only have so much space here, so I am making a deliberate over-simplification.

One major feeling difference is “too much” vs. “not enough.” It seems many of us “have-nots” were given messages in our up-bringing about not getting “too big for our britches” or thinking too much of ourselves. This messaging is meant to cripple our ambitions so we don’t get too far from the family or achieve enough to make them wonder if they should have achieved more. It’s easy to see how this messaging serves Capitalism and keeps lots of worker bees in line. This kind of ‘family-talk’ is one of the ways intergenerational patterns of behavior are passed down. When I treated myself to a private education (very taboo for a poor kid) and met lots more wealthy folks than I had ever known before, I was surprised to find their family-talk was the opposite of mine. Instead of being told they were too much, they could never be enough. They were taught to achieve, to excel, to take up space and win, faster and better was the rule. In addition to the obvious access to opportunity provided by wealth, I believe this foundational difference in child-rearing contributes significantly to the relative fixity of social-class even in supposed “free-market” societies.

This difference in core orientation to the world and one’s self can lead to a preponderance of issues when they meet in relationship. Very different ideas about success, risk-taking, self-care and value of one’s labor stem from these very different roots. Let’s say we have a couple who meet at UC Berkeley in grad school. Jamie struggled to get there and feels guilty for breaking taboo and leaving family behind. Rae actually was supposed to go to Harvard, but didn’t get in, and so went somewhat in disgrace to Cal. They fall in love and get through school and get out and married. Jamie is trying to get their career together and can’t understand why Rae wants to plan for kids already when they are still renting. Jamie thinks Rae is crazy to believe she can start a private practice just out of grad school. Jamie is working three part-time gigs and doing free-internships. Rae feels bad for Jamie and doesn’t understand why they are working so hard. Rae is sick of Jamie balking whenever she mentions a vacation plan, having kids or starting her practice. Rae can’t stand how Jamie is limiting their future with their worry.

This couple is working with two different realities. Rae has serious pressure to achieve imbedded in her make-up. She needs to have the kids and buy the house and get the perfect life on-track quickly to make up for that glaring Harvard failure. Yes this is a hell of a stereotype and many families have broken this shit down and oriented differently. And yet, these deeply embedded motivators operate daily in so many of us, conscious or unconscious.

            Another core difference can be found in orientation toward acquisition or, at the base of it hunger vs. gratification. My experience and observations argue that if you have many experiences in childhood of burning to have something that you know you just cannot have, you end-up with a very different relationship toward want and acquisition than someone who had or could have had most of what they wanted. I would also argue that if actual hunger for food and starvation/malnutrition are a part of the equation, this is much more severely felt. This is also a part of why Jamie is going to be less likely to take risks. Both for fear of losing basic needs, and also, simply because wanting anything is anxiety provoking. When many memories of wanting things come along with attached memories of longing and disappointment, followed by powerlessness and despair, just the act of wanting gets harder and harder. Conversely, Rae can’t understand what it even feels like to worry about basic needs. Having lived life with a safety net means Rae feels great about taking risks and wanting has been like a fun game for most of her life. Because she has experienced large-scale disappointment (no Harvard degree) there is hope she can find empathy for Jamie’s fear of risk. Yet, the difference is vast.

            How can this couple be helped? First and foremost, they have to accept these differences and try to stay non-defensive and curious about how their differences and their associated complexes come up. Rae will need to be spacious and compassionate as Jamie explores their wounds, grief and inhibitions about money. It would be best if they had the help of a couple’s therapist, and maybe if Jamie had their own therapist so Rae wasn’t the only one helping them confront all these difficult disparities. Jamie will eventually need to come to understand that they can easily put their fears onto Rae (and any future children) and learn to let go of some of their worry.

It might be helpful if this couple kept their money separate for a time, so that Jamie can feel in control of their own basic needs, while not inhibiting Rae’s potential success and belief in her self. Sometimes people need to fail in life, this is so well-known as to inhabit the land of cliché. If Rae needs to fail a few times in the eyes of her parents to develop her own ideas about success and self-worth, that’s cool. Jamie’s basic feeling of safety and the ability to provide for themselves should not be compromised in the process, nor should Rae’s sense of agency and process of development. Both can and should support each other to examine their assumptions about limitation and possibility, while respecting decisions that each makes. This partnership can help both Jamie and Rae achieve more realistic pictures of themselves and their potentials. This is loves rich potential – to make strength out of differences and expand the horizons of both partners. Therefore, I want to be clear that when I say it’s important to respect decisions, it would never be my desire to endorse skipping lots of open communication. By exploring these issues in depth both Jamie and Rae can heal intergenerational wounds and break damaging cycles. That’s probably one of the (unconscious) reasons they got together. But they have lots of tender spots and big feelings they will have to get through to allow love’s expansive potential. Please see the next blog for some ideas on how to prepare for and have open communication about money and all that it triggers for us.

Love & Money Conundrum No.2: Financial Support/Division of Labor. This is perhaps the most fertile ground for all of the feels I mentioned earlier that arise around historically gendered love/money patterns and roles. If one partner earns significantly more money than the other(s), is significantly more capable of working, or is mostly in charge of household labor prepare to enter a twilight zone of conundrums around self-worth and fairness. First, let’s name another significant social construct that plays a role here - the senselessly over-prioritized values of “success,” “productivity,” and, “hard work” in our Late Capitalist society. We have all been societally programmed to believe that success looks like achievements of high-status and big-money. We are also taught that success comes from productivity, trained that productivity is equal to one’s value, and that most often productivity looks like hard work and long hours. This is all bullshit, of course. We all know people with high status and big money aren’t that much happier than those with their basic needs met. Hopefully most of us know that wealth is more often inherited than self-made. It is also true that being busy all the time is killing our creativity. Still the old fallacies about success, hard work and productivity persist (even in folks reading this at their job, hehe) in lots of our psyches and encroach upon most of the conversations we have in our relationships about money. It is very important to be aware of the implications of our gender roles on these dynamics of power and worth. Dependence of any kind creates vulnerability. In a world which so favors those with wealth and status, financial dependence and choices against pursuing a career are anathema. This is a tender position and if one is unable to earn their own living because of a disability or mental health issue, this is not a choice. It is vital to maintain awareness of privilege and hold compassion for those who find themselves in a financially dependent position. However, the person who works and supports financially can easily begin to feel trapped and responsible for another human. This can end up in misery of the relationship ending would be healthier for both parties, but and exit strategy seems impossible.

There are no quick fixes for couples in the deep dark places this conundrum can go to. It is incredibly important that folks in relationships with real power imbalances in terms of earning do not isolate. You will need community support to stay connected with your value as individuals and to lean on as resources if separation is on the table. You will likely escape some of the worst things this cliché has to offer if you can have witnesses to your processes and folks to keep you from getting into ruts of routine. Communication needs to be wide-open so resentments have no time to fester on either side. If the primary earner hates their work or has an innate tendency toward workaholism, resentments will build in them quickly. It will be very important for the primary earner to be self-aware about their own relationship with work and self-worth so that they can avoid projecting their frustrations, failures and disappointments onto their partner.

I have stuck to pretty easy tropes for a lot of this piece. I want to present now a slice of the complexity that most of us live in. I won’t present any answers, but rather I invite you to consider all you have read thus far, and simply appreciate what we are all up against in the spaces where love and money overlap. It is my hope this will invite you also into compassion for yourself and all of your partners and friends.

Let’s imagine Joon grew up very wealthy but his father lost all of his money when Joon was 15, forcing Joon to work harder than ever before to get to the education he was taught was not only essential for success, but also his birthright. Joon gets a job during college at a café, where he meets Mya, a trans girl artist from a very poor back ground. Joon and Mya fall in love, get married, blah, blah. Then in their 30’s Mya’s art explodes and she is wealthy beyond her wildest dreams. All of a sudden, Joon needs to quit his job to stay home with their two kids, while Mya alternately flies all over the world and locks herself in her studio. What if Mya’s poverty mindset causes her to both over-consume on luxuries and sabotage success, causing a reliving of Joon’s experience of devastating loss? What is Joon feels emasculated and begins having an affair with the maid? What if Mya re-creates through wealth the abandonment her parents were forced by poverty to enact upon her? These and dozens of other hardships are possible. But, of course there remains their capacity to build each other up, to support each other with difficult conversations that can lead them both to better self-understanding. But it will not be easy.

By Alice Phipps- 

 

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center and "fierce" content writer at The SF Marriage and Couples Center

 

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The Perils and Pleasures of Online Dating

 The SF Marriage and Couples Center is a great place to get support while going through the ups and downs of online dating.

The SF Marriage and Couples Center is a great place to get support while going through the ups and downs of online dating.

The Perils and Pleasures of Online Dating

            I am old enough to remember the first bulletin board systems that came before the internet. There were crude games, geeky tech-focused chat rooms and a lot of chat rooms for flirting and looking for love. My first experiences with this were humiliating and soured me on the whole thing (still shaking my fist at you, Jennifer and Robin!). However, even I have come to see that online dating is real venue for making connections of all kinds. An estimated 1 in 4 relationships start in an online dating app these days, and I’d wager the percentage is higher here in San Francisco, where tech thrives and millennials abound.  Though this blog is usually about relationships in full swing and sometimes in turmoil, I’d like to spend this one talking about how to engage in finding relationship in the jungle of online dating apps. Since this is a counseling center’s website and I am a therapist, I will mostly focus on taking care of your psychological health in navigating online dating, and less on the ins and outs of finding true love in the ether.

            First, I want to call out some of the flaws and biases in online dating. It is well documented that racial bias is alive and well on the internet, and unfortunately this can also impact folks’ experience of online dating in very hurtful ways. It is best to know about this before you get started swiping. You may (as this article suggests) want to try a race-specific app to weed out discrimination, fetishization and other racist bullshit that has been reported by many People of Color looking for connections on mainstream sites. I am not a Person of Color, so I do not have direct experience with this, nor do I meant to presume to tell you as a POC how to navigate online dating or anything else. The data and the anecdotal experience shared with me by friends and clients alike leads me to believe that this is an important factor to consider if you are POC. Therefore, it feels important to name. The article above includes a graph that shows how racial biases showed up in a review of OKCupid’s data. I hope everyone (but especially White people) will take a look at it and take a pause to consider your biases. Try to take this awareness into online dating and be mindful of how your biases inform your dating choices. Many people have a type, or features we are attracted to. Why not spend some time thinking about whether or not those things are racist, sexist, transphobic or ableist? Just a thoughtJ

            The next step is to select the right dating app for you! There are so many and they are remarkably varied. I recommend you check out these links (here, here and here) to get started familiarizing yourself with what types of sites are out there. I do not necessarily endorse any of the rankings these articles provide, but I think they are a good place to start thinking about your relationship. Not your relationship to any person you’ll meet, but your relationship to the app itself, which will likely be some kind of roller coaster ride. It really helps to be honest with yourself about what you are looking for and find and app that correspond to that desire. If you are not sure what you are looking for, I would recommend starting with Zoosk, Match, Coffee Meets Bagel or OKCupid. Those sites seem most geared to finding authentic, tender connections, which seems like a better place to start than a hook-up site like Tinder, Pure or Grindr, unless you know for sure you want a hook-up.

            The relationship with the app(s) will take some getting used to. Whether you are getting an overwhelming number of matches (see articles for which sites help for this issue) or not as many as you’d like you will probably find your heart racing as you open the app, just as it would if you were actually having a date. That is what I mean about having a relationship with the app. You’ll want to both allow the fun tingly feelings of getting matches and messaging cute people, and notice them and revel in them as part of the process, but you’ll also want to set boundaries with the app, just like any partner, especially if you notice your ego is being puffed and popped in a way that is causing emotional turmoil for you. Maybe set aside a certain number of hours a day to not engage with the app. Try only messaging one or two people at a time if you are spending too much time on it. Above all else, keep a barometer on how much of your self-worth is getting tied up in this thing. If you notice that you are hitting highs and lows that feel uncomfortable, unusual or just plain scary, maybe take a week off and spend time with people who actually know you in the real world. Identify which of your friends is the most intrigued listening to your dating saga and speak with them regularly to ground the experience and reality check how invested you are getting. When you are dating the dating app, remember there are other fish in the sea. If this app is not giving you what you need and boundary-setting isn’t the issue, try a different app or two.

            Online dating culture is different than other types of dating I have engaged in through my 40+ years. There is less accountability and less communication than I’d like for you, my dear reader. People will disappear (ghost) on you before, during or after your actual dates with no explanation at all. You will have what seem like good dates and never hear from the person again. They may send you some rude message to blow you off, or a splendid messaging relationship online can go on forever without ever meeting in real life (IRL). I beg you for the sake of your precious heart not to take these things personally. The culture we have created on the internet is really toxic in some sectors. People feel free to be their worst selves in comments and online harassment every day. Some of this culture of brazen disregard for others has most assuredly bled into the realm of online dating.  With so many fish in so many seas of data, some people can’t seem to find a reason to be kind. Just understand this is not about you. If you have it in you, you can be the person who models kindness and communication. Though, honestly you will have to navigate how much you put into that carefully or you will end up bitter that no one (or next to one) reciprocates your thoughtfulness.

            Making online dating psychologically meaningful might involve work in therapy. I know. You’re shocked. I am recommending therapy again. But really, the stuff that comes up when you are putting yourself out there like this is a gold mine of neuroses, attachment wounds and projections to be mined in therapy. Let’s say you are someone who naturally undervalues their appearance or has some reluctance to shine and be beautiful. This will be evident in the way you set up your profile. The pictures you use will be dark or fuzzy or weird. Your best picture will be buried five back, or you’ll neglect to mention that you speak 7 languages and won a triathlon last weekend. If you let your therapist (or even a good friend) see your profile and give you feedback/ reflections/ask questions you can find out more about how you see yourself. All of the many anxieties and highs you experience in this process will be windows into your attachment style. Uncovering the reasons why we feel the way we feel about getting attached or having a hard time getting attached is the fastest route to the fears and hurts that most hold us back. This can be a profound intentional experience of seeing in a real-time experiment how your attachment system works, not only is this incredible opportunity for therapeutic work, it is also a time when the extra support just might be really nice. I recommend you keep a journal of thoughts and feelings related to dating to discuss with your therapist (or confidant). You might also want to journal any dreams that come up during this adventure.

            Remember that IRL dating still happens! I know folks who seem so attached to online dating that they forget to look up to co-workers, friends, neighbors and other community members who already know them for potential dates. If for whatever reason online dating is taking a toll on your system, it can be grounding to reach out to real people who you know in the real world. This is still a thing that happens and I hope it continues to be so! So whether it means putting down the app or supplementing that experience, go ahead and just flirt with a person you think is cute sometimes. For some people this might be next to impossible. For others it may feel incredibly grounding to enjoy the real time, irreplaceable feedback that you get from someone’s facial expressions and body language in an IRL encounter. In fact maybe you are someone who really shines in an intellectual setting where you can be known deeply and online platforms will never be ideal. Join a book club, go to discussion groups! Be in your element! Same goes for those who thrive in sports settings, cocktail parties, activism, in affinity groups or at kinky play parties. I still believe group spaces (online or IRL) where you share strengths, challenges and/or interests with others are a more certain way to find a promising relationship.

            In conclusion, good luck in the rising and falling tides of online dating. Never forget that you are a whole person, not just your profile and that you have control. You can delete the apps, you can ask for exactly what you want and you can block anyone treating you badly. All of this can actually be a great time to solidify your self-worth and practice boundary setting. Enjoy J

Written by Alice Phipps

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center and currently is the content writer for The SF Marriage and Couples Center

 

 

 

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Dear Straight Allies, This Pride Thank a Queer for Breaking Down Gender Roles (Dear Queers, Keep Going on That!)

Happy Pride!! This year I’d like to honor the societal-level, collective gender-role-busting work being done by gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, queer, transgender, genderqueer,  intersex, no gender, and androgynous folks. There are so many examples from other cultures and times in which gender was non-binary and sexuality was mostly regarded as fluid. However, in the United States puritanical, colonial sensibilities have cultivated a unique, especially rigid brand of gender norms. Those of us who have been outside the norms in one way or another get treated like weirdos at best, murdered at worst, while the norms are upheld. Yet, what many of us can see, and what research into relationship success now shows (see S.M. Johnson, 2003) is that gender roles are really harmful in relationships. I want to call attention to some of the ways that rigid gender roles negatively impact romantic partnership (even those of queers!), which I briefly mentioned in a recent post (here!). Please watch these two videos before you go on (hers and his). I’ll be referring to them throughout this blog. Her name is Erin. Let’s call him Troy. After you watch them, before you continue reading, take a moment to imagine them as a couple. What would draw them together? What would they fight over? What would their relationship feel like for each of them? 

I’d like to begin by sharing a bit more about myself and how I have inhabited and observed gender roles in my own life. This claiming of location feels particularly important whenever discussing topics of politics and identity. From an early age it was clear to me that I did not fit in gender-wise. Yet, I think, despite the hardship this caused, some part of me has always felt grateful for not really having the option of conformity. Sure, I tried for a couple of years to wear pink and perm my hair and wear make-up. But, it was just never ok, never who I was, and I gave up quickly. When I saw my other friends keep up the make-up and the hair and the girliness, I was puzzled and sad. They did not seem happy about it. They hated the make up for the most part and it aggravated their acne. They were always cold because even in winter they were supposed to wear skirts and skimpy tops. Their feet always hurt because the shoes they wore were fucking torture devices. They never understood the boys. It was part of the system. Even when I could easily understand the boys, they seemed baffled, almost intentionally so.

I was also good friends with boys in high school. They drank too much and hid deep depressions because they were sensitive, gentle souls daunted by the task of “being a man.” Three out of the four boys I was the closest to in high school joined the military afterward. This was in part because they were poor, but also because I think they knew some stigmatized “defect” in their upbringing (single moms, alcoholic parents, fathers who struggled with depression) had not quite made them “man enough.”  In truth, that is why we were friends. I appreciated their sensitivity, their emotional vulnerability. They were all musicians. Yet, they felt the need to go seek the socialization process that would lead them to greater emotional callousness and more aggression. They succeeded, and we are not friends anymore. Not because they joined the military, but because after they joined the club of gender normality they buried their true selves in false ones. They parts of them I loved went underground. Mostly, what I have always seen is that gender is not an us-against-them situation of gender nonconformists vs. conformists, but that we are all in the same boat being wounded by a really pervasive bad idea/big lie. 

Many of my cisgender and heterosexual allies, friends and colleagues are slow to see that dismantling the gender binary is also about reducing their suffering. As they are the largest part of the population, their suffering is vast and constant. It is my hope that elucidating the struggle of gender and sexuality majority folks might not only reduce their suffering, but mobilize more of them to deconstruct gender. I truly believe this will do more to save trans lives than creating trans awareness or tolerance as though it exists as a separate thing. In the above videos we see that performance of the gender binary harms men and women, in contrasting directions – women must demure and be receptive to aggression, men must hone aggression and callous-over their feelings. Though I will be speaking mostly of the relational conflicts between heterosexuals who are gender-conforming, I want to claim also my experience that anywhere polarized gender dynamics come in to a relationship they create the same cliché patterns. Each repetition is an opportunity to find new ways of being, to sit in awareness without action or join in the banal dance of dying tropes. I will parse out these options in an example later. This can occur in relationships of any orientation and regardless of whether or not the people in relationship are cis, trans or non-binary. 

For example an ex of mine and I fell into a dynamic in which I was the sole financial support in the relationship. We quickly descended into 1950’s-hetero-style enactments around how much time I spent at home or at work, how burdened I felt by having to work so much, and whether or not my young employees were flirting with me or attracted to me, or I was attracted to them. I was humbled to find myself living in such an archetypal enactment. I felt the enormity of the divide between the archetypal masculine and feminine in that relationship and have sought to balance those in myself and in the world since. For me there is a spiritual (or primal/instinctual for you atheist folks out there) dimension to the struggle between the archetypal masculine and the archetypal feminine. I believe this struggle can’t be “won” by either side, as much as they need each other.  The only way to win the “war of the sexes” is simply to end it. 

As a therapist, if Erin and Troy (remember them..from the videos above) walked into my office for couple therapy I would feel daunted by the work ahead of us, and a lot of it would be translating across their gender divide. I imagine his homosexual leanings would be very unlikely to surface. They would more likely manifest in sabotage of the relationship or the therapy to deflect having to “come out.” He would be a pretty high risk for perpetrating domestic violence and domestic sexual assault. Psychodynamically speaking, he is likely to harbor conscious or unconscious hate toward women for being what he can’t, and also because he has been asked to hate the feminine within himself. 

I imagine Erin both delighting in and hating his exaggerated masculinity, the way all my friends felt about their boyfriends in high school. So many women seem drawn to this bad boy type, because this is after all the pinnacle of our modernly-construed masculinity, and therefore a status trophy at the biological and sociological levels. Yet, in practice this is a terrible man with whom to build a relationship. Troy has divorced himself from his authentic sexuality and emotionality. He is self-soothing this deep wound with alcohol and violence. Erin will not be able to relate to him. She has, in fact, been conditioned not to. If she had any violent or aggressive impulses as a child, she was made to hide them and suppress them into passive aggression. She may cheat, lie or engage in other risky, secret behaviors that restore the power balance covertly. She may have somatic symptoms that result from her suppressed/disavowed trauma and rage and retreat to a dark bedroom to hide from his callousness, hoping (though probably unconsciously) sickness will incur more kindness than he is usually capable of. 

Let’s look at how they might begin the work of saving their relationship by dismantling gender roles. First steps are hard and perhaps slow. So the first, first step is to set the twin intentions of earnestly seeking change and holding self-compassion. You don’t have to be perfect at either, but you can’t let yourself off the hook or annihilate yourself over failures if you want to get anywhere. If violence has started in this relationship, I would strongly encourage the couple to live separately during at least the first part of our work together. 

I would try to help Erin and Troy to learn to listen to each other, to reflect to them how they are missing each other, blah, blah, blah therapy basics. But, throughout whatever content we were discussing, my desire would be to inquire after Troy’s vulnerability and Erin’s feelings of aggression, as these seem to be what this couple has most out of balance. For the record there are just tons of different gender binary trope-traps to fall in - the Sexual Pursuer/Distancer, the Intellectual Masculine/The Emotional Feminine, etc.. Erin and Troy are likely to have some version of the Girl Next Door meets Bad Boy story. He was super hot to her even though she knew he was all wrong for her. He showed her a tiny flash of interest and maybe even a spark of his repressed tenderness at first. Now she hates her life with him and expects him to leave his wild life behind. (again, I have so seen this same shit in all types of gay relationships). In this stereotype the emphasis is on aggression. Our Girl Next Door, Erin has none; her Bad Boy Troy is literally injecting himself with it. 

Of the three options I offered above for meeting corrosive gender roles finding new ways of being, to sit in awareness without action or join in the banal dance of dying tropes, the one I recommend folks start with is to sit in awareness without action. This would not be my approach with abusive behavior, but I am going to focus on non-abusive behavior for now. Just try to notice when you are doing the behavior that your therapist or partner points out to you as inappropriate. For example, Troy is aware at some level of his attraction to other men. He knows he is performing a cliché’. I would want him to get really curious about how it felt to perform that identity. To draw out more details about this, to add mindfulness, is to increase his awareness to a more immediate kind of experiencing of himself. When he comes home and refuses to talk to Erin, sits in a chair and drinks 12 beers and she starts crying. What is it they are enacting? What does it feel like to each of them? Don’t fight it first, just notice. Whatever these answers are they will likely lead to Troy’s vulnerability and Erin’s repressed rage. 

Along the way we will encounter obstacles, some of them so deeply ingrained that they tie to nonverbal states. Men in therapy (and also some trans women, non-binary folx and trans men) for example, often encounter a hard feeling or numbness that feels impenetrable when they are trying to find their exiled emotions. Encountering this again and again can be frustrating and exhausting. Sometimes the exasperation at the process is what leads to the first flow of tears. But, that is hard work, especially in a society that condones the opposite. Women (or other members of complex identities with female socialization or hormones) may struggle to find their voice, to speak up. Speaking to conflict/honoring one’s aggression as a woman can feel like pushing the words through concrete to get them out of your mouth at times. Often early attempts at things we haven’t done before are infantile, because that’s when we stopped doing them. 

Once the members of the couple have been able to find more wholeness and balance as individuals, reclaiming their disavowed parts, the white-hot electric charge of the old issues will dissipate and they will find there are novel options they have over-looked in the past. Like Troy can just tell Erin he feels attracted to guys sometimes and get it over with in this case. Yet, in some situations maybe the masculine could just find the courage to be vulnerable about the thing that happened at work, or the thing she did to hurt him instead of stewing in beer all night. If some guys just knew how to communicate their feelings, they would. And they’d be different people. But we not only don’t teach this, we discourage it and punish it in little boys. 

And yes, this is all archaic. And yes, many people of all genders and sexualities have done a lot of this work for decades now. This is not new. I like so many of my friends and colleagues would like to have believed we were past talking about this. But Queer Theory, and waves of Feminism, and David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, Marsha P. Johnson, Grace Jones and Audre Lorde and we are still here talking about this gender role crap and seeing it come up in our relationships and our lover’s attitudes. I don’t have to like it, but I have to face it, as a queer and as a therapist, as someone who cares about this world. I believe it is because of the progress we have made and the radical deconstruction of our gender constructs that has been taking place over the last 50 years, that the fundamentalist forces of opposition have become so much louder, appearing as caricatures of the stereotypes, like Trump and his goons. But this only makes the cliché’s appear in brighter relief, collectively this works just as raising awareness within the self brings our own flaws to the fore. Now is the time to call attention to the work we have done and call more people into it. 

“But wait, Alice, if queers have gender roles in their relationships too, then why should I be thanking them!?” Fair question. I do believe that because the queer experience starts out with a position outside the norms of gender, we also do develop the awareness of gender roles and desire to question them earlier. Though there are many queer folks hopelessly inured in archaic and abusive gender clichés, I believe there is more often a pre-disposition to question these. This is work we also do implicitly, with our lives and bodies even if it isn’t at a conscious level. Every dyke mechanic, plumber, trucker or soldier has had to negotiate being excluded, being one of the guys, and being a woman with all of the social expectations implied. Even those who just abandon female tropes for male tropes, are confronted everyday by what her identity brings up for other people and how much she causes them to question and be aware of. Even in ignorance of the stereotype they are enacting, a queer person can raise gender/sexuality awareness just by being. In other words, we have been your scapegoats and outcasts, whether we wanted to be or not. That is why I honor and celebrate us queers this year and think you should too. All along, as gay marriage was being contended in state and national courts here in the U.S. and the story was being pitched that gay marriage would not change the institution, I carried this internal objection. I believe queering marriage and dismantling gender absolutely will change things. I hope that it will. I hope we can join in this work together of breaking down the walls that keep us apart. Those walls cause so much pain between all of us, even those on the same side.   

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Communication 101: The Couples Dialogue

Communication 101: The Couple’s Dialogue

            In past blogs (here for example) I have written about the importance of empathy and deep listening. However, I recognize that these skills, which come intuitively to some, are actually not that easy for many of us. To be honest, I had to learn them as an adult and very much at the expense of a very intuitive partner who could not understand why I was so clueless. Fortunately for you and for me, dear reader, I do not have to come up with a way to teach empathy and deep listening because this has already been done. David Silberstein invented the Couple’s Dialogue, which details instructions for engaging in conversations likely to elicit deep empathy and genuine, focused listening. I will list the steps in the method here and talk a little bit about some of the hang-ups you might encounter using this tool as well as the many benefits of sticking with the (at times very awkward) process.

            Most of my clients in romantic relationships, whether they are monogamous or polyamorous, come into therapy because communication is a problem. There may be other problems underneath that one. However, without good communication none of the other problems can be addressed. Communication is vital to the health of relationships. Yet, there are many reasons most of us are built to fail at it. I’d like to discuss a few of those before I move into the Couple’s Dialogue.

We are not taught how to really listen. Here in California anyway, we are at the bleeding edge of the Western project of individualism. Most of us have either been encouraged to or run away to “be ourselves” or “find ourselves” or “love ourselves.” There is an emphasis on speaking one’s truth and knowing one’s self. There is a value in knowing and marketing (personally and professionally) one’s uniqueness. These are fine goals. I heartily support them. Yet, the result in communication is a difficulty in putting down the self long enough to really open to what the other is saying. Ironically and sadly, our individualism also creates in many a desperate desire to be witnessed, and being heard is a big part of that need.

In some folks poor listening is a caricature, and you can practically see their wheels turning when they are “listening” to you, so eager to say what they are thinking. Yet, there is almost certain to be some part of the listener (myself included) wrapped up in what the speech of the other means to them, how they can relate it to their own life. The worst of individualistic banter can readily become about one-upping, a game you can find in any academic setting. You are in these cases listening only to conquer, to say something more clever, more cutting, more insightful, whatever. This is particularly poisonous in romantic relationships, because what is to be won in vanquishing the one you love? Nothing, and both parties feel hurt by this kind of verbal competitiveness, even the “winner.”

The goal is not to stop thinking about how things relate to you completely. That is also an important part of the communication process. Yet, the benefits of slowing it down, giving separate space for listening and evaluating are immense. I believe this is the best way for both parties to feel witnessed and heard, and why the couple’s dialogue is such a wonderful tool.

We are not taught how to recognize nonverbal communication. This is such a huge loss, and in a way a form of discrimination. There are so many who struggle with words - introverts, people with hearing impairments, people with speech impediments, people with significant developmental trauma, and too many others to name. Much of what they communicate is nonverbal. I have seen couple’s in which one is constantly upset by the other’s lack of communication/emotional withdrawal, when that other is an introvert who is constantly and clearly expressing their love nonverbally. What a person does matters at least as much as what they say. Body language, showing up, physical closeness, loyalty, and material contributions are all means of communication, and just a few of the many forms nonverbal communication takes. The Couple’s Dialogue doesn’t really speak to this issue, but it is an important one for me. There is such a preference for eloquence and extroversion in our society (again California really can take these preferences to extremes) that many are left feeling unseen in all of their efforts to connect, which are often tender and sincere in a touching way that surpasses words. Please look at how you may have been ignoring your own nonverbal signals as well as those of your partner(s).

We have not been taught to value difference, or even really acknowledge it. In my opinion this is one of the greatest flaws of our current paradigm. As anyone who has ever taken an intro biology course learns, biodiversity is the measure of a healthy landscape. Nature creates diversity and webs of interdependence between wildly different forms everywhere. Yet somehow we as humans we have failed to value or accept this brilliant architecture of variety. “Normal” as a construct was created not that long ago (check this out) because it served industrial Capitalism, which needed cogs. In the time since, we have learned to take for granted that we are all about the same inside, which is a very strange idea and quite dissonant with the truth we experience so starkly in our close relationships. This assumption that we think and feel about the same is a significant barrier to communication, especially to listening. Many assume quickly that meaning, feelings, experiences are shared between themselves and their partner(s). Especially in the honeymoon phase, this is easy to do. Everything feels like it clicks, so often things that don’t’ fit that story are over-looked or ignored. The truth that I have found as a relational being and as a therapist is that each human experience is unique from the inside out. Even identical experiences can be felt and interpreted in dramatically different ways. Please don’t assume similarities, even if you have similar backgrounds. Ask questions! Ask more questions! Find out who the person you love really is on the inside. Get curious and stay curious about their unique experience of life.

Gender roles. It only feels fair to claim my position as a gender non-conformist here. I have outside the box views on gender to be perfectly honest with you all. Yet, it is also a true fact that in my psychology program’s couple’s counseling course text we were schooled on the research that shows how damaging gender roles are in relationships. This is not only true in heterosexual or cis relationships either. We have gender roles so deeply ingrained in us that they show up in complex ways in gay relationships, poly relationships, trans and gender-non-binary relationships and whoever else is doing whatever else out there. This is way too complicated to explore here. Maybe in some future blog I will unpack it more thoroughly. Suffice it to say here that gender roles are rigid by nature and what relationships need most to survive is flexibility. The more you can let go of stereotypes of who should do what (wash the dishes, make more money, parent, cry, rage) because that is implied by their gender, the better off your relationship will be.

Ok, and now (horns please) to the Couple’s Dialogue…(here is a step by step cheat sheet to accompany the next portion)

            First there are intentions to be set and a proper environment to create. According to Silberstein (remember him? he created this thing), the dialogue needs the following context to be most successful:

“Have the intention to iron out difficulties, be willing.

Create a safe environment for communication, sit down with no distractions.

Slow things down through structure. Use the allotted times for uninterrupted speaking and listening.

Drop 'you' statements and use I statements to remove blame.

Recognize and accept the other's point of view.

Write down specific, measureable agreements that come out of the dialogue”

Most of that seems fairly self-explanatory. However, I want to briefly highlight the importance of using ‘I’ statements. I also want to acknowledge how difficult that can be. When we are grieved at something a loved one has done, we often feel a burning need to talk about what they have done to us. Yet, this can draw us down all kinds of sticky roads to huge miscommunications about intentions and missed meanings. Start with how you feel. If you need to speak to something your partner has done, acknowledge that it is your perception you are sharing and create space for their side of the story. The impact on you cannot be questioned. If you are hurt, you are hurt. Speak to that. Try especially to avoid making guesses about their intentions (i.e. that they were trying to hurt you).  

            Before you start, get consent. The first step is to make sure your partner is actually up for this kind of processing. For all the reasons above, this is not the lightest or easiest thing to do. If they are just waking up, just home from work or having a headache, they may not be able to be present in the way communication at this level requires. In the traditional method one states, “I would like to have a Couple’s Dialogue. Is now a good time?” I invite you to come up with your own, less clunky language for this. In my relationship, I usually just say something like, “Is it ok to process now?” or, “Is this an ok time to talk about stuff?” As long as you and your partner have shared language that clearly communicates you are asking for a specific level of and kind of discussion. Of course, in our busy lives, it can be easy to feel like there is never a good time for processing deep and difficult material. However, if you cannot have a Couple’s Dialogue when your partner asks for it, please commit to a time within 24-48 hours when you can give them the opportunity to say what they need to say.

            Step one: Mirroring. In this phase the person who has asked for the dialogue speaks their piece. This person in the formula is known as ‘the sender.’ Their partner is called ‘the receiver’ and that is what they do. Just listen. This is the time to put yourself aside and just hear your partner. Try to take in exactly what they are saying. To make this more of an explicit necessity the task of the receiver after listening is to “Mirror,” to repeat word-for-word as closely as possible what the sender has said. Here you are not adding anything simply re-stating what your partner has said to make sure you got it right. Then you check with your partner, the sender, to make sure you got it right. They can then correct anything you missed or changed and you try again until you have it just as they said it. It can be astounding how much patience this takes and how many ways we modify what our partner has said. But this is how we learn to really listen, so keep trying!

            Step two: Validation. Here you (the receiver) reflect back to your partner why what they are saying makes sense. If part or all of what they are saying doesn’t make sense this is also the time to be curious about those parts that don’t make sense to you. Usually this step is described as a rational type of validation. If the sender has said, “I feel stressed and lonely when you stay out at work or having drinks with your co-workers until 10 o’clock most weeknights and leave me alone with the kids” (after you have repeated that back accurately), you might validate the statement by saying, “That makes sense because I can understand how cooking, cleaning and getting the kids to bed can be stressful, and how being away most weeknights cuts in to our time together as a couple and leaves you feeling lonely.” If your truth is that you are actually only out until 9 most of the time, and that it is usually only two weeknights, don’t get stuck on that right now. Just be with what your partner is saying and feeling right now. You will get your turn!

            Step three: Empathy. This is where you (the receiver) try to really feel beyond the words and logic into the emotional experience of your partner (the sender). Really get your heart in cooperation with your mind to think about the whole person your partner is and the situation at hand. To the above example you might say, “I can see why this hurts you so much. I know you watched your dad disappear into work before he left your mom for his partner. That must feel really lonely and also scary for you.”  Or you could say, “Wow. I can really imagine how I would feel if you left me with all of that. I get why you have been so angry.” The key is to really make every effort here to see at a feeling level where the sender is coming from and to join them in that experience, again, even if that doesn’t match your side of the story. You also want to check out your empathic attunement as you go. After you offer an empathic statement ask, “Is that right,” or “Is that how you feel?” Maybe you imagine your partner is angry, but actually the feeling is devastation and depression. Allow the care and love you feel for your partner to be present in your statements and stay curious and open.

            Once step three is complete, it is the receiver’s turn to respond and they become the sender. The former sender becomes the receiver. This is the time where you can say that you really believe that you only stay out two or three nights a week until 9 pm and that you feel the exaggeration is an attempt to take away time you need to relax or network or whatever the case may be. Perhaps after being listened to and validated in this (maybe for a couple of rounds), you and your partner can come up with an agreement that feels acceptable to both of you – that two nights a week until 9:30 is fine, but more than that requires advance planning or something like that. As stated above, write these agreements down and be willing to honor them.

This switch from receiver to sender is not meant to be a change of subject, if you have something else you have wanted to talk about, save that until the issue your partner (the original sender) has brought to you has gotten a thoughtful response. Changing the subject without responding to your partner’s issue can undermine all of the work you just did to validate and empathize by making it just another instance where you are focused on one-upping or your own needs. Give time and space to how you feel about what your partner has said, and if applicable try to find a compromise between you in the matter. Then, if you do have something else to discuss, ask if your partner is willing to have a separate dialogue on another issue.

            This way of talking is clunky and my hope is that once you have ingrained these steps you can engage with them in a more flowing way. But, I assure you the goofy, awkward and at times very frustrating work is worth it. Good luck!

    Alice Phipps is the content writer @The SF Marriage and Couples Center. Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center. 

 

Alice Phipps is the content writer @The SF Marriage and Couples Center. Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center. 

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Co-Dependency Revisted

 The SF Marriage and Couples Center offers the best LGBTQI marriage and pre-marital therapy in San Francisco and Oakland. 

The SF Marriage and Couples Center offers the best LGBTQI marriage and pre-marital therapy in San Francisco and Oakland. 

Co-dependency Revisited

            I have a number of clients who worry about being co-dependent in their relationships. Usually a friend or lover has labeled them as such and they bring this term to therapy, often also experiencing a fair amount of distress in their personal relationships. This word, co-dependent, usually comes along with shame and often a feeling of being “broken.” There is a relational stigma placed on co-dependence, almost like the mental health version of an STD, a feeling that one could catch it somehow, and that it is dirty. There is also, usually, a real lack of knowledge about co-dependence on the part of both my client and the friend who has labeled them. Most notably this term is often evoked to call into question the person’s needs in the relationship. Sometimes if the client simply mentions needing their partner or having emotional needs this is labeled co-dependent. This is why I have been moved to write this blog. I believe we have taken our various fears and shames about needing people and projected those fears and our disdain for them on to those we call co-dependent.

            Co-dependency is, of course, a serious issue. I will elucidate its nature here so I can later disambiguate it from healthy dependency in relationships, which is also, equally a real thing (yes, there are healthy needs). Co-dependency was first described by those most deeply studying the impacts of alcohol abuse on the family members of alcoholics – Alcoholics Anonymous. Since the formation of Al-anon in 1951, co-dependency has been studied by thousands and many outstanding books have been written on the subject (Beyond Co-dependency, Melody Beattie & The Road Back to Me, Lisa A. Romano for starters). Co-dependency occurs, not because of the presence of drugs or alcohol, but by the unpredictability they may elicit. Therefore, one can be co-dependent without having been raised around an alcoholic or addict, if the environment in which one was raised was not stable, safe and/or attuned to their needs.

          Essentially, it is the parents’ job to attune to the child and figure out what they need and feel. In being attuned to as infants and children, and having our needs and feelings reflected we learn that we exist and that we have needs, and they can be met. If for any reason this doesn’t happen, our brilliant little system built to attach in relationship (more on that later) will figure out how to attune to their parent or stop feeling it is legitimate to have needs. If the parent(s) exhibit violence, have wild emotional swings or explosive needs of their own, the child will learn to tune in quickly and vigilantly to the parents’ mood states and needs for safety and survival. This adaptation is an ingenious response to an unjust situation, not something to be ashamed of.

            The problems that arise later in relationships are many. Because this pattern of being vigilantly attuned to the needs of the “other” and the lack of validation from parents can mean that the sense of self is not very developed. They may feel like a martyr or savior to those they love, but not know how they feel or what they need. They may also have an unconscious or semi-conscious hope that by giving everything in relationship, they will one day find someone who will reciprocate. Therefore, many people labeled as co-dependent can be quite unconsciously (or semi-consciously) manipulative, aiming many of their emotions and behaviors at an “other” hoping to elicit some response. They may feel abysmally low self-esteem and require reassurance and validation from others. They can struggle with deep indecision as their self-drive, their feeling of want, may be stifled and very difficult to find.  Those who partner with co-dependents often love the feeling of adoration they initially receive, only to later move on because they cannot find the deeper layers of their beloved or because the merged, enmeshed, every day, all the time love becomes stifling to their own sense of self.

           These traits and tendencies are nothing but the logical effects to be expected when one learns early in life that what they want is not important to the people for whom it should matter most. It takes work to learn to feel into one’s own center and know what you want or need, but this work can be done. It really helps to have a relationship (therapeutic, romantic or other) in which you get both the attunement that you didn’t get as a child and the space to explore feeling into your own desires. If you have a partner or friend telling you that you are not allowed to have needs because needs are co-dependent, it doesn’t help. In order to develop fully, it is vital that you can experience a reparative relationship, one which can hold the process of going back and retrieving your repressed infantile needs, expressing them, and developing, through tolerating longing and yearning, a mature, healthy dependence.

            Depending on what point in their childhood someone stopped noticing what they wanted, and the degree to which their needs were neglected or reviled, they may have relational needs as babies, or toddlers have needs – a consuming and overwhelming experience. This is actually a step in the right direction. However, sadly, many are overwhelmed when they encounter a partner with such big, raw needs of them. They label that person co-dependent and walk away. The co-dependent person learns again that it is not ok to have needs. This will happen over and over, with each relationship until someone comes along (often a therapist) who can stay in relationship with someone with big, overwhelming needs AND also gently and empathically guide them to begin maturing in their capacity to tolerate the discomfort of having unmet desires.

            I actually prefer to think in terms of attachment theory when considering relationships, because it takes everyone’s patterns into account, not simply the frowned upon co-dependents. I recommend everyone learn about attachment theory. It is an illuminating framework for understanding relational patterns. Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller and The Course of Love by Alain de Botton are both fantastic. I cannot do the theory justice here, but I will say that I believe many of the “co-dependent” folks I work with have what would be considered an anxious/preoccupied attachment style, which means they worry about losing attachment and tend to want to merge and be close as opposed to moving away from and cultivating distance in a relationship. Those whose tendency to move away and create distance are said to be avoidantly attached. Underneath the avoidance is often a similar set of circumstances that led to the co-dependence or preoccupied attachment – their needs weren’t met as children. Avoidantly attached folks take the message that needs are not ok to heart. They become self-reliant and commitment phobic. Because we seem to seek balance in relationships, avoidantly attached people and pre-occupied folks often end up in relationship. When they do it is often a mere matter of time before the avoidant person labels the pre-occupied person co-dependent.

            Yet, underneath the avoidance, are the same infantile needs that exist in the so-called co-dependent partner. That is why avoidant folks get so set off by pre-occupied lovers (and also maybe friends sometimes), why there is that feeling that co-dependence is contagious. Because those big, overwhelming emotions that avoidant people so dread live deep down inside them and a lot of work goes in to keeping them down there. If they allow certain feelings, intimacy, and need to exist in their partner, their own feelings will start knocking at the door for escape. The balance that could ideally be found between these two types of people is obvious. If they both give a little and learn how to tolerate what is difficult (closeness for the avoidant person, and space for the pre-occupied person), they can both experience a healthy dependence and a sense of self and self-worth. None of this is easy, but like all work in relationships it is worth doing.           This work is all shut down when the avoidant person simply labels their partner co-dependent and feels righteous in their superiority as a healthy person because they don’t need anybody. This way of being goes against the truth of our humanity, which is that we develop and exist first and foremost in relationship (Read The Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel, or at least check out this short piece by him). We were made to attach to each other. We all need each other. Our post-modern, Eurocentric values tell us we don’t, that we should “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” be “self-made” and so on. Not only is this an ignorant, privileged and often racist standard, it is also very anti-relationship and antithetical to our nature. No one is self-made. No one doesn’t have needs. If your partner says they need you to hold them when they are in their feelings, to be there to hold their hand, to be able to call you when they are sad, and this freaks you out, it is not because you don’t have these needs, it is because you do that you are scared and/or repulsed.

            If you find you are calling your partner all hours of the day because of your needs, and never really sure they love you no matter how often they say it, you may need to develop tolerance for distance and learn how to reassure yourself. You may even be co-dependent. But that is not the end of the world. You can learn to tolerate distance and love yourself. Just remember the work is not yours alone. Your partner may also need to learn how to tolerate closeness and intimacy. Don’t back away from your work or let anyone in a relationship tell you it is all on you.

 Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center.

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center.

 

 

           

 

 

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Present Moment Communication: A More effective way to talk to our loved one.

Some of the most emotional, distressing conversations we have in our lives happen with our partners. With a single word or look, a peaceful evening can turn into a gut-wrenching one. If we are not careful, the accelerating intensity of our emotions can skyrocket, cycling and feeding on our partner’s feelings and words, leaving us feeling disconnected and in despair. These experiences happen so quickly it almost feels impossible to act differently. And yet the pain we feel afterwards makes us wonder if there is another way.

The key to this other way involves slowing down, feeling into our vulnerability, and speaking from that place. It involves sticking with what is happening and how one is feeling in the present moment. This is not an easy task. When our partner does or says something that offends, often our reaction follows without much – or any – forethought. We don’t even realize we have been triggered until long after the fact, after the damage has already been done. When we feel attacked, it can feel like a monumental effort is required to stop oneself from retaliating. Yet, if we want to mature in our relationship and connect more deeply with our partner, it is important to identify the feelings of vulnerability that hide beneath our anger. This is not to deny anger’s validity but to honor its rightful place. The anger acts like a shield, protecting those soft places within our psyche. However, growing in relationship requires that we put down this shield and share our sensitivities with our partner. In this way, we have a better chance of being heard, rather than allowing our anger to feed a vicious cycle of attack and counter-attack. Also, there are almost always other emotions underneath the anger, such as feeling hurt, betrayed, rejected, criticized, or ashamed. When we access these deeper emotions and bring them into the conversation, we allow for a different kind of dialogue to take place.  

The first step in achieving this kind of dialogue is to remember the intention to pause and examine our experience when we feel aversion toward something our partner says or does. The operative word here is “remember” – in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget our intention. Taking this step back like this may feel like it requires a lot of effort, especially at first. Let’s look at an example. It’s Valentine’s Day and my partner and I plan to have a nice dinner together at home. Because he’s going to be working kind of late that night, I offer to cook dinner and have it ready when he gets home. However, when he walks in the door 45 minutes late, cheerfully gabbing with someone on his phone, I am livid. How could he do this? What the hell has he been doing? I have been working hard to cook a nice dinner for us and it’s Valentine’s Day, and now our nice meal is cold! While still on the phone he whispers to me “hey baby, sorry I’m late” in a casual way that makes me want to scream. I immediately start railing at him; “where have you been?! I made a nice dinner for us and now it’s cold! I thought we were going to have a special evening together! What the hell?!”. How does he respond to my attack? With anger and defensiveness, of course. According to him it was an important phone call; they had been playing phone tag and now finally he could answer and talk. But the vicious cycle has begun. Pretty soon our attacks are bigger than this incident and we start dragging other issues into the argument. “You always do this!” “You never understand!”

Now, let’s go back to the beginning of the fight and slow things down. When my partner walks in late and acts like it’s no big deal, my blood begins to boil and I want to react, to attack. This is the moment. Can I just pause, notice my impulse, and ask myself: what am I feeling right now? What am I noticing? My breath is sharp and shallow. My chest feels tight. My heart is beating fast. I feel hot and tense. I feel all this energy in my body that I just want to release. I feel angry! Just acknowledging this to oneself internally is the first step towards creating some space in the mind. I might say to myself “Ok, now is a good time to take a deep breath. Why am I feeling so angry?” Then I realize it’s because I am feeling unimportant. I feel like my partner forgot about me and made something else more important than spending this special time together to honor our relationship. I feel hurt. Ok. Can I acknowledge all of this when I talk with my partner? Maybe I can say something like; “I hear that you felt like you needed to take the call, but I’m feeling angry, and hurt – like this dinner and spending this time with me isn’t important to you.” Hopefully this is something my partner can hear, and now he has the opportunity to respond in a softer way rather than needing to defend. Engaging in this kind of dialogue allows a couple to continue moving forward in their relationship by learning more about each other’s vulnerabilities, rather than getting into a full-on fight, which would then need to be “cleaned up” to be able to reconnect.

Because of the evolutionary biology of our bodies – and the leftover reptilian part of our brain that is programmed to be on alert for potential danger – it may take a herculean effort to override this impulse to react. However, by pausing, finding one’s vulnerability or inner place of hurt feelings, and taking the courageous step to share this with one’s partner, we create the opportunity for a deeper connection – one in which we learn about each other, take care of each other, and find safety in one another.

Written by Heather Galvano, MFT. Heather specializes in Couple Therapy @The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Empathy Is Everything

 The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center helps couples improve communication skills and increase intimacy. 

The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center helps couples improve communication skills and increase intimacy. 

Empathy is Everything

            As therapists we are taught that empathy is vital to our practice. What is empathy, anyway? Why is it so important in therapy? Can it be just as important in other relationships? The title here acts as a bit of a spoiler. I obviously believe empathy is quite important in relationships. The truth is, I believe if empathy were taught, trained and valued in how we raise our children as much as say, reading, we would have a much better world. I feel very strongly that empathy is the life-blood of relationships of all kinds. Love and trust are often cited as two key relationship ingredients. Empathy seems to me the work of love and trust in action. Let’s start with psychology’s favorite uncle, Carl Rogers’ definition of empathy. He described empathy as, the ability, “to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person.” This is to say that empathy is the act of setting aside my own frame of reference, my own ego, in the way I am listening, so that I can come as close as possible to seeing another’s way of thinking and being. Because most of us are not taught about empathy, this actually can take a bit of stretching to get used to. However, in this time when we seem so polarized politically and culturally from understanding one another, I cannot say enough about the importance of empathy. I will be speaking in this blog of how empathy can improve your personal relationships, with friends, family and lovers. Yet, I encourage you to imagine empathy as a world changing superpower we can all develop and hone with the potential for impacting business, government, law enforcement and environmental practices. I will also speak a bit to the experience natural empaths have, which can be tough in a world, which fails to honor the gift or teach them how to control it.

            First let’s look at some different kinds of empathic experience and examine how one might incorporate them into relating with loved ones. The way I began to learn empathy was through effort and at first more of an intellectual exercise than an intuitive sense. Anyone can learn this form of empathy. It just requires difference and curiosity about that difference. I listened to introvert friends of mine note differences they saw between us. In my twenties I was rather boisterous and took up a lot of space in public. It was pointed out to me that for some introverts or people with histories of trauma, this could be unsettling, especially in coffee shops where people are trying to focus. I listened with all of my attention because I cared about these people. I also saw that they were clearly impacted and trying to help me, not hurt me. This is why I say empathy is trust and love in action. It takes a lot of both to inspire one to try to reach across to a different viewpoint. Listening like this with your complete attention is the first step toward empathy. You may have to reprogram the way you listen. I came from a big family where everyone was always talking over the top of each other. This was a part of why I was so loud in coffee shops. I had to stop listening for something I could cleverly respond to, or even thinking about what I was going to say. Try to notice when you are listening to the other person and linking what they are saying to yourself, your feelings, your experience, this time something similar happened to you. Forget about all of that, set it aside as you notice. You aren’t abandoning yourself. You do not have to forget forever that you have your own perspective. Just acknowledge it and put it on a shelf for later. While you are listening, listen as if the person speaking is the only person on earth. Listen to them as if you do not exist. Just open a space in your heart and your mind, a blank, wide- open space, and let them fill it. If you are not used to this, it will take practice. You will have to spend some energy at first just noticing that you are still thinking about you and noticing what you would like to say, and so on. That is ok. All things worth learning take some effort. Stick with it, because if you get nothing else out of this blog, learning deep listening in and of itself will help you in all of your relationships.

            You might notice as you practice deep listening that you are more emotionally stirred than you used to be when you were mostly thinking of clever things to say in response. This is a good sign. This means you are connecting in empathy with the person to whom you are listening. Great job! Now comes a bit of the intellectual work I was talking about. After the conversation has ended, hold the person in your mind, try to think your way into their experience, and maybe do some research. Let’s go back to my introverted friend with the trauma history who was trying to nicely point out how I was disrupting the coffee shop. I walked away from that and thought, “Hmm, yeah, the difference between introverts and extroverts is that introverted folks feel drained of energy by interacting with people, while extroverts get energy from human contact. I can see why having to be aware of this extra energy in the room would add to the drain they are experiencing. I can certainly understand how folks who grew up in homes with violence like they did would be likely to be impacted by loud voices and unstable movements.” You can carry this awareness with you into movies, books, parties and other conversations to continue to gather information. If I was not aware of some of the stated differences between introverts and extroverts, I would want to do some research on how introverts define themselves, how they describe their experience and listen deeply there as well, either going to the internet or to other introvert friends. Remember the goal is simply to understand their experience with as much accuracy as possible, getting all the meanings and emotions of the other person, as Rogers said, “as if one were the other person.” This is not about winning any arguments.

            In a relationship this combination of deep inquiry and intellectual curiosity will take you far. Let’s say your sister is trying to explain to you why she feels like mom liked you best. This is something you have been fighting about for years. Sometimes you fight hard about it and sometimes it is more of a joke, but it is always there. Using deep listening and empathy you might be able to finally get through this. So she makes a joke and says, “…blah, blah, blah, mom liked you best anyways!”  Turn to her with your new powers of open, sensitive listening and just ask, sincerely and with kindness why she has always believed that. Don’t listen to refute her. Don’t worry about having things to say. Just listen. Listen to understand her emotions, her meanings and how she has constructed them. There will probably be some defensiveness and mistrust on her part as you may have fought about this more than a few thousand times. Yet, as she notices you are really hearing her, she will likely open up more. Give her plenty of space to talk. Then, reflect that you heard her when she said, “XYZ, that mom gave you more toys at Christmas, and has pictures of your kids on her nicer wall, or whatever.” Tell her that you hear how those things really hurt her. Just leave it at that for now. Be with her feelings. You may have your own case for the reverse, that mom liked her best. You do not have to abandon that forever to be with your sister’s experience for a bit.

Then, just as I described above, hold your sister in your awareness for a while after the discussion. Think about the points she made, the way she spoke, her tears or clenched jaw or shaking speech. Try to remember the situations she described and feel your way into them. What would you feel like if your mom did those things to you? Is it possible you have missed things in your perception (we all do all the time!)? Maybe research in this case would look like talking to your mom or aunt or other sibling to see what they think. Maybe your sister recounted early life events you cannot even remember. Even if the other perspectives don’t fully corroborate your sister’s account, that doesn’t mean you should dismiss it. We all have our own perceptions. Empathy is not about who is right, it is about seeing the other person’s side. It is not about winning fights. It is about creating greater peace.

            You may find after you have worked a bit at developing your listening skills and your intellectual abilities to grasp other’s experiences that another type of empathy emerges. Something I will call intuitive empathy. This arises without effort – someone walks into a room and I feel sadness all over them. This isn’t magic. Sadness is conveyed by body language, gait, speech patterns, etc. You have been growing this capacity as you listened to people deeply, watched their facial expressions and felt their feelings with them. The intuitive empathic connection is the part where I feel this stranger’s sadness in my gut every time I look at them and notice my heart is heavy just being in the room with them. I believe this felt-sense kind of empathy is also the kind that most naturally-gifted empaths have, so I will also talk about those folks a little here. I am sure you can appreciate how difficult it would be to have this gift as a child. How complex it must be to sort all of this out in a world that does not teach empathic people what their gifts are and how to use them. Some of you must be wondering why you would ever want such a ‘gift’ as to be able to always feel the very sad person in the room.

            There are almost infinite practices that can help you stay with your own experience if you get (or are born) too good at being in someone else’s feelings. In the above example, once you realize the source of your heaviness lies outside of you, you can bring your consciousness back to your center by focusing on your breath. Or try feeling into your emotional state right before you noticed this sad person, or notice the way your feet feel on the solid ground or that you have toes. Boom! You’re back in you-land. But you still have this fancy  super-power to understand other people. What if the sad person who just walked in the room is your child or your partner? You have been empathically listening to them for years so you’ll know exactly what they need when they are sad. You can have the doughnut, or the lavender oil, or perfect smile and shoulder to cry on waiting for them. Ultimately, empathy is everything in a relationship, because winning in a relationship isn’t winning fights, it is having fewer of them and getting more out of the conflicts you do have. If you are joining your partner/mother/sibling/child even for a little while in their experience, understanding as best you can what it means to them, you will find they are more open and you feel more like you are in something together.

 Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center while blogging for The SF Marriage and Couples Center. 

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center while blogging for The SF Marriage and Couples Center. 

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Should I break up with my romantic relationship?

 The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center offers couples counseling for those couples and individual who are struggling in relationships.

The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center offers couples counseling for those couples and individual who are struggling in relationships.

Should I break up with my romantic relationship?      

            There are no perfect relationships. No matter how much you love someone, there are always those grin-and-bear-it moments where they are messier around the house than you wish they were, uptight about spending when you want to have fun on your birthday, disinterested in your amazing video game skills. None of these things alone is worth giving up on a relationship, yet if your daily experience of your beloved is conflict, venom or being ignored, those things add up. Such patterns are damaging over time to the mental health and emotional well-being of both partners. Yet, when is enough enough? Since no one is perfect, how the hell can you tell if you are running away from something good that could get better or staying too long in something toxic? There are also no perfect bloggers or sets of answers. So, what I am going to write here is not a process that can guarantee you will make the right choice. Below are some questions I would encourage you to ask yourself and maybe those you trust before you walk away.

Though I will be writing in the framework of ending a romantic relationship, I feel this process is somewhat adaptable to other important relationships. Though, the “honeymoon phase” is different with friends and family, essentially lasting a lot longer. I do not believe any relationships are off limits to break-ups. Sometimes walking away is truly the best, or only, path for two people (or more) to find healing and happiness. Break-ups from close friends and between family members are uniquely painful. Social stigma is often imposed on those who feel the need to step away from family. Many may spend decades trying to decide if they can tolerate “breaking up” with a relative and bearing the guilt and shame of the stigma in addition to their grief and loss at the separation. Yet, I have seen such endings produce brighter worlds and kinds of growth that my clients would likely not have found while mired in toxic family dynamics.

 

            Question 1. Have you talked to this person about the problems you have with them? Some people have a really hard time with conflict. They stew. Their partner hasn’t done the dishes once in the three years they have lived together. Though they have never said a word, they have come to loathe the sight of them, because of the stewing. Obviously, the partner is more than a little spoiled and entitled if they have avoided the dishes for 3 years. Yet, the biggest problem in the relationship, stewer, is your silence. If you had talked to them 3 years ago, or even 2, they might have been just fine doing dishes. Perhaps they would not have been, and this would have unraveled your relationship. Yet, by not risking conflict you have eroded the love in your relationship. Now you are miserable and ready to bounce. This is not fair to either of you or the chance you might have had. Though, it is understandable.

            We all learn how to be in relationships by watching our parents. If your parent was able to stay long-term in a miserable relationship, you may have deeply sewn unconscious beliefs that this is what life is supposed to look like. If you grew up in a family where anger and conflict were either absent or out of control, your silence may have been very adaptive and logical. The work of changing conflict-avoidant patterns is a big undertaking. When you start changing developmental habits like that, early attempts can feel impossible, like trying to punch someone in a nightmare. When you do first start having conflict, it may feel like it is coming from an infantile or childish place in you. The words you say may sound infantile or childish. This is because you got frozen in your aggression at the age you last expressed it. If that was 2, well then, welcome back to your 2-year old aggression when your partner does the dishes after you stammer out how fed up you are, and soaks the kitchen floor with water and stands in it in dirty boots. None of this is fun. But, this is the work of relationship at its finest, bringing us into greater wholeness and maturity. All of this can be helped by a therapist and/or couple’s therapist.

Why would you do all this work in a relationship? See question number two.

            If you have no such conflict-avoidant tendencies and you aren’t talking to your love about the dishes or whatever, ask yourself why. Is it because you already know you are just not interested in maintaining this relationship? If you know there is an expiration date on your fling or that someone is fun for now, but not for life, that is more than ok. Save yourself the agonizing roller coaster of indecision if you are agonizing to avoid guilt over having a relationship you don’t necessarily want to last forever. Be honest about where you are at.  The more you can communicate your boundaries and own your level of investment in the relationship, the more your partner can make conscious decisions about their level of investment with you. Just let it be fun until it isn’t fun and then let it go. There is no need to torture yourself or them because they aren’t “the one.”

Question 2. Is it just that the honeymoon is over?

            Joseph Campbell brilliantly and succinctly breaks down the Jungian view of the Self and the Self-in-relationship in his charming way in the first episode of his Mythos series, Psyche and Symbol. I recommend you watch it. I will say here, in a slightly less charming way perhaps, that a lot of the first stage, “the honeymoon phase,” is about projections. We see a spark of something in someone that fires up some inner fairy tale and then we confuse the person in front of us with the fairy tale within us. This daze of confusion is a big part of the experience of falling in love, not to be unromantic. Eventually, the confusion breaks into clarity because we are in relationship with a real person. When this clarity comes it can feel a lot like falling out of love, even like betrayal that this person isn’t who you thought they were. Be careful about how much blame you put on them for this betrayal. They did not necessarily ask to or want to be confused for your fairy tale.

            When the reality of the person in front of you loses the sparkle of perfection, when the sex starts to be less organic or less constant, when your love disappoints you or has emotional experiences (depression, anxiety, anger) that you don’t find adorable or even know how to deal with, this is where the work of relationship begins. The length of the honeymoon varies. You might live in euphoria and projections for two weeks or two years. I would say 3-6 months is most common. If you are new to long-term relationships, the end of the honeymoon may feel like something you cannot get past. In fact, I think most people probably tend to sever their first few relationships at the end of the initial bliss because the change feels so dramatic. Yet, if you are ever going to have a lasting relationship, learning how to live through the rough times is important. We sometimes imagine the “rough” times in a relationship looking like great shared losses, financial turmoil or other big events. The truth is, often the “rough” times are about boredom, annoyance, internal emptiness our partner can’t fill, or allowing our partner to grapple with their internal emptiness, knowing we can’t fill that void. This can all feel like unromantic, unexciting deadness when it follows on the heels of six months of hot sex, bliss and laughter.

            There are no quick fixes for the end of the honeymoon phase, kinda by its very nature. If you have come to this place and bailed in past relationships and you are really looking to make this time different, I strongly recommend you get therapeutic support to help you move your relationship to the next level. This is also a time for you to do some deep soul searching about what you want out of relationships. Do you want a long-term relationship? Or would you like to just keep having new honeymoons? Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with either strategy. It just really helps to be honest with yourself and your partners about what you are actually interested in. The work of long term relationships is beautiful stuff. I truly believe it is one of our greatest teachers and richest paths to wholeness. But, it is not always easy, fun or sexy. If you keep dumping people because the thrill is gone, assuming you will eventually find the person to live out your fairy tale with, you may be setting yourself up for a long series of heartbreaks. You are also setting yourself up to potentially hurt and disappoint many sincere folks who want to love you, imperfect as they may be.

Question 3. Is this thing that I am hoping to leave behind in this relationship something that I am just going to take with me into another relationship, and if so, would I be better off just to work it out here, with this person?

            We all have our shit. This is maybe the first rule of the human psyche. Our crap is actually a lot of what confronts us at the end of the first stage of the relationship. As I have said before, our early relationships with parents and the relationships between our parents set our templates. In what Freud called the repetition compulsion we repeat this template in future close relationships, more or less trying to figure it out. That is why you may find yourself asking why you always strangely end up with the same kind of jerk. You are built to find that jerk, and until you understand why and heal the thing in you that was hurt as a kid that keeps seeking this hurt again, you will find an infinite supply of that type of jerks in your world. After a few rounds of this you may be catching on. If you are considering breaking up with someone because they make you feel shame for flirting with other people, yet you notice this has also been true of your last three partners, this is maybe not entirely about them.

            This is complicated territory, and yes, predictably I am going to recommend you get the help of a therapist. To continue this example let’s say Ash is in a relationship with Bo. Ash notices feeling shamed about flirting, Bo feels terrified Ash is going to leave. Both partners have experienced these feelings in other relationships. They really want to stay together and are trying to work it out. Ash may feel that what Bo calls flirting is just being nice, while not looking at the fact that unconsciously they are constantly cultivating other people’s sexual interest to feed their insecurities. All of the insecurities Ash isn’t looking at in themself get projected onto Bo, who is more overtly anxious about losing the relationship. In the meantime Bo has rejected long ago the part of them that is attracted to people all the time because it feels overwhelming and like a betrayal of fidelity. They are projecting a lot of their repressed sexuality onto Ash. Both of these projections have also found good “hooks” in the other person, because Ash really does flirt and Bo really is insecure. So it may be very hard to see how this is about you as an individual as long as your partner is actually doing the thing that hurts you. This is why having therapeutic support is important. Having someone who can help you sort out what both you and your partner are contributing to your dynamics can be vital. There is almost no way to separate this out from the inside with any real clarity.

            The bottom line is if you have been here before, odds are you will be here again with someone else. That does not mean the current person you are with is the right person. Certainly, if you have abusive patterns you are working out in a relationship, you may need to do some of the work alone, before you find someone who won’t actively abuse you. Even in the absence of abuse, you might be better off working this out with someone else. Maybe the current partner is too potent a dose of the problematic dynamic, or maybe they are unwilling to look at their part. However, I want to encourage you to weigh out the question of whether or not leaving this relationship will actually accomplish getting away from the problem. If you love the person you are with, and they seem ready to look at their shit too, why not stick it out and see how far you can get in resolving it? Even if this doesn’t eventually mean you stay together, I do believe it will put you a bit further down the path to finding better relationships.

 Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center and content Writer for The SF Marriage and Couples Center.

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center and content Writer for The SF Marriage and Couples Center.

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Being Single As A Psychologically Healthy Choice: Single Life As Self Love

 The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center offers Individual Therapy for folks who are exploring single life or who are struggling in relationships.

The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center offers Individual Therapy for folks who are exploring single life or who are struggling in relationships.

Single Life as Self-love

            I got some sage advice from colleagues yesterday about this blog. I was told not to include any cheesy references to taking yourself on a date or sexy solo baths. Apparently, some things have been said enough. So I won’t be talking about any of those (rips up notes). I will try to go a little deeper into the psychological case to be made for staying single, at least sometimes, but also, if you want, why not always? In our conversation yesterday one single friend said, “If one more person asks me if I’m dating, I’m gonna strangle them.” And this is the crux of the issue for many people who would otherwise be perfectly comfortable on their own  – how to navigate friends, family and other well-intended folks who seem somehow affronted or concerned by someone who chooses to remain un-attached. Hopefully, this blog will offer some talking points for those folks to push their noses back out of your business. Other people, who find themselves on the outside of relationship, are not there because they want to be, and find lonely isolation painful and unbearable. I will speak to that meaningful struggle as well and how to deepen into self-love while wading through despair and maybe even the purgatory of on-line dating.

            First, let’s tackle the obvious question (many of you have already answered this so bear with me) – Is being single a psychologically healthy choice? Is staying single ok? Yes. Of course. To go the long way around to give you an explanation for my thinking I will invoke physics (plot twist!). Newton came up with basically all of the ideas we still live with about how the universe works, how time works and how gravity works. Einstein, Planck and others then unrolled quantum physics which shattered Newtonian physics and introduced new ideas about time, space and gravity (more on this here). Though the principles of quantum physics have been tested and proven, they don’t sit well with us, so we largely haven’t incorporated them into our daily worldview. It is hard to reconcile that past, present and future co-exist with our experience of life, so we live in relative denial of relativityJ In a strikingly similar way, we have old traditionalist values that govern society, which we still operate out of, though they fly in the face of demonstrable current reality. Marriage and kids are the way to grow a society. Marriage was made as an institution to tie families together so that assets could be shared and property expanded. Producing many children was necessary because so many died in childbirth, and they were relied upon for their labor. Not having sex outside marriage made sense because sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis were brutally disfiguring and deadly until the early 1900’s. Look at where we are today, on an over-populated world with real resource distribution issues, which make having children an incredible financial undertaking and most sexually transmitted diseases are easily treatable. It is a different world. Yet, when your mother or aunt, cousin or best friend comes asking when you are going to settle down, you can almost palpably feel the echo of all the generations of people before you subjected to the same inquiry. These questions have been parroted for centuries to reinforce societal norms, which no longer make sense.

            I am ever grateful for the millennial generation, who seem to be moving us in the right direction. They seem less interested in dating and sex than the two previous generations. Millennials seem to understand that there are just other priorities right now. They are up against harder than ever job markets, requiring many to work in poorly-paid or unpaid internships. They may have watched their parents, grandparents and other elders struggle in relationships and with divorce. They have been raised on a planet, which has been in serious environmental danger for their entire lives. They grew up with the internet, which offers different kinds of connection. Millennials know on some level they are going to have to find the answers to how to change society that we (X-ers and boomers) failed to find. Maybe, it could even be argued that we failed because we have been so self and partner focused. Millennials seem to instinctively know they are going to have to think bigger than that. Yet, of course these folks will also be asked, “So when are you going to get married?” Maybe even by an Aunt/Uncle or parent who has been married three times and found only heartbreak.

            If we are to shake off the archaic detritus of tired social customs and face the world as it is, we have to get real about what our needs and desires are as individual humans. Underlying many of our flawed conceptions about relationships is one big flawed concept – normal. Here is a great article about how we came to believe normal is a thing. I won’t go into that here, except to say – normal isn’t a thing. We are all different and have different needs and desires, and that also means there are no ‘normal’ relationships. So, let us take a look at an imaginary person – Joe. Joe is 27, happy at his job, but doesn’t make much money yet and works long hours. He has a large group of friends with whom he socializes 2-3 times a week and a close-knit family 2 hours a way, who he visits often. He only has 1-2 nights a week available for dates. Joe doesn’t really find he has too much interest in dating. He uses dating apps for hook-ups once or twice a month, and watches porn and masturbates a few times a week. Joe feels some sense of emptiness and loneliness and believes this is because he should find a relationship. Every time he talks to his mother she emphasizes this. What are Joe’s actual needs? He seems to be getting what he needs sexually. He could probably benefit from the financial help of having a partner to share expenses, but could move in with a close friend and get almost the same thing. It is that pesky sense of emptiness that compels us to think Joe needs someone to love. But, maybe that someone is actually Joe.

            All references to dating yourself and taking baths aside, the pursuit of self-love is so worthy! Easily equally worthy to loving others, though less supported societally. I love to go to movies, theater, concerts by myself because I can immerse myself fully in the experience. I can follow the little impulses to move, to leave early or whatever I effing want. If Joe starts to invest a little of his time each week to parts of himself that he hasn’t seen in a while or maybe ever, the loneliness may alleviate. In relationship we often find parts of ourselves we don’t know at all. As I have said in a previous blog, this can be the hardest and best work of relationships. But, this is work you absolutely can do with yourself. Imagine your opposite, the things you shy away from, try to reach toward those things. Grab a friend who loves art museums (if you do not) and have them take you. In other words, Joe’s (or your) feeling of desire for more in life is really a desire for the self to expand, to open up to parts that have been rejected or ignored. Relationships are one way to do that. But, they are not the only way and they may not be the best way for you. If Joe found someone he liked and started a relationship, he might find that he doesn’t have the time his partner wants from him, that he is losing touch with his friends or that he is spending way too much time in art museums. The longing for more may not go away. At this point, as Joe’s therapist, I would find myself wishing he could just be ok with the fact that he is ok being single and tell his mother he will settle down later, maybe, if he feels like it.

            The other side of the story is people who are single, but really don’t want to be. How can folks who are really looking for partnership steer through the pokey questions, the on-line dating, and the world of people with their faces in screens to find true love? Well, first, just to eliminate any undo stress, ask yourself why you want a relationship. Is it for you? Does it make sense for you? Or is this really a case of thinking you ‘should’ be something or have something else? Then, let’s follow the inquiry. It is really, really you that wants a relationship. Why? What do you imagine this relationship bringing you? How would you feel differently? Write these needs and desires down. Is there any other way to cultivate them? If you believe relationships will make you feel more loved, and this is a burning source of longing for you, there may be an underlying wound in how you were (or weren’t) loved as a child that will likely emerge in your relationship as well. So why not work with that now. Practice receiving love from those who do love you, friends, colleagues, roommates. Practice loving yourself (baths, dates, adventures, presents). Maybe do some therapy on how it is hard for you to feel loved if you find either of the above difficult to do or imagine. If you believe a relationship will help to ground you and solidify your material life. Ask yourself how you can balance things in your life yourself. How can you stop maxing your credit cards is a better question than how can you find a partner who will have money, or help you organize yours.

It is tragic really, how many of the problems we hope will resolve in a relationship actually just show up there. That is why I am not suggesting you do this self-inquiry instead of looking for a relationship. Keep looking, but don’t forget to be actively loving and growing yourself in the meantime. There is some really solid help offered in Calling in “The One,” a book by Katherine Woodward Thomas. Woodward Thomas delineates a process of examining one’s patterns and getting through your obstacles to love. I believe the pain of loneliness and longing can be a powerful drive to open us into parts of our self. The image we create of a perfect partner is (according to me and Jung anyhow) really the parts of our self we hope to find outside, because those parts are difficult to find within. But, it is not impossible. So imagine your perfect lover. Can you be more like that person? What would that take? Give it a try sometime, even in small incremental steps. It is not the same as being with that person. Though, I believe it is easy to see how it will bring you closer to meeting them.

I will save on-line dating for the next blog. It feels too big to get into here.

 Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center. Alice is also a content writer and blogger for the SF Marriage and Couples Center.

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center. Alice is also a content writer and blogger for the SF Marriage and Couples Center.

           

           

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