Last edit of this page 17/05/2013
Careers, companies (and relationships) succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one conversation at a time. Susan Scott
Nearly everyone needs a safe harbour, a place to go for refuge and someone to confide in - a person to whom they matter. Some refuse this human longing for connection. Some have so rarely experienced it, they dare not hope it will come again. Some feel safest with their pets or icons.
Every day, however, all of us tend to find that a personal connection is one of the rarest things in a busy life. Most people most of the time do not ask questions of each other that invite a self-searching, unguarded reply.
'How are you?' or 'What do you think?' is rarely given with an open, generous attention. A look as if gazing at a sunset rather than staring down a problem to be fixed. To receive that quality of attention is like a fresh, sea breeze on a stifling hot day. Like sitting in front of a fire as it snows outside.
These are sweet times being heard and understood. Of being known.
The late Carl Rogers showed how that quality of attention is the single most important gift a competent therapist or teacher brings to their work. In the 1950's he predicted, 'much of the training which psychotherapists received in university professional programs would be irrelevant' and that 'the enormous amount of professional time and resources expended on assessment and diagnosis may be a waste of time'.
Rogers remains one of the most influential thinkers in the fields of cross cultural conflict, in psychotherapy and education. Yet in everyday life, we forget those simple truths of his.
Time poor, we put aside our personal questions and our inner-most answers until later, when we tell ourselves there will be plenty of time. We don't make the time to understand our own mental map of the world let alone that of our friends and partners - until we have to.
In the rush we overlook the predictable imbalance inherent in life - the 80:20 rule. In almost every endeavour, 20% of effort delivers 80% of the result. However, the common error is to spend 80% of our time on in-essentials that deliver only 20% of the bottom line.
Consider the 80:20 rule (the Pareto principle) applied to a couple and you get a sense of the hurdles people jump every day that misses the relationship sweet spot.
Example 1. below attests the cost of that to intimacy.
One common source of difference arises from behaving like your love language is the same as theirs - words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch - each person needs more of one type of connection than another.
Here is the quiz to help you assess your love language.
From birth, baby girls are generally more sensitive to isolation and lack of contact. Two week old girl's cry louder and more vigorously than do boys in response to a mild pain stimulus. Apart from being socialized not to feel or show pain or fear, men generally struggle to understand their female partner's pain because men respond differently to pain stimuli from day one.
Boy babies generally startle five times more frequently than do girl babies and in response to a much lower threshold of stimulus. Boys generally have hair trigger responses and thus risk being hyper-aroused. At a basic physiological level boys guard against the discomfort of over stimulation, much as girl babies guard against the discomfort of isolation.
Consequently boy babies generally prefer intermittent doses of eye contact whilst girl babies generally soak up eye contact. You might recognize this in the different responses of men and women to the invitation to talk closely. Men's guarded, looking away is not a lack of interest.
All the research shows that men want a closer and deeper emotional connection with their partners just as much as women but not if they have to act like a woman.
The above information and quotes are from: "How To improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It" by Love and Stosny. Recommended reading. The two chapters entitled: 'The worse thing a woman does to a man - shaming' and 'The worst thing a man does to a woman - leaving her alone but married', might ring some loud bells for couple therapists and their clients.
Exits from intimacy
In Australia, the majority of the decisions to end a heterosexual relationship are made by the women.
Increasingly I am meeting men, some with their mate's (both girl and guy mates) and others with on-line support, unilaterally deciding to end a relationship.
Many times the deciding partner has lost interest or passion for the relationship (for any number of reasons) over a long period. Not months but years. Some believe they can quietly fix it on their own without a meaningful conversation, and so don't put up a red flag to signal their intended silent fix.
This conveys no warning of the inevitable crisis that follows a withdrawal from collaborative problem solving.
People described in all the examples on this page and elsewhere on site are fictional composites drawn from many life stories. None of the events took place in the locations indicated. I have put the people in the places I love.
Example 1: an ordinary loss of intimacy
A few years after this couple split up I met them again in the school playground where their kids had, incidentally, become students but in different classes to my kids. They had both re-coupled within the two years since I had seen them - that is not unusual but the pain of getting there was just terrible to behold. To their great credit they did not attempt to destroy or undermine one another, putting the kids first.
The kids appear to have sailed through it relatively unscathed. The parents have begun new lives for the better. They had moved on. Their story has a fundamental lesson in it about the ordinariness of our exits from intimacy. Our relationship disconnects are banal and without any mystery at all.
Angus was in the 15th year of a relationship with Angela when first came to see me. There had been little or no overt conflict in his relationship. However, four years before, he had studied a little book about whether to stay or leave a relationship. He kept it hidden in a drawer at his office.
He didn't tell Angela that he was reading it or what was on his mind.
One day he announced that he 'couldn't keep doing this'. 'Doing what', she asked. 'The marriage' he said.
Angela was apparently flabbergasted. That he had been thinking about leaving for the last four years without her knowing was 'beyond belief'. There was no one else in his head or in his bed except perhaps the idea of how it could be.
He had not shared that dream either.
They were both busy, generous hearted people working in the Northern Rivers of NSW, with deep work and home commitments to social justice and the local environment.
Angela told me she was furious with herself (and with him) for not having known the state of her marriage. 'It was like something had died' in her hands without her noticing it, she said.
She could hardly find the words to describe the shock - it was so out of left field. She felt 'outraged and completely heartbroken'.
On his side he was wracked with shame because he couldn't make his heart do what he wanted it to do. Could not avoid the pain of either leaving or staying. He could not make himself feel in love with her. He wasn't even sure if he liked her. He thought he may not ever have loved her.
From the start he remembered he had hoped love would grow once they were married. A kind of love grew, that of good friends but not that passionate kind that irresistibly makes lovers of friends.
He hated his predicament but couldn't go on denying it. She knew little of this over the four years preceding his announcement. She had thought he was just absorbed in his work, maybe a little depressed or men's mid-life stuff.
Angela wanted to be given a chance to right it, feeling that she was owed that in the sense of natural justice.
However, it was too late for him, and in retrospect it was too late for me to turn it around. I might have been able to help him unpack this shame if indeed that was the problem - explaining it as a physiological freezing that protected him.
I might have suggested that in the grip of shame one feels like they can't think and can't feel - as if the sense of self is frozen. That then one feels shame about being in this frozen state.
In not knowing what it is many conclude there must be something wrong with them or in Angus' case that he didn't love her anymore or that he never loved her. (This freezing can feed the negative interaction cycle of shame and blame, which I find at the heart of many couples who feel they don't love each other any more.)
Alternatively, I might have worked on the basis that Angus had grown and changed over the years and had, by a process of honest self-reflection, woken up to how and why he chose Angela in the first place.
He may have begun the relationship without truly giving himself to it. Comfort may have been enough at the start. He may not ever have cherished her, had become completely uninspired by the essential Angela, and didn't now enjoy being with her.
He couldn't make him self feel something that wasn't there. He couldn't create the missing feelings that would keep them together. To continue without them was a lie.
I think that was the harsh truth of his situation, one he didn't reveal but which Angela felt. For Angela to be so unwanted was a daily, hourly torture for her. To think that she had been unloved from day one 'made a sham of the whole relationship', she said.
A sham is an empty pretence as if Angus had assumed a false character. The word is just one letter short of shame! The situation in effect, shamed her. It felt degrading to go on. But she still wanted to be given a chance to recover her dignity.
However, it was not to be. He had decided by himself to leave, probably ages ago. It was either death or divorce for him.
He had tried anti-depressants but that wasn't the problem in his heart. He had tossed suicide around in his head but said he was too much of a coward to do it.
They had tried a separation in the house to see if that would help but the courtship didn't begin anew.
He just didn't want her.
In a couple's session he said that he had 'sometimes reached a place of serenity in the four years of weighing the pros and cons'.
Hearing him say that so calmly, she just wanted to kill him - 'you made such a momentous decision without consulting me?!' Bodily she was torn between leaping out of her seat to hammer him and collapsing into herself, howling tears of rage and grief.
Partners in these moment say things like, "I hate you. I never want to see you again. Get out of my life. Don't ever come into our home again - I just couldn't bear it. I wish you were dead. It would be easier."
The couple's sessions were - excruciating! Eviscerating. Reminiscent of this Francis Bacon portrait based on the scream in movie of 'The Battleship Potemkin'.
They had come too late to turn it around. They had children to consider, and that was why they reached out of the marriage and sought my help.
'They are robust kids', said Angela confidently, 'and in a good place at school.' Then suddenly she screamed at him, 'but they don't deserve this!', as she tightened her hands into claws as if to scratch or strangle or pound him on the chest. Desperate for this nightmare to end.
'Not that there aren't other kids in their situation at the school,' Angus retorted in a kind of shocking, affectless way. He was trying to keep things calm but he was so cold she could have killed him again.
This was not what Angela had signed up for. She hated his wooden responses, whilst at the same time understanding his intention was to exit peacefully for the sake of the kids.
She felt ripped off, and pleaded with him: 'How did it come to this? Why couldn't you tell me. Was I so unapproachable? You blamed me for being harsh on the kids and now you're hurting them so much more by leaving us. I don't know what else to do? Tell me what should I do?', sobbing inconsolably.
There is some kind of an answer to these anguished questions, which of course were of no use to them then. Over time they had avoided psychological intimacy by sticking to these rules, which they had both brought from their families of origin.
how to avoid connection and intimacy
To that list I add the single most powerful thing you can do to lose the respect and caring of your partner:
For more on this read the book 'Emotional Intelligence in Couple's Therapy' by Brent Atkinson, where from this quote:
Consider these five top regrets of the dying. They underline the cost of these rules for avoiding intimacy at the end of life, as well as the end of marriage.
For example regret number 3:
More usual than Angus' solo journey to the unilateral decision, is the partner who decided to leave only after having approached the other to come for help many times in the past.
They had been greeted and/or perceived they were met by a variety of "no's" like withholding or withdrawal; angry denials; blame; cynicism; proud self-sufficiency or self-righteousness; rubbishing counselling or the idea that 'talking to someone' was a solution. (You will read on that 'rubbishing' link my concerns about the impact of counselling/therapy in a troubled marriage. You can read on this link that communication training is not a proven solution either.)
So they eventually gave up asking.
Then they gave up hoping.
Then one or both come to therapy as a last resort, after the horse had bolted.
When I meet couples at this point in their struggle, I think how did you so skilfully avoid a regular check in on the health of your relationship?
The answer is : just obey the rules on avoiding intimacy!
Partners who are left as a result of a decision by their lovers including the 'He's Just Not That Into You' thing, can feel completely baffled by the other's choice to exclude them from the process that took them to the decision.
'I thought we were a team.'
They go back and search the trail that led there.
They grab at explanations like hormone imbalance; mid-life crisis; depression or affairs; mental illness; personality disorder; addictions and that 'useless counsellor you see each week on your own'. Any of those and more, may be part of the problem.
However, more often than not, truth is they structured their lives to avoid intimacy.
Going for help
Going for help is best preceded by choosing a competent couple's therapist!
Here's my best guidance on how to do that.
Please consider that guidance. It has come from many years of experience both as a provider and a consumer!
Ed was a builder living with his family in the dream home he built outside of Lismore. He had agreed to do anything to fix his marriage following a walkout by Dena. That included seeing a 'head shrinker', something you would normally have had to drag him to - 'worse than the doc's finger up me', he said.
She said, 'I give up! It's over', whilst calmly packing some clothes, the business laptop and walking out of the house, passed the sheds and the piles of building materials and the unfinished wood fired bath house she had longed for.
She got into the Ute and made to drive off.
This followed another blow up and her previous attempts 'trying to get through to him'.
Ed was rattled. This time she had got through to him. Finally out in the car, they lit a cigarette and sat down to really talk. Real and gutsy talk, not a shouting match like usual.
He told her that for months he had been thinking about hanging himself in the garage of their unfinished beach house at Brunswick Heads.
This was totally out of left field for her. Shocked, speechless for a moment, she felt simultaneously responsible and disgusted with his revelation.
Torn between empathy and outrage, she couldn't stop the explosion of: 'where the kids would find you on the weekend, you f... b...?!!!!!!!' as she slammed her hand onto his arm.
Ed was suffering from clinical depression, and neither knew it though both knew of depression. The media coverage and the giant Beyond Blue bill boards on the Pacific Highway from Grafton to Tweed Heads had not escaped them. Applying it to themselves had.
He came to that first session with me 'asked' by Dena, he said with a wry smile. He was unwilling to take a seat for the first five minutes, suspended between fight, flight and freeze. He was a big teddy bear of a guy who looked so vulnerable and exposed in my office.
He eventually settled and warmed to me, and described the truly ghastly childhoods that he and Dena had endured, and then the wild young adulthoods that led them into their own troubles before they met.
It seemed to me that they had acted out the damage of their parents' legacy. Over time they had done an incredible job mending the mess of their lives, creating a business and managing a family of seven kids - two and three from previous marriages and two babes of their own.
They were successful, intelligent, articulate, fiercely independent and aware - contradicting the myths about people who seek help from shrinks.
Yet incredible to me, neither had sought help during or after the breakdowns of previous relationships nor in forming this one. They used the 'go it alone' strategy and were proud of it.
Ed was defined as 'having the problem'. However, when I worked with them together, they each owned up to knowing they were in trouble as a couple and within themselves for some time but neither would fess up.
Automatically we deny our inside view of hurt or broken, and focus instead on the more compelling scene of the damage we do and is done to our lives and our relationships. We end up dominated by fear - mostly the girls - and shame - mostly the boys.
That's like a hidden, inner-relationship power struggle we have with ourselves.
It requires great courage and honesty to expose the vulnerable and tender parts of ourselves. That is 'The paradox of how we become more whole by acknowledging our parts.'
These guys had that courage in spades but they needed a safe place and a method to explore tenderness together.
She was the pursuer and Ed the withdrawer. Dena feared isolation and pursued him to talk. Ed hated conflict, feeling ashamed when it broke out and so withdrew. The demon dance ran the show. The pattern was the problem.
Just like the boy girl differences at birth, the physiological differences reinforced their disconnection - he managing shame by averting his eyes and she managing fear of isolation by pursuing closeness.
Frankly, all I did was provide a wise, calm voice in the storm and with unrelenting empathy and validation, helped them build a safe harbour that brought out the best in them. They did the rest. That was no small thing I know, but it is both the simple and uncommon gift of a good therapy. How to chose a therapist with those skills.
'We need help because you won't listen', said Jane
'We need help because you won't admit you need help', John replies.
It is not obvious but like Piglet and Pooh above, this is John and Jane's method of being sure of each other.
Of course it doesn't work to bring them closer but neither does it separate them despite the threats.
John brings Jane to the session following one of her frequent threats to leave. John runs a disability service and is part of a remote area volunteer fire fighting team. He's good in a crisis. Jane is a high school teacher and runs an organic cosmetics and vegan makeup business from home, employing a couple of friends. She can organise anything.
They live in beautiful Byron Bay in a beautiful house on Belongil Beach with beautiful friends, and 'not so beautiful neighbours'. To all the world they appear the ideal couple who have everything. They rarely if ever display the vicious undertow in their relationship, like the one that makes the rips on Belongil Beach so deadly.
They were among the first responders when two men drowned in one of those rips, in sight of the house. They were watching the 'idiots swimming outside the flags', when three of them disappeared under the water. Only one came up. It was the shock of those deaths so close to home, like a wake up call, that got them to try for help one more time.
Their previous attempts to get help had just replayed the competitive, finger pointing control issues that had dogged the relationship for years. 'It's your fault we fight,' she says one. 'Oh so you're blameless are you!?' he says, and so on.
They were polarized into the extremes of role driven behaviour and the 'I'm right, you're wrong' and the stonewalling of a lose-lose competitive argument.
Jane's every approach to get him to change seemed to him a move of the goal posts. One day it was 'sit down and show some curiosity about my life'. Another day it was 'you don't have any friends and you need them'. In a sense, having already threatened to leave the relationship a number of times, she was waiting for him to accept her decision when he failed her next test.
Incompetent individual or couple's therapy in those circumstances might have turned a retrievable situation into another power struggle that the therapist bought into.
All her complaints frustrated his attempts to comply with the immediate request, and to remedy the bigger issues that had decided the fate of their relationship in her mind. He placated and built fire breaks around the issues rather than confront them. This drove her mad.
It stifled spontaneity and honesty. And any partner threatened with abandonment will feel too scared to say or do anything that might prove to be the wrong thing when faced with the partner's next move of the goal post. John froze up. Jane gave up. They kept busy. Then they'd start again. It was a familiar cycle.
One of her complaints was that he was too rigid. Catch 22. Damned if I do damned if I don't. 'None of the impossible situations I deal with daily in disability made me feel so bad', he said despairingly.
So he came to therapy bruised and angry. She came triumphant, as if to the headmaster of her high school, 'it's now your problem so fix him'. Both behaved in an undignified manner.
My initial job was to name this as a crazy-making power struggle. That took about three sessions for them to recognize it, momentarily. It was an important moment.
Then I had my work cut out affirming the deep love and commitment they clearly showed each other but in a negative way, whilst confronting them with taking responsibility for how they were responding to each other.
To quote Atkinson from his book above, I had to coach them to think and act like people who usually get treated well by their partners. That is no easy task with such an entrenched pattern. Both pull for the therapist to take their side against the other. The art is to take both sides and to skilfully err on the side of a healthy relationship.
Like many other couples, the negative pattern was their problem.
Both had contributed to the mess with predictable, separation engendering behaviours in an otherwise functional relationship. They were great parents; had many friends; had the support of their extended family; no money troubles, good health, intelligence, love and commitment.
Like many a similar couple, Jane and John were perceived by their friends as blessed. They were pillars of strength in their friendship and community networks.
How is this possible?
It's more than just window dressing.
Their private selves and their anguished marriage were not shared openly among friends. Perhaps it was too shameful.
On top of that feeling, what they thought they did in their relationship and what they actually did were two different things.
The unconscious relationship
Most of our actions and inactions are decided in the back of our mind before we become aware of them. Our public persona, and our private and our secret selves create cross currents of contradictions and ambiguities. These three selves make for a number of versions of reality or explanations for our behaviour after the fact. They often feature in our internal dialogue.
This chapter from the book John Cleese on Families may give you a laugh and some insight into this issue.
Not all of those selves are mapped accurately by oneself or one's partner.
We think we know some of our beloved's secrets and later discover that we didn't really get the significance or enormity of it in their life.
Then quite suddenly, we wake up to the impact of it in our relationship and its effect over time.
Typical examples are having had an abusive alcoholic or a problem gambler parent; having a sibling with major developmental or psychiatric problems; having had sexual interference or molestation as a child; having to keep a secret from one or other parents, and early traumatic loss of place, of a sibling or parent.
We even keep secrets from ourselves, con ourselves and sometimes lie to ourselves.
Too often we only hear what we assume the other is going to say in response to our concerns, not what they actually think or even have said. This cascades quickly into arguing about assumptions of what is in the other's head or what the other really meant.
Both end up not feeling heard.
In my view of those arguments, it is more effective to admit at the outset, 'I assume you are going to say/think this in response to what I am about to say', than to short circuit their response with a pre-emptive response to what you had already assumed they would say.
It can get so normal, that one will swear on the bible that the other did say or think what they had assumed they would say or think before they even said or thought anything. This may also be one of a number of memory biases like source confusion (did I hear it, think it or say it).
You would not believe dear reader, how common an argument pattern this is, usually so nuanced and subtle that it buries the underlying power struggle from view.
Here is an assumption one partner made: Gabby was dumbfounded in a session that her partner Steve of 25 years, did not know her father, a dairy farmer in the Kyogle area, had been a violent alcoholic who terrorised his family and physically abused her.
She thought he knew that. She had had that discussion with Steve in her head so many times she swore he understood it.
In one of our sessions, Gabby realized that in fact she hadn't spoken it out of feeling embarrassed about her early life, and so he could not have heard it, and thus didn't know it.
As a result he never got why Gabby froze up when he had a quiet yet firm tone in his voice. It reminded her of her dad winding up for a binge session followed by the explosion of rage.
As a result Gabby had become falsely subservient to Steve's wishes. She blamed him for having made all the major decisions in their lives. This blocked them completely.
Most of their conflicts were about a conversation that hadn't happened and needed to.
Kerry and Alex had been together for 9 years when they consulted me.
Initially they met when both were married with kids who were then aged 17 to 29. Their first years were clandestine, furtive meetings away from Lismore, hungry for each other and desperately alone in their marriages.
When they came out, Alex's farming family rallied around except for his eldest son. He who would have no part in embracing a gay father. Kerry's more urban, beach side family sided with his wife. She felt appalled and betrayed by him, and in a way 'obliged' the kids to decide where their loyalties lay.
The following five years of their relationship were dominated by managing the family schisms they so dearly did not want to happen but could not avoid.
As a consequence their sexual relationship, which had sustained them, started to falter under the weight. It alone could not carry the burden of repairing the multiple conflicted relationships in their extended families, which ultimately included grandchildren. They were stretched to their limits trying to make amends for or repair the hurt in their wives and children.
Ultimately Kerry sought a clandestine outlet on visits to sex workers on the Gold Coast. We worked for nearly 12 months on the intimacy and extended family problems, before that secret was revealed to me. Alex had suspected it for the year before challenging him in the week before the secret burst into our sessions.
The betrayal took up a year of repair alongside dealing with the underlying breakdown of psychological intimacy. They had been unknowingly following many of the rules on how to avoid intimacy above - always pleasant and never argued, for example. They truly believed that they did speak about their feelings but the core of it was that they made each other guess their needs.
Jackie and Bill, a couple of 25 years with three kids, asked me, 'is this as good as it gets? How long can this go on'?
Jackie early 50's, had been ill with a debilitating pancreatitis for the last year. Recently she had viral pneumonia. There was no clear diagnosis though one Southport physician suspected rheumatic fever. As we dug around listening for the meaning of her illness, Bill wondered about her pattern of protecting him from knowledge of the kid's illnesses. She claimed he worried too much. Jackie knew this pattern was at work at the moment in her own illness, not wanting to burden Bill with worry about her health.
It turned out that Jackie assumed Bill would leave her if she became ill. True she had always shielded him from the kid's illnesses but she rarely allowed herself to show ill health to him. She thought this came from overhearing her parent's arguing when she was a kid. Her father, unbeknownst to both, had suffered a series of minor strokes (TIA's only diagnosed years later) when she was pre-teen and her mother had become increasingly agitated by his then inexplicable confusion, agitation and forgetfulness. She had threatened to leave him because she couldn't cope.
Jackie remembers this clearly, though her parents later denied it, claiming they had always known it was due to Dad's stroke from TIA's.
As she spoke, from the back of her mind Jackie was suddenly confronted by a fear, something she had not ever admitted to herself - that she might leave Bill if he became sick. And then she said her craziest fear was that she would leave him if she didn't get well, assuming he couldn't cope, thereby continuing to protect him.
A powerful and unacknowledged fear that had been leading their relationship over a cliff. Once spoken, creative problem solving could begin. It was the unspoken fear that had blocked them from working together and thinking laterally.
A self-care or a relationship health check respects these patterns and exits from intimacy, softens the approach of trouble and invites unexpected change to be less catastrophic. It may even avoid that tyranny of privacy, which some folk endure until they can no longer postpone life or the truth.
Prevention and risk management
As a risk management strategy, we take our cars in for regular service, our teeth to the dentist each year, so why not our relationships for a health check. Blaming the car for its faults or complaining about your gums doesn't fix it. Biting on decay can hurt, but blanking out on a troubled relationship feeds old patterns and ultimately can break hearts.
When we are afraid of the risk of failure in intimate relationships, both genders can dumb down to denial. They forget what works elsewhere in their lives.
Denial is a form of wilful ignorance, a refusal to see with the heart. However, the experience of rejection itself, interferes with a person's self control. They become impulsive and self destructive. Rejection drops a person's IQ by about 25%, reduces their ability to reason and increases aggression. The same applies to being bullied.
For more on ostracism and the silent treatment.
It is still a question of what matters at the end of our life versus what I want now?
The mid or late life crisis, often described as natural events, are a direct result of this kind of gradual self neglect. Most of us follow our immediate concerns and wait until the question crashes into our 40s or 50's with a crisis. Late in the game, we then appear desperate to catch up on the essentials we neglected years ago.
Issues of aging are age old dilemmas and still they require fierce conversations and time to think. Those phone calls from 9/11 passengers and our Bali survivors say it again and again as do those in the middle of catastrophic illness.
At the end of the day, truth is, it's how well we have loved and cared for each other that matters.
Finally, that is all we own - not the house, the job, the money, not even our bright future.
The time is now.
Truth works but many of the schools and organizations in which we live 8 or more hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week are built on both in-authenticity and lack of time to think for ourselves. We are encouraged to think what others are thinking.
Some of us grow up to expect the same of family and even of an inner life. End result is a sense that we are somehow faking it, our lives more like a movie cliché than the lived experience of an authentic self.
One way to think about an alternative to these crazy-making patterns is an intentional or a conscious, mindful relationship both with our self, our life and with our loved ones. A relationship that is both planful and playful.
Yet, suspecting the truth of this this we can still be distracted by more pressing commitments, until it is too late and often too late for just one of the partners. Or in relationship to ourselves, just one of our organ systems decides to fail. A business goes bust in similar ways.
More on gender: boys fix it - girls feel it
The verbal and emotional ascendancy of most girls over most boys early in their development in Australia, sets in glue the stereotype of 'boys fix it - girls feel it'. Just hang out at a coed school to get a sense of the enormity of this gender disjunction and allow your heart to come alive when you notice an exception.
The unexceptional result is the impasse that leads to so much marital misery:
If she doesn't tell me what she's not saying I can't fix it.
To which she replies or thinks,
I don't want you to fix it, I just want you to hear me and/or feel what I'm not saying!
This grows into the common domestic squabble called,
UPROAR: where insinuations of worthlessness are tossed back and forth like a hot potato with escalating vehemence in order to avoid intimacy. Source
Australian men tend to be more solution focused than feeling focused. We are more often a well trained provider with a great mask than a woman's best friend. Many of us growing up had few if any models of what manhood was about.
Studies done in the 1970's before the 'new nurturing father' came on the scene, revealed boys averaged 7 minutes a day with their fathers. It is now up to 2.5 hours per weekday on average and 40% of that in play and 20% more time with their sons than daughters. Source
Blokes with more 'feminine' characteristics are more often found in happy marriages than ones that are just stoic, great providers who believe that everything they do is 'for the family'. However, metro sexual can be as impenetrable a mask as the 'good guy', 'tough guy' and 'hard working guy' masks.
In their day to day work, men are interested in risk management and systemic thinking - because it saves time, injury and repetition. They generally do not want to become rule driven automatons at work or in their relationships. But too many are baffled by what some women don't say.
These are gender roles that require vulnerability on each side to share the responsibility for both feeling and fixing in a relationship.
Men usually welcome the possibility of animated peer review and a collaborative, blame free fix for the crap in their lives. They prefer those methods at work and teach those methods to their children in play. Visit manhood online and XY online and mens line for some positive views on 'men's business'. Read the battered husbands book on line.
I have lost count of the number of men who have engaged in bitter self-recrimination in my office after the loss of a child. Beating themselves up over how they didn't spend enough time with them before they died.
One guy asked me 'so should I not leave for work at 7.00 am?' I said 'it's not about the amount of time but about being emotionally available to them when you are there, being good company for them and of good company to your partner.'
This is a strange concept - emotionally available - 'how do you fix that?'
It means being open and vulnerable, meeting one another without defences, without guarding against feeling hurt, rejected or a feeling of not knowing how to relate. Allowing the feelings to be there and confiding them to the other.
Defences and defending against feelings, close the doors to those we love and leave them not knowing who they are living with or who their parent is. Each of us is more isolated as a result.
These make for insecure attachment bonds to which we respond predictably, with criticism and withdrawal. Where this is a problem I find some men just don't get it and some women insist that they (the women) are available when they are not. Increasingly I am seeing this role reversed.
Too many clients of mine say their dad's were too busy and always grumpy at home. I expect this will soon be about the mums. These are the same dads who later weep in my office when it is too late. And sometimes this in a household where the mum works full time AND is the home maker, activities coordinator, cleaner, cook, laundromat and dad puts his feet up to watch TV after a long hard day at a not family-friendly workplace.
This too I am seeing role reversed with the mums too tired to do anything but put their feet up and the dad's run off their feet with both home and work.
One ends up exhausted with the small stuff, nags and criticizes the other, is increasingly in their face, withdrawing from hugs and cuddles.
The other says less, becomes more grumpy and with angry outbursts, withdraws further to the shed, the club or to work. General unhappiness increases, appreciation decreases. Incredible to me that our divorce rate is still so low at 4 adults per thousand per year (0.4% not 30%!).
The average relationship waits six years before seeking help with a known problem that both people contribute to. Many of my clients have waited 20 years before getting help.
There is wisdom in endurance. Issues take time to cook. Reciprocal patterns take time to nail. However, in this game the early bird does catch the worm: marriage education and relationship coaching are always going to be superior to therapy.
Usually the 'problems' were present and a source of conflict or avoidance of conflict in some form at the outset of the relationship. Paradoxically arising from the very attributes, which first attracted the partners but later became a problem e.g. one with a good career becomes a workaholic; another close to family of origin ends up having no space from the in-laws; one desirably independent later is perceived as self-centered; one a total extravert and charmer later unable to entertain themselves; the charming street angel later reveals a home devil and one, captivatingly vulnerable later becomes toxic and wounding.
Anticipating this upside down and left field quality of a late awakening to 'relationship problems' on your doorstep (the 'this-happens-to-other-people-not-to-us' syndrome) - some folk make a prenuptial agreement for regular sessions with a relationship coach, facilitator or therapist. They do this especially during the first three years when new relationships are most likely to manifest terminal mistakes.
A study commissioned by the Institute for American Values affirms their belief in the endurance ethic of stubbornly outlasting marital problems.
Of 645 unhappily married couples, it showed that most people in that sample who stuck it out did not end up feeling trapped in an unhappy marriage five years later. Of 645 unhappily married couples, 167 had divorced in the five year period. Only half of those were then happy. Whereas, two thirds of those who hung in an unhappy marriage were better off than before.
On most measures of psychological well-being the stayers showed more gains than the divorced group. For them there were three successful ways of making the turnaround to a happier marriage 1. marital endurance 2. working on it and 3. improving one's own happiness through personal development. The three common causes of their unhappiness were:
Caution is required in reading these results. For example you can't infer what would have happened to the divorced group had they stayed together by comparing them to those who stayed.
Me in brief
I have worked as a clinical psychologist and a trauma therapist for 40 years and as a couple and family therapist for most of it. I am an agnostic Buddhist and humanist psychologist of Jewish and Scottish descent. The model I most identify with is process work and the one I practice is Emotionally Focused couples therapy (EFT-C).
I survived a childhood of mixed blessings - my mother died giving birth to me. I was fostered. Then aged 8, I was sent from Europe to Australia to be with my traumatized, lone biological father. There were many challenges and something close to miracles. I survived and thrived. I went on to a first marriage of 25 years with three kids, oldest now nearly 40. Second marriage nearly twenty years with a youngster under 10. I love and am proud of who I have become - forged, as it were, by circumstance and the kindness of strangers. At times I struggle to breathe. But that inherent, outgoing and uncalculating generosity of which Kay speaks (quoted above) is my birth given compass point. I always knew I was lucky to be alive. I feel daily a profound gratitude for this life, and the precious loves I am blessed to be with.
My visual art site will show you a bit more.
My iPad and iPhone friendly site couple-therapy.org
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