What brings couples to seek help:
'Real-life romance is fuelled by a far more humdrum approach to staying connected' than the love songs, movies and magazines depict. There is deep significance in the little moments of mutual recognition. (Gottman & Silver in 'The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work').
My typical client couple over-functions in one area of their relationship and under-functions in another. For example, a child focused marriage of brilliant parents who lack a satisfying, intimate connection with each other. Often reported as sharing parenting with a house mate or a sibling rather than a lover. The kids become the source of cuddles.
Often this starts as a healthy reciprocation but gets seriously out of whack over time.
Typically both have an inkling of what to do but undermine even addressing the imbalance since it is so painful to approach. Consequently, they live inside a fragile envelope, which cracks periodically spilling the embedded frustration all over the relationship.
Some sense the answer lies embodied in a place inside, which they don't trust, are too busy to hear or fear that an unspoken anxiety or rage could take over and they will lose control.
Better to keep it buried and say nothing?
Unfortunately, feelings buried alive don't just die. They hang around in the cells of our body.
Experience with trauma release exercises (TRE) show that small and large stresses from the past remain in the body, and yet can be released quite simply. This video with at risk youth conveys a little of this knowledge, and here's a talk from David Berceli explaining the ease with which the body can restore itself to a healthy state.
When these sensations and feelings bubble up into awareness the past comes alive again. It validates our present day fears, our impasses and our styles of relating. The unspoken then fuels conflict over trivia.
Why won't s/he come for help
Even in a big mess, both genders baulk at admitting the want of help and doing something about it. It is easy to find reasons not to go for help - not the least that everyone is telling you that you should - I went and saw the doc! What else do you want?!
Psychology has had a marketing problem as well - selling what's wrong with your past rather than what's right about the present, aiming for the best in you and for the future.
Example: note - people described in the examples on site are fictional composites drawn from many life stories. None of the events took place in the locations indicated.
Paul was in his 30's and worked in an agricultural business in the Northern Rivers of NSW. He wanted to check me out over the phone before committing to a session. He told me that he was 'scared shitless' about coming to talk. His 'will I or won't I' phone call went for about 20 minutes. At one stage he broke down and wept. He felt safe talking to me. We made a time.
He drove the 40 kilometres from home in Murwillumbah to my office in Mullumbimby stopping and starting along the Tweed Valley Way. He had plenty of opportunities to turn around. He headed back home a couple of times before finally committing, irrevocably, to face it.
He was a big bloke with a big heart, dressed in work gear and heavy boots, smelling of burnt sugar cane and diesel fuel. He looked like the kind of guy who was never far from his truck, his shed, his dog and his banjo.
He opened the session by saying other people thought he had 'emotional problems'. He didn't think so. What scared him was that he might find out stuff about himself that he didn't like. He came from a close family all living within an hour of his home. His sister, mother and partner had been telling him for years about his emotional problems. However, he feared that if he recognized them in a session, he would have a real reason to change.
I thought to myself, as long as our mothers, grandmothers, sisters and girlfriends nag us about our emotional problems, we can continue to ignore our own view of it since so many others are on our case.
Paul didn't want to change the way he thought, felt or acted but he had reached an impasse within himself and in his relationships.
He knew he had to deal with himself but without the interested involvement of his family. He cared too much about what they thought but it didn't help him get clear about who he was. He knew only too well their version of who he was.
On that fitful drive to my office he committed to face himself, and to do whatever it took. He wanted to be content in himself AND connected to the people he cared for. In our 20 minute phone call I had inadvertently done most of the work. He did the rest. He said his plan was to approach himself in the same way he 'would go about managing a people problem at work - reducing it to its simplest elements' and observing his thoughts and feelings about. 'It needed no women's talk', he said. Paul had a natural mindfulness practice.
Now, don't roll your eyes and think Men! I've had the same kind of conversations over the last 40 years with the ladies.
As Julian Short writes in his book 'An Intelligent Life':
Paul understood these simple causes and primary needs were wrapped up his 'emotional problems'. He knew this without having read the book. Managing livestock had taught him what simple creatures we all are. I only had to add the following fact, best said again by Julian Short:
A workshop in attachment and intimacy
In the beginning, few of us understand the enormity of what we join at the birth place of a committed intimate relationship.
It will press our buttons.
We will hurt our loved one and we will get hurt. Hopefully not too often nor too painfully.
We will heal and we do learn to forgive, sometimes daily.
Through this process we grow wisdom and a full and a meaning-full life.
Or we take another route and fake a relationship - using our masks and thus avoid the heart work.
As a workshop, a committed relationship calls all that is within us up into awareness. This is not always comfortable. What you do with that calling depends on how good a friend you are to yourself, to your companions and to your community.
Good friends support the intimacy workshop equally with each other, moving from the fear of what the other might do or not do, feel or not feel, to support being with each other whatever it takes.
This is a movement from doing to being. It is paradoxically ambiguous and simple - a bit like crazy wisdom or controlled folly.
Relationship is a process rather than a product. Living our process is not easy in the short term, but living our masks is costly in the long term.
It has to begin with truly knowing oneself, examining our own life and reflecting honestly upon it, and then never giving up on ourselves, no matter what comes up in the process of reflection.
This is a process of tenderizing ourselves, touching our soft spots, our buttons, and differentiating ourselves from our loved one.
Paradoxically, self care, vulnerability and intimacy grow each other.
Relationship troubles and growing pains
Sex in a long term relationship is usually controlled by the one who desires it the least.
Turning points tend to crystallize in relationships in 6 to 8 year cycles, yet relationships are built and undone one conversation at a time.
Coming home from work (or school) is one of the most vulnerable times in a relationship's day and it is made meaningless by giving it little time and a low priority.
Simple stuff like taking five minutes to really say hello and goodbye each day, and other relationship affirming rituals make a difference.
If you notice that you don't generally manage to have at least five positive interactions to one negative with your loved one, then it may be time to take your relationship in for a service (be it partnering or parenting).
Just getting to equal ownership of the problem can be a break through out of the blame frame.
Even admitting that we don't know why we end up in the same ugly cul de sac is one step ahead of pretending it doesn't matter or it doesn't happen.
90% of clients who come together report they benefited from 3 or fewer sessions with a relationship therapist. Gains can happen early. Respect is often the first behaviour to re-appear when each realizes the other has been doing it tough and doing their best as well.
Then returns the assumption of good will or at least the suspension of adverse assumptions about each other's motives. And then we start to grow, first by building a new a map of the other's inner world.
Habitual avoidance of conflict is a strong predictor of divorce, like the example of Angus and Angela on Intro 1.
Separations in low conflict marriages can be catastrophic for children unaware of the discord.
More on constructive fighting for couples on site.
Fair fighting can manage and sometimes resolve conflict.
However, toxic fights in front of the children is a self-replicating, generational divorce training. It becomes their idea of normal.
A decision to fight fair may contain a control issue that will undermine fair fighting and 'prove' that fighting doesn't work.
Especially with the speed of an urban life, the fundamental inner work remains to know ourselves in our world, to cultivate a calm mind and to come from that breath centred awareness in our significant relationships, as best we can at the time.
It is a big ask when faced with anguish. In our distress, we want a quick solution when there seems too little time to understand the whole system from which the crisis draws its energy.
Pain includes the emotional response to injury. That response is persistent especially when we haven't named or claimed the injury as our own. Lacking ownership we look for others to blame or take it away from us.
Wilfully refusing to address what we know is awry with us, denies life's feedback. That too can be painful.
The natural state of mind is equilibrium but when life is denied she will assert herself with imbalance. We then have a choice to focus on the symptoms of imbalance and travel from there to the personal and communal roots of it, or we can medicate the problem and hope it goes away.
More than 8 million packets of anti-depressants are prescribed annually in Australia. We know that meaningful relationships, appropriate nutrition and exercise are more effective for many.
Couple therapy, whereby a depressed person is counselled together with their non-depressed spouse, works much better than any other form of treatment for depression (The London Depression Intervention Trial, British Journal of Psychiatry 177:95-100).
Yet it is one of the least prescribed treatment modalities.
Disequilibrium starts with the life that is denied.
Imbalance arises when we try to live another life than our own.
Our own life rings true in our hearts like the sweet spot on a bell, on a tennis racket or cricket bat or those perfect spots in an oven where the cake cooks through and the roast browns on top.
When we live away from our sweet spot, our life lies incomplete and unfulfilled.
However, in living close to our heart we also risk feeling the 'poignant enormity of it all'. In the back of our minds we may want to avoid the depths of sorrow if we can grasp a life that seems fun, easier or even better than our own.
Nothing wrong with wanting a better life where it opens to great good. But the promise of a life where we don't get hurt or where we can fake it; where we can buy or even lie our way out of trouble; where we can hide from the consequences or shut them out completely or just abdicate our responsibility - that's a false life.
Each can be very attractive when we are afraid of or unaware of some disquiet in the back of the mind.
Fear is persuasive and the mind is an awesome servant that can bring to life only those things that confirm the fear in the back of the brain. Mind will throw out real alternatives, some which might demand sustained effort and response-ability. Our conscious mind will find a reason for that decision from a store of beliefs about ourselves. More on mind on site.
Sometimes that other life is the unlived life of our parents, family or care-givers that they had wished for us or wished upon us when they sought a better life in moving countries or homes. That hopes sits in the back of our minds until it is caught living our life for us.
Health & happiness
A survey of 2 million people across 80 countries found a 'dip in mental health and happiness (that) comes on slowly, not suddenly in a single year. Only in their 50's do most people emerge from the low period (of the preceding decade).'
The unhappiest times in the US sample peaked for women in their 40's and men in their 50's. For the British sample, the unhappiest years peaked, on average, at 44 in both genders. Source and the report.
This consistent finding throughout the world points to periods of unhappiness in everyone's life. It is a process in all peoples whether single or married; queer or straight; childless or not; in poor and good health, and in all socioeconomic levels, cultures and creeds.
Believing happiness is the natural state of all human beings can cause more unhappiness.
Happiness does not require a good job, money, health nor coming from a "good family". Many of us postpone life until each of those is in place. Sensible hygiene and potable water; feeling useful in a social network; aware of the food/mood diet/health exercise connections, and even breathing through nose rather than mouth, are a few simple examples that enhance health and happiness without postponing anything until tomorrow.
I like Russ Harris' 'The Happiness Trap' and that linked web site has lot of free resources to get you started. He also has written a useful book for couples: 'ACT with Love'.
Martin Seligman's site authentic happiness has positive mental health self-assessments. I like the brief character strengths assessment for a starter.
Ultimately, a secure attachment is the key to health and happiness. If you add the personality traits of optimism, sociability, conscientiousness, resilience and low neuroticism you have a recipe for a long, meaningful and fulfilling life.
Emotional attachment is a primary protection against feelings of helplessness and meaninglessness (MacFarlane & Van der Kolk).
Attachment is a well spring of ease and joy at all ages and stages. Insecure or unstable attachment is a source of misery. No attachment is not a viable option for brain development or for survival.
Secure attachment soothes and comforts; offers a safe haven; promotes trust in self and other and openness to new experiences, risk taking and experimenting. It promotes affect regulation and integration (Sue Johnson 1988).
The Buddha's teaching was not detachment but rather to dwell, to reside, to embed and be embodied in the world. That is the essence of compassion, an unbroken connection with Life not its disavowal.
Compassion can only occur between equals.
He recommended residing in that soft spot of a poignant enormity in life, which touches us all. The Buddha was an agnostic, a doubting Thomas. He suggested that you try this way of life for yourself and see if it is as true for you as it was for him.
And then there is love. Love is a much misunderstood and misused term. Being both noun and verb it is a set of things and a set of actions. Love is not a single feeling but an emotion built from two or more feelings. Anything vital to us creates more than one feeling, and we also have feelings about our feelings (and thoughts about our feelings).
Misunderstanding the difference between a feeling and an emotion, may be the cause of fundamental errors in thinking about love and happiness. Ideas such as I want to feel love and feel loved are very different when discussed with the understanding that love is not a feeling but a label we give to a range of transient emotional experiences always complicated by past, present and future considerations. It is not correct that our partners simply and constantly feel love for us ('Demystifying Love' Levine 2007).
Misunderstanding the difference between wants and needs further confounds thinking about love - I need to love and need to feel loved with these confusions in mind, become very difficult ideas to translate into action.
We have a lot of control over our actions but not as much control over what we think and feel, as positive thinking experts tell us. This compounds problem 1.
There is no method of eliminating negative thinking entirely.
It is more effective to be mindful of those thoughts than fight them. More on that subject in 'The Happiness Trap'.
How is your relationship with yourself today? Time to reflect on those slight inner adjustments? Aware of heart and breath rate, blood pressure, fluid and food intake; time to care for your self and then those near you; space to think through the problems of yesterday and to plan ahead? That's the first set of problems - most of us are moving too fast to reflect on how we have lived the last days or even the last few minutes.
The bulk of our decisions are made out of awareness, in the back of our mind. Our conscious mind is hundreds of milliseconds behind our decisions. We witness events unfolding that have already begun in a back room of our mind. Conscious mind plays catch up, rationalizing the decision according to a set of beliefs or explanations we have about ourselves. Sometimes our explanations do not accord with the actions.
Hence, what we say we do and what we actually do can be worlds apart.
Our brains are shaped to emphasize the negative and prioritize fear. Most brains keep a map of memories skewed to losses rather than gains. Our physiological responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunity and pleasure (Haidt).
Furthermore, we predict the future from the vividness and emotional impact of past events rather than on the probability of a recurrence. Many people and communities suffer from avoiding or accounting for risks that are vanishingly small whilst not attending to obvious widespread, high risk behaviours. The difficulty is that when afraid or upset we're less able to judge risk, including the risk of unhappiness.
The art of happiness thus requires out-foxing our fears and placing the pursuit of happiness to one side, obliquely, and observing our thinking/feeling process rather than identifying with it.
The more connected we are to other people, the less likely fear will swallow our endeavours. A deep sense of belonging tames fear. Attachment is evolution's buffer against trauma and loss. Secure attachment is the basis of resilience. Hence feeling useful in a social network is one of the best predictors of health and long life.
In addition the quality of our actions (and non-actions) depends on the thinking that precedes it. The quality of our thinking depends on the quality of attention our thinking has received from others. Therefore, give beautiful attention to one another's thinking. Einstein's chose excellent listeners.
So, what about luck? The more skill you have, the less luck you need. Building a relationship network of luck and of good listeners is skilful and increases good fortune. Effortless luck is unreliable and expensive. Australians are hooked on it, for example, $13.3 billion gaming losses in 2001. That exceeds our total household savings. With a $3 billion spend on indigenous Australia and a couple of million on early childhood screening - no prizes for guessing which is the bigger gamble on the future health and happiness of a nation. Even mandatory screening for all new born hearing would be a significant advance.
Positive health information is accessed unequally, even or especially among health professionals. Myths, quick fixes and 'magic bullets' are more enticing than steady observation over time using a process of systematic elimination for both client and practitioner. We cannot always assume that our health practitioners or policy makers will do this elementary field study as thoroughly as we might. Our lives depend on it.
Failure to act early in the development of symptoms, crowds medical and emergency services with preventable illness and last minute, aggressive interventions that may violate whatever quality of life remains. What chance that another report, this one titled Changing Diets, Changing Minds, will alter the industrial diet of hospital, health service or school canteens or make nutrition a key component in the treatment of depression or targeting the spend on indigenous affairs.
Unrecognized food intolerances lead to significant disease risks later in life. With child behaviour and developmental problems across the whole spectrum, it is essential to consider nutrition, food intolerances or allergy first. It can save the child from intrusive and prognostically worthless interventions.
Dairy products are implicated in a large range of disease processes. Common food intolerances are to: lactose, wheat, soya, salicylates, amines (or histamine like substances) and free glutamates. With the support of a dietitian, the RPAH elimination diet interspersed with food challenges (to establish the threshold for a perceptible reaction) is the fail safe test for single or combined food intolerances.
It begins with respecting what's in the back of our minds, living in harmony with what we already know. That knowledge resides in our head, heart and guts and describes abiding truths about ourselves, our relationships and our world.
More harm is done by unhappy 'achievers' out of touch with themselves, their families and their world trying to do good, than by those simply content in themselves. The latter are the quiet ones who come to the fore after disaster and catastrophe. These maintain and re-build community rather than just talk about it or throw money at it to make themselves feels better.
Contentment is made fragile by conscious fear and by fears in the back of mind. We develop contentment from living truly and truly living. We dilute it each time and one action (or inaction) at a time that we miss that true, sweet spot in our life.
Some of us are slow learners in travelling this way. Others just skip over the question until they are grown open by disharmony, injury, loss or by sudden illness. And some just cruise through life without ever asking or caring - that life is also worth living but it could be more interesting.
Many of us know we are too busy and that this leads to downgrading or ignoring health risks that may cost us, our children, our enterprise dearly in the long term. If we continue to do or omit to do things, which we know to be awry we tend to become dispirited and disheartened.
Then we react badly to disaster, to pain and to loss as well as to sudden good fortune.
Change begins with knowledge. Knowing ourselves and walking that talk are conscious intentions - choices. We choose to know what's in the back of our minds or not. Either can become a habit.
We form and are formed by habits of thought, feeling and deed - both alone and in relationship to others. These are choices too. Each benefit from reflection. A method of self-reflection can access the wisdom and the wonder in our bodies and in our inner most self, our soul or essence. Or we can choose to just act impulsively, without reflection.
We can apply the results of self-reflection to practical new habits such as:
Living authentically allows the inevitable challenges of family life and in the world to be welcomed with some confidence and kindness rather than with the fear, anger and self-doubt that chokes out wisdom and connection. In neglecting what we know in our guts and in the back of our mind, we commit a crime against our wisdom and harm ourselves.
Seeking insights into health and relationship problems without actively addressing what we already know further breaches body integrity, heart's truth and our personal manifesto. Doing what we know is out of place in our life is like driving through the desert with plenty of petrol but no map and no water. That is an action/understanding imbalance - plenty of action (petrol) but no understanding (map and water).
Understanding and action go hand in hand.
Reflect on your own life and then write a personal manifesto without righteous intent, live it gracefully and review it annually. It is a guidance system for your world, a mental map. Here's a how to of personal manifestos (if link broken).
© 2005 - 2013 ZPJ Fox All Rights Reserved www.peterfox.com.au
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