Relationship education 5
Last edit of this page 07/12/12
Turning points and doubt on the threshold of change
Doubt is a wonderful thing. It points to a problem.
The bulk of our decision making is, necessarily, out of conscious awareness.
Not allowing doubt may be a refusal to investigate the basis on which our brain has made its decision ahead of us. One that we may later struggle to catch up with.
A refusal to examine each other's mental process can later be an unwillingness to do the work of changing one's mind in a conflict of minds.
Without a compelling doubt, we would have little reason to reflect on our choices. A life of chance rather than one of choice would more likely follow, much like the dice man.
Many people prefer trusting in fate for the big decisions, not asking doubt, fear or shame to speak. That is implicitly trusting their brains to deliver the right answer. An open enquiry of that implicit process is useful in order to understand ones own and one's partner's mental map.
More my mental maps page.
Entering a life long relationship with a felt sense that something doesn't quit fit may hold an answer to the question I posed on page 3 - 'what do I know now that I will discover in a year's time?'
Also try the focusing resources here.
Relationship exercise 1
Both do this quiz now from Sue Johnson's book 'Hold Me Tight' (pages 57-58). She applies attachment theory to couples exploring the communication of Accessibility, Engagement and Responsiveness (A.R.E.) This questionnaire will begin to make that clear. Complete it separately and then discuss. Predict how the other would respond and share that too.
A. 'From your viewpoint, is your partner accessible to you?
B. From your viewpoint, is your partner responsive to you?
C. Are you positively emotionally engaged with each other?
Prevention is always superior to cure.
One of our friends married some years ago. She loves him and he her. They are gorgeous together, but something didn't then and doesn't now quite fit. It's not the misfit that matters but how and whether we choose to manage it.
She loved his thoughtful quietness and lack of pre-judgment. Like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room, it was in contrast to the noisy, needy and critical family she came from. One that continues to bind her thoughts every day - what would mum think, what will my sister say, what would dad have wanted me to do. Whereas he loved her out-there energy. It seemed an answer to the years of quiet. Both had found solutions to their heartaches in the each others refreshing difference.
Today's solution will tire and then as we hang on after the use by date, the past solution becomes the next problem; to which a solution is found that itself becomes a problem as circumstances again change. Change is the only thing we can be sure of.
Today in my friend's marriage, she complains that he is too quiet and he that she talks too much. They don't yet have an effective method of managing this difference.
If they had done the 'Hold me Tight' quiz above they would have identified these trouble spots and may have been better prepared for the consequences.
Differences like those are often transacted in body language.
To return to my friends, he is silent but his body speaks. It would be hard not to interpret that language as saying, 'leave me alone' as he is often disappearing just before she moves to approach him. She conveys her intention to speak bodily, which he anticipates very well.
She speaks without a full stop, like any extroverted thinker. She doesn't recognize his or her own body language in this transaction. That would require her to pause and reflect, to go slowly. She figures she waited long enough.
He doesn't give her the quantity of eye to eye, head to head attention that she would read as having been heard and that she matters. No one in her family had the space to listen over the crowding inside their own heads.
Does she want him inside her head like her family is in hers? Does he want her to disappear into silence, become invisible like he did as a child?
He's introverted. He is really inside his own head and knows himself well. Inner directed. She says, 'I have lived with him for seven years and I still don't know what's inside his head.' If anyone crowds him, he just goes to the shed. 'Every guy should have a shed', he told me.
I listened to that and built myself an art studio, but it's open to my house. His shed is sequestered from the house, like another work place only in the back yard.
She has to extract information from him and sometimes from inside the shed. She pursues, he withdraws. Both are frustrated and at some level angry with each other. This has further consequences. They both agree that is how it is.
More on the pursuer distancer pattern on site.
It seems complicated to me. It is not unusual as an example of gendered roles. Not unusual where one is more extraverted than another. One day they will just stop and face each other in a moment of realization that this is not working. That will be a turning point. In their case it is likely to coincide with a crisis.
We all know it's easier learning new skills in the calm before a storm, not in the confusion of its rattling our defenses.
Yet most of us leave it to crunch time, after the wedding and after the storm disturbs our bedroom sanctuary.
I remember one blistering summer in Queensland when every night, vast storm clouds rolled in, dark planets of billowing gray promising relief from the heat. Yet for weeks no rain fell. It seemed like we were on a threshold every night. I'd sit on the front step smelling the humidity and gazing up, waiting. Lightening sparkled on the horizon, teasing me with its distant resolution. I would drift off listening to the thunder - later to call this a meditation.
Each night I went to bed thinking for sure tonight it will drop the lot and I'll wake up to the wood louvers slamming into the verandah's edge where I slept. I expected to hear the pounding rain on the tin roof and feel that wonderful cool mist from rain deflected onto my face in bed. I hoped to be woken by lightening crackling outside the door.
Those rainless days hung there like a time of doubt in a relationship, until finally the storm breaks in the early hours of the morning and it all becomes clear.
The day it broke I went to school in the pouring rain, running to the tram under a sheet of plastic, stepping out of the tram at New Farm into two feet of water from blocked drains near the kerb. The flooding was everywhere and we were allowed to walk barefoot all day at school. Warm, wet feet.
That's a turning point on a number of levels. The one that interests me is cold feet.
Those itchy, curling fidgets at the end of our legs, gripping the last bit of ground we cling to, just before the precipice. They sometimes conflict badly with a family pressuring us to be happy and to just jump over the edge. To take whatever comes with gratitude - even if it never rains again?
Cold tootsies in fright or flight, invite us back from having been abducted by powerful emotions and the hormone rush of falling in love, getting married, having kids - settling down for the next 20 years with our soul mate.
If you listen to your body, cold feet can give you time to pull back from the emotions, audit the sub-conscious process in your mind's decision and consider how to learn new skills together for managing what you find there. Invite the doubt in, welcome the shame and indecision back into your guts and examine it there.
Acquired early and ahead of the storm those skills will serve you well, especially when other and not so pleasant emotions threaten to flood your new life together.
More on turning points on site.
Relationship exercise 2
Consider a relationship with someone you know that is consistently easy going. Use the game plan below to map out the satisfying sequence you experience with this person 'over and over again'.
Sometimes, listening to couples talk about their relationships, I get the impression of each watching their own version of a movie of their lives. One tells me one version and the other another and I have trouble putting both together. Two people, who may as well speak different languages believe they are speaking the same. They have too quickly or too superficially explored their values and appear to be in agreement, until they hit a turning point or crisis some years into the relationship.
Suddenly, things are not as they seemed. Same bed, different dreams.
Given the very different ways we process conflicting information, none of the above is surprising. But it is surprising when one partner has not understood that there is another point of view and even refuses to consider it. A refusal to even attempt standing in the other's shoe, can turn a manageable conflict into a resolution resistant or an intractable problem. That may also be about narcissism - on site article.
The marriage task
Tuckman's model of the stages of small group development apply to long term relationships: forming - storming - norming - performing - adjourning. We can get stuck at one stage and recycle it rather than move on to develop a team. For example: forming - always returning to the question of are you in or out, are we a couple or not; storming - fighting over old issues, recycling problems; norming - not getting clear on the ground rules; performing - 'work shopping' intimacy, putting on a happy face, and adjourning - giving up rather than confronting the issues.
One of my clients almost destroyed his troubled marriage by turning their relationship into a workshop, making intimacy The Prime Task. He worked at his career in a similar way - totally driven! As his wife said, he was 'trying' but he never let anyone inside not his kids, friends nor her. She felt alone in the midst of all his 'intimacy' skills.
Relationship exercise 3
As an exercise with your partner discuss the meaning of the pairs of words below, describing them in concrete observable behaviors in the context of your relationship. Each pair is on a continuum and we are more or less one or the other depending on the situation. There is a natural tendency to prefer one end of these pairs to another in an intimate relationship. This is the one we will tend to default to under pressure.
To get specific about the meaning of each pair, try thinking about them in these ways: How do you know your partner is acting autonomously and how do you know when the two of you are connected. Who pulls away first, who brings you together. How do you know when one enjoys novelty and when the predictable is preferred. What tells you they prefer to hang out revealing themselves rather than concealing themselves. And how about you? What are your default positions on each dimension in an intimate relationship?
To deepen your own experience, try using the focusing technique within oneself first before exploring with your beloved.
Set out the pairs of words on the lounge room floor with a cushion or furniture representing the extremes. Each choose a place along the line where you are most comfortable at the moment with each other. You may end up in the same place or not.
Discuss what it means to be where you are. Do this for each pair, perhaps leaving a ribbon or a disc at your place on each dimension. This is a sculpture, a matrix of the points on which your relationship turns at this time and place in your lives. Together it tells a story about how the two of you at the moment.
Create a life story of someone who lives on this matrix and who rarely moves from its parameters. Check out the plusses and the minuses of calling this spot home, the place where you belong for the moment.
What are the lines of tension created by the different places you two occupy with each other? What are the lines of tension created by your default positions when both of you are stressed out?
Discuss where you would like to be on these dimensions now and where in another 6-8 years time.
Then imagine yourself in the future, 6-8 years hence. Think about the consequences of the places you chose and the differences you discovered with your partner's choices, and how that might evolve over the intervening years.
We all tend to slip back to our default positions. Talk about how you will signal that occurrence and what to do about it, if anything.
Imagine what the stuck places might be in a 6-8 year process with the likely additions (and losses) in your life. What escape routes might either of you try or keep in order to avoid the conflicts of the position you prefer to adopt.
Talk about what exits from intimacy, which you currently use, might then be challenged. More on exits from intimacy on site.
Share your hunches with your partner in an intentional dialogue, being careful not to escape from hearing what is being said by using an habitual exit or responding to what is heard with criticism, provocation, or coercion (each an exit).
Relationship exercises 4
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