Couples, Love

Holy Relationships, Batman! Eleven Relationship Truths We Can Learn from The Lego Batman Movie

batman-loveI have been waiting for almost a year for the Lego Batman movie to come out.  Last summer, when the trailers were available, I was using one of them in presentations to illustrate how males are so frequently socialized out of feeling and expressing any vulnerable emotions.  You can see what I mean in the second half of this trailer.  His butler, Alfred asks, “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?” and Batman shouts, “What? No!  I don’t want to do that!”  My husband and I watched that clip and laughed over and over.

We finally went with our kids to the movie last weekend.  In the middle of the show, my husband leaned over and whispered to me, “I feel like I’m in a therapy session with Dr. Lori Schade.”  If you aren’t familiar with Batman’s story, his parents were killed when he was younger and he lives largely in social isolation, emerging occasionally to save the city from the bad guys.  Alone in his billionaire mansion, he is a tortured soul.  There were many things about his character that I see in therapy all the time.  Just for fun, I identified the things Lego Batman can teach us about love.

  1. We all exist in relationship to others.  At the beginning of the movie, Batman declares that he doesn’t “do ships—as in relationships.”  He prefers to be alone.  However, as humans, we exist in relationships.  The question is whether we are proactive, as in using them for connection, or reactive, as in being avoidant or demanding.
  1. When people are wounded they often “numb out” and stop needing people.  In the first Lego movie, I laughed when Batman blasted music declaring, “Darkness!….No Parents!” demonstrating that he was still hurting over his familial loss.  I wasn’t laughing at his pain, but at the writer’s incisive observance of human behavior, and how we use music to express things for ourselves better than we can articulate them alone.  Sometimes music with this intensity follows numbness, because it allows the person in pain to “feel something,” even if only for a moment.
  1. People who are numb from emotional pain commonly have a restricted emotional range.   There was one emotion Batman admitted feeling: Rage.  It’s typical to see people with relationship trauma prevent themselves from feeling at all or only feeling anger, usually because they cannot hurt anymore.  This happens in marriage all the time.  Going numb keeps people from feeling and anger keeps people protected and effectively keeps other people out.
  1. People can have family of origin trauma or romantic relationship trauma that can follow them into the present. The loss of his parents was so painful that Batman didn’t want to get close to people again.  For many people, the injury can occur in the context of a previous romantic relationship in which someone was severely wounded.  The ghosts from these relationships show up, triggering people into reactivity in the present.  It’s not even always conscious.  Our brains remember pain.
  1. When you allow other people to get close to you, you are more vulnerable.  Batman was not willing to risk getting close to someone again, because he was not risk feeling the pain of loss again.  Very common and again, not always intentional.
  1. It’s scary to be vulnerable with other people. Batman’s butler, Alfred, conjectures that Batman is afraid of being in a family again.  Batman finally does admit that he is afraid to get close enough to people to hurt if they are taken away again.  Many people prevent closeness because of fear of the pain of loss or lack of connection.
  1. It’s more distressing to get no reaction than an angry reaction.  This relationship truth was manifested in Batman’s relation to the Joker, his nemesis.  The Joker wants confirmation that Batman hates him and sees him as a threat, but Batman is dismissive of him, driving his desperation for acknowledgment.  This relationship truth is that it’s more emotionally painful to get NO reaction from someone than an angry, bitter reaction.  This is why if a partner is stonewalling, it’s common to see another partner become more provoking.
  1. Relationship loss is normal, but you can’t stop letting people into your life.  Batman dispenses this advice at the end of the movie.  People who shut people out because of relationship pain are also denying themselves the benefit of having relationship support.  People thrive in the context of safe, close relationships.  They also function more effectively independently than people who are constantly trying to be completely independent and not need others for anything.  Safe, close relationships help us regulate distressing emotions more efficiently than when we are alone.  We literally feel less pain.
  1. We can want someone and push them away at the same time.  Even though he clearly has a thing for the commissioner, he pushes her away on purpose, to protect himself from future pain and to protect her from himself.  Batman knows he has a dark side.  There is fear that if he gets close to her, she won’t like who he really is, and there is fear that he will disappoint her.  This is a very real thing people do to stay in the safe zone.
  1. You can’t force someone to be vulnerable or close to you. As much as his friends tried to engage him, Batman ultimately had to be the one to decide that he would ALLOW people to be close.  There is a reaching out aspect, but the receiving aspect, at least in therapy, is often the hardest dynamic to shift.  People need to be willing to let their walls down to allow people to get close.  Demanding that someone, “BE VULNERABLE,” will never work.  Believe me, I have clients that try that approach constantly.  It will paradoxically push people away more.  All you can do is reassure and be consistently safe and hope that your partner will see it long enough to try to engage, especially if you have been a dangerous partner in the past, with criticism, blame, demand, or betrayal. 
  1. Being completely independent seems safe, but comes at a cost.  Batman is ultimately not a happy, albeit fictitious, soul.  His emotional isolation comes at a cost, which is loneliness, a restricted emotional range, rage and mistrust.  People who don’t risk getting close prevent the possibility of having close, bonding experiences with people, which can help build trust and safety.

I was amazed at how many relationship truths were presented in the Batman Lego movie.  Many people aren’t presenting these characteristics in Batman’s extreme, but they use the same strategies nonetheless.  Bottom line:  We are social beings.  We thrive in the context of close, safe, special relationships.  The question is not whether you are doing relationships, but how you are doing relationships.  To maximize the benefit, see where and when you can be vulnerable to emotionally bond to people.  It is a risk, but we have lots of evidence to show that it’s worth it in a safe, healing context.

My guess is that with supportive people around him, Batman will be even more effective at saving the citizens of Gotham….but we will have to wait for the next Lego Batman movie to find out.

Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na…..Thatman…does…Relationships!

Photo credit.  Copyright: bubbers / 123RF Stock Photo

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Is My Spouse Really Narcissistic? How People Are Commonly Overpathologized

13033830 - medical doctors group  isolated on white background

“How much do you know about Narcissism?” asked yet another female client, on the same day that a male client asked, “How much do you know about Borderline Personality Disorder?” It seems like therapists I supervise or I am asked a version of these questions at least weekly.  I can confidently state that I likely know more about both of them than most of my clients do.  I believe that these labels are used prematurely and inaccurately in short, because they simplify complex problems for people who are desperately trying to make sense out of the seemingly nonsensical.  Here are some reasons why they are incorrectly overused:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are labels that describe sets of behaviors and internal states identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).  This is a tome published by the American Psychiatric Association for the purpose of categorizing and typifying groups of mental health disorders in order to conceptualize diagnoses and treatment options for various clinical presentations.  The book is the best we have for making sense out of mental health disorders.  As a collaborative clinician for the most recent issuance (5th edition), I have respect for the amount of study and diligence that goes into refining the descriptors as an attempt at diagnostic and treatment accuracy.  The problem is that the taxonomy is clumsy, largely subjective, politically influenced, and always controversial among mental health and medical professionals.

For example, one of the identifying specifiers for NPD is “Requires excessive admiration,” (p. 669).  What?  Who decides how much is “excessive?”  Another feature is, “Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes,” (p. 670).  Do you see the problem?  What exactly is “arrogant or haughty?”  What is the context for such behavior?  Many of the remaining identifiers are equally ambiguous.  The lack of precision throughout the DSM is an enormous problem because it is so subjective and can vary tremendously from clinician to clinician.

Let’s look at BPD.  The first listed criterion is, “Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment,” (p. 663).  So, what, exactly, is “Frantic?”  Does that mean if a spouse is threatening to divorce and walks out the door, the panicky reaction of a partner is “BPD?”  The 7th identifier is “chronic feelings of emptiness.”  Huh?  How empty?  Does “emptiness” mean the same thing to different people?  How about “Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger?”  I have seen plenty of that in partners who experienced betrayal, or a number of other emotionally-laden events.  This does not mean the individual has BPD.

Hopefully, most clinicians are very careful in using these labels.  Unfortunately, I see way too many who are not.  Many clinicians use the labels as a way to dismiss clients when they are overwhelmed with the behaviors, particularly in couple cases where the emotion is notoriously high, and the dynamics exceed the therapist’s competence and skill level.  Personality disorders are by nature considered durable and nearly unchangeable.  If a client has a legitimate personality disorder, in a sense, the clinician can just write off the case as untreatable.  Many do.  To be honest, sometimes I think it’s laziness at best and negligence at worst.  This is a particularly egregious practice when a therapist has diagnosed a spouse based on the report of their client, without ever actually meeting that individual (and yes, this happens, not infrequently).  I’m not a DSM expert, but as a licensed clinician with DSM training, I believe the actual prevalence of these cases in a population is far lower than they are diagnosed by mental health professionals, at least informally, behind closed doors.

Among the client population, the overpathologizing might be more pervasive.  Currently, the ability to easily research anything on the internet has provided fertile ground for spouses to gain just enough information to be dangerous.  Most of us are guided by confirmatory bias, meaning that we have a tendency to give more credence to information that supports what we already believe.  If I think I’m married to a narcissist (or an autistic or a bipolar individual or…) then I will find all kinds of information supporting my viewpoint.  Ditto for borderlines.  Then, if I read that it is not very treatable, I might prematurely give up on the relationship.

Much of the highly emotional behavior observed in panicky, anxious pursuing partners (often wives who get labeled “Borderline”), is exacerbated by, if not a direct result of, the withdrawing or stonewalling behavior by spouses who are flooded.  Likewise, the withdrawing husband who numbs himself because he doesn’t ever feel like he can calm down his wife’s emotions, may appear incapable of empathizing (Aha!  Narcissism!), when the apparent lack of empathy is really a conditioned response generated from years of feeling helpless to impact a partner’s emotional reactions.  The pattern becomes cyclical, more pronounced, and anticipatory until partners can and do appear to be Narcisstic and Borderline.  In short, protective behaviors of stonewalling and withdrawal that make sense in an intense situation are incorrectly labeled, and desperate, clingy, panicky emotional behaviors that come as a result of not knowing what else to do to save a relationship are prematurely pathologized.  Various trauma responses based on previous client history can also be prematurely lumped into a personality disorder.

I have no illusions about my self-indulgent blog post changing anything in general.  That would require a readership larger than three people.  However, I want to be on record somewhere articulating and highlighting this problem because it is endemic with therapists who don’t place behavior in a highly emotional couple context, and it is a problem with spouses who are desperately trying to make sense out of painful marriages they feel powerless to change.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have seen clients who I believe meet criteria for both of these disorders.  However, far more often, I see people who are very reactive to each other after years of feeling rejected, and their behaviors look like some of the personality disorder specifiers.  In other words, I see more instances which are treatable than those which aren’t.  If you think your spouse has a personality disorder, you could be right, but it is more likely that you are incorrectly labeling contextual, reactive behavior.  Be very careful in your unofficial diagnosis.

Now it’s time to return to my real life of being mom to 7 children, or, as I like to call it, my “Acute Stress Disorder,” or my “Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder,” for which the recognized treatment is “birth control.”  Oops….too late!  Happy diagnosing!

Reference: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (2013), American Psychiatric Association: Arlington, Virginia.

Photo Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_senkaya’>senkaya / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Marital Trick…or Treat? Turn Your Scare-age into a Marriage by Understanding Your Fears

scared couple

As a college freshman, I have a very vivid memory of returning to my dorm room one evening by way of the elevator.  As I exited, I immediately startled, shrieked, and jumped as a tiny black object hanging from invisible thread brushed against my face.  Heart racing, I surveyed my surroundings and noticed a couple of fellow co-eds seated cross-legged against the wall facing the elevator, munching on popcorn.  I realized that they had rigged up a small and very real-looking fake spider to a piece of fishing line strategically so that as unsuspecting victims stepped onto the hall floor, they would be hit in the face with the 8-legged creature.  It was an arachnophobic’s  nightmare.  When I calmed down, I asked, “So, is this tonight’s entertainment?”  After they nodded, shoveling fistfuls of popcorn into their mouths, I continued, “OK, so how was my reaction on a scale of 1 to 10?”  They laughed, “A ten.  Definitely the best so far tonight!”

They had tapped in to one of my greatest fears: Spiders.  Although I technically don’t have arachnophobia, spiders are to me as rats were to Winston Smith, the character in George Orwell’s classic political satire, 1984, which was my required reading in a political science class at USC in….1984.  I don’t remember a lot of details about the book, but I remember the rats, and I remember that I realized how much power someone could exercise over someone else if they truly knew their greatest fear.  (For those who don’t know what 1984 is and haven’t stopped reading yet, it’s basically a book about how the government, “Big Brother,” has surveillance everywhere, so they know everything about everyone and can use that information to control them—largely through their fears).

George Orwell understood that human beings have a lot of behavioral reactivity to their fears.  I recall that spider memory so well because it induced a state of deep fear and panic, though brief.  If we can remember scary, threatening events, we can prevent future pain for ourselves.  We are built that way.  It’s great for protecting us, but can diminish future risk-taking.

This appears in couples therapy over and over.  Couples have been so wounded or disconnected that they have fears about the relationship which maintain the disconnection, because to risk sharing the fears would be too risky.  Sometimes people use different names for fear: anxious, worried, panicky, desperate, and even “angry,” which often hides fear.  No matter the semantics, activated fear drives behavior in relationships that matter the most.

Here are some of the common fears that show up frequently.  They are related with some subtle differences:

  1. Fear of rejection.  Social rejection is incredibly painful, and if it is coming from the person you care about the most, it is that much more painful.  This is the person that you are supposed to be able to count on.  Rejection in marriages can take form in a number of ways.  It is commonly expressed through criticism or stonewalling.  It absolutely prevents partners from wanting to engage for fear of being hurt.
  2. Fear of abandonment. I realize that abandonment is a strong word, but the fear is strong because it is related to losing the relationship entirely, which is grief and pain.  That’s often why clients refer to the “D word,” (divorce) as a “bombshell,” or some other catastrophic metaphor, representing ultimate destruction of the relationship.  Nevertheless, when partners sense that they might ultimately lose the relationship, they act in desperate and panicky ways to preserve it.  From a relationships pursuer’s perspective, this means trying to get the other partner’s attention to improve the relationship quality (often because they are lonely and can feel themselves burning out).  From a relationship distancer’s perspective, this means trying to keep the emotional temperature of the relationship steady so that things don’t spiral out of control and create conflict and potential disconnection.  Distancers (often the male partners) will tell me over and over that, “If she’s upset and I say nothing, she will eventually give up and go away, but if I say the wrong thing, it might make things worse.”  In this regard, in the moment, it feels to them like they are actually saving the relationship by not risking saying the “wrong thing.”  This makes no sense to pursuers, who don’t understand how a relationship can ever get fixed by saying nothing.  In contrast, they are the ones who usually bring up the problems because they are trying to fix things to preserve the relationship.
  3. Fear of never being accepted. When partners try to engage and their efforts are rebuffed or criticized, they feel like, “It’s never going to be enough,” and because of the painful rejection of their efforts, they give up and withdraw further.  I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to appreciate a spouse’s attempts to improve, even if they are clumsy.  People must accept their partners as flawed.  Encouragement breeds more willingness to engage in those partners.  Criticism kills it.  Most people don’t realize how sensitive their spouses are to their criticism.  Critical partners don’t realize the extent of damage they create because their  spouses learn to numb themselves from feeling pain. Their masks make them seem oblivious to the criticism, but they are generally hyper aware of it instead.
  4. Fear of being alone. At first glance, this might look like I’m repeating abandonment, but it’s a little different.  Abandonment implies a loss of the relationship, and in some cases, that does mean loneliness, but many people stay in low quality marriages; they have high stability, but they still feel lonely.  People feel intensely more alone when they are in close attachment relationships and can’t engage their partners than they do if they are actually single and expect to be alone.  I often say, “It is more alone to be married and alone than alone and alone.”  This is why lonely pursuers who feel like they can’t reach their partners try so intensely to engage them, even if it means raising the volume and conflict.  It is more distressing to get no response from a partner than it is to get a reactive, angry or defensive response.
  5. Fear of not mattering. This is pretty universal, and it is also why something as simple as forgetting to get the milk on the way home can escalate into a huge fight.  When partners aren’t responsive, they feel devalued and invalidated, and get afraid that they won’t ever be important to their spouses.  Most people also want to know that they come first to their partners, which means before work, cell phones, extended family, neighbors, etc.  Most individuals have a strong expectation of being seen as special by their spouses.

When people’s attachment fears are activated, they tend to become more desperate and raise the volume, protesting the disconnection, or they withdraw, numb, and become silent and/or leave in order to bring the emotional temperature down.  If any of this sound familiar to you, then you are in the majority.

What You Can Do About It

  1. Ask yourself which of these fears describe you in your relationship.  How do you express it?  Does your partner know?  What would it be like to talk to them about it?
  2. Try to identify your partner’s fears. If your marriage isn’t too highly distressed, ask them if any of them apply to them and see what they say.  If you find out, ask how you can ease their fears.  Can you offer some type of specific reassurance to them?

Realize that to reveal our deepest fears to our spouses is akin to handing them the algorithm with which to hurt us.  One of the markers of distress in a marriage is how safe it is or is not to reveal our fears to our partners.

If you think it’s too risky to share your deepest fears, then see what you can share that isn’t quite as risky and if that’s received well, you can move down the fear ladder.

When we share our fears and are not only accepted but reassured, we build marital resilience and actually increased independence, because the marriage feels safe…which is always a treat.

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

When Money isn’t Buying Happiness

money

When my husband approached my father about marrying me, my father’s response was, “Go figure out how you’re going to pay for everything and get back to me.”  His concern was valid, considering the amount of couples who identify finances as a main source of disagreement in marriage.  My husband and I spent most of our engagement working and saving money in order to avoid debt as much as possible after we were married.  We are actually in agreement most of the time when it comes to finances, and yet, money can still occasionally create conflict.

Many couples present finances as a source of major power struggles in marriage.  It’s also not uncommon to see damaging financial dishonesty, because one person might be a spender and another might be a saver.  The tricky part about finances is that money is entwined with emotional meaning which is highly nuanced and unique to each individual.

In order for a couple to really resolve financial issues, it is helpful to understand the emotional significance behind how a partner wants to spend money.  Here are two examples from my own marriage that represent two common patterns I see:  1) A scenario in which someone wants to spend money on something they didn’t have growing up and want their children to have, and 2) A scenario in which someone wants to spend money on something they had and remember with fondness and want their children to have.  They are both attached to dreams.

Around the turn of the century, our finances suddenly became tight when the high tech company that employed my husband went out of business while the high tech industry was shrinking.  Fortunately, we tend to be savers and had enough income to last a while so we could still pay our bills, but we had no idea how long we would be out of work, so we immediately changed our spending habits.  We stopped eating out, we eliminated many of our children’s extracurricular activities, and we streamlined our budget as much as possible.  My friend who had lived with three children in expensive Boston while her husband matriculated at Harvard taught me new economizing strategies which I immediately utilized.

One of the expenses I found myself clinging to was our tradition of taking our children snow skiing.  I lied awake at night trying to figure out how to find a way to pay to take them skiing for the season.  My husband could not figure out why this was such a big deal to me.  He had grown up skiing for years, and I had grown up in Southern California where the nearest ski resort with sub-standard snow was hours away.  He was a much better skier than I was, and he seemed okay with the fact that for the first time since our oldest son was 3, we were not going to be able to ski as a family.  “Why do you even care?”  he asked, “You didn’t even ski until you were 14 and you turned out okay.”

I realized I had emotionally-laden reasons for clinging to our annual ski outings.  I first went skiing with my friend in middle school.  I assumed I would pick it right up, because I already liked to water ski and figured snow skiing couldn’t be that much harder.  I was a complete disaster, which only made me want to do it more.  I joined the high school ski club in an effort to improve, but we only skied a few times a year, and I didn’t go often enough to get much better, and I never had a formal lesson.  I continued to be a disaster.  It wasn’t until I took a ski class during my sophomore year of college that I could really comfortably ski down a slope.

I wanted my children to feel more comfortable on the slopes than I had as a teenager, so it was important to me that they learned to ski.  When my oldest son turned three, we bought him a little pair of skis and began teaching him.  We had taken all of our children skiing regularly before my husband lost his job.  Skiing had taken on a lot of emotional meaning because of my previous experiences growing up.  I didn’t want my children to struggle with skiing like I had, so I emotionally reacted when my husband suggested that we skip a year.

On the other hand, my husband was a fierce protector of his desire to have a large backyard with an acceptable basketball court, because he grew up in a home with an extra large yard, and spent hours obsessively shooting baskets.  While we were looking for homes and he rejected several because the yards weren’t big enough, I finally asked, “Why is this such a big deal?  I grew up in Southern California with a yard the size of a postage stamp, and I was outdoors all the time.”  The answer was that he had such fond memories of growing up with a large yard and basketball court that he wanted to replicate the experience for his children.  I spent years without decent furniture so he could build a court that met his standards, which I affectionately refer to as the “Ball Mahal.”  I could not care less about having a basketball court, but it was really important to him, so I compromised.

I understand that finances can be complex.  Some people may be lacking in a fundamental understanding of financial principles.  Some people medicate uncomfortable emotions with spending.  However, regardless of the specific struggles, increasing deeper dialogue about the related emotions is usually helpful.

If you are having financial arguments repeatedly with your spouse, ask yourself if you really understand the emotional importance behind how your spouse wants to spend money.  Try to reflect back what you hear until your spouse is satisfied that you really understand the meaning behind it.  Financial decisions aren’t black and white.  They are choices made according to value systems and emotions.  When couples take the time to understand each other better, they are more likely to compromise and unite in decision-making…and they might end up buying themselves a little happiness in the process.

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

When Couples Engage in Self-Sabotage and How to Fix it

cardiogram love

One of the saddest aspects for me as a couples therapist is watching couples engage in self-sabotage, creating the very thing they don’t want in their relationships.  It’s common to see a lonely wife who really wants to be connected her husband yell and protest in desperation in a way that absolutely pushes him farther away.  I witness husbands who are anxious about approaching their wives at all for fear of rejection, so they withdraw emotionally and increase the likelihood that their spouses will become angry and protesting, generating the very behavior they are trying to avoid.  Couples do it ALL THE TIME.  It might even be the rule rather than the exception.  I have been known to point out this paradoxical behavior a time or two in a therapy session.  (i.e. “Do you see, you are wanting him with you right in this very moment, and yet you are pushing him away….can you see it?” or, “You can’t find the words to tell her how difficult it is for you to see disappointment on her face, so you find a way to numb yourself and disconnect, which just leaves her feeling lonelier and angrier than ever.”)

To help illustrate the antidote to this vicious cycle, I have a favorite video clip I routinely show in public presentations.

The clip is from the film, “Something the Lord Made,” which my son brought home to watch with me several years ago because he wanted to see the performance of musician/actor Mos Def.  The movie also includes Alan Rickman playing the part of cardiologist Alfred Blalock, known for pioneering a procedure for treating “blue baby syndrome,” at Johns Hopkins in the 1940’s, with the help of assistant Vivien Thomas (played by Def).  His wife is portrayed by Kyra Sedgwick.

Although the movie is really making a statement about ethnicity and discrimination in the history of American medicine, what caught my attention was a brief exchange between the cardiologist and his wife, and is a scene which I use to illustrate how to prevent a negative escalation in couple interaction.

As the movie progresses and the cardiologist and his assistant become determined to find a way to treat an infant patient with a congenital heart defect, they spend hours away from home at the research facility.  The singular focus of the groundbreaking task predictably replaces time with family and other pursuits.

The scene that caught my attention was one in which Blalock (played by Rickman) arrived home late yet again, and found an ambulance in his driveway.  He rushed into the house to see his wife (Sedgwick) sitting up waiting for him.  As she looked up at him, I found myself bracing for a marital argument.

The doctor questioned his wife about the ambulance and she calmly explained that she had been driving it as a volunteer.  Then, the dialogue immediately shifted to a discussion about the fact that the doctor was away from home so much that his daughter (asleep on the couch next to his wife) had asked if she could be a patient so she could see him.  When the doctor agreed that it had been “a couple of weeks,” that he had not made it home before 11 p.m., his wife corrected him and said, “No, it’s 23 days.”

This was the point at which I expected the conversation to become more heated.  It was the perfect storm waiting to happen:  A “workaholic” husband, a strong-willed wife, and a daughter neglected by her father in favor of his career.  Even though medical doctors (and especially those who engage in research) are routinely challenged with a notable work/family balance struggle, this picture had been painted for me many times in therapy with husbands representing various professions.  I turned to my son and predicted, “This is not going to go well,” as the wife got up from the couch and approached her husband.

His internal conflict was evident on his face.  He appeared as if he were expecting a flurry of accusations to be hurled his way, and I imagined that he was internally summoning his defensive responses.  In just microseconds, I had already constructed in my head an anticipated dialogue based on my experience as a marriage therapist that went something like this:

Wife:  See!  Your own daughter can even tell you care more about your patients than you do about her.  Is this what you really want?  Are you willing to just throw your family down the drain for your own vanity?  All you care about is advancing in your career! (I want to point out that the wife’s triangulating in the daughter instead of talking about her own feelings is a classic and ineffective strategy marriage therapists witness over and over)

Husband:  You knew I was going to be a doctor when you married me.  I asked you before I took on this project and you told me to do it.  What do you want me to do, quit my job?  By the way, who do you think is paying for this fancy house you live in and that fancy private education for our daughter?  I don’t hear you complaining about my paycheck.  Do you think you can do better?  I have the chance to make a difference here—to save lives!  Do you want to call and tell this baby’s mother that her baby is going to die because you can’t spend one more evening without me at your side catering to your whims?  Is that what you want?

Or something like that.  I could write an infinite number of variations.

Except it didn’t go like that.  Instead, to my surprise, as the wife approached, she muttered, “It’s not as if I don’t know the lot of a doctor’s wife,” but then she said something that shifted the conversation, prevented escalation, and turned a potential argument into a bonding moment.  She looked him in the eye, gently said, “I miss you,” and reached up and kissed him.  The scene concluded by him softly answering, “It’s going to change,” and her (equally softly) musing, “It’s probably going to get worse.”

When I watched it for the first time, I thought it was a great example of risk-taking with vulnerable emotions in a relationship.  The wife undoubtedly had experienced her own level of personal rejection and had probably many times felt as if her husband’s work was more important than she was, yet instead of becoming accusatory and blaming and critical, she stayed with the primary loneliness that so often does escalate into a protective shield of anger and blame.

Here’s why it was so powerful:  When she softly expressed that she missed him, it drew him closer to her.  It created an environment in which she increased the likelihood of connecting with him in the future.  As the husband felt more wanted, he was more likely to hear his wife and adapt his schedule to accommodate her.  If she had expressed anger, the likely result would have been his defensiveness, argumentativeness and more relationship withdrawal, increasing a cycle of disconnection.

This is not to imply that the wife in this instance was solely responsible for the husband’s behavior, because the reality is that couples recursively impact each other constantly, and either one of them can change responses to change the pattern.  Both partners contribute to negative cycles

If the husband had been able to disclose to his wife more about his ongoing internal struggle, and how difficult the career/family demands were for him, and possibly how fearful he was that he would let her and everybody else down, it could also have increased her patience with the situation and increased the possibility that the couple could bond around the struggle and work together.

Unfortunately, men in our culture get socialized out of ever acknowledging these feelings, much less talking about them, and if they did have the awareness and skill, their socialization to “be independent and figure it out yourself,” would preclude the possibility of eliciting support from a spouse.  However, when they learn to do this, it also increases bonding and connection in dyadic relationships.

Sometimes couples silently power struggle over who is going to be vulnerable first.  Neither wants to risk getting rejected, because in negative cycles, both partners feel unwanted by the other.

I think the example in this clip has broad range applicability for just about every couple.  By saying, “I miss you,” the wife was also saying, “I want you.  I love you.  You matter to me.”  I am confident that if I could increase this authentic expression in marriage, more couples could climb their way out of the deep ruts in which they get stuck and reorient sooner to a pathway of safety and trust.

Watch the movie.  You’ll see what I mean.

Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

Sailing the Emotion Ocean: A Couple’s Guide

sailboat photo

High Emotions in Familial Relationships is the Norm

Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have emotional vulnerabilities that often drive our behaviors, for better or worse.  Nowhere is this truer than in our close familial relationships.  Our emotional reactions often harm those relationships, but we can learn to recognize emotions and utilize them in positive ways that promote relationship connection.

Several months ago, I noticed an incident like this on a trip to South America.  I flew with my husband to Santiago, Chile, to pick up a son, after which we flew over the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina where my husband met an old friend.  We had a plan to drive across the country of Argentina to Buenos Aires, allowing my husband and his old friend to get reacquainted.  I sat in the backseat of the car between my son, and the spouse of my husband’s friend, who didn’t understand any English.

My Spanish has been cobbled together from years of helping children with elementary Spanish immersion homework, a few online classes, and four years of studying its Latin sister, French.  I could understand some verbal conversations, but I was incapable of fluidly expressing myself.  As a result, while driving across Argentina, I carried on a conversation with my new Argentine friend through my son and husband.  I understood just enough of what she was saying that she would feel encouraged to talk to me more.  I became overwhelmed at the experience of having to concentrate and stay attentive to the possibility that she might be trying to converse, at which point I would check in with my son to see if I interpreted her correctly.  I began noticing the same disorienting feeling I had had in Beijing, over a year earlier, when I didn’t understand anyone around me and couldn’t communicate. I was becoming annoyed at my husband, in the front seat, chatting away in Spanish and laughing hysterically at his friend’s jokes, completely unaware of my distress.  In short, I felt alone.

Six hours and one police bribe later, when we stopped for gas, I cornered him.  “You keep ignoring me!” I hissed.  His lips said, “What are you talking about honey?  You’re doing great!  You understand almost everything we are saying,” while his eyes said, “Ok Crazy Sauce, what have you done with my wife?”  I immediately realized that I was flooded because of all the feelings I was having, and I was being triggered by other uncomfortable language-related memories.  I could see that in the moment that I wanted my husband to comfort me, I was pushing him away with my tone of voice because I had allowed my distress to develop into anger, which almost always functionally distances people from us.  I took a deep breath, and calmly told him I just needed him to check in on me because I was really feeling uncomfortable.  Later that night, I told him about how I had been experiencing the same claustrophobic feelings I had in China when I couldn’t communicate effectively with anyone, in a way that helped him understand.  For the rest of the trip, he took the time to frequently check in with me.

Attachment Relationships ProvideSoothing and Comfort

We all have distressing emotional experiences for which we need compassion, soothing, and comfort.  Unfortunately, many of these emotions originate in the relationship, so partners potentially trigger each other continually.  It is impossible to interact with your partner and not have your brain recognize previously threatening interactions.  Additionally, frustration and anger are common immediate byproducts of uncomfortable feelings and are outwardly expressed more often than riskier, vulnerable emotions.  However, these expressions result in more distance, since none of us has an easy time approaching someone who is frustrated or angry.  Even if partners stay physically present in an angry conversation, they can immediately erect invisible walls to shield themselves from the emotional storm.  The wall can be defensiveness, silence, or numbness, but it functionally protects individuals from feeling the pain of disappointing an attachment partner, and the end result is relationship disconnection.

To Manage Emotion, Express it Early

Part of the trick of resolving uncomfortable emotion is to understand it and express it early.  More than once, I have had a client describe expressed emotion as that of a “volcano that erupted,” leaving a trail of relationship devastation in its wake. Several times, if I have had a spouse outwardly expressing anger, I will ask about the pain or fear or helplessness that is associated with the anger, and when that is expressed instead, a compassionate response from the partner is more likely. An easy way to think about expressing emotions is to ask, “Am I about to express my emotion in a way that can draw my partner closer to me, or am I pushing him or her away?”  When emotion is expressed in a way that partners can respond to effectively, bonding moments occur, understanding is achieved, and the relationship is strengthened.

Then, it’s smooth sailing all the way…until the next storm…

For more information about how emotional reaching trumps a communication skill set, check out Dr. Sue Johnson’s blog post at: http://www.drsuejohnson.com/marriage-commitment/is-marriage-all-about-the-skill-set/#more-1054

Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

In Defense of Men

lego men largerA few days ago, my husband and I were in our bedroom, and I was addressing him with a pile of concerns.  At one point, I asked him if he would grab my running skirt out of the laundry basket, and he enthusiastically replied, “Yes!  I would love to get your running skirt!  Finally, a problem I can solve!”  As he tossed it to me, I replied, “Thanks.  Now, let’s talk about our feelings.”

If my husband wants to get a laugh at the end of a night out with another couple, he will sometimes announce, “Goodnight.  Now we’re going to talk about our feelings.”   The cliché is comedic, of course, because it’s so ironic.  It works against gender stereotypes.  I have had a lot of time to think about those gender stereotypes in romantic pairings, and I want to specifically address how I think they may harm both men and women in long-term committed relationships.

Before continuing, I want to acknowledge that any time gender differences are addressed, we are speaking in terms of a statistical group; there are more within-gender differences than between genders.  However, as a couples therapist as well as a mother of five sons, I want to point out some common issues related to gender socialization which have me concerned, because I think they create barriers in couples therapy and in heterosexual romantic relationships in general.

Our culture often shames and blames men in ways that are counterproductive and unhelpful.  In short, our culture socializes them out of developing skills in emotional intelligence and relationship processes, and then turns around and beats them up for “failing,” to navigate those skills when they are adults.

This socialization process is visible everywhere.   Visit any elementary school and observe a boy who cries being ridiculed by his classmates.  Parents who are frightened that their kids will be teased if they operate outside social norms reinforce these practices at home.  Boys are told to “toughen up,” so they won’t be perceived as weak.

By adolescence, the socialization process becomes even more pronounced.  Young men are validated, if not encouraged, for their sexual feelings and expressions while they continue to be mocked for expressing emotional vulnerability, or even displaying empathy.  Eventually, sexuality often becomes entwined with emotional need.  They are praised for autonomy and considered spineless for displaying any dependency.  As a result, even when they are victimized, they lack broad social support.  The expectations are narrow and rigid.

Girls are generally afforded more gender flexibility.  When I showed up to my first grade Halloween parade dressed as Spiderman, completely unfazed by the sea of pink princesses surrounding me, no one batted an eye.  Every time it was my turn to “play house,” in Kindergarten and I would approach the teacher for permission to visit the book corner instead, I was praised for my intellectual curiosity.  When I regularly participated in pick-up football games with the neighborhood boys, people encouraged my athleticism.  I was able to explore and expand various facets of my personality and feel comfortable with a broad and flexible range of emotional and relational expression. In contrast, boys are constricted to a narrower range of acceptable behaviors.

By adulthood, after a lifetime of socialization out of vulnerable emotional expression, men are expected to navigate complex heterosexual relationships.  They are often absolutely confounded by perceived high levels of emotion in female partners.  Many of my male clients describe being disoriented in the emotional processing which comes so naturally to females.  For many men, just having a wife start crying is a very shaming experience.  It is experienced as, “What kind of loser am I that my wife is so unhappy?”  Men often take it very personally, and when they don’t know how to respond, or they manage their own emotions with withdrawal, they are criticized and blamed.  It’s not uncommon for me to hear, “He’s a robot,” or “He’s a narcissist.”

Over time, they become expert at sensing when the emotional temperature in the relationship is going up, which is identified as a “no win,” situation, and they prepare for the onslaught, often shutting down completely.  I can’t count how many times I have heard a man say, “If I say anything, it will be wrong, but if I say nothing, eventually she will give up and go away.”  It’s not because they are selfish, bad or mean.  They have been socialized out of speaking that language.  The emotions just don’t “make sense,” which is why husbands will often state some version of, “I think she’s Borderline,” or “I can’t handle her emotions.”  They look impassive and uncaring when in fact they have been so deeply wounded by repeatedly disappointing their partners that they tend to disconnect from feeling anything.  Men consistently report “numbing out,” which only becomes necessary when interactions have been painful to bear.

The socialization around sexuality creates another possible minefield in heterosexual relationships.  Not every male has higher sexual desire than his female partner, but because of stereotypes, if he doesn’t have high desire, he may feel ashamed or damaged, and often will not seek help but will suffer in silence.

Because men have been socialized to not be emotionally vulnerable, but encouraged in their sexuality, reaching for a partner in a sexual way is often fused with emotion.  It can literally be the only way they know to get comfort and reassurance from an attachment partner in a vulnerable way.  They can be misconstrued in their sexual reaching out, as illustrated in the oft recited, “Sex is all he cares about.”  I have had countless men explain to me through tears that their wives don’t understand that it’s not just the sex….it’s the connection with their close female partners that they seek.  It’s how they know they are still wanted and loved.  I believe them.

If that connection is repeatedly withheld, it can leave them completely lonely, and they sometimes medicate their loneliness and shame with pornography or other substances, or withdrawal, which just intensifies the disconnecting cycle.  I also acknowledge that there are many variations on this theme, and that having satisfying sex lives with their partners doesn’t always preclude pornography use.  In general, however, my experience is that men want emotionally connected sexual relationships in many of the same ways that women do.

I’m writing this in hopes that we will prepare our boys to more effectively identify and express emotional need in a way that is safe, so the emotional world won’t be so confusing.  I’m also hoping we can be a little less blaming toward men and a little more patient in our most intimate relationships.  For more reading about this issue, here are four books I recommend:

Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping our Boys Cope with  Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World  by Rosalind Wiseman, 2013.

The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance, and Direction in Their Lives by Michael Gurian, 2010.

Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, 2000.

Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood  by William Pollack, 1999.

photo credit: @davestone via photopin cc