For the Coupledom: How to Take Ownership and Why It Is So Scary

Reader Beware: This post is not intended for the quick fixers or the folks who find exploration of emotion boring!

The hardest psychological endeavor in the couples therapy process is the act of taking ownership for perceived hurtful behaviors to one’s partner. Seconds after a spouse expresses their feelings, with lightning speed, their partner launches a counter defense – faster than any sniper bullet. The roar of indignation – “Are you kidding?,” the fog of gaslighting – “Nope, never said that,” the flashpoint of “You do it too,” or the non-verbal cascades of eye rolling, smirking, twisting away or hands thrown up in the air, followed by “Really?” spill out like coins from a pocket full of holes. Videographers would have a field day filming all this in real time, and I’m sure they have – each transactional pushback takes mere seconds to tumble out of the mouth, flash across the face, fire away in energetic hand movements or even the occasional foot stomp on the floor.

Photo by kieferpix on iStock of two hands pointing at each other, blaming each other.

All these behaviors are instantaneous, knee-jerked. The swiftness of the response reveals that this is old, patterned early, triggered by fear and fueled by adrenaline. A fight/flight response as fierce as that of any lioness warding off an hyena attack on a cub. What is happening here? Why is there is no time to pause, not a nanosecond to reflect, no inhalation taken while digesting the information except to mount a defense? Yet one does not see a human-eating tiger, an AR-15, a mud slide, or even a judge and jury. This is what we call a primitive response, wired into our species for millennium and upgraded to verbal language communication from the earlier grunts and clubbings of the stone age.

“Anything I reveal will be used as a weapon against me.” When spouses react to feedback from their partners with immediate distrust, they forgo an opportunity to learn something about themselves or to show interest in how their partner processed their shared situation. And equally important, they reveal real fear. Likely the feedback was shared with emotion conveyed by a tone of voice that sounded angry, hurt or frustrated, which sets off alarms for the listener. But should that nullify the potential usefulness and honesty of the feedback? This isn’t a game of “gotcha” – though that is what I often hear couples say; the “enemy” perspective. “That person who I married and with whom I share a home and likely children, is out to get me, outsmart me, prove he/she is better than me. That’s why they said that.” This belief is deeply felt, a conviction that isn’t easily challenged. Yet this very conviction creates confusion, yields distorted projections and often re-enacts a dance from an earlier developmental phase that is in need of an update; re-choreographed and understood in maturity and in sync with the current partner, not a ghost of partners or significant others past.

Here’s where the ownership dynamic enters into the Coupledom. What keeps couples from being willing to consider, simply consider, that their behavior may have played some role in, or caused discomfort, pain or confusion for, their partner? Why is the onslaught of counter-attacks, denials, or justifications the go-to response? Is this Playground Combat, dare to taunt me, I’ll double taunt you back? Will we ever grow up?

Psychological growth is not easy and often not in lockstep with the maturing of other human abilities, such as earning a living and running a home. Couples are prone to react to remnants left from earlier years of sibling combat or parent/child hierarchical battles, even while they are now grown up peers with their partners and have clocked a couple decades beyond their teens.

What induces a fight/flight reactivity in couples is hidden deep inside their child selves. Child development moves in step with the evolving brain. And for many years that brain and its child, are busy – in a fairly black and white fashion – sorting out right from wrong, good from bad, happy from sad, safe from dangerous. And no sorting is more important or challenging than that of the identity of the self – the self-image. If I’m not good, then I’m bad; if I’m not pleasing then I’m unlovable. With the increased dependency on peers, the black and white motif shifts from the risks of displeasing or losing mom and dad’s affection or approval to that of peers; “No one will like me; out of the sandbox, exiled from the lunch bunch.” Humiliated and rejected. Unfortunately, the primitive or reptilian nature of our reactions lies buried deep in an unconscious place in our brains, making it hard to retrieve and separate out early fears from the unfolding story in the now. Short of having a spouse who turns to violence, most of the threats triggered by Coupledom frictions are psychological in nature, and though raised voices and harsh glances jack up the adrenaline, there is no stampeding elephant in the room and adults, even if “abandoned,” can manage on their own in the “wild.” Yet our primitive database collapses time and place, and when a spouse shares feelings or relates their version of an interaction gone badly, sirens pierce the psyche of their partner who counterattacks with an arsenal of words. If humans breathed fire, words would tumble out like torches and ashes would pile up in heaps on the Coupledom floor.

The hot button phenomenon seen in volatile Coupledoms tends to originate in early relationships, often from childhood, and may lie dormant until stimulated by the intense inter-dependency of the Coupledom. When adults behave like children, that signals that something old has been triggered and a regressive response ensues. Yet when you slow the stories down, bring a therapeutic microscope to the transactions, what stands out most prominently is the plethora of misguided notions, projections and unintentional distortions that make the interpersonal terrain swampy, almost impassable – a quicksand-like mix that should be treated with curiosity, patience, and a willingness to wear each other’s boots for a bit to wade through it to solid, safe ground.

Ownership of responsibility is not a declaration of worthlessness and no-goodness. Ownership is not a whole hog response either. If a partner listens to their spouse’s description of a bad moment or moments and allows the experience to settle in, upon reflection, elements of the interaction can be owned as a mistake, others may reveal themselves as confusion that needs clarification and all can be treated respectfully and with empathy. There is an important and often unidentified fear in most that one risks the loss of their reality if they feel empathy for their partner’s experience in a conflictual exchange. That is a fear which likely has its roots in early development and has distorted what empathy is – not a loss of self, but the recognition of the reality of the self of another. Not one subsumed under the other, or sacrificed to maintain a relationship with the other. That’s the primitive fusion solution. One reality fits all. Two realities can co-exist and find empathy for that difference. Two skins are walked in and two hearts beat, not one.

The process of unpacking the beliefs and notions behind any of these volatile interactions requires a willingness to work on slowing down the reactivity; doing a look back in the moment – what was said and what was heard or not; learning to observe each other’s facial expressions and body movements with curiosity rather than fear or hurt. Since the most destructive interactions are patterned, predictable, repetitive and compulsive – each one, when broken down, can stand for the many before and likely the temptation for more going forward. Couples can learn to do this in therapy first, if they can consider, for a moment, that they may not always know what their spouse is thinking or feeling about many things, including themselves.

The assumptions that riddle most relationships and fuel high friction exchanges are themselves riddled with potholes. Think about all the variables involved in even the simplest of transactions: stylistic differences are huge; one verbalizes; one internalizes. Think of the daily rituals that are likely to set off conflict: morning and evening comings and goings; bedding down for the night; errands and chores; socializing with other couples; travel strains and children problems. Add to the stylistic differences and the complex tasks of daily living that couples have to negotiate alongside deeply buried files of the past that can trigger the fight/flight response and you have a recipe for alienation, distortion and domestic warfare.

Like disentangling a badly knotted garden hose, time and patience are essential. A marriage, unlike a garden hose, is not so easy to toss out and replace. And the cost is astronomical for all.

The therapy environment can be a forum for risk taking; for staying the impulse to fight off the “attack;” substituting listening and waiting for debating and denying; trying on for size the act of hearing and self-reflecting.

Picture this: your spouse is describing a pretty rotten interaction between the two of you. Your heart is beating fast; your face feels flushed; visions are blazing in your head – and you just picked up your favorite weapon, words! J’accuse. You dare to accuse me, well, en garde!

Or picture this: your spouse is describing a pretty rotten interaction between the two of you. Your heart is beating; your face feels flushed; visions are blazing in your head – but you didn’t pick up your favorite weapon, words. You listened. Then you listened again. Then you thought, reflected. Then you said, “I think I understand.” Or, “I don’t think I fully understand. Can I ask you some questions. I want to understand.” Then, “Now I understand how what I did could feel so bad and be so hurtful to you.” “I’m sorry. I don’t think I ever realized fully how hurtful that must be for you.”

Next round – you describe a pretty rotten interaction between the two of you. Your partner listens. Your partner reflects. Your partner says “I think I understand.” Or, your partner says, “I don’t think I understand. Can I ask you some questions? I want to understand.” Then your partner says, “Now I understand how what I did could feel so bad. I’m sorry. I don’t think I ever realized fully how hurtful that must be for you.”

Hurting someone isn’t the great offense. Not owning it is. Whether intentional, a mistake, or a misunderstanding, just own that something your partner experienced with you, hurt them. And with that, own being capable of hurting someone else, even if you didn’t mean it or did mean it. If you did mean it, then there is a reason and that needs to be understood. Either way, this is normal. We hurt each other. What skews and poisons the simplicity of that truth is the denial of the other’s experience, and the primitive belief that if you say, yes I did hurt you, that means you have confessed to being bad, unlovable and in danger of abandonment. Nope. Not. Grownups are programmed to understand the complexity of life and the grey in human interactions. However, the child inside may still be working with the black or white color chart of self. The grownup self needs to step in – we’re all the same, human, capable of error and gifted with the ability to say yes, I did that and I’m sorry and now let us learn how to be better together.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2020


Coupledom Crossroads: Empty Nesting in the Age of Netflix

Lately I have seen an increase in couples turning to therapy as a tool to navigate the empty nest chapter of their marriage, or an impending retirement of one or both of the partners. A new current of concern is vibrating through the Coupledom – the unknown is looming and the challenges in the relationship that were obscured or postponed by more pressing issues – children, jobs, commutes – are surfacing.

LightFieldStudio's photo of couple hugging during relocation.

Baby Boomers are aging into an era of big choices that will mark the last decades of their lives. When they look across the dinner table at one face, not two, three or four, there is no avoiding the “it’s you and me kid… just the two of us.” But can we make it if we try?

This complex phase in marriage is layered with decades of shared history, decisions, accumulations both emotional, financial and physical, so much so that the sheer pondering of it all can trigger panic, flight or paralysis. Financial advisors in TV ads have this comforting approach to families… we can be your guardians, your guides, we can parent you throughout your lifetime. No mistakes will be made, we will make sure of that! Wow. Sign me on. Alas, every Coupledom has its own package of financial burdens and freedoms, location conflicts and generational responsibilities and, a fact that is often overlooked in those soothing ads, two separate personalities, distinct and different despite the shared bank accounts and babies. Two minds deep in their own skins and separate in their fears, wishes and histories as well.

The couples I speak of who come to my office are luckier than many. They have some assets. That has to help yet it can also create choices that highlight difference and unleash conflict. The Netflix reference serves a point here. These couples are blinking in the headlights of oncoming options – how to negotiate shared time which prior to “the empty nest,” was merely a dream. Now the dream is morphing into a pressure, an 8 P.M. to 10 P.M. anxiety hour. Mysteries or histories, violence or romance, sagas or soap? Who falls asleep? Who stays watching on the couch and never shows up in the bedroom? Weekends free of league competitions or recitals or the divide and conquer curriculum of shared parenting can become arenas for gladiatorial fighting. Someone wants to putter in the garden. Someone is ready for Times Square. Compromise is a skill not polished, not practiced. Separate tasks allowed for blissful parallel play…we are together yet apart. Now what?

How does a couple create a vision of a shared future? When you first marry, the future is a blank screen with dreams. Twenty, twenty-five years later, the future is built on a screen crowded with the realities of the shared past. A cluttered mosaic of unremitting joys – births and birthdays – new homes and friendships – holidays and graduations. And disappointments, losses and hurts. There is no starting from scratch here.

So the work of couples therapy at this point in a relationship or marriage is to unpack some of the old stuff that blocks “get on with it,” along with dipping into unspoken wishes and sometimes unrecognized dreams to be the positive guideposts for the future together. The couples therapist dons many hats for this next chapter – financial planner, travel agent, real estate agent, mediation expert – moving fluidly through facts and feelings, sorting what is realistic and what is fantasy, to aid the couple in filling the screen with their future mosaic.

Everything needs to be on the table. Where are the kids living? Grandkids? Aging/ailing parents? What’s the real estate challenge? Who likes warm, who likes cold? Who wants to continue working. Who has to? Any shared hobbies or can individual hobbies be gratified and accessible in the plan? Factor in physical and psychological challenges. And most pivotal of all, what are the triggers here? If the history includes personal betrayals, financial glitches, tubs of anger and wide swaths of alienation, then parsing through the emotional baggage has to be a piece of this journey. It isn’t old news… to be packed up and donated to Goodwill. (If only, right?) It’s not a rehash. It is “process” under new lights. Can we trust each other in this next journey? Or should we seek different roads?

If a couple reaches a roadblock and cannot create a vision of the future that works well for both parties, then seeking out a third party and committing to spending some time, relatively short in comparison to the expected longevity ahead, is a practical solution.

It is a strange and unexpected truth that we as humans never stop growing. Yes we grow “old”er but we also grow in wisdom. The surprise in the package of aging is that healthy emotional survival depends on greater acceptance of our imperfect selves and by extension, imperfections in others. When we are young adults, we think we can create the perfect twosome – you complete me! When we mature into the older us, we need to create something more complex, flaws and all – compatibility and respectfulness, maybe more space, maybe more closeness. The “mature” couple has baggage yes, but they also have experience. How to harness both to create the best future union? A pretty tall order but this is a creative and profound process, as rich and deep in human experience as any and when shared, can be the strongest foundation for the next chapters of the shared life – the Mature Coupledom safely housed on a solid foundation for the future journeys that lie ahead.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2019

Conflagration or Communication: Shielding Vulnerability

Words can be incendiary. Words can be inviting. Words can be soothing or exciting. Words can be informing or confusing. The power of words fueled by tone of voice and facial expression, highlighted by hand gestures and body movement, can open up a communication or shut it down. Fact or fiction or subjective interpretation, words shared can have long-lasting repercussions. Wars are launched on the basis of words fired across international borders or kitchen tables.

And words can be shields.

Illustration of a heart, protected by a shield from arrows of love, for the Couples Tool Kit post on communication and shields. Credit: iStock/djmilic.

Image Credit: iStock/djmilic.

The worst thing about words is that they often deliver only a piece of the message. When couples engage in words as weapons, rather than an honest communication of feeling, the smoking heat of a hostile tone can camouflage the wounded whimper of hurt or the plea for help that is buried under the bluster. We are a species that tends to believe that fire and brimstone show power and strength. We just hate to be vulnerable and needy. Hate is a strong word and this is a strong drive in our species. It is important to understand that words are often used as shields against the vulnerable softer side of the self, especially when communicating within the most intimate of relationships, the Coupledom.

When a couple engages in therapy, they are involved in a multi-layered process with a witness/facilitator – someone who listens closely to the layers of communication. I am a student of the multi-layered communication. A withering statement of insult is leveled at one member of the Coupledom and received by the other bodily; you can see them flinch. Yet what their voice conveys is a denial of what my eyes see: what their body reveals, and most often, what their partner does not seem to see. The partner hears denial, “No, not me. Didn’t happen that way. I’m not listening.” The partner sees their spouse close off, twist away on my couch, like a wooly bear that’s just been touched. I see the hurt, the flinch, the cover up. The partner sees indifference or gaslighting. Why? So many reasons. But most of it all boils down to managing vulnerability – for both partners.

This retreat, or wall in the face of hostility, also occurs when the partner is crying, weeping, beseeching. Walling-off hostile advance isn’t the only time when a spouse looks away, curls up or shouts back. Seeing tears and hearing sobs often triggers the same response.  A tone of superiority or contempt, withering to the target, can be acting as a shield against taking some responsibility for someone else’s pain. Belittle their pain so you can avoid your own.

Without going into the many theories of human psychological development, it should be clear to every human being that managing emotions in our society is a full time job. At work, school, the playground, on an airplane, in an elevator, in the bedroom, in the sandbox, we work within the parameters of our peer groups, our culture, our gender, to present ourselves to others as being in control of our external world. To achieve this presentation, we apply a lot of pressure on our internal world of emotion to conform to the expectations, as we see them, of the external world. If this seems preposterous, spend one day paying attention to your thoughts and actions; how often do you choose to push down feeling to accomplish a task, in order to move smoothly through a challenging encounter, converse with your spouse or your boss or your child? This behavior starts when we are very young and is reinforced every subsequent day of our lives. Think about panic attacks, anxiety, all suppression of feeling, often over decades, in the service of hiding vulnerabilities seemingly unacceptable to society, to the individual, family or institutions.

Humans develop complex defenses to manage emotional challenges, starting at a very young age. By the time we pair off, these defenses are well in place, often unconscious; a multi-layered arsenal that acts as “protection” against revealing hurt, humiliation, insecurity or fear.

So, as a witness to highly charged transactions between spouses (using spouse as an umbrella term), my job is to locate the layers under the behaviors and ask the spouse to consider for a moment what they are actually feeling when they utter such words, when their body shifts away, when their eyes roll or shut. To pause and take an accounting of what else is happening inside them. There is a chance that they are as emotionally weaponized against their own feelings as at their spouse’s impact on them.

Ignorance is never bliss. It is a blindfold or tear gas to keep us from feeling or knowing or showing pain that we think we cannot handle or will be humiliated by its display. Frequently we have two opposite emotions, and we are conflicted without realizing it. So we show one emotion and hide the other… a dangerous solution which always backfires. If we are scared that we may lose our partner, we feel stronger if we act like we don’t care if we do. “It is up to you.” That masks the fear of loss with indifference. Is indifference strength or weakness? It is all an attempt not to appear powerless.  Yet relying on misinformation is not empowering. Women may rely on moral outrage to counteract the searing pain of hurt and humiliation. Yet this shield may push that wooly bear further into his curl, shamed, scolded and unavailable. These are just a few of the packaged emotions on view in my office. Partners accept the outward performance as the guiding light; in fact, it is merely camouflage, and the light rests behind the curtains, under the layers, within the performer.

Successful couples therapy involves the peeling off of layers of defenses in the presence of the other – the partner. Self-reflection, courage and building trust are the hallmarks of successful therapy. Time is the essential ingredient. Showing up and staying are the required rhythm. Increasing happiness in the shared life is the product.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2019

Holiday Horrors for Adult Children of Divorce – A Toolkit of Options

There should be no shame in divorce. After all, it is a challenge to sustain a marriage through a lifetime. And the circumstances of each uncoupling is unique to the coupling pair. Yet the wake of pain can follow the players throughout a lifetime, with a residue that impacts children, grandchildren, new marriages and families to come. “Get over it…” may be the advice of well-meaning friends but, guess what, that just doesn’t compute.

Photo of a holiday feast for "Holiday Horrors for Adult Children of Divorce - A Toolkit of Options" by RawPixel via iStock.

Photo Credit: Rawpixel.

Though the divorce rate is shrinking, 50% of children of the 70’s and the following two plus decades are now adult children of divorced homes. This is a large percentage of our adult population. And a significant piece of the history that emerges in my couples sessions.

In a recent session with a couple in their mid-fifties, a reference was made to the holiday stresses the couple experienced surrounding the divorced parents of one of them and the need to keep the divorced parents apart decades after the courts affirmed their legal right to do so. The toll on the children of divorce is equal to the amount of strain their parents’ rupture places on those children for the rest of their parents’ lives. And these days with life expectancy into the nineties, that can be a long, long time.

The sheer logistics of sharing the holidays with divorced parents, adding the in-laws who themselves could be divorced into factions that can’t be assembled together, is staggering and can be deeply disturbing. Thrust again into the no-win position of seeming to choose one parent over the other – triangulation at its worst – or splitting the holidays into fragmented hours of friction and travel – when the weather outside is challenging and the weather inside a slippery slope at best – triggers anxiety and often dread in the adult children. This dread can also impact their marriages as well as swallow up the glory days of celebration with what feels like a blood-letting. Blood will flow. But must it?

Can divorced parents move out of alienation into cooperation? Bury their hatchets long enough to allow their adult children to navigate the holidays? Can the divorced parents use restraint, understanding, and even give permission to their children to choose the path best geared for schedules and other commitments? Can exes be trusted to be in a room together, especially one where alcohol is served or perhaps with a new spouse present who historically has been blamed for the break-up? Even in less-fragmented family configurations, holiday choices involve multiple variables to reconcile: the ages of the grandchildren; travel time; in-law families; cost; time off from work. Holidays thrust family dysfunction into a harsh, unforgiving light, inflaming old scars and creating new ones. Unwelcomed negative modeling is passed down to the next generation. Who needs that?

What are the options here? What can adult children do when faced with the as yet insoluble and yet inevitable holiday challenge? Magical thinking that ” this year” will be different, is folly. Santa is more likely to slide down the chimney before that wish comes true. First and key, the couple must work to support each other on selecting the best course to take. Family of origin dysfunction creates a rich and poisonous opportunity to split the couple into alienated factions – the adult child of the still warring, divorced parents might be chided by his/her spouse that they are “overreacting” or to “screw them all” and go to the Bahamas for the holiday (not a bad option by the way, but it has to feel right). Make sure that your Coupledom doesn’t fall into that trap.

A patient of mine recently described, with much deserved pride, how she and her siblings brought their parents together to share stories of the years prior to their breakup. Remarkably, through the art of storytelling their histories, the parents were able to reduce the tension and feel again some of the bond that had drawn them together decades earlier. This created a climate of cooperation that heretofore had been absent.

If the image of parents being in the same room leads to heart palpitations and shortened breath, here is a step before that scenario: sit down with each parent separately and share some of the pressure and fear that the holidays have carried over the years following the breakup which only accelerated with the addition of children and in-laws. Be concrete – spell out in words the worry that one parent or the other will not be satisfied by any plan; the anticipation that ultimately, whatever the chosen path, someone will be hurting or angry. If the parent is puzzled or offended by this conversation – tap into their experience as adult parents – how were the holidays for them while their parents were alive? Hear them out. This conversation may be the first step to take, since learning about a parent’s family of origin holiday history can provide somewhat of a guide to sharing your own experience.

After the clear articulation of how the holidays have come to feel post parental divorce, the question posed implicitly or explicitly to the parent is, can he/she put themselves in their children’s shoes; can they recognize how much worry is triggered in anticipation of what should be a joyous event? And then, can they collaborate with their adult child to figure out how to solve this seeming insurmountable and deeply distressing dilemma? Parents can be invited to suggest ways of reducing the tensions and encouraged to offer some practical suggestions based on their own experiences. Even “difficult parents” have tools and smarts and even a heart. If they feel respected and recognized for what they can offer, then doors may open that have seemingly been shut for decades.

At its foundation, this is a request for empathy. Possible? Can the parent “let their children go” to make the choices that work best for them – without adverse consequences: emotional punishment; threats of abandonment; or the icky pus of guilt? Remind everyone that holidays happen each year (good news/bad news) so alternating years is always possible and that regrouping at the end of the season to see how it all worked out should be a guide for next year. Having the divorced parents be a part of the solution is empowering to them and a reminder that they are important and loved.

Another significant reminder: triangulating children of any age (asking them to choose which parent to gratify or take their “side”) is toxic and can be passed down over the generations in lethal dosages that contaminate future families. Kids learn bad modeling as fast as they do good modeling. Some of those “kids,” when grown up, are able to unlearn and prevent damaging their offspring. But others just can’t break the destructive model to create a new one. So damage continues to spread across the generations. Remind the parents of their legacy; that their grandkids are learning from these models. That the greatest holiday gift any family can give each other is kindness and understanding.

Happy Holidays.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., 2018

In The Coupledom Grownups Need To Talk Like Three-Year-Olds

Many years and many blog posts later, I am thinking about the word redundant. Will this next blog post that I am tempted to write be redundant, as in no longer needed or superfluous? Haven’t I published ad nauseam, meaning to a sickening or excessive degree, the topic of communication in the Coupledom? Well, yes I have – in over two hundred posts. And that’s just my writings. The universe is replete in messages about messaging emotions and experiences to each other. And yet…

Hedge maze photo by Rurik [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

       Communication, convoluted like a maze…
Photo Credit: By Rurik [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

This is the hardest piece of the Coupledom puzzle to fit into our lives for some basic reasons – though I must add that from the long view of a forty-year clinical perspective, there has been significant improvement. Couples get that they need to share their feelings. Intellectually they really get it. But still avoidance of communication is often the rule, not the exception, in many Coupledoms. “We hardly have time to talk” is the to-go-to explanation. And not a bad one since often these folks are busy, busy, busy. And then you have the magical thinking defense of time as the solver of all problems beyond easy reach. Yet, it is so much more.

Talking about emotionally meaningful topics with someone who is your life partner, about problems between you (very different than sharing problems about work, in laws, children) takes training and practice. And unless you come from a family where you witnessed that kind of exchange over and over, as you might have watched, say, your mom baking a cake, or your dad mowing the lawn, (this is gender stereotyping I know so…) your dad sewing a ripped seam, and your mom paying the bills (that’s my Coupledom) there is no early osmosis of set skills into your intimacy template. Therefore, you are left to self-teach at a later age, which reminds us of the old dog new tricks stereotype, because now you have the added baggage of life’s unexpected twists. You’re not the sponge you were at five.

At the core of this emotional avoidance dance between individuals in a Coupledom is fear – of revealing vulnerability. It’s really awkward talking about our needs – the shame of it all, the humiliation in showing a need – for understanding, for admiration, for respect, for comfort, even for adoration, reassurance, help. And of course, if history has shown that when you do show a need (or, heaven forbid, a neediness – no way, grow up,) and were slapped down, well, we are delicate creatures, we humans, we learn fast. And if we stepped on a rusty nail once at the bottom of a murky lake, we are likely to stay in the chlorinated pool of life. Blue, smelly, but the bottom is easy to view.

The critical tools of communication about the most intimate of topics, your relationship with your life partner, are rooted in the first stages of language development – the “I need” formation… I thirsty, want juice, I hungry, want cookie, I tired, want a story, want mommy, want daddy, want nana, want ice cream. Then in our maturity, this “I need/want” – now that we can feed ourselves, buy our own ice cream, and download an eBook in a nanosecond, takes a different turn. Yet it remains about hunger. Emotional hunger. What the “I need” now evolves into is deeper, our needs are complex. Society has taught us to hide them, manipulate them, make them look like something else, a slight of hand. However, our language of need still relies on that basic formulation – “I need – you to understand this about me.” It’s not hunger in the old way. It’s hunger in the new way. “I want to understand that about you – whatever your that is. I think sharing my this and your that will bring us closer.” Over and over again – over the lifespan – time is the gift that keeps giving, if used well. It’s mere passage solves nothing.

We humans can identify our needs by starting with the most basic grammatical formulations, I as the subject followed by a verb and then the object of the verb – the as yet unspoken – it could be “I need forgiveness.” “I need help.” “I am longing for…” “I love when…” I am angry when…” Might be “I am frightened because…” “I feel awful when you…” “Something happened to me once ….” “You may not realize it but when you do this, I feel that….”

Early language development and adult intimacy are so linked, it’s shocking. The language of the dodge is what I see in my office. The question, how do you feel, can unfold like the corn maze at a Halloween event. Turn here then there, will we ever get to the exit?  (Scary, and maybe no.) How many ways can we humans use language to deceive ourselves and others, so as not to expose our emotional vulnerability? It’s a learned response, acquired over years, a knee jerk that kicks us in the heart. Now let’s go back, unwrap the bubble paper surrounding our emotions, and lay them out on the table of relationship. Really, we only think we are that fragile. What we do need is simple language tools – the earliest kind. Because I am thirsty for closeness, hungry for being understood, needing to be seen by you, longing to be comforted, tired of playing games and eager to see your face beside my own at bedtime. After all, there could be a boogieman lurking under the bed of our shared life, right. But if we are two, bigger than one, then we are safe. But first I’ll tell you what I’m needing you to know about me; then you can tell me what you’re needing me to know about you. Let’s take turns. It is really a very simple bedtime game.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W, 2018

Communicate the Mundane and Avoid the Pain

While doing couples therapy, I am often struck by how much is left unsaid between couples, both of a factual and feeling nature, that emerges in sessions days, weeks and sometimes months past the actual situation. The back and forth which typically ensues when reviewing transactions that have caused trouble stimulates in each partner the need to clarify or justify their contribution. But herein lies the problem. As one member of the Coupledom adds facts or feelings to show where they were coming from, what they understood, or to a put context into the episode, the partner’s response often is, “Why didn’t you tell me that then?” or “I don’t believe you. You’re just saying that now.” Depending on how “far gone” they are on the trust continuum, instead of the added information serving to reduce agitation, it ignites it.

Photo of an older couple on the beach. Credit and Copyright 2018 Jill Edelman.
Credit: © 2018 Jill Edelman. All Rights Reserved.

Then, as the therapist, my job is to ratchet down the temperature in the room from scalding hot to a lukewarm simmer so all three of us can sort out feelings and facts and rebuild a communication that is useful and respected. This is a task that I am fully equipped to take on, over and over again. Yet, the real challenge is teaching folks not to get into this fix to begin with. Or to leave with new tools so it won’t continue to undermine trust and erode the collaborative life.

One of the foundational tools in building better communication and preventing conflagration is to share a lot more of everything with a spouse. Many folks are in the habit, taught by the culture, by familial values or by their own sense of appropriateness and privacy, of keeping much to themselves, to solve problems in their heads and to utilize denial, as in “That doesn’t really bother me,” or rationalization, as in “He doesn’t want to hear this.”

Added to the potpourri of defenses and misguided cultural values, is the lack of time. No time to share, no time to listen to a sharing, no time to respond to what is shared. The couples that come to my office configure this way: both work and have children; one works, the other travels constantly and have children; both work around the clock with no children but may have a pet; both work, both travel, no pets, no children, no time; retired and each with children and grandchildren from previous marriages – no time, no common ground for picking up the slack. Likely I have forgotten other variations. But in short, our fast paced lives, dictated in part by the new technologically inspired clock of work and social linkage that runs 24/7, distracts us all away from the Coupledom connection constantly.

The mix of all these variables results in couples not sharing or informing the other of small and large pieces of information. So often decisions get made by a member of the Coupledom without all the facts and all the feelings that are relevant to the outcome. Or the motivations.

And here is a particular rub – without the understanding of someone’s motivations for forgetting an appointment or leaving a chore unfinished, we humans fill in the spaces with our projections of the meaning behind these slips. This absence of context leads to a toxic mix of misleading convictions and hurtful accusations – most of which could be avoided by talking to each other. No kidding? Just talking?

For the folks who travel or whose spouse travels, time zones and all day meetings can represent impossible obstacles. Children’s sports schedules, school performances and tag teaming often mean no one is in the same room at the same time, unless someone is already asleep. Yet we have technology that lets us connect wherever whenever. The ironic joke of today’s lifestyle seems to be on us.

So what is the solution? First there is the need to out the problem, create awareness that much is missing in the couples’ communication and then establish an agreement between you that sharing even the most seeming insignificant information, fact and feeling, that has any relational aspect to the shared life, is a priority. How you feel as a spouse in the time spent at home alone when your partner is traveling. How you feel as the traveling partner. How you spend your time apart and what feelings are on your mind, in your dreams. Excited about a new friendship, anxious about a new task, challenged in the work setting or social gathering. The weather and its effects and the lawn and the laundry and the heavy-handed boss and the airport delay and what each was thinking about the other that day.

Feeling invisible in the mass of humanity is common. Feeling invisible to your partner is diagnostic. Something needs to change. And the element of comparison plays a role here. People notice where their partners put their energies – community service; in-laws; professional commitments, parents; pet and hobbies all can seem more precious to one’s spouse because of the energy put out for them or the passion put in or the time spent with them. Yet all that output may come from a sense of duty or guilt or financial pressure, or some notion of the good parent or the good person. The true emotional longing for the other may be the deepest pull, yet it gets swallowed up or obscured by the sheer busyness of all the other “stuff” and often the misguided assumption that “you know I love you.” Uh, no, not always so sure.

Being known involves shared experiences in real time and when not together, descriptions of reactions, feelings and observations in conversation – putting into words what was meaningful, fun, stimulating, disturbing. That is the meat and potatoes of relationship – what the exchange of our emotions and interests represent – who we are and when responded to – how we feel known. And if this sharing is unnatural, practice, practice – this is a new contract that your Coupledom has established: we will communicate all the petty and profound of our lives each day as much as we can so each one knows both the facts and the feelings and the motivations of the other – as much as possible. Building the language of trust is not done once but often, daily and with consistency.

What might seem insignificant and not worth sharing today is part of the substance of who we are… know me today and tomorrow I’ll feel known and loved by you. And I’ll do the same.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2018


Bully Wives #2 – Am I a Bully Wife?

Publishing a piece on Bully Wives during this momentous chapter in our cultural history might seem grossly insensitive or politically and socially deaf. I actively support the #MeToo movement and am marching in step with the challenges to male dominance and exploitation of women which have brought courageous women and some men to tell their stories, challenging the cultural taboos that have silenced them, dismissed them and punished them in the past. As a human being, a woman and a mother, I have no ambivalence about this moment in our cultural history. I hope it lasts and I will do my best personally to work towards changing our society to become a more humanistic, safe and equitable one. 

Wearing my other hat, as a clinician, I also feel an obligation to complete a discussion I opened over six years ago, so I am publishing Bully Wives #2 now. My focus is on The Coupledom, that domicile in which the couples relationship resides. My goal is to facilitate its emotional health. Not to blame or take sides. 

dancers sculpture_Credit_James Grashow
Sculpture by James Grashow. For more into:

My first post on Bully Wives was published in September of 2011 and yet it remains one of the most read and commented on posts. I have received emails from desperate husbands and even a couple of calls from horrified wives who recognize themselves in my “bully wife” profile. The men are energized by the post, seeking to voice what the culture tends to keep hidden, that women can be bullies too. Yet, few women have come to me to say, “I am that woman, can you help me?” Why?

In general, owning our behavior, when it is characterized as “bullying” or abusive, is not a popular pastime and few leap into the fray to say “Yep, that’s me.” But in the case of women who traditionally have been the nest building and family emotional health experts, this seeming absence of taking steps to prevent a domestic situation deteriorating seems worthy of exploration.

What is a bully? How do the men who responded to my post describe their wives’ behavior? The salient characteristic when rereading the comments is a refusal on the part of the women to engage in a conversation about their behaviors without it escalating into a form of domestic warfare. The men describe the futility in trying to communicate their distress, as it results in finger pointing that they are the problem or leads to a complete shut down in communication. And if, as I suspect, many women identify with some part of that description, as most of us nudge, nag and have a “honey do” list, then why are some women so energized against owning any of it?

The dialogues between people that lead to growth and understanding do not usually begin with a walk in the park. They begin as a contentious communication but lead to a striving to hear where the other is coming from. But if that second part never occurs – the part where you listen – and instead is upended in an emotional brawl of sorts, that bodes badly for the future of that Coupledom. Intimate relationships are dependent on just that kind of exchange for their survival.

Why then do these women seem so frightened to have this conversation? After all, these are words, not fists.

In the service of offering something new and useful in the Bully Wives discussion, I reread my original article, Bully Wives? Yes, But They Don’t Know It, and reviewed many of the comments left, mostly by husbands and some wives. I suggest everyone read the piece now.

What was most striking in my review is the apparent resistance to a discussion on the part of the women and a dismissal of their husbands’ feelings, though a few women commented or contacted me showing a sincere interest in changing. One woman who lived some hours by car from my office, after reading the article, was horrified to recognize herself in the profile of the “bully wife.” She called to see if we could schedule intensive couples visits. In my experience, this lady was unusual as she owned that she had spent years being emotionally abusive to her husband. She displayed both insight into and understanding of some of her motivations and courage in her willingness to work with her husband towards change. Sadly, when she broached the subject of getting help, her husband refused to participate. She suspected that she was too late. There were young children and a shared life and her regret was profound. Her “wake up call” at that time appeared too tardy to save her family’s life. I am hoping that since we spoke, she and her husband found a path toward healing and a commitment to a future together.

This lady is the exception. Mostly, there is a striking absence of women taking ownership or interest in the Bully Wives piece or, when approached by their husbands, decline to participate in a therapeutic process, claiming it is not their behavior that is causing the alienation. But that’s not the point. The conversation needs to begin somewhere. When a couple comes to therapy, often it is the wife’s idea, and often she has worked hard to convince her husband to join her, yet she succeeds. Far rarer is the reverse, where the husband makes that happen. Why? And why aren’t women coming into therapy with their husbands because their husbands are unhappy with them? Do they have to wait for the affair or the announcement that divorce is on the horizon? Are the husbands never unhappy?

On a more positive note, I have seen an increase in recent years of couples embracing the notion of “prevention” and coming to therapy to catch problems while they are small and fixable. Often their family histories of divorce have taught them a great lesson, don’t wait!

But we are speaking about women here. Are we as women so afraid of being “found out” as not kind, not loving, not nurturing, not perfect spouses or sexual partners? What is our problem? Is this yet another example of gender role definition, narrow and limiting. I think so. Generations of cultural expectations and stereotypes. After all, aren’t women the acclaimed experts on emotional coupling – the banner babes of kindness, goodness and familial devotion? If we aren’t always particularly kind or if our demands can become increasingly rigid, or if disappointments in our spouses or our lives make us bitter partners at times, why do we refuse to own the behaviors that ensue?  Because it is a cultural taboo even if in fact it is true? We were taught – and you have to be taught – that our value is only as good as is our goodness to others.

Our culture is going through some desperately needed growing pains now. The focus is on the bad behavior of men – and deservedly so. Finally! So my timing may seem very off here. But life is far too complex to settle on one scenario at a time. Especially on the domestic front. We as humans tend to be comforted by simplicity, victim and victimizer; we know who to defend, who to condemn. But on the home front, while raising children, sharing homes, finances, pets, relatives and friends, that format just doesn’t work as well. The only formula to combat the dangerous simplicity of victim and victimizer is for each to own their contribution, when the stakes are high and there is still time – and no one is physically in danger or emotionally shredded to bits. When there is still time and muscle to work on honesty, self-reflection, and education (there is so much to learn about the dynamics of relationships which, frankly, most couples don’t know). On the other hand, there is a movement in the field of education to provide programs on emotional intelligence in the schools, in the hopes that future generations will gain tools to understand their own emotions, as well as those of others. Mental Health and Education professionals have long recognized the cultural illiteracy in personal emotional self-awareness and empathy towards others in our society. Where were these experts most likely to observe that deficit? Perhaps in the family lives of their patients and students.

My goal here is to try another round of “bully wives” that invites more conversation, less avoidance and fear, that gives permission to women to own their “bad” and not fear that this is a profound personal failure. The shame they may feel in acknowledging these behaviors will lead to a greater gain. How so? By tolerating that what they do can be hurtful or harmful to their partners, it gives room to learn new behaviors for managing their disappointment, harsh expectations of themselves and their spouses, frustration, hurt, and even broken dreams. Hiding this truth from ourselves prevents us from finding better, less destructive methods of dealing with the pain that leads to these behaviors. And that being a good person, a loving person, is dependent on the ability to take ownership of the hurtful part of us too.

We as women don’t have to believe anymore that being “good girls” is required or that we need to deny that we can be aggressive, insulting, denigrating, dismissive or difficult to please. Just as assertive women are not necessarily “bossy,” hurt and angry men are not necessarily babies or spoiled or selfish or even “all about themselves.” Hopefully, the days are waning where women are judged good by a passivity monitor, along with the belief that women are here for the gratification of men. And men are not dismissed when they describe feeling unfairly treated, uncared for, intimidated. Self-respecting and respectful equals raise the best children, run the best homes and serve society in the most useful ways. Aspects of the bully wife and the bully husband are in all of us. It’s usually the outcome of complicated feelings and expectations that need owning and outing. This is the conversation that adults need to have, that will allow wives to seek out professionals who are ready to help them do just that.

Always say yes to listening, when spouses ask to be heard, and no to denial or accusatory responses. Handle your fear of being called hurtful or uncaring with a steady head and a listening ear. By doing so, you are already less bad, less hurtful, less culpable. And you are not a sucker either. You are an adult. Couples relationships are not debates, with teams fighting for the rightness of their position. A coupledom is a dance – partners can take turns in leading, but both have to be responsive to the sway and movement of the music of their shared lives.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2018



Holiday Season – No Time To Test The Relationship, Yet Opportunity Knocks

Photo for our post about the Holiday Season. Credit: Hepp/iStock

I have written a number of posts on holiday challenges including Valentine’s Day and Christmas. I suggest that folks review these posts in the next week. My clinical observation and I think this is a pretty obvious observation, is that holidays often intensify couples conflict. It’s a bit like the flu season. Exposure to germs is a guarantee; whether you come down with the illness is more related to your immune system and what precautions you have taken to protect yourself. In short, Holiday Seasonal Disorder (aka HSD) is very contagious. It is easy for one spouse to pass it on to another. Whole families have it.

How does a couple know that they have it? The symptoms are: mounting anxiety; increased spats; uncontrollable upsurge of memories of holidays past – the not good kind; incessant comparisons between childhood holidays and adult holiday experiences; mounting concerns re: partner’s or family members’ behaviors – who will drink too much or will the political dialogue devolve into chaos again; obsessive ruminative activity related to perfectionistic standards.  

Add travel and money concerns and children’s behaviors – if you have a special needs child or relative (check my other blog site) – and the Coupledom pot can boil over in steamy exchanges and regretful behaviors.

Some are inclined to use the holiday season to evaluate the merits of their marital relationship. Though tempting and possibly irresistible, this is a very bad idea. You may think it but try not to buy into it. That would be the equivalent of determining the quality of a chef based on a meal prepared during a power blackout. Instead, the wise couple can set aside an hour or two in the weeks prior to the holiday, review any concerns, identify conflicts, and collaborate on locating a third option if they find themselves at odds over two opposing solutions. There is always a third option to handle anticipated stressors. And it may require thinking out of the box. This is often very frightening to families deeply bound by tradition and may make members feel disloyal even to consider a change or modify the revered traditions. But marriage creates a new family and traditions carried through the decades may need tweaking for the future health and loyalty to that “new family.”

It may sound simplistic – dismissed as suggestions fashioned only for the “ideal” Coupledom, but in fact, it is a rational and worthy exercise. Have the conversation once and then again and again until you both feel heard and supported and have strategies in place for the most daunting tasks at hand. And read my article on Christmas, Bracing for Santa: Holiday Performance Anxiety and The Coupledom. 

Another recommendation that may sound optimistic – but is critical to the future health of your marriage – speaks to the upside of a rough holiday season. Use the experience as a window into what areas of the relationship could use attention and work. If ugly words are exchanged on the security check-in line at JFK or snippy digs pile up on discarded Christmas wrapping, don’t panic. Instead of regrettable behaviors being denied, dismissed or blamed on another, out them and own them and go for help to end them. Now is the time to get some help so these holiday demons don’t lead to future holidays spent apart – with a family divided, saddled by costly double household expenses, and future holiday pleasure reduced to traumatic exchanges about who gets Christmas Eve and who gets Christmas Day.

So Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, Happy New Year. Healthy Happy is what I am aiming for here.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., 2017

Photo Credit: Hepp/iStock.


Time and The Coupledom

My son has a passion for timepieces. As a five-year-old boy he “stole” one of his grandfather’s watches. A year later I found it under his mattress. Today he pursues his passion in a more conventional manner, and his pleasure in how time is tracked through beauty and ingenuity is something I share with him. I watch the passage of time through the viewfinder of a sixty-minute hour as I sit with my couples. Together we track time and emotion as it impacts on their shared lives.

Time and the Coupledom. Credit: wildpixel/iStock.
Credit: wildpixel/iStock.

Time is everything. All we do has the background hum of the ticking clock of life – especially the shared life. Couples speak of years lost in unhappiness; pushing problems to a future where they will get better just because … somehow they will. To a “time” when there is time to address them. Time is factored in a subjective and magical fashion. It will hold still or fly because we will it so. A wonderful curative – like the latest purgative drug on the market.

As I type this I am surrounded by time pieces: my cell phone to the left of me; the two clocks in front of me, both battery powered, though one is Deco vintage with its mechanism updated; the vintage watch on my wrist, a gift from my son, with an anodyne face. Even the land line portable set on my desk, outmoded and shrieking, has a time component both on the screen and in the throaty voicemail lady.

Given the omnipresent reminder of time – and oh yes – my desktop screen reminds me of the passage of the seconds, minutes and hours of this writing process – how come couples let time go by without recognizing that, like the water in a bathtub, even if you don’t pull the plug, the water will evaporate and eventually your tub will be dry, though it is likely to leave a film of dirty soap around the sides?

I hear the answers to my rhetorical question. “We were so busy raising the kids. Making ends meet. Hoping things would change.” But time doesn’t change anything, just age and wear. Without your permission, time moves us into the future with no regard for what it might be dragging along in its wake.

How does this happen? Individuals have characteristic mechanisms for coping with disharmony, dissatisfaction, disappointment, disconnection and all the other dis words (Latin prefix meaning “apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force (see de-, un-2. ).) Some folks deny the pain; some folks operate from a magical belief system that it will go away – just sprinkle some fairy dust or kick your heels twice. Some folks confront their pain and look for solutions. That last group of individuals are most likely to have a chance at saving a marriage. And one of the tools to utilize in this effort is Time! Tracking it, noting it and sharing the awareness of its passage and impact with your spouse or partner.

There is no great depth to this post. It is merely a recommendation to use the passage of time as a positive tool to measure the need to take action. Moments of unhappiness and alienation in a relationship need to be set against the backdrop of the passage of time to evaluate the seriousness of the situation. Couples when questioned in a session as to how long one or both of them have felt disturbed by their interactions, their increased distance or growing intervals between fight and make up, usually describe not days, but months and years. Months is already a wakeup call. Years! Ten years, five years, three years, twenty-five years. Two years. No matter. Too long.

Much like our immune system, where the longer an untreated virus or bacteria inhabits our bodies, the ability to fight it weakens, so our Coupledom housing unhappiness for years will be a weakened fortress unable to stand up to the fight for survival.

Mark time. It may save your marriage. Too long and too late will be too sad for everyone.

Just a tip. Show this to the denying member of your Coupledom. There is always one.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., 2017




Assumptions and Projections: A Corrosive Influence in The Coupledom

In my practice over the years, I have watched couples behave toward each other in ways that scream “unhealthy.” Often, these behaviors are the outcome of two mental activities that we define in our dictionaries as “assumption” and “projection.”

In this context, the relevant definition of assumption is: “A thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.”

The relevant definition of projection, as in psychological projection, in this context is: “involves individuals attributing their own thoughts, feeling and motives to another person.”

The first indication that the processes of assumption and projection are taking place is often of a visual nature – one partner is speaking and the other partner is rolling their eyes or raising their eyebrows or shaking their head, often in despair. They have heard this before. The verbal correlative might be, “No! Not true,” “I wasn’t thinking that,” or “That wasn’t why I said that or did that.” In response, their partner’s visual and verbal responses will be similar: eye movements, but perhaps marked by a more aggressive outburst of “That’s bullshit” or “Why can’t you just own your stuff?” Yet throughout the exchange not an ounce of factual data is provided in support of the attribution. Does that matter? Apparently not, as the accusatory partner is convinced that despite their spouse’s protestations, they know the real truth: “I know why you chose not to come up to bed with me. You don’t want to be with me. You’ve lost your attraction to me. I repulse you.” When the partner replies, “That’s not true. I fell asleep in front of the TV and I didn’t want to wake you up. It was after midnight,” they might as well be whistling in the wind.

There are countless opportunities to insult and disbelieve your spouse, many seemingly of a trivial nature. Yet don’t be misled by their banality. They accrue over time with a vengeance – like layers of plaque on a formerly healthy set of teeth. They can play like a daily stream of domestic rapping but the buildup of negative lyrics produces a pretty ugly song. Here’s a sampling:

  • “You’re late for dinner because you have no respect for my cooking or my hard work.”
  • “You forgot to call me before you left the office because you just can’t be bothered.”
  • “You leave the lights and the TV on all the time because you couldn’t care less that I have to work for every single dollar that pays that bill.”
  • “You spend, spend, spend – you just don’t give a damn about me.”
  • “You incite the children to giggle and make fun of me at the dinner table because you think I’m a bad parent and a stick in the mud.”
  • “You control the checkbook because you think I’m an idiot.”
  • “You let your parents walk all over me because you’re more loyal to them than you are to me. I think you like them better too.”
  • “You looked at that woman because you think she’s hot and I’m not.”
  • “You’d rather be with that guy over there because he’s a rich big shot and I’m just a guy working the daily grind. And what’s more, you’re leading him on. I can tell.”

Take note, all the sentences begin with “YOU” which is the operative first word in an accusation or a projection.

Likely there are multiple reasons for many of these accusations. And likely a good percentage are projective – stemming from the wounded party’s inner confusion, lack of self-worth, family history or unacknowledged ambivalence toward their own choices or their relationship. But since the accuser is so sure that their interpretation is correct, other possible causes never get explored.

Based on the strength of their conviction, one must ask, “Are folks believing that they can read each other’s minds?” I’d say yes. In fact, they are relying on their mind to do the work for two. Here’s how it happens. There is a psychological phenomenon called projection. We humans use it all the time. But it’s pretty unconscious, under the radar, so we don’t know that we are “doing it.” The example above is a classic projection/assumption that I’ve seen in my work. Someone is feeling insecure about their sexual attractiveness. They have gained weight or aged or both or may never have felt “good enough” in the body department. Who does? Or they left a prestigious position in business to raise their family and somehow that is just not cutting it as a source of self-esteem. Perhaps there has been a recent decline in the frequency of intimacy. They could be experiencing a reduction in their own libido for various reasons. If the couple touched on the topic prior to therapy, the conversation likely deteriorated in a similar fashion. The often-complex reasons for a decline in sexual intimacy – if articulated – didn’t match the assumption/projection so they were dismissed. “You’re just making excuses.” Rather than seek out other sources for their feelings, the wounded spouse ascribes negative attributes to their partner that feel right because they match up with a script that their unconscious has authored. “I don’t believe you. You just won’t admit that I look old and fat.” In fact, their partner could be less sexual; they may be depressed, ill or fearful of rejection. But that essential information will lie dead on the cutting room floor because it doesn’t match the projected screenplay.

There is a terrible toll to pay for this behavior, a Coupledom toll. The climate of trust so essential to a well-functioning Coupledom, is threatened by the projective behavior. If you repeatedly express doubt that your partner is being truthful with you, then your partner will inevitably come up with a survival strategy to protect against the insult to their integrity, the repeated “character assassination,” the dismissive attitude. They will become guarded, less sharing, more distancing, maybe withholding. Interactions are no longer spontaneous; they become more calculated. It must be remembered that The Coupledom is a tapestry of connection and the weave is held together by threads of trust in each other’s love and mutual respect. When those threads begin to split, the weave weakens, then the frayed fabric becomes susceptible to tears. And tears.

To be clear, not all assumptions are projection based. When a spouse explains their reason for an action with, “I assume that’s what you wanted me to do,” and their partner has a look of disbelief and says, “Why would you assume that?” then we might consider that we are in the arena of projection. But not necessarily. How do we make that distinction? Healthy assumptions are based on factual observation – a partner’s pattern of behavior viewed over time. “I ordered the steak for you as they didn’t have the salmon and I assumed since you don’t like cod, that you’d prefer the steak.” That “assumption” is based on actual data, the data of multiple shared meals. “Well, you were wrong this time. I’d actually have preferred the cod to the steak.” Okay, but you can’t read someone’s mind. In fact, it is necessary to draw from past experience in order to make informed choices in the present. Of course it is best to double check with someone, but that is not always possible. The waiter was waiting and your partner is stuck in traffic and you have an 8P.M. curtain at the theater down the street. It is also important to note that no one should be expected to read minds, anyone’s mind – cod/steak/salmon or otherwise, no matter how much they love you or know you. Affection cannot be measured by how well your partner mind reads. In fact, we can’t “read” someone’s mind. We can intuit well; we can be terrific observers; but we as a species are not mind readers.

I have heard many a wounded spouse sputter, “After all these years and you still don’t know me.” Well we do and we don’t. So we rely on data. Some few may have a gift that resembles mind reading. But rule of thumb: don’t count on your mindreading abilities, or your partner’s. They are more likely projection.

Which brings me to an essential point. If you think or assume that you know what your spouse is thinking or why they behave in a certain way, unless you ask them if that is so, you are enabling a process that can be disastrous to your relationship. Couples who (unwittingly) impose their projective thinking onto their partners, considering them informed assumptions perhaps and then react to their own projections as truth, are going to make some pretty awful mistakes. They will choose to behave in accordance with their assumptions/projections, and their partner will witness an array of behaviors, statements, and accusations that don’t make sense and can be deeply alienating and dismissive.

Often, when we refuse to consider a spouse’s explanation, we set in motion a corrosive process that inflicts hurt, bewilderment, feelings of powerlessness and loss of integrity with flashes of historic pain. Who in their childhood hasn’t felt that they are not being heard? Over time love gets buried under the pain. Then, watch out as the projections may come true. “You don’t love me anymore.” “Well, now that you mention it, you have hurt me so much, insulted me, accused me of lying and being an uncaring person, that loving you just became too painful. I built up a wall. Now I don’t know how to take it down.” Ouch!

An affair or deception that is factually discovered by a spouse may create havoc in the Coupledom for years to come. Trust that is critically broken is a challenge to rebuild, but folks do it. The longer the deception, the more difficult the repair. That is why when confronted by your partner, it is best to confess. Repeated deceits inflict further damage each time and lengthen the recovery time. Despite a clean slate of behavior going forward, any data or behavior that hints at a pattern even remotely similar to the time of the affair, will challenge the progress in rebuilding trust. At that moment, the partner who betrayed will have to be patient and factually specific to prove that they are once again trustworthy.

Other types of deceptions seen in my office are financial in nature. For example, one member of the Coupledom takes out a second mortgage on their home without first consulting their spouse; or someone transfers money out of a savings, retirement or brokerage account to help a relative or pay off a gambling debt; support a drug habit; cover a shortfall in a business venture, and so on. Often these behaviors are borne out of shame and embarrassment at failing at a job or a business. The decision not to bring the spouse in on the problem may be symptomatic of a frailty in the marriage or in the character or self-esteem of the individual. Whatever the underpinnings of these behaviors, the threads of trust are weakened and future ambiguities or behaviors will require a great deal of factual data to reassure a spouse that no, I am not doing that again. That is when the possibility of making assumptions/projections needs to be crosschecked carefully with present reality. And a spouse who triggered the past trauma needs to be on board to help their partner separate the current truth from the fear born out of past broken trust. Usually, a professional needs to be part of this process to prevent incurring more damage.

But when no previous betrayal or deception or actual rejection or abandonment has occurred, then the accusatory spouse needs to delve into the source of their assumptions/projections introspectively. Low self-esteem, conflicting emotions, recent losses or setbacks can trigger projective behaviors and heighten insecurities or the emotions from family-of-origin trauma. Ultimately, disbelieving a spouse without evidence will weaken the bonds of trust and corrode the weave that holds the tapestry of The Coupledom together.

Being willing to consider your spouse’s reasons for any behavior is the first and most important step in making sure that assumptions and projections don’t corrode your Coupledom’s fabric of trust.

Check out your own stuff carefully. We have access to only one mind, our own. When we operate as if we can access two – well now that’s science fiction. Perhaps you can fly as well. Safe landing!!!

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2017