Lonely in The Coupledom: Post Holiday Blues

How Were The Holidays? The post holiday season can be an especially challenging time for couples. Perhaps you are empty nesters and the kids went back to school. Could be your vicarious thrill in watching your young children’s Christmas joy has waned with the new year or maybe when the grandparents flew back to home base leaving you with garbage bags full of recyclable wrapping paper (if there is such a thing) and dried pine needles on the floor. Or you are the grandparents returning home with unwanted baggage awaiting you there. Possibly the eighth night of Hanukah, though glowing with candlelight, foreshadowed the winter solstice, short days and long evenings together that added a chill to the Coupledom atmosphere. Winter can be tough on couples if cozy together is not a part of the vernacular.

The Fundamentals of Loneliness For Two: You can be very lonely in your Coupledom. In fact, feeling lonely emerges as one of the more common unrecognized emotions often unveiled in my office, to the surprise of everyone. Two people living within the same walls, even under the same bed sheets, which seemingly imposes an atmosphere of intimacy and connection and yet, walls and sheets do not a closeness make. What are the fundamental requisites for a sustained and enduring sense of being part of a couple, part of a team of two, distinct individuals but emotionally not all alone? This is a question with a complicated and really open-ended answer, one each individual needs to define for themselves.

Soul Mates? To define something you often have to cull out what it is not. In the case of intimate relationships there needs to be a differentiation between “fusion,” whose price is loss of individual identity and “intimacy,” which means an ease of communication, physical and otherwise, between two separate beings. Soul mate is a term typically used to describe the feeling of being understood so well by another that after a long search, finding and marrying one’s soul mate is considered the ideal, the platinum of mating choices. This is a glorious but often transient “fusion” fabulously fueled by sexual chemistry, where two individuals identify so much with each other that it appears as if they are one. They share similar visions of the world, people, food, movies, friends, religion, politics, backgrounds, trauma history. They read each other’s thoughts; second-guess each other’s answers. They are finally known and understood, and know and understand another. The perfect loop of love. Yet when they are actually in the trenches of daily life much of that similarity seems to dissolve and folks are shocked to find out that in fact they are very different in some fundamental ways, such as how they interact with or discipline their children; their approach to money, in-laws, holidays, entertaining; their work ethic or their preferred time for sex; all now have become disappointing and insurmountable differences, personalized as rejections or callous indifference, stubbornness or power plays. Sadly over time, feeling safe, secure and trusting is replaced by feeling duped and deceived, even scared. Why this atmospheric shift, the tipping of the earth’s axis? Because love was based more on identifying with each other than actually knowing each other. That’s fusion, not intimacy, projection, not true understanding. The holiday season is notorious for underlining in bold those differences that simply smolder for the rest of the year.

The Antidote to Loneliness in The Coupledom: What really reduces loneliness inside ourselves is when we feel seen, known and understood by our partner. This is not an automatic outcome of being loved by another. This is an active and daily transaction between two people that involves knowing what’s important to each of you to share with the other, whether it be the good news, chit chat, embarrassments, dreams, wants, disappointments, anger, insult, shame and pride. And to be the recipient of the same sharing, with a loop of mature love that warms up the chilly winter nights. Being known and also loved is what folks often mean when they say “unconditional” but it isn’t unconditional. How we treat each other counts more than the words we use to describe our feelings. Both have to be in that loop and then the loneliness will subside, and when it comes up again, check to make sure you are both revealing enough of you to be seen. If you don’t and won’t, then you will feel alone.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2014

 

 

In Time For Love: Opportunities Are Unlimited

Fifty and Older: A deeply distraught senior in his seventies faces the prospect of living in marital misery “until death do us part.” The chasm between the pair has widened over the decades and may be unfixable. His wife feels the same way. What are their choices: divorced and alone or together and unhappy? A decade or so ago my best offer would be to help the couple paste together whatever shards of former friendship, history or affection they could find to make the passage of time tolerable enough. Today when faced with a similar task and questioned as to options, I offer something else: possibility.

The possibility of finding friendship, compatibility, fun and possibly passion with someone new. Despondent grownups over fifty who are trapped financially and emotionally in torturous or hollow marriages risk damaging their psychological and physical health when they don’t allow themselves to imagine other options including the benefits of the changing mores of the times. These changes include not only Viagra, hip replacements and bypass surgeries but the resources of the ever-proliferating world of dating sites and social networking. The fifty and older set has mastered technology sufficiently (after all they invented it) to jump on the bandwagon of locating love in just the right places: close to home, affordable, and potentially full of gratifying fun.

Pro-Active Approach: What has changed over the last two decades is opportunity. If you are prone to passivity, then seeking new love at any age is risky. But if you’re not, then the age of instant contact is made for you. Not only are there many dating sites for the mature adult, but also social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn allow people to connect with past friends, colleagues and future friends. High School and college reunion organizers can locate and entice almost anyone who was a graduate to assemble together one more time to review unfinished business or renew interests left behind. In earlier decades snail mail might not have unearthed this possibility and certainly without the Internet, cell phones and text, would have not made it so easy to sustain the connection.

The blind date motif is still a practical option, meeting someone through someone. But more often today, when you ask folks how they met, if they are over fifty, it is either through online dating, a class reunion, or a reconnection through social media.

Does that mean we give up on existing marriages for the possibility of a new like/love option? I am a couples therapist so that would be like a car mechanic telling you to trade in your current car even before you open up the hood to see if the problem is fixable – after all, an oil change might suffice. New cars are very expensive. Divorce is very expensive and emotionally costly to everyone, the Coupledom most of all. But years of clinical experience has shown me that offspring of any age are heavily impacted by the demise of their parents’ marriages, as is the extended network of cousins, friends and pets. Couples therapy is a worthy enterprise – a shared life should never be squandered. But for those who find themselves unmarried or uncoupled, whether widowed or divorced, or married and deeply miserable, the notion that one might find a quotient of happiness before the lights go out, is not wildly delusional. In fact, it is wild not to consider that alternative.

Big Love/ Big Business: Our time, mingle, cupid, harmony, match: just some of the language that bedecks the websites of dating services, all smack of possibility. If cupid were up to speed I would meet my match in harmony, to mingle together in our time happily ever after. Fingers crossed everyone can get a second (or more) chance at love. The marketplace is packed full of dating sites competing for our dollars: Christian Mingle, JDate, Match, eHarmony, Our Time and many more. This is not because they don’t work. It is because in many cases they do work, as does social media connecting for business, for philanthropy, for creativity and for love. With effort, patience and the muscle needed to withstand the predictable disappointments, frustrations and rejections (according to all reports the vicissitudes of dating at any age appear to be similar) that accompany the search for a mate, the opportunities appear to be unlimited. All you need is imagination, energy and the courage to leave something known and unfixable for the possibility that you may still be in time for love.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013

 

 

Fates Entwined: Now Take Care of Yourself

The Unspoken Contract That Needs To Be Spoken: Decades ago my husband told me a funny anecdote about one of his aunts. She was a mother of four and her husband passed out in front of her. Not that funny? But what he quoted that she said both jolted me and made me laugh, as he survived for many decades more: “Don’t you die on me, you expletive!” Hardly the statement I expected from the lips of a loving wife. But dead on, pun or not.

I have often referred back to that anecdote over the years as it began to make more and more sense to me. Once the threads of individual lives are sown together, with shared responsibilities and deepening mutual significance, nothing happens to one that doesn’t impact the other, especially related to health.

Difference Even Here: Let me expand a bit on what I mean. Under average circumstances, couples meet while still in good health due to relative youth, though it is not unusual for someone already to be managing a chronic condition, maybe Lupus or Crohn’s Disease, or any number of autoimmune diseases. But generally speaking there is the absence of medical threat in the early stages of forming the shared life and the family that often accompanies it. By the time couples dip into their forties, stuff begins to happen; menopause; high blood pressure; breast and other cancers, heart disease. And the peer group begins to witness friends who tragically succumb to some of these diseases while still in the throes of raising their children. A new and unwelcomed sense of vulnerability ensues and couples look at each other with different eyes: this could happen to you, to me, to us. Perhaps it is a family of origin’s genetic profile that pulls us out of the sand, ostrich-like, when a parent dies, or a sibling, or a cousin. But not everyone behaves the same way following these frightening wake up calls. There is often a very striking and often problematic difference in how each member of The Coupledom responds to that call.

Defenses Again? Yes, how we handle threats of any kind, psychological, physical, social, you name it, depends on our psyche’s typical response to uncertainty, to the sense of vulnerability that new information, unanticipated situations and unpredictable challenges convey. And this difference in our defenses for a couple can make for serious and protracted negative interactions for the usual reasons: we expect the other to think as we do and take action as we would. But they don’t. And that makes us feel powerless, angry and frightened. After all, we are entwined, our fates are interdependent: “Don’t you die on me…!” is not just anecdotal. It speaks to the essence of the joined life: I am vulnerable to you, whether I like it or not. That’s the contract. Now what do we do?

Choices: A man has a chronic condition, he is on medication for it and needs blood levels checked every few weeks. He doesn’t adhere to that protocol and ends up in a life threatening condition. A woman believes that breast-feeding her child for two or more years takes precedence over getting a mammogram, though breast cancer killed her sister. The man is lucky to survive. The woman dies before her youngest child has completed elementary school. Both families are affected: one with permanent damage to one of its members that impacts the family; the other by death, a mother lost to her children and her spouse, forever.

What Happens to You Happens to Me: Smoking, obesity, excessive drinking, driving without a seat belt are just some of the common threats that couples impose on their relationship. Avoidance of check ups or follow-ups is another typical pattern. Even more stunning is how often partners neglect to share the information from those doctor meetings with their partner. Selective hearing is a powerful though unconscious tool in the service of avoidance and denial; unless both partners attend the check-up or the follow-up visit, the spouse may not even know they are in effect “lying” when they relate to their mate what they were told about their health or their test results.

Adolescent Rebellion at Age Forty Doesn’t Help Either: One spouse asking the other to get a check-up or lose weight or stop smoking not only triggers defenses such as avoidance and denial because it taps fears and the individual’s psyche responds to threats in a characteristic style, but also those same requests can trigger some developmental arrest responses/regressions. In other words, though your partner is your peer, the voice may evoke the image of the nagging parent and the response follows in kind. “Stop bugging me, I’ll do it on my own schedule.” Or, “What I choose to do with my body is my own business. What’s it to you? I don’t tell you what to do with your body!”

It is the unusual spouse who outs their long hidden phobias or fears of doctors and willingly traces their roots. Nope, hide that vulnerability, look tough and just say, “I’m fine.” Women or men who have an idealized image of the sacrificing or tough as leather gender paradigm do not realize how endangering their belief system is to those whom they presume to love and protect.

A Mutual Pledge: When two people commit to sharing a life together, something important needs to be added to the spoken contract, even written down and mutually pledged:

The decisions that each of us makes regarding our individual health will be transparent to the other with the understanding that how we take care of ourselves impacts the other. For that reason, each of us vows to be respectful of, and influenced by, the other’s opinion, and provide all data, symptom descriptions and test results to them. That we will aim to share our fears and seek support from the other to face health challenges with mutual respect and the awareness that what happens to each happens to both.

Our Fates Our Entwined, Now Take Care of Yourself: Couples fight about this health stuff, insult each other, avoid each other and lie to each other. Often the spouse who picks up the pieces of the other’s avoidance, neglect or abuse becomes bitter and loses interest eventually in caring for their mate. That is a defense, a reactive defense, to lessen feeling vulnerable, scared, powerless, disrespected, all or any of the above. And often these behaviors are characteristic of other transactions in the relationship. Outing this problem can also help in outing other transactional problems. Take a moment and share this post. And good health to all.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013

The Poison Sex Dart: Objectifying Love

Not a Prescription Nor a Cure, Just a Perspective: What does it take for two people to always feel mutually stimulated and sated in a long-term relationship? Probably magic. As a therapist what strikes me as most ironic and piercingly problematic is that the bedroom, specifically and most likely, the bed, often evolves into being the least secure and intimate place in the shared home. Instead that very same bedroom becomes the lightening rod for a self-consciousness that annihilates intimacy, the very water to its oil, they just don’t mix.

Objectifying Love: Whoever invented long-term commitment with its accompanying legal trappings, real estate and progeny probably wasn’t thinking about reality TV, butt and boob tucks, video cams, or the centuries of artistic, cinematic and animated depictions of lovemaking, including the Kama Sutra and PORN PORN PORN available 24/7 on a handheld device (no pun intended) or a desktop. What those of us coming into adulthood in the nineteen sixties and seventies referred to as “making love,” sexual intercourse with naked bodies pressed together, seems to have less and less to do with affectionate lust and more to do with athletic achievement, mirrors on the ceiling and worries about keeping up with cultural expectations. In plain speech, folks may spend more time scrutinizing than screwing.

Imperfectionate Satisfaction: Yes, I know it is not word, but I like it. What is the goal behind a couples’ mating once they have moved past producing progeny? (If they even care to produce progeny.) I think this is where some re-framing might be indicated. Two people who have passed the initial threshold of the discovery of a powerful attraction and lustful love, may be left with differing levels of desire, pressure and craving for that hot intimacy. Millions of words have been written about negotiating these drive levels, millions of dollars are going into research on drugs for women to increase their desire, for men to keep their instrument operative, yet through all the spillage of words and charts on screens and paper, little is mentioned about sexual intimacy being an opportunity to express affection through body proximity, getting naked and laughing together, touching with tenderness, and ending up in the bathtub or shower washing each other off.

Perhaps these words sound simple and ridiculous because this whole operation is so complicated by emotions, schedules, children’s needs, communication issues, work pressures, family histories, aging, body changes. Yet there can be something useful about re-framing the act of lovemaking in a long-term relationship that introduces the awareness of the uniqueness of the pact agreed upon years earlier. A pact that by definition states: hey we are allowed to get naked together, touch each other’s body and do whatever we want, and no one is hurt, this is the gift of fidelity, of caring, of belonging to each other.

The Poison Sex Dart: Of course, we have to contend with distinct sexual appetites, imaginations and fantasies and lovemaking with your best friend/legal partner may not match up to every appetite or fantasy or even come close to the coupling models available outside the bedroom door; the porn, the reality TV hotties, the sexually skilled stranger available at a massage parlor or from escort services. Lovemaking in a long-term relationship would imply that love between two people should have star billing. But often it is perhaps a supporting role or not in the credits at all. This is the objectification of love that occurs when intimacy is out, and performance is in. Either you or your partner is an unsuitable “object” or target of the lovemaking. Too many associations of what should be felt, achieved or look like interfere with the personal. A conviction that this can be achieved out there, outsourced or everyone is having that, why not me. Then lovemaking isn’t a feeling, it is an objective and your partner is the object with whom you can achieve this objective.

One wonders if hundreds of years ago, with fewer models around to view, were couples less self-conscious or distracted by what should be? Of course, they had other problems, big problems but still, one wonders. Is there a third eye watching you making love with your partner, a third ear listening to hear the applause? Is there a stage? Are you being cheated out of something that others are getting? That is the poison sex dart.

What’s The Other Option? If hot sexual and mutual ecstasy is not available 24/7 what exactly is available? The freedom to play, to be truly free with each other as you cannot be with anyone else. That is a goal worthy of attending to, to chit chat about anything, to ask to be touched in any way, to admit to a feeling, a mood, a desire. To be known. The goal of sexual intimacy in a long-term relationship is to arrive at a place where you can be as sexually and emotionally unself-conscious in the presence of another as humanly possible. And what each of you chooses to do with that freedom is part of the fun and the collaboration. Remember, that bond/pact that you agreed to when you “committed” to the shared life, implies a weaving together of your lives with ever increasing threads of intimacy, being known, and the freedom that brings with it.

Long Term Intimacy is by definition, the act of being known and knowing the other. That’s hot too.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013

 

Fusion Confusion: Fighting for Identity in The Coupledom

Me/Us? Personal identity, the self-defining kind, helps us to make the big life choices such as college, career, mate, when to breed, as well as small ones such as shoe selection, hair color and movies. Each time we say yes or no to something, we are giving off a whiff of who we are. When many of life’s decisions are made as a couple, the powerful influence of the “other” on how we approach decision-making and its impact on our personal sense of self, our identity, is enormous.

Definition In Negatives: It takes energy and an ample supply of self-observation to maintain a sturdy sense of self when co-partnering important decisions for years through courtship, co-habitation, marriage and parenting. Allocation of funds to support all these decisions intensifies their weightiness. As a consequence, it is quite common to see couples caught in the snares of their Coupledom netting quibbling over many of these decisions; the seemingly insignificant ones such as clothing detergent choices, and the placement of a tree in the backyard; and the big ones, moving to a new town or renovating a home. Actually not quibbling, out and out fighting with rhetoric that can be harsh, dismissive and even pleading at times. What is at stake here that motivates such drama, or propels the couple toward passive-aggressive paralysis?

On the surface, the couple will insist that the subject matter at hand is the issue: less soapsuds, more eco- friendly laundry. But scratch the surface and you will find the source for the conflagration, the hot button No. No is an 18-month-old toddler’s premiere verbal assertion of self, “NO!” With time the more specific “Mine” and its cousin, “I do it” will follow. The emerging self with its determination to master its universe shouts out, “Hey mom and dad, here is where you end and I begin.” “No” and “Mine” and “I do it” remain easily accessible and essential statements of “self” throughout the human life cycle. No means “Yes, I do exist.” The collaborative life can fog up the lines between “you and me” leading folks to resort to the primitive definition of “self” held over from toddler days, a messy and destructive method of self-definition to a relationship.

Mr. & Mrs. Everyone: Women of our time no longer fling their maiden names to the winds when they say I do. Many add their husband’s to theirs or keep their names with no additions. Some men have been known to add their wife’s name to theirs. And same sex couples are busily making similar arrangements when they marry. The offspring of these Coupledoms may sport several surnames as well. What’s that all about? Oh, so much, but one piece of this amazingly significant historical change in our country is that women are striving to protect their individuality, their “self.” I am not Mrs. Jones, I am Ms. Smith, and yes I am married to Mr. Jones. I am me, separate and self-respecting as a woman and as a person. This all boils down to the determination to preserve a reliable image separate from our partners, definable and easy to locate, and this requires a lot of effort and energy each and every day of our Coupledom lives. And men, despite the common custom of maintaining their surnames upon marriage, have the same struggle to retain an independent sense of self in the Coupledom realm.

The Embrace of The Shared Life: How can this separateness and sturdy sense of self be maintained within the embrace of the shared life? And when can you tell that something unhealthy has seeped into that embrace that is threatening to derail it?

The Clue: Many of the squabbles that unfold in my office have this hidden underpinning, the fight for survival of the sense of self, one’s internal identity, self-image and self-respect. But it isn’t that easy to spot. What I have found as a good indicator that this pyrrhic dance (as in no one wins) is at play occurs when nothing about the specific piece of acrimony unfolding before me makes any sense. Then I have to ask, “What is at stake here?” For example, someone says, “Let’s walk the dog now. It’s best to get him out early before the kids wake up.” “Not now, I’ll take him later.” “No you won’t. You’ll just plunk him in the car and drive off to your errands and he won’t get any exercise and will be hyper with the kids when they get home from school.” Why not walk the dog now? Well surely there are probably as many reasons to say no as to say yes. But instead an argument ensues, not a real exchange to further understanding. Just a fight. “You always have to have it your way.” “You are so selfish, you don’t give a damn about how the dog feels. Really, well who feeds him, takes him for his shots? Just because you have decided an early morning walk works best for him, I’m selfish?”

And the answer has historic roots. When first married, roles unfold through a process that often remains unspoken. Someone gets the final word on specific subject matters because they have some expertise or the topic seems to mean more to them. After all, consensus in decision-making requires talking time and most couples are pressed for time, so they learn a shorthand method of decision-making which will be knee jerked until someone notices that they are missing a piece of themselves in the process. But do they notice that consciously, through self-reflection and self-exploration? Nope. They just start to get fired up or “stand their ground” or, in the passive-aggressive motif, just don’t cooperate over issues that on the surface appear fairly mundane.

Smarten Up: Here’s the tip: when you find your Coupledom engaging in petty spats or losing the skill of making serious decisions, question what is at stake here? If you are frequently stalemated, quagmired, stuck in “we are unable to agree on anything anymore” – red flag that thought. Ask your partner to reflect with you on what is jamming up the works. Your first sortie into this sticky conversational arena might devolve quickly into acid laced barbs and spittle along the lines of “It’s your way or the highway,” “You have no respect for my opinion,” the messy blame game. But stick with it and dig deeper. If “giving in” is a frequent phrase or “getting your way all the time” comes up or someone or both parties are feeling invisible to the other, not known, disrespected, it is likely that each is feeling the loss of self. Are we one or two people here? Fusion confusion can descend on any Coupledom where a member of the Coupledom feels lost in the limelight or drive of the other. Or someone is not putting any time into affirming themselves and then tends to blame their partner for this rather than examining their own choices. When “we” can feel like the loss of “me.”

The NO position then steps in with a good old fashioned slog it out fight, a pitiful stand-in for a real sense of self and power. To develop this personal awareness is not easy to achieve and takes significant emotional multi-tasking, but it is essential to understand what is motivating your behaviors and reactions to get back on track to achieve the healthy shared life.

My Shadow: Fighting about nothing is no substitute for talking about something. Peter Pan had to find his shadow. He was lost without it. It defined an essential part of himself. Find your outline and fill it in with a self-assessment of who you are, what is really important to you and how that “you” can collaborate in a Coupledom where each partner knows where they end and the other begins, with outlines marked with respect and time to hear and to share. Then fighting for nothing stops being a blood sport.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013

 

Strangers On The Couch: Couples Therapy

In Translation: “Let me introduce you to your mate.” This is what I would like to say to my patients “on the couch” more often than not. Have you met before? I feel as if my job as their therapist is to be translator, interpreter, facilitator and teacher to two people who at times speak foreign tongues and live in parallel universes. The rest of the time, they seem to be familiar with their partner, even share spaces and offspring. Yet, though they have a wealth of information about each other, they often have a paucity of understanding, and an abundance of misinformation or misinterpretation. It is a wondrous thing to unravel the complex misfirings of couples’ relationships because what you see close up is a dispersion of profound attachment, relentless effort and agitated zig zags of hurt, anger and mutual ignorance.

Youngsters: Part of this “abundance of misinformation or misinterpretation” can be attributed to youth. Many of the couples who come to my office have been together for ten, fifteen, twenty-plus years and when they first signed up for companionship, passion and the shared life, they were young adults. In this group, the average age for mating ranges from early twenties through late thirties. Culturally that is right on the mark to begin to select out one’s mate for life, at least according to our biological clocks. And impressions made in those early years of courtship, co-habitating or marrying, stick fast and last long. Yet, they are limited to a time and era. No matter how profound or probing the conversations might have been between the new lovers or newly weds in those early years, life sweeps in and exchanges of soulful emotions and personal confessions get interrupted by the paraphernalia of daily living. On the positive side, many individuals still see their partner as the sexy, fun loving very smart sweetheart they were lucky to have found amongst so many unsuitable candidates. That memory of appeal can count for a lot of sustained bonding even as the image of youth gets compromised by the virtues of age. On the negative side of that same phenomenon is the fact that many of the original beliefs that dominated The Coupledom might have been based on idealization and glorification that youth and chemistry provide. And rather than having an updated version of the beloved, imbued with the brain’s increased capacity for conceptualization and complexity, there is only disappointment and often the belief that somebody pretended to be something that they were not. That someone was tricked, deceived or stupid.

No Masquerading Here: Amongst the couples with whom I have met over the years, it is rare that I see anyone masquerading as someone they are not as the source of the marital discontent. Nature demands that inspiring someone to fall in love with us requires a flaunting of our finest feathers. So is it really fair to say that your partner misled you into thinking they were nicer, more magnanimous, thoughtful and selfless than they turned out to be? Or were they nicer, more magnanimous, thoughtful and selfless when they were younger, simpler and newly and madly in love? Yes. But was it a calculated masquerade? Hardly.

Skillful Love: No, the story of the fraying away of love’s sweet bliss is a far less exotic script. It is actually a story of ignorance. Our societal ignorance. Educators and child psychologists are finding through their research that aiding in the acquisition of “emotional intelligence” via the training of both educators and children offers a far greater likelihood of successful social and emotional development and adult health than the simple passage of time and graduation into adulthood. Emotional intelligence about oneself and one’s partner is a skill that can be taught even late in life and that is the skill I teach in couples therapy that builds the foundation for the healthier Coupledom.

Assumptions and Projections: When I describe my work as translator, interpreter and facilitator to The Coupledom I am referring to a sequence of activities that involve my listening to each partner, both to their history, their current perspectives and their emotional under-voice, the sounds of pain, bewilderment, anger, hurt and confusion. Their belief systems need to be unearthed, about themselves, their partner, their families, events and relationships, religion and culture. Then my ear must be attuned to the interactions and communications, verbal and non-verbal, between the couple who sit before my eyes and ears. And from that potpourri of information, I can sniff out the assumptions and projections that each one is making about the other and themselves. And what packs the most powerful punch of all is how often the partner does not have a clue about what their mate is feeling, in what manner their mate experienced a transaction, historical or otherwise, and the messages they took away from these transactions, even dating back as far as courtship or friendship. Too often couples “assume” that they know the other’s feelings. And equally as often, individuals are ignorant about their own feelings, deficient in the skills required to probe their psyches and still woefully dependent on primitive childhood defenses that say “stay away from those emotions, we kids don’t know what to do with them, no one taught us.”

Be Curious: So my job in the room with the couch is to get individuals to be curious about what they are feeling and believing about interactions or behaviors that have transpired between themselves and their partners. Fixed beliefs about the intentions and motivations of one’s partner, once unearthed, prove to be glaringly off the mark though sadly held tightly as absolute truths for years and years. This painstaking unraveling of the notions accrued over the years, that are in fact misinterpretations or misunderstandings, is the art and the substance of couples therapy. Along with the equally critical process of providing a forum for individuals to articulate past pains in words that are true, not distractions and accusations, words that are heard both by the sufferer and the inflictor, for the first time, can be an education in itself: “I never knew you felt that way. I never knew you had the capacity for those feelings. I never knew that’s how you took what I did or said. I never knew that your parents, your schoolmates, your first wife, made you feel that way. I never knew so much about you.” And “I never knew so much about me.”

H.S. Reunions: Marriages and long-term relationships are like twentieth high school reunions. The person who was your friend, prom date or lab partner looks familiar across the room, maybe, or the nametag nails the I.D. A rush of associations follow the recognition: he was cute; she was hot; he was a nerd; she was super smart; he was a jock; she was a thespian; he didn’t like me; she hated me. Then you chat and find out what really went on in the mind and life of that H.S. chum and surprises pour forth. Couples therapy can mimic, in some aspects, the high school reunion phenomenon. Surprises. All these years I still saw you as that nerd, that flirt, that kid who doesn’t think I am worthy of a date or a discourse. Fixed beliefs tied to history, projection and assumptions when aired in the light of a mature day, can be shed, clarified, updated and healed. Wow.

Let me introduce you to your mate, the semi-stranger on the couch, stranger no more.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013

Spotlight on The Heart: Valentine’s Day

What’s Tough About February 14? Besides the possibility of being caught in a winter blizzard, February 14 is the one day a year when the cultural spotlight aims its beams of light on the heart of the relationship. How soft, flattering or harsh the light feels, depends on the health of that heart, year to year. We recognize the merchandising manipulations playing on our vulnerabilities. Yet, most at one time or another fall victim to the chocolate hearts, the twinkling diamonds, the candlelit clink of wine glasses or the lingerie naughty naughties that just might add a spark to a dimming flame of passion. Perhaps one of the partners is filled with the dreams of romance (and romance is wonderful despite its bow to material mania) and eager for the reassurance of being loved that they convey; the other partner may be lacking a natural instinct for the sentiment of the day, perhaps embarrassed by emotional displays or uncertain how to meet expectations. The defense of cynicism or ultra-sophisticated anti-materialistic superiority one partner embraces may not compute with the heart across the room who cannot be laughed out of their dreams.

Holes in The Heart: I am not a Valentine Scrooge. Quite the contrary. Yet I know it can be a difficult time for many who are alone, and for others whose relationship heart is full of holes. This is a tempting time to out the problems that bedevil the Coupledom. But how that is done determines its success or failure. There are the passive-aggressive methods of forgetting the day; not making the restaurant reservation; sending funny cards because anything else feels false and that little dig nestled in the text at least hints at the truth; or the aggressive modality: the pre-emptive strike where Valentine ghosts of the past are brought up angrily: “I am not setting myself up for another crushing disappointment. Instead I’ll provoke a fight so I won’t feel like a fool, ridiculous in my hopes, humiliated by my dreams.” Someone else steels themselves for attack by selecting an aggressive appearance of invulnerability, “You don’t like anything I do so I am doing nothing.” Pow! Or the loud silence of the sexually hollow Coupledom who shares a bed with a broken heart down the center. Should we try to cross it tonight? Does he/she expect me to?” The loudest silence of all, unspoken fear, the sadness of unspoken loss. This is tough stuff yet opportunity knocks.

The How-To of The Heart-to-Heart: The day is all about the heart, isn’t it? So why not have a “heart-to-heart” talk, that is “speaking from the heart,” its holes and woes and wishes? I am sure that everyone is grimacing now or rolling their eyes. No, I don’t think this is easy to do. I think this very hard. Nor do I think it has to occur on the day, but since there is a season of the heart, merchandised at the malls but also coming home in book bags everywhere filled with little bits of white doilies on red paper and teeny cards with cartoon characters and action figures, tis the season for love and all its foibles. If you are examining the holes in your relationship heart, rather than pout or test, avoid or provoke, talk, together. Not by introducing a challenge but an observation; you know we aren’t so good anymore at showing affection or caring. It is Valentines season. My heart hurts and I bet yours does too. Let’s leave the finger pointing for Halloween and spend this seasonal ritual on speaking our truths, as each of us experiences them. Keep the finger in the pocket and instead put feelings into words, ears to listening and learn about each other, from the inside heart out.

Here are links to previous Valentine Day posts:

Valentine’s Day and The Coupledom: Is This a Test?

Valentine’s Day Gifts Take Some Knowing

Valentines With Heart and Humor: A Developmental Approach

 

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013

Lying While Cycling: Do Liars Change?

Big Stakes Question: Will I ever be able to trust you again? Lies, a pattern of lying, finally exposed and then at last a forced coming clean; what does any of that mean? Frankly there is no more powerful issue in couples therapy – in all interpersonal linkages, than this question: Do liars change? Lance Armstrong, the current standard bearer, poster boy for living the lie, is a complex character who fought a lethal cancer, created philanthropies, is beloved by at least one of his five children (according to his Oprah interview) and yet excelled in extensive lying over a decade that smeared the reputations of friends (whom he went after with a vengeance) and created a model of success that youngsters all over the world revered that was based on one truth only, that he was lying while cycling, all the way. Is he any different than other famous liars or the liar in your bedroom or boardroom? Can liars ever be trusted again?

Reality Testing? Though this is a couples blog, infidelity is not the only form of lying that impacts trust between two people in an intimate relationship. There are the Bernie Madoffs and Lance Armstrongs of the world whose professional lives are based on a lie. These lies also embroil others in their web, many unknowingly. And impact others. One of Madoff’s sons killed himself. Lance Armstrong’s five children, most still very young, are about to find out that Daddy is the biggest fraud in professional sports ever! Where will their reality testing tools go now? The moral compass? People in the middle of their addictions lie all the time to cover up anything from where all the money went to why they were out until four in the morning to who stole mom’s engagement ring. Active in your addiction? You’re lying for sure. If your addiction is to keep up a falsehood about your accomplishments, you lie daily to maintain that falsehood.

A Model of Artifice: And the defense against accusers, personal or otherwise, is to claim that they are the liars. Or they misunderstand or are motivated by jealousy, competition or prejudice. Any number of explanations that make one wonder, “Well, maybe they are right.” Because artful liars lie with conviction. Reality falls into the hands of a master sculptor who is skillful in reshaping another’s reality to match their model of artifice.

Safeguarding The Lie: I am not a cyclist nor a sports informed individual but I am a student of character and I was spellbound while watching Armstrong being interviewed by Oprah, at how delusional he was during and still is to a great extent, throughout his decade of lying. That he could keep up this pace of deceit, attack his accusers and somehow land on his feet is stunning. And how similar this behavior is to all chronic liars everywhere. They share the delusion that their lie is protected and worthy of sustaining at all costs. And that the act of reversing course sooner and coming clean is so much worse than maintaining an existence of falsehood which requires a lot of energy, backtracking, and yes, eyes looking over the shoulder to check if something suspicious fell off the back of the lying bus of their life. What about all the people close to them who believe the lie? They are the true victims. At all costs throw them under the bus. Safeguarding the lie is the goal, not maintaining the trust that others hold in them. Is this sociopathy, folks who have a defective conscience, a deficit that rests in a part of the brain? Studies indicate that there may be some genetics here. Or is it trauma in childhood that leads to overarching ambition, knee-jerk lying or some kind of social learning defect that prevents the liar from evaluating consciously the cost to self and especially to others of the lie?

Temporary or Permanent Liar: Most of the lying I am privy to resides with the couple who is faced with the irreversible evidence that one of them has maintained a sexually intimate relationship for a period of time outside their bond. The fact of a love betrayal is only part of the trauma. That someone else became the partner in bed often involved daily or weekly lies about where someone was, what they were doing and why. The most banal aspects of daily life become the toxic details of betrayal. Were you putting gas in the car, caught in a traffic jam, working late or meeting with a former boss? No, you were with them. And strangely enough infidelities are not the only lies that poison trust in The Coupledom. Nope, the Armstrong/Madoff lies tamper with trust as much and perhaps more than sexual infidelities. There are the lies that cover addictions and simple dalliances that pollute trust. What is most undermining for the recipient of these lies is that their reality is spun all about, like a DJ’s turntable, topsy-turvy, undermined traumatically when the deception is revealed, leaving dirty nicotine like stains of humiliation and self doubt that don’t wash off: “how was I that stupid” “under my nose” “what’s wrong with me?” that necessitate the rebuilding of the self. The damage to the heart is only one part of the toll of living with a liar. The other is the damage to self-worth, self-respect, self-image, self-confidence, you name it. The self of the lied to is shattered for quite a long time. “What an idiot I was to trust you. I feel like such a fool. Duped.” And this blow to the self is not limited to infidelity. Being a partner, even unwittingly, to a fraudulent life, is to feel like a fraud.

Do Liars Change: The couple sits in my office. One member says they are changed, repentant and the other partner says, “How can I be sure?” Both have a responsibility here. The partner who lied has to be evaluated in very concrete ways. For how long did the lie go on? Was this the first lie or a history of lies? When did lying begin in your life? Why did you lie? The other partner has to ask questions too. Why didn’t I know? Was I choosing not to know? Did my partner try to tell me something but I refused to hear it? Did others? Where was I? Was I an accomplice, as Armstrong’s wife may have been, or perhaps more like Madoff’s wife, someone who benefited from not knowing? Did ambition undo me too? Or was I just so sure that the person I thought was my partner would never do this to me so I never even allowed myself to consciously wonder why there were so many unexplained moments? Or did I wonder but never asked because I didn’t want to have to deal with the consequences? Where did we get all this money? Why are your friends no longer your friends? Did I collaborate in the lie? Self-deception wreaking havoc on the self. Do liars change? It depends on who the liar is. How entrenched is the lying habit? (As with Armstrong, don’t hold your breath on that one.)

A Character Analysis: When you share your life with a liar, you are tainted by their lies. When their lies are revealed, both your character traits and those of the lying partner need intensive analysis and scrutiny, but the work together is only worthwhile if something of value in the relationship remains. And if the liar is complex in good ways too. I would personally avoid couples therapy with either a Madoff or an Armstrong except to give my voice the integrity and dignity of being heard in their presence. Can one discriminate between a chronic liar and a circumstantial liar where acute pressures or childhood trauma provided a context in which lying became a temporary device for survival? And even then, can the habit of lying be unlearned? If you tell a Nazi that no one in fact is being hidden in your attic, aren’t you a good liar, a liar for good? But if you have to lie for years and years to survive, is the lying brand permanent? Caution: do not make the effort to help extricate the liar from his or her web, so they can become the trustworthy partner you wish them to be, without professional help. And most significant of all, to the recipient of the lies, the primary goal is to find a means to re establish (or to establish for the first time) a trust in their perceptions, their reality; not to be bullied out of, dismissed, mocked or belittled out of the perceptions that constitute their hold on reality. Develop or sharpen tools of character assessment that may have been sadly absent. No relationship is worth maintaining at the cost of one’s self-trust.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013

Tidying Up The Holiday Mess: The Coupledom Hangover

Blight on the New Year: The ornaments are boxed, the ball has dropped and the seasonal remains of the day have been put away yet there remains some unwanted detritus from the holiday past. Those sticky, hard-to-get-off-the-soles-of-your shoes type of goo where some clash or alienation has occurred, either within the Coupledom or between the Coupledom and the outsiders – an endless list of pickles to climb out of or try to ignore which place a bit of a blight on the New Year.

Typical Pickles: Amongst the more common are the generational type, where older folks want more time visiting and sharing with the younger generation than the younger members can supply. Families loaded with stroller-age offspring are hard to pin down, or suddenly may yearn to hunker down with their little family “this year” rather than join the hordes or open their doors to them. Or perhaps there are very few sightings of the college age kid, who came home with their laundry and then vanished as if magnetically pulled out of the house to attach themselves to that north pole of friendship.

The Coupledom gift exchange can provide some ticklish moments as well. One spouse is pleased and excited, the other decidedly not. Someone feels cheated, someone feels unappreciated.  And the  ever-popular pickle where one mate is convinced that they did most of the work, bought the gifts, made the meals, did the clean-up, while the other just “benefited from all my labors.” You can almost smell the smoke rising out of someone’s skull.

How To Tidy Up The Mess: The first task is to notice the tension in the air or the tightness in your chest and give it a name. Regarding your Coupledom, are you avoiding each other? Or perhaps it is someone else? Is the caller I.D. the key to your safety? Are you already dreading next holiday season? Are you all the way over on the other side of the bed and if it weren’t a king you would be in trouble? On Facebook less or postponing email responses to family members because you know that they are unhappy with you? Or you with them? Whatever the discomfort, notice it, identify it, give it a “feeling” name: anger, hurt, fear, guilt. And then ask your partner, mate, spouse, that person with whom you share a life, to help you work on things; to aid you in your challenge with others or be part of the collaborative effort needed to help your relationship with them. Remember, if one of you in the Coupledom is hurting, the entire Coupledom is suffering as well.

More Distance, Less Guilt: Distress triggered by awkward or hurtful exchanges with in-laws, siblings or other extended family can benefit from pooling the impressions of both spouses to come up with a viable means to move forward with these relationships. Never underestimate the usefulness of the non-blood-related partner’s insights. They have more distance, less guilt and greater objectivity, all of which can be enormously liberating. What may seem callous or not getting it, is actually a beneficial byproduct of the “outlaw” status and likely just what is needed.  Sometimes not having lived the family history is what allows the other to help you leave that history behind.

From A Different Lens: Behaviors that are hurtful or provocative to one partner in the Coupledom may have little emotional impact on the other. A good example is that of  the college age kid who spent most of the holiday “out” which caused pain to one parent yet was insignificant to the other. The difference in impact should not lead to a shouting match. Rather, providing support and empathy for the more hurting parent is the first order of business. Then the other parent can share their view of the behaviors through a different lens and ultimately the combined wisdom and experience of both parents should  yield a more stable and solid approach to their child going forward.

A Head’s Up: And then there is the Coupledom gook. Someone is unhappy and needs the airing and sharing of disappointments, the unmet expectations; perhaps feelings of betrayal or abandonment (“where were you when your parents were insulting me; your brother was hitting on me; Johnny threw up and the cat peed in the foyer.” “Why are your never satisfied with what I give you. That hurts too.”) We are not always going to be what the other wants no matter whether it is Christmas morning or Flag Day. And if someone needs more help next year, sit down together and write up a plan now, save it in a file and open it ten months later as a heads up, hey, let’s do it right this year.

In The Details: So much of the work of creating a good relationship is in the details, all year long. Anticipate and plan the holiday, identifying who are the important people in your lives, how best to include them in the holiday, while avoiding the traps of previous years.  And most vital, keep your Coupledom important and smart so that it can be the resource both of you rely on, all year long. You can be so much smarter each year, if you huddle after the latest “round” and come up with an improved set of tactics that deal with each other and with the world outside of your Coupledom. A simple example: if the gift exchange tends to bomb, then don’t buy each other individual gifts. Instead, decide on a joint activity to pour your Christmas money into: a trip, theater tickets, a big screen TV, a journey of discovery, a regular baby sitter. Avoid setting up disappointment. There are so many options. Look around you. Which couples seem to handle things smoothly? The smart couples!

No emotional hangovers after the ball descends in 2014. Nope. We will tidy this mess up right now.

© Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013

 

 

 

Coupledom Resolutions Revisited: New Years 2014

New Couples, Veteran Couples: Here are a few suggestions for the ritual of joint resolution that we call the New Year. When the ball drops this even numbered New Year be prepared.

  • Talking Heads: Vow to aim for eye contact when you have verbal exchanges as much as possible. The walking out of or into other rooms while sharing details of daily living, shooting comments that crackle with anger or hurt as you depart to work, or turn off the light at night, even compliments on the fly, need to be delivered directly to the recipient. And for several critical reasons: to show respect to each other; to get the details right; to allow time for the other to integrate the information being shared and provide a response. Many of these exchanges are designed to avoid legitimate contact and, as such over the years, create havoc with mutual respect and intimacy. Your choice this year is to not let your Coupledom pull these stunts. Stop, Look and Listen!
  • Triangle Traps: This resolution is indispensable for every couple. Resolve to out all triangulations in your Coupledom life. I Spy a Triangle should be a new couples’ game. And then resolve together to extricate the Coupledom from the sticky poison that triangles exude.
  • Transparency: This is a tough one but resolve to aim for as much transparency as possible. In a Coupledom that means that financial books should be shared regularly; secrets about other family members that might confuse loyalties should be avoided; and when compromising closeness or trust, past histories should be revealed – if they are harmful to intimacy and honesty. Your first loyalty, once you sign on to the shared life, should be with your partner. Be brave and share shame.
  • Having Fun: I know, easier said than done, but this aspect of the shared life is especially crucial to the health of the relationship. The definition of what is fun should be created by both parties, sometimes taking turns. And should be as regularly scheduled as checking to see if you need more milk. If you are home rearing little kids, have a tight budget or one of you is infirmed and home-bound, the rules still apply. The range of choices can be limitless. If you don’t create a texture of pleasure frequently enough, the lining of love will wear out.
  • Comforting and Grieving Together: Take a vow this year, a particularly tough one in our country for many, to learn how to comfort each other when pain strikes or grief enters your worlds. This is not so easy as it sounds. If you don’t know what would be comforting to the other, take the time this year to ask them and learn. We lean toward sharply distinct styles of self-soothing and consoling others. Some folks want space and time. Some want talk and hugs. Together figure out how to speak in a language of caring that both recognize when loss and hardship hit your Coupledom.
  • Learn Something New Together: Nothing stimulates the Coupledom more than a newly discovered common interest. Children and grandchildren can be strong forces that bind and keep the energy alive in the Coupledom. But it is exceedingly dangerous to exclusively rely on the stimulation of their evolving lives to provide either the glue or the new and exciting in yours. You are safest searching and discovering places, causes or hobbies that draw your coupledom towards something that infuses the relationship with vitality, and each individual with renewed interest in the other.
  • The Sex Resolution: One of you may not be happy with the quantity, the other, the quality, or the lack of both, but no matter. The most important thing in this New Year is to break the ice or quell the noxious flames of hurt and finger pointing with a vow to talk about how to make it better, not perfect, but better. Removing the taboo and outing the problem as shared and human will take your intimacy a long distance away from the hallows of 2013.

Happy 2014 To All. May We Be Blessed With Joy. 

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W. L.C.S.W. 2014