The Catch Phrases of Manipulation in The Coupledom

Image of woman being talked to by male partner, for post on The Couples Tool Kit about manipulating in communication.

How can you tell if someone is manipulating you? Let’s see. Are you frequently unsettled and confused after a conversation that didn’t go as you expected? Do you identify with that deer in the headlights scrambling up the shoulder of the road to escape from the semi heading its way? Do you leave conversations with loved ones with an icky aftertaste of guilt or humiliation coating your psyche? Do you return home after a couples’ night out layered in self-loathing and self-recrimination? Or puzzled and discombobulated? Are you likely to feel worse about yourself when with your partner or spouse than when in the company of friends, work colleagues or distant relatives?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions you just might be a victim of manipulation by a loved one. (And yet another indication of manipulation, do you often feel like a “victim?”) Does the phrase manipulation by a loved one sound like a contradiction in terms? It shouldn’t. Our nearest and dearest are as skilled as any twitter tweeter for spinning the bland into a very personalized poisonous brew all about you.

In fact we all can take turns at being the victim of manipulation and the victimizer. It just takes activating a few key phrases coupled with body language and off we go. What might those phrases be? Well for beginners they start with “you” and are often accompanied by finger pointing, direct and formidable eye contact/forehead frowning, a hand gesture moving in a dismissive wave, lips pursed downward, possibly a body in a three quarter turn away from you or walking out of the bedroom, the kitchen or the family room leaving a trail of unattractive adjectives about you as they go.

So there you are left wondering if you are bad, stupid, uncaring, spoiled, careless, unloving, a cheater or a liar. Your partner has shared with you what they saw or heard or interpreted in an interaction with you and the first feelings you have are anxiety and confusion; you’ve lost your footing; you are metaphorically looking for a guardrail to steady you. Next you are scared: what is the reality after all? Did I say that, do that, mean that? Yes I am bad. Or no, I’ll fight this. Either way you have accepted your partner’s version of the story – you are provoked and reactive. But did you do your homework?

Reality may often be subjective – perception is personal. But certainly there are facts that bear on any interaction with another, accessible facts. And beware believing in an intention that someone else ascribes to you without checking into your psyche first. Only you can know your intentions for your actions, verbalizations or decisions. In truth you may have acted impulsively or spontaneously without examining your intention at the time. That’s fine. But it is your job to retrieve through memory the motivation for your behavior after the fact and share it. I didn’t say I wanted to leave the party because I was mad at you. I said it because I was really tired. The data is available in memory; just develop the skills to explore your own mind.

An exceedingly effective manipulation is the flip, a technique seamlessly introduced into a conversation. You might be sharing a feeling of sadness or disappointment with your partner and next thing you know, they are saying it is your fault that you feel that way. They flip it. You’re too sensitive; you’re too needy; you’re never satisfied. Or your partner takes you on a stroll down memory lane, digging up the bones of your past offenses. How did that happen? Distract by attack – a clever tool that works every time if you don’t catch on that someone has changed the subject and the new subject is “bad you.”

There is a caveat here: just because your partner is telling you that something you did or said created unpleasantness for them doesn’t mean that they are manipulating you or implying that you are a bad person. The other half of the education in interpersonal communication is to learn how to grapple with your own distortion tendencies. No matter how old, big or tall you may be, there is a child lurking within the confines of your psyche who still perceives a world of good or bad, loved or unloved, attached or abandoned. And depending on how severe the ravages of one’s childhood, the inclination to process a fairly mild reproach or even just a partner’s sharing of some hurt feelings might have the power to reduce you to a quivering mass of insecurity or a fire-breathing dragon of self-defensiveness – distortions both.

So keep a keen eye out for manipulations – those of your partner and those of your psyche. Armed and empowered by fact checking and self-knowledge will place you at the top of your game and your Coupledom in a healthy interactive mode for the shared life.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015



Think Outside The Candy Box: Valentine’s Day 2015

Photo of candy hearts for Valentine's Day, from The Couples Tool Kit.

Here we go again. Heart shaped red ribboned candy boxes full of chocolate promises deck the shelves of the local CVS. A few days ago I noticed some harried looking males anxiously flipping through the stacks of Valentine cards in the supermarket aisle. The pressure is on to perform the mating ritual and renewal that Valentine’s Day heralds. TA DA!

Marketed as the year’s most romantic moment, Valentine’s Day is a hot potato of performance for many couples wary after disappointments of the past anticipating or planning activities together. Some rely on the “read my mind” solution – “By now he/she should know what would please me.” Or “Better not to expect anything and then I won’t be hurt.” Somehow none of these attempts at self-protection seem to pan out. Everyone is walking on little candy hearts and we know how easily they are crushed.

So here is a simplistic but possibly useful suggestion: how about together just figure out what would be a fun time. Fun here means sharing in an activity that both members of the Coupledom enjoy. There must be at least one, and probably many, that are attainable on a Saturday in February. Dictionary definitions of romance include the words mystery and excitement, which can be difficult to achieve in a long-term relationship, but fun can incorporate both without the sticky sentimentality that often makes a muck of the Valentine’s Day exercise.

Most successful missions in life are collaborations. Valentine’s Day should be one of the easiest to achieve. After all it is one day and with a budget that matches real life resources, a time frame that takes in the realities of children, sitters and work obligations, and an evenly shared amount of energy and time put into the planning, this just might work. Oh yes, and love.

Happy Valentine’s Day as in Have Fun.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015



Relationships 2015: Married and Otherwise

Holiday Greetings and Wishes for a robust Coupledom in 2015 – a relationship between two consenting adults that flourishes and bares healthy fruit, whether that means children, pets or simply a fulfilling shared life.

I’d like to share some of my thoughts on how to approach your relationship in 2015.

A couple of weeks ago The New York Times published an article The Divorce Surge Is Over But the Myth Lives On that summarized recent data on divorce in our country. The good news is that the divorce rate that peaked in the seventies during the feminist movement and sexual revolution has come down to levels previously attained before the historic upending of the mores of the nineteen fifties. The reasons for this trend are postulated as the following: the older age of the marrying pair; living together prior to signing up for the license; and that women and men today share breadwinning responsibilities. In short less female dependent brides, more love based relationships amongst older/more mature peer adults and previous experience being domestic together appear to be some of the ingredients in a better marital cocktail.

Unfortunately this positive trend has a class caveat. Middle and working class individuals with less education are more likely to remain single because they cannot afford marriage – jobs are fewer so the financial foundation that marriage depends upon is missing. Sadly these statistics also show the trend in that economic strata to more single-parent households.

These are trends with interesting implications for the couples therapist in me. What I read between the lines and care to share with you is the notion of respect for the other: admittedly an elusive quality to measure, the equality of partnership of any relationship that is anchored in interdependency. In other words, setting aside the very sad news that our economy is not providing sufficient employment for lower middle and working class citizens (a very big deal), those who are lucky enough to be amongst the educated and employed are apparently marrying folks they like, and with whom they share the burdens and joys of providing for their household. No one is the boss of anyone!

Another possible positive influence from my observation of the trends of recent decades is that couples who hit minor or major roadblocks to a healthy Coupledom are more inclined to seek help from others; are less ashamed to reveal the sore festering in their relationship; and both genders are more willing to go into couples therapy, a support group, AA, pastoral counseling or other relationship aiding resources. Less shame, more gain.

To handle the complexities that abound in couples relationships – parenting, bills, sexual needs, in-laws and economic vicissitudes – optimally requires two evolved and self-reliant individuals. So the data makes clear. The evolution of the individual into a mature adult who believes that they are worthy and able makes the peer-based interaction of a Coupledom more likely. First depend on yourself. Next interdepend with another. What does that mean? Look at the data and have a great New Year.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015



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