Tiger’s Tale: Tiger Woods, Elin; Denial and the Coupledom

The Role of Denial in the Coupledom:   How many more times before the year is out, will another powerful man be exposed as a philanderer? Will we see more women standing at podiums reminding us of the old ballad, “Stand By Your Man”?  For the Coupledom, what can be learned here? In one word, the adverse consequences of the defense known as Denial.

Denial Demands Equal Partnership: Both parties participate in the dance of denial. Someone senses a change, and the other denies it. A pattern of behavior is apparent, but no one acknowledges that pattern. Where does it go from there?  It may be true that men of power, ego and money have more chances to wander, and their women more ways to distract themselves from the wanderings: money, fame, incentives to blindness. But both parties are choreographing the same dance, let’s pretend. Relationships/Marriages invite denial because of the very serious ramifications that truth can bring. But here is the antidote: start with the truth and go from there. If one of you in the relationship notices a difference in behavior, a distractedness,  a chasm widening, start asking questions. If you do not  get answers that satisfy, go get help. Reaching out to professionals signifies to your partner that this is serious.

Courtship and Denial: I have often heard the comment, “I knew from the start that I shouldn’t get involved”. Or “I knew I shouldn’t marry him or her”. What does that tell us? That denial and/or avoidance were active defenses which prevented individuals from letting “truth” determine outcome.Dismissing one’s gut feelings, instincts or actual knowledge often play a large role.  Instead, magical thinking and groundless hopefulness claim the day. Whenever I hear that someone has ended an engagement, or canceled a wedding, I am impressed by  their courage and willingness to forsake conventionality for prevention and truth.

Denial, Avoidance, Magical Thinking and Compartmentalization: The four horsemen of the apocalypse, not exactly but close. All genders utilize these defenses against unpleasant or uncomfortable truths. Women seem prone to magical thinking, men to compartmentalization. Both are drawn to denial and avoidance. All four defenses take turns when a couple veers away from confronting difficult truths. Wishing and hoping, dreaming and praying, whatever your motif, will not protect you or your partner from the traps set up by life’s complications.

Tiger’s Tale: What role did denial play in the relationship?  Certainly for Tiger Woods, denial of the damage his behavior would bring to himself and his family was active. Distortion or entitlement can muddle reality.  Compulsions and addictions can be underestimated. Spouses can delude themselves into thinking that “love” can change their partners. All sorts of mind games also known as psychological defenses can make the partner or spouse deceive themselves as they are being deceived.

Truth as a Trust Builder:  What role does truth play in a relationship? With truth comes responsibility, often with an immediate price tag that is quite high: in a courtship, it may mean ending the relationship before you get too involved; once committed, it can mean confronting the partner with the feelings and or the facts, and seeking help together to determine the best possible direction.  A far steeper price results when reality is avoided, and  the outcome is humiliation and the dissolution of any possibility of rebuilding trust. Frequently it impacts innocent bystanders, children. Truth, on the other hand, when mutually tackled, is a trust builder. It takes strength and it builds strength.

Infidelity is Not the Only Deal Breaker:  Other patterns are often denied, overlooked or underestimated: addictions of all kinds; values that are questionable. Whatever the uncomfortable truth, bringing it out and asking your partner to deal openly with you about the problem opens possibilities. Avoiding and denying the power of the patterns, or twisting your mind around to accept simplistic rationalizations or repeatedly unmet promises, make you an active partner in the dance of denial, a player in “let’s pretend”. It takes two to pull off this game. Don’t play and the game ends.

Truth Takes Courage: Denial is a common strategy, often unconscious, that people use to avoid the unpleasant. Denial operates to help avoid loss, separation, giving up something and someone who gives you a semblance of security, however illusory. Some consciously believe that it works for the elderly, the sick and young children. Some believe it never works. Know which camp you are in, amongst those who think denial or avoidance are viable strategies for survival or are you one who believes that tackling reality,  with its uncomfortable truths, leaves you stronger and better equipped. If you are in the group who is inclined to look the other way, take note: for the Coupledom this can be a fatal choice.

www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/02/tigerwoods-201002 –

©jill edelman, M.S.W.,L.C.S.W.

To Marriage Therapy or Not To Marriage Therapy

Elizabeth Weil’s clever cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, “Married With Issues” raises three critical questions for all couples:  1. What should couples expect from their marriage/relationship. 2.  How can they tell if it is “good enough” as is or deserves attention.  3. What do they do about it?

The answer is of course an individual one but here are some guidelines for #2:

  • You know that your marriage deserves attention when you find yourselves avoiding time alone together.
  • You know that your marriage deserves attention when every attempt to make a decision together gets sidetracked by fights and attacks on each other’s character.
  • You know that your marriage deserves attention when each of you repeatedly questions the other’s loyalty to the relationship
  • You know that your marriage deserves attention when your children get lost in the gunfire.
  • You know that your marriage deserves attention when your children tell you so.
  • You know that your marriage deserves attention when one or both of you is in emotional pain about the marriage.

What is Attention: This is the question raised in the article. Ms. Weil and her husband surveyed the marriage therapy world, spent some time in it, and concluded that they were ok with their “good enough” marriage. Implicit in their exploration, and spelled out at one point by referencing one psychologist’s views on marriage therapy as potentially harmful, is the question of whether therapy is the way to go. Ms. Weil and her husband determined that they were comfortable enough in their relationship and that by adjusting expectations to a more realistic level,  the future maturing of their commitment seemed assured.

Attention Was Paid: Critical to Ms. Weil’s approach, in my opinion, and notably with the complete participation of her husband Dan, is that “attention was paid” by both partners. Ms. Weil and Dan courageously ventured forth to explore the dark and daunting depths of their connection, trying on new ways to relate, understand and experiment.  Their project had its own enticements, as writers, that provided further incentive. But the message is clear:  There is no down side to recognizing that there is something to pay attention to in the marriage or relationship, and taking the time to address concerns is useful and critical.

Together: Ms. Weil and hubby Dan joined together in this inquiry . Couples willing to share in the journey of discovery reveal a strength in the relationship, no matter the issues at hand.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2009

Holiday Mayhem for the Coupledom?

One Big Holiday Down: No matter which holiday you subscribe to, whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover, Easter, Ramadan or Kwanzaa, holiday gatherings tap chords of joy and notes of challenge for the best of couples. This is when partners feel pressured to perform at peak, cooking, cleaning, decorating, buying gifts, setting up guest facilities or traveling on buses, trains, cars and planes. Financial strains pull on the pocketbook and everyone has expectations of what should go right and what could go wrong.

Don’t Count on Mind Reading: There is still time to tweak the plans and make sure that you and your partner have a similar vision, similar program. Time to articulate what help you need, what roles each of you will play and expect the other to play. Do not rely on your partner “mind reading”. This is where danger lurks. Couples hope that magically their partner will know what they need, and do it, or buy it, or arrange it.  “Years together, and she/he still needs to be told?” YES. Make a date to have that conversation. Each of you describe what you would like to see, expect or need. Listen and brainstorm. When differences of expectations emerge, compromise and collaborate.

There is always a Third Option: If you reach a road block, finding your partner’s ideas unappealing or unacceptable, think out of the box for a third option.  Tradition is wonderful but not at the expense of the relationship. If the tradition doesn’t hold as well because children are older, grandparents are deceased, divorced or not traveling anymore, be flexible and plan another time to spend with them.

Beware Triangulating at Holidays: In laws, Blended Families, Step Families and Far Away Families. We live in a time when families are complex entities that often encompass many miles, time zones, and non blood related members, step siblings, step children, step parents. These complexities can enrich and delight if they are not triangulated: that is, if members are not forced to “chose sides” or locations or be cornered to select one set of relatives over another. Be smart together, avoid the traps that can often accompany these events.

Take the Time to Have this Conversation: Protect the Coupledom in all seasons. If you are concerned that this conversation will bog down in recriminations or attacks, seek out an expert to help you and your partner develop the needed strategies and skills. Once acquired, these same skills can be generalized to enhance the relationship for the future.

©Jill Edelman, L.C.S.W. M.S.W.

A Couples’ Challenge: Special Needs Children, Young and Adult

SPECIAL NEEDS: The term is used here to include children of any age with medical, emotional and/or cognitive challenges. This will be the first of several posts on this subject

A PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL PERSPECTIVE: As a parent of a special needs young adult, and a couples therapist, I see firsthand the impact that raising, launching and helping to maintain these children, at all life stages, has on the couples’ relationship. What I have learned is clear. Protecting the Coupledom, the couples’ connection to each other, is as important as protecting the child. Neglecting the couple is as harmful as neglecting that child or their siblings.

MAGICAL THINKING: Couples wishfully assume that their relationship, what I call the Coupledom (that is the emotional domicile of the relationship) will stay static and strong until all other problems are resolved, the child matures, or the silver bullet is located. This is magical thinking, a defense we all use when faced with daunting challenges. But nothing is static, nothing stays strong without repeated strengthening, no one waits to be loved or cared for indefinitely. Young children may say openly, “what about me?”. But adults don’t. Relationships don’t talk, and parents feel selfish if they ask for something for themselves when their children are suffering or in need.

SHARED JOURNEY: From the moment it becomes clear that your child is “different”, each parent processes this information in their personal style. Someone may rush to the computer, the experts or the medical dictionaries. Another may rush to the phone, to a friend, or to their bedroom for a cry. Both partners will be scared, sad, perhaps beginning a grieving process for the child they had hoped for or once had, or embark on  a painful and often futile search for reasons “why?” These are painful times. Sharing this journey requires some additional work on the couples relationship.

UNDERSTANDING YOUR PARTNER:  Amidst the turmoil of these early days, it is critical that couples set aside time to share what they feel, and strive to understand how their partner is emotionally handling the situation. Your partner may not express feelings or attempt solutions or search for resources as you do. This “difference”,  if  not talked about and understood, can lead to misunderstandings, and friction. Building bridges of understanding rather than finding these differences alienating, will provide a foundation of trust needed for this shared journey.

IF YOU GET STUCK HERE: Building these bridges of understanding is no easy task, particularly when each partner is made more vulnerable by the news of their child’s challenges. This is often the very time when defenses are heightened and communication more difficult.  If you get stuck here or at any point,  a couples therapist, someone who is familiar with the special needs terrain, can step in and provide invaluable assistance. Don’t hesitate.

MOVING TO THE HOW:  Having achieved a language of understanding, which will need frequent tune ups, the couple can now join together in the search for methods, techniques, experts, or friends to provide some guidance and direction. Division of labor is natural and necessary. One parent may lead the search for experts but will rely on their partner to process and brainstorm the collected data.  Another parent may be in the trenches more often with the child or adult child, soaking up the experiential data. Coming together to pool information and provide support for each other’s efforts is essential. It only  takes minutes to touch base, share data and encourage each other on.

THE MORE ABSENT PARENT: Inevitably one partner is away more than the other. That parent needs to ask their partner for updates, follow up on information gleamed from appointments, touch base frequently and be interested in all that transpired while away, whether for the day, or the week. The parent on the front lines needs to share that information, not let feelings of “abandonment” prevent them from  asking for help in care taking  and decision-making. Both parents need to make sure that they and their partner are involved.

BEWARE THE TRAP OF EXCLUSIVITY:  There is always the temptation of one parent to become the exclusive caretaker of the child/adult. This is dangerous but understandable. There is a great anxiety associated with the care of the child and one parent can grow to feel that only they can do the job required to protect that child. This is of critical importance: alternating “hands on” involvement whenever possible will prevent this harmful attitude from developing. Early introduction of competent caretakers and extended family members to your child/adult child’s care, is essential for several reasons:  first to allow the couple time alone or with their other children; second, to increase the flexibility of the special needs child by helping  them to form relationships of trust with others (this is especially critical in their relationship with the less present parent);  and third, to protect the “hands on” parent from overwhelming burdens, and often an exaggerated sense of their own importance in the survival or well-being of their child. When they see that their child can be cared for by others, this dosage of reality can be tremendously relieving.

PROTECTING THE COUPLEDOM:  From the outset, parents who brainstorm the means and methods of keeping their relationship viable as they navigate the special needs world, are going to have a healthier and more satisfying relationship. Agreeing to place importance on their time together, talk time, taking walks time, sharing thoughts time, making calls during the day to check in, emails and texts, all these details of caring, send out threads of connectedness that will sustain the Coupledom and create an incredible bond.

SHARING IN THE BOUNTY :  Children with challenges bring great rewards to their parents and families. They push families to stretch themselves, to embrace new worlds of difference.  Their successes, courage and new found mastery enrich the lives of their parents and the family who love them.  A couple who weathers the early storms of adjustment with active attention to their relationship, and sustained commitment to caring for their relationship as well as the joint task at hand, reaps a wonderful bounty, the shared joy of seeing their child and all their children living the life that best suits them.  The deep bond that grows out of this journey is its’ own reward.


Triangle Traps

No relationship is an island unto itself:  There are in laws, children, friends, political parties, neighbors and pets, all of whom can serve up a poisonous stew of triangulation unless a couple is trained to look out for this vile brew.
Typical triangulations are: a child and one parent talk negatively about the other parent (sometimes in front of them): one parent continually intervenes in the other parent’s relationship with their child, preventing direct communication between that child and parent (often the parent “thinks” that they are protecting the child); an in law or friend drives a wedge between you and your partner by seducing you to “take their side”, or asking you to make choices “for your own good”, that are not shared with or discussed with your partner: a sibling can do the same. All may seem well meaning. But all are asking you, indirectly, to put their needs before the needs of your relationship with your partner.
A red flag should go up: Any time you are pulled away from directly communicating with your partner because someone else seems to deserve or demand priority, this is the red flag of danger.  A regular diet of this behavior is injurious to the health of the Coupledom.
The best medicine: Sit down with your partner and lay out the dilemma. This can take courage but will get easier with practice. Ask your partner to help you problem solve. Then approach the party as a couple whose loyalty is to each other first at all times.
Faulty connection in the Coupledom: Partners who feel unheard, or lack the confidence to talk directly to each other about concerns, needs and feelings, turn to indirect methods of communication. This may indicate a faulty connection in the Coupledom. If this behavior is entrenched, couples therapy can provide the tools to extinguish the behavior, often handed down through the generations, and replace it with a direct, honest and more trusting form of couples’ communication. The health of any relationship rests on trust. Indirect communications, manipulations and confused loyalties undermine that trust.

Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

What we can learn about marriage from Michelle Obama

“The equality of any partnership ‘is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two.'”

Michelle Obama knows that every relationship is a work in progress. The New York Times Magazine article, “The Obamas’  Marriage” by Jodi Kantor 11/01/09, touches on some of the cornerstones of the healthy coupledom. Themes of constant negotiation, communication,  and humor are woven throughout this description of the Obamas’ many years together.

Take a look.  They talk, they sacrifice, they re tune and re tool, they touch and they take turns setting the tone and direction of their shared lives.

The Daily Challenge of Reentry

At the end of the work day, whatever the time, be it 6 P.M. or 12 midnight, a couple reunites under the same roof. How that reunion goes impacts greatly on the relationship over time, months, years. This is also true for couples where one partner travels and re entry may occur after a few days, a week or more.

The challenge to the Coupledom is how to negotiate this “reunion” in a healthy fashion. Each person is coming from a different place, a different focus. Often the reentry feels interruptive to the person already home, who may be attending to meals, children, pets, exhausted, tapped out or starving for adult company. The person returning is often wired from the day, still preoccupied by its good, bad and ugly aspects, fatigued, perhaps in need of a big hug or a big space. Each often feels a strong  need to be “acknowledged” in a manner unknown to the partner.

Please Read My Mind: These unspoken expectations and all kinds of history underlie the behaviors and color the reunion. If the reentries are snagged by frictions and frustrations, take the time to discuss what the expectations and wishes may be and how to best help each other satisfy some of  these wishes. Dispel the misguided view that the other should be able to read  your mind. We are the species wired to articulate in words what we need. When we do this with our partner, then the shared life can become mutually satisfying.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2009

How to Accept and Enjoy Differences

Couples often are strikingly bewildered by their partner’s inability to feel what they feel and act as they do. It does not easily compute that this person, with whom I have chosen to spend my time, thinks so differently and behaves so “unlike me.” And the “unlike me” is the operative word here.

The human species seeks safety in sameness, though often lured by “difference.” That very difference, in gender, cultural background, or personality style, has attractive and sometimes, alarming features. This becomes troublesome in a relationship when each partner sees this “difference” in personal terms.

If your partner prefers a different color sofa, or child discipline technique, and more importantly, doesn’t feel the same feelings of sadness or happiness as you at the same time, is this rejection or difference? Couples need the tools to communicate about those “differences” rather than letting them become distancing and hurtful wedges in their relationship.

There is only one way to do this. Each partner has to listen to the other talk about why they feel what they feel, do what they do, like what they like, and think as they think. There are historic reasons, family of origin reasons, temperament and fear, different psychological defenses utilized. Someone may withdraw when anxious. Someone may reach out. Someone may act tough when feeling vulnerable, confusing their partner with their attitude.

Trust can grow from deepening understanding that these differences are not “against the other” but rather are a part of the person. Bridges are built through this “conversation” that close the gap and new solutions can be drawn from this life long discussion of difference and knowing. Couples develop many of these “tools” in couples therapy and then have them at their disposal for a lifetime.

Knee Jerks

“He/She started it.”

Couples are very reactive to each other. A mere word, look or slam of a pan can ignite the air and partners are off and running with a volley of angry words, tears and recriminations. These are  “knee jerk reactions” that seem called for, but in fact, are exactly what is not needed.

Often I picture someone waving a white flag, suggesting mutual surrender, the laying down of arms, and cooling down the temperature. Each feels justified because the other is so provocative. It is irresistible pulling out the weapons of defense, taking aim, and boom, one for you.

But in fact, this is all reactivity and reinforcement of  “weapons of mass destruction.” Someone has to stop reacting, wave the flag, and call for talks. Someone has to stop the knee jerks and provide another option. That option involves each partner being “curious” and “interested” in what the other is feeling and why they are angry (often a cover for hurt). There is always a reason and , if presented without loading the pistol, with each person sharing the raw truth of their feelings, the other may be able to understand.

Self-control is an essential element in the effort to stop the bullets flying. Each partner has to resist the powerful urge to “defend their actions and attack the other.” Being “wrong” seems the greater fear, at these times, then being destructive.

CAUTION: Being wrong is no big deal. Being destructive is.

The Factor of TIME: Underrated and Overlooked

TIME is a most precious commodity.

Yet TIME for the couple to be together is often overlooked and undervalued, each partner rushing to do his or her best at the socially prescribed “role” of parent, employee or community volunteer.

In therapy, TIME for the couple is valued, precious, proscribed and imposed. Boundaries are firm and a couple is finally permitted to take the TIME to notice and attend to the pressing needs of the relationship.

It is easy to rationalize that one has neither the time nor the money for this “luxury.” But the price paid in not taking the TIME costs a great deal more. Divorces are expensive in dollars and pain, which lasts far longer than the time it takes for the therapy. Yet our culture chooses to deceive us in thinking that TIME for the couple is not as important as achieving and providing and can wait for the next day, someday, often the “it’s too late” day.