A+B=C (The Downward Slope)

This is an old psychology formula that makes good sense. “A” is the Activating event or the trigger that gets stuff rolling. “B” is the Belief system or judgment(s) that makes things worse (or possibly better, depending on your beliefs). “C” is the Consequence or outcomes.

This is how the formula works. Mostly the A or activating event (the thing that triggers you) just happens. You can’t control most circumstances and you are not immune to being hurt or upset. It is the B or belief system that produces the C or consequence.

Here is an example from a couple I saw a couple of weeks ago. The male partner was enraged for what he experienced the weekend just prior. This is the A – what he thought his wife did to him. He accused her of shaming him in front of his friends at a really fun party. This is the B – that he felt judged and that he should not be. The C was his rage and hurt and his spiteful behaviour for days following.

This is what went on: she asked him not to drink any more beer that night. He was getting pretty loud and acting “drunk-ish,” she said. She was worried by his disinhibition: flirting, bragging, over-laughing. She asked him quietly to stop the beer, she said. He thinks she publicly shamed him.

A bit later in the session, I asked about his thought processes and what triggered him. “I don’t need her to control me. She is not so perfect. I like to loosen up with my friends. She is so uptight.” That is the B or the belief systems that fueled his fire.

The B (or belief system) produced the C (or consequence) of several days of his swearing and anger, and spitefully threatening a divorce. Her C was to disappear from his sight, visit with her friends in the evenings, make him a Nespresso in the morning.

Here is what I said: “Your problem might be beer – I don’t know that – but it certainly is your belief system. You think that your partner is ruining your life. Where did you get that idea from?”

It still surprises me how hard we hold on to our unhelpful convictions. He needed to be right. He needed her to be wrong. He needed me to validate his narrative.

And then he saw it, reluctantly and thoroughly. He said, “I guess if I didn’t feel ‘small’ with her, I could have handled this differently. Maybe not right away but certainly within a couple of hours.” He apologized to her. She gladly accepted.

Now the therapy begins. He has to sort through his bloated belief system and find out something truer about himself and his partner. (More to come.)

[You are invited to make any comment you wish on this post or anything else on my site by emailing me at life@theducklows.ca. Thanks.]

Bark, Bitch and Belittle: the bitterness of microaggressions in intimate relationships

A microaggression is a term used for commonplace verbal or behavioural indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any person or group. That’s part of what Wikipedia says, and I believe it because I see it.

But mostly microaggressions are unseen by the aggressor. It is just what happens and no one stops to look at it. There is no interruption or time out. So the bitterness just carries on because it is viewed as ordinary.

Oftentimes, to end the bitterness, one or both will attempt an apology. Apologies are often superficial, social constraints. (I have written about how to apologize in another posting.) Mostly, as I see it, the attempt at an apology maintains the structure of continuing microaggressions.

This is what I see. A husband has been barking (shouting), bitching (criticizing) and belittle-ing (demeaning) his partner of 7 years. And it is unremitting and it has become the background to everything that goes on between them. And then something happens: she has an affair or an emotional breakdown. And she is impugned to be promiscuous, or weak, or her having faulty genetic wiring.

Then the triangle happens. The community (family, church, neighbourhood, etc.) colludes with the barker, rallying against the weaker member. The community offers reprobation and saccharine consolation in about equal measure. Oftentimes, the actions of the community push her back into acquiescing to her bully spouse. If she does not comply, she will be further judged or ostracized or perhaps hospitalized.

I love my job. I get to see what others can’t. I get to see through the eyes of the bully what he or she sees and I get to show him another way of seeing and being. And I get to see through the eyes of the bullied and see hopefully and realistically what can change.

Someone once said, “I see men as trees walking,” as if she sees “through a glass darkly.” It is good to help people look again and, perhaps, see for the first time.

 

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Contact me at life@theducklows. Hear from you soon. Thanks.]

Good Ideas on Marriage Therapy (I wish I thought of them.)

I have been reading a book by Wendy Plump entitled “Vow: A Memoir of a Marriage.” Because I mention the book does not mean that I recommend it for your reading. In fact, I do not recommend it particularly.

There is a chapter entitled “The Efficacy Of Therapy” where the author designs a kind of therapy instruction card for couples in crisis. I would like to give some comment to the several things that she says. (The author’s words are in italics.)

One, everything doesn’t have to be solved in one session. And, in fact, it will not! Short-term marital therapy is usually 8 to 12, one or two hour sessions over several months, when we want the problem solved immediately. Sometimes it takes a couple 10 to 15 years to create an “unsolvable” problem and then the expectation is that through a few short conversations that all will be resolved.

Two, be clear about your need. I often sit with people who think I am reading their minds. I find this humorous – or at least I used to find it humorous – that people submit their intelligence to someone who is looking at them with care and concentration. Please do not forget that you are paying for concrete advice and not just consolation, so get what it is you want and need.

Three, remember that it is the two of you who matter most. It is very easy to allow the therapist to intrude herself or himself into the marriage. No matter how well trained the therapist is, he or she will have opinions and judgments and it is very important that the couple understand that they are there for them only. As Wendy Plump says, “it is you and your spouse against the world, not you and your therapist.”

Four, each person in the marital dyad needs to take some responsibility for the efficacy of your therapy. The therapist may be marvelous in every way but the therapist cannot make the changes that the couple needs to make. As the author says “put some serious energy into it. I admit to being lethargic or overly daft in the therapist’s office.” Often times the couple will say, we are paying you, make it work! The couple is really the experts on how their marriage can work as well as how their marriage is unworkable. The therapist collates this information and provides direction and support in the progress.

Five, be willing to hear that you screwed up royally and need to make amends and then make amends. It is so common to use excuses, or explanations, or “context” to avoid personal responsibility. Apologies and forgiveness can be very difficult for most people and it is especially complicated in the intimacy of couple conflict. In my experience as a marriage therapist, no one moves ahead without consistent and thoroughly thoughtful apology.

Six, there are many ways to get out of the woods. If you are not going forward in your marital therapy with one counsellor, you can switch. There are times when you need consolation and support and there are other times when you need confrontation and challenge. One counsellor may be able to do both but your therapist cannot read your mind – say what it is you want. Also, therapy is not necessarily better or more efficient then good friends, a supportive community, and the consolation and direction from healthy parents. There are many ways to get out of the woods.

Seven, and most important, understand that you can bear it. Of course, most of us do not want to bear the responsibility or challenge of change. We also do not want to bear the pain of the loss of ideals and covenant. But flailing about looking for relief will only make therapy more difficult and less helpful. A competent therapist will help a couple defuse their emotion and increase their thinking. At least, that is the goal. (Tell me if I am doing this!)

Wendy Plump summarizes that “therapy has its value, but it remains a stubbornly limited one. Even in the concert with all of our best intentions, therapy could not rescue our marriage. I’m not sure that therapy can rescue any marriage…. A therapist will listen and listen and listen, which is one of the things you need most. Rescuing the marriage seems a tall order. But there is a chance that therapy can rescue you. Perhaps the expectation should end there. It does seem like enough.”

“Vow: A Memoir of a Marriage” by Wendy Plump, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.

 

[You can respond to this blog or anything else you see on my web site by emailing life@theducklows.ca.]

Standing for the Relationship

I am used to conflict both in myself and with those that mean the most to me. I read somewhere (a Family Systems Theory book) that conflict is most likely a result of too much closeness (as in smothering) or too much distance (as in cutoff). Either way, people then often blame, attack or hide and get all emotionally flooded. We stop thinking. Emotional ruminating is not thinking.

Even when we hide from the other who we feel has hurt us, we probably fight with them in our heads. We imagine beating them into powerlessness with our wonderfully practiced attacks. Our opponent is probably doing the same thing right when we are.

It seems to me that when we attack and defend, we ignore our relationship. How we are covenanted suffer-ers in the elusive benefit of defeating the other.

Who stands for the relationship?

I visited with a couple in noisy conflict yesterday. Like pugilists whacking and hacking, they listened only to their “inner dialogue” not to each other and thus projected rage and hurt to their partner.

I asked them “how is your hatred working for you?“ The husband complained that he didn’t hate his wife, but she agreed with the word “hatred.” I said, “how is your hatred towards your marriage working for you.“

Hmmm.

When couples bicker they bleed the goodness of what is between them. The couple may harangue each other thinking that it is just about them. But it is the marriage — a distinct entity — that loses most.

 

[You can respond to this blog or anything else you see on my web site by emailing life@theducklows.ca.]