Tag Archives: difficult emotions

When Relationships Fall Apart

hand shake in front of blinds by Lisa Blair, M.A. and David Bedrick, J.D.

Lisa and David are both Certified Process Work Diplomats. This article  first appeared here and is reposted with permission. 

Every relationship has two handshakes: one above the table and one below. The first handshake is a conscious agreement between the two people, saying “We’re going to support each other, care for each other’s needs, listen to and accommodate each other, and compromise when we need to.” These are important agreements, however they are limited. As time passes, it typically becomes harder and harder to keep these agreements because previously unrevealed aspects of each person will arise that will not be in alignment with this initial contract.

What conscious or unconscious agreements are you making in your relationship?

The second handshake is an unspoken, unconscious agreement between the two people that says, “We’re each going to put away those aspects of ourselves that would threaten the relationship in order to make our life work well together, to avoid conflict, and to make each other comfortable, so that we may reach towards an ideal vision of relationship.” This second agreement requires each person to suppress things about themselves—their personality, individual and cultural style, needs, and desires in order to not rock the boat. These aspects remain in the shadow of the relationship.

Suppressed aspects of each person may include: not wanting to be present or listen to your partner even though you think you ought to; taking alone time when you think you should always be together; following your own impulses (to travel, hang out with certain friends or family, watch your favorite TV shows, go skiing…the list is endless) even though your partner does not have the same level of interest in these activities.

Additionally, these things may include ways of expressing oneself or communicating in styles that are outside the comfort zone of the relationship or of the other partner. For example, one partner may naturally be more forceful, direct, or quick, in their communication style while the other partner is more sensitive, slow, shy, or quiet. The first partner may accommodate by suppressing their power and approaching the other with more gentleness. The second partner may suppress their softer nature and try to meet the other with more force. Neither is inherently bad to do, but these accommodations are not typically sustainable for long periods of time.

The Second Handshake Falters

At some point, the second handshake—which is not fully conscious—falters and the suppressed needs, desires, or ways of expressing oneself rise to the surface causing all sorts of problems. They come out in resentments, angerdreams, illness, moods, affairs, and other disturbing experiences. At this point, important questions appear: How will I deal with these problems? Will I get depressed and take anti-depressants in order to find a comfort zone? Will I ignore these impulses and revert back to the first handshake and say, “Okay, I found a way to settle in this relationship and I can do this for the rest of my life.” Do I have the desire, willingness, and courage to embark on a warrior journey of personal and relationship growth with my partner?

Common Roads Couples Take

What needs, desires and communication styles are you suppressing to not rock the boat in your relationship?

There are four common roads that couples take when faced with the challenge of addressing the unconscious needs, desires, and expressions that inevitably rise to the surface in all long-term relationships.

Road #1: We’ve found in our work with clients that if one or both partners aren’t open to working out a way for the newly surfaced needs, desires, or expressions to live, then the relationship will revert back to the status quo of the first handshake and develop coping strategies to deal with the disturbing aspects of the relationship. These strategies will inevitably be unsustainable and lead to more problems and pain. These individuals might in essence say, “I’m going to shop, gamble, take drugs, get depressed, or have an affair.” Or, “I’m going to put all of my focus, time, and energy into making more money and being more successful to avoid going home and relating to my partner.” Or as a couple, they might in essence say, “We’re going to go on more vacations so that we can pretend life feels good and our needs are getting met.” Reverting to the status quo of the first handshake is the most common road taken when suppressed experience surfaces in relationship.

Road #2: A second road that a couple may find itself on is that of their children having difficulties that require professional help to address. In effect, the children begin living out the disturbing behaviors that the couple is not making room for. The couple may send their child to therapy because they have problems, becoming the “identified patient”—the one who appears ill when it is actually the family system that needs healing. Why wouldn’t you want to send your kids to therapy? What’s wrong with doing that? Seems to make perfect sense. However, the couple’s avoidance of their problems is causing the child to act out and this will continue unless and until the child is no longer seen as the identified patient and the couple begins to take responsibility for their relationship difficulties. Of course, this may not be the case in every situation where a child is acting out, but it’s always something to consider.

Road #3: The third road that many couples take is one with a dead end. In this scenario, the couple’s relationship terminates because it can’t accommodate the changes. That’s as far as it could go. It reaches a limit. The newly risen suppressed material is more than one or both partners can hold. It is too threatening or causes too much pain. The container is not strong enough and the relationship comes to an end.

Road #4: The fourth possible road that a couple can take requires significant changing and growing. The arms of the relationship get wider allowing it to move forward with the formerly suppressed experiences now integrated into the relationship. This is the least common of all possibilities because it requires that both partners want to learn and grow individually and in the relationship. It means each partner has to be willing to self-reflect, recognize their good intentions as well as their unconscious priorities, communicate honestly and openly with their partner, work through often painful conflict, and live closer to their individuated and more authentic self. This is not an easy path and typically requires the outside help of a therapist to facilitate the relationship transformation.

This path also requires that both people in the relationship are genuinely open to whatever specific change is presenting itself. If it is truly not right for one of the people in the relationship to be open to the change on the table, then to stay true to themselves and their deepest nature, they must remain closed to that change and the relationship may indeed end. There is no judgment, no blame here. Both people are open to learning and growing, but their nature says “no” to that specific change and so, ultimately the person has to choose to be true to themselves over keeping the relationship in tact.

When One Partner Is a Grower and the Other Is Not

Painting of figures leaning against opposite sides of a tree
Source: Leonid Eremeychuk/123rf

In long-term relationship, such as marriage, there is sometimes one partner who is more of a grower (a person who loves learning, growing, and changing over time) and one who is not. In our experience, in heterosexual relationship, the grower is more often a woman than a man, but of course, this is not universally true. Women are more likely then men to go to therapy and pursue personal growth in general. Sometimes, we have found, a woman partner will call to make an appointment for couples therapy with her male partner. When we ask her, “Does your partner want to come to therapy?” she says, “Well, I’m going to check with him, but I think he’d be willing to.” In situations like this, it’s invariably the case that the woman alone wants to go to therapy and the man is really not interested in doing therapeutic work. She wants to look at the relationship and interact about it, figure out who she is, learn new things, and become a new kind of person. But her male partner may be saying, “This is hard work and it costs a lot of money and it’s taking away from my life.” For her, the therapy is life giving; for him, it’s not.

In this case, couples therapy is counter-indicated; the woman would benefit more from individual therapy. It will not be wise for her to embark on a path of trying to change him. Either she’s going to find a way to create meaningful “separations” from her partner without actually terminating the relationship (e.g., following a career that she never pursued, hanging out with friends that she never made time for, not caring so much if her partner is in a bad mood, or separating herself emotionally and potentially financially) or she may eventually need to leave all the way.

The Tao in Relationship

While there is certainly much to be said for our personal efforts to grow and develop in relationship and the fact that these efforts have a significant effect on the resiliency of our relationship, the truth is—what happens in our relationship is not only up to us. What happens in our relationships, including how long they last, is also subject to the Tao, nature, the universe, God—whatever name you wish to give it, it has its own timing. Relationships have their own course and we cannot only control the outcome.

In a public lecture, author, activist, and seven-time NAACP Image Award recipient Nikki Giovanni explained the Tao in relationship in a most amusing, creative, and accurate way. She said (we’re paraphrasing), “Remember those fortune telling machines, like Zoltar at Coney Island? They spit out a ticket with your fortune.”

“With relationships,” she explained, “it’s as if the fortuneteller spits out a card telling the person how long their relationship is supposed to last. For example, the card might read one night, two months, twenty years, or a lifetime. Not all relationships are meant to last a lifetime. When the relationship goes longer than it’s supposed to—which is the most common occurrence—all sorts of problems occur and if the relationship does end at some point, each of the people typically feel terrible about how it ended, they hate the other person, and there’s a lot of pain. When the relationship gets cut short for some reason, the two people often forever imagine how perfect the other person was and how they could have been the love of their life. However, when the relationship ends exactly at the time predicted by the fortuneteller—the least common experience in relationships ending—it is typically bittersweet. Each person feels love and kindness towards the other, gratitude for what they shared together, and at peace with the knowledge that it had to end.”

Becoming a Trans Ally

trans pride flag
“Transgender Flag: San Francisco (2012)” by torbakhopper is licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Cindy Trawinski, PsyD

My world and life, like many people’s, is a mix of privilege and struggle. As a cisgender woman, I have some privileges that trans women and men do not. For example, I can assume that others will use my preferred pronouns (she, her, and hers) when referencing me. As a person in a non-monogamous relationship, I have also faced issues that people in non-traditional relationships may face—for example: not having my relationship recognized as legitimate or as committed as monogamous relationships are. As a sex-positive therapist working with a variety of marginalized experiences, I am in an ongoing process of learning about my own biases and assumptions as well as endeavoring to expand my awareness, understanding, and acceptance of experiences that are not mine. And as process-oriented therapist, I challenge myself to work with my edges and try to see the deeper humanity and transcendent states in all experiences.

This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring what it means to be an ally and offers some basic suggestions or those who want to become a personal support to friends, neighbors, co-workers, or family members facing discrimination, stigma, and bias from the general culture because of their identity. 

T is for transgender. Along with lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, and queer, transgender is one identity encompassed in the acronym LGBTQ. The term “transgender,” commonly shortened to “trans”—and sometimes followed by an asterisk (*) to denote inclusion of identities such as transsexual, gender non-conforming (GNC), gender fluid, non-binary, and genderqueer—is itself a broad label that comprises many diverse understandings and expressions of gender. That being said, even within the LGBTQ umbrella, people who identify as transgender have also been marginalized or excluded at times from specific LGBTQ groups and/or the larger LGBTQ community.

Whether someone identifies as transgender or not, a person’s gender identity is often a deeply personal, nuanced, meaningful, and emotional topic. Beyond being a subject of recent political debate, gender expectations, expression and identities emerge in virtually every area of society: from the workplace to interactions with neighbors, friends and family members. And, at times, our awareness and lack of awareness of the diversity of underlying experiences can lead us to conversations about gender that can erupt in anger, conflict, or misunderstanding.

Learning that someone you love identifies as trans can elicit a wide range of feelings and reactions. You may feel surprised, confused, supportive, hurt, fearful, skeptical, or any number or combination of emotions. You may be confronted with thoughts or ideas that you have never examined or considered. You may want to explore your own feelings and learn about what being trans means for you and for your loved one. Take time with this and be kind to yourself and your loved one. The coming out and transition processes take time. Seek professional support if this is appropriate for you.

Becoming a trans ally means carrying the responsibility of accepting and welcoming your trans loved one unconditionally. Your feelings may vary on a moment-to-moment basis and you should expect some inner conflict.  Being an ally means working on your own stereotypes and fears. This is an often difficult task that requires self-education, exploration of biases and discomforts, identification of assumptions, and a process of self-discovery, as well learning about something about which you may have little information.

Allies may or may not identify as trans themselves. If you do not identify as trans, you may use the term “cisgender” (usually shortened to “cis”) which refers to anyone whose gender identity corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth. Like your trans friends or loved ones, allies can follow any religious belief or spiritual path, and experience any kind of orientation and relationship to their sexuality and gender. A person’s gender identity is not equivalent to their sexuality and does not imply anything about their choice of partners.

Here are some suggestions for starting down the path to becoming a trans ally:

  1. Listening. One of the simplest ways to support your trans friend, coworker, family member, or partner is to listen to them. Many transgender people feel invisible or excluded. When they do have an opportunity to speak about their identity, a trans person often spends a great deal of that time countering misinformation and educating a primarily cis audience. Show your trans loved one that you are interested in what they have to say and that you value their knowledge, experience, stories and points of view.
  1. Make learning a priority. Assumptions harm everyone. Learn what name your trans loved one prefers to be called and the pronouns (e.g. “her,” “him,” “they”) by which they like to be referred. When in doubt, ask—but ask thoughtfully. Follow your curiosity, but instead of saddling your trans loved one with the responsibility to speak for all trans people, educate yourself. Google your questions and remember to consider the source. Learn what questions are considered invasive and which terms are considered offensive.
  1. Reflect before offering your opinions. Practice empathy and compassion. Think about how you can use your language to welcome rather than hurt members of the trans community. This may take extra effort on your part. You may feel confused or frustrated by the process of shifting your awareness and learning new ways of relating. If you are, it may be helpful to view your confusion or frustration as necessary steps on a path toward change and greater understanding. Recognize that the journey may be long, difficult, and painful—not only for trans people, but for their supporters as well.
  1. Respect others’ boundaries. Learning about a person’s gender is an intimate experience. Respect your trans loved one’s courage as well as their privacy. Do not push them to a point where they might feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Never discuss a person’s transgender identity with anyone else. Transgender people continue to face daily threats of violence. Understand that by outing a trans loved one, you may be jeopardizing their life, career, and relationships.
  1. Embrace love and diversity. Can you let go of expectations and embrace the world in all of its complexity? This is a challenge for many of us. It is important to recognize that there is no right or wrong way to exist as a human body. The trans-identifying people in your life may change how they describe themselves, try on different personalities, change their appearance, discover new parts of themselves, and challenge their prior decisions in life just as cis people do. Just like you, they may have doubts and make mistakes along the way. Take note of your own internal questions and contradictions. Being an ally, means growing into the responsibility to accept your trans loved ones, empathize with them, and advocate for them where and whenever possible.

This blog post was inspired by the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) article “How to Be an LGBT Ally.” I am grateful to HRC for their groundbreaking leadership in the fight for the rights of LGBTQ people in US and around the world.  To read the original HRC blog post, click here.

Healing from Affairs — Cheating is not Polyamory

Photo Credit: Paper by Steven Guzzardi via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

Affairs can surface in a long-term relationship.  Can healing occur when the affairs have been covert, repeated and ongoing?

Several years ago a couple, Peter and Sherri (not their real names), a married, het/cisgender couple, came to see me. They had been married for approximately 25 years. As are my usual questions when I first meet folks for psychotherapy, I asked, “So what brings you here today? How do you think I can be of assistance?”

“Well,” Sherri said, “My husband thinks he’s poly amorphous.”

Hmmm, I thought, and I asked her: “Do you mean polyamorous?”

“Yeah, that!” she said.

“And what makes the two of you think that Peter is polyamorous?”

Peter responded: “I’ve been with about 25 women during our marriage—even the day after we got married.”

“And did you and your wife agree to an open relationship?”

“Not exactly!” Sherri piped in. “I didn’t know anything about all this until last week when Peter told me that he is poly amorphous! Is he?!”

This was the beginning of a course of therapy to both understand the distinctions of an open marriage; to delve deeply into feelings of betrayal and decimation of trust; and to explore the possibilities of healing and forgiveness, staying together, or ending the marriage.

It was a long process, but the couple rolled up their sleeves to embark on the endeavor and were determined work on themselves as individuals and the relationship they shared.  A breakthrough came when Sherri discovered the ways in which she had been “cheating” on the relationship. Although it was not sexual in nature, she recognized that she secreted away parts of herself from Peter. She had hid important aspects of her inner and outer worlds from him. Seeing for themselves that the cheater and cheated one lived in both of them, and that each of them had been “cheating” on the other,  healing began.

This couple eventually decided to separate, but considered their work a success. Each found what was most accurate for themselves in terms of lifestyle, values, drives, preferences, and so on.  They took the high road to healing, making forgiveness a priority. It was not a simple task by any means but, in this case, it was a worthwhile one.

Managing Fear After the Election

hope
Photo Credit: HOPE by Gedalya AKA David Gott via Flickr CC BY 2.0

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

Managing fear has been difficult for many people in the days following the 2016 US Presidential Election.  No matter which candidate you supported, you may find yourself overwhelmed by distressing news reports, tense conversations with loved ones, and your own complicated feelings.

LifeWorks is an explicitly inclusive therapy practice that welcomes all people. We know how painful the past few weeks have been for many individuals in the populations we serve. Whether you are feeling frozen and frightened, angry, apprehensive, saddened, emboldened, or an intense and unpredictable combination of various emotions, here are a few things you can do to help yourself stay grounded, resilient, and open—now and in the future.

1. Know that You are not Alone with Your Feelings.

Fear and helplessness can be extremely isolating, especially if it seems as though those around you don’t understand your experience or share your perspective. Remember that you are not alone. Your emotions, however enormous or volatile, are valid and yours. There are many in the US and around the world who share your feelings.

2. Seek Company with Friends and Family with whom You Feel Safe.

Surround yourself with supportive, compassionate loved ones. Cultivate a community that allows for safe dialogues. During periods of uncertainty, time spent with those you care about can provide you with a renewed sense of energy and remind you that you have others to lean on.

3. Engage in Building Your Community.

Look for ways you can get involved in your neighborhood, your city, or even your state. Your community is larger than your circle of friends, co-workers and family members. No matter where you are, there is likely an organization nearby that needs your support and can provide volunteer opportunities in line with your values. If you can’t find the organization or volunteer role you’re looking for, consider ways you can fill that void in your community. Many people find positive, community-building work to be deeply validating and empowering. Every little bit counts.

4. Get Involved in Productive, Life-affirming Activities. 

Focus on activities that allow you to feel purposeful, engaged, and fulfilled. Regardless of the news or your perspective on politics, you always have the ability to stay connected to your inner sources of strength.  Involve yourself in activities that give you a sense of vibrancy and hope. For example:

Move Your Body.

Dancing, hiking, physical exercise, yoga, meditation, and other activities that directly involve your body can help you harness and release anxious thoughts and feelings. Give yourself time to engage in the physical activities that help you feel grounded, dynamic, and calm.

Do Something Outside.

Nature is deeply soothing for some people. If you feel pent-up and on edge in an urban or suburban space right now, try spending some time in nature. Allow yourself to fully engage your senses, enjoy the present moment, and find wisdom and peace in the outdoors.

5. Speak about Your Fears with a Professional.

You may be feeling stuck and unsure about how you can look to the future with optimism. Therapy is a safe space for you to express what’s troubling you and to learn effective strategies to cope with feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety as they arise.

THE WORLD NEEDS YOU!

No matter who you are, you are important. Your self-care matters. Fear can cloud our capacity to see a way forward. The steps listed here may help you return to yourself and gain a new sense of clarity about who you are and what comes next for you. The world needs your voice however you choose to express it.

Take time to process your experience alone or with some one who cares.  Resist the urgency to action, if action does not feel right for you. Even in silence or meditation, your awareness is important for the wholeness of the world.

You may be experiencing many different emotions right now. Remember that believing that you have the capacity to navigate whatever comes your way or to find help and community to support you in doing so may be the most important thing you can do right now.

The Pain is Our Pain

IMG_2904By Brandon Haydon

The pain is our pain.
It is the wound in the world and
we are of the world.
I know that all moments,
across the whole of humanity,
are occasions of suffering and joy,
beyond my scope.

I suppose that when a blow lands
so close to heart and home,
the perimeter I hold against the tides of sorrow
breaks like a levee, and I risk such deluge.
The dark roil of Her great injury takes my breath.
Like black waves made of such gravity
that my light cannot escape.
For a moment longer than time,
in that numb, drowned dungeon, in a hole in the world,
I forget that it is not the whole of the world.

Camus inquires, “what else is there to do but live?”

And living is the celebration of the love
from which we emerge, deeper than our knowing
or our feeling because it is the love from the Source
where they are still the same.
I choose it.
My sight is bleary and my heart is pierced
and chained but I see you all stir and rise beside me.
I rise.
I remember.
I hail you, the other ships upon the roil.
Like lanterns that shatter the illusion of starless night.
Breaking the dark horizon with hope of a thousand
soul-sized suns in the fire-bled sky.

Returning to Therapy — A Profound Act of Self-care

returning to therapy
“Spiral” by Khairul Nizam, licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D., Dipl. PW & Rami Henrich, LCSW, Dipl. PW

“I can’t believe I’m here… again.”

Some people returning to therapy for the second, third, or fifth time often wonder “why do I need to go back to therapy?” “was there something I should have handled the last time around?” “maybe I am not really getting to my issues…is it me, my therapist, the approach, or the entire endeavor?”  

Some clients say they feel as though they’ve “failed,” that they weren’t “strong enough” to take care of themselves on their own.  Sinking into self-reproach, they feel wonder if they are somehow fated to repeat a cycle of false or temporary solutions to a problems that seem intractable. Maybe a previous, positive experience in therapy imparted a sense of resilience or well-being that now seems shockingly absent. “Didn’t I already go through this?” They ask themselves. “Isn’t that part of my life over?” 

For others, returning to therapy is a natural part of their self care and personal growth regiment as getting a haircut, going to the dentist or eating three meals a day.

Clients come back to therapy for many different reasons. Recent trauma, loss, or significant life events—such as a change of relationship, job, move, or other transition—can create inner disturbance or bring up patterns that have not been fully resolved.  Questions about one’s identity, sexuality, or spiritual beliefs can prompt deep-seated uncertainty. Relationship conflicts or disappointments can leave us feeling in need of support.  Ongoing issues like depression, anxiety, addiction, and self-harm can interfere with daily life and relationships. All of these difficulties, worries and questions can motivate a person to make a change and seek help.

This brings me to my main point: returning to therapy is a profound act of self-care—even if you don’t realize it at the time. If you are thinking of returning to therapy, consider the possibility that you are responding to a deep awareness that you want or would benefit from help, support or guidance to find or create a new sense of yourself.

In her article “Starting therapy, again…” San Francisco therapist, Carly Earnshaw, MFT, explains that “[r]egardless of whether your last therapy went great or awful, you have an advantage over the first time you tried therapy.” Here are the some of the reasons she gives for why:

  • You have a better idea of what therapy is about
  • You have a clearer understanding of what works and doesn’t work for you in therapy
  • You’re aware of the investment and the payoff

I encourage you to read her article in full, as it speaks to the different mindsets and assuages the fears I often see in clients who are returning to therapy.

Considering seeing a mental health professional again? Below are a few quick ways you can prepare to make the most out of your next time in therapy:

  1. Understand that you are not alone. It is not uncommon for clients to return to counseling when it has worked for them in the past, or out of a desire to find something that will work. Countless people come back to therapy throughout their lives, building on each experience. In fact, your therapist is likely one of those people!
  1. Take your time. If you have decided to seek help, you do not have to book an appointment immediately or stick with the first therapist you find. Allow yourself the time to research and explore your options—remember, you now have a stronger sense of what you’re looking for.
  1. Be mindful of your therapist’s responses and attitude. Whether calling to get in touch or engaging in your first session, pay attention to your intuition and comfort level, as well as how your therapist reacts to you. Listen to how she interprets your words and recognize that, while she intends to help, she doesn’t have all the answers. Again, take your time and be patient until you find someone who you feel hears and appreciates you on your terms.
  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. If a certain approach works best for you, or you need to speak to someone who understands specific issues—such as PTSD, polyamory, kink/BDSM, the experiences of racial and/or gender minorities, or religious convictions—speak up. Your therapist may not be qualified to provide what you need, but chances are she can refer you to a colleague who can.

If you have been there before, what do you look for in a new therapeutic relationship? We would love to hear your thoughts, opinions, and stories. Feel free to leave a comment below, or reach out to us on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or LinkedIn.