Some Thoughts on Relating — it’s never a power struggle… it’s learning to see, hear, and appreciate, while staying true to yourself.
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I worked with a couple that had really gotten themselves off track. They’d “lived” in a place of verbal violence since the beginning of their relationship and, just before they came in, there’d been a physical violence episode too.
This had sufficiently “scared” both of them that they separated (OK, that part was court ordered, but both agreed) and both entered therapy individually. We worked in that configuration for a while, then shifted, after three months, to couple therapy.
There is nothing “easy” or “automatic” about the therapeutic process.
The crap from years of neglect has accumulated. Initially, they thought they’d have to shovel through all the old stuff before they could ever get to the “new stuff.”
One of the toughest “sells,” both in therapy and in life, is this: there is no need, nor is there any way, to resolve the issues of the past.
There is not a hope in hell that water, once under the bridge, can be pushed back upstream and filtered until clean. There is letting it go, or letting it own you.
Letting go of the past is neither a pleasant, nor an easy choice.
This couple, in “old talk mode,” could loop back 10 years in 30 seconds. They’d be discussing something that was currently happening, and poof, back they’d go, in stages, almost year by year, reminding their partner of past sins.
It was sort of “cute,” as they were polite enough to take turns.
I’d cut them off mid-sentence, and ask them to return to the present moment.
I’d ask each of them to reflect on their own “stuff.” I’d ask them to listen to their partner — truly listen — as opposed to deflecting or correcting what the partner is saying.
Because part of growing up is being able to listen to and absorb the validity (to the other person) of what is being said, while not “taking it personally.”
I encouraged them to pick a current topic and to “just talk about it.” I then helped the partner to ask questions designed to ask the partner for more information and more feeling.
When they moved off topic, I’d raise my hand and ask them to go back to the topic at hand.
Initially frustrating, this discipline is essential. What they were trying to learn was self-validation.
Often, relationships are used (or perhaps better, the people we are in relationship with are used) to validate us. Even picking a fight with someone is a way insecure people validate themselves.
The incomplete person is saying, “At least, when you fight with me, I know you care, and are still there for me (to use.)”
Another example: incomplete people often possess inflated views of themselves. They say, “See! Look how together I am! (sly look) Don’t you think? (Please validate me.)”
As David Schnarch puts it, in Passionate Marriage:
Arguing can be a way of checking that the other person is still there”¦ When we have little differentiation, our identity is constructed out of what’s called a reflected sense of self. We need continued contact, validation and consensus (or disagreement) from others”¦ We develop a contingent identity based on a “self-in-relationship.” Because our identity depends on the relationship, we may demand that our partner doesn’t change so that our identity won’t either. pg. 59
Note: differentiation is a big word with a simple meaning. Poorly differentiated people have weak ego boundaries, and look outside of themselves for identity, validation (approval) and causation (blaming.) Well differentiated people are internally located — they accept responsibility for their lives, their actions, and for their side of all relationships.
In Zen, we might say, “being present without ego attachment.”
In dysfunctional relationships, there is this weird thing going on. Both parties are saying, simultaneously, “Here is the way I am. You’ll just have to accept me this way.” At the same time, they add, “And here are all the things about you that need changing. You’ll change, if you love me.”
All of this is happening for two reasons.
- First, the person doesn’t want to have to do the hard work of growing up. They therefore think that the loving action is for their partner to accept them as they are.
- Second, the person expects that their partner will do the hard work of changing, again to demonstrate their “love.”
I find it hard to believe that anyone ever gets away with this crap, but it’s painfully common.
Any time I hear a demand (or a manipulation) for external validation, then, I know the person is a fearful infant focussed on staying the same.
The way out, or one way out, is through the process of self-reflective self-revelation.
It works like this: he (for example) takes the opportunity to express or vent what he is feeling and thinking about a current situation. His situation impacts on her from the perspective of their shared life.
In the past, she’d hear what he was saying and think she had to defend herself. She’d be jumping in, disagreeing, correcting, or picking a fight to get him to stop. With discipline, she is learning to ask him to continue, to dig deep, to tell more of what he knows.
What happens is, without the challenges and provocations, he tells his story as he chooses to, and notices some tears, a lot of sadness, and a feeling of release — doneness.
On “her side of the couch,” her job is to self-soothe and self-validate.
She reminds herself that she is not who he thinks she is, and that her “self” will not disappear if he is not focussing on it. His stories are his stories, and as such have nothing to do with her. Her discipline, her “being an adult” is expressed in her willingness to do nothing that will bring the attention off of his story, and back to herself.
When he finishes, it’s her turn to unpack her feelings and thoughts, in the moment.
It is emphatically not the time to be clever, to quote a book she just read, or demand that he somehow validate her. She, in other words, does what he just did. She looks deeply at herself. In that process, owns her own “stuff” — the things she does to remain a child.
I remember working with a couple — she’d been to The Haven to do Phase 1, he to a Come Alive. She also was working on a degree in counselling. (She never worked as a therapist. Upon graduating she discovered, to her horror, that she’d be required to “work all the time with people with problems.” But I digress.)
No matter what he did, she’d correct him.
We were in a workshop I was leading. They were practicing breathing. He was breathing, she was coaching. I wandered over. He was doing OK, for a baby breather. She was sobbing.
I asked her what she was troubling herself about. “He’s not doing it right! I tell him and tell him!” Later, as clients, this refrain would repeat. He’d go deep (for him) and reflect on his life. She’d take on the face of someone who was listening intently. He’d stop.
She’d immediately tell him what he did wrong, or she’d say, “You don’t understand how much you hurt me, saying that.” He’d immediately move into trying to make her feel better. When she talked, she’d excoriate him — her entire miserable life was his fault, including the part before he showed up.
Because she saw herself as the great, wise therapist, she avoided any form of working on herself. They were well and truly enmeshed. Her job was to correct him for making her miserable, and he accepted the role willingly.
The way out is the one the couple I earlier described chose… learning to become a self-responsible, self-regulating adult.
Learning to do this takes time, will, and effort. It requires a completely different focus and commitment. It requires tools — communication and intimacy tools, honesty and clarity tools, and a knowledge of how to open up and be vulnerable.