Anger Management Strategies for keeping anger at bay (part 1 of 4)

‘The man who gets angry at the right things and with the right people, and in the right way, and at the right time, and for the right length of time, is commended’ – Aristotle –

‘Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.’ – Buddha –

‘To be angry is to revenge the faults of others on ourselves.’ – Alexander Pope –

Anger is a driving force and creative energy, which, if judiciously applied, becomes a motivation for change. Anger will be destructive only when it is used as a tool for controlling others through fear (narcissistic rage) or when it results in a total loss of control over your emotions.

Anger is never an issue. How you handle it is the issue.

Where’s the boundary here? Emotions deemed ‘negatives’ are classified according to their disruptiveness to your wellbeing and that of others (emotional and psychological), depending on their frequency and magnitude. Some people have frequent and loud outbursts that do not result in harm to self or others.  Why is this so?

Anger can be dramatic in its intensity, a true volcanic eruption. What matters is what is said and done to others during the burst, how long it takes you to come back to calm, and your ability to ponder about the causes of your anger. So, managing anger is a delicate balancing act, in which you need to assess whether you were righteous or aggressive and if your response was proportional to the slight or exaggerated. If you are the kind of person who represses anger or expresses it too forcefully in the eyes of others, the following might help.

Anger defined
An instinctual emotional response that ranges from mild frustration to explosive rage. A response to a perceived or real threat that releases a cocktail of stress chemicals in your blood stream and provokes various bodily responses. When you get angry, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, as do the levels of your energy hormones, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.

It is also a normal and healthy human emotion that is biologically wired to keep us safe from danger. The most instinctive, natural way to express anger is via an aggressive response.

Anger can be painful and disturbing, so angry people seek an immediate solution to the source of anger. They must force the obstacle or problem away, immediately, to get relief. This is how anger can become explosive.

There are three means to handle anger: express it, repress it, or calm it.

If negatively expressed, impulsively, irrationally or in out of control fashion, it can damage relationships, reputation, and health and even lead to issues with the law. This emotion can result in snap decision-making and self-defeating behaviors.

If positively expressed, it leads to appropriate action, relief, discussion and resolution.

If repressed, its energy must be expressed in an activity, because if turned inward, it can lead to anxiety, depression, somatic illnesses, irritability and a range of physical complaints, even to heart attack.
If calmed down inside, you are controlling your outward behavior and internal responses, such as lowering your heart rate, you are letting the feelings subside.

Reasons for being angry and the magnitude of the anger vary according to people. Everyone expresses it differently, which makes reading and managing angry people difficult because it is a bespoke task. Individuals who are easily angered have a low tolerance for frustration. They can’t tolerate much inconvenience or annoyance. They are particularly infuriated if the situation seems unjust. Causes may be genetic, physiological or sociocultural.  Some people are born with low tolerance levels. Others acquire it. Other get very stressed, and their tolerance lowers over time.

Reasons for being angry

Anger is caused by internal events, such as brooding about personal problems, or external events, such as being caught in a traffic jam or handling a difficult work colleague.

– Unfairness or injustice was done to self or others, rightful or perceived.
– Frustration at a situation, event or person (impatience)
– Being hurt by the actions of another
– Being harassed
– Sensing a threat to ideas and beliefs we value.
– Feeling dismissed (your needs are not listened to)
– Internal mood states (like the memory of past trauma springing up to mind)
– Fear
– Accumulated stress
– Use of street drugs
– Certain medical conditions
– Seeking revenge
– Getting attention
– Being unable to express other feelings.

Why we bottle up…. Until we can’t any longer

We’re raised with the belief that anger is ‘bad’ and we are actively discouraged from expressing it. As a result, we don’t learn how to handle it or channel it constructively, we suppress it and internalize it. Several assumptions underlie this behavior.

Part 2. > What we’re told about anger – the myths.

Bitter Divorces Are Destructive

Acrimonious divorces can bring you down to your knees financially, and destroy your health. Worse, they will emotionally injure your children.

The difference between a bitter and a healthy divorce depends on the choices you and your ex-partner make. A divorce involves a couple, not individuals. One or both of you can choose to have a bitter divorce. Conversely, both of you can choose to have an amicable one.

Most separations start with civility. However, one of the many causes or outcomes of divorce involves issues that developed during the marriage, such as resentment or an injury to self that can no longer be healed throught talking and repairs attempts. Divorce allows a partner to express their hurt and anger by opposing their former mate through the legal processs.

The fight might involve manipulation, generally about the children, the finances, or any form of social pressure. As one party throws allegations, the other feels a need to protect themselves and to respond in kind. An inexorable, escalating spiral of tit-for-tat retaliation takes place.

Characteristics of acrimonious divorces. They:

  • Lead to litigated adversarial stances.
  • Make it difficult for you not to counter if the other is warring against you.
  • Create bad feelings and anger that cannot be kept under control, and usually include  attempts to vindicate the past (e.g., he was unfaithful, she was a neglectful mother)
  • Involve mutual self-defeat.
  • Cause the children to suffer emotionally, as negative emotions cripple the parents
  • Mess up your health  during the process, which could last several months if not years. It could ruin any opportunity to rebuild a better life and relationship.
  • Are costly. Your economic resources could be used for your and your children’s’ benefit instead of being squandered.
  • You all lose.

Characteristics of healthy divorces:

  • They are civil, cooperative, and sometimes even amicable. Animosity and battling are kept to a minimum.
  • The reasons making a divorce go bad are fully understood and avoided (see next paragraph).
  • Have legal, economic and emotional objectives: they end the marriage within a reasonable timeframe without massive legal and other fees, distribute assets and income fairly, economic sacrifices are equally shared, both partners are allowed to grieve the end of the marriage and each can move on to new relationships without baggage.
  • They foster a sense of economic justice and basic trust as the other is not demonized. Communication remains effective, with mutual goodwill.
  • They achieve legitimate and positive goals for yourselves and your children.
  • Settlement agreements are negotiated before going to court. Economic issues such as child and spousal support are resolved, the property is equitably divided, and mutual rights and responsibilities as parents are spelled out in a fair custody agreement.
  • They minimize emotional impact on children and help them adjust to a new situation.
  • They transition to a new life for your all.

Reasons divorces go sour:

  • Though separating, you are still married. No matter how much distrust, pain and anger you feel, and the need for vindication or revenge, you are still emotionally connected. Fighting through a divorce is a means to ‘stay together’ for the duration of the proceedings.
  • There is no economic justice, such as an enormous financial disparity between the partners, where one feels victimized by the other.
  • There is no trust: one has demonized the other and has not given the benefit of the doubt when disputes arise.
  • No communication skills: communications are uneffective and their style is not conducive to future cooperative parenting.
  • There is no goodwill. Each expartner wishes ill upon the other and does not support the children in accepting the other’s new mate or lifestyle.
  • The nature of the legal system is adversarial and based on opposition instead of cooperation.
  • One or both partners’ behavior is abusive, stemming from a need for control or revenge, anger, flaring emotions, and because all that was disliked in the other and messed the relationship up is  now resurfacing during divorce: years of managed dysfunctions will now explode in the space of a few weeks. Tactics will include:
    – Contesting parental fitness (invoking drug abuse or various addictions, irresponsible, neglectful or abusive parenting, mental instability, reckless spending, etc.)
    – Endless spats of grounded or groundless allegations, some designed to drag the divorce and cause financial harm.
    – Intimidation and scare tactics, with threats  such as “I’ll get custody of the kids”, “I won’t pay”, etc.
    – Hiding assets well ahead of requesting for divorce or during the divorce, or failing to account accurately for one’s possessions.
  • The impossibility to reconcile emotions and rationality. On one hand, one must fight against the fear of becoming economically destitute, to protect self against the new ‘enemy’, or worry that the children might be stolen or their mind  poisoned by the other. On the other hand, there is the memory that there  was love once and the knowledge that the expartner is the key to the children’s emotional and psychological health.
  • If settlement agreements are unfair and unworkable or incomplete,  the feelings of bitterness and injustice that emanate from them lead to regrettable actions, such as defaulting on child support obligations or not adequately meeting the children’s economic needs. When flawed, the settlement will need to be reworked in court.
  • Negative feelings interfere with readjustment, growth, and new relationships.
  • Social circles are broken as family, friends and acquaintances take side, and sometimes even interfere with the divorce process.
  • Fears about custody arrangements and alienation from the children.

You can take measures to protect yourself and the children, and to  ensure a reasonable divorce or at least,  contain the effects of a bad one:

  • Minimize stressors in your life. Allegations and fights may be part of your divorce process. Each time you are accused of whatever fault by your partner’s lawyer , you will be emotionally flooded. Flooding impedes rational thinking and you could make a mistake in defending yourself as you create doomsday scenarios in your head and succumb to panic.
  • Whenever an allegation is thrown at you, sleep if off. Do not answer immediately. Allow your feeling of  injustice or rage to wither before you formulate an answer.
  • Be prepared. Anticipate your worst case scenario, such as losing significant parts of your assets, losing visitation or shared custody of the children, not getting enough financial support, etc. Plan accordingly. Follow up with a best case scenario and a realistic scenario will emerge.
  • Answer allegations one at a time. One at a time. Sort and address each issue separately when several are raised all at once. Collect whatever evidence you have, text messages, documents, statements, pictures, videos, any recorded media, and organize them in a folder, one for each allegation. Give that folder to your lawyer. Keep adding to it. Whether you ex partner’s allegation is correct or baseless, you need to collect mitigating evidence or evidence to the contrary. If you make an allegation, be prepared to stack supporting evidence.
    – Was he a big spender who imperiled family finances? Was she a gambler? Back it up. Get the receipts and credit card statements, match them against your documented income by way of bank or other statements.
    – Did he abuse the children? Back it up. Get records from doctors and counselors or ask for psych evaluations of the children. If you have photographs or texts exchanged after such incidents, print them out. If you are the accused, and you are certain that she purports such allegations so to deprive you of your custody rights, then appoint third parties to do the discovery for you. As paid and impartial professionals, they’ll bring their findings to the table.
    – Does he say that you are preventing access to the children? Keep a record of calls and visits. Stop attempting to minimize visits if no visible abuse has taken place.
    – Does he say that you are a drunk….. and you are? Mitigate. Show proof that you are seeking help for your alcoholism.
    – Does she say that you have some mental issues, and you do? Show evidence that you are undergoing therapy, taking medication, and seeking help.
    – What if you are not an alcoholic, you are not suffering from mental issues? Get a report from a GP and a specialist, then get a psych assessment.
    – Does he say that you are unwilling to compromise and you make unreasonable demands? Call a mediator, and show proof that you attempted conciliation on whatever issue he accused you of stalling.
  • Concentrate on the big issues. Petty ‘he says-she says’ fights  get expensive when handled by lawyers. Get third parties to help you, understanding that you, and you alone can keep your agents in check.
  • Do not attack the character of your ex-partner, especially to the children.  This could be construed as an attempt to alienate the children.Concentrate on managing your partner’s behaviors instead.
  • Keep it business-like. Don’t add fuel to the fire. If answering emails or texts is too emotionally taxing and risk a scathing reply, then have someone else handle it, or wait to read them.

Note: I  worked for the State of Colorado district courts as an investigator,  and as advocate in cases involving  custody of children caught in domestic disputes, separations and divorce. I was appointed to act in the best interest of the child. As such I am very familiar with acrimonious domestic and divorce cases, and I am fully trained to assess  impacts on the children caught in such situations.

Psychological Defense Mechanisms (part 1)

Psychological Defense Mechanisms: What for?

Our minds have various wonderful unconscious tools they use to help protect us from danger by providing temporary shelter from a threatening reality. These tools are called Defense Mechanisms (DMs).

With DMs, we can protect and distance ourselves from anxiety and various emotions or impulses that could overwhelm us as we strive to keep our self-image intact.

DMs help us block out or minimise our emotional reactions in situations where we can’t let these feeling run the show––for instance during interpersonal conflicts in business or home situations, or when we are experiencing inner conflicts but need or want to avoid awareness of them. For examples, think of the following types of situations:

  •  You are caught in a house fire, and need to find the exit route quickly. Fear, panic, hopelessness and other feelings must be delayed.
  • You had a heated argument with someone, and feel betrayal, anger, guilt, and embarrassment.
  • You feel sexual or aggressive impulses and tensions that are not appropriate to the situation at hand, such as an urge to lash out at your loved ones in social settings or to lavish attention on that hot sexy person in a bar.

You may feel anxiety at any point in these events––one of the first signs of the onset of a defensive reaction. Anxiety is a natural biological response designed for our survival. Felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension, it signals us to start taking defensive action towards a perceived danger, whether it’s a conflict, a physical threat, or even an internal thought of guilt, etc. This tension warns that an instinctual reaction is to be expected….. now! What we do then is put the sum of all feelings and impulse at the back of our mind temporarily.

Sooner or later, your mind will return to the reality of the event and your feelings about it, so that you can face and review the situation consciously and clearly. You may feel pain as the thoughts and feelings are let out. But the delay your mind has given you, whether minutes, days, or weeks, allows you time to draw on some resources and healthy ways to handle the origin of the pain and let it go. Once released, it is like a clock reset, so to speak.

Sometimes, however, we refuse this temporary measure and instead bury the pain deep into our minds, until its origin is lost. We use those same DMs not as temporary remedies but as psychological painkillers that treat or mask the symptoms of emotional and psychological pain over the long term. In such cases, these defenses become automatic; while they were meant to alleviate pain temporarily, they instead become a  substitute for addressing the cause of the original pain, and similar pains that come afterwards. They disrupt our ability to recognize our real feelings and thoughts. This latter type of response is dysfunctional.

If our DMs separate us from our true feelings and from reality for very long, they essentially become lies. These lies create more problems down the line through maladaptive coping behaviours, while the original pain will still scream to be let out, compounding problems. This is when defense mechanisms become pathological.

Let’s look at various ways of coping and how DMs are distinguished along a continuum ranging from healthy to pathological.

There are two ways to cope with danger, whether it’s external or internal danger:

  • Avoiding the danger reduces stress. Avoiding, repressing, withdrawing, denying, looking away, escaping from the situation, or letting someone else take the blame are all useful means when a situation is out of your control. However, using DMs this way also leads to a lack of awareness and understanding.
  • Approaching what threatens you increases the chances for coping with an event. Approaching, learning more, and taking charge are best applied when something can be done about the problem. This method permits more stress and worry than choosing avoidance, but it also promotes awareness and maturity––otherwise known as ‘growth.’

Defence mechanisms support both of these ways of coping. Some of them are healthier than others:

  • Pathological. A DM becomes pathological when it is used in a rigid, inflexible, and exclusive manner. These kinds of defenses can lead to mental illness. They are common in overt psychosis, in dreams, and during childhood. They allow a person to rearrange external reality so that they don’t have to cope with a real threat and/or it prevents a person from perceiving reality. For the observer, the users of these mechanisms may appear crazy or insane.

The motivation for using the defense comes more from past needs than present or future reality. Because the defense severely distorts the present situation, it distorts your real emotions and feelings, instead of rechanneling them effectively. This leads to significant problems in relationships, functioning, and enjoyment of life.Too much unconscious activity causes the use of too many defenses in handling a situation or, too few defences are employed in coping with threats.

Pathological defence mechanisms may include: distortions, delusional and paranoid projections, regression and denial.

  •  Immature. The immature defenses are used in childhood and adolescence and usually abandoned by adulthood. They can lead to socially unacceptable behaviour and also prevent the adult from learning optimal ways of coping with reality. While are common in adolescents, these methods are sometimes seen in adults who suffer from severe depression and personality disorders. The immature user alters the distress and anxiety caused by reality or by other people. People who act this way are often seen by others as socially undesirable, immature, difficult and out of touch. Defences considered “immature” almost always lead to serious problems in a person’s ability to cope with the world.

Immature defence mechanisms may include: fantasy, projections, passive-aggressive and acting out behaviours, and hypochondriasis.

  •  Neurotic. Almost everyone has some kinds of neurotic coping mechanisms.  They are fairly common in adults and they can have short-term advantages, but they often cause long-term problems in relationships, work, and enjoyment of life for people who primarily use them as their basic style of coping with the world.

Neurotic defence mechanisms may include: intellectualisation, rationalisation, repression, suppression, withdrawal, reaction formation, displacement, compartmentalisation, and dissociation.

  • Mature. These are the mechanisms used by “healthy” adults. They increase our ability to have normal relationships and enjoy our work and lives. These responses are adaptive. Although many of them have their origins in the “immature” level, they have been honed by the individual to optimize his/her success in life and relationships. Use of these defenses gives the user pleasure and feelings of mastery. These defenses enable us to integrate many conflicting emotions and thoughts and still be effective. For the beholder, using these mature coping methods is viewed as a virtue.

Mature defence mechanisms may include: sublimation, fantasy, altruism, compensation, suppression,  anticipation, humour, identification and undoing.

The use of the immature defenses is related to poor adjustment as an adult, marital discord and higher divorce rates, poor friendship patterns, a higher incidence of mental illness, a greater number of sick leave days taken, and poorer health generally.

On the other hand, research shows that people who rely on mature defenses tend to experience excellent adjustment as adults, higher self-reported levels of happiness, more  satisfaction, rich friendships, a lower incidence of mental illness and better overall health…leading to fewer hospitalizations over the course of their lives.

It is useful to become aware of the defense mechanisms we use and how they compare with others. If you identify your patterns as immature or neurotic, there is work you can do to develop mature mechanisms instead.

Next week’s blog: Definition and Hierarchy of Defense Mechanisms …

Too Good to Leave, yet Too Bad to Stay?

The questions to ask yourself if you think it is time to call it quits….

There are signs that not all is right in your relationship, including early warnings signals that you brushed off and ignored months or years ago.  You may feel that although you are dissatisfied, so much is tied socially, economically, and emotionally with your partner, that it may be worth attempting to patch things up, and renew your commitment.  The decision to leave, however, is difficult and different.

The following will help you clarify your mind about your current situation.

  • Did your initial meeting result in positive impression? (a client* stated that her  feeling when first meeting her now ex-mate was of intense dislike,  yet the person had been described in such glowing terms that she was eager to find the ‘good’ in him and was flattered when he showed interest in her)
  • Did you feel reluctant to commit, yet you agreed to date, were engaged with your mate for, at the time, valid reasons despite hesitations?
  • Did you engage in out of ordinary  behaviors, such as crying, feeling apprehension that was not the excitement of meeting him/her, suffering from ailments or depressed moods, or feeling unease as your relationship progressed?

This will give you a clue, as your intuition or guts feelings spoke, whether you and your partner were a match.  Listen to your body as you interact with a person or think bout them.

Jody* recollects that on her wedding day, her fiancé John was behaving oddly and was in a sullen and quiet, even sad mood.  He had behaved that way in the few days leading to the ceremony.  She barely noticed at the time, and attributed his reactions to the stress of the wedding.  Weeks later, he left her abruptly, after telling her that he had had doubts from the time of their engagement and had not wanted to go through with the wedding, because he had realized, that he “didn’t love her.”  Jody was devastated and, in retrospect, wished she had spoken with John before the wedding.

Some things we do not recognize until the relationship is well established.  Maybe your courtship was flamboyant and a roller coaster of exciting emotions, with dreams and great expectations.  Your mate looked ideal though, as some aspects of their personality shone through, you felt somewhat uneasy but said to yourself “we’ll address that in time” or “I can accept this.”

Mary * recalls how in the first 9 weeks of meeting Brad,  he blew up in two huge temper tantrums as she unwittingly made remarks upsetting to him.  She noticed the anger and the following silent treatment, and decided at the time she could handle it, as she was able to reason him through the blow up.  She was unsettled, but confident that the matter could be solved if she would tell him how upsetting his behavior was to her.  Soon, however,   she started avoiding discussing topics that would ‘set him off’ no matter how important the matter was  to her.  She built up resentment over time as she felt she had to put up with anger out of proportion, while being ‘punished’ by him with his silences, if she, in turn, was to express angry feelings.  Meanwhile Brad’s rages became cyclical and habitual over their 10-year marriage, and grew in intensity.  Mary left Brad after one of his tempers resulted in her being physically injured.

A honeymoon period lasts generally between three months and a year after meeting your mate.  Then reality settles in, as partners get back into their old habits, the ones that were habitual to them prior to your encounter and courtship.  Later on, a point balance is reached, where one learns to live with their partner’s behavior… or does not.

When you reach that stage, it is normal to ask yourself  “should I stay in the relationship?”  As you explore the reasons for asking yourself this question in the first place you may then consider the material and emotional implications of leaving or staying.  It might be a good idea to grab a notepad, and list the benefits and consequences of staying or leaving.  This may cover: reasons for unease, whether recoverable or not, characteristics of your mate, areas of discomfort, upsetting and satisfying personality traits, etc, down to material aspects such as the cost of living alone,  division of assets, burden of rebuilding a new life,  living and coping as single parent, etc.

This sounds rather clinical; yet taking stock may also help you realize how much you value your partner!

These are questions to ask yourself as you contemplate what to do.

Ask:

1. “Have I ever been happy in this relationship?”

If the answer is a definite “No,” or if the answer turns to “No” right from after a ‘honeymoon period’ of romantic love and chemical highs, then, it cannot be fixed, as it never worked in the first place.  If the answer is “Yes, sometimes,” or “Yes, mostly”, you may want to explore the current source of your disappointment, and decide whether to work on the relationship or not.

2. “It felt right when we met, now it doesn’t.  Is it reason to leave?”

Life is dynamic.  Your partner may experience issues.  Your life situations have evolved or changed.  Explore your answers to the next questions to help you determine whether you are holding on to a sinking ship or are too ready to jump ship when repairs are possible.

3. “Is s/he as willing as I am to initiate some changes in this relationship and work with me at solving some of our issues?” and “I bring the same issue time and time again, but s/he does not appear to take it seriously.”

If your partner is not willing to work at your relationship, it will not work.

4. “Am I invested in making this relationship work?”  “Are we communicating on day to day issues?”, “Are my needs met, as I fulfill his/her needs?”

If answers are “No”, the relationship is already over.  Having a partner who does not communicate their needs, or expects you to guess them, being unable to communicate your need, or not getting what you need,  means the relationship is dead.  Why prolong it?

5. “Am I ready to leave this relationship?”

Sometimes we are, so the outcome is easy.  Sometimes we need to look at things from all angles, and the process can take weeks if not months.  That’s ok.  One day, all things considered, the decision will tilt to be a definite yes or no.  Be gentle.  Talking to trusted others or to professionals might help you develop clarity.

6. “Does my partner want out but fails to communicate this clearly to me?”

This is a blessing: if you consider leaving, the job is half done.  No uncommitted person can become a loving reliable partner.

7. “Should I stay because of the kids?”

The answer is a definite “NO”.  Studies show that children are very distressed in a bad relationship, possibly more so than children of divorced parents.  This depends naturally on how difficult or dysfunctional your relationship is.

8. “My partner behaved badly.”  “Did s/he commit to end the offending behavior and admit to it, or instead justify their actions and criticize and blame me for it?”  “Does s/he make efforts to heal the pain, or is s/he not showing honesty nor empathy, and does not attempt to engage in a mutual recovery process?”

If answers are “No”, and your partner comes up with statements such as “you made me do it,” to justify their behavior, seriously consider leaving.  If s/he does not come clean, or at least attempt to do something about the situation, things will get worse.

9.”My partner behaved so badly, could anyone in my position forgive him/her?”

If the answer is “No”, it is unlikely you would be able to forgive if any one else could not.  You are only human.  Examples of deep betrayal may be:  partner maintains a secret family; engages in sexual activities that put you at risk; engages in illicit activities that may be dangerous to you and family; s/he injures you, threatens you, or blackmails you.

10. “Do I still respect my partner?”  “Does s/he respect me?”

If the answer is “No”, s/he simply cannot be a partner.  If you feel dismissed, rejected or condescended to, this is toxic, as all discussions are either attacking or defending.

11. “Is s/he unfaithful and blames it on me?”

If s/he justifies their philandering for your being “too jealous” (etc.), this is not acceptable.

12.  “Is s/he physically or emotionally or mentally abusive?”

Get out quickly.  If your dependence is so great that you feel you cannot, build yourself up with professional help.  Take time to plan what you need to do.  Patterns of abuse are learned in both family of origin and environment, and they reflect your partner’s set of beliefs and values.  These are difficult to change.  If your partner is committed to change a behavior that is acceptable to them but is unacceptable to you, then you may be able to get back together.  Meanwhile walk out and separate until their own repair work is well under way.

13. “As well as engaging in various forms of abuse, is s/he personality disordered?”

Things may definitely get worse and escalate eventually to become physical abuse.  Things may not get better.  Cut loose as soon as you feel ready to do so, if you feel that your partner is not willing to seek help.

Whether you decide in the end to stay or to leave, expect … many difficult moments!

If you opt to stay, healing a relationship and changing relational patterns are a slow and uncertain process.  It involves trials and errors, and a lot of commitment, from both parties, to change.  It is possible though, and chances are that you and partner will end up fully and strongly committed to each other.  To achieve this, you need confront several issues, such as trust, blame, reliability, depth of commitment, your role in allowing or accepting the evolution of the current situation, and many more.  Though arduous, it can be a journey full of discovery and growth in companionship with mutual respect and trust.

If you opt to leave, things may immediately get better for a while, as you first experience relief from daily vexations.  Then, you will have to deal with the emotional, social, and economic consequences of separation, together with learning to live as a single person again.  There are complications.  Our love may become an adversary; legalities may be involved; you may need to wean yourself from the addiction of drama, the need for a close and comforting, habitual physical presence, the loss of friends who feel they must side against you, the end of a way of life; and facing the unknown, wondering if there will be another relationship, and support along the way, wondering about your ability to make it on your own.

What to do?  Stay or leave?  Both paths are difficult.  The consolation is: time is a great leveler.  Nothing is forever.  As the pain of working out issues in staying or leaving is felt, know that it will pass, and that, in that process, you will learn and grow, and become more aware of what works or does not work for you.  If you do the work, you might go back to your now ex-partner and re-grow the relationship on stronger footings, or simply move on and be more knowledgeable about the characteristics you desire in a future partner.

* Names are fictitious, and stories are a composite of various discussions and reflections with clients and other persons.

Emotional Pornography : Neither visual nor physical, but that of the mind and heart

Stories of romance pervade our culture—in films and television shows, books and magazines, and even in the advertisements and billboards all around us. They are often lovely and exciting. But all too often these pervasive images and concepts are translated into unrealistic emotional and relational expectations in our real lives. Does that kind of romantic love actually exist? Do these romantic fantasies lead us to expect that our marriages and long-term relationships can really be based on and sustain those kinds of momentary emotional highs?

We crave the fantasy of enduring romantic ecstasy. Many of us live for our wedding day––“the most important day of our lives”. We say to our mates: “you complete me”…or at least you ought to!

There is such a thing as love, and there are beautiful moments. But love is about life, and life is not about isolated moments but rather the long haul.

The romantic myth can be traced to the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Before that, there was no expectation of division of labour within the family unit. In modern times, however, a family structure and ideal evolved with the man assigned the role of breadwinner, while the woman is responsible for providing emotional and practical support. The female role in this model revolves entirely around managing and delivering family support.

An image of male/female interaction was born. The man fights and works, and in return an appreciative, saintly wife takes care of his needs––a whore in the bedroom, a kitten other times, a dedicated mother and homemaker––and looks oh so good on his arm in public. The fantasy is of boundless, joyful female compliance, where she is so totally in sync with his needs that “the things which give him pleasure, also happen to drive her wild as well”.

As Terrence Real puts it, “The sexual mother image of abundant Goddesses such a Mae West is emotional pornography.”  The man dreams of receiving perfect nurturance and limitless giving from his woman, while she sees him as the perfect lover and husband––her Prince Charming.

Many men are raised to believe that a good woman…a real woman… is happy to take care of her breadwinning guy. This service gives her so much pleasure that she needs and demands nothing in return. Men have been taught to expect that once they’ve fought and worked to get the girl of their dreams, they will be gratified by their trophy ever after.

But of course over time, in real life and real relationships, this fantasy simply doesn’t work.

The media rarely celebrates the image of a woman who puts her job first, criticizes her lover, is assertive with him, and tells him she wants something different from him. Our popular relationship mythology does not include the realities of argument, conflict, vigorous negotiations of differences, and loneliness at times.

Real relationships are not just romantic. Real relationships include the acknowledgment of pain and the ability and willingness to hear out the other’s feelings, including their insecurities and worries. Real relationships do involve expectations of some devotion and attention––but not all flowing in one direction. Real relationships today involve an expectation of MUTUALITY.

As women now redefine gender roles through their work outside the home, their economic freedom and different expectations, newer generations are rejecting the model they inherited from their mothers, where women are barred from confrontation. Women do not want to be their partner’s ‘manager’. They don’t want to use their mothers’ tools for managing the men: being indirect, manipulative, alternatively silent and passive or screaming and resentful. They are unwilling to accept being ignored, punished, and wounded if they dare to speak out within the couple/family unit.

More often that not, although it is the man who needs to acquire skills, it is the woman who does the brunt of the work, since common wisdom says that women are the emotional extroverts. Men are of course just as emotionally capable (and vulnerable) as women, but acknowledging this is very difficult for many of them.

The best first step a woman can take is to learn to express herself assertively and state her needs. In many male/female relationships, this will upset the balance and call for a review of the status quo. There is a 50/50 chance this approach will work. These odds may seem discouraging, but they are far more attractive than the 80/20 chance of separation that results from the frustrated resignation of both men and women to the current status quo.

Note: this post borrows heavily from Terrence Real (1997) and words extracted verbatim from his book are when possible distinguished by quotes.

BOOK reference:
Real, Terrence, 1997: “I don’t want to talk about it: overcoming the secret legacy of male depression”, Scribner Paperback, Simon & Schuster, New York (pp 304-311)

Conflicts and their resolutions

Conflict is inevitable. It arises every time two or more people feel that their needs, values, desires, or ideas are different and clash.

Handled successfully, conflict is an opportunity to stimulate individual growth, understand and strengthen relationships and facilitate effective solutions to problems.

Conflict that triggers strong feelings expresses personal and relational needs – for safety, security, respect, valuing, closeness and intimacy.

The common perception to conflict is that it is fighting, and is therefore unpleasant and undesirable. It provokes negatives responses that can break down relationships as it erects barriers. It is generally concealed, suppressed, avoided, denied, projected, displaced, internalized or expressed violently.

Causes leading to conflict in intimate relationships:

  • A lack of understanding of your own needs. If you don’t know yourself, or are out of touch with yourself, you can’t figure what you need, and naturally you can’t communicate this to your mate. By not being specific, anything can be expressed as troubling you (think about fights over the location of the toothpaste in the bathroom)
  • A lack of understanding of your partner’s differing needs.
  • A lack of understanding that conflict is mostly based on perceptions, rather than reality, and feelings, rather than facts.
  • Stress diminishes your ability to understand your needs and your partner’s and amplifies a negative outlook to perceptions and feelings. Stress increases the occurrence and destructiveness of conflict.

Common negative, dysfunctional responses to conflict in a relationship:

  • Denial – suppressing, repressing and blocking thoughts and feelings rather than examining them in self, or not responding to matters important to the other person
  • Withdrawal – can be physical, emotional or psychological, not facing to the problem, avoiding it;  may include withdrawing love, creating a fear of abandonment and rejection, and insecurity in the other person
  • Submission – yielding to the other party for fear of explosive reactions, creating responses such as resentment, anxiety or depression
  • Immobilisation – freeze response, not doing anything, expecting bad outcomes
  • Displacement – for example, not identifying the origin of conflict as being at work, but expressing it instead within the home
  • Internalization – using self-blame and guilt or anxiety, assuming responsibility for the origin and outcome
  • Projection – like blaming others, devaluating them, using angry, hurtful words
  • Addictive behaviours – using alcohol and drugs or having obsessional thoughts
  • Violence – expressing conflict with threat, coercion, intimidation, whether physical or psychological

Effective responses to conflict:

  • Recognising what is important to you and to the other person.
  • Understanding that it is natural and pervasive and need be minimized or managed
  • Acknowledging that it is based on your own perceptions and feelings, which need to be dealt with.
  • Minimizing your stress level, especially when handling conflict
  • Knowing that conflicts have triggers and a typology and that some situations are predictable.
  • Being collaborative and adaptive as opposed to coercive when handling a problem; basically seeking compromises and not punishing
  • Talking about it
  • Understanding that resolving a conflict is not always an external matter, and that understanding of own issues is necessary.
  • Managing your own emotions and behaviours, so to be able to communicate with others without punishing, threatening or frightening them.
  • Being aware of differences and being respectful in words and actions. Believing that the interests and needs of all involved can be supported.
  • Being willing and ready to forgive and forget, once the matter is talked about, never to be raised again. A topic raised several times hints to either lack of resolution or inability to let go of resentment and hurt.

Solving conflict:

  • Manage your stress level : slow down before trying to solve anything, there are many stress management tips (eg slow breathing, taking time out, going for a walk) that can be applied.
  • Manage your emotions and feelings: be aware of how you feel about the situation and acknowledge rather than sedate that you feel anger, fear or grief. Connecting to those emotions rather than avoiding them for the sake of ‘rationality’ leads to a better grasping of the conflict. Connecting to those emotions does not mean letting them run amok. Time out and reflecting on those feelings give you an opportunity to ground yourself.
  • Check your non-verbal, body,  language. Most of the communication elements in conflict are non-verbal. A calm tone of voice, reassuring touch, open body posture are ways to communicate that the exchange can be diffused.
  • Identify and consider causes, symptoms and explanations for the conflict.  Addressing the cause leads to resolution.
  • Causes sometimes are not consciously known by participants or are concealed. It requires honesty with self and the other person
  • Symptoms are signals that something is wrong. They are behaviours, feelings and thoughts that are dysfunctional. For example, drinking to alleviate stress, coercing collaboration of another party, and displacing expression of  hostility onto another person, strong expression of emotions, physical symptoms such as illness, increased accident proneness,  refusal to communicate, etc.
  • Explanations are answers to the question “what happened and why?”. It reflects and rationalizes the origin of the conflict. All persons involved will most likely come up with different views.

Practical tips:

  • Remain calm and express feelings with words, not with closed body language
  • Be specific about the issue, do not generalize with words such as ‘always’ or ‘never’
  • Deal with one issue at a time and do not stockpile issues. It is best addressing issues as they occur, as if drawn from the past, explanations are already formulated.
  • Do not accuse, do not hit below the belt, don’t go in areas that are too sensitive to a person.
  • Learn to listen to the other person: this involves allowing them to fully express themselves without interruption,  and paraphrasing them to provide feedback that ensures you understood the meaning of their message.

Genogram: How your family patterns affect your relationships

June is traditionally a busy month for couples preparing for their wedding day. But busy as you may be getting ready to say “I do,” it is also a time to take a few moments to reflect on the unspoken assumptions we all bring to our most intimate relationships…assumptions that are best discussed before the relationship becomes a fully committed one or before certain challenging situations arise.

No two people are identical and difference is unavoidable. How do you deal with it?

When we find our “match” in life, it’s  natural to assume that our partner is someone who will generally feel and act in ways that are familiar to us. We are likely to expect our partner to show the same kind of behaviour we grew up with, including how we related to our mum, dad, siblings and friends.

One of the great aspects of falling in love is discovering all the things we have in common with this new person in our life. But though your interests, tastes, or sense of humour may be similar, there are also bound to many areas where you are not the same.

It finally dawns upon us that our partner is from a completely different background, with different personality, habits and beliefs. Not only that, but they in their turn expect us to conform to the image of love and relationships they formed as children, watching and learning from their family.

We all want the familiar and assume it to be healthy, because after all, our family is our origin, our foundation and primary grounding.

The result is that we come at times to think that our “mates” are incompatible, unsympathetic, and impossible to comprehend, because they don’t act the way we are expecting them to!

Take the time today to think about your relationship to your family. Are you assuming that your partner will react and behave in the same ways your mum, dad, sister or brother did when you were a kid? And does your partner fail to match that assumption?

On the other hand, when something your partner does bothers or offends you, ask yourself if the negative intent you see in that behaviour may actually be based on something you remember from familiar relationships of your childhood. It may not mean or reflect the same  things in this situation.

Take the time to examine your relationships in the light of what you came to expect as a child and how it differs from what you are experiencing with your mate.

Open-mindedness is the key.

Ask yourself, how do your relationships with your family of origin, partner, friends, and colleagues enrich you? Build on the enriching, and enjoy it. And if you find areas where the results aren’t positive or enriching, think how you can make changes so that the relationship feeds you, and you feed it in return.

genogram maps a family tree and  helps visualize the hereditary patterns and psychological factors that punctuate your current relationships, whether with your partner, kids, friends, colleagues or extended family.

You can then identify repetitive patterns of behaviour and  recognize hereditary tendencies that you may want to revisit… to better understand yourself and your mate.