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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: June 2012

Monday, June 18, 2012

Connecting the Dots

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”   ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer
"How does he arrange (unconsciously) to have his wife disappoint him so often?" ~ Anonymous
Elizabeth Strout's Abide with Me, a moving tale of sorrow, hope and transformation reminded me of the first quote (Bonhoeffer is woven into Strout's story).  The second quote is one that I heard recently at a conference I attended on marriage counseling.  So what do they have to do with each other?  Truthfully, I don't fully know yet, but perhaps this:
In the talking that takes place here in my office, there is an attentiveness to both ideas, a coming together in the telling of one's own story that sheds a deeper light on why we are the way we are, feel the way we feel and do the things we do.  Perhaps underneath the pain that we know about is a pain that we do not yet fully know about.  And hand in hand with that are the patterns and feelings we experience that serve to protect us but somehow, in newer relationships, can deflect us from getting what we really want and need.
For example, a man who wants acceptance and support from his wife, but when she initiates sex, or tells him she loves him, in his mind, and sometimes outwardly to her, he dismisses her advances, is even annoyed by them.  His wife at some point stops initiating, and then he becomes disappointed and trouble spirals from there.  So does she have a role in this, surely,  but does he, as a colleague of mine asked at the conference, "arrange to have his wife disappointment him?" 
So on the conscious level, of course, if you reject someone often enough, they will stop trying.  But we could look a little deeper and as the man tells more of his story, we learn that he believes that his wife is only out for her own benefit.  He does not really believe she is being truthful when she seeks him out or reassures him, rather he is suspicious and doubting.  Why?  More of the story.  His experiences and emotional impressions as a child were not safe ones emotionally.  Often his mother expressed affection or interest in him only when she wanted something from him.  His father only expressed pride or claim to him ("this is my son") when he excelled at something publicly, in athletics.   Privately, his father was rarely home or attentive.  In order to protect himself from the disappointment of not feeling loved genuinely and for who he is, the man develops a skepticism and a distance from taking in love, even from a wife who is sincere.
Okay, so we all have mixed motives.  His wife most likely does want something from him, but she also most likely wants to give something to him as well.  But when he does not take in her affection and efforts, appreciate them, respond to them, he arranges in some way to discourage her, and then she backs off, and he becomes even more disappointed and unsatisfied.
There is more to the story, but it begins here, in connecting the dots between our past and our present, our unconscious, our desires and our behavior patterns.  And of course our feelings.  What do we suffer from?  What do those we love suffer from?  When we tell our stories, we can find out.  We can pepper the quest with grace and curiosity as we alter how we respond to ourselves and others, bringing new life into our narratives.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Stepping Stones, Not Stumbling Blocks: Toward Feeling and Being Vibrant and Alive

"I think that one of the prime motives for transgression is trying to beat back a feeling of deadness. And the deadness isn't the fault of the other person at all. It may be a slow progression of an atrophy that has taken place inside themselves." ~ Ester Perel, from an interview on Psychotherapy.Net on modern relationships, sexual satisfaction and individual and marital vibrancy.

Couples come into my office for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes their sex lives have tanked. Sometimes someone has gone outside the marriage for sex, love, or emotional connection.  Sometimes one or both are suffering or struggling with emotional pain that they just can't pinpoint.  Other times it because communication is at standstill, or there is lots of fighting, or lots of silence.  Sometimes there is a feeling of stagnation.  Nothing is really wrong, but nothing seems really right either.  Or they feel stuck in some way.
Of course there are so many good and workable ways to improve communication, to help partners step up, communicate in new ways and better meet each other's needs.  Talking and unpacking feelings, histories, patterns, ideas and fantasies are often integral parts of the process. 
But underneath it all, I think we strive for something different, for some kind of aliveness, vibrancy, and clarity of desire. 
What do we really want? And when we know, do we behave in ways that invite those feelings and that connection or that demand them and make what we want difficult to get.  Do we think that we should be able to act, look, say and do whatever we want and still get the kind of connection we  imagine and long for?  Do we have a healthy sense of separateness and well as connectedness in our relationships?  Are we willing to?  What expectations are reasonable and which ones are beautiful soothing fantasies?
How tuned in are we to our own role in things?  Our own aliveness?  Do we have the idea that there are villains and victims in a marriage and we are one or the other? Or that we are part of a culture of two in which our own character and behavior help shape the landscape?  Are we willing to look?  And to look gently, without attacking ourselves or our partners along the way? 
You don't have to be part of a couple to consider these ideas. Aliveness and vibrancy are good topics all around, and thinking about them can help put a new spin on emotional pain, on progress and meaning in life.  When we can view our relationships and the challenges they bring us as stepping stones, not stumbling blocks to our own vibrancy and aliveness, I think we and our relationships fare so much better.