Jenny came to see me because she was struggling in middle school. School had gone from a place where she was doing increasingly well to a place she hated to go. Jenny had begun to have panic attacks and weekly she came home crying. Jenny had become very depressed and her parents did not know what to do. As she and I and her family and I talked, it became clear that there was a part of her on the inside that had been hidden.
About three times a year I see couples therapy playfully mocked in a movie. My favorite might be the scene in “This is 40” where the couple is about to get in a fight and the husband says, “I don’t want to get into a nasty fight here. Can we please talk the way the therapist told us to?”. This leads to the couple using catch phrases and quasi active listening skills but really just laying into each other. “It hurts me inside, and triggers me, when you are so easy to trick into lying…”. While that’s a hilarious scene it also shows that often couples therapy is not really getting at the core issues and helping people. It should be more than people just being listened to and then prompted to respond. In the “literature” (a fancy word for the academic articles that are written around a certain topic) three main themes emerge when thinking about what’s important to get to in couples therapy.
Does this sound familiar? Your wife or your friends or family are telling you that you have anger management issues, that you’re a scary person! Often times, men come in and say they have an anger issue and often times by the end of the first session I respond by saying, “you don’t have an anger issue, you have an outdated strategy for dealing with emotions”. What the heck does that mean, right!? Let me explain…
While fighting is inevitable and can even be a healthy thing in a relationship, bitter or habitual fighting is indicative of something deeper, something older. We all have a past and that past impacts our present thoughts/feelings and behavior. If someone hurt us in the past it primes us to (before we think) quickly put on our fighting gloves or hide behind our protective walls when someone in the present does something that reminds us of that hurt. Often these ways of relating ("gloves on" or "retreating") become so ingrained that we don't even know the patterns that are there.
To talk about empathy and our ability to grow in empathy we have to first define it. Empathy is NOT sympathy, kindness, compassion or the like. Empathy is a neutral skill that can be used for good or bad or both. Heinz Kohut (the father of one of the major contemporary fields of psychoanalysis called, Self Psychology) put it simply when he said...
Our most repetitive experiences of fighting or conflict point to not just whatever it is we're fighting about but something else that's deeper, older and more important. Learn how to identify and meet those deeper needs in order to stop the repetitive, bitter fighting or deafening silence.
Is fighting bad? Not necessarily, fighting can actually be a sign of life, showing we still care enough to try and get the other person to see what we need from them. In fact, according to John Gottman (the field's foremost couples researcher) conflict is required for building intimacy. However, because of all the clever ways we learn to protect ourselves from being hurt emotionally growing up (often these protective ways are actually unconscious to us) being super vulnerable with someone (even the one you love) can be really hard. In this post and next we will look at two tools that will help you start to get off the merry-go-round of destructive conflict.
Sexual addiction can be hard to understand, especially when we've been hurt by it or we have emotional or moral reactions to it. Our immediate reaction to sexual addiction is often, "Let's make it go away". However, that might not be the first thing needed. What I am proposing is, that we need to understand it before we tell it to go away because the addiction itself, while destructive, houses many healthy things that are important not to lose (you actually risk making the addiction worse by not understanding it first).
Are you ever confused at why your spouse or partner can show more emotion with their favorite sports teams than with you? Often boys and sometimes girls are subtly told to ditch their vulnerable feelings except for in the confines of sports. Leaving dullness on the inside save for sports, sex and alcohol. Let me explain.
In pretending we’re perfect we get a shroud of security that we can use in order to feel less needy. In short, we project the picture-perfect because it makes us feel more desirable (and more secure about keeping our relationships)...not the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.