Licensed Psychologist

Containment in Relationships

While the vicissitudes of ordinary discourse in relationships may be easy for many of us, this is by no means the case for everyone. What can we make of the times when words are not treated as simply the best tools we’ve come up with for communicating our private experiences to others, but instead serve as triggers in relationships- triggers that can lead one to feel quite threatened or to feel the need to marshal whatever defenses may be available in one’s arsenal? What can we do when seemingly ordinary attempts at communication lead to feelings of humiliation, woundedness, or unbidden vulnerability? Unfortunate circumstances such as a history of trauma in relationships, bullying, or chronic humiliation are only a few of the things that can lead a person to feel a sense of danger about making contact with another person’s point of view. Rather than experiencing another’s perspective as food for thought, an opportunity for meaningful reflection or increased intimacy, or helpful feedback about one’s interaction with the external world- those of us wounded by past traumas may at times experience others’ ideas as weapons of destruction that can lead to painful and concrete outcomes such as disruptions in the ability to think, the visceral experience of being slapped in the face, a rush of adrenaline or “out of control” emotion, or even physiological distress/illness. And since meaningful relationships typically require a level of communication that involves a regular open exchange between oneself and others, relationships can be a minefield for those who experience the other person’s mind as a potential source of danger and distress. This is, of course, not only difficult for the one who feels so raw to the other’s impact, but is also difficult for the partner or loved one in relationship with such a person. It is certainly not easy to speak freely of one’s impressions, needs, or observations- only to have this easy conversational flow be treated as an act of aggression or a threat. It is also not easy to be on the receiving end of defenses such as rage, counter-attack, or distance and withdrawal. And so, the fate of a conversation between two partners very much depends on each person’s ability (not just willingness!) to hear and take in the other’s communications without feeling unduly threatened, as well as each partner’s ability to accommodate to the other’s capacities (or lack of capacity) to do the same. One partner may need to learn how to tone down a sense of reactivity to the other’s communications; the other may need to figure out how to speak in a way that will expand his loved one’s tenuous ability to hear and to be aware. Whether it’s feedback about oneself that is felt to be painful; awareness of the other’s needs, separateness, or vulnerability; or even perhaps just the unknown of what we may come to feel, know, or remember when talking with another, finding ways to help the people we love most be able to stretch their capacities to listen and to know, is often a task left to the one who is perhaps a little less wounded- or vulnerable- in the moment. (And of course the one who finds himself positioned in the more vulnerable position can shift from one minute to the next!) So, how do we take some of the sting out of talking, thinking, and listening? One of my favorite techniques is the simple one of “asking permission”. By the simple act of asking another’s permission before we offer our thoughts, we avoid catching the person off-guard; we give the other a sense of healthy control; and we create a sense of receptivity which can open up space for our words can to enter willingly and gently, rather than by force. We can also communicate in ways that allow the other to “save face”, whether it’s during a shared parallel activity (like cooking together in the kitchen) or while sitting side by side (in the car, for example), easing the pressure often demanded by direct face to face communication. We might use metaphor, stories about our own selves, or open-ended comments that reduce the sense of threat that the other may experience from a more direct communication. Perhaps the best gift we can give another is to simply hold stuff inside ourselves until the other is truly ready for us to share it. Processing and containing our own thoughts, feelings, and perspective until the time seems right to “put it out there”, can give those we love the much needed space they may need in order to heal from past assaults and impingements to their own sense of self and integrity of being…allowing them slowly to trust that inviting in another may actually be a rewarding experience rather than a threatening one. Is this a gift you can give to those who need it most? Originally posted on Goldstein Therapy- Clifton, NJ

Mother's Day or Doomsday

Mother's Day. Images of mothers and happy children are everywhere. It seems that everyone is part of this joyous celebration. Everyone, that is, except the woman who has not been able to conceive. For her, Mother's Day is a nightmare, a painful reminder of her failure. She feels disappointed in herself, disillusioned that her body has betrayed her, and defective as a woman. Men have been socialized to think of parenthood as one possible ingredient in their traditional adult roles; girls are programmed to think of the achievement of motherhood as an absolute necessity to their identity as adult women. They perceive a threat to their ability to become mothers as a threat to their ability to be seen as legitimate adult females. No other activity can substitute for it. A woman without children often feels cheated, angry, depressed, jealous and anxious. She doesn't have what she's dreamed of all her life. Her body isn't cooperating with her desire to become a mother. She feels like a failure. She is jealous of people who have children, and guilty for feeling jealous. She is tired of all of the questions and advice from family, friends, and even strangers. She is frustrated that the medical tests and procedures have not worked. Each month she rides an emotional roller coaster first hopeful and then devastated. Caught up in the quest to have a child, women forget that they are anything other than childless. It is important for infertile women to reclaim their lives, regain control and once again feel joy and meaning in their lives. There are powerful psychological tools that women can use to help themselves. They can learn to change their negative thoughts. They can learn how to nourish themselves. They can improve communication with their spouses. These techniques have helped many women feel more optimistic, and less anxious and stressed. They feel better, their lives feel more meaningful, and sometimes, once they have have done these things, they may find themselves pregnant.

The Flight from Conversation

We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we're on dates. My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it's hard, but it can be done. Over the past 15 years, I've studied technologies of mobile connection and talked to hundreds of people of all ages and circumstances about their plugged-in lives. I've learned that the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are. We've become accustomed to a new way of being "alone together." Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party. Our colleagues want to go to that board meeting but pay attention only to what interests them. To some this seems like a good idea, but we can end up hiding from one another, even as we are constantly connected to one another. A businessman laments that he no longer has colleagues at work. He doesn't stop by to talk; he doesn't call. He says that he doesn't want to interrupt them. He says they're "too busy on their e-mail." But then he pauses and corrects himself. "I'm not telling the truth. I'm the one who doesn't want to be interrupted. I think I should. But I'd rather just do things on my BlackBerry." A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, "Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation." In today�s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny ouch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. "Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits." With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken. In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people - carefully kept at bay. We can't get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control: not too close, not too far, just right. I think of it as a Goldilocks effect.
Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little - just right. Human relationships are rich; they're messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it's a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference. We are tempted to think that our little "sips" of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don't. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places - in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation. Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, "I am thinking about you." Or even for saying, "I love you." But connecting in sips doesn't work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we tend to one another. (The word itself is kinetic; it's derived from words that mean to move, together.) We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another's point of view. FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news. Shakespeare might have said, "We are consumed with that which we were nourished by."

Infertility and the Mind-Body Connection

Couples in distress may disagree about sexual issues, romance, money, or infidelity. They criticize and blame each other, and often cannot let go of painful incidents or arguments from years past. They are quick to bring up grievances with their partner but are unable to listen and truly hear what their partner has to say. What is going on?

Drs. Sue Johnson, Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, believe that the root of the problem is that the partners do not have an adequate emotional connection. They state that the need for a safe emotional connection is basic to all relationships. When that connection is present, partners feel safe with each other, and can risk emotional vulnerability as they listen and speak to each other openly about their feelings and needs. When safe connections are lost, partners seek to protect themselves and avoid hurt. They may blame each other, or even get aggressive in an effort to get a response. Alternately, they may shut down and try not to care. If the reconnection does not occur, their struggle intensifies, continues, and becomes more painful.

Think about the messages that you have received from important people in your life about closeness and trust. What did your past relationships teach you? Did you see loved ones as reliable or untrustworthy? Was your voice heard and listen to, or were you told to be "seen and not heard?" Did you learn to distance yourself, or not need others because depending on others was dangerous? Were you taught that it is weak to need closeness, or support? What strategies did you use in past relationships when things went wrong? When you felt alone or disconnected in your present relationship did you become very emotional and demanding, or were you more likely to shut down? How well do these patterns work for you in your relationships?

Relationships are never easy but as you become aware of your dysfunctional behavior patterns, you have the power to change them. You can make your relationships more meaningful by learning a new way of relating to one another. As you develop healthy communication patterns you will be building trust and allowing rewarding emotional connections.

Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson
Making Marriage Simple, Harville Hendrix, PhD and Helen Hunt, PhD

Emotional Connections

Couples in distress may disagree about sexual issues, romance, money, or infidelity. They criticize and blame each other, and often cannot let go of painful incidents or arguments from years past. They are quick to bring up grievances with their partner but are unable to listen and truly hear what their partner has to say. What is going on? Drs. Sue Johnson, Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, believe that the root of the problem is that the partners do not have an adequate emotional connection. They state that the need for a safe emotional connection is basic to all relationships. When that connection is present, partners feel safe with each other, and can risk emotional vulnerability as they listen and speak to each other openly about their feelings and needs. When safe connections are lost, partners seek to protect themselves and avoid hurt. They may blame each other, or even get aggressive in an effort to get a response. Alternately, they may shut down and try not to care. If the reconnection does not occur, their struggle intensifies, continues, and becomes more painful. Think about the messages that you have received from important people in your life about closeness and trust. What did your past relationships teach you? Did you see loved ones as reliable or untrustworthy? Was your voice heard and listen to, or were you told to be "seen and not heard?" Did you learn to distance yourself, or not need others because depending on others was dangerous? Were you taught that it is weak to need closeness, or support? What strategies did you use in past relationships when things went wrong? When you felt alone or disconnected in your present relationship did you become very emotional and demanding, or were you more likely to shut down? How well do these patterns work for you in your relationships? Relationships are never easy but as you become aware of your dysfunctional behavior patterns, you have the power to change them. You can make your relationships more meaningful by learning a new way of relating to one another. As you develop healthy communication patterns you will be building trust and allowing rewarding emotional connections. Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson Making Marriage Simple, Harville Hendrix, PhD and Helen Hunt, PhD
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