WARNING: THIS ARTICLE IS NOT POLITICALLY CORRECT.
I was walking alone yesterday after I had let my dog back in the house, panting like crazy in the Houston heat. I wanted more exercise so I continued my walk, zig-zagging around the neighborhood. I was serene, listening to classical music and enjoying the flowers and green grass. Since our sidewalks are often not level due to tree roots, I happened to look down just in time to avoid a very large mound of dog poop, right in the middle of the sidewalk. My thoughts came like a rushing current: "How could someone be so entitled, so thoughtless and so selfish to let their dog take a dump and just walk away? Didn't they think of some unsuspecting person or dog stepping in it and having to deal with the after-effects? What the..." And then I thought about the couples that I see sometimes, that they figuratively take a dump (OK gross but I am making an important point here!) on their partner and walk away, leaving them to deal with their mess. And then I thought, "Of course they do! Their parents never taught them to manage their emotions and be kind! It wasn't modeled for them." I thought about the entitlement that we see on college campuses; you can't share your opposing thoughts/positions because it might offend someone (because it's all about me after all!) instead of modeling respectful dialogue. Let's reconsider grading because it might hurt a student's feelings, instead of allowing kids to learn from failure or learn to work harder. Or, let's not keep score because it might damage a child's self-esteem, instead of teaching them good sportsmanship. I thought about how children are not disciplined when they are being rude, how they are taught more about their rights then about living peacefully amongst others, considering the other's thoughts/feelings as they would want that to be reciprocated.I thought about living in LA and a 5 year old visiting my home for the first time and calling me Angela! Seriously? You are five!! I could go on and on with example after example of how we are FALSELY EMPOWERING our children and not teaching basic rules of kindness and mutual respect, and then we wonder why they cannot get along with others, and why they have difficulty launching, and why they have messy and destructive relationships.
Listen, when we have children, it is our responsibility to raise them for future relationships! We discipline bad behavior not because it's bugging us, but because it will hurt them and others in the future. We correct rudeness, lack of respect, pitching fits and the like because they will grow up to be rude, disrespectful and immoderate with their emotions because they were not corrected when they were young. We stop tantrums not because our ears are ringing, but because they need to use words for feelings and that being sad or angry is perfectly fine, but rolling around and screaming is not. Why? Because they will scream at their spouse, pitch fits and cuss when they feel badly or feel something unpleasant. We have to teach children that the world does not revolve around them and their feelings because if we don't we rob them of healthy relationships. They will look at their future therapists like they are aliens when we ask them about how their parents got along, how they were nurtured or disciplined and who taught them about regulating emotions.And, we will sadly understand perfectly well why couples dump on each other and have no skills to a) not do that or b) correct it when they forget to be relational. In so many ways, therapy can be like reparenting, and teaching skills to couples that were not modeled or taught when they were young. And so back to the dog mound--it made me wonder about what was going on in their household, what was modeled to them when they were younger, such that they could be so blatantly disrespectful to our community. I went from seriously angry to seriously sad.
A while back I heard a quotation by CS Lewis and it goes something like this: If you seek comfort at the expense of truth, you get neither. If you seek truth at the expense of comfort, you may get both. The truth is so hard to hear sometimes. Just this morning my husband pointed out something to me that was hard to hear. My first reaction was to get defensive, which is something I always talk to couples about (as in "don't get defensive!). But after I thought about what he said, I saw the wisdom in it, and I thought he was right and I began to think about a few instances recently when I should've responded differently.
I'm known to be a pretty straight-shooter by my clients. I often tell clients who see me for couple's therapy that I take sides and sometimes I'm on one person's side, and then I switch and I'm on the other person's side. In many ways, I am a behaviorist when it comes to couples. I pay attention to how couples treat each other, what they say, and what they do to and for each other. Sometimes, I know that what I am about to say could hurt someone's feelings, or that person may become defensive and make up that I'm attacking them in some way. I have to weigh this out in the moment. That being said, I am committed to being truthful to my clients, even if it causes momentary discomfort. What I tell them, and what I believe based on almost 30 years of experience, is that when your partner says something, or when your therapist says something (once trust and a good rapport has been established), there is usually some truth to what is being said. It may not be all true, but you can be sure that there is at least an element of truth.
Therapy is hard work, and most people don't come into therapy to just vent and have their ego boosted. Most people come in wanting to make a change or work through something. We are relational beings--in every aspect of our lives--even at Target or the dry cleaners. We effect others whom we encounter, We all have edges that need to be smoothed out. We all have rough patches and blind spots. To be sure it's much easier to hear truth from a trusted friend or individual. The relationship needs to be there to speak deep truth. If your rough patches or blind spots are exposed and confronted, do you want the truth or do you want comfort? In my better moments, I'll take the truth. In my not-so-good-moments, I can become defensive. With time, however, I have become much more appreciative of people loving me enough, and caring for me enough, to speak difficult truths to me so that I can become more relationally connected and kind. Good therapy promotes truth telling and you should expect it.
There are phrases you hear in life that stick with you, and this is one of them. I remember distinctly laughing when I heard the term, thinking, yes, I know exactly what that means. I have felt it, nursed the feeling, pushed it away, and let it pass. After twenty eight years of marriage, I know what it means, and I am equally sure that my husband does too. I talk to couples about it every time I see them, because I want to assure them that it's OK, it is normal, and it will pass if you let it go.
So what is it? Normal marital hatred can happen just because your partner had the audacity to breathe! It's the day in, day out nature of relationship that makes us irritable or bored. It's when we are feeling disconnected or just in a bad place and your person is there, in the cross-hairs of your mood. I always know when my husband feels it. It goes like this: Me: "Are you upset with me?" or "I'm making up that you are mad at me. Are you?" Him: "Yes, but I'll get over it." Stop right there! I used to get all activated and ask why, what did I do, what's going on until I realized that it's on him, he knows it, he's working through it and I don't have any responsibility to do anything at all. The other piece of that is that is that when I am experiencing normal marital hatred, I am irritated, I am mad and I will get over it. I just have to breathe and remember that this will pass, and it is up to me to not nurse the feeling but remind myself all of the reasons why I don't want to fight, that I am not perfect either and that my truest desire is to be in relationship.
But what about normal marital hatred when you are in an argument and the feeling inside you burns a hole in your stomach and at the moment you truly feel hatred towards your partner? Then what? Here's truth: Feelings are just feelings and they should not dictate what you do. Here's an example. I am driving on 45 and someone cuts me off and I have to slam on my brakes and the grocery go flying in the trunk. I feel rage. So what? Who cares?! What I do is what separates me from animal instinct and responsible adult. I do not allow myself to salute him or her with my middle finger. I do not spew violent language. I remind myself that there is a possibility that the person in the other car may be on their way to a hospital to see a dying family member. Or maybe that person is dangerous and I want to be safe. Again, who cares? It is up to me to choose what to do with it. So back to arguing with my husband. I do feel hatred in the moment. And it is again, up to me to decide what to do with it. In my best days, in my most relationally healthy days, I breathe, step back and remember that I really want to be in a good relationship. I remind myself that I am no picnic to live with at times either. I remember that crossing a line in arguments leads to shame, and I hate that feeling worse that I hate my husband at the moment. I remind myself that this will pass, and I have felt this hundreds of times over 28 years of marriage, and I will again, and I have a choice to give into feelings, or give into relational health. There is a fine line between love and hate, or so the saying goes. Let it go, take a deep breath, it's going to be OK. After all, it really is normal.
I just went to a conference that focused on collaborative divorce. What, you might ask, is a marital therapist doing at a collaborative divorce conference? It's a good question. In 2008 I was asked by someone to go to a training on collaborative divorce and I asked myself the same question when the idea was pitched to me. Within ten minutes of the beginning of the training, I was hooked and thought, "Now this is something that I could buy into for clients who, for whatever reason, cannot save their marriage." Let me be clear. I always want couples to turn a bad marriage into something beautiful, meaningful and lasting. But you and I know that that doesn't always happen.
So what is Collaborative Divorce? (For those of you who want a more detailed explanation, I would refer you to collaborativedivorcetexas.com) Basically, it is a way of divorcing that keeps couples out of court and allows for more privacy as they settle one of the most difficult matters of their lives. Most impressively, it allows the couples to learn how to work together collaboratively as they deal with issues like custody and/or division of assets in an open, cooperative way with their attorneys in the same room working together! That was not a typo. The attorneys work together, cooperatively for the good of the clients, and most importantly, for the good of the children if children are involved. Further, there is a neutral (meaning that person is not working for one client but both) mental health professional (MHP) who helps facilitate communication with the couple (and the professional team) as well as deals with children's issues such as parenting time or making appropriate referrals to other professionals if needed. There is a neutral financial professional (FP) who assists clients with financial matters and can help with preparing for post-divorce financial issues. Often, the MHP and the FP work with clients separately between group meetings in order to keep cost down and get things done that are later shared with the whole collaborative team in a joint meeting. My take away from the training in 2008 and since I have been an MHP is this: The clients that I see as a therapist who are either the children of divorce or themselves divorced who say they went through litigation tell war stories of anger, manipulation, vitriol, recrimination and months to years of fighting. This is NOT the case with collaborative divorce. Is it ever "easy?" No. But it is a much more respectful, decent and honest way of divorcing.
Last week, I made one of those really big errors, mistakes, blunders whatever you want to call the moment when you make such a big mistake that you are red in the face, full of shame and just all around mortified. Yes, those kind of mistakes. I had what sounded like a very nice potential client call me up and interview me to see if I was the right fit. It was a really good interview insofar as the person asked really good questions--really thoughtful. About a week later I got a call from the potential client requesting an appointment. I was really excited and eager to begin work with this person, who, incidentally, had never been in therapy before. It was a big deal.
Fast forward to last Friday and I am in my car about to go out when I see a text asking where I was. The person was at my office, text was at 2:00 (the appointment time) and it was 2:12! I pulled over and texted immediately. No response. I left a voice message, full of apology and asked for a call back. No response. I drove to the office (there at 2:20) and hoped that the client was there. Empty. I left one more message, and said I was happy to give a complimentary appointment but completely understood if the person was not comfortable seeing me. I think (though honestly I cannot be certain), that I even said I would be happy to give a referral. No response.
I have no idea what happened. Did I fail to put the appointment in my calendar? Did technology fail me (which it has in the past, by the way)? I don't know. What I do know is that I failed this person, and I am very sorry for it. So now what? Is this post just a confessional? No. The point is this. We have all failed. We will fail again. I think I have done this once before in 25 years and I sincerely hope I never do again, but if I do I have a choice to make. I can go into toxic shame ("Oh I'm so awful, I am the worst, I've ruined this person's life"--grandiosity for sure!--"I should just stop doing this...") or I can own what I did, try to make amends and then move on and learn from my failing. Was I shaken up? Most definitely. But I did what I could to repair it, I didn't get to have a happy ending and make it up to this person, but I did my part and I had to let it go.
So many of my younger clients are absolutely paralyzed by the fear of failing, of disappointing someone, of trying something new or difficult, or of being vulnerable and getting hurt. I get it. But here's the thing. You WILL make mistakes, and sometimes you will fail miserably. But, if you don't try, if you don't put yourself out there, if you don't push yourself you will not really live. You will be safe, but you will wither. Does failing, or disappointing, or getting hurt, or taking a risk and it didn't work out--does it hurt? So much! But you fail, you pick yourself up, you take responsibility for your part and yours alone, and you get right back up and try again. And, after all is said and done, you really, really do have to let it go.
One of my favorite things to explore with couples and really, everyone I see in therapy is what they make up. When I first introduce the idea, I typically get a "huh?" look and then, more often than not, a "I don't make up anything, I know what he/she's thinking." I get it, I do. When I was first married I just knew that my husband was mad at me when he came home and was quiet. If a friend didn't respond the way I though she should, it was because I was sure that I did something wrong or if I didn't, then something was wrong and she didn't want to tell me so something was wrong with me because otherwise she would've told me. We make things up all the time. We do judge books by their cover regardless of how we were taught not to. It is human nature.
So why is all of this important? It's important because so often in relationships, we have feelings based on what we've made up--so it's what we've made up that brings the feelings of anger, sadness, rejections, or whatever negative feeling we have.
It looks like this: I come home and I notice that my husband didn't take out the trash, again. I am livid because this is the millionth time I have asked and it didn't happen, again. Why am I livid? Because in my head I have made up that my husband is entitled and taking advantage of me. My husband comes home and notices that I am not happy. He asks, "Is everything OK?" I give a terse, "yes" and says "OK" and sits down and reads the paper. Now I am really, really livid. I am making up that he knows that I am mad and if he really cared, he would draw it out of me, and since he didn't, then he doesn't care and then the trash becomes a catastrophe of epic proportions because the meaning of it all is that he is entitled, he enjoyed taking advantage of me and the bottom line is that he doesn't really care about me at all. Does any of this sound familiar?
Rewind. Now suppose I walk in the door and I notice that he didn't take out the trash. I am aware that I am making up all of the reasons why he didn't do it, but I am aware that it is what I am making up. He comes home, sees I am not happy and asks, "Is everything OK?" But this time I say, "Well, maybe. When I came home I noticed that you didn't take the trash out and I made up that you are entitled and that you are taking advantage of me. I was pretty angry when I thought about that. Would you please remember to take the trash out?" And this time he says, "You know you're right. I did forget to take the trash out. I can see why you might think that" and from there we can go on to find out how this can work for both of us. Maybe he does the dishes and I'll take out the trash--or maybe he comes up with an idea that reminds him to do it next time. Who knows? But what I do know, is that when we begin to take responsibility for what we make up and check it out, we are often wrong. And, even if we are right, then we know that there is something to work on that will hopefully bring about a change that works for everyone.
I get a lot of clients wanting to find the line between abusive drinking, alcoholism and what is OK. It's almost like getting permission, but the truth is, often when I share what I know from reading or from experts in the field of addiction, people don't like it. I get that. All of us want to justify our behavior in some way. Maybe it's as simple as I yelled at my child because it was the tenth time I told him/her no, or, I "slipped up" and cussed at my spouse because he/she made me so mad. Either way, we justify our behavior so that we can feel OK, or at least sort-of OK, by our response. It's like that with abusive drinking, and it's magnified by addiction. I hear, "well, I never drink hard liquor" or, "I only drink beer" or, "I only get drunk on the weekends" or, "No one else complains about my drinking except for my spouse." Listen, if any substance causes a disruption in your relationship(s), you have a problem. Period. If you only cuss him/her out when you've been drinking, there's a problem. If you only fight/spend extravagantly/cheat/lie/criticize when you're under the influence, you have a problem. You might think I am being harsh or judgmental. OK. And watch me take this to another level: If I think I am being nice to my husband but he thinks I am being mean--then, you guessed it, I have a problem. Life is about relationship. It is about the dance we do with the people we love. Addiction destroys those relationships. I have a colleague who says that addiction is a dragon, and to not get support and learn new skills is like standing still while the dragon breathes down fire. The sad thing is, the dragon also destroys the relationships and the lives of those around the addicted. If you are hearing from someone you love that your drinking/pot smoking etc is causing problems in the relationship, you deserve to get healthy. In fact, your life may just depend on it.
I have been thinking about choices lately. Everything we do has to do with choices we make. Sometimes we are afforded time to make a decision, others are split second decisions. I am particularly interested in the split second decisions. Take for example a time when your spouse does something that he/she knows irritates you. At least we think he/she knows it. We think we have about a nano second to decide how we are going to react. The problem is that most of us don't even give it a thought. We just react! But what do you suppose would happen if for just that moment you thought two things. The first one is, "Do I honestly believe that he/she is doing this to irritate me? Is is possible that perhaps it's not the case?" and the second one is, "If I react the way I usually do, do I honestly believe that we will have a different outcome than the usual one?" Now add one more thing to the mix: just shut up and breathe for a moment. We don't have to be in a hurry to react. In fact, maybe we don't need to react at all. Maybe we just need to stop and breathe and take a moment to choose how we will respond. I am convinced that if everyone took a moment to stop, breathe and think about what they were going to say when their spouse did something that bothers us, we would be a lot less reactive, and much more proactive. The key here is don't wait for your spouse to do it--you be the grown-up. But the choice is up to you.