Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Holidays and the Fantasy of the Perfect Family

     Holidays are more complicated then they appear.  Oozing with expectations from one too many fantasy-creating Hallmark images, holidays can be a recipe for disaster.  The pressure to create a picture perfect family scenario of a thankful family carving the turkey is enormous. Those fantasies can lead to crushing perfectionism with our longing for what we wish had been.  Our longings can cause us to try too hard and overlook the family that we do have now, in real time.  Stir in a little alcohol at a family gathering and you can have a real mess.  
    How can we avoid exhaustion,spending more then we have, trying to do it all, and other symptoms of addictively seeking the perfect holiday?
1.) Staying in the here and now would probably be a good start.  Rewinding to the past or fast forwarding to the future, probably won't enhance what you have now with the possible exception of fond and idealized reminiscences.  They are probably okay.

2.) Radical acceptance of your family members is another good idea - with all their well known imperfections and character defects.  Don't be mad at them for the discrepancy between your idealized notion of who they ought to be and who they are.  Accepting them for who they are, loving them as is can be the beginning of authentic intimacy.  I believe that I discovered that truth when I was teaching Marriage and the Family at DePaul when I taught about developmental stages of marriage. It's true.  You have to mourn the idealized notion of who you wish your mother, father, son, daughter fill in the blank, oh yes, last but not least, spouse were. Then you have the glorious opportunity to love them for who they are...which might actually be cooler then who you wish they were and all the resultant resentment that goes along with that.

3.) For the final ingredient, stir in a little gratitude.  I remember once having a whopping fight with my husband over the exact perfect positioning of the Christmas tree - in front of the window or in the corner? It was a classic fight for a holiday perfectionist and guaranteed to ruin anyone's day who happened to be within earshot.  An acquaintance came by and marveled at the beauty of our tree.  Somehow she dropped the fact that they did not have or could not afford a Christmas tree. It caused an immediate shift in my perspective about the  necessity of the perfect tree.  I suggest that you ask yourself How important is it? before you relapse into a holiday snit.  And be grateful for the beauty of the half of your glass that is full.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Maturity in Marriage

So, I was all set to write another post on unconscious fear of intimacy.  I still will do that.  God knows there are plenty of reasons to be fearful of intimacy - both conscious and unconscious, real and imagined.  I found myself pondering what's really important in marriage?  The older I get - the longer I both practice and am married, I realize that what's really important in marriage are the basics.

1.) Kindness - when in doubt don't growl or grumble at your spouse.  An unexpected kind word or thank you will reap dividends in the emotional bank of marriage.  The esteemed, revered and frequently quoted marriage researcher and therapist, John Gottman, has learned from many hours of research and observation of couples that a harsh start-up in conversation dooms the rest of the conversation to a downhill, slippery slope of re activity.  Duh.  If you think about it, it is common sense 101.  A tone or comment of kindness at the outset of a conversation guarantees a better outcome.

2.) Saying sorry -  The 12 Step Programs (AA, Al-Anon) have a step which goes something like this When we were wrong, promptly admitted it. How's that for humility?  Let's say you and your spouse are having words.  What's the single most disarming thing that you can do to put a halt to the skirmish?  Admit your part in it. Let's say you're 1% wrong and your spouse is 99% wrong.  What's the right approach? Acknowledge your 1%.  Own up and take full responsibility for your 1%. And then point out their 99%? You may wonder.  The answer is no.  Take responsibility for your part in the kerfuffle.  Trust me you have a part in it.

3.) Bend and you're less likely to break - A little flexibility goes a very long way in marriage.  When in doubt, surrender.  Butting heads and power struggles are very characteristic of the early stages of marriage.  Duking it out over the usual - time, money and  which direction the toilet paper roll should hang may have a certain passionate exhilaration in your early twenties but the charm wears off rapidly and the winner often turns out to be the loser. 
Here's a noble for instance.  This weekend my incredibly flexible and hardworking husband wanted to have dinner at The Texas Roadhouse. A noisy restaurant full of red meat eaters is pretty close to my idea of hell on earth. In Wisconsin, no less.  In the middle of a two hour ride home, no less.  Much to my credit, I did  not moan, bitch or kvetch. I know right from wrong.  The poor dude had been riding a lawn mower non-stop for three days straight. A steak it was...Love is sometimes eating at The Texas Roadhouse in Wisconsin.

4.) Your spouse can not read your mind - Say what you need.  Wishing your spouse knew exactly what you want and need and will produce it unsolicited is a common but somewhat infantile fantasy. Do not expect your spouse to read your mind. It is not reasonable or realistic.  You gotta let 'em know.

If couples who have been married a long time want to comment on the cement that has kept them together for all these years, I would love to hear from them.  We need a little first hand experience which will no doubt put my steak eating sacrifice to shame. What are the basics that have strengthened your marriage?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Intimacy: Longing and Fear

Why do so many of us yearn for intimacy yet unconsciously sabotage it? What are we afraid of? An awesome part of our humanity is to love and crave a soul mate and companion with whom we can share our hearts and our lives. Why is achieving this wonderful and most basic human longing so complicated?
        Let me give you the short version of the answer to that question.  Obviously, the answer is as complex as each individual situation - but I will give you some broad stroke thoughts on the answer. This is after all, Marriage Therapy 101.
     This profound longing for closeness and intimacy can stir up equally profound and often unconscious fears.  A fear of abandonment, for example, is a common anxiety that starts to stir.  If you have had a loss earlier in your life, say the loss of a parent by death or divorce, that fear of abandonment is easy to trace in a concrete sort of way.  Sometimes it's just a free floating fear without an easily traceable source.
     Here's how this issue can get re-enacted in real time.  Let's say a couple is taking baby steps towards feeling closer and more intimate. Seemingly out of nowhere, they are bickering and conflictual. One or the other has made a seemingly random comment that pushed the other's buttons and an argument has ensued.    
      What just happened here?  As they were tiptoeing into the waters of increased closeness and bonding, an unconscious fear of intimacy kicked in for one or the other or both of them.  They are not consciously aware of picking a fight because they are afraid of being close.  It happened unconsciously and served it's purpose.  Although they are no longer as close as they were a few minutes ago, the unconscious fear of abandonment which they were not conscious of in the first place has gone away as well.
     Now what?  In our intimacy scenario that we have described here, the couple squabble until they are now more separate then they were in the beginning of this encounter.  Once they have pushed each other apart, reconciling behavior kicks in.They don't want to lost the other person. One or the other starts to make up until they are back at the original place they were when this all started.
     When I was training at the Family Institute many years ago, we called this The Intimacy Feedback Loop. We learned that there were predictable patterns of intimacy that couples learned to dance with one another which were to some degree calibrated by their unconscious fears of intimacy.
     Thirty years of practice and a lot of life later, I have learned that couples don't always fit into a tidy little diagram.  Life is messier and more wonderful then that. However, there is something to this model.  What fears might you have of intimacy? Once they are conscious and you are aware that they are in the mix, you can avoid re-enacting them.  Feel free to send them along under the comment section. I will be happy to address them in a highly confidential manner on this blog.
      I love the saying from the 12 Step Programs, Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  It is possible for a couple to change their dance of intimacy.  I see it every day and it warms my heart.  Well, maybe not every day but often enough to know it's possible.