Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Story of a Very Bad Relationship

Did you ever wonder why people stay in emotionally abusive relationships? The story of Sooty-Foot the dappled mare and her encounter with Rusty the conniving  cat may give you some insight.

Sooty-Foot by Stephen Cosgrove (c 2012 S. Cosgrove) is a kids book that shows the insidious dynamics of an exploitive relationship. If you are interested in this subject - living it, teaching it or know someone who is - I suggest you read this story.

Sooty-Foot is a special dappled mare - sensitive and perhaps a bit lonely who becomes charmed by Rusty the tomcat.  Rusty tells Sooty-Foot stories, feeds her sweet smelling hay and invites her to stay in a cozy stall.  Sooty-Foot is soon working for Rusty in an effort to repay his kindness.

The relationship shifts as Rusty feeds Sooty-Foot less and uses criticism and blaming to spur Sooty- Foot on. Sooty-Foot felt very bad. It must have been her fault. "I'm sorry! Maybe I can help you with the chores again?" 

Sooty-Foot goes back to work. "I must work harder," she thought. "Then Rusty will be my friend again and tell me stories like he used to."

This story describes the sequence of an abusive relationship.  The vulnerable Sooty-Foot accepts the blame and consciously or not feels that she is to blame for the abuse.

Children with  an abusive parent both love and hate the parent. They unconsciously believe that 1.) They are to blame for the abuse and 2.) If only they work harder, try harder that they can restore the relationship to the original blissful state.  The same may be true of relationships of adults who had an abusive or neglectful parent.

Intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful and crazy making.  Rusty intermittently feeds Sooty Foot and tells her stories and then cruelly criticizes her. The child's wish to rekindle the parents love - and the underlying fantasy of omnipotence- is what fuels the relationship and why, in this case, Sooty-Foot works harder and harder to regain Rusty's lost affection.

Finally,after enduring considerable abuse, Sooty-Foot runs away. She looks into a stream and gazing back at her is her reflection of a beautiful, dappled mare.She realizes that she  is not a stupid, ugly horse like Rusty has been telling her.

I encourage you to read this story about how abusive relationships work.  A picture book is worth a thousand words. ( If you suspect you might be a Sooty Foot or in a relationship like this one, listen up. You are most likely a beautiful dappled mare.

Monday, July 1, 2013


Blaming is a first cousin of verbal abuse.  This house is such a mess, it's your fault that I yell when I come home.

Blaming is a form of abdication of responsibility. It is exactly what it sounds like - blaming someone else for your own behavior.

Alcoholics are notorious for blaming behavior. If only you did or did not do this....then I would not drink so much. If only you were - fill in the blank -nicer, thinner, sexier,more understanding - I would not - fill in the blank again- drink, drug, watch porn or act like a jerk.

For the person being blamed, it is very important not to buy into the blame.  If you are sensitive and tend towards over responsibility that is hard  but important.  Not buying into the blame, takes the power right out of it. I am not suggesting that the person being blamed be insensitive, just that they do not assume responsibility for whatever it is they are being blamed for.  If you had a tough childhood with more then your share of trauma, you may be inclined to assume responsibility for stuff you did not do.

Al-anon has a great slogan, You did not cause it, you can not cure it, you can not control it. That slogan refers to alcoholism and is a great mantra for spouses and children of alcoholics or anyone who is in a family where blame is bandied about. Say that to yourself over and over.  Be kind as possible to the blamer.  When necessary implement another great Al-anon slogan, Detach with love.  

We all regress a little in our marriages. Take a walk, call a friend or read a book.  Come back together when the blaming dies down.  Blessings on your journey to surviving the rough pockets in marriage.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Verbal Abuse

There is not too much that is cute or redemptive about this subject - verbal abuse.  It is probably as hurtful and serious as physical abuse.  

The insidious thing about verbal abuse is that like the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water, it tends to heat up slowly. It gradually numbs the recipient of the verbal abuse until their perception of reality is skewed and what would once have  one seemed unthinkable has become normal.  Recipients of verbal battering become depressed and their self esteem erodes.
The effects of the verbal abuse are so slow and destructive over time, that rather then jump out of this deadly brew, the abuse recipient develops a tolerance and this reality becomes the new normal.

What is verbal abuse?  I would define verbal abuse as name calling, vulgar language, public criticism or any verbal exchange that involves cruelty.

Verbal abuse is 100% intolerable and unacceptable. I repeat it is not to be tolerated and in a gentle sort of way requires firm limit setting.  

 I would not attempt to dialogue or reason with a person who is being verbally abusive.  In a firm but non-reactive way, I would exit the conversation and perhaps say that you need a time out. I would certainly not retaliate or escalate the situation in any kind of way. These kinds of exchanges are about power and control not about reason or rationality.

A good response might be That hurt my feelings. I need some space.

Reactive, heating up the situation even further is guaranteed not to work. Be an adult - take a walk, if you can, read a book, call a girl friend.  Do your best to sooth yourself, a psychotherapists like to say, and not to participate in a situation that is already regressed and deteriorating.

Monday, May 27, 2013


Has it really been over a month since my last post?  Actually, that is a rhetorical question, I already know the answer.  I have been practicing what I preach and slowing down to about one-third of my normal do-it-all, know-it-all pace. Whether you hear from me or not, this blog and its readers are never far from my mind.

Instead of talking about one particular subject, I thought I would reflect on what I have learned in the past few months from the wonderful couples who I am privileged to work with - at all stages of the life cycle.

PRE-MARITAL COUPLES: These couples are awesome. I love their earnestness, optimism and courage . Like kids walking down the  plank of a high diving board for the first time and about to plunge into an unknown swimming pool, they march bravely ahead with their eyes fixed on their wedding day.  They reflect on possible problem areas and their shared vision for their future marriage and life together. These couples are quite different from the older couples who I work with who often have years of hurt and resentment from which they need to heal.  These couples are excited and hopeful. And so am I. I love being their cheerleader, mentor and lifeguard as they prepare to take the plunge.

COUPLES WITH YOUNG CHILDREN: This group is a pooped out, hardworking bunch.  The parents often try to squeeze working several jobs as well as full time parenting into one life. They come into marriage therapy exhausted and depleted - often like two ships passing in the night as they take different shifts of child care and employment at home.  Is it surprising that their marriage and yes, sex life, is on the back burner?  In fact the back burner is barely burning at all.

 These conscientious and hard working couples are pretty much in survival mode.  Who can blame them?  A huge part of the problem is cultural and systemic with the post industrial break down of the extended family and other supports no longer available for young families.  Economic stresses do not help.  My message for these couples goes something like this - SELF CARE, SELF CARE, SELF CARE.  With all the loving and care-giving that is necessary and the tremendous out-pouring of energy that is required, these couples need to make sure that their individual cups are filled.  Then, they can have something left over to give to one another.

ADOPTIVE COUPLES:   Adoptive parents, at least from my vantage point, are among the most conscientious parents in the world.  Regardless of the state of their marriage, they will do anything, I repeat anything for their kids.  Often children who are adopted come with a unique set of problems and no instruction book.  These couples get tutors, OTs, psychiatrists and every helping professional known to humankind to help these kids catch up.  The parents are tigers at IEP meetings and fierce advocates for their kids at school.  As an adoptive parent myself, this is a group that I am proud to be part of. Being a few steps ahead of my clients, I can assure them that all the hard work and effort pays off.

 Needless to say, the wear and tear from any parenting, but especially kids with special needs, can take a toll on a couple.  I remind all these hard working couples of something a wise person once told me, Loving your spouse is the best gift that you can give your child.  It seems paradoxical but it works.  Putting your spouse back on the front burner will reap dividends for your family.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Conflict Over Different Parenting Styles

A common but destructive form of conflict in marriage is  over different parenting styles.  Or should I say about who's right over the correct way to parent. These arguments start with the erroneous assumption that there is only one true way to parent and each parent has exclusive knowledge of that truth.      These differences are often passionately experienced by each parent and so the struggle can be quite intense.

I like to remind parents that the overt conflict over the correct parenting style is probably worse for the child then the actual right or wrong of the issue.

Take a look at the little guy in the picture. Imagine yourself in the middle of two large human beings both of whom you are dependent on  for your very existence. They are shouting and talking  in loud angry voices.  I imagine it might feel like the world is coming to an end or that this parental war is all your fault.  This is every child's worst nightmare.

Conflict and working out differences is a normal part of life but the the picture that you see above is not how it is done. Not with your kid in the middle. Ix-nay,never and wrong. If this scene has played out at your house, we are all human after all, say sorry to your kid and assure them that it is not their fault.

 Do your best to compartmentalize your anger at your spouse regarding parenting issues when your child is around. You are a grown up, you can do it. Different opinions on how to best parent your beloved child are a normal and healthy part of parenting.  Go behind closed doors and talk about it.  See if you can't negotiate a solution.   If mom and dad can't come to agreement there are lots of other people you might want to check in with.  Wisdom is often seeking outside guidance from your larger tribe or community. Remember it takes a village ...


Friday, March 1, 2013

Time Out: A Great Way to Chill When All Else Fails

Did you ever have a whopper of a fight with your spouse or significant other?  Harville Hendrix, couples therapist, aptly describes one of those conflicts as a nightmare.  Or maybe it's like being stuck in quicksand.  You simply can not seem to extricate yourself. This is not a healthy fight. It's probably going no where - just escalating.

One absolutely fair way to break into this going no where good fight is for one or the other spouses to call a time out. A time out defined as a cessation of conflict and time to chill is perfectly legit.

Some spouses, in my experience, often women, erroneously think that this is an unfair tactic.  They have the mistaken belief that all conflict must be verbally resolved and hammered out at that moment. I have heard of marital arguments that went on all night. One or the other or both spouses are convinced that if they repeat themselves often enough and loudly enough, eventually the other spouse will get it. Sadly this is not the case.

I suggest that if you find yourself in a true couples nightmare of a fight, that one or the other call a time out.  A time out might be taking a break and going in your separate corners or even different rooms. It might be a walk around the block or a trip to the gym.  What is critical is that when you feel that the reptilian part of your brain has been engaged, you feel your blood pressure rising and your heart beating faster that you take a break. If you are behaving like a reptile all the more reason to chill.

My rule for couples who want to use a time out technique is that the person calling the time out needs to set a time to resume the discussion, preferably within the next 24 hours if not sooner.  That way the other partner is not left dangling.

 Dr. John Gottman is a marriage therapist of legendary status who therapists like to quote when they need something say on the level of the 10 Commandments to refer to.  When you hear a marriage therapist say John Gottman says...listen up because you know something profound and as near to the truth as marriage therapists can get is about to come out of their mouth. Here it is --- John Gottman says that the most healthy couples don't actually ever resolve conflict and tie it up in a neat little bow  - I added the little bow part.  Healthy couples learn how to work with conflict and work around it. That's the way I see it too. So don't beat yourself up if you don't end up in perfect agreement after a marital spat.   In fact sometimes a perfectly healthy resolution is to agree to disagree and respect one another's different perspectives.

So, next time you find yourself and your spouse or significant other behaving like George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf  take a time out.  Don't badger the spouse who asked for it.  Show a little empathy and respect their need for space if they call for a time out.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Strychnine for Your Marriage

      What's that bad for your marriage?  Speaking from many years of clinical experience, one thing that is very bad for marriages is when one partner is into pornography. It is usually the husband. When I hear about the husband regularly staying up into the wee hours of the night, coming to bed after his wife, and a drop in their sexual frequency question marks start dancing around in my brain.  Maybe he has discovered a late night movie channel on TV but then again maybe not.
      Pornography and the associated practices drain off the libido from a marriage - like a short circuit in an electrical wire. Rather then a couple turning to one another for sexual release, the partner who is into porn is likely to turn to the computer.  What starts out as a short term release of tension - pornography viewing- can easily morph into addictive behavior.
         In his movie Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex Woody Allen has an orgasm machine that, as I recall, was like a little phone booth.  Instant orgasm.  I suppose you could call Internet porn like an instant orgasm machine - none of the interpersonal effort that goes into pleasing a real person and of course, no love. Sex - releases oxcytocin and dopamine -which contribute to bonding behavior and are a critical part of the glue between two people in a marriage.   Porn drains off the libido in a marriage, in my experience, decreases sexual frequency and the interpersonal bonding between a couple.  Sounds weird, but I can almost always tell when a couple in my office has had sex that week - they are more relaxed and less reactive to one another.
      Porn is a slippery slope and a heart breaker. It is almost always discovered sooner or later. I have worked with numerous situations where the kids have inadvertently stumbled across Dad's porn.
      I would like to exclude the disclaimer, that I am not a prude and have been around the block of life a few times myself.  I have raised a son through adolescence which taught me a thing or two about easy access to porn on the Internet.  Don't get me started...
      When it comes to one person will not help your marriage and likely make it worse.