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Monday, September 26, 2011

What If There Is a Drive to Dis-Affiliate?

Under the "What if?" category:

Many times in counseling, therapists are confronted with families torn apart, brothers from sisters, children from parents, friends from friends, business partner from business partner.  This often follows, and maybe always follows, an angry episode.  And usually I would interpret this as a result of anger.  People cut off from others simply because they are angry and perhaps don't handle anger well.

But what if there was an additional reason related to anger but going beyond it?  What if there was a a drive in humans to affiliate and also a drive to disaffiliate?

It happens in families, and it happens in organizations.  In churches, we sometimes see a life cycle.  People come together.  They enjoy the advantages of affiliation and bonding (social, emotional, intellectual, and financial).  Then some issue (often not really that big when looked at objectively by a third party) drives a wedge between groups, and people leave.  Churches split.

The issues which drive wedges between people often mystify counselors because they simply aren't as big as one would think they would have to be to cause such a rift.  There are many psychological reasons why a seemingly small event could cause an overreaction.  But what if there was a drive in people to disaffiliate?

Oftentimes, family divisions occur after the funeral of the parent.  The splitting up of the parent's belongings can be a particular trigger.  Again, this has always seemed logical to me from a psychological point of view.  If in childhood, the children felt they had to compete for their parent's attention and love, then it would seem to make a least a little bit of sense that they might squabble over these remnants of their parent's love in the form of belongings left in the estate.  Mixed in with the squabbling over possessions would be all the old resentment and anger, leading them to cut off from each other, now that the "glue" of the parent was gone.

The fact that families sometimes split up after the funeral of a parent may also suggest that the tendency to divide and separate from one another is continuous and ongoing.  Perhaps, it is the presence of the parent which keeps that from occurring.

Freud famously postulated in one of his theories that there is an eros drive (love, sex, and the desire for the other) and a death, or thanatos, drive.  The theory may have been stimulated by World War I and the death and destruction which came from it.  The possibility of a disaffiliation drive would be analagous to thanatos because there is a destructive quality to it.  But it doesn't involve killing people.  It involves killing bonds of affection and attachment.  It kills group loyalties. It would probably have to be rooted in some evolutionary need (such as the need to strike out from one's own cave to cover new territory).  After all, what made our ancestors leave Africa and spread to Europe and Asia and the Americas?  The search for food and territory would certainly have caused the human species to spread.  But what if there was actually a drive to split off and break bonds of attachment?  That would have caused the species to spread, too.

I am not suggesting that we take a fatalistic stance towards the loss of relationships and group loyalties.  I would personally tend towards the religious value which promotes harmony and attachment.  Or the Rodney King point of view, "Can't we all just get along?"  But sometimes, despite our very best efforts, nothing works.  And maybe there is a just a grain of solace in thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, we are made that way.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Life Interrupted--When the Curtain Comes Down in the Middle of the Fourth Act

For many of my clients, they have been planning thorughout their lives for some positive ending: retirement, time with their grandchildren, time together with their spouse, or maybe a time of travel and cruises.  Perhaps they were just looking forward to some calm years doing woodworking.  Or maybe they would have been content with having a good reputation in their career field and being respected for the way they had lived their lives.

For many of my clients, that anticipated life has been interrupted.

Imagine that we all live lives of five acts.  Let's say some of us want to live out romantic plays, some of us comedies, and some of us just nice sentimental plays where everyone gets along, the hero overcomes obstacles (but not too difficult obstacles), and so on. 

Life begins in the first act.  They are born; they start growing up.  Act two, they finish high school and go to college.  They date.  Act three, they are married and have children.  They have a career.  Problems arise.  (But again nobody wants really bad problems, so let's assume that the problems aren't too bad in this imaginary play.)

And then in the middle of the fourth act, something unexpected happens.  Something major.  Something which can't be surmounted.  The fifth act which they anticipated is not going to happen after all.  The romance is now a tragedy.  The comedy is no longer a comedy but something else, maybe a mystery.

Perhaps a person's spouse dies.  Perhaps someone is laid off and can no longer find work in the area they were trained for.  Perhaps they have been swindled out of their retirement savings.  Or their children no longer let them see their grandchildren.  The director announces that act five is not going to happen after all.

It is as if they were playing Hamlet, and in the middle of the fourth act someone walks in and says, "We are moving next door to another theater.  We are shutting down this theater.  And you will no longer being playing Hamlet; you will be playing MacBeth."  The trajectory and continuity of acts one through five is broken.  Things no longer make any sense.  "I trained as a physicist; now I am a Walmart greeter."  Or, "I spent my life raising my children, and now they won't let me be with my grandchildren."  Life no longer feels like it makes sense. There is not the feeling of meaning that they have been trying to create for years and years. 

It is as if they were living in a Thomas Kincaid painting of pleasant colors and cottages, and now they have to play out the fifth act as Job of the Old Testament, bereft of family and cattle, and covered with boils.

But what I am talking about is not just that things have taken a turn for the worse.  Life seems to have lost its meaning because the trajectory of their life no longer has continuity.  It is as if an artillery shell is fired into the air, and just as it starts to come down and reach its target, instead of continuing on its arc, it crashes into an invisible barrier, stops, and falls to the ground.  Or it's as if the shell suddenly turns and goes off in a different, wholly unanticipated direction.

When this loss of continuity and meaning happens to my clients, it can not only be depressing, it can make them feel disoriented, as if there is no meaning in life.  Whatever has happened to them may be relatively unique (coming down with a dread disease which occurs in .001% of the population), or common to others (becoming disabled by an accident). 

I try to help my patients see that even if their situation is somewhat unique, the overall issue of life interrupted is not unique.  They are part of a much larger and distinguished group of people (starting with Job of the Old Testament) who were in just the same predicament.  It may be that the desirable situation of life acts one through five flowing in logical sequence doesn't really exist for anyone.  Or maybe a lucky minority of people get to enjoy that progression.  I don't really know.  I do know that for many of my clients, life has been interrupted, and there is no choice but to piece together a new plan and a new sense of meaning.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Keys to a Positive Marriage--Building a Positive Cycle in Marriage

(This blog posting is an extension of my previous one on using positive reinforcement in marriage.)

How does one go about building a good marriage?  There are a variety of answers to this.  One concept I use in marriage counseling is the concept of positive reciprocity.

Reciprocity is the tendency that most of us have as humans to give back what we get.  Most of us are not so saintly that we want to give positive things to people who treat us badly.  We generally give back positives to people who treat us positively and negatives to people who treat us negatively.  That may or may not be a good idea in real life.  Religions have often emphasized the importance of not getting into negative reciprocity.  The importance of forgiveness has been emphasized in religion and even in modern psychology.  However, that is not the issue I want to get into right now.  The fact is that people being people, we can get into a cycle of giving back to others some type of negative interaction when they do something negative to us.  In life in general, this kind of negative reciprocity can lead to certain problems.  In marriage, it can be disastrous.

When we are dating, positive reciprocity between a couple usually abounds.  We are positive towards our partner, and they tend to be moe positive towards us.  They say and do nice things towards us, making us feel more positively towards them, and we in turn do and say complimentary things back, etc..

Unfortunately, as marriages age, reciprocal interactions can slide towards the negative.  Negative comments are made to us, and we feel inclined to dish it right back.  How does that come aboout?  How do we slide from positive to negative reciprocity?

First, we lose those incredibly positive feelings which were part of the initial bonding.  In the beginning of the relationship, there is that very special feeling.  Almost anything the other person does makes us feel special.  Just looking at a sunset with them can make us feel that way.  We can call it infatuation, falling in love, or whatever, but there is a distinctly chemical state in the brain which makes eveything about our partner more positive for us--at the beginning.  It is easy to maintain positive reciprocity in this state.

I believe that many couples confuse this early state of attraction with love in its deeper form.  It is easy to be positive towards someone who triggers such positive, biochemically inspired feelings.  But the type of love that can sustain a marriage has to go far beyond that.  It seeks the good of the other.  It is generally forgiving.  It values the other person for themselves and not just for what they can do for us; it does not always demand its own way.  When that type of love is present, then the slide to negative reciprocity is much less likely to occur.  But if we think that love is just the state of feeling good and being treated well by the other person, it is easy to start being negative and verbally aggressive.

If a cycle of negative interaction has begun, an intentional, deliberate focus on positive reinforcement may be able to lead back to that original “positive reciprocity.”  It would be unreasonable to expect this type of positive reciprocity immediately. But in the long run, when we want positive behaviors from our spouse, we are most likely to get them for ourselves if we have been giving them out freely.  By intentionally giving positive reinforcement to our partner, we can build a reservoir of good feeling. A sense of goodwill can carry a couple through problems.

Building positive reciprocity when there have been hurtful interactions may require you to reorient yourself to a new way of relating to the other person.  This can require us focusing on what they do “right” rather than what they are do “wrong.” It focuses away from blame and onto what the other person is doing "right."  (“Right” and “wrong” are put in quotes because these are usually defined in our own minds.  We may have very distinct ideas of them and "know" that we are right about them, but often times they are more our ideas than they are some type of universal truth.  But then, that's another blog.)  Simply paying attention to our partner's positive, constructive behaviors can have a beneficial impact on how we feel about them and how they feel about us.

To re-establish positive reciprocity doesn't come easily.  It can take time and determination.  Most of all, I think, it requires a deep understanding of love and forgiveness.  It requires us to be willing to look after the good of our partner and the good of the relationship, and not just what feels good to us in the moment.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Keys to a Positive Marriage--Playfulness and Sexuality

Relationships often start out as playful, but all too often they end up being routine and too serious.  As people age, they often become more serious.  Joking and playfulness may stop. 

People are living longer and longer, and there are things we need to do so that our relationships don't die from terminal dullness before our bodies give up the ghost. I think that being playful and having the capacity for spontaneity are important to keep our marriages and relationships viable.

First, let's think about what playfulness is.

What is the definition of play?  I think any definition would have to include some element of spontaneity for the sheer fun of it.  A trip across country can be done in a routine, serious manner or a playful manner.  Driving down the road, if one spouse says to the other, "Let's try this restaurant, I've always wanted to try [such and such type of food]," it  might be playful according to the above definition--spontaneity in the pursuit of having fun.

Here are some excerpts from about the word "Play":
  • fun or jest, as opposed to seriousness
  • to exercise or employ oneself in diversion, amusement, or recreation.
  • to do something in sport that is not to be taken seriously.
  • to take part or engage in a game.
  • to pretend
  • to behave in a playful or frivolous manner; fool around
  • to do something without seriousness
  • diverting activity
  • any such form of activity, often undirected, spontaneous, or random
  • amuse oneself in (a game)
  • fun, jest, or joking: I only did it in play
One important aspect of play in marriage is sexuality.  Hopefully, it remains playful rather than always being pursed according to a formula.  I think that too often older married couples approach it with so many preconceived expectations that they are in a straight jacket.  They are more likley to have a variety of ideas about what is going to be appropriate, what is going to be satisfying, what "needs to happen," and so on. To some degree this can be good and healthy because it means that they know their partner well and know what is satisfying to their partner.  They also know their own bodies well and what gives them pleasure.  But on the other hand, this can also make sex overly serious and overly routine.  This has to be done, and this has to be done, and this has to be done.  One, two, three.

But sex is not the only realm for playfulness.  Travel can be play.  Exercise can be play.  Cooking together can be play.  For example watch the portrayal of Julia Childs and her husband in the movie Julie and Julia.  Whether accurate to their true lives or not, in the movie Julia and her husband knew how to be playful.

Perhaps one slight word of caution needs to be added.  If you are in a relationship and haven't been playful for a long time, your partner could well take it the wrong way.  If taken too literally, then certain types of playful statements might taken as being slightly offensive.  You may need to help them understand in some way that you are not being serious when you do or say certain things.  A wink or a certain look may help them to understand that you are being playful and that you are hoping that they will respond playfully rather than taking what you are saying seriously.