Hacking into your relationship status

Riding the elevator to work with a building-mate the other day, our chit-chat turned to a conversation about the Ashley Madison data release. For the uninitiated, Ashley Madison is a dating website that matchmakes married people looking for an affair, connecting them with each other or with singles wanting an affair with a married. It has most recently been in the news because its database has been hacked, and the threatened release of the names and details of its customers has now started to roll out.

Our conversation left me with two thoughts. One, I need to work on my elevator chit-chat game. Two, marriage counselling is a very different animal than I had thought it would be.

My building mate joked that the Ashley Madison data release would be “good for business,” reminding me of my own assumptions about what would inspire a couple to seek marriage counselling.

As a therapist in training, I thought the couples I’d be working with would be seeking help in the aftermath of a psychic ‘bomb’ hitting their relationship: violence, the revelation of an affair, a worsening addiction or mental health concern, or something equally catastrophic.

While that is sometimes the catalyst for couples seeking help, much more often the relationships I encounter are plagued by a more low-grade and chronic form of disconnect, a feeling that the closeness and interest in each other and in the relationship that they once had is now diminished.

In my experience, couples often fail to adequately notice the disconnect, until the day they realize it has resulted in a deep chasm of space between them, one that by the time it is seen can seem too big to bridge.

Unless you’re married to a sociopath, finding your spouse’s name in the Ashley Madison registry won’t be the first and only sign you get that your relationship is floundering.

Your first sign will be a measure of malaise seeping into the relationship. You’ll find yourself feeling impatient and intolerant of the quirks you once found charming in your partner, or catch yourself daydreaming about a different life with a different (less disappointing) partner.

You’ll notice that your conversations have decreased in both quantity and quality. You’ll have fewer discussions about your hopes, interests, fears, shared vision of the future, and more mundane ‘chore-talk’ about who will make dinner, what time the kids are being picked up, who will pay which bill when… You will laugh less and fight more, and those fights will become nastier and take longer to recover from.

Criticism, swearing, name-calling, and attacks on each other’s character will start to enter your disagreements, and your self-talk during and after a fight will focus on the righteousness of your own point of view while assigning bad intentions to your partner’s words and actions.

Research suggests that couples have been unhappy in their relationship for an average of 6 years before seeking help, and often approach marriage counselling as a last resort when conflict in the relationship has them on the brink of separation.

We also know that relationship counselling is most effective with early intervention, and that the most useful approaches to couples therapy have less to do with conflict resolution, and more to do with rebuilding a sense of connection and mutual warm attachment.

So before you search online to see whether your partner’s name is on the Ashley Madison list, search inside and ask yourself how your relationship is doing. If you’re not content with the answer, think about what you can do to rebuild the feeling of connectedness and engagement between the two of you.

Relationship counselling doesn’t have to be the hail Mary pass you throw when the clock’s winding down in the game. It can be a maintenance check-up, a place to reflect on the state of your union and apply any course-correction you decide you need.

Are you an Empopath?

I have a penchant for making up words, a trait that is shared by many people in my life. My husband, for example, frequently gives me updates on one of our cats’ desires for ‘affectionation’ (always high).

Recently a client and I coined a new term – empopathy – to describe a particular difficulty he was experiencing. What is an empopath? If you imagine the ability to feel for and empathize with others as existing on a continuum, psychopaths perch on the outer edge of one end of the continuum. Empopaths sit (gingerly, quietly, without taking up too much space) on the other.

Psychopathy is characterized in part by an inability to experience empathy, resulting in a lack of the feelings of guilt or remorse that commonly ground interpersonal behaviour. Conversely, empopathy is a pathologically high and misdirected experience of empathy, leading to feelings of guilt, remorse, and misplaced responsibility run amok.

So how do you differentiate between appropriately empathizing with another and empopathy? For me, truly empathizing with someone requires us to fully see and hear them. We try and understand their experience from their own perspective, and, as Brene Brown puts it, “connect with something in ourselves that knows that feeling.”

Unfortunately that’s also where empathy can go off-course. Connecting with our own experiences and emotions is the gateway to empathizing with another, but it can also lead us down the wrong path since the person whose experiences we’re trying to understand happens to be not-us.

If you tell me that your relationship just ended and I respond with “I get it, I know it’s hard to feel unlovable and ugly and worthless,” you might feel understood and relieved that someone else is putting into words what you’ve been feeling. You might also feel taken-aback and disconnected if your experience was more along the lines of “she wasn’t really right for me.”

Empathy can also turn into empopathy when we project too much of ourselves into the other’s experience in another way, when what we’re empathizing with is not the other person’s pain but our own distress at feeling that we’ve had a hand in causing their pain.

A number of years ago, a man I was working with described a relationship break up he’d gone through. He said, “I went over to her place to tell her I wanted to end things. She cried, so 2 years later I left.” While he was no doubt empathizing with his girlfriend’s distress at the prospect of breaking up, his strongest connection in that moment was to his own feelings about being the source of that distress. Ultimately, it was empathizing with that feeling he found too much to bear.

To Forgive – Divine!

Since my last post was about the art of the genuine apology, it seems fitting to spend some time on its counterpart: forgiveness.

In her book How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To, Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring describes 4 approaches to forgiveness, and notes that they are not created equal. The four are: Cheap Forgiveness, Refusing to Forgive, Acceptance, and Genuine Forgiveness.

Cheap forgiveness is what Dr. Spring calls “a quick and easy pardon.” It is premature, superficial and undeserved, and usually happens when the person who has been hurt has a hard time tolerating the distress that acknowledging the hurt would create (in themselves or in the relationship), and seeks instead to smooth things over as quickly as possible. Cheap forgivers are sometimes prone to conflict avoidance or have a self-sacrificing approach to relationships, and struggle to set healthy limits or speak up for themselves. The harm of cheap forgiveness is that paving over or denying a hurt doesn’t actually do much to heal it, and the fall-out from those unhealed hurts has a way of leaking out and poisoning a relationship.

At the oppoSpear_2278site end of the continuum, those who refuse to forgive resist letting the offender off the hook, even after a sincere apology has been made. They respond with distance and condescension, and use hoarded past offences to build a wall fortified with righteous indignation. If engaging in relationship is always a balance between connection and protection, non-forgivers plant their feet firmly in protection, and cost themselves the closeness and repair that forgiving a sincere apology could offer.

But what if no apology (sincere or otherwise) has been made? What if the offender refuses to acknowledge that their actions were hurtful, or worse is dismissive and devaluing of the feelings of the one they’ve hurt? Acceptance is a form of forgiveness whose purpose is to help the hurt party help themselves. It allows the hurt party to acknowledge and take control of their pain, work to heal from the harm they’ve experienced, and decide the level of relationship (if any) they want to have with the offender.

Dr. Spring’s book details the process of genuine forgiveness, calling it a “shared venture where two people exchange their care, compassion, understanding, and empathy with each other.” Accordingly, earning genuine forgiveness requires the offender to apologize (genuinely, non-defensively and responsibly), bear witness to the pain they caused (showing their partner they can empathize with how the transgression made their partner feel), and work to earn back trust.

So when genuine forgiveness has been earned, what does it look like to give it? Genuinely forgiving means allowing our relationship to move forward. It means acknowledging that we’ve heard the apology and believe its sincerity, giving our partner a chance to earn back trust, and committing to not bringing up the past hurt the next time we feel scared or angry.

(Cartoon by Kevin Spear, Creative Commons License)

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

What is it about apologies? What is it about the thought of saying “I’m sorry” that puts in motion that hardening, closing, resisting feeling in the pit of our stomachs, that corrals our minds and constricts our throats (or maybe that’s just me)?

Early on in the relationship with my husband my apologies used to sound something like this: “Am I sorry? Oh, I’m sorry. Sooo unbelievably sorry that you are too immature and too oblivious to even try and wrap your tiny little brain around what I was saying to you. I apologize.” Charming, no? Defensive apologies take the semblance of an apology, wrap it in an attack, and deliver it like a brick through a window. They are about as helpful at repairing a relational hurt as having a double espresso is helpful at calming your nerves. That’s not to say they don’t serve a purpose, it’s just a very different purpose than the one apologies are intended to serve. Defensive apologies soothe our own egos, let us stay in the protected (but disconnected) place of “I’m right and you’re wrong” and create distance in a relationship when closeness may feel too vulnerable to bear.

Shame based apologies on the other hand, look more like a genuine apology on the surface: “I did it again didn’t I? God I’m so sorry, I don’t know why you put up with me. I am such a piece of shit, I hate myself.” A shame based apology changes the conversation. Your partner is no longer talking about whatever it was they were upset about, they’re refuting (or agreeing with) your basis for self-loathing and end up either putting their own concerns aside in order to comfort you, or feeling like a monster for kicking you when you’re already kicking yourself.

So what does a genuine apology sound like? It starts with “I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry but” followed by excuses, rationalizations or explanations, not “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry if I did anything to hurt you.” In short, a genuine apology starts with genuinely feeling apologetic, honestly assessing your side of the interaction and taking ownership of your part in it. The second part of a genuine apology is talking about the experience in a way that shows your partner you can empathize with their point of view. For example, “I’m sorry. What I said was mean and hurtful and probably made you feel like you don’t really matter to me.” Your ego will not enjoy your genuine apology (alright, I’m talking about myself again), but your relationship definitely will.

What I learned from Reality TV (this week)

I’m a little obsessed with watching the Discovery’s Channel’s Naked and Afraid. Truth be told, I find the purported ‘reality’ in a lot of reality TV pretty fascinating (from a purely psychological perspective of course, I’m not wasting precious hours of my life, I’m doing research!)

For the uninitiated, the premise of Naked and Afraid is to take a man and a woman who are self-described “survivalists” in their normal lives and drop them (naked) in some remote and awe-inspiringly dangerous part of the world, where they do their best to survive the elements and each other for 21 days.

For me at least, the show supplies unending grist for the psychological mill, but here are three of the things that have stood out most:

  1. Shoes are truly the unsung heroes of attire, and much more of a necessity (versus a nice-to-have) than I ever appreciated.
  2. The line we draw between food/not-food is arbitrary and highly context-specific. In my day-to-day life, a severed and partially decomposed bird’s head found of the beach would be solidly in the not-food camp. This show makes the case that 18 days without a solid meal would have one reconsidering that.
  3. It takes a lot of work to make and maintain a fire.

For the Naked and Afraid contestants, fire is fundamental to survival, and they accordingly approach it with a high degree of reverence and care. Today fire (and everything that comes with it) is something most of us take for granted, but the many references to fire that show up in our language speak to its primacy in our ancestral legacy. We ‘light a fire under’ things (or people) to get them going, we question whether or not there’s a ‘spark’ when we meet a potential partner, we say ‘the flame’s gone out’ when passion has taken its leave, we hope for an idea to ‘catch fire’ or watch it go ‘up in smoke.’

Many of the clients I work with come to therapy in part because they’re trying to light or re-ignite a fire. Some have found that depression has dampened all their tinder so that even generating a spark seems unlikely, some are trying to keep the winds of self-doubt from extinguishing intention before it has a chance to catch, and others are poking at the dying embers of a love relationship, wondering if they can be coaxed back to life.

What I’ve learned from the Naked and Afraid contestants is that lighting a fire takes focus and patience, and that timing is everything; the same gust of wind that would encourage a going fire snuffs out the kindling’s flame. I’ve also learned that lighting the fire is only half the battle. Once you have your fire lit (or your project started, or your lover back), you need to keep tending and adding fuel to the fire, all the while keeping an eye out for any rainstorms brewing in the distance.