relationships

Why are some relationships just harder?

 

Why are some relationships just harder?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

I’ve recently seen some articles asserting that ‘if people just communicated and committed to their relationship, then their problems would go away.’ While communication and commitment are very important, I think this overlooks the many people who are committed and communicating but still struggle.

In fact, I find that many people that come in for couples counseling are deeply committed and are communicating very clearly. Then why are these relationships still difficult?

We have outside stressors

Many of the sources of relationship difficulty have nothing to do with the effort invested in the relationship. In fact, studies show that some of the biggest predictors of relationship difficulty are largely outside of the couple’s control:

  • Poor health
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage after 20 weeks
  • Low income
  • Multiple children with ADHD
  • Partner with mental health issues
  • Death of a child

If your friend seems to have an easier relationship than you, it may have more to do with your different stressors than it does with different effort. Actually, I find that most couples that come to counseling have been working tirelessly on their relationship. If they weren’t trying, they wouldn’t be coming to counseling. But with major or persistent stressors, communication can become a minefield. And it’s not always as easy as learning a few communication skills.

I am overjoyed when I see people who have easier relationships. But there is something uniquely encouraging about a couple that is still trying after years of difficulty. It takes a special type of courage and commitment to seek the help you need to better love your partner, even when it’s hard.

Our families are different

The families we’re born into also impact the ease or difficulty of our relationships. For better or worse, parents model what relationships are like, and some people have better models than others. We can choose to act differently than our parents, but in stressful times we tend to fall back into the patterns we saw modeled (or against the pattern, in an equally harmful overcorrection).  

Parents teach us what love is, how to show it, and how to receive it. They also teach us how to view ourselves. If our parents were neglectful or abusive, they gave us a distorted picture of our self. Without working through these issues, this lack of self-worth will lead us to look for that worth in our partner—creating challenging and often volatile relationships.

This requires more than a simple resolution to change. It takes awareness of how our families impacted our view of the world, relationship, and our self. Since our families tend to be our normal, we often need an outside perspective to help us heal from this impact. This doesn’t mean that you are too weak to handle it alone; it means that you are strong enough to pursue what is necessary to change it.  

We get stuck in a cycle

Couples often get stuck in patterns of relating that rob them of their joy in connecting. These cycles have nothing to do with their effort, compatibility, or how much they love each other. In fact, the fear of losing the other is often what escalates the conflict.  

The most common negative cycle is the pursue/distance (or attack/withdraw) pattern. People usually aren’t even aware that they are in this cycle. Most often, each partner simply sees the other as being unnecessarily critical or distant. It is hard for people stuck in this pattern to see the bigger picture.

Beneath this cycle, both partners truly value their connection, but they seek to preserve it in different ways: the pursuer by attacking  (to get through to them) and the distancer by withdrawing (to avoid conflict). Their mutual attempts to save the relationship (seen as criticism or lack of care by the other), only escalate the problem as each person doubles down on their ‘go-to’ strategy for preserving the relationship.

In these cases, demands for more communication will only push the withdrawer deeper into his bunker. Instead, we need help gaining awareness of our own role in the harmful cycle, so that we can interrupt it and develop a healthier pattern of relating.

Everybody’s relationship is different

It isn’t useful to compare our relationships to others, because everyone’s history and circumstances are different. Learning a few communication skills may be very helpful for someone whose relationship has had few stressors, had model parents, and hasn’t been stuck in a cycle.

For others, there will be too much anxiety and conflict in the relationship for communication skills to be the answer. This doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, that you don’t love each other, or that you aren’t compatible. Relationships are messy, and life often leaves us in places where we need help sorting out the pieces. In my opinion, one of the surest signs that someone loves and is committed to their partner is that they are willing to seek help during the hard times.

Don’t Judge?

Don’t Judge?

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

To judge is to form an opinion, or to form an estimate or evaluation.  When I hear “don’t judge” in the way it seems to be most often used -particularly social media-  I think about how impossible it seems.  We judge things all the time.  We all instinctively form opinions about everything from food to cars to people.  We can’t avoid having opinions.

SERIOUSLY?

I think the intent of the “Don’t Judge” maelstrom is mostly well-intended.  I think a better word for what people are trying to say would be “Don’t Condemn”.  It seems that nobody reacts negatively when I judge someone to be pretty or smart or competent.  It is when I move from judging to expressing contempt for others that I have crossed a line.

My opinion about the relative appearance of a person is powerless in and of itself.  When I state that a person is ugly in appearance, I am revealing my perception about that person.  I am not stating a fact.  Another person could find the same person attractive.  Neither the positive nor the negative opinion a) alters the actual appearance of the person in question, or b) measures the worth of the person in question.

What is more, asking me not to state my opinion or to change my opinion is to devalue me.  It means that my thoughts and feelings don’t matter or shouldn’t exist if they disagree with yours or make you uncomfortable.  I don’t have to call you handsome if I think you look like a troll, nor does the fact that I think you look like a troll make you in fact, a troll.  It does not even mean that you are actually, objectively, “ugly”.  I am not bullying or being contemptuous when I state my opinion.

My opinion becomes contempt when I attempt to declare the worth of a person or thing.  If I look at the person I deem unattractive and proceed to tell them, “Your mother should have aborted you,” I am expressing contempt.  When I say “You should wear a bag over your head so the ‘rest of us’ don’t have to look at you,” I am expressing contempt.  I am declaring what you are worth (an objective reality) on the basis of my subjective perception.  I express contempt for your being, which I have assessed on the basis of your appearance exclusively.

We are devastated by opinions because we equate them (and often they are expressed) as measures of our worth.  We are devastated because we somehow have come to believe that our worth is actually connected to what the other person is saying.

The vast futility of contempt is that it absolutely cannot do what it is trying to do: change the actual innate value of the thing (or person).  

Having an opinion does not make me a jerk.  It’s how I express that opinion that matters.  I can hold it for my own self and leave others to make their own assessments, or I can condemn the object of my opinion as worthless.  Either way, how I express my opinion says more about me than it does about who or what I am describing.  –Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

What if I don’t feel grateful?

What if I don’t feel grateful?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

20648028973_184236efa9_mRecently I was in a group where they talked about how important gratitude is for living a happy and healthy life. I remember thinking “yeah, sure, that’s all fine and good, but what if you don’t feel grateful?”

They explained to me that gratitude isn’t primarily a feeling; it’s a discipline. It’s like a muscle that we can strengthen or allow to atrophy. And there are a number of ways we can exercise our gratitude muscle:

Make a list of what you have to be grateful for every day

Keep a gratitude journal. It can be just a simple notebook or something more elaborate. Schedule a time to write five things you have to be grateful for daily. If you do it every morning, you will remember it throughout the day. If you do it at night, then it will shape how you look back at that whole day. (After a while, you’ll find that you’re having a lot more good days). The list doesn’t have to be of big things. In fact, it’s better if they’re not. Even the smallest positive event counts.

The simple act of bringing to mind the good things in your life has a huge impact on your wellbeing. But it takes intentionality to notice the good. We are much more skilled at noticing the negative things that happen to us. They tend to stick out more than the good. (And when you’re depressed your brain actually goes to negative memories more easily). So it takes an act of the will, a habit, to make your brain notice the positive. You will be surprised by the results. In time, your feelings will follow.

Strengthen gratitude by looking outward

Another way to exercise your gratitude muscle is to notice those around you in difficult situations. They can be close to home or on the other side of the world, but they can’t be people to whom you usually compare yourself. Comparison is toxic to gratitude; it is like gratitude kryptonite. The purpose of comparison is to judge (either your self or the other). This leads to dissatisfaction on one hand or pride on the other. Either way, it’s destructive to gratitude.

Looking outward is different. Its purpose is to empathize and help. Helping someone is invigorating, provides a sense of purpose, improves self-perception, and helps put your blessings in perspective. Not only that, but it benefits someone who needs you and gives them a reason to be grateful.

Purposefully remember in hard times

There are times where it is hard to be grateful. This is just reality. Seasons in life are hard, painful, and seemingly hopeless. During these times it can be difficult to think of current things that make you feel grateful. In these periods, it helps to look intentionally at the past and the future. Remind yourself of good events from your past and dwell on potential positive opportunities in the future. This is a habit that you have to nurture; it won’t happen automatically.

Our brains can get stuck in a negative rut, but we can short-circuit our brains by forcing ourselves to consider other options. Think of yourself as a lawyer cross-examining your negative brain. Bring evidence of any positive experience to the jury of your mind. Look back for anything, however small, that disproves the case being made that your life has been uninterrupted tragedy. Then look forward for any possibility that things will be better than you are currently expecting.

Extra Credit

For extra credit, you can make a list of five positive outcomes that could happen in your future. Developing a positive view of your future is a great antidote for hopelessness. (Notice that I said developing a positive view). A life of gratitude doesn’t just happen overnight; it has to be nurtured, exercised, and grown.

Having an attitude of gratitude is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. Consider starting a gratitude journal today. Your brain will thank you.

What does your Inner Voice tell you?

What does your Inner Voice tell you?

by: Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

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“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” ― Peggy O’Mara

I came across this quote and was struck by its simple profundity. Such a sentiment can surely cause you to step back and reevaluate your typical interactions with the children in your life, which I do believe was the author’s intent. But we can also use this insight to look into the inner voice we each carry and what has informed it over the years. This inner voice has often been born within us from significant people around us as we were growing up and learning to make sense of the world.

I’m not talking about audible voices in our heads, I’m talking about the way we talk to ourselves inside ourselves. We tend to trust this voice; often to the extent that we don’t even notice it. It flows in and around us like the air we breathe. It feels true and informed. It feels like the one we can trust to keep us from believing we are capable, we can depend on others, and we are worth something.

I often find when talking with people that this voice is unkind, unforgiving, shaming, and critical. It’s cynicism feels trustworthy and it’s avoidance of hope or longing feels safe. And yet, it is all too holding us back from developing deep relationships, learning how to care for ourselves, striving to take risks in life, and hoping for something better.

Often, this voice is so embedded it can never be completely silenced. However, it can be identified, labeled untrustworthy, and we can learn to react differently to it. We can learn to tell it to be quiet, we can learn to ignore it, mistrust it, or even argue with it. We can learn to walk through our lives with a different narrator, one that is informed by the present, by reality, by trustworthy people. Counseling is a very effective way to begin to label that voice and learn new ways to talk to yourself.

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part III

What does “holding out for healthy” look like, anyway?

By Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

This blog presumes you’ve read the previous two in the series.  If you haven’t, Click HERE to be taken to the first entry.

Now that you’ve recognized that your family member is not the person that their job description calls for, you’re beginning to take some steps.  You’ve come to understand that, for example, Dad is not in the “Parents and Siblings” ring of intimacy.  He is more an “Acquaintance”, based on the way that the relationship feels and works.  You’ve started to give yourself permission NOT to call every week because you don’t call your other acquaintances that often.  You’re arguing with the guilt that arises from being a “bad child”, and with the healthy compassion that comes from seeing him struggle with loneliness.  You’re resisting the impulse to go in and rescue him.Levels of Intimacy

And you feel like you’re being mean, cold-blooded, and harsh.  You’re being told, “You’ve changed, and not for the better.”  Other family members are calling you to convince you to “seek reconciliation”, or to chew you out for your “bad attitude”.  The pressure becomes enormous, and you sometimes forget what you are fighting for.

“Holding out for Healthy” is hard.  It means defying everything the relationship in question has taught you all your life.  It means holding on to the desire for real intimacy, even if your hope that the desire will be fulfilled looks too remote to be realistic.  A very old aphorism says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”.  It means clinging tight to the idea that a healthier relationship with your father is worth the loss of the false intimacy you’ve been used to all your life.

Because what you’ve been used to all your life was not real.  It was a counterfeit of relationship and, when you tried to use it as currency, you discovered you’d been cheated.  Which would you rather have: A fist full of play money, or nothing?  It’s a trick question.  You’ve got nothing either way.

The hard truth is that when you start operating according to the way that the relationship actually exists, you are not changing anything about it.  You’re merely speaking the truth about it for once.  You’re finally allowing the natural outcome of Dad’s way of being to actually touch him for once, rather than protecting him from it.

The reason the relationship persists the way it does is likely due in part to the fact that nobody has dared to tell him what it’s like.  Nobody has named the fact that the Emperor has no clothes.  Naming it to him hurts, but it also offers him the chance to see that what he’s doing is hurtful, and provides him with an opportunity to grow.

“Holding out for Healthy” invites the other person into a better place themselves.  It calls them to be a better human being, to seek healing for their own wounds, and to acknowledge the wounding they have done themselves.  They will either be able to do this, or they won’t.  Even if you can step into one ring closer with them, you have more than you’ve ever had before, and that is wealth indeed.

“Holding out for Healthy” also leads you to healing of your own.  This relationship loses its power to define you because you are actively defining the relationship.

What does Holding out for Healthy look like?  It’s a mess.  It’s painful and it rocks the boats of a lot of people.  You’re not going to do it well.  But doing it at all represents a change that has real value on your own life, and — potentially —  in the lives of those you love.  It’s worth the risk.

 

 

Why am I so angry?

By: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR Trained Therapist

Why am I so angry? 

The_Scream-picture

Do you ever ask yourself “why am I so angry?” Or maybe your life just feels way too frustrating and stressful. If so, this may be a sign of a deeper issue.

It’s tempting to blame others for our frustration, but irritants don’t have to cause outbursts. There are other choices; you don’t have to live like this. Here are four ways to change your life:

1. Notice the difference between the emotion of anger and our response to it. 

Anger is an appropriate response to legitimate injustice. But most of us don’t notice the transition from emotion to reaction.

That is where we can get ourselves into trouble. We feel like it is one big reflex that we have little or no control over. But that is generally untrue.

Slowing down our response allows us to notice the choices we are making. 

This is where anger management techniques can be useful. Breathing exercises, mindfulness, and other such skills can help us slow down our physical reactions and choose how we want to respond.

2. Notice your expectations.

Anger often springs from our unrealistic expectations. We are not entitled to a problem-free life, and life rarely goes as planned. As obvious as that sounds, our anger often reflects these illogical expectations.

It is important to objectively examine our expectations. If we find ourselves consistently frustrated by traffic, it is likely we have unrealistic expectations of what driving in a city is like.

Cars will cut us off, lines will be long, people will make mistakes, and customer service will be laughable. Accepting these as a given will drastically improve our enjoyment of life. The world isn’t out to get us, even if it feels that way sometimes.

People (even close friends and family) are not required to respond the way we prefer. If your pet peeve causes you consistent irritation, consider giving it up. It is unlikely that people will suddenly change.

3. Notice what anger tells us about our boundaries.

Anger can be a useful sign that our boundaries are being invaded. It warns us that something needs to change.

You may be too busy, too tired, or living an inauthentic life. Stress and exhaustion can significantly impact outlook. We may need to learn to say ‘no,’ pursue healthier relationship, or live more in line with our values. 

This may involve downsizing to what you really care about or pursuing a goal that is truly significant to you. Otherwise our deep seeded discontent may come out in unexpected and sometimes violent ways.

4. Notice what’s behind the anger.

Anger is often a secondary emotion. It is generally not the first emotion we feel. It is a reaction to softer emotions like anxiety, sadness, or hurt. But we often prefer anger over admitting that we are hurting.

Anger allows us to feel more powerful or in control, but it prevents us from dealing with the real problem. We neglect the roots of our problem—such as anxiety, depression, grief, or trauma.

Going straight to anger stops us from communicating with our loved ones about what’s really going on. Sharing our feelings of hurt or rejection would allow them to reassure and comfort us. We could have healing conversations that lead to greater connection. But communicating surface anger leads only to defensiveness.

Noticing what comes before the anger helps us to deepen our relationships through those healing conversations. This awareness also allows us to seek healing of the root issues that are driving our anger.

When we pursue this healing, we find that anger no longer holds power over us. We now have the capacity to respond differently.

Conflict and Resolution in a Nutshell

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

It is the nature of relationships to include conflict.  In fact, conflict is a necessary component of intimacy and closeness in relationship.  If you are to become emotionally close with another person, it is necessary to come into conflict with them, because conflict is the place where my uniqueness bumps up against your uniqueness, which by definition is different than mine.

Conflict is the place where we figure out how to do life together in the presence of these differences.  If ever these differences are eroded away or eliminated (what many would describe as “resolved”), we are not actually connected with each other. One of us has been either consumed or effaced by the other.

Two objects in contact with each other generate friction and heat as they move independently in that contact.  If there is no friction, there is no contact.  If we never engage in or experience conflict with our significant other, we are not emotionally engaged with them on a meaningful level.  We are not in contact.

conflict

This being said, there are two ways of doing conflict: Well or Poorly.  Conflict done well strengthens the relationship.  Conflict done poorly decimates it.  In order to do conflict well, we need to find a way toward resolution.Fingers

Agreement is NOT resolution. 

The problem most people encounter is that when they try to resolve conflict by reaching some kind of agreement, they are working toward an unsupportable solution.  Agreement is not necessary to reach resolution.  If we try to find a place where we agree on everything, we end up working against our own uniqueness, and we cannot sustain that forever.  Agreement sometimes happens, but when we hold that as the only standard for resolution, we will end up frustrated and hopeless.

“Agree to disagree” is not resolution.  

If we agree to disagree, we create “dead spaces” in the relationship where we can never come into contact.  In this arrangement, the solution to conflict is to avoid it, which simply cannot lead to resolution any more than the South road leads North.  If avoiding conflict is our goal and our standard for good relationship (i.e., being “nice”, “happy”, or “positive”), we will never experience a truly connected, intimate relationship.

Compromise cannot lead to resolution. 

When we try to use compromise to reach resolution, we are usually operating on the presumption that “everyone loses something” and “no one leaves the table completely happy”.  Compromises reached in this way are generally composed of requests or demands that we make of one another.  When we agree to a compromise, we are saying that we are going to “try to be different” for the sake of the other.  While this sounds good on the surface, what is happening under the surface is that our uniqueness is not being acknowledged and/or validated.  Because of this, the changes are often unsustainable. We become frustrated, exhausted, and resentful in the long run (consumed), or we simply “kill” that part of our identity for the sake of the other (effaced).

Real Resolution

Real resolution is achieved when we genuinely and deeply understand each other’s position, thoughts, and feelings, and can acknowledge them as valid, even though we may not agree.  When we really understand the other person, we often find a willingness to work together and move toward a solution that is not forced or demanded, but organic to each participant, and therefore sustainable. Any changes we make grow out of this deep understanding of the other’s need, and are generally “gifts” offered by the participants themselves based on this knowledge and kindness. This leads to gratitude and a building of affection between the parties (read, Intimacy, Closeness, Connection).

Kevin_Richardson_with_hyenas

To say it concisely; once I deeply understand and give credit to how you think and feel, and presuming I care about what you think and how you feel, I find myself willing to shift how I relate to you.  When we each are able to do this for the other, we are no longer in conflict.  We are working together, and the conflict is resolved.

 

Do you Love Me? From the Perspective of a Foster Kid

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

Do you Love Me?

 

It is a question each of us longs to hear the answer to from those we care about most – Do you love me?

Mustering the courage to ask the question takes great risk, doesn’t it? Because once the question is asked, out loud, to the person we hope will say yes, all we can do is wait for their response. Those few seconds from the time the question is asked to the moment the person answers, feels like an eternity. We are, in that moment, at our most vulnerable place. Naked in our need to be loved. Hoping they will say yes. Hoping that our longing to know we matter in this world will be eased in their “yes.”

Some friends of mine became foster parents this past year. The wife of this couple started sharing some of her experiences on her website. I have valued her honesty and vulnerability. In my opinion, I think anyone who is a caring foster parent deserves many awards. Non-stop praise. They are courageous, vulnerable, giving, and brave. I have two images in my mind when I think of caring foster parents – a punching bag and bean bag. Their role requires them to absorb the “blows,” yet remain as welcoming as a bean bag. Hard stuff, people. Hard stuff.

In one of her recent posts titled Head and Heart, she shares about a time when one of her foster kids asked, in essence, “Do you love me?” She asked my friend if she loved her husband more than her. Whoa, that’s big time. I could imagine myself in that moment. Speechless. Knowing that however I would answer wouldn’t satiate this child’s longing to feel loved, as she lives in a world that causes her to wonder if she matters on a daily basis.

I have learned in my job and my life that sometimes what’s most important isn’t the question itself, but what the question reveals about the asker. When I hear the question being asked by this foster child, “do you love me more than your husband?” I don’t think she is looking for a yes or no answer. Actually, I don’t even think this is the true question of her heart. I hear her asking in that moment, “Do I matter? Am I loved?” Even though you are in the room with her, she feels alone in this world. Foster children live within a world that forces them to continually question their worth. She feels alone, disregarded, and confused. What she has been taught about love and loving another is most likely skewed and distorted.

At this point I think its important to note that ALL kids ask this question – foster, biological, or stepchildren. Kids are curious little creatures. Trying to make sense of what they see, feel, hear, and think. I also think its very important to take into account the child’s developmental level and how they intrinsically process input. All of these things matter in how we respond. A 5 year old asking this question is different than a 10 year old. The trauma in their life story is important. All of their uniqueness is important and needs to be taken into account.

I don’t think there is a perfect way to answer this question, and really, I don’t even think the question necessitates an answer. What I mean is we first must learn from the child a bit more about what is motivating them to ask the question. What longing are they thinking about? Are they trying to make sense of love and loving another? How do we figure out what’s really behind the question? Ask questions!

“Do I love you MORE THAN my husband? Hmmmm, good question! Well let’s talk about it! What made you think to ask that question? Is this something you’ve been thinking about for a while? What do you think love is? What do you think it means to love someone else? Do you think there is different kinds of love? When you think about love, do you love your brother like you do your friends at school?”

These questions will hopefully help reveal what’s truly on their mind. They will help you learn about how they think about love and relationships. Knowing these answers will better equip you to walk with them and talk to them about their wonderings and longings.

Say Goodbye to Life-Sucking Fears

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

Learning to acknowledge the fears we have within ourselves and with others is the first step to becoming free from them.

Perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt was onto something when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Having a fear of something isn’t bad.  In fact, sometimes our responses to fear can save our lives.  We sense danger, so we run.  We are swimming and running out of breath, so we get to shore.  Fear itself isn’t the problem.  It is what becomes of our fear that matters.  Once our fears begin to control us – limit our life, change our thoughts/beliefs about ourselves, irrational behavior surfaces – this is when a fear becomes problematic.
A fear not dealt with has the potential to overcome us to the point of robbing our joy in life.
Anything can become a fear.  Nothing is too far from its reach.
Oftentimes I find people hating what they fear yet, unwilling to change.  I can’t say that I blame them.  After all, even though they hate what they fear and want so badly for it to change, it is also known to them.  Theoretically, they have already lived with their fear for a number of years, and have become accustomed to how it limits their life and restricts their happiness.  Asking someone to take the risk learning to let go of their fear, is one of the scariest risks I ask of people to try in my job.  Asking people to give up the known for the unknown requires much trust, courage, and vulnerability on their part.  Asking them to believe change is possible is the first step.
What are you fearing?
-Not being good enough?
-Letting people down?
-Being abandoned or rejected by those you love?
-Being a bad parent?
-Not having enough money to pay your bills?
-Not being liked?
-Loosing your spouse?
-Never being happy?
-Something bad that happened in your past?  
-(insert your fear here….)
Are your fears limiting your life?  Are they altering your beliefs about yourself?  Are they causing you to act in ways you normally wouldn’t?  
If you answered yes to any of the above questions then seeking help is your next step.

What do we do when ours fears begin altering how we live our lives?

1.  Acknowledge your fear is controlling or altering the way your think and live.
2.  Seek help.  Ask friends for support. Find a trusted counselor to help you.
3.  Believe change is possible.
These steps may sound trite, but believe me they are not!  These initial steps are hard and require courage and vulnerability.  You are choosing to step out into the unknown and say, “I want something better than what I currently have.  I want to take back control of my life!”  This is no easy task to begin engaging in.
Some of the common fears I see people struggling with actually have nothing to do with something outside of themselves.  Usually, I find people most fear something having to do who they are, how they perform and how they perceive the need to measure up to others, or being good enough or perfect enough to be loved.   If I just described you, know you are not alone in your struggle.  I hope you will reach out for help because freedom from your fears is possible!

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part II

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part II

by: Jonathan Hart, LPC

Back in February, I wrote a blog called “Blood is Thicker than Water”.  You can find it here.  It might be a good idea to check that post out before reading on.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Welcome back! Just in case you didn’t actually go read the previous post, I’ll give you a quick summary:  The main thrust of that post is that we keep “holding out for healthy relationship” with family far longer than we do with anyone else because family relationships are so vitally important. We still maintain our limits, and we don’t settle for less than the real deal, and we keep at it.

I used the image of the vehicle that starts making funny noises.  We don’t “just deal with it” when that starts to happen.  We do what is necessary to get it fixed.  The problem is that some things on cars (and in relationships) are not fixable.  This brings us to the question in family relationships: At what point is persisting in relationship futile or foolish based on the other person’s lack of willingness to move toward healthy?

The short form of the question is, “When do I quit trying?”

The answer is, “It Depends.”  It depends on the actual nature of the relationship.  We have varying levels of intimacy with different people.  Some are genuinely close and emotionally connected.  Some are truly intimate.  For some relationships, deep intimacy is not expected or required.  A friend of the family might stop by for a visit, but we might feel odd if they were to begin sharing their closest struggles and marriage woes.  It would feel “too close”.

Levels of Intimacy

Some Immediate Family relationships feel “too close” like this: “She may be Mom, but I don’t tell her things like this because she couldn’t handle it/I’d never hear the end of it/she’d tell all her friends/she’d use it against me…”

The categories in the diagram do not describe the blood relationship, but the nature of the relationship.  Dad may be a nice guy, but we have to keep the conversation about sports or things go south in a hurry, then the actual relationship may be more in the “Acquaintance” circle than “Immediate Family”.  I can have friends that are so deep and close that they actually belong in the “Immediate Family” Circle.  The functional question is “who are they to you, really?”

This can be a challenging question to answer, especially if the family culture says that “Siblings Equals Close, period”.  It’s especially hard because deep down we *want* real and close relationships with close family and friends, no matter what the actual relationship is.   Pretending the relationship is closer than it really is becomes wearying and is always silly. We have to start by acknowledging the actual nature of the relationship, before we can proceed.  Once you’ve done that, then you can begin the process.

    1. Relax.  Start letting yourself be OK with relating according to the nature of the relationship.  You can release any guilt you may experience because the relationship isn’t closer.  You can’t make it happen alone.  The guilt only makes you go back to pretending something is true that isn’t.
    2. Reach.  Imagine what the next tier closer might be, and begin reaching for it.  This is important: don’t try to go from “Acquaintance” to “Close Personal Friend” all at once.  You’ll scare them.  Only reach for one tier at a time.   
    3. Give it time.  Deepening intimacy and connectedness is a process and generally does not happen overnight.  You may be hungry for a better sense of connection, but they might not realize what’s missing.
    4. Pay attention.  If they flat-out reject any overtures or offers of legitimate closeness, if they accept and then take advantage of your vulnerability, or if they continue to identify you as the problem (the “Take it or Leave it” stance), this may be as close as is possible for the foreseeable future.
    5. Repeat steps 1-4.  Ideally, the other person will eventually be able to recognize what you are doing and reciprocate.  IF they do, everybody wins better relationships.  If they do not…
    6. Repeat steps 1-4 in increasing time increments.  Maybe you make the offer of “closer” once a month for a while, and get the same answer every time.  Maintain your current position for several months and then offer again.  Continue this process and lengthen the time between offers a little at a time, and you will eventually discover the equilibrium point at which they are willing to operate with you.

This is effectively the “process answer” to the question of “When do I quit trying?”  This may mean that you will never have a “Daddy” relationship with your father, but you can operate kindly and respectfully as acquaintances.  You’ll have to grieve the loss of your father (Yes, grieve.  As though he died), but you won’t be expecting an acquaintance to be a “Daddy” to you, either.

Ultimately, unless the relationship has been vicious, brutal, fully abandoned, or otherwise horrible, you are never completely out of relationship with someone who is related by blood.  Even in the case of the horrible relationships above, even in the absence of any contact whatsoever, there is always a biological connection.  Even at its best, navigating these relationships is complicated and messy.  Trying to keep up the appearance of a “Normal Family” can be exhausting when “normal” isn’t true … and let’s be honest…  What does “normal” even mean, anyway!?

Concept image of a lost and confused signpost against a blue cloudy sky.

So, step back, find your footing, acknowledge what is true of the relationship, and then carefully, slowly, reach for more.  You will either gain a closer relationship, or be able to relax into the best relationship that is legitimately possible with the person in question.

Look out for Blood is Thicker than Water, Part 3: What Does Holding Out for Healthy Look Like, Anyway?