Success of Relationships

Was asked recently by a student, “How long do you think a couple should be together before they get married?”  There’s no way to give a full answer to this in a blog, but think it important, and would like to put out some fundamental ideas that I don’t think we can ignore.  Seems to me that this is not only about “knowing” when, or even the success of a romantic relationship- would suggest that some of these ideas are about all relationships.  What follows is my response:

Would offer that it’s not a question of how long.  The reason we think in terms of time, is because something is supposed to happen during that period, but we never say what it is!

Oversimplifying, first and foremost, my philosophy is that both persons should be self-supporting mentally, emotionally, physically, and “spiritually” (not necessarily religious, but not necessarily excluding it).  They should be able to see, and assess these things about one another.  It’s much deeper than it seems- mentally: responsible for one’s own critical thinking, memory, organization, prioritization, intellectual curiosity.  Emotionally: responsible not only for one’s own happiness, but one’s own sorrows and fears and shames and hurts as well (even if caused by others- this is really important).  Physically: responsible at least for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, diet/sleep/exercise.  “Spiritually”: responsible for one’s own connection to one or more communities, also for one’s own sense of place and purpose.  Short of that, the relationship becomes responsible for one or more of these things missing, and is diminished.

In more detail, any of these things absent weighs on the relationship.  One partner inevitably becomes resentful at having to “pick up the slack” for one or more of these things absent, or tries to get the other person to take up their responsibility, or withdraws, etc.  This shows up a lot for instance, in these examples:

One person bears on the other due to “insecurity”/low self esteem.  (emotional, “spiritual”)

One person struggles with providing their own needs for food/clothing/shelter/medical care etc.  (physical)

One person depends on the other as their sole source for community or purpose (sometimes, simply by providing community when the other doesn’t have it).  (“spiritual”)

One person expects or needs the other for reminders of appointments, choicemaking about how to spend money, interests about the world.  (mental)

Am sure everyone can come up with many more.

It takes varying amounts of time to know if someone is able to do these things, because it takes varying kinds of circumstances to have them come up.  Even discussed in a “principled” way as I’ve tried to above, there’s a lot of things to be considered.  When someone dies, does the person “deal” with it gracefully (grieves), or do they get intoxicated or treat others poorly?  When they get sick, do they have the means and do they do the work to do some of the effort to care for themselves?  Does this person avoid talking about feelings in general, or have a maladaptive way of dealing with them?  Do they have hobbies, interests, and do they occasionally get new ones?  Do they provide for themselves long-term?  Do they maintain relationships long-term?  How do they handle their successes?  These are all circumstances that often take a protracted amount of time to show up.

These things are also not simple for individuals.  As such, would argue that without having/knowing these things about ourselves, these qualities are difficult to identify in other people.  It takes a chunk of time, usually beyond adulthood, to really have a method and examination of knowing these things.

Clumsy Solutions

For many years now, I’ve noticed something that I think is pretty interesting.

We all have similar problems.  Problems of love, death, loss, fears, mistakes, power, our bodies, work, school, relationships, resources, abuse, abandonment, depression, addiction, self worth and the like.  In one way or another, most of these touch all of our lives.  Our responses to them too, seem common between us- we all have “bad” feelings and “good” feelings associated with these experiences.

It appears to me, that we also have solutions in common.  But what’s strange about it, are the solutions themselves.  If we just look at the “problems” (for shorthand purposes) we have in our lives, and our response or “reaction” to them (or as I’m calling them here, “solutions”, though we may not see them as such in the moment), the way we deal with them from this perspective is tragically ineffective.

Here’s what I mean, more specifically.  The way I see us (and of course, have done myself in many cases), is that we respond to perceived problems with (in no particular order):

  1. Avoidance, procrastination.
  2. Using our limited human intellect, and our limited human will, coupled together as a salve we cover everything with.
  3. Drugs, alcohol, food, spending, money, property, prestige, gambling, etc. ad nauseum.
  4. “Codependent” behaviors (oversimplifying: doing things for others that they can and should do for themselves, so that we don’t have to feel bad for one reason or another).
  5. Lying (or, in addict nomenclature, “manipulating”… insert tongue-in-cheek emoticon here), often, when telling the truth would be easier.
  6. Perfectionism.
  7. Control.
  8. Enduring untenable circumstances or relationships.
  9. Isolation.
  10. Ruminating.
  11. Reasoning with “unreasonable” people, or in circumstances that may not always be subject to such (there’s a large philosophical question here that can’t be addressed in a blog, hope the spirit of the thing comes through…).
  12. Self obsession.
  13. Being critical.
  14. Thoughts or attempts of suicide or related self harm.
  15. Worrying (the behavior… not to be confused with being afraid- as John Bradshaw once opined, “Worrying is like beating the drums to keep the evil spirits away.”).
  16. Pride or ego.
  17. Lashing out verbally or physically.
  18. Intellectualizing…

Et cetera.  This is clearly a truncated list, but am hoping most of us can see our most frequent responses here.  What I’m hoping to get across (at the risk of reiteration) is that these are our responses to perceived problems, and arguably, when observed, appear to be solutions that we employ to a whole host of life’s difficulties.

More striking to me is what’s absent from the list:

  1. Emotional availability, disclosure, and the like.
  2. Asking for help (having a “responsibility partner”, other similar ideas).
  3. Responsibility.
  4. Having “boundaries”.
  5. Kindness.
  6. Critical thinking skills.
  7. Service focus on others.
  8. Writing (and preferably, sharing that writing with one or more people).
  9. Art (painting, sculpture, music, performances, poetry, etc).
  10. Honesty.
  11. Support groups, 12-step meetings, or other types of community.
  12. Amends.
  13. Mindfulness.
  14. Meditation.
  15. Diet, exercise, natural healthy sleep.
  16. Being self supporting through one’s own contributions mentally, emotionally, physically and “spiritually” (for lack of a better term).
  17. Acceptance.
  18. Therapy, counseling, coaching.
  19. Community, relationships.
  20. Intimacy.
  21. “Non intervention”, being still.
  22. Forgiveness, “letting go”, and other similar solutions.
  23. Gratitude…

Seems I’m laboring the point here (hopefully in a continued effort to be helpful).  Have long looked at my own old behavior (though it still shows up sometimes!), and of course the behavior of others, and as I see “problems” come up, inevitably, I see the first set of responses above.  Often, repeatedly and perpetually for the same problem and/or new ones.  Have also observed that these responses almost inevitably make things worse, or create new problems.

While the second set of ideas don’t always “solve” things (sometimes, when honest, simply in the shadow of our own limited perspective), when practiced, my experience is that we all start to feel better about things, and certainly act better.  Very rarely, do I see the second set of  ideas create or perpetuate more problems.  Making a practice of replacing our first responses in the first section with the ideas in the second section, has been life changing for me, and lots of my clients.  If the theme rings any bells for anyone, would love to hear/see other ideas.

Attitude of Platitude

Talking with a client the other day, the subject of platitudes came up.  Many of us use them routinely.  Whether opining about inferences made, used polemically, or giving feedback to a friend or loved one, they’re used fairly often in all different kinds of discourse.  These certainly occur in therapy, twelve step programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Co-Da, ACA, Overeaters Anonymous, etc).  We hear them at church/synagogue.  They’re used copiously in political speeches and discussions.

Many years ago, a friend began saying to me when discussing platitudes, “Cliche alert!  Cliche alert!” ala the robot from “Lost in Space”.  It was his way of indicating that the user was often either not really saying anything, and/or wasn’t really aware of the content or context of the cliche being used.

One of my favorite quotes is from Gandhi: “It is because we have at this present moment everybody claiming the right of conscience without going through any discipline whatsoever that there is so much untruth being delivered to a bewildered world.”  What I think he was getting at was pretty fundamental, and horror-producing… we all claim a right to truths and perceptions without really going through any real self or “concept” examination, and impose a subsequent template on the world in its wake.

That’s a fantastic way to create and/or perpetuate problems.  Am bringing it up because it seems that platitudes are a common ways this occurs.  Not that many platitudes or cliches aren’t true, just that we often don’t seem to examine if we’re using them, truly understand them, use them in context and the like.  I often see therapists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use cliches and platitudes simply because they don’t know what else to say.

Going back to twelve step programs, one cliche that is often used is “attitude of gratitude”.  With equal measure, it seems that an “attitude of platitude” is what is often in use.  Ideas like “just do what you’re doing”, “keep it simple”, “I decide for me, you decide for you, we decide for us”, and more are arguably great ideas.  These ideas even have utility for depression, relationships, self esteem, addiction, grief, loss and more.  However, our command of the language doesn’t necessarily indicate a real handle on what they mean or how/when/what context to use them and make them practical.

You can find out more about Petar at: April30th.org

Therapy is Not the Answer

This is sort of a PSA for clients and therapists alike.  Therapy is not the answer to our problems of relationships, depression, grief/loss, addiction, taking food from others, communication, our sense of broken-ness/low self worth/shame, loneliness, etc.  Therapy isn’t just a way of being either.  It’s probably a way of being that solves these problems, and can prevent many in the future as a result.  The only exception, if seen in a particular light, might be around issues of safety that require immediate intervention.

Therapy should be a space where we work through the feelings we’re carrying with us that prevent us from coming to these answers on our own.  It’s an activity that should prompt us to be without our defenses and distractions as much as is possible, with a guide that has done enough of their own work that we can be taught how to live gracefully with these feelings, let go of them/transform them, and provide us principles and ideas that will help us not make some of these mistakes in the future.

We certainly should be giving direction about how to handle some circumstances, communicate more effectively, learning parenting and relationship skills, symptom management, relapse prevention and etc.  There should be an organized body of material to assist with these things.  They will all be rendered useless though, in absence of a principled way of operating, and or in the presence of enough emotional intensity that the tools cannot be used or we cannot see “answers” clearly or the simple consequences of not having these feelings gracefully end up exacerbating problems.

So, a suggestion.  Learn some survival skills that lend themselves to our ability to get some new ways of operating.  Have enough support from family, friends, and professionals that will enable surviving the process.  Deal with the feelings that come up, then set about “solving” things.

What to Do?

From P.16 of the PDF “Statutes and Regulations” from the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (the regulatory agency that oversees MFTs, Social Workers, and etc):

“§4980. NECESSITY OF LICENSE (a) Many California families and many individual Californians are experiencing difficulty and distress, and are in need of wise, competent, caring, compassionate, and effective counseling in order to enable them to improve and maintain healthy family relationships.”

Clients as above, come to us for wise counsel.  Among other things of course.  This idea has far-reaching implications, not just for our clients, but for us.  Wisdom is hard to come by!  Oversimplifying, “wisdom” in this case is often a euphemism for answers.

Claiming (or believing) one has wisdom or answers is of course a Bad Idea, yet it seems we have a responsibility to work toward them.  There’s some great ideas and techniques supporting the principle of not giving “answers” (suggestions, direction, etc) outright to clients (or loved ones, certainly) from the therapist’s chair.  My basic mode of operation is to try to lead someone to those answers, typically only giving direct suggestions when my efforts to lead a client to their own answers have been exhausted.

We do treat several diagnoses and/or issues that have “community standards”, fundamental practices or “conventions” most therapists agree on how to treat.  Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other more severe illnesses for instance almost always direct the client to: not “self-medicate”, takes the best supportive medication regime as directed, and is getting :talk therapy” and/or peer/familial support with their illness.  There are few that argue with the utility of these interventions.  There are other examples for addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.

Two things are of interest to me though.  The first is that during the therapeutic process, I often see clients get a suggestion, and dismiss the suggestion out of hand.  What I think is happening is that rarely do I suggest an idea that in a vacuum will ever be sufficient.  What I mean is, most any suggestions I have will never be singular.  It seems that the depth of our sadness or anxiety or pain or whatever often keeps us from “getting” what is offered, unable to accept the responsibility of taking several suggestions.  Summarizing: rarely is one idea sufficient to change anything in the therapeutic process.

The second thing that prompts me to mull this over is the “active” therapists versus the “passive” therapists.  In my view there is room (and each therapist I think, ought use) both styles, often with the same client.  There are times that we should be directive, and not just in terms of extreme examples like when a client is being abused.  Discouraging self-medicating, engaging a support group, ruling out medical concerns with a physician, ways to stop a behavior etc are all examples where there is little controversy over giving someone “direction” about an issue.

People come to us for answers.  We are paid to have a toolset, methods, principles of operating that in many cases should help diminish depression, stress, relationship conflicts, behavioral concerns and the like.  On the subject of not holding these ideas close to one’s chest: there is a great (and occasionally controversial) martial arts instructor who critiques traditional means of training, idealizing the “teacher” and etc.  He also critiques traditional martial arts training as being “cultish”- keeping secrets, claiming answers from some (out of touch and unknowable) “higher source”.  His “instructors” are all referred to as “coaches” or by their first names, and their focus is very simple: performance improvement.  That last idea is part of what I’m getting at here- the “answers” we give as therapists should improve “performance”, which I would argue is diminished if we are too passive.  It is very significant of course, that what is being improved, is clearly defined.  If we think something might be helpful though- there are certainly compelling reasons we should disclose it.

When it comes to performance, we should be helping people get more in touch with their emotional condition, have those feelings gracefully, diminish (but not eliminate) the intensity of negative emotions.  Our interventions should help decrease or stop unwanted behaviors.  The direction we give should help increase intimacy.  Of course this is not an exhaustive list, it may take a long time for these things to happen, and some cannot happen without the others.

My experience has been that many (arguably most) of my clients have come into my office, suffering enough, and out of enough answers, that they are willing to do most things we come up with together.  Had they been in possession of this material on their own to begin with, there would be no (or little) need for my education and experience with the issues they struggle with.

My effort is to put me out of a job and it does people a disservice I think, to have an insight that I wait for them to come to on their own… which they’ve already arguably been trying to do.  Sometimes I ask my clients if they have spent a great deal of time in their lives, saying something like this to themselves: “I just wish someone would tell me what to do about this.”  There are many things, that most(not necessarily all) people can do, directly, to diminish feelings of low self worth, sadness, struggles in relationships and most of the problems they come to a therapist.  If I didn’t go to school to learn to help people know and do these things, then what exactly did I go for?

What We Don’t Get Taught

Have been lucky enough to do some clinical supervision with Judy McGehee.  As I’ve mentioned before, she and some interns have been providing free services to their community for some time now.  Some concerns I’ve had with other venues of supervision have come up the last couple of times we’ve met.

Clinical supervision, like therapy, is different things to different people.  Many times it’s the opportunity to “present cases”, problem-solve clinical, legal, ethical issues and etc.  It’s also a place for us to have the opportunity to discuss or work out struggles we have as therapists- something that certainly should go on for our entire careers.

One of the things I like to do in supervision is talk about the issues that are not necessarily explicitly processed when we go to school.  There’s lots of these sorts of concerns…  how to deal with our own feelings as therapists.  Issues of responsibility- where ours are vs. where the clients’ responsibilities are, how much is “enough”, concerns when we’re sometimes working harder than the client is (or not).  Handling boundaries about parents endeavoring to influence issues discussed (or simply perspectives about them), concerns that arise in couples therapy or family therapy like one person in the “group” disclosing something that affects the others outside of the “group” proper.  How to handle when a client isn’t being honest about a problem or circumstance or behavior.  Determining how to handle “terminations”- planned discharges, “therapeutic discharges”, discharges against medical advice… sometimes when a child is “pulled” from treatment by a parent against the better judgment and suggestion of the therapist.  Speaking of, there is little discussion about how to handle referrals to other types of resources or therapists.  Specific methods to avoid (or deal with) “burnout”.  Very “nuts and bolts” concerns like documentation, treatment planning, dealing with insurance companies and such.  Fee setting.  What to do if a therapist runs into a client outside of the office or other milieu.  How to handle when a client is “stonewalling”. Handling clients that are self-medicating.  My personal favorite is specific goals and underlying philosophy of our methods as therapists.  There are many, many more.

It is of course really important to do case conference, have both group and individual forums for processing what is happening with specific clients or groups and the like.  I find it of great import too however, to discuss the above issues.  It is one thing to discuss a specific case, but I think it another to discuss what it is about that case that will come up (or has) repeatedly, in a principled manner.  Would argue too that discussing issues like responsibility, boundaries, terminations, referrals etc often lead to greater resolution with clients “in the room”, as well as provide a way of generalizing our knowledge and methods, thus making it a more organized and effective way of treating folk.

Am not suggesting that these things never occur.  It has definitely been my experience however, that most of the above ideas are not discussed in depth, if at all.  Certainly concerns of symptom ID and management, differential diagnosis, theoretical orientation and etc are of great import, but it is uncomfortable and counterintuitive to run into a circumstance that occurs frequently or that is a fundamental part of operating in our discipline (treatment planning, for example) that is largely omitted from our education.

More than anything else, I think I’m advocating for more of a focus on our underlying philosophy for employing the methods that we do as therapists.  I’m not simply trying to help someone (or their parents) improve failing grades, or get someone in a relationship to be more sensitive or attentive, or even to diminish “depression”.  What I hope to achieve in most (most) circumstances, is to:

1.  Insure safety and stability necessary to do “The Work”.  (absence of suicidality, abstinence from drugs, ETOH, or a behavior, have medical concerns be ruled out by a physician, insure that necessary resources to do the work are in place, etc)

2.  Identify “issues”- the events (relationships, circumstances, etc) or other causes that prompt us to feel mad, sad, afraid, ashamed, and/or hurt and/or “behave” in ways we struggle with.

3.  Process those issues in a way that diminishes, transforms, and/or (almost) eliminates them and subsequently behaviors, choicemaking, or perspectives that might contribute to these issues in an ongoing way.

4.  Provide a “body of material” (patient education, referral sources, resources etc) that enables the client to be able to do these things without the therapist.

5.  Insure that the client has sufficient resources (support groups, family, friends, etc) that support the work and use of that material in an ongoing way.

These are an oversimplification, but I think they go beyond simply “resolving a problem”, eliminating a behavior and etc.  Much of the inner workings of these ideas don’t get processed as much as I’d hope while we’re being educated about our discipline, but again, of course this philosophy likely exists in many of our “theoretical orientations”.  In my sense of things, the presence of such a philosophy doesn’t go far enough- we as individual therapists need to have a grasp of our own sense of these things to make them as effective as possible.

Would say further that none of this is supported unless part of our own supervision is about dealing with our own experience both as a therapist, and a person outside of therapy.  My ability to problem-solve many of the issues “not discussed” above is diminished by not having the opportunity to explore these things as part of our own clinical supervision.  The largest of these things for me are the underlying treatment philosophy, and the effectiveness and grace that I deal with my own life- including my life as a therapist.

Love and Service.

Thanks for dropping by my blog page.  As the introduction notes, I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Licensed Psychiatric Technician, and Masters level Addictions Counselor in Pasadena, California.  Though I’ve been doing some private practice for many years in addition to the twenty-six I’ve been doing inpatient work, I’ve now gone out on my own, to do just private practice.
            Providing treatment is my life’s work.  Having not just survived, but also (somewhat) gracefully dealt with some suffering of my own, I have been given not just some answers- but with those answers, also responsibility to others.  Holding on to those responsibilities is not only bad for other people, it would be unhealthy for me too.  So, very early, I started being of service.
            Having worked inpatient for so many years, I’ve been lucky (and saddened) to take care of most every type of human suffering possible.  Most of my work has been with adults and adolescents.  Depression, loss, grief, addiction, trauma, abuse, stress, mental illness (for lack of a more graceful term), relationships, desires (and need) for personal growth or “life coaching”, chronic pain, medical illnesses, family problems, couples problems and more have all been tragically present and have arguably increased over the years I’ve provided service.  There is much work to be done about all of these things and more.  It seems now that the most effective way to care for these problems is for me to see individuals, families, and couples privately.
            It was suggested by someone I consider wise that I find a way to make myself available to people when they are not able to be around me.  Aside from writing a book, providing materials from talks I do in the community, I am starting a blog.  There is much work to be done, and many answers are possible that can improve the quality of all our lives, if we’re willing to live by some principles and do some work.  My hope is that I can take you along with me as I do so, by way of communicating here.
            And so to it.

Communication With Adolescents? Communication With Everybody.

Got to do a talk with the aforementioned Judy McGehee MA, LMFT (www.mcgeheepartners.org) tonight at the “Parent Summit” organized by the Glendora School District. There were breakout sessions with different professionals and agencies providing talks on different topics. Dr. Mary Suzuki (wife of Dr. Dan Suzuki) began the session with Captain Rob Castro of Glendora PD, who discussed a previous summit focusing on adolescents and use of pharmaceuticals (illicitly).

Judy and I did a talk entitled “How to Talk so Your Kids Will Listen, How to Listen so Your Kids Will Talk”. As we discussed in our PowerPoint presentation, it became pretty clear that this was a misnomer- not only because it has more to do with relationships with kids, and further, much of the skills we discussed were relevant for most relationships in general.

During her talk, Judy identified the importance of being interested in your kids, not letting technology like cell phones and iPods get in the way of communication, ideas about developmental stages, roadblocks to communication and more. The parents and professionals who attended asked her a lot of questions about different types of age-appropriate communication, problem-solving specific issues and etc.

My talk endeavored a practical approach that highlighted suggestions to put me out of a job (one of my personal goals), principled ideas for use in communication, and some adolescent/child specific tools. We also discussed problem-solving issues like when/when not to intervene between siblings, children (who were sometimes adults in the examples) “stonewalling”, giving short and/or avoidant responses, even what might be described as resentful feelings prompting one or another to not talk all together. The details of these are of course beyond a blog.

That said though, will copy/paste some of the suggestions I had here. Any questions, ideas, encouragements etc are welcome. Again, would offer that many of these are useful in communicating with all types of people, in all different types of relationships. Here’s the abbreviated list:

• Don’t yell.
• Don’t be critical and/or judgmental.
• Don’t try to change others’ mind or behavior.
• Don’t interrupt.
• Don’t only have feelings of fear or anger, or not have feelings at all.
• Be graceful with the feelings you do have.
• Don’t interrogate. *only be a parent* (meaning, resist the temptation to be a police officer, financial adviser, career counselor, etc)
• Don’t interrupt.
• Don’t say one thing, then do another.
• If someone says something you don’t understand, ask them to explain it.
• If someone starts yelling, speak quietly.
• Avoid power struggles.
(Here is where some of the adolescent specific ideas began)
• It might be a good answer to them.
• Don’t be afraid of technology. Learn to text. Email.
• Ask their opinion.
• Tell them you love them, and what you like about them.
• Learn their language. You don’t have to use it. (www.urbandictionary.com)
• Use the “rule of five”, particularly in crisis. Five words a sentence, five letters a word.
• Find a way to be interested in them- what they think, what they like and care about, and why.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list. It also doesn’t address some of the principles that might otherwise be employed, doesn’t give some answers in context, and doesn’t explain why some of these tools might be important. Those ideas, as a rule, have to be discussed, processed. They also don’t address specifics about working through problems or issues. Most of these things are best done with a professional, over time. Hope some of these can be helpful.

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