Archive for September, 2011

Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D.  wisely observed that “Consistently responsible parents, attentive to their principles, their adult relationships, and connected to their youngsters, rear responsible children” (Connecting wth Our Children: Guiding Principles for Parents in a Troubled World, p. 36).  In marriages that are characterized by chronic conflict and/or increasing distance,  the odds increase that the children may become less and less responsible as they become increasingly symptomatic witnessing their emotionally immature parents bicker and battle in front of them. The children of warring husbands and wives can often get “caught” in the maelstrom of marital difficulties. Indeed, it is extremely challenging for children to witness fight after fight…to experience the consistent chill in the air…the ongoing and escalating tension between parents thick enough to be cut with a knife. The wounds that  are inflicted upon children as emotionally immature  parents continue their struggles with one another and move toward divorce are deep, longlasting, and can leave a multigenerational legacy. Children are often terrified as they watch their parents yell, trade sarcastic jabs,  and, ultimately, move toward the process of divorce.

Andrea Maloney-Schara defines divorce as “really just a legal agreement that grants some physical or emotional distance to two people who no longer understand each other.” What follows is a listing of some key ways to help your child survive your divorce:

As a mature and principled parent,  never allow your child to witness your rage at the other parent. To demean a child’s other parent is to diminish their own sense of self. Their sense of identity is, in large part, determined by how they view their parents. Do not allow this view to be tarnished by talking in a derogatory manner about their mother or father. Do not cast a net that allows your child to get “caught” emotionally in the bucket of troubles between the two adults.

Just as divorces can be chaotic, ugly, and drawnout, divorce can also be achieved in a calm, cooperative and reasonable way. As parents who are choosing to divorce, know that it is time to work diligently on increasing your emotional maturity. Edward Beal, author of Adult Children of Divorce, reports that it is not divorce that makes as much of a difference with children as the manner in which the mother and father divorce and the way the family reorganizes itself in the aftermath of the divorce. Do it conscientiously, carefully, and with as much self-regulation as possible. Get help with counseling to go through this process with as much integrity and maturity as you can muster!

Divorcing parents do better to avoid cutting off from one another and retaining an effective co-parenting relationship that is more than merely civil. This can be a challenge as well as an opportunity in the hard work of increasing one’s emotional maturity. This higher functioning in the face of challenge benefits all people involved. Create as positive a relationship as possible with your ex-spouse!

Never ask your child to be a message carrier between you and your ex. This places the child in the uncomfortable position of being caught in a triangle between the two of you and should be avoided at all costs!

Never discuss your ex to your child. Your child wants to be loyal to both of you.

Make it safe for your child to talk about unhappy, angry, confused or uncomfortable feelings about the divorce. You can encourage such discussions with young children with books such as Dinosaur Divorce. There are numerous books for older children with the theme of divorce. Shared reading can open a dialogue about emotions. Normalize, normalize, normalize!

Remember, you get but one opportunity to raise your child-there are no do-overs when it comes to responsible parenting. Be guided by principles that allow your child to see two people who may not have been able to make it as spouses, but who can and do work effectively and caringly as co-parents.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 990-6203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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Relationship counseling
can be an avenue of personal growth in the service of improving the connection with your partner. In my model of couples counseling, partners become increasingly aware that being in an intimate relationship over the long haul calls upon both partners to self-regulate their  reactivity to one another at various times. It also requires that partners or spouses preserve their connection with the important other without sacrificing themselves: it necessitates that each partner has the capacity to hold onto their core values, principles, and non-negotiable bottom lines. This may mean that one may, at times, have to say difficult things despite risking disapproval. Similarly, if one hears difficult material from one’s partner, there is an opportunity to reinforce growth behavior in other by affirming the openness instead of clobbering one’s mate for being transparent just because what they had to say made us feel uncomfortable. Thus, it is in the context of relationship functioning that one can transcend self and move onto a path of personal growth. In his 1996  article entitled “Affect and the redefinition of intimacy” (In: Knowing, Feeling, Affect, Script and Psychotherapy, ed. D. Nathanson, New York: Norton, pp. 55-104), V. Kelly makes some important observations about relationships. What follows below is a direct quote of this material (and reflects my thinking on part of  what the the work should entail in relationship counseling):

“All close relationships require proximity that causes us to step on each other’s toes. If, for whatever reason, one does not say ‘ouch’ and communicate the distress experienced as a result of the other’s actions, a complex dilemma is created. The need to disguise the distress causes the inmost self to be hidden from the other. The distress, if unrelieved, eventually triggers anger and resentment that must also be hidden. This causes further withdrawal and hiding of the inmost self. The other, perhaps not even aware of the offense, experiences feeling of rejection triggered by the withdrawal, without information adequate to allow reestablishment of the intimate bond. Now hurt, this other may also resort to withdrawal, thus setting in motion a recursive loop of rejection and hurt” [pp. 87-88].

Understanding that the withholding of important emotions can be just as damaging to a relationship as perpetual nagging about intense emotions is only part of what one has to “get” in therapy. It is the co-determined nature of this dance that is also important. How often are our responses simply reactivity in response to our partner and how often are our responses truly reflective? This ability to know the difference between reactivity and reflectivity is part of  the art of living in relationships in a fulfilling way. On one hand, to be able to identify within ourselves when we are being reactive and when we are being reflective takes skill and sometimes patience (sometimes we just have to “buy time” and calm down before taking any action or saying something about a sensitive subject). Knowing how to stay connected to one’s partner while still preserving some separateness takes effort, emotional ambition, and continued practice. It is important to appreciate that the expression of one’s emotions is primarily relational. At Affordable Relationship Counseling, work is focused upon helping each partner identify and then modify their part in the relational dance to increase mutual satisfaction. Such an effort often results in personal growth as a result of learning new principles to address challenges one may have in remaining in a relationship.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of marriage counseling, couples counseling and individual counseling, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call her at 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation .

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At her Affordable Relationship Counseling practice in Mission Valley, San Diego’s Dr. Barbara Cunningham encourages couples and spouses to make time for a weekly date night. Below are some ideas for romantic date nights in San Diego:

Go to La Shores and walk around. Build a bonfire. View the sunset. Or take a bike and then have a picnic on the grass.

Watch the fireworks from Sea World–enjoy an awesome evening under the stars after a glass of wine at sunset on Mission Bay.

Take a sunset or winetasting cruise through the waters of Coronado Island. Cruising through the water in a gondola–can you think of anything more romantic?

Take a horse drawn carriage ride through Balboa Park or ride along the coast in your Cinderella carriage.

Go to a drive-in movie (South Bay Drive-In Theatre, 2170 Coronado Ave, San Diego, CA 92154)

Have dinner and hear live music at Anthropology (1337 India Street, San Diego, CA 92101)–very intimate setting!

Take a blanket, a picnic, and people watch in Balboa Park after choosing one of many museums to explore. Then go to Screen on the Green (1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101)

Date nights that occur weekly build the connection between you. Do not let other things knock this important time off the calendar. Find a good babysitter. Make your time together each week sacred. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham‘s model of practice, visit her web site at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary consultation.

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An enduring and fulfilling marriage reflects emotional maturity and mastery on the part of both partners. Is it healthy to express anger in your marriage? In TO A DANCING GOD, Sam Keen says “Yes.” He has a dialogue with anger (pp. 114-119). Writing in the persona of anger, he says, “If you doubt that I am the companion of love, remember the ecstasy of the reconciliation that comes after fighting. After a good expression of clean anger, lovers have established the integrity of their separateness, and they may come together without fearing that either will be eradicated by the act of love. If you can’t fight, you can’t love.”  I do not completely completely agree with Keen in his connecting the expression of anger with healthy partnership. I believe it IS important to hold onto oneself in a partnership. There are contexts in which it is perfectly valid to be angry at another. At other times, one is merely “spewing” one’s own anxiety about self onto other and/or one has an “agenda” to get the other person to change-to “fix” what is wrong with THEM. Good couples therapy assists each partner in their effort to identify and then change their part in an unhelpful dynamic.

In other places on my blog, I have emphasized that two strong “I’s make the most enduring and stable “we.” Whether the anger is really reactivity aimed at manipulating or changing another to suit you is the question one needs to ask oneself when angry. While a lot of people will swear to the heightened pleasure they feel from “make up sex,” this pleasure may be had without any real effort to arrive at increased mutual understanding and compassion for what each other may be up against. It may be based upon coming together after fearing the growing distance between you. It may be less about the healthiness of a clean expression of anger and more about soothing anxiety after the distance from a fight. The couple come back together and enjoy the momentary warm and fuzzy return to closeness. However, the intimacy is illusory and not based on resolution of any  of the issues that created an impasse and led to the explosive argument. In fact, nothing has been addressed and resolved. Is your anger  valid ?  Or is it an attempt to make the other person change instead of owning up to what YOU need to do to make things better in the relationship?

Reactivity in any form, including anger, may or may not be a reliable indicator of one’s true position after calming down and really thinking through what is going on between you. The propensity to blame another for the situation ignores the systemic and co-determined nature of troublesome dynamics.

Make no mistake.  Anger is real. It is powerful. A good rule of thumb:  Do not act upon it until you buy some time.  Take time to cool down. Self-soothe. Think. Reconsider. Then reconsider again. Try to see your own part in the dynamic. Take on these challenges. Then revisit the problem.

I agree with marriage and family pioneers, Michael Kerr and Murray Bowen. In their classic work entitled FAMILY EVALUATION (1988), the reader is called upon to consider the uses of anger in a close relationship. Is someone “angry” because they are merely emotionally reactive to another or are they taking a reflectively determined posture for self? As Kerr and Bowen (1988) assert, “Everybody proclaims the importance of being a self, but much of what is done under that rubric is selfish and fails to respect others. Many so-called ‘I’ positions are really attempts to get others to change or are attempts to pry oneself loose from emotionally intense situations” (p. 108). Such efforts may reflect an inability to see one’s own part in the problem or an unwillingness to take responsiblity for one’s own contribution to a reactive dynamic.  Anxiety that gathers steam between two people often produces polarizing postures that are critical and blaming (or even revert to contempt) of one another. This propensity toward blame is a red flag for people who are getting stuck in the mire of relationship trouble. They are unable to see their contribution to the co-determined dysfunctional dynamic.

An effort toward differentiation of self puts no pressure on others to change. There is a realization that the more one pressures another to change, the more that person will “push back” and remain the same. Most importantly, being a principle-driven self is not conditional–it does not require the other person’s cooperation. It is not about, “Well, if only HE would begin to (fill in the blank), then I COULD (fill in the blank).  It is key to realize that differentiated positions are not fueled by anger or righteous postures. As Kerr and Bowen insightfully point out (p. 108), “Anger can sometimes be a stimulus to clarify one’s thinking, but it is not a reliable guide for action. When someone angrily and dogmatically claims to be a ‘self,’ he is usually unsure of his position and is blaming others for his plight in life….Differentiation is a product of a way of thinking that translates into a way of being. It is not a therapeutic technique. Techniques are borne out of efforts to change others.” Amen.

Dr. Cunningham practices in the heart of Mission Valley and offers evening hours and a complimentary phone consultation. To get more information, call her at 619 9906203 or visit her at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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