Archive for the ‘Defensiveness’ Category

Dr. Cunningham often hears couples come to marriage counseling and relationship counseling with issues related to anger. Each partner often begins couples counseling with a wish for the therapist to “fix” the other.  Counseling aims to help each partner increase their capacity to visualize their own part in the dance. This increased self-responsility to at once be true to expressing your feelings to your intimate other and, still, to decrease blaming him/her is an overarching goal of most psychotherapy within my model, no matter what the presenting problems.

In his book entitled TO A DANCING GOD: NOTES OF A SPIRITUAL TRAVELER, Sam Keen has a dialogue with anger (pp. 114-119).  Anger 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.”

Interestingly, this quote from Keen has been backed up by specific research in the field. John Gottman’s research disspelled a prevalent myth about marriage. He found that fighting is not predictive of divorce. If couples are engaged with one another and learn principles of “fair” fighting, learning more effective ways to resolve conflict can, in fact, lead the way to deepening relational growth. Notably, important work by John Gottman identified lethal forms of communication between partners that were predictive of divorce and he called them the four “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (stonewalling, criticism, contempt, and defensiveness). He found that these communication patterns in relationships were dangerous to holding relationships on a course of stability and longevity.

Thus, Keen’s quote is backed up by Gottman’s empirical findings.  Anger that is not expressed or held back may be classified as a kind of stonewalling. So-called happy couples may be ignoring or hiding the anger that exists within and between them. Marital partners who are more able to express anger in a timely, reflective, and respectful manner, especially with a Gottman technique that he referrs to as “soft startups,”  may be more adept at repair attempts and thus are more likely to stay together in a more fulfilling way.

Anger has to be a respected member of the partnership. If not, the couple may not be genuine with themselves or with each other. Furthermore, anger unrecognized or in disguise may be more dangerous than when it is out in the open and dischargeable. Hidden anger can lead to sudden disruptions, including failure in the marriage, a damaged sex life, domestic violence, and anxious child-rearing that may even lead to child abuse. When unconscious and unexpressed anger festers, it grows and becomes regressively more primitive.

If one considers the tasks of loving from the perspective of  Bowen Family Systems Theory, lovers must also be able to establish the integrity of their separateness if they are to remain connected as effective marital partners. If partners are fused too tightly, they will not be able to come together without fearing eradication by the other. Bowen would wholeheartedly agree with Keen that lovers who can cleanly express their anger are likely to be more engaged lovers. Lovers must have a bottom line and be differentiated enough to not “cave in” or accommodate to another just because they fear losing the relationship if they do not give in. Those who can make a move for “self” are also able to freely choose to make a move for “other” instead of just going along, with resentment following closely behind. They are able to be at choice about when they wish to be separate and when they wish to be connected while, at the same, they have a greater capacity to respect a differing need for closeness and/or distance at various times in their partner.

Makeup sex often occurs without a clear resolution to existing problems. It occurs because the couple just gets tired of fighting and feeling all the  negative energy and want to restore the illusion that they are really doing ok without necessarily doing the work to get there. In my view, an accurate description of problems brought to therapy always addresses the reciprocity between a couple and one’s ability to identify or visualize one’s own part in a dynamic. The “automatic” impulse is to focus on what is wrong with other instead of working to see what one’s own part may be and then moving toward changing it. Part of the work in “fair” fighting, from my perspective, then,  is the capacity to “step up” and see what you can do to shift the unhelpful dynamic that led to the fight. Makeup sex can feel goodin the moment, but may be a mere escape from taking responsibility on your end to make things better in the longterm. Makeup sex that does not include each partner’s effort to change can feel euphoric, but without the promise of future increased connectedness. Some people have compared the feeling to getting high on cocaine.

The more you love, the more susceptible you are to being hurt. When a person is hurt, the natural response is anger in some form or other. While anger is a painful emotion, it also brings wakefulness, alertness, and, if it does not burn out of control, can even lead to clearer thinking and action about one’s own functioning in relation to important others. Anger is an emotion creeping into many of our expressions. Problems are tackled, obstacles are attacked, roadblocks are smashed, fears are conquered, and skills are mastered. I believe that it is not enough to be angry about some things.  If you can be aware of your anger, express it with an eye to including in your expression what you have done to trigger such anger-provoking behavior in another, and fight fairly, then you will discover that you can love better and not be in a state of chronic festering resentment Anger needs to be expressed and recognized as an integral part of life and living. At one time or another, it  is part of being transparent to a significant other. Being emotionally “naked” with another is difficult;  the process of this effort describes the challenges in the journey toward increasing transparency. As David Schnarch noted in his book entitled PASSIONATE MARRIAGE, this capacity to increase transparency can lead to what he refers to as ” wall socket sex.”  Certainly, the expression of anger in a nonblaming manner with an eye to what one has done to trigger the other to behave in ways that inspire anger is a helpful, systemic approach to conflict resolution. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary phone consultation.


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At Affordable Relationship Counseling in San Diego, I specialize in counseling couples for many problems, including infidelity. Recently, I had cause to reflect on the growing effects of social media on relationship functioning in today’s technologically-dominated world. In the May, 2012 issue of ATLANTIC, Stephen Marche states that “We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment…Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. ..We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”

In my practice, I often treat couples who complain of the ruptured bond between them. Some people look to escape their grief and loss instead of facing it head on. In fact, research has found that a couple waits an average of six years before seeking marriage counseling.

One of the many ways that people escape their growing sense of alienation with one another is by becoming more active on sites such as Facebook. or chatting late into the nite in internet chat rooms. Marche observes that “What Facebook has revealed about human nature…is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world.” On the internet, one can be social while still being free of the challenges inherent in relationship functioning between truly bonded people. It can be a way to feel as if one has developed an intimate relationship with someone else and yet this is a delusion. There is no need to do more than preen one’s presentation feathers and one rarely has to deal with the stuff of real relationship challenges. It is as if one is creating a flattering mirror through which to see oneself in the eyes of others who also occupy the ethernet.

Years ago, I saw a couple who came in to therapy because one of the spouses finally relinquished a “connection” which had developed over two years on the internet. The spouse involved in the internet, emotional affair had been communicating with her for years and had, in fact, never met the object of his affection. This was a key focus of the sessions. He had finally freed himself of this escape from his grief about the fracture in his primary relationship and was now ready to work on restoring a connection to his marriage. In early therapy, the wife wanted to talk about the affair and would obsess on the who, the what, and they why of how it happened and whether she could trust him ever again. This was encouraged and allowed in order to rebuild trust as the wife could observe the husband’s (encouraged) efforts at increasing his transparency, even about a subject as difficult as disclosing the details of his affair. The husband wanted to “move on” and put the affair into the past where he said “it belonged.” Such polarized efforts to deal with an affair are common. Therapy helped the husband understand the nature of healing as a process, and the import of increasing his capacity for vulnerability in front of other instead of a focus upon covering content. I allowed the couple sufficient time to process their respective thoughts, feelings, fears, and regrets.

Eventually, I suggested that a proper focus of treatment would be to get at the factors in their marriage which contributed to the affair. It was important to key in on the affair as a trauma that required healing and that each person played a part in how the marriage become susceptible to such traumatic symptomology. Questions are asked which should generate more questions. Increasing the capacity to be transparent in front of one another and to decrease defensiveness is central. A safe holding environment is created by having each partner talk through the therapist. I asked each partner to discuss what they think contributed to the affair. I wondered aloud how long there had been unspoken (and spoken) marital tension and was this a contributing factor to each person running away from facing their part in the tension as well as the reality of the broken primary bond? In what ways did the wife look to criticize and blame her spouse, in a last ditch effort to get him to connect to her? How did the other spouse accommodate and give in when it was merely to avoid “ruffling her feathers?” Could these behaviors be fertile breeding grounds for growing resentment and alienation between them? How did the cheating spouse decide to stop the affair? How long had the other spouse ignored her part in the procrastination of dealing with the growing problem of a hardened distance and rift in the marriage? How could the couple join hands to provide future immunity from affairs? What does having an affair/ignoring one’s part in criticalness, emotional distancing or blame say about the emotional maturity of each partner’s former capacity to face their relationship challenges head on? Might not coming to therapy be an opportunity to congratulate one another on their increased emotional maturity and newfound capacity to address existing problems in the maintenance and nurture of their bond? Each partner was called upon to monitor their own “automatic” tendencies to withdraw, pursue, and/or become critical and blaming. The reciprocity of accommodation and pursuit were considered as cul-de-sacs leading to growing resentment and alientation. Over time, this couple began to grow in their confidence to at once regulate themselves as individuals while at the same time maintaining connection and safety within their relationship. The work emphasized regulating self to insure the viability of the relationship connection rather than using the relationship to insure that the individual would feel like a valid human being. The rewards of therapy led them to become increasingly confident that they could continue to insure the integrity of their relationship connection .

Social media offers an ineffective and dangerous avenue of escape to people feeling the grief and loss borne of a growing disconnect from their most significant other. People who are disconnected from their primary significant other may at one time or another look to meet their connectedness needs on the internet. The avenue leads to a deadend. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary phone consultation.

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As a marriage and family therapist in San Diego, I practice couples therapy and individual therapy using an intergenerational perspective. I specialize in helping couples and individuals live more meaningfully in their most important relationships. Relationship counseling and individual counseling is better to seek sooner rather than later when one experiences chronic challenges in relational functioning. Research has shown that couples typically wait 6 years before seeking couples counseling. It is wiser to get help earlier and before problems fester, causing resentments to harden and become more resistant to treatment.

Dr. Murray Bowen was a pioneer of marriage and family therapy.   He believed that human beings live in interdependent emotional systems. His insights are profound. I am guided, in large part, by his ideas. James Framo, another early MFT leader, observed that clinically, Bowen’s ideas address the basic question of how one can deal with one’s family’s nuttiness without cutting off from the family. Just as Socrates urged people, “Know thyself,” Dr. Bowen encouraged people to “Know your family.”  Such an effort can enhance one’s ability to live in a more fulfilled way in one’s current relationships. In an early post I listed five of my favorite quotes from Murray Bowen. Below are *more quotes that typify Bowen’s deep and unique  level of understanding of the human condition:

“Family systems theory is based on the assumptions that the human is a product of evolution and that human behavior is significantly regulated by the same natural processes that regulate the behavior of all other living things….Homo sapiens are far more like other life forms than different from them.”

“One of the most important aspects of family dysfunction is an equal degree of overfunction in another part of the family system. It is factual that dysfunctioning and overfunctioning exist together. ..An example would be the dominating (overfunctioning) mother and passive father.”

“The more a therapist learns about a family, the more the family learns about itself; and the more the family learns, the more the therapist learns, in a cycle which continues.”

“The overall [clinical] goal [is] to help family members become ‘system experts’ who could know [their family system] so well that the family could readjust itself without the help of an outside expert, if and when the family system was again stressed.”

“Relationships are cyclical. There is one phase of calm, comfortable closeness. This can shift to anxious, uncomfortable overcloseness with the incorporation of the ‘self” of one by the ‘self ‘ of the other. There there is the phase of distant rejection in which the two can literally repel each other. In some families, the relationship can cycle through the phases at frequent intervals. In oher families, the cycle can stay relatively fixed for long periods.”

“The basic building block of any emotional system is the triangle. ”

“Important changes [between the couple] accompany the birth of children.”

“The problem of the ‘triangled’ child presents one of the most difficult problems in family psychotherapy.

Dr. Murray Bowen was one of the important pioneers in marriage and family therapy. As a clinician who specializes in relationship counseling, I am guided, in large part, by his ideas. To learn more about my model of practice, visit me at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

* Quotes are cited from FAMILY THERAPY IN CLINICAL PRACTICE by Murray Bowen (1978)

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Random House Webster’s Dictionary
defines “defensiveness” as “sensitive to the act of criticism.” In his book entitledWhat Predicts Divorce?” John Gottman describes four types of communication that he labels the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse. According to him, these styles of communication are not helpful and can be predictive of divorce. One of the four horsemen is defensiveness. When a partner is defensive, he or she may also saying, “I am more interested in protecting myself than caring about what you are thinking or feeling in the context of this problematic situation.”  Things can proceed downhill from there between the sparring partners.

In order to avoid provoking defensiveness in your partner, you may want to try some new self-management strategies:

1. Avoid blaming or criticizing your partner. The more your partner hears judgment and criticalness, the more he or she will place their energy into a counterattack or self-defense.

2. Try to assume a more neutral posture. Ask questions to gather information rather than to accuse. Your goal is to understand more accurately and objectively what the other person really means or believes to be the case. Remember that to make assumptions is to pose as if you have an ability to mind read (no one does!).

3. Verify what you think you heard in a tentative way that reflects your genuine effort to “get it right.” If you notice your partner’s body language, for example, conflicts with their words, notice it and ask about it. Do not let your own voice tone or body language conflict with your verbal request to understand where your partner is coming from.

4. Avoid using hyperbole-for example, do not use words such as “never” or “always.” Such “all or nothing” language serves to provoke defensiveness instead of promoting understanding. Try to stick to facts. Instead of saying, “You never want to spend time with just the two of us, ” say, “The last four times I initiated an activity for just the two of us, you said you didn’t want to do it.”

5. Listen to the “meta-content” or the message underneath the defensive or hostile statements. For example, if your partner says, “Back off! I am doing all that I can,” he may be feeling unappreciated or needing acknowledgement for his sincere efforts. When we work toward an understanding of a person’s underlying emotions and needs, it is much easier to demonstrate respect for what the other person is up against or what our own part has been in the context of problems in the relationship.

Trying to change how we communicate in our marriage or in our relationship can lead to a more harmonious union that supports the growth of one another as a result of resolving impasses. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice, visit her at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

Dr. Cunningham practices marriage counseling and relationship counseling in the heart of Mission Valley. She offers complimentary telephone consultations at 619 9906203. It takes courage to embark upon a journey of individual counseling or couples counseling. Make a move to begin such a  journey today!

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