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Archive for the ‘Marriage Counseling San Diego’ Category

Edwin Friedman compared cancer cells to immature family systems in his book entitled A FAILURE OF NERVE: LEADERSHIP IN THE AGE OF THE QUICK FIX. The comparison resonated with me. Undifferentiated cells are less mature than differentiated ones, just as undifferentiated, multigenerational family systems may reflect immaturity and undifferentiation. Both immature cancer cells and immature individuals within an emotional family system may lack the capacity to self regulate. Relationship disturbances among cells or among individuals are related to inflammatory outcomes. Chaos and aggressive behavior can take over, both in undifferentiated cells and in immature, reactive people. The comparisons are myriad and may be explored in Friedman’s intriguing book. Dr. Barbara Cunningham, licensed marriage and family therapist, invites new and continuing cancer patients who wish to process complicated and confusing emotions to call her at 619 9906203 for a complimentary consultation. Stop by her website for some free tips at www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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I woke up one day in April, 2017 to an unwelcome surprise. A grave set of medical eyes looked at me in a private hospital room to tell me they were almost certain I had the big C. The journey has been grueling and is never over; yet even in existential crises, there are silver linings. Be present. Enjoy each moment. Be a role model for bravery and resilience. Look for opportunities to laugh. Change your dietary lifestyle. Move! Nurture your friendships. Be aware that we ALL are here on a temporary lease, so ENJOY! Take one day at a time. Distraction is a wonderful defense. Stay off the message boards! Appreciate your loved ones every chance you get. Seek therapy to deal with breast cancer, if the turbulence is too rough. Feel free to call me, a seasoned traveler, at cunninghamtherapy.com. Yes you can have a complimentary consultation if you call Dr. Barbara Cunningham,at 619 9906203. Every challenge hides opportunities. Let us begin the search!

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I am ever grateful for the intense training I had and for my continuing commitment to study in Bowen Family Systems Theory. Here is a favorite quote I keep in the back of my mind when working with couples at www.cunninghamtherapy.com

“When any member of an emotional system can control his own emotional reactiveness and accurately observe the functioning of the system and his/her part in it, and can avoid counter attacking when he is provoked and when he can maintain an active relationship with the other key members without withdrawing or becoming silent, the entire system will change in a series of predictable ways.”

Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, page 486, Dr. Murray Bowen, pioneer in marriage and family therapy.

Systems couples counseling can result in transformative marital dynamics. Call Dr. Barbara Cunningham at 619 990-6203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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In my San Diego counseling practice at Cunninghamtherapy.com, I have observed a client have a “lightbulb moment” quickly when I have spontaneously come up with a good metaphor. It is sometimes effective to come up with metaphors that are related to the client’s occupation.Most of the time, a good metaphor advances a deepening dialogue and can even access unconscious material. Below are some examples of metaphors I have used (although I have never met a phor I didn’t like!)

…You are just flying through some turbulence. This, too, shall pass.

…You are actually in the vestibule (hallway) of positive, groundbreaking change if you can just find the hidden nugget in this current challenge

…Would you rather be right or be connected?

…What is your partner up against being in a relationship with YOU?

…A tug-of-war doesn’t work if only one pulls. Can you let go?

…Your dynamic is like a teeter totter. Think about your cycles of opposite postures: distancer/pursuer/ or overfunctioner/underfunctioner, or saver/spender, etc

In illustrating the dynamic in an affair, I point out to clients that a three legged stool is more stable than a two legged stool but ONLY in the short run. The relief one gets in the short run (eg “Whew, I’m not broken in love after all!”) often creates just enough complacency to gel into place the chronic problem between the original insiders and keep the problem alive.

…Marriage and family therapy is different from other mental health disciplines. It is broader. It is like climbing to the top of the bleachers to see the game from afar. Now one can see how each individual in the system plays into the gestalt instead of the typical view of the individual practitioner, who tends to view the game from the fifty yard line.

…When a client softens into a more vulnerable posture, I may tentatively ask softly, “How old are you now?”

…Use my red, Russian nesting doll set on the end table and invite thoughts of how the preceding generation in one way or another informs the next. Ask what comes to mind about that. Also, might ask a nervous client to handle the dolls—twisting and untwisting—in session.

I invite you to call me for a complimentary telephone consultation at 619 9906203. Take advantage of the seasoned services of Dr. Cunningham, MFT and begin your couples counseling or individual counseling experience with Cunninghamtherapy.com in this brand new year. You will be glad that you did!

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I am an MFT at the doctoral level. In my work at Affordable Relationship Counseling, I encourage clients to work on their current relational challenges by researching their multigenerational family stories. Over the holidays, I picked up a novel entitled BREAD GIVERS by Anzia Yezierska. I opened it without any more interest than that it was set in 1920’s Lower East Side New York and that, like the earlier experience of my maternal grandparents, it described the Jewish journey of immigrating to the U.S. from Russia during that historical period. Little did I know that within these pages, it would seem as if my mother was communicating with me from heaven about what it was really like for her as a young, Jewish girl and as a teenager. Fiction and nonfiction merged in my brain and my eyes were awash as I imagined how important the sense of belonging and material safety must have been to children of immigrants.

To differentiate a self as protagonist Sara Smolinsky did eluded my mom. Mom was a redheaded beauty. Appearances were of prime importance as providing carte blanche to becoming a successful homemaker with the means to be comfortable. My mother was the third of four. She had one sister, twelve years her senior, a brother who was nine years older and a brother three years younger.

Life was tough in NY for Jewish immigrants like the Smolinskys. Like my grandfather, Sara’s father was pious (he was an Orthodox rabbi) and also very poor. Like Sara’s mother, my maternal Bubbe did not want her daughters to waste time or money to educate themselves. She worried about them having a good life. A secure life, unlike her own hand-to-mouth struggle from day to day. She hoped that her girls’ future would be secured by a good marriage to a successful, Jewish man. This chronic anxiety about her daughters’ mating outcomes had a multigenerationally transmitted quality and, as theoretically predicted, my mother had transmitted it to me in spades. Such anxiety is rarely useful when one is of the age to settle down and be of calm enough mind to intelligently choose a mate.

After I read the last page of this novel, my understanding about so many mysteries about the marital failures in my own family had deepened. It was as if this piece of historical fiction offered me the insight I might have gained if I had gone back to visit my Mom in a Time Machine. Thank you, Anzia Yezierska!

For more information about Dr. Cunningham‘s model of practice, call 619 9906203 0r visit www.cunninghamtherapy.com

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Last Picture Mom and My Brothers were Photographed Together

LAST Photo of Family Together Left, My deceased brother, Jeffrey (9 months before his suicide and four months before his only marriage); Ex-husband, Ric; Me, Brother, Gary; nephew, Caden (Gary’s grandson); and the matriarch and glue of the family, Edythe Mark, celebrating a remarkable run of leading her family for 90 years. The occasion was a birthday surprise party for her, planned by my devoted daughters, Nicole and Allison.

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I repost this blog in honor of brothers everywhere. I deeply miss mine!

Tonight marks five years and four months since my sweet, younger brother gave up all hope for joy and a future. Instead, he broke all our hearts and ended his life. He struggled with the monkey on his back since he was thirteen. We were a middle class family, and Jeff was the youngest kid on a block of kids that stuck together like Gorilla Glue. He wanted desperately to fit in with his older brother, Gary, and the other cool boys who traveled together like a pack. As vulnerable to peer pressure as he was to pleasing his parents, my baby brother would cop an attitude and try to act the part of a street smart teen. In reality, the more the others made fun of him for being “Jargus” or called him pejorative names like “Blockhead,” the more determined he became to win acceptance by taking more and more risks.

Like teens everywhere, it was important to Jeff to belong. He never outgrew the need to be accepted to the point that he would sacrifice himself to do so. He took other people’s temperatures to determine how he should feel. His “selfhood” was defined not by his own ideas and values so much as by what he thought other important people expected of him or what he could do to belong and gain acceptance. The amount of energy he and his parents put into one another and into him determined how much he would depend upon relationship in later life to survive. He never grew away from a profound need to be cared for and nurtured to the same level he experienced with his parents as a child. It created in him extreme relationship dependence. If he believed, for example, that a teacher disliked him, he could not perform. Relationship environments that were warm and nurturing were crucial to his functioning.

Jeffrey entered the world of heroin addiction at thirteen. While the other boys experimented with heroin, Jeff married her. In fact, my brother took heroin as his mistress till the end of his life at 56 years old. His escapist behavior reflected a high level of anxiety, borne of unresolved emotional attachment to his parents. He remained a child in relation to both of them….never related adult to adult, even as an elderly man. It was difficult for him to know, for example, when one of his decisions was more reactive to someone telling him what to do ( an authority figure or even a girlfriend or the mother of his child) or when a decision was truly a reflective one. In other words, Jeff could not easily distinguish between his thoughts and his feelings. It was difficult for him to know when he was merely acting in reaction to being told what to do or when he truly was acting out of a thought out or reflective response.

As a very young child, Jeff had frequent petite mal seizures. His parents worried and took him to Mayo Clinic and myriad doctors to try to figure out what was going on and to alleviate the physical symptoms. They may have inadvertently created many of his emotional symptoms by allowing him to bend and break the rules, lest he become upset from the same consequences the other two received as a matter of course-and suffer another seizure! Because his well meaning but anxious mother and father believed his bad temper could create medical crisis, he held inordinate power in the home. Medical crisis was most certainly created anyway…the terminal illness, however, was not epilepsy, but addiction to opiates. Anxiety was ubiquitous in the household, passed frantically back and forth among family members like a hot potato.

Jeff enjoyed being indulged, yet resented Gary and Barbara as being favored for their academic achievement. Even at his mother’s 90th birthday, he made a toast to his beloved mother and publicly and proudly referred to himself as “your baby boy.”

Jeff was not permitted to learn from struggle. His parents meant well. But they overhelped, making it a foregone conclusion that he would underhelp himself when it came to overcoming his dependence upon heroin. If he had potential trouble with the law, they would hover, rushing in to rescue and to alleviate the very pain that motivates people to change. They believed they were doing the best by him, but, in reality, their parenting choices were made to calm themselves and, in the process, unwittingly rob their youngest son of normal growth and development. He would not mature, and heroin was the crutch that allowed him to ignore this developmental lag. His parents needed to maintain their anxious focus just as much as Jeff needed to fulfill their dark expectations. It was a reciprocal feedback loop. The same template of intensity…of neediness…would follow him in his adult romantic relationships. And theory suggests he would settle down with a woman needing about the same amount of attention as he needed.

Jeffrey worked with his father in the multigenerational family scrap metal business and proved himself to  be a talented-nay a gifted- entrepreneur. Money was a commodity he knew how to create and to increase. Still,the intensity between father and son was as strong as the fusion between mother and son. As the child most tied in to the family system…the epileptic one, the addicted one, and the one in the family business….the baby of the family was thus less free to grow and develop.He was always the anxious focus of his parents. The anxiety has a contagion. It is never helpful.

The individuals in this family prided themselves in being ‘”close.” Yet being very close can stifle the spirit and ultimately predict emotional cutoff. Drugs are one way people cut off from one another and even from themselves. In our family, we were so undifferentiated that if one person had an itch, everyone else scratched. It was hard to know where one family member started and the  other one ended.

When people give up “self” to the group, it is normal to feel an anxiety borne of the fear that one has allowed themselves to disappear….to be incorporated into the group. It is a survival instinct then to cut off from others if one becomes too aware that there is no “self” left. Similarly, the one who cuts off creates a reactivity in the “left” one and the distancer/pursuer dance may begin.

To some extent, we all struggle to carve a bit of individuality out of all the togetherness that is part of being a family. There are many ways people cope with the anxiety borne of this fear of being incorporated or swallowed up into a system. Some people use substance to escape their fear that they are alienated from themselves, that they are broken….broken in love.

The lack of capacity to remain connected is paradoxically related to one’s inability to hold on to oneself in relationship to important others. Furthermore, the indulged grown child may lack a belief in their own personal agency and self efficacy. Often they believe they are at the mercy of the universe and there is a desperate kind of effort to escape the inner, chronic pain of disconnection and escalating ruptured relationships. Denial and defensiveness keep these people stuck and lonely.

Jeff’s life was defined by repeated efforts to overcome opiate dependence with the accompanying crisis and relationship loss. Bridges were burned beyond repair before his fiftieth year. When complete contact with his one child was severed…a beautiful, bright,thirteen year old daughter who adored him…his life took a lethal turn for the worse. Stints in prison and debilitating depression followed that emotional cutoff, which occurred, not coincidentally, the year following his father’s death in 1997.

Jeff panicked at the prospect of losing his mother to death. He had grieved inconsolably for years, for he had lost his most prized relationship-his thirteen-year-old daughter. Additionally, he had lost huge amounts of money, reputation, a beautiful home, the freedom to live near his family in California, and, sadly, the love of his life and the mother of his daughter. After his latest stint in prison, he met a random woman in a bar and invested his heart, soul, and wallet into winning her. She was a rough woman, many years his junior. He would marry her thirteen months prior to his mother’s death.

In the end, he believed the woman exploited him. Against the advice of friends and family, he had rushed to marry her , fearing he was aging and anticipating being “utterly and completely alone.” When that marriage went South, he became frightened. Humiliated. A desperado. He packed it in. By marrying her, he had tried one last time to find an adult relational home and recoup his myriad losses over his life course. But his tendency toward fusion made him too anxious to allow himself to love or be loved. So it all went from bad to worse.  This final loss was more than he could bear. Life became stripped of meaning. No relational home seemed available to Jeff. He was terrified at the prospect of being alone.

Murray Bowen, one of the foremost pioneers of marriage and family therapy, believed family members profoundly affect one another and that death is one example of this profound interdependence. Ripple effects or emotional shock waves can usually be observed in members closest to the ill or dying member. Changes such as marriages, divorces, obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction, or even workaholism all provide escape from the emotional  processes swirling about the family system. Physical illness and even death may follow after the death of a spouse or child. Bowen defined the ” ‘Emotional Shock Wave’ as a network of underground aftershocks…occurring most often after the death or threatened death of a significant family member.” (1978). The connectedness of major life events following serious illness and death may stimulate vigorous denial of any connection between the death and the events. He believed that this denial and subsequent occurance of serious life events occurred most frequently in families with a high degree of fusion or emotional “oneness.”Grief and loss work in the form of family of origin research can help people become a bit more aware of these tendencies to be reactive to the “undifferentiated ego mass” of the family and to operate within the fusion.The effort can help them move through the grief process in a timely and healing manner and also gain more basic self in the process.

As the person in the family system who apparently absorbed much of the anxiety for the system and accommodated more than was healthy for him to do in life, Jeffrey dealt with his relational crises/mental health challenges through self medication. He had struggled since his early teens, becoming stuck in a cycle of addiction, subsequent relationship heartbreaks,and repeated incarcerations.Shame, rejection, and regret haunted him most days of his life. He tried and failed to kick over and over again, in expensive rehab after expensive rehab.

The stigma our society has placed upon seeking mental health services is dangerous, especially in a shrinking world of escalating changes occurring at breakneck speed. Suicide is a genuine health issue, like cancer or diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the tenth most common cause of death in the United States. About 30,000 people  die by suicide every year–more people than by murder or HIV.

For sibling survivors of suicide, there is never closure–only reduced frequency and intensity over time. Sibling loss is not honored as much as parental loss; yet a sibling should be in our lives longer than anyone else. It is a profound loss to be the remainder…the surviving sibling, who shares fifty per cent of our DNA and huge amounts of life experience.

My dear brother, Jeff,  had physically left the premises on a hot July night in 2012. I found his suicide note in my mailbox upon arriving home from work after nine one night, and I remember my cry sounding less than human-more like an animal howl. I knew my mother would not be much longer for this world, because they were so close as to be like one organism. She had two more years for us to love her and cherish her.

Since Jeff died on July 19, 2012 and since Mom died in March of last year, family members close to Jeff have also experienced huge changes. There have been babies born, talk of divorce, real estate deals, major moves,weight loss, new romantic partnerships, an emotional cutoff, and returns to college. Mother’s caregiver of twenty five years has suddenly developed serious cardiac problems.

Changes in reaction to entrances and exits from the family system reflect the notion that change always is accompanied by stress. The intense emotional process that defines a family system in the face of illness and death demands that individuals closest to the deceased take especially good care of themselves in the months and even years following life threatening illness and death.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham‘s systemic model of marriage and family therapy practice, visit her website at www.cunninghamtherapy.com or call her at 619 9906203 for a complimentary phone consultation. If you or someone you know is in suicidal crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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At Affordable Relationship Counseling, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, specializes in issues of grief and loss. Death, divorce, breakups, pet loss, homicide, suicide, career transitions, moves and many other changes all may herald in a period that the client may experience grief and loss. Dr. Cunningham emphasizes that all people belong to an emotional system. Emotional systems are made up of individuals, all of whom are interdependent upon one another to a greater or lesser degree. Thus, exits from the family system may create a kind of “emotional shock wave effect,” wherein relationships shift among members upon the death of an important family member.

As Dr. Cunningham experiences just such a change…the serious illness of her own mother…she is observant of the emotional process swirling about her and within her. She often advises clients not to make major decisions or changes for a year following the death of an important family member or after a divorce. This is a cautious way to insure that the brain calms down enough to make a rational decision. Homo sapiens are a social species. When we lose a profound attachment, it is an automatic impulse to grieve and even to look for a replacement love object to comfort us in our loss. The idea of doing so is normal…letting the passage of time occur to insure the decision is made with reflection is good insurance. 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 telephone consultation.

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At Affordable Relationship Counseling in San Diego, CA , licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, often sees clients who present with issues of loneliness around the holidays. It seems that people feel a heightened sense of loss around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Television, movies, magazines, and advertisments seem to emphasize pictures of happy families that are a stark contrast to what people wish they had in their own lives. Often times burned bridges and broken dreams come into bold relief at this time of the year and make it most difficult for people to get through the days of gift giving, Christmas carols, and holiday mirth. Allowing people a safe holding environment to process feelings of vulnerability may be a beginning point.  It takes courage to begin the therapy process. Talk therapy is a proven way to begin. Research has shown that isolation is not good for one’s overall health. If one is not connected, or feels isolated, one is at risk for myriad health problems. Human beings are a social species.  Adaptation to loss can, over time, bring increased integrity and deeper meaning to life. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s strength based model of practice, call 619 9906203 or visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com to get more information.

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Sex addiction is on the rise in India“Families with multiple generations of addiction often tell ‘war stories’ about the previous generation. Frequently, stories are told as jokes because they are so improbable. If grandpa was so drunk he missed the garage and drove into the living room, the family laughs as a defense against the tragedy and chaos of the event. For a child listening , such pandemonium can be concerning, but the child’s reality is everyone is laughing. The incongruity may make it hard for the child to ask questions. After all, if the situation is scary to you, but funny to everyone else, then there must be something wrong with your perceptions.”

-Dr. Patrick Carnes, Recovery Zone, Vol 1. (Pg 137)

Since San Diego’s Mayor Bob Filner has been a heated subject of controversy, the topic of sex addiction has dominated the air waves in our town. I have often depicted sex addiction as a disease of intimacy. Like all forms of addiction, I consider it an escape from uncomfortable emotions associated with close relationships with significant others. Addictive patterns that trigger compulsive behaviors often result in surges of neurochemical highs, whether from behaviors such as sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling, eating, etc., and such behavioral habits can rarely be addressed in short term behavioral therapy. It took a long time for people to be wired by their formative experiences and it will take a long time to rewire their brains to react differently.

Make no mistake, I am a great believer in the transformative power of psychotherapy. I just do not believe in tips, tricks, tools and techniques…psychotherapy should not be “showtime.” It is process. I ask my clients to trust in the process. I ask them to be patient with the process. Developing insight takes time. Hard work. Asking the right questions should generate more questions. Sex addiction, like other addictions, is an ineffective coping mechanism used to self soothe and to escape from the discomfort of intimacy.  Those who would have sex without considering longterm, potential consequences to their behavior have an opportunity to look for ways to heal the wound within, so they can, over time and with a lot of hard work,  increase their capacity for intimacy. To learn more about Dr. Barbara Cunningham, MFT, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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At Affordable Relationship Counseling, , Dr. Barbara Cunningham offers couples counseling to couples expecting their first child. She encourages new parents to seek counseling as insurance, knowing that such transitions can add stress and create challenges going forward into new roles and responsibilities. With evening hours to accommodate working couples and affordable rates, Dr. Cunningham can work with couples to get them onto a path assuring success. As wonderful and miraculous as a new baby is to both parents, all change brings with it accompanying adjustment and resultant stress. To learn more about her expert marriage counseling services, visit her website at http://www.cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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