Divorce recovery

Divorce can drain the life out of life. But a bad relationship can too. People over the age of 50 have unique challenges after breakups.

John Gottman, Ph.D. has studied married couples for decades, but his research can apply to any relationship, not just married couples. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (2015), he describes attributes of relationships that he predicts “with 90% accuracy” will end. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. No one enters a relationship with these attributes; they develop over time. Unfortunately, many divorcing couples carry these attributes into the negotiations and courtroom.

divorce recoveryJohn*, 50, lives in a rented apartment in the same town he and his wife had lived for the past 22 years. John liked being married. He envisioned “growing old” with his wife. But two months ago, she said that she had “had enough” and wanted a divorce. Over the years, John’s wife had complained that John never listened or talked about anything meaningful in their relationship. John said he didn’t like confrontation and avoided conversations about feelings. His wife had tried over the years to “make the relationship work,” adjusting her personality to meet his needs. When she finally hired an attorney and froze the marital assets, she had reached the just-get-me-out-of-here stage. She was stuck in anything-to-stop-the-pain thinking. Their children were disappointed but not surprised. John ruminates about what went wrong and worries about how, at his age, he will ever recover. He feels a sense of relief from his wife’s “emotions” and her “demands for more intimacy” but he misses her too. Without attention to healing, a loss of this magnitude has the potential to become a permanent state of inertia, sadness, or resentment. It doesn’t have to be, though.

First let’s acknowledge what’s happened. Divorce is a loss, a big loss, on the magnitude of death. Unlike losing someone to death though, there are no grieving ceremonies, no neighbors bringing food, friends calling to ask how you’re doing. You may have a few close friends who understand, but for the most part, you’ll mourn the losses of divorce alone. What did you lose? There might be an initial finally free feeling. But what about the dreams you had, the plans, a future with someone, a connection to another human being, social status, the list is long and personal.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross observed five stages of grief that she describes in her book On Death and Dying. The stages apply to any loss, divorce too: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, hopefully, acceptance. There may also be a stage of elation or relief.

Like healing from a death, the recovery process from divorce or breakup is not linear. The stages are not guaranteed or experienced by everyone in the same way or in any order. You may have heard stories of people who “don’t miss a beat” and get out right away to meet people, have fun, and celebrate their new-found freedom. They are the exception.

John is stuck. He’s not living in the present. He can’t. The past is creeping into the present and the present has become so painful he experiences physical symptoms. He doesn’t sleep through the night, he cries every night, he has lost his appetite, and has little energy. His mind, body, spirit, and heart have been assaulted by the trauma of the separation and the loss of the most important relationship in his life.

Divorce is personal

Keep in mind that every divorce is different; every healing process unique. There are no guarantees for recovery; no time line anyone can point to and say, “You are here and in six months you’ll be there.” Initially, like John, being left can result in a state of shock. Emotional numbness. Feeling like you’ve been run over by a truck or ripped in half. You might not even be able to take care of yourself. Asking friends and family members for TLC is a good idea if you can do that. Support groups, therapy, also good ideas.

If not shock, you might feel buried by an avalanche of emotions. All at once. All at extreme levels. Sadness. Elation. Fear. Anger. Loneliness. Despair. Confusion.

Divorce and the past, present, future

Past Whether painful experiences happened twenty years ago or twenty minutes ago, the human brain is wired to hold on to them. That’s why you’ll think about a conversation you had with your partner, or ex-partner, over and over and over again. Or think “what if” or “if only.” Remembering scary, painful events supposedly protects us from getting hurt again. Usually, though, we just continue to feel the pain. When we’ve experienced too much pain, like John, some of us shut down. Or we react to real and perceived situations on autopilot, often with unpleasant results. We relive, not learn from,  the unpleasant situation. Strategy #1: When you catch yourself reliving the past, distract yourself into the present. Listen to music, go for a walk, eat a lemon, hold an ice cube. Rub an essential oil in your hands and smell it. “I am here. He (she) can’t hurt me anymore.”

Future The future you thought you were headed for is gone. Your new future is unknown. Future thinking includes worry and fear, feelings about real or imagined difficulties with health, finances, relationships, children. Some people might call this anxiety or stress. Another survival mechanism, worry and fear about what could happen offers an opportunity to plan for the future. But excessive worrying or fear serves no purpose and can prevent planning, which involves thinking, not feeling. Strategy #2: When you catch yourself worrying about finances or being alone, ask yourself to put that worry aside just for a minute. Time yourself. Take a few deep breaths, then ask, “What can I do now to prevent that from happening?” If nothing, then ask, “What are the other possible futures?”

Present The present is all that we have. But when the present is too painful, we’ve got to go somewhere. Be especially careful to avoid using substances and other unhealthy activities to escape. Sometimes all we can do is focus on the moment. Take a long deep breath. Smile (even if you don’t want to). Exhale. Savor the moment.

The past is gone. We cannot predict the future. Talking with a trained professional can help you to heal from past hurt and reduce worry about the future so you can live a more satisfying life now. The present is not always pleasant, but it is a real experience rather than imagined or remembered. Some effective ways to do that are:

  • Mindful awareness, meditation, or learning to live in the moment with awareness of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and behaviors. Living mindfully can reduce worries about the future (anxiety) and unpleasant feelings about the past (sadness, anger, betrayal, shame). Try this: Take a long breath in. Exhale. Do that ten times and count “Breath in one. Breath out one. Breath in two. Breath out two.” And so on.
  • Emotion regulation You can learn to harness the power of your emotions and reduce reactivity (acting without thinking).
  • Self-knowledge Learn about who you are, how you relate to yourself, and how you relate to others.
  • Self-care You can learn to be more kind to yourself and to value your feelings, thoughts, hopes, dreams, and desires. You can learn to take yourself seriously while making time for play, relaxation, and enjoyment. You can learn to forgive yourself for being human (we all make mistakes). And learn to accept kindness from others while being more kind and respectful even when you disagree. Learn to respect boundaries (yours and others’). Of course, self-care also means knowing who to stay away from.

This is another example of the importance of being aware of habits that don’t serve you and practicing habits that do.

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*John is a fictional character; image from canstockphoto.com

Kubler-Ross, E. (2014). On death and dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy and their own families. New York: Scribner.

Therapy and Happiness

Unresolved trauma can develop into a stuck place of remembering painful experiences over and over and over without resolution or relief.
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. —Maya Angelou*

We need courage, and other people, to find our way out of the cycle of pain.

childhood traumaJenna*, a 38-year-old single woman, feels her biological clock ticking. Jenna has had several relationships that lasted months, but never years. Jenna met each potential partner at a club after a few drinks when her inhibitions and judgment were low. The relationships became physical right away. Before long, Jenna found herself again “in love” with a man who reminded her of her father. Charismatic but lacking insight or compassion, the man would distance himself and eventually wander away from her. This caused Jenna so much pain, she would yell at and criticize her potential life partner. The more he pulled away, the more she yelled; the more she yelled, the more he pulled away. It was a vicious cycle. After each breakup, Jenna regressed to her frightened 9-year-old self who huddled in her room whenever her parents fought. An only child, Jenna had hoped her parents would get divorced or die, then worried that her thoughts might hurt them and that the fighting was her fault. Jenna’s parents were heavy drinkers. They were so consumed with their addictions and each other, they paid little attention to Jenna. The memories intrude on Jenna and cause her to feel shame and sadness. She thinks about doing something to relieve the pain. Twelve-step programs are a good start, group and individual therapy could be helpful as well.

There’s nothing “wrong” with Jenna. Jenna did all she could, with the emotional skills available to her at the time, to survive a scary and difficult childhood. Unmanageable fear, anger, and sadness are common in adults who have had traumatic childhoods. So is avoiding social interactions, and fighting. The memories become an inner critic that reflects the voices heard, a voice that says, “You’re a no good, unworthy, loser.” Painful messages to hear; shameful concepts to talk about. So, I am not surprised when I hear people say that therapy is not for her or him because, they don’t want to talk about the wrenching pain of the past. Sometimes it’s too much to think about.

Yet, summoning the courage to tell your story to another person in “talk therapy” has been shown to be effective in healing from trauma. Doing so means taking a risk that the other person will listen without judgment or criticism and will understand what you’ve experienced, what you feel.

Therapy doesn’t stop there. Not anymore. Talking about painful memories is only part of the healing process. We’ve learned that only focusing on pain and suffering or anger and fear does not lead to healing as originally thought. To heal, we need a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel, hope, something to replace the pain and rewire the brain. So, while it’s important to acknowledge the pain, fear, sadness, and anger, it’s also important to actively work toward recovery and happiness.

Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman, PhD. is the founder of Positive Psychology. He discovered and studied learned helplessness, a response to repeated unsuccessful attempts to escape pain and threat. In Authentic Happiness, (2002, p. 28) he describes a conversation that he had with his then 5-year-old daughter, Nikki. He had snapped at her for dancing and throwing weeds in the air while he was gardening. She walked away and after a few minutes returned to tell her father that if she could stop whining, which she had, he could stop being a grouch. This conversation changed the direction of Dr. Seligman’s work, which has had a profound effect on the way we think about the human experience, psychology, therapy, and our clients.

Research indicates that the essential ingredients for living a long, healthy, satisfying life are: close connections with others, a purpose higher than oneself, a genetically set high base-level of happiness, and daily habits that support and increase happiness. Money helps too, but only to a certain degree.

Close connections with others

You may be one of the fortunate few who has a loving family, close friends, a kind and caring life partner. But what if you are less fortunate. What if you have a dysfunctional family of origin, no close friends, and no partner. Can you still be happy? Maybe. Depends on what you’re willing to change. Introverts particularly find the emphasis on relationships to be, shall we say, annoying extroverted thinking. While you may want more satisfying relationships, that may not be your top priority. If it is, are you willing to take classes, join social groups, or safely meet people online?

Purpose higher than yourself

This can be a career, a volunteer job, being a parent, a good friend, or even attitude. In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman tells the story about visiting a close friend who was a patient at the hospital. The man was in a coma and his neurologist had just asked Dr. Seligman to sign a release to take the man off life support. A few minutes later, a hospital employee came into the room. He was taking deliberate time deciding which pictures to take down and which pictures to hang on the walls in the room. Dr. Seligman, the curious scientist, asked the man about his job. He said, “I’m an orderly on this floor…I bring in prints and photos every week. You see, I’m responsible for the health of all these patients. Take Mr. Miller here. He hasn’t woken up since they brought him in, but when he does, I want to make sure he sees beautiful things right away” (pp. 167-168). The orderly did not have a big shiny career with a lot of status. He had turned what he did have into a purpose higher than himself.

Base-level of happiness

Some people are born with a cheerier disposition than others. You can see that in any newborn nursery. One baby is more sensitive to stimuli than another. One cries more. Another sleeps quietly most of the day. Research indicates that we have a genetic set point. I am not convinced that this cannot change, but the science indicates it cannot. In any case, yours is fine, whatever it is. Just know that while the base level may not change, another whopping 40% of our perception of happiness can change. To learn more about this, read Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s work and her blog on Psychology Today’s web site. She studies and teaches the science of happiness at the University of California Riverside.

Habits that support and increase happiness

This is where the exciting news lies. If you are not as happy as you would like to be, are you are cultivating happiness in all the right places? Or are you focusing too much on momentary pleasure and not enough on the bigger picture? Neuroscientists have confirmed with fMRI’s and other technology that habits, reactions, patterns of behavior and relating, are not set in concrete as originally thought. The brain has the “smarts” to change. You are what you practice.

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.

Mahatma Gandhi

Some therapists have moved so far away from the “what’s wrong” medical approach, that we don’t even refer to people in therapy as patients. We see the work as a collaborative process and the client as the expert with agency in her or his life.

Certainly, there is  still a need for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses, many of which require psychiatric intervention and medication to manage symptoms. But the people I see are seeking, in one way or another, relief from pain and more happiness in life.

*Found on Brainy Quote.com

**Jenna is a fictional character; photo from canstockphoto.com.

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If this topic interests you, go a little further and visit with the founder and major contributors to Positive Psychology:

Breaking up…so hard to do

Breaking up is hard to do. It doesn’t matter if you’ve ended a marriage, living arrangement, or friendship. Losing someone you care about takes its toll. Especially when it ends like this…

Break up recoveryJulie and Jim* dated for several years. Theirs was an on-again, off-again relationship. When Jim needed or wanted Julie in his life, they were on; when he needed space, it was off. Julie wanted a long-term relationship; Jim said he wanted one too. Julie often suggested they “talk,” but Jim was always too busy. One day, seemingly out of the blue, Jim sent Julie a text message saying he did not want to see her anymore. Julie was stunned. She called, texted, and emailed Jim saying “we can work this out.” After weeks without a response, she suggested “Let’s talk…just one more time, for closure.” Jim would have none of it. He blocked her phone, blocked her from his social media sites, and disappeared behind an impenetrable wall. He was done. He had moved on. “How could this happen?” she thought. “We just spent a beautiful weekend together.”

Break up recovery

Emotional cutoff hurts. Being left without an opportunity for closure can leave you feeling powerless, flattened, in shock. In the beginning, all of your energy and attention rushes to thoughts about what you could have done differently. What you did wrong. But maybe it wasn’t you.

Break up recovery starts there.

Maybe..

  • the breakup is not your fault.
  • the breakup is no one’s fault.
  • the person you wanted to build a relationship with lacks the tools or the skills to tolerate intimacy.
  • you lack the tools or skills to tolerate certain emotions or intimacy.
  • you and your partner grew apart.
  • you and your partner were never a good match for each other.

And while those thoughts may not lessen your disappointment and pain, it can give you a perspective you can work with.

Regardless of what happened and who did what to whom, breaking up hurts. It’s not uncommon to feel angry, resentful, sad, lonely**, fragile, scared. Sometimes all at once. Fear of the unknown and sadness over what’s been lost are common. Activities that used to be fun now remind you of her or him. A song, a fragrance, or visit to her or his social media page can elicit torrents of tears. And what are you doing there anyway? You might eat more or lose weight. Sleep more or wake in the middle of the night. Energy? Pfft. What’s that? Research compares breakup recovery to addiction recovery and you are in withdrawal.

I have suggested, and this metaphor seems to help, that you are in ICU and need lots of TLC or in today’s terminology, self-care. If you have friends and family who can visit you and check your temperature (listen), great. If not, how can you take care of yourself?

  1. First, acknowledge the loss. Cry. Shake. Rant. It’s not just the relationship you’ve lost, it’s your identity, your go-to person, mutual friends, quality of life, your routine, financial stability. Losing a relationship is a kind of death. Denial, Anger, Negotiation, Depression, Acceptance. Sound familiar? They are the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stages of grief.
  2. Second, when you are ready, and even if you’re not, start building a new life for yourself. That does not mean getting on Match.com or OKCupid. Get out of the house. Exercise. Walk around the block. Meet a friend for coffee. Practice gratitude. Take a breath. Therapy can help.
  3. Discover who you are now that you’re not you and ____. This is the exciting part of the process. Scary at first because you might not even recognize your face in the mirror. As half of a couple, you might have made compromises, been influenced by what she/he wants or needs, and put YOU on hold.
  4. Now is the time to try something you’ve been putting off because it didn’t fit with the we that was. Take a class or just a new route home from work. Read poetry. Stop at the beach and watch the sunset. Let your imagination soar. You get the idea. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to do this.

With patience and work (yes this will take effort), the worst thing that ever happened to you just could turn out to be the beginning of the best of you. According to Gary Lewandowski, a psychologist at Monmouth University, who is quoted in this January 15, 2015 NPR article, “Coping with breakups can help people realize how resilient they are…”

If you have children, be sure to consider their feelings in everything you do. Children do much better when parents don’t argue in front of them.

*Julie and Jim are fictional characters in a fictional relationship. Their roles could be reversed. People like Julie and Jim could be in your life or in the news. They are everywhere.

**When you think about it, you’re now part of the main stream. More than 50% of adults living in the US are unmarried. Now if we can just find a way for everyone to meet each other…

Gary Lewandowski’s Ted Talk Break-Ups Don’t Have to Leave You Broken.

Change and the elephant

What happens when you hear the word “change”? Do you smile? Jump for joy? Throw your arms in the air and shout YES? If you’re like most people, probably not. You are more likely to break out in a sweat and head for the nearest exit.

When I think of change, I think of Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor (The Happiness Hypothesis, 2006) of a rider on an elephant. Think of the rider as logical brain; elephant as emotional brain. Rider is desire to change; elephant is old habits. When rider and elephant live in harmony, changing direction happens seamlessly. The elephant and rider turn left, turn right, in sync. Change and the elephantWhen there’s discord between rider and elephant, changing direction looks more like:

“Go this way,” the rider commands with enthusiastic energy.

The elephant says, “Not today.”

Decisions to find a new job, stop addictive or impulsive habits, thoughts to let go of a relationship or to start a new one, in other words, change, haven’t got a chance. Like New Year’s resolutions.

David*

David is 25. He graduated from a four-year college two years ago and has been working part-time at a job he knows is not his life’s work. David lives at home with his single mom and sister because he can’t afford to pay rent and his student loan. He spends hours watching YouTube and playing video games (his old habits). David wants to “move on” with his life, move into an apartment of his own, and meet a woman he can develop a long-term relationship with (new habits). He knows that the apartment is going to take some time. So, he’s decided to focus his energies on meeting someone to date. He’s thought about taking a class to learn Italian, or cooking, or salsa dancing. He’s thought about joining a Meet-up for volleyball or bicycling, or just hanging out. He’s looked at online dating sites.

David has thought of many viable ways to meet women. But, he’s not willing or able to take action. “I’ll get around to it one of these days,” he tells his younger sister, who has taken an interest in his dilemma and made one suggestion. “Just do it,” she says.

Well…sometimes, taking action is not that simple.

The risk of change

David wants change. But David doesn’t want to risk losing the comfort of old habits, such as giving up some of his video game and YouTube time and the comfort of his own company. Like warm jammies on a cool day, old habits are familiar and feel good. For a while. Until you want to change.

We can speculate, based on our own experiences, the risks involved. In terms of the rider and elephant, the rider is only thinking about how cool change will be. But the elephant knows that risk means there’s a chance that the outcome will be different than what we hope it will be. Not different in a good way, as in better than expected, but different in a bad way.

“…there is one person in each body, but in some ways we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together to do a job, but who often find themselves working at cross purposes” (Haidt, 2006, p. 5).

For David and his desire to meet women, the committee might sound like this:

  • “Meet strangers? Are you kidding?” says  the introvert.
  • “No way you’re doing that!” says the stern parent.
  • “That sounds like so much fun!” says the playful child.
  • “Remember that time in elementary school when those kids made fun of you? Do you want that to happen again?” says the wounded child.
  • “No one wants to meet you. You live with your mom! ” says the critic.
  • “Stay home where you’re safe and comfortable,” says the helicopter parent.

You can see how internal discourse can lead to inertia.

The good news

There are several strategies you can try for any change you want to make. Be curious. Think of this as an experiment.

First, become aware of the committee members’ messages. We all have inner voices. Listen to yours. Hear what you’re telling yourself.

Next, evaluate each message. Some are useful; others unhelpful relics from your past. Jot the messages down in your phone or tablet while you’re waiting for your food order at your favorite take-out place. Seeing these messages in black and white can help you decide which ones to keep and which ones you want to replace with more useful messages.

Third, plan ahead. Practice your worst nightmare. Let’s say that like David, you want to meet new people. You’ve gotten yourself to an event where you know no one. You see small groups of people talking with each other. You walk up to one of the groups and no one invites you into the conversation. So you just stand there.

What if, instead of standing there, you planned ahead to say, “Hi. I’m new here and I don’t know anyone. Can I join your conversation?” A little awkward maybe, but you can come up with your own words. Smiling and feeling calm in challenging situations can help too. Now imagine the same scene, but the group opens up and people say they’re really glad you came and want to get to know you. People sense when another person’s mind and body are relaxed. They also sense when mind-body is tense.

Consider the reality of meeting someone new. Some people are friendly and welcoming and some people are snarky and cold. Some people only want to talk about themselves; others have nothing interesting to say. Some people are fun; others not so much. Some people have their own unresolved issues. The kids in elementary school did hurt your feelings. You do have to be aware and somewhat careful about who you develop a relationship with. You never know who you’re meeting.

With change, we generally think about how the change will make us happier. We expect to do better, improve our quality of life, move up, expand, acquire more.

Yet, when the elephant or the less enthusiastic Committee Members and old habits take over, we back away from change.

Tone down the critic

With awareness, you can work towards adjusting the volume of the committee members. Turn up the encouraging voices; turn down the critics and doubters. Be patient with yourself, your committee members, the rider and the elephant. And practice. Change does not usually happen overnight.

“Go this way,” the rider commands with enthusiastic energy. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”

The elephant responds accordingly. “Okay. Maybe,” she says.

Remember this: you may have to persuade your elephant with kindness, compassion, patience, and peanuts (Haidt, 2006, p. 38). With as much awareness as you can tolerate, and all the support you can find for yourself, see if you can jump in and try (again). Start small. Mindfulness is effective for developing awareness and calm, as is therapy, support groups, self-talk, and education.

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*David is a fictional character; photo from canstockphoto.com.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books.

Jonathan Haidt’s web site

The Therapy Decision

Going into therapy is a BIG decision. It’s not unusual to think about it for a while, sometimes a long while (weeks, months, years). And for good reason.

First there’s the investment of time, energy, and money. Then there’s the decision about who to see…there are so many therapists to choose from…and the concerns about what it means to be in therapy.

Linda England, MFT InternMarie*

Marie, a 45-year-old single woman with no children, has a successful career managing the customer support department of a mid-sized corporation. Marie  takes relatively good care of her health. She exercises, eats right, has regular medical check-ups. Her blood pressure is a little high, but “nothing to worry about.” She brings work home and watches the news every weeknight; and gardens in her backyard on weekends. She goes to the movies with friends once a month. Her last intimate relationship ended three years ago when her fiancé broke off their engagement. He said, “You work too much and you don’t seem all that interested in me.” When she thinks of that relationship, she remembers her parents arguing about all of the time her dad spent away from home. “Let it go,” she tells herself. “That was so long ago.” Marie considers going into therapy, but puts it off because, she thinks, “My problems aren’t that big or bad.”

Marie*, like many people, is functioning well enough in life but wonder “Is this all there is?”

Unlike Marie, you may have problems you that are making life less pleasant than you would like. Big problems. If that’s the case, certainly therapy is an option for you. Support groups are good too, but sometimes we all need someone to talk to in private, one-on-one.

People like Marie, in addition to thinking “My problems aren’t that bad,” might also think that therapy means being crazy, weak, sensitive, unsure, or insecure. Maybe you think people will judge you for being in therapy (some will).

Misconceptions about therapy

Misconceptions about therapy are not uncommon. For starters, you won’t lie on a couch, unless you want to. The therapist should be interested in what you’ve experienced in your life, what’s happened and what is happening with you, not what’s “wrong” with you. In the best of situations, you will work collaboratively with your therapist and talk about what’s important to you, not what’s going on with the therapist. The therapist will probably ask you questions and make comments, but they should be about you, not the therapist. You have a choice to answer questions or not answer; saying no is an acceptable response. You can cry, express anger, talk about fears and worries, laugh, and smile. You can even disagree with your therapist. I suggest that clients disagree with me if I interpret something they’ve said incorrectly or made an interpretation that does not “fit.” Disagreeing with others is part of developing agency and trust in yourself.

The contemporary view of therapy is that it’s a time and space that you set aside each week to explore your inner world,  your life, your relationships, your past, present, and future in a safe, confidential environment with a person who has your best interests in mind always. Your therapist is your advocate and should want to help you to have a more satisfying and meaningful life. If you do not want to have a more satisfying and meaningful life, then you might talk about that in your first session. If your therapist is not working with you to get there, consider looking for a different therapist.

Next: 10 FAQs about therapy

*Marie is a fictional character; stock photo.

Couples and communication

Carl Rogers, the founder of the Humanistic Psychology Movement, defined congruence in individuals as the “…matching of experience, awareness, and communication” (p.339). Rogers hypothesized that congruence leads to discovery and acceptance of your authentic self, a more meaningful life, and ultimately to being happier.

Incongruence can lead to low self-esteem, feeling unloved or not belonging, or a sense that something isn’t quite right. Congruence or incongruence has an effect on your relationships, too. Consider the story of Mark and Sara*:

Couple CounselingMark and Sara

Mark and Sara dated in high school and married after graduating college. Theirs is a “traditional” arrangement. Sara left her job to stay home and raise their two children while Mark supported the family financially. Mark’s work involved a lot of travel, business meetings, and late hours until recently. The couple owns a house, a vacation property, a retirement fund. They have many friends and acquaintances. Their children’s successful careers and future grandchildren are sources of pride for them.

Like many couples in mid-life, Mark and Sara have completed the tasks of raising and launching their children. As they enter this new phase, the empty nest, they have to learn how to communicate and be a couple again.

When their lives were busy building and raising a family, communication was active, driven, purposeful. Conversation flowed. When Mark was in town, they talked about the children, about the house, about taking care of the family’s needs. Now that the children have lives of their own, Mark and Sara don’t find much to talk about. They have some awareness about how they feel, but they’ve lost touch with themselves and each other. Their relationship has become dull, lifeless. They lost the ability to communicate authentically with each other.

Some partners argue; others withdraw. Television, food, spending, alcohol, drugs, sex, the internet…the list is long.. can become self-medicating habits to escape from the isolation and loss of connection. Escape works temporarily. But long-term, escape and avoidance can make a difficult situation a lot worse.

Communication and therapy

“Communication” is why most couples come into therapy. Either arguing too much or not talking enough. But Drs. John and Julie Gottman suggest something else as the cause of relationship distress. After 25 years of extensive research, they have learned that conflicts are important in relationships. And a mismatch in managing conflict is the underlying cause of distress for couples. The Gottman Institute has identified three functional conflict management styles in the couples they’ve studied: Avoidant, Validating, and Volatile. And one dysfunctional: Hostile.

Other relationship experts identify the Pursuer-Distancer combination as most common and most difficult. One person wants to move toward the other, face conflicts head-on to resolve them; the other distances him/herself from conflict and intimacy. The more the Distancer pulls away, the more the Pursuer feels a need to try harder to connect. The cycle creates wide chasms and can eventually lead to dissolution of the relationship.

“…you don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive,” (Gottman, J., 2000, p. 131). You have to learn how you manage conflicts and how your partner manages them. All couples have what the Gottmans refer to as “perpetual conflicts” or unsolvable differences. It’s important to know what isn’t going to change, so you can focus on what you can change.

Whether you are fighting too much or not talking enough, couple therapy is an option to consider. Some couples report that by having a third person in the room, they feel safer to express their real feelings, concerns, and vulnerabilities.

If both of you decide to work on your relationship, couple therapy offers you the opportunity to learn how to:

  • appreciate each other’s strengths.
  • understand your conflict management styles.
  • name what you can change, and accept what you can’t change.
  • cultivate appreciation and gratitude for what you have.
  • find the courage to work toward the relationship you want or find peace in going your separate ways.

The rest is up to you.

*[fictional characters; fictional story]

More:

It (life) is all about relationships

This article does NOT apply to relationships that have domestic violence (physical, emotional, psychological, or financial violence or control). If you feel fear in your relationship, please read about domestic violence.

Healthy relationships feel like balmy days at the beach. Colors are brighter; sounds more pleasing; food yummy; work fun. The future is bright. And although problems exist, none of them are insurmountable because you have mutual goals, values, and interests. You are not alone.

Unhealthy relationships–no matter who you have them with (parent, child, sibling, intimate partner, ex-partner, friend)–feel like a one way trip into a black hole.

In healthy relationships we feel safe, loved, cared for unconditionally, respected, free to express opinions and feelings. You have your partner’s back and he/she yours. You support the other person’s strengths (and she/he yours), encourage personal growth, repair ruptures (all relationships have them), accept and/or forgive flaws (to flaw is to be human). You spend time together as well as apart. You have mutual and individual friends, family, and interests.

We need healthy relationships to enjoy life, to thrive and to be our best self. Unfortunately, most of us don’t know a lot about healthy relationships. We learn how to relate to others from our early caregivers, from our culture, and from the media. We have unrealistic expectations from movies, magazines, and the internet. And then we see organizations from PTA to US Congress fighting as if their lives depended on it. It’s a complicated topic.

If mom and dad, or mom and mom, or dad and dad fought like cats and dogs or apples and oranges or Venus and Mars, you–their son or daughter–may have found your way into a relationship like theirs. Even when you decided not to. We’re just hardwired like that.

Sometimes mom and dad got along fine, but you still wound up with a partner who doesn’t have, in M. Scott Peck’s words, your personal growth in mind. The way you learned to relate is not your fault. What you do about it is. Some relationships are repairable, but it takes an effort from all parties, not just you.

The good news is, we can heal from old wounds and learn to relate so that we feel heard, seen, understood. Simultaneously, we can learn how to hear, see, and understand (empathize with) others.

The only way we can heal is in relationship. — Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD., co-developer of Imago Relationship Therapy

Avoiding others and trying to dig your way out of ineffective patterns of relating by yourself may be making your situation more painful. That’s where therapy comes in. Change is difficult, and possible.

The only person who wants change is a wet baby. — Pat Ogden, PhD.