Category Archives: [] MONKEYTRAPS FOR COUPLES

Downhill

.

In group.  Liz comes in fifteen minutes late. 

“Sorry,” she says to everyone.  “Traffic.” 

Everyone nods, except Nancy.

“So glad you could make it,” Nancy mutters.

“Whoa,” someone says.

We look at Nancy.  Nancy notices. 

“What?” she says.

“You’re pissed,” someone says.

“No I’m not,” Nancy says, and bursts into tears.

I wait while someone passes her tissues.

“What’s up?” I ask.

She wipes her eyes and shrugs.  “I’m all nervous and angry lately.  I don’t know why.”

“Since when?”

“Two, three days.”

“What happened three days ago?” 

“Nothing.”  She looks up.  “Wait.  My inlaws came to town.”

“Bingo,” someone says.

“Your alcoholic inlaws,” I say. 

Nancy nods.

“Bingo bingo,” someone says.  There are chuckles.

“What?” Nancy asks again.

“You’re a victim of gravity,” Liz smiles.  “As in shit rolls downhill.

“I don’t understand,” Nancy says.

“Old saying,” I say.  “Shit rolls downhill.  Boss yells at Dad, Dad yells at Mom, Mom yells at Sister, Sister yells at Brother, Brother kicks the dog.”

“Oh,” Nancy says.

“Nancy, how does your husband get along with his parents?” Liz asks. 

“They make him crazy,” Nancy sniffles.  “Nervous, frustrated, angry.”

“And how does he act with you?”

“Like I can’t do anything right,” she says glumly.

“And then how are you with the kids?”

“Controlling,” Nancy admits.  “If they don’t do exactly what I say I just…lose it.”

She looks at me in surprise.  “Shit does roll downhill.”

“Why does that happen?” someone asks me.

“There are several ways to explain it,” I say.  “One is simple displacement.  Shit rolls downhill because people take their anger out at the next person below them on the food chain.

“Another is boundary confusion.  In alcoholic families the boundaries between members get impossibly blurred.  We can’t tell where I end and you begin.  Feelings leak from one person into another.   Your bad day becomes my bad day.  Your anger or anxiety become my problem.”

Nancy frowns.  “So my husband catches his parents’ emotional problems, like the flu?”

“Maybe,” I say.  “But there’s a third explanation.  Being around his parents probably triggers old feelings in him, old pain and fear, helplessness and anger.”

“Like PTSD,” someone says.

“Yes,” Nancy says sadly.  “I see that.  He regresses.”

“So what should Nancy do?” someone asks.

I smile at Nancy.  “She can start by apologizing to her kids.”

“Yes,” Nancy says.

“And tell them that she’s been in a bad mood lately, and it’s not their fault, and she’s working hard on getting out of it.”

Nancy nods.

“Then she should probably try to talk to her husband about how they can support each other for the next — Nancy, how long?”

“They’re staying a week.”

“The next week or so.  For example, they could carve out debriefing time every night, and use it to vent to each other about whatever happens that bothers them.”

Nancy nods.  “We can do that.”

“Finally, she can promise herself that for the next week she’ll lean on her support system to process whatever comes up for her.  Bring it to group.  Call you guys when she gets confused or angry or anxious.”

“Call me,” Liz says.

Nancy smiles.  “I’m sorry about before.”

Liz shakes her head.  “I went through this for years.  Whenever his family visited my husband and I would fight like cats and dogs.  Finally we got into therapy and learned to manage our temporary insanity — which is just what it felt like — without resorting to divorce or homicide.”

“And your inlaws still visit?”

“Yes,” Liz sighs.  “But one thing that helps is a little ritual we created.  The day before we see them I tell my husband, ‘I apologize in advance for the next five days,’ or however long Mom and Dad are in town.  And he says the same thing to me.  And we hug.  And the hug is like a promise that we’ll stay connected, no matter how much shit rolls downhill.”

 


Monkeyships (3): Why we can’t talk

~~ dueling bananas no border(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve  is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.

Bert speaking:)

Once upon a time a dad brought his fourteen-year-old son to Steve for family counseling. 

He said he wanted the two of them to be closer, to talk more. 

The session started this way:

DAD:  Go ahead, buddy.  You can say anything here.

SON:  I want to go home.

DAD:  No.  We’re doing this, dammit.  Now open up. 

(He actually said that.)

Steve was professional.  He took a breath, fought down the urge to roll his eyes, and tried to explain to Dad how he was sending what Steve called a “mixed message.”

My reaction was simpler.  I wanted to strangle Dad.

He reminded me, I suppose, of all the times I’d witnessed some adult coerce some kid into something for their “own good.”   

And all the times some wife or husband sat on Steve’s sofa and demanded “openness” from their partner, only to wither them with criticism when the other finally dared open up. 

And all the times one partner justified withering another with “I’m just expressing my feelings.”

And all the times I saw teachers coax students into participating in discussions, only to reward them with humiliation.

And all the times I saw parents demand honesty from their kids, only to punish them for telling the truth.

All the times, in short, I watched one person verbally mug another and call it “communication.”

Hear that?  I’m getting mad again.

Steve, give your professional opinion.

I think you can have communication, or you can seek control, but you can’t do both at the same time.

And I think that, to the extent any party to a conversation seeks to control it, healthy communication becomes impossible.

Which makes healthy communication pretty rare.

What’s “healthy” communication?

The sort that permits people to give up control — to risk being honest, emotional, vulnerable, authentic — without fear of the consequences.

Not easy.

Not easy at all.  

And it can be terrifying.  

Why is that?

Because we’ve all been burned by unhealthy communicators.  

If,  for example, you grew up in a family where words were used to coerce, wound or manipulate — forget it.   Not only would opening up scare you, you might not even believe that safe communication is possible.  Why should you?

That’s the case with many people I work with.  When I talk to them about “healthy communication” I might as well be speaking Martian.  They simply have no internal model for what I’m describing.

What do you do about it?

I help them learn a new model.

For example, most people don’t know how to listen.  I mean, really listen.  (Often they mistake listening for merely waiting their turn.)

So I may teach a couple Monologuing, which asks one partner to sit and pay attention while the other describes their feelings for five minutes.  Then the listener plays back what he/she heard.  (Which always contains surprises.)  Then they switch roles.

Another problem:  Most people don’t realize how often and how casually they hurt others with their words.  

So I teach them to distinguish between You- and I-statements  — how, for example, there’s a world of difference between saying “You’re an idiot” and “I’m mad at you.”   Then I teach them to abstain from the former and practice the latter.  Which most people find really difficult to do.

 Not easy, as I said.

No, it’s not. 

Just our only hope. 

 For what?

For really connecting with another human being. 

 

 


%d bloggers like this: