Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Two Questions, One Answer

The two questions discussed below illustrate several important ideas. One is that different questions can reflect similar themes, which become apparent when they are considered side-by-side. Another is that people may come into therapy or consultation wishing to hold onto something that they may have, in fact, already lost. Yet another is that people may come into therapy hoping to change someone else, when their focus really needs to be on themselves.

So, here are a couple of questions that were submitted through my web page, “Psychologist At Large,” (www.psychatlarge.com). The women who sent these questions are suffering, and my heart goes out to them. Yet the main cause of their suffering, from a psychological point of view, seems to me to be that they are unconsciously clinging to narratives about their relationships that have already been disconfirmed by events; specifically, the behavior of their respective boyfriends.

Let’s look at the questions:

Georgia: “How can I make him see...”

Georgia writes:

Hi, I have been with my boyfriend for almost 3 years now and we have known each other for almost 8 years. When we started going out together it was because we realized that we loved each other and want to build a future together and all this time we were looking elsewhere when we are right next to each other.

Things were doing great until about 2 years ago, when he started being distant, I had then found out that he was spending time with another girl, and we fought about it until he gave up on that girl. When we talked about it, he told me that he did that because she would listen to him and not stress him out. So I acknowledged my mistakes and tried to be better for him.

About 6 months ago, I don't know why, he makes me feel like a yo-yo, always rethinking us. I don't know if it's because he his seeing that he will become successful (music) or because he has vengeance towards me, all I have been doing lately is run after him and try to show him that I changed.

What I have noticed about him is that he is always stressed around me, but when he is with others he is always happy. Even when I am calm and relaxed he will turn things around to get me heated up. He doesn't want to talk to me because he says I will do something that will stress him. How can I show him that I just want to spend some good time with him when he closes the door before even seeing who's there or at least what they're trying to do.

I know that he also had a tough childhood, his mother left his father for his best friend and his father is always backtalking them, while the mom is imposing his stepdad on him. She even told me she thinks that all the hatred he has towards her, he channels it towards me, and I noticed recently that he became very close to his sister, but at that same time he gives me affection less and less as if he takes it from me and gives it to his sister instead.

How can I make him see that he is seeing me negatively even when I'm being positive and how to help him stop please?

Catherine: “Oh no, not again!”

Catherine writes:

I am 50 yrs. old; my boyfriend is 53. We have both been in long relationships, including marriage. We have been together for seven years and only see each other weekends due to the distance (appr. 1 hour) and work schedule. He is the most wonderful, giving, handsome man I had ever been with. We always tell each other that "you are the One". Sometimes he goes into a deep depression in which he has to be alone for about one week. I don't call him or bother him. I accept this. This past week I had gone away with a friend for about four days. I called him at home and said how much I missed him and loved him. I also said that I wish we could walk this beautiful beach together, etc. He called that night to tell me that I really have to NOT miss him and NOT call him so much. Of course, I was hurt. Bill is a private man who likes to do things by himself, which I understand. I like to be around people and have lots of fun. He goes to bed at 7:30 p.m. and does not like to go anywhere except to a cottage once a year with myself and my dog. That is okay. He encourages me to go with my friends.

I had just come back from a four-day weekend with a friend, as I noted above. He called and told me that he wanted to end the relationship. I was so stunned that I could not speak. He said that I call him too much and that I should have never called his father to see if he was there to talk to him. Believe me, I am NOT a clingy person - just someone who likes to give her boyfriend a nice message saying that I missed him. I said that I thought he loved me, and he said that he did love me very much but that he really liked to be alone. After much crying on my part, he agreed to see how things would go and still see me.

I called his older sister hysterically crying, and she said, "Oh no, not again". Apparently, he has done this with other women - it is a pattern. He dates for a number of years, then breaks up with them claiming he wants to be by himself. We concluded that he may be bipolar. She said she had so many hopes for us and thought that would be the end of this pattern. She was happy that we were making long-term plans together and that our relationship is the best one he had ever had. I told her that he does not like to go away with me but that he encourages me to go with my friends. She claimed that that is the start of his pulling away, slowly. I had never put two and two together.

He is on Paxil and has been for a long time. He gets in his "funks" where he is not "right" for about one week - usually in the winter. I am used to that, but he tells me that it has nothing to do with me, and he eventually gets over it

He just now called me to ask how I was doing with my cold. (I've had a bad cough for about one week) I said okay and asked him about his earlier call, but he would not talk about it. I have no idea what to do. I am scared because I am sure this will happen again, but maybe the next time it will be for good. It also seems that while I will be hurting, he will not be. I can't understand it. He loves me, I am "the one", making plans to move south and retire with me, etc. He is a wonderful man all around, but this is so shocking. I don't want to start over and want to stay with him, but does that mean I cannot express any feelings I have or be afraid to, in fear that it will be too much for him?

I am thinking about seeing a therapist to better understand him, but is that the right step?

Dr. Einhorn replies:

Looked at from a distance, and simplified, these questions have similar structures, something like this:

“I had a relationship and believed that it was great. Then it turned out that my partner was not who I thought he was, and our relationship was not what I thought it was. I understand I have to make some changes. What can I do to keep my relationship the way I want to believe it is?”

The truth, of course, seems to be that neither woman has the relationship that she once believed she did. Even when their relationships seemed so great, both Georgia and Catherine’s relationships contained the seeds of later conflicts, challenges, and disillusionments. Both Georgia’s and Catherine’s boyfriends gave them cues that things were not entirely what they seemed. If Georgia and Catherine acknowledge that they didn’t recognize what was happening then, they will be able to look at what’s really happening now. Such acknowledgment leads to psychological freedom; the freedom to be their real selves, in their real lives, today. But there is a cost: they’ll have to revise their impressions about their relationships. They’ll have to take another look at who their boyfriends are, what they are offering of themselves in relationship, and whether that's really what Georgia and Catherine want after all. In the process, they’ll have to take another look at who they themselves were, how they chose to conduct themselves, how they tried to protect themselves, what they chose to notice and ignore, what they chose to believe, as their relationships formed and evolved.

The brain is a maker of stories, a weaver of narratives that give form to events and explanation to experience. And no story is more powerful than that of the meeting of two soul-mates. But the brain is a better maker of stories than it is an adapter of them. We cling, often largely unconsciously, to the stories that tell us who we are and orient us in our lives. It is in our lack of readiness to adapt our stories based on the facts of events and experience that so many of our mistaken decisions and judgments, and the suffering they lead to, are rooted.

If I were in a therapeutic or consultative relationship with Georgia and Catherine, I would proceed from three fundamental perspectives. The first is that the human brain is capable of the “top-down reorganization of life,” as Roger Sperry said (www.rogersperry.info). That means that, even though we learn as we go forward through experience, like any animal that learns, the human brain is unique, as far as we know, in it’s ability look in, look back, and reorganize; to detach, review experience, and make sense out of it in a new way. I would want to help them review these relationships so that they could understand them more realistically. The second fundamental perspective is that of unconscious process. And there are two parts of that. The first part is the stories they told themselves about what was happening early in their relationships, and later. The second part is the cues that they received which told them that their stories were not accurate enough, and in need of revision; cues which they more or less disregarded.

It gets more complicated, there are more levels. Their stories themselves come from different sources. Some of those sources might be stories they’ve absorbed from their culture, with internal themes that are too simplistic to be real. Their stories could have been influenced by patterns of relationship in their families of origin and other situations whose structure they absorbed while growing up. There might be aspects of their formative situations in which a kind of unconscious but deliberate intention not to recognize something that was happening was absorbed.

“The brain is a creature of habit,” as I often say, and the problems that bring people into therapy or consultation are often repeating earlier patterns.

The third fundamental perspective is that work on oneself, of the right kind, in the right way, brings about changes in the brain and mind of the person doing it. The process of self-observation, and of putting words and images to thoughts, feelings and attitudes that haven’t yet been expressed, creates a change in the brain that is doing that work. What psychiatrist Arthur Deikman calls the observing self (http://www.deikman.com/observingself.html) becomes more consciously a part of the mental life of the person. And with greater self-awareness comes the possibility of being more honest with oneself; honest about what one is really giving and getting, and what one needs. Which, in turn, leads to more awareness of what our real choices in a situation are.

It may be that either Georgia or Catherine, or both, can do something to save their relationships. If they can, it will be at the cost of seeing their boyfriends, and themselves, more realistically. If they can’t, they can still learn the lessons and avoid repeating their mistakes. But it will take some self-searching. It’s possible that, after awhile, couples therapy might help either or both couple(s), but it seems unlikely that it’s the best place to start, since neither man seems ready to work on himself to try to preserve and enhance his relationship. Neither seems ready to detach and look at his own narratives. And, in a way, neither do Georgia and Catherine really seem ready to look at themselves; they’re both asking me to advise them about how to keep their relationships as they’d like to think about them. But Georgia and Catherine seem to care more--after all, they took the trouble to write--and perhaps that will bring either or both of them into a place where they are ready to look at themselves, as part of the process of trying to understand and save their relationships.

No comments: