Sunday, May 04, 2008

Different Children

Get yourself a cup of coffee, maybe cut up some fruit. Then come back. Don't forget the napkin. And kids, remember. Your teachers can check online for that plagiarism thing.

We've talked about the trauma of childhood, how personality is shaped by things said and done.

Different children are shaped in some of the same ways. One child can come out of an abusive childhood forever needy and clingy, not having established basic trust in people, life, or himself, Don't Leave Me, Please, a song for a lifetime. No, make that a whine. This adult child wears his fear of abandonment like a badge.

Whereas another grows the proverbial chip on the shoulder; paranoia the flavor of anxiety. He's easy to anger and will attack first; a partner had best know that.

The acquisition of such personality traits is not a given by any means, or an either/or. Understand, there are many variants of children born to abusive circumstances, and many variants of abusive circumstances. But these two products of child abuse are often seen together as a couple, attracted to one another, repelled at the same time.

So we'll look at their dynamic, consider a male-male relationship, just to shake things up a bit. We could easily have chosen a heterosexual example.

Bad Boy, now in his late twenties, has suffered verbal and physical lashings from both parents and has internalized negative messages about himself. But he's not stupid. He knows that parents should never be mean to their children, even as they say, We do this for your own good. They are lying.

Some children, like him, have built in deception receptors; they sense that the people hurting them are not of stellar character. And they know that despite those reassurances that this is for their own good, that they will lose more than they gain in the process of "character development." Bad Boy still smarts from the words of such people.

Good Boy has suffered fewer personal attacks than Bad, but watched a good deal of parent on parent violence. He has also taken in his fair share of negative communication, insults, and abuse. His parents, locked into one another, wasted their personal best on their own conflictual relationship, while he identified with the victim, his mother, bleeding with her tears. He hurt when she hurt; he hurt past her being hurt. He was more vulnerable than she, only a boy, after all.

He's not stupid, either. He knows parents should be attentive, that they should be there for their children, should answer to their children's fears and emotional needs, and that his couldn't. He knows he's been cheated of a healthy childhood and he knows that his dependency, his insatiable needs from a lover, dominate his interaction in relationships. He can't help his need for feedback, his craving for love.

Love is Good Boy's drug. His lover is of a different psychic make-up, more prone to avoidance, more likely to abuse substances, enjoy rough relationships, and avoid closeness. This is unfortunate for both of them. One really can't help the other without some sort of intervention, some cognitive change.

Neither is whole, neither feels quite right. Bad Boy, the more aggressive young man, is less mature, lashes out under pressure to be emotionally intimate. (We think of intimacy as mature, but measured). Good Boy, in touch with his own desperation to be in-relation, shares all, intimate to a fault. He endangers himself.

So different! What are they doing together? The simmering one, his anger palpable, actually feels safe with one who wants him, needs him, adores him, and he has talked with him about his childhood. He's talked some, not a lot.

The one who craves intimacy isn't happy with the volatility of their relationship, but feels safe, ironically, with someone who seems so strong. Tough. Strong. Same thing?

The dynamic is captured, frozen early in their relationship.

Bad Boy knows that if anyone metes out punishment, it will be him. Good Boy is willing to risk that, knowing there's little he would do to endanger his lover's favor. He'll keep the conflict to a minimum, and the dynamic is just that, conflict at a minimum. The verbal sniping is uni-directional, from Bad Boy to Good Boy, never the other way around. To both of them it is relatively tame compared to what they had as children. But painful.

Bad won't work to please Good. He's not going to change, he says. This is me; I won't commit. I'm my own man. He has that edge, well-hewn over a lifetime.
The most important people in my world were never there for me. I don't need them, or you, or anyone else.
He thinks he has overcome his dependency needs and is annoyed at the dependency of his partner, although he needs him to be this way, dependent, to feel safe.

Such a conundrum.

Then it sometimes happens that Good Boy is let in, sometimes for quite awhile, and things get very affectionate. This is when being in-relation for Good Boy is wonderful, but most scary to Bad Boy. The intimacy tweaks at his primitive, unconscious, failed familial relations, which is where it gets dangerous.

Feeling violated by the intimacy, Bad has to stop the tweaking. He's entitled to his privacy; the rule is he gets to be secretive, gets his space. So he lashes out when violated in the name of intimacy, pushes Good Boy away.
Good: Where have you been?

Bad: You don't need to know. You have no right to know.

Good: Oh, sorry.
These games may be described as dances in the various self-help books at Borders. Go there and read them before they close all the book stores and you can't get an education for free off-line anymore. I personally prefer the feel of books to the glow of the screen.

But back to our story:

Bad Boy becomes mean and immature, aggressive and spiteful when Good wants more of him than he's comfortable giving. Bad Boy becomes abusive like the people who raised him. Transgenerational? No question.

Good Boy takes it. Ironically, he's perceived by his aggressive partner as smarter and more accomplished, and he is, but insecure.

Bad, even though he's less educated, less accomplished, even though he feels inadequate by comparison, is only safe because Good is this way, insecure. Bad Boy benefits by association, too, with an accomplished partner, and owns some of that accomplishment (in-relation).

And he stays on top by sniping when his partner is most vulnerable, when he says, Don't leave me, please.

It's a hot button. You don't own me, his refrain.

Some of us see relations more as opera than dance.

It is the needier, sadder partner who comes for therapy. Tougher, perhaps more wounded people, the bad ones, don't voluntarily risk exposure, the stuff of therapy. It's an art, of course, therapy, peeling back all those layers, and takes forever sometimes. Exacted carefully, it shouldn't hurt, but not everyone knows this.

So angry people like Bad Boy mostly come to therapy when they're court- ordered, or when Good Boy can take it no longer, forces the issue and leaves. And he's not likely to want to take that step, so in love.

It's the needier sadder partner, who comes to understand (in therapy) that his tough lover really needs his sweetness, his warmth and tenderness, but in small doses.

Affection can be overwhelming, a reminder of what a person didn't have as a child. And as a child, Bad learned, Don't get sad, get mad. He's a master at putting on the brakes when reminded of what he didn't have, when he begins to grieve, unconsciously. He reflexively pushes tears and all tenderness away.

His defense,
I don't have to tell you.

You have no right to know;

you don't own me
completes an emotional feedback loop. Only a strong person can say things like,
Because, that's why.
Good Boy could never talk back in this way, it's not nice. Good Boy's greatest mistake is that he misinterprets that resoluteness as strength, and he associates strength as potentially protective, as often happens in child abuse.

Nevertheless, he'd like a way into his lover's psyche. How do you gain entry to a gate that's been locked, double locked, triple locked, then locked again?

Couples therapists label the interactive dynamics for Good Boy, who comes to treatment. We'll do the psychoeducation, draw the feedback loops, assist in highlighting the childhood relationship systems of our patients. (It's what you pay us for.)

But when one partner is in therapy and the other is not, it is expecting too much to send the attendee home to teach, especially if the other is already on the defensive and doesn't want an education.

So we'll say to Good Boy,
When he's mean, tell him, 'I know what you're doing, and I just want you to know, you don't have to do this.'
Good can get even more specific and say,
'I know you need to push me away. It's okay. I just want you to know, I won't hurt you. I would never say those things to you, those things your momma/poppa said to you. You know that by now. Don't you?'
Changes in these relationships, these homeostatic feedback loops so deeply rooted in the psyche, can take years, literally, with therapy. That's why most individual therapists will say, Forget him. Change you. Become independent. Don't be so desperate. Find someone nicer. All good advice.

And so easy, right?

copyright 2008, therapydoc

EDITS: Things I took out of this essay for one reason or another, yet feel are still relevant.

In adult relationships we become the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, the brothers, the best friends and enemies of our significant others. For better or worse. Recognizing where they need to be better, how they feel worse, this is the essence of a couple diagnostic.

The types of loving parents you read about on the Mommy Blogs are as illusory as fairy tales in the minds of abused children.

In couples treatment, when we suggest to the healthier partner that he or she model positive parenting, it can be a huge stretch, very difficult to enact, and the audience is booing, scoffing.

It's always that trust thing.

In individual therapies the therapist can take on the role of the good parent. Or the bad parent, when therapy is stressful. Or when we take a vacation.


shrink on the couch said...

"Tougher, perhaps more wounded people, the bad ones, don't voluntarily risk exposure, the stuff of therapy. It's an art, of course, therapy, peeling back all those layers, and takes forever sometimes"

I think you explain it perfectly here. They don't voluntarily risk exposure. Well said. The whole post.

"Exacted carefully, it shouldn't hurt, but not everyone knows this"

Maybe I'm misunderstaning, but I'm having a hard time agreeinig with this. It often does hurt. There's usually so many hurtful experiences, memories, feelings underlying bad boy behavior. The goal of therapy is often to "remember with feeling" and that feeling isn't usually pleasant.

therapydoc said...

oh, we could debate that, for sure, what hurts more, in the end, a dirty bandaid, peeling it off slow, ripping it fast, who gets to watch.

cordeliadarwin said...

I get that broken kids can become broken adults. But is it really that clearly defined? I can see myself in both, absent the super neediness and explosiveness. I fear my potential for each, however. They seem so dramatic -- operatic even.

Intimacy -- really being seen -- can be an enormous challenge. And for many, until we can stand to really see ourselves, better not to be 'in relationship' at all.

Astonished still -- is it really that easy to distinguish? Can identity challenges even invade styles of managing kid wounds?

Complex stuff, this. I am eager to learn more.

therapydoc said...

No question. I think the thing to remember in this post is that we're talking about how a relationship dynamic works. That inter-dependency that begs the relationship.

So much more complicated than it looks. Much more complicated than co-dependency, needing to be needed.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps that's why I'm currently (and long-term) single...I self-identify with both components, and so fulfill my own dysfunctions through constant inner dialogue, and outwardly through my personal relationships.

I recently had to quit a therapist for trying to convince me that "satori" was a better path for me, for after all, none of it really matters, does it? At least, that was his shtick. Not mine. Difficult to discuss such things when the person being paid to at least listen, and at best, offer timely insight, invalidates the entire experience with esoterica.

therapydoc said...

That comment, obviously a paradox, was ill-conceived, for sure. And if it was supposed to be funny, not.

That doc lost out, Christian. Could've learned there.

therapydoc said...

PhDin yogurtry, The reason I say it's a debate, I guess, is that I think we're talking about 2 different things. Pain versus pain.

The sitting back and waiting (tiger approach without the pounce) for the patient's readiness to discuss certain things, the tending the therapeutic relationship, attending to the patient's mental health ALL THE TIME, this is the art, and sure, the science of therapy.

Knowing how to let it hurt so that it feels better in 45 minutes, timing it so that can happen, indeed, opening the wound and letting it bleed because you both know, this infection HAS to be cleaned out, the pus has t go-- THIS is how therapy should work, and does.

Can we always do that? Of course not. Should we try? It's an obligation, I feel, to give the patient the choice as to whether he or she is ready to tackle certain topics. And the therapist has to be sensitive to when that's there, that readiness. It is a judgment call.

When a person is ready, yes, it's bring on the knife, and it doesn't hurt in the same way as it would without proper fertilizer, tilling the relationship (patient-therapist), seratonin, etc.

So we're both right :)

Jack Steiner said...

So much more complicated than it looks. Much more complicated than co-dependency, needing to be needed.

If relationships were simple it would eliminate the need for therapists.

Batya said...

Heavy stuff.
The coffee sat, untouched.

therapydoc said...

And I'd have to find another line of work. I've been wondering about tracking animals.

Anonymous said...


Not meant to be paradoxical nor funny, but truth. I believe I live both sides of that equation equally, depending on the partner. Have been the stand-offish one as well as the needy one. That's why I seek therapy, doc. :~) Sorry not to be more clear in my original comment.

therapydoc said...

Now, if we can just get Boy 1 to totally show Boy 2 how much he loves him, you're totally good to go!

(I'm not even making fun, that's the irony in this kind of situation).

Isle Dance said...

"Good Boy's greatest mistake is that he misinterprets that resoluteness as strength, and he associates strength as potentially protective, as often happens in child abuse."

Thanks for stating that. Years ago I began attempting to understand why I was physically attracted to men whom had personalities I knew I didn't like. I finally pinpointed it down to their "focused" steel stares of attention. One can accidentally assume that means he really cares about another. Not!

therapydoc said...

Isle, right. Why Do I Like That Guy is complicated, but it starts with this sort of thing, the look.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Does this mean that former abused kids should steer clear of people they're attracted to?

I tried that once.

It was interesting.

Sad in the end. And the end was totally unrelated. As far as I could tell.

therapydoc said...

no, no, no. But it's something to think about.