Friday, November 19, 2010

Intimacy Regulation

The last post, Therapy Abuse, was confusing to many of you, and I apologize.  Ironically, I started out writing a sweet piece, Forget the Pickles which morphed into a long, serious piece full of big words about simple concepts, replete with examples of feedback loops and homeostatic processes.

Too much raw material to dump on anyone, not even patient, long-suffering readers, Nancy Grace somehow took over.  It must say something about me, posting on Nancy Grace, maybe that I want an authority figure to yell at me, or maybe I want to have Nancy's chutzpa, maybe secretly want to yell, having repressed all kinds of negative emotion over the years. But none of that makes much sense.

Whatever the reason, Nancy apparated into my post, and I was thinking my literal imitation of of her was fairly hysterical. FD validated me and said it worked for him, I posted and the post fell flat.

Which means either (a) nobody else jumped out of their chair, (b) I've finally lost it and worse, FD is senile, (c) none of you watch Nancy's show. (My editor offers a third option, a sacred rule of writing apparently, which is that if you laugh out loud at your own work you should stop drinking while working. Except I can promise you that I don't drink and write at the same time, which could be why I rarely laugh out loud at my own work.)

For those of you just tuning in, Nancy Grace is a prosecutor turned judge for Swift Justice,  a popular people's court daytime television show.  She verbally bullies and belittles both plaintiffs and defendants to get to the root of the problem, to get to the truth. The post was to spoof that. What Nancy does isn't right, not for therapists, but we all wish we could do that in our professional lives, just once would work, probably, for some of us.

I had hoped, too, that more than one reader might come out and say,   
That's right! I like it when someone calls me out on my stuff!  I won't own it otherwise! 
A lot of people are like this, won't admit their personal guilt or character defects until they're backed into a corner, have hit bottom, lost everything, everyone,  no place to go.*

The post apparently hit a chord because many readers do relate to having difficulty showing affection, not exactly an unusual issue. One thoughtful writer even wrote her own post on the topic to make up for the brush off nature of mine.

So let's give intimacy regulation the attention it deserves this time around, for it is intimacy regulation that is driving behavior that distances people from one another.

Reasons Some People Are Less Affectionate Than Others:  A Short List

(A) No modeling of physical affection as a child.

People say that we don't know miss what we never had, which is partially true.

If you are raised in a disengaged family, that will be the life you know, but you will notice that other families do things differently. Something is missing for you.

The chilly family isn't always chilly, but physical affection is minimal, and really feeling the love, using skin as the operative organ, is important for psychological growth and development.  Have You Hugged Your Kid Today is all about  self-worth, making kids feel they are worth something.  If they are not worth enough to be hugged by their parents, why should they think they are worth anything to anyone else?  And why dare to ask for it?

(B) Family Worldview and Religion

Some families really think that it is wrong to be loving to the child, feel that it spoils a person, too much love, builds too much confidence.  Humility is the world view in such a family, humility keeps us in touch with others and our position in the universe.

Touch is discouraged in other families between opposite-sex relatives and friends, for fear that it will lead to sex, which should be reserved for marriage.

(C) Fear of Rejection and Exposure

With little experience in the actual behavior, touching for the sake of kindness, to express love, a person who hasn't tried it might be afraid of screwing it up, doing it wrong and being rejected, ridiculed, found inadequate.  You don't want to do this wrong, affection, or so goes the thinking.

(D) Incest and Sex Abuse

There really are ways to do it wrong-- touching a child, as incest and sexual assault survivors will attest. Victims of sexual abuse do sometimes push away their intimate partners, not wanting to experience intrusive memories associated with touch.

(E) Anger

The real culprit, however, the one most therapists can assume is floating everywhere when a partner has stopped expressing affection, is anger.  Physical intimacy issues, no surprise here, are associated with someone being really angry with someone else.

All that in mind, have a look at a fairly typical homeostatic feedback loop between a heterosexual couple.

He either does something or fails to do something that she feels is important.  This happens systematically, on a regular basis

She behaves judgmentally, criticizes him harshly, often, for being a slacker.

He feels badly, knows she is right. He owns being a slacker, apologizes, admits that change is hard, but commits to trying.

She wants to believe this and stays positive, lets the subject drop.

He slips back to the old behavior, maybe did try, maybe didn't, but reverts.

She does the slow burn at first, eventually explodes, criticizes him harshly, behaves judgmentally, verbally attacks again.→
They have come full circle.

Eventually partners come to me and one of the first things we do is establish ground rules: no criticism, no judgmentalism. It kills intimacy, kills the marriage.  And the hardest yet, no blame.


But if you can't criticize, if you can't be judgmental, if you can't blame, then how can you make someone change?

The answer lies in the light bulb joke.

How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?  Only one, but it really, really has to want to change.
Does this mean we shouldn't even try to change people, shouldn't even try to change for people?  Not exactly.  In the process of trying on functional behaviors, some of us come to like them.  Give it a try, you might like it, is a great approach.  You notice there are no accusations, no sharp words, in Give it a try.

It helps to stay with the big picture, to go back to the courtship, when we fell in love, why. In therapy this discussion is emotional and rich, full of sensory memories, and as such can be therapeutic, or potentially dangerous. The good old days clearly aren't here anymore. We can't will them back. So it is a sad discussion and has to wait for the right moment. It is the art of therapy, the right moment.  Enough right moments and couples learn to trust there are more to come.

I think that deep inside, most of us want to change when we commit to someone. Most people are thinking it under the magic of the chupah (rhymes with hoo-pah!, hard "ch" like Bach) the wedding canopy, gazing into the eyes of perfect love. We are impressed, very impressed, and with that impressed-ness we want to be new, to be better, be like that idealized partner.

But it is so exhausting, trying to be someone else, to live up to that idealization. So we give up, over time, or immediately, which is fine, and we settle into being who we are, and that's the way it should be. If we partner well, commit to someone wonderful, there is an implicit desire to please and be pleased, to join, to work together, and self-improvement is in there. Somewhere.  In the best of all relationships, each of us sees, within our intimate partner, our best self.

It is anger that we have to watch, really.  A million things, normal things, events that have absolutely nothing to do with our dysfunctional childhoods or our mental illnesses, can and will get in the way of intimacy if we let anger run our emotional template.  Get angry, sure.  Stay angry, then yes, our relationships will suffer.

Considering how emotional we all are, how stressed, how irritated, the real mystery is how anyone can be intimate at all?  How to be nice and still be grumpy at the same time, now that is the question. How is it that some of us do that so gracefully, whereas others never even try?   

A trunk full of groceries, worries about the future, bicycles in the driveway, pets unattended, it is hard not to slam the door after a long day out in the battlefield, hard not to holler.

Affection, sex, going, going, gone.

So a couples therapy addresses all of these things, and we'll go there next time, no promises.

therapydoc


* It works well in 12 Step programs, too, is fundamental here, for in a 12 Step group people talk about character defects and the need to work on them, wanting to work on them, needing others to help them change. The person with an addiction wants to change, really, really does, and the group, or maybe it is the sponsor who does this, reflects back, confronts with a very sharp mirror, but only when asked. Lying in a 12-Step meeting is just lying to yourself, doesn't help you at all.

17 comments:

Yana/Moonmaid said...

Oooo-kay :) I probably should post that on your Nancy Whoever post, but I'll just chime in here.
So, on ShrinkRap Dinah repeatedly criticized Paul (the In Treatment shrink character) for being too straightforward, for jumping on patients and pushing his interpretations. But you know what, and I love Dinah and what she has to say about the show almost as much as the show herself... BUT I totally disagree with her on that. I am aware Paul is a fictional character. And still, I often wish I had a therapist like that, someone who would dare to push a bit, confront me, not just wait it out until I'm ready, 'cause that might take YEARS.
So yes, please, call me out on my stuff. But still, be in control. Be ready to catch me if I slip.
I know... high expectations *sigh*

(My former therapist knew I had issues with sex abuse and she just ignored that, waiting for me to start the talking. Yeah, a year's worth of therapy. So I switched therapists and I'm glad I did.)

Thank you for being out here. I love your blog.

Marcia said...

How 'bout A,C, AND D... but I'm in a 12 step program so I feel hopeful. I've learned to hug there.

Texaco said...

OMG - You've totally described my parents who should, by the way, be in a 12 step program. I don't want to pronounce anyone an alcoholic. I do, but I don't want to.

And you've described the reason I have no interest in a long term intimate relationship with anyone. I'm perfectly happy with me, and unless someone who I really, really LIKE comes along and who I also happen to have chemistry with, I don't want to allow my serenity to be disturbed.

Why would I want to accommodate someone else's taste, opinions, schedule, habits, shortcomings, defects...

I've realized I could be in a relationship if I was willing to do all that; if I were desperate or lonely or not happy with me. But the price is way too high.

In 4 column inventory one of the things we examine is how it affects our "pocket book" - which is not about money, per se; it is about paying the price.

I don't want to place myself in a position to write inventory; not when I'm happy right now.

Thanks for the post and the insight. I don't come by often but I'm always rewarded when I do.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post. I'm in that nearly 25 years of marriage group - have my own issues which aren't discussed with hubby. Whenever I'm thinking "Why are we doing this" I go back to that marriage day and try to recapture that feeling of young love.

Thinking couples therapy could help up communicate better - haven't come up with the courage yet to suggest it. Too bad we don't live closer to Chicago.

jesslast said...

insightful and informative piece..might steal it for my blog! 0=) lol but otherwise thank you for posting as a therapist in the making i LOOOOOVE reading blogs like yours =)

Anonymous said...
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therapydoc said...

Yana/Moon, people keep telling me to watch that show, but it's like doing unpaid overtime, watching stuff like that, although I'll try it one day, no promises. I wanted FD to see The English Patient and he refused on the same grounds. Like you've noticed, rules are meant to be broken, even in therapy.

Marcia, I hear it's really hard to do that, hug in a 12 Step program, but you get used to it. I'm surprised we haven't heard from people who want to say, What's so bad about not needing so much touching?! So many people more people seem to get into trouble that way, touching.

Texaco, I can't tell you how many people I see who avoid the word alcoholic, replace it with softer words like, prolific drinkers. I'm good with whatever anyone wants to call it, don't push a program, either, which may sound weird, but pushing doesn't seem to help anyway, right?

Anon, some things really do stick in the old brain. Thank G-d.

Grace-WorkinProgress said...

I thought your rant was funny. It is hard for therapist to be funny with such a serious subject at hand. Once my therapist slipped when I was about to get involved with someone just like my ex. she said you know that is the same crap you have been in before. I liked her honesty but the next visit she apologized and I said it was nice that she showed she cared about me. We know you guys want us to figure out things for ourselves but it is a lot work and an occasional out burst is nice.

As far as todays entry, my friend told me yesterday that she is going kill her husband if he leaves one more glass sitting beside the sink with dried metimucil in it. Relationships are tough but being alone sucks too.

Donna B. said...

Off topic perhaps, but I really appreciate the concise and easy pronunciation guides you always include.

I grew up with a bit of a distorted view of hugging because it often physically hurt my shoulders or back. I realize now that I've probably had some sort of fibromyalgia type problem from an early age. (Painful hugs aren't the only clue.)

But, I hugged and got hugged anyway. No getting around it at gatherings of the large extended family, which occurred regularly.

But, I also assumed that everyone felt pain when they got hugged, so I thought the hugging must be a very important ritual.

Since then (far too many years since then!) I've learned differently -- that hugging is pleasant for many people and that just as many more do not regularly hug anyone.

I remember fondly one of my daughters' father-in-law (an immigrant) who explained to me that offering my hand to him was an insult - that we were now relatives so the proper greeting was an embrace.

So I wasn't completely wrong that it is an important ritual. At least for some.

Patient said...

I have this problem of an imbalance of affection in my (failing) marriage and, sure, there's some of us in a few of your points but the big one for us is missing: love addiction. (Or sex and love addiction: can it still be sex addiction when when I'm the only target? Or, rather, the internet and I are the only targets?) Some people are insatiable. Nothing can ever be enough. And what about relationship abuse? In my case, if you point to anger as the culprit instead of citing all the jealous, controlling behavior or the horrendous non-consentual sex that put the anger into place, your, well, sounding a lot like my spouse. I get it that I'm reading myself into what you're saying more than is rational and that there are a thousand reasons to be angry, but really, if we were to present in therapy and I was even vaguely looked at like get it together, this is what you signed up for (beside for the fact that it would break me) the therapist would become complicit with the abusive sexual behavior. I'm safer now, newly separated, so can integrate more of what I've dissociated but geeze do I wish the couples therapist we saw for two years had been able to see it because I wasn't able to clearly say it. Some people are really sick and really, really want too much. Even a couple weeks ago when he pushed his way into my house and I was trying to keep him out-- he confided to me afterward that as I as trying to defend myself he felt warm and fuzzy because I was touching him. Too much.

Mound builder said...

Patient said... What you describe is a concern I have about marriage counseling, that there really are sick individuals, and the reality is that women can be abusive/excessive/controlling, just as men can. And that in marriage counseling it may be very hard for the one on the receiving end of the abuse to speak up so that efforts to get the couple to touch more, etc. simply leave the abused person more vulnerable. To me, that's why it would be important for a couple to also be seeing individual counselors, separately (and not the same counselor) so the person on the receiving end of abuse might have a safe place to begin to talk. It seems to me that after some period of time in individual counseling, then maybe marriage counseling would be reasonable. But without a safe place for an abused person to speak up, marriage counseling may not help and may make things worse for the abused.

FamDoc said...

Senile?
Who is the English patient, anyway?

patient said...

Mound builder, your reply felt supportive. Just want to say that in my case the couples counseling wasn't an all-bad thing. I clung to it (my image of therapy appointments is like an old Tarzan video game where there were swinging ropes you held onto and you had to get from rope to rope without falling into the snapping gators below: appointments are the ropes) and the counselor was helpful in getting me into individual therapy and in helping me resist my husband's complaints about the time I spent in therapy. But it would have been helpful if he had spoken to my individual therapist. He asked for a release at one point then never called. And I wasn't able to ask for what I wanted.

therapydoc said...

Jess, it's on your head, sweetie.

Grace, I wish I thought you were kidding about that glass, but I know you're not!

I love that! Offering a hand is an insult. Thanks Donna.

Uh, Patient, I can't get past the nonconsensual sex part, which is rape. I sure hope you never had a therapist who condoned such a thing.

Mound Builder, a couples therapist with any training would not be encouraging a couple with anger as an issue, to touch.

And in case anyone is wondering, not every relationship is meant to be.

Syd said...

Been there and done that feedback loop many times. I am thankful to be in a 12 step program that teaches me to not control another, to let them be who they are, and to focus on myself. It has helped a lot in my marriage and with friends. Yes, I can still become irritated, but I also realize that restraint of tongue is a good thing.

Dawn said...

I laughed out loud at your laugh out loud part of your post :D hehe. I most definitely have laughed out loud at stuff i've written! Hmm...

Erin Merryn said...

I love the light bulb joke!

Intimacy is the one area of my life I have left to overcome due to my abuse. I hope to one day get there.