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.
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 basisThey have come full circle.
→ 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.→
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.
* 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.