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Celebrating the Grey Area in Relationships

 

“Think about this for a moment: Why would you ever choose to be with someone who is not excited to be with you?

 

So starts a popular blog post here giving relationship advice.  Why would you want to be with someone who isn’t enraptured by you?  And why would you choose to be with someone you don’t think is the best person ever?  If someone is good enough for you, you should feel a “Fuck YES!” feeling.  And they should feel likewise about you.

Such posts are very popular on the web because they are simple, easily understood, and can be a temporary boost to the esteem for both those not in a relationship because they are holding out for Mr. Right and those with low esteem in a relationship that is going nowhere, perhaps prompting them to end it.

I’m all for a boost in esteem, but one thing I am absolutely not for is all-or-nothing thinking.  You know the Bush-like thinking – you’re either for me or against me.  You’re either perfect or you’re out of here.  There’s no discernment, nor is there the introspection of what makes someone feel like a good match.

How often are your emotions completely and wholeheartedly unanimous before really getting to know someone?   It doesn’t happen, unless you’re extremely unusually healthy and in complete inner harmony – or you’re in denial.   Denial is far more common than completely healthy childhoods.  We don’t want to wait any longer, so we decide this person is THE ONE and shove any contrary thought to the pit of our stomach.  Where it says until the first big disappointment.

Getting to know someone, whether as close friends or lovers, is a gradual process of building trust, testing the waters with ever increasing vulnerability and emotional risk, then seeing the result.  Is this personal worth your trust and investment?   There are many areas of trust to build:  Keeping one’s word.  Sensitivity.  Listening skills.  Adaptability.  Empathy.  Humor.  Sex.  Reactivity.  Can they give space?   Is there ever a price to pay for doing something you need?   Do they need you to be a certain person for them or do they really want to find out who you are?

Too often, relationships start because both parties feel “good”, which we translate to meaning love.  We don’t understand the reasons why – and for good reason.  It’s not a rational, logical process.  One wonderful Jungian book “The Eden Project” calls it a search for The Magical Other.  We think we’ve found someone who completes us, while trying to not see that we may feel good for non-healthy reasons, such as familiar family dynamics or someone who helps us avoid uncomfortable parts of ourselves.  Part of the journey is to realize that the Magical Other, which might later turn into the Enemy Other, is actually just representing a part of ourself we haven’t welcomed yet.  But I digress.  There is another option to wanting to find the perfect person and place them on a pedestal until they fall off.

Intimacy is not a blind commitment.   Bonding to another human being is not a Romeo and Juliet moment, realizing at first glance you want to spend the rest of your life together or die.

For most of us in this overstressed, f*cked up society, we have plenty of childhood issues, among them:   Lack of reliable connection.  Attachment issues.  Difficulty trusting.   Barriers to intimacy.  Anxieties.  Hurts.   Limited ways of expressing emotions, and feeling we can’t be connected to others through some emotions.

Most of have parts of ourselves that we think “why would anyone want to connect to THIS?”   And so we launch ourselves into relationships where the other doesn’t immediately see those parts – at least until the honeymoon period is over

All those are negative emotions which would mean you wouldn’t feel “Fuck yes!”.   You’d feel at best hesitation, a feeling of “what am I getting into here?”.   But that is what vulnerability involves.    And you can’t have long term bonding without vulnerability.

My Own Story

Let’s take myself as an example.  I came from an extremely distant family with no reliable connection and support available.  My father and brother have Asperger’s syndrome, while my mother had Borderline Personality.  I’m the “normal” one.  No one in my family really knew how to have friends or even to give empathy.  As a result, you could say I had attachment issues, among others.  (I have C-PTSD from my childhood)   This doesn’t mean I didn’t want deep and intimate connections – it simply meant there were a lot of emotions to go through before real bonding occurred.

I have never, ever in my life felt a true “Fuck Yes!”.  The people I’ve previously gotten involved with were often people that I felt something strong, and thought “hey, this is intense – it must be love”.  I wanted love and longed for deeper connections, so I would fool myself.   I would then think I needed to commit and dive into the relationship to get some sort of secure commitment back.  In other words, I would act like I felt “Fuck Yes”, partly because I wished I would feel that, partly out of fear of abandonment or being rejected, but also because that was what was expected. The people I got involved with were usually those that could withdraw from connection suddenly if something felt bad, which I was highly attuned to.  When they didn’t feel “Fuck Yes!”, they were out of there, at least for the evening, so I felt after time I was walking on eggshells trying to have a reliable connection.  I took in a message from them: I will not connect with you unless act like the Mr Perfect I want.

Ever been here? It’s torture!

 

This is obviously not love, but with an oversimplified, all-or-nothing thought process this was what I created.  So I changed how I approached relationships.

Building a Healthy Relationship

With Kirsten, my wonderful partner now, I tried to bring everything I felt.  I brought my doubts and fears and allowed them to be visible.  I let myself be tentative instead of pushing fears aside and diving in.  I brought that I liked her and distrusted her at the same time – because in my family, there was always an agenda for being warm.  For months, I would ask her “what do you want?” with suspicion at her warmness.   We wouldn’t actually fall asleep together and I would never sleep over at her place.  She would learn later that this was because I get panic attacks in someone else’s bed, but of course initially she took it a little personally.  She distanced a little and learned to let go of expectations regarding me.   I was seeing another person at the same time, so that added to the feeling of instability given where we were at.   In some ways, she was ready for the relationship to end at any moment, but was also willing to see where it led.

Despite the negative emotions I had, there were of course also other signals that I liked her a lot and was letting her in; she wasn’t sticking with me because of any lack of self esteem.  I would communicate as best as I could what was going on with me, what PTSD was, and what I thought I needed.  I add “I thought” in there because like most people, I don’t think I really knew what was needed, because I’d never received it.

Yet the relationship grew.  Kirsten once said that every time she really let go of an expectation regarding me, I responded positively and we grew closer.  I didn’t fit the norm of relationships, but really wanted to be in a close, connected relationship.  So when there was room for more of me to be welcomed, I stepped forward.  I wasn’t trying to be her Mr. Right, but I was being more me when close to her, and she found she could be more herself as well.  We weren’t trying to be anything for each other.

I know most people don’t have PTSD, but I haven’t met anyone who has had an idyllic childhood.  Given the lack of family connectedness, stress levels, overwork, and confusion of discipline with love, some form of attachment or anxiety issue is the norm rather than an exception.  So while my experience may be more extreme than most, I think it serves an example.  Rather than saying “I will hold out for someone perfect”, we started out by being imperfect and finding in a gradual, struggling pace a way to connect through that.

We all know what the honeymoon period is.  It’s the months that you are able to stay in the zone of not being able to show your imperfections.  Inevitably that collapses – and it’s rare to find two people in a relationship that are coming down from that high truly want to see the others (and their own) imperfections.  We didn’t have a honeymoon period.  The first 5 months were a real struggle, constantly wondering if it would end.  Would the other person truly want to be with me as I am?  The transition happened when I had an emotional meltdown, bawling for close to an hour straight, where for the first time she saw me in a raw state how I had never received unconditional support in my life, and so saw more the visceral source of my suspicions and distrust.  Is this really unusual for men in this world, where you’re always supposed to have it together and you’re rewarded for achievement and success?

We’ve been together 18 months now and this is by far the best relationship I’ve been in.  I love her more than I thought possible – and my idea of what love is has changed along the way.  It’s not a feeling, but a dynamic deep seated curiosity about the other.  We want each other to be themselves, so are automatically giving space and asking questions, doing weird and quirky things to bring it out.  No matter what she’s feeling, even if it were rage at me, I would unflinchingly want to hear it.  Part of that is the trust we’ve built, because we know there’s nothing in each other that wants to hurt the other.

We also are committed to not taking emotional responsibility for each other.  It’s not either of our jobs to make another feel better.  We will be connected to each other no matter what either of us is feeling, and bad days are not failure, so they are no big deal.  We both want to learn to be more ourselves – and there’s nothing better than seeing the Self reflected in another’s clear eyes to seeing this.

I am so, so, SO grateful for her for sticking with me when I struggled with showing more of myself.  We would never have developed the bond we did if I refrained from showing my hesitation about getting close – or my hurt emotions during the times when she was showing warmth without a hidden agenda.

So the idea of a “Fuck Yes!” rule to me is internet trash at best.  No psychologist would ever buy into something so oversimplified.   True intimacy is scary – you have to risk a lot to get there.  You have to gradually bare yourself, including all the self-protections we have, and learn to embrace our own contradictions, our own desires and fears at the same time.  We’re taught to distance ourselves when things feel bad.  We avoid pain.  But my story is an example of what happens when two people decide against the love illusion, against the waiting for Mr or Mrs Perfect and just say let’s connect as we are.  And the result?  This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt I want to grow old with someone.  The relationship feels built on foundations where we can grow and change and by doing that, get closer instead of further apart.

 

 

PS.  Before I posted this, I showed it to her and her response was “well, actually I was feeling a Fuck Yes about you throughout all those first few months”.  Go figure.  Maybe she should see someone about that.

By |September 23rd, 2014|black and white thinking, relationships|0 Comments

Working with Shame

Shame is something that permeates our culture. Advertising preys on shame of one’s body. Dr. Gabor Mate, who works with the heavily addicted, says shame is the “one constant among addicts of all types“. It fuels much avoidant behavior such as procrastination and can be the prime impetus behind relationship breakups and lack of intimacy.

This year I have been looking into my own shame and doing my best to directly experience it. By that I don’t mean jump into “healing”, which is often the attempt to get rid of it. (Years ago, when I wrote and said thousands of daily affirmations of my own worth and inner beauty, I ended up feeling worse about myself) To me, that kind of healing leads to feeling ashamed of one’s own shame, which is unfortunately pervasive in so many therapeutic relations given the prevalence of pop psychology and the “quick fix”. But what is shame? Joseph Burgo defines same as the sense of internal damage. I define shame as the following:

Shame is the feeling or body memory that you cannot be connected with others, or yourself, so long as a part of you is present. It’s the sense of a split within one’s self, the feeling that a part of you shouldn’t be there.

Say you grew up, as I did, in an emotionally repressed family where there was a heavy reaction to an expression of anger or a “go away” message. If I rejected my mother, either by saying I didn’t like something she did to me or that I didn’t want to talk now, she would react by pushing me away violently, even implying the relationship might end. Even showing this emotion on my face without vocalizing it provoked a reaction. This was her own hurt, but of course as a young child I didn’t know this – I internalized it. It became part of my body and brain. There are times I find it hard to even feel that energy; it ended up being blocked from my consciousness, with sometimes severe internal reactions and symptoms as a result. Connection with my family was more important than self-connection, and this created pathways in the brain short-circuiting that energy. Though I’ve done much work with myself, I still feel shame regarding this; my body believes people will cut me out of their lives if I let it be visible.

This can happen in work too: a friend of mine was talking about procrastination in learning a new skill for a client. There was a deadline for getting a project done and she needed to become adept in a new software utility that she hadn’t used before. For years she had been used to being highly skilled in what she did; the sense of not being an expert already was very uncomfortable to her, and it was incredibly easy to avoid that discomfort by procrastinating. Even when she devoted time to acquire the new skills, the learning was slower than when she had been a student. Upon talking about it, she agreed that at the basis of this behavior was the sense that she needed to be an expert to have the connection with the client. Not knowing everything, being less than perfect, was not acceptable – the client might drop her. The connection wouldn’t be there. There was no quick ability to not feel this, so the easiest thing to do in the moment was to focus attention anywhere else, rather than wade through the emotional quagmire of shame.

Sexual attraction is another magnet for shame. It’s something that easily cross-reacts with inadequacies of beauty or worth. I still have feelings that my partner may cut off from me and end the relationship if I fully admit, beyond an intellectual confession, that I feel a serious attraction to someone. So in the past, rather than admit it fully, I have intellectualized it or numbed that part of me, which led to distance and lack of trust. Another option for me that many do (and I’m glad I haven’t) would be to act it out – rather than admitting or feeling the shame, I could try to act on the attraction and start something while not showing it to my partner, thus trying in an unconscious and unhealthy way to not numb a part of myself while still remaining connected to her. It’s the shadow side of trying to resolve shame. If anything happened, I would likely feel more disconnected from her because I would have to hide more and more parts of my life. If I confessed it after time, the anger she would feel upon discovery, mostly based on the deceit, would be tied to the original shame and add to it. Thus shame grows.

The movie “Shame” made in 2011 with Michael Fassbender depicts the shame underlying sexual addiction amazingly well.

The dark side of the growth of psychology and this culture’s lack of time is that we want the quick fix. Feeling any shame that’s there doesn’t make it immediately better. In fact, culturally there’s incredibly discomfort around it. Rather than being with shame we ask loved ones to “see someone about it”, to find a solution by thinking positive thoughts, or make more rules so as not to bring it up. But since the source of shame is from feeling disconnected, what we deeply need is the experience of being connected while feeling shame and the original source.

What brings on this feeling of connection and working with shame? From my experience, we need to first truly feel the shame and whatever is bringing on the shame, without intellectualizing or compartmentalizing it. It has to be brought to the surface, in our bodies, face, voice and breath. This means going beyond any kind of sit-down therapy structure. Then, someone needs to be there and be open for a connection without any kind of attempt to resolve the source of the shame. There needs to be space for the emotion, thoughts or impulses with no action to change them, while truly being there and available. This is itself a form of meditation.

A couple months ago, while in a very emotional state (I won’t go into the trigger here), I called my girlfriend Kirsten for help. It was an agonizing decision for me, as I grew up feeling I should be the one supporting others, but at the time I truly felt lost and knew I couldn’t move anything alone. She dropped everything and came. As soon as she was next to me, I started bawling. I confessed how ashamed I was of asking for support, and then how ashamed I was of feeling shame, like I needed to do something to make it better so I could be a healthy person. She was simply present with me. I confessed I felt like there was always a price for support. Inside, I was feeling that I needed to please others in order to be worth getting any kind of love, and sex had been a major part of that with women, giving them pleasure when I didn’t necessarily feel into it. I told her I didn’t want sex now, and felt so much shame at admitting that, continuing my bawling. She simply listened. She backed away physically when I wanted it, and held me close when that felt good to me. She was absolutely wonderful at remaining connected without any price. I didn’t need to heal, say the right thing or make it worth her while to be there for me. She was a friend. She wasn’t even playing a role of “healer”, breathing the right way or watching what she said. All she did was show that mattered to her – me, not the role I played in her life.

This was quite a pivotal shift for me. As it turns out, I didn’t want sex for close to a month afterwards while I processed the internal shifts. That in itself was very unusual for me. It made it easier for her that we are in an open relationship and she could, if she wanted, fulfill needs elsewhere – another dynamic which has helped me work with shame. But that, along with other experiences, brought the body knowledge that I could still be connected while revealing shame without having to play a role of strength, humor, health or comforting others. This has led to a huge foundation of trust and friendship. It’s amazing how many sexual relationships don’t have that.

I’ve also had dyads with a number of people. This is where you sit in a meditational manner facing each other, being present for 10 minutes or so before talking, connecting to one’s breath and body, and each person taking turns asking a simple question and listening. When it’s your turn, you speak slowly and with self-connection about your experience and insights while the other listens and is present in their own self. One of the questions asked was about the “sense of self in relationships”. That’s a prime question related to shame – when do you lose that sense of self-connection, where you’re not hiding or altering anything inside? When do you feel you’re walking on eggshells, controlling everything coming out because you feel it would harm the relationship? And it was wonderful just practicing revealing myself without guile, showing how “imperfect” I am and getting to a place that this is just fine. It doesn’t need to change.

It’s also led to a different place in being there for others. Largely arising from my narcissistic mother, I had been feeling that I needed to be playing a role when giving support to others. Internally I had the belief that had to suppress my own issues, not feel anything “unsupportive” like anger or resentment from my past (even if unrelated to them), in order to be helpful. This made me far from present and created a tense feeling; because I was not relaxed, I couldn’t help friends be relaxed. Not being in a state of allowing with my own emotions at the time, I could never truly convey that their emotions were just fine as they are. I was saying the “right things”, which probably made them feel like they had to say the “right things” in response. While I don’t have any scientific data, I think this is what the vast majority of therapeutic sit-down relationships are like this. So many healing achievers!

The lessening of shame has led me to more feelings of joy because by not disconnecting from myself, there’s more wholeness. I can joke around with it more, even bring some clownishness. What a feeling of freedom that is. And I’m just getting started.

 

 

 

By |October 5th, 2013|dealing with life, emotions, love|1 Comment