Category Archives: Counselling Articles

The Heroine’s Journey – Transformative story and myth for women

The Heroine's Journey

From “The Shape of Water”

When Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was first published in 1949 it introduced (or perhaps reminded) the modern world of the archetypal Hero’s Journey. The narrative of this mythical journey follows a particular arc, as described succinctly in the book’s introduction –

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

I first encountered the written myth of the Hero’s Journey in my adolescence in the 1980s, more than thirty years after Campbell’s book was published. As a politically charged (if not particularly astute) adolescent, I immediately noticed the gender asymmetry. Women and girls were side characters, there to provide incentive or reward or danger or intrigue to the Hero. The Hero was always a man or boy. George Lucas exemplified this in his Joseph Campbell inspired movie Star Wars (perhaps notably, the first movie I remember seeing as a child).

As I reached the cusp of manhood myself, I wondered how women felt about so rarely having a mythical journey of their own told in story or represented in myth.

Today we see gender roles increasingly challenged and deconstructed. Women are taking the Hero’s Journey (and men are often-times foregoing their own, but that’s a discussion for another time). And yet, in my counselling work I regularly encounter frustration and confusion from women around the Hero archetype and myth. They don’t usually use the words “Hero” or “Hero’s Journey,” but I discern the reference to myth in the words they do use.

In our sessions women will report feeling restricted, burdened, immobilized, especially women who have made significant sacrifices as a mother or wife. The women who have made a pronounced Hero’s Journey will sometimes lament their loss of a sense of home or family, of belonging, of “hearth.”

The Hero’s Journey is in essence a masculine journey, and although women will embark upon it, often successfully and with great reward, there remains a glaring gap.

The Heroine’s Journey

It stands to reason that if there is a Hero’s Journey, there must be a Heroine’s Journey. But what is the arc of the Heroine’s Journey? Is it enough for the Heroine to simply follow the Hero and call it a journey of her own? Certainly we see this in storytelling, for example in the character Lyra Silvertongue, a pre-adolescent girl who travels to other worlds on a typical Hero’s Journey in Philip Pullman’s astounding Golden Compass trilogy (a personal favourite in contemporary literature).

But might the Heroine’s Journey be substantially distinct in form from the Hero’s Journey, even as it mirrors it in value, significance, and depth? It’s worth considering.

I was considering just this question recently when I happened to watch Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 film The Shape of Water (Del Toro is also responsible for the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth).

The protagonist and Heroine is Eliza, a mute woman who works as a cleaner in a secretive military base where a special government agent has suddenly arrived at the base in possession of a military “asset.” This asset turns out to be an amphibious “aqua-man,” a prisoner, a creature that the agent, clearly the story’s antagonist/villain (perhaps the dragon or giant of the Hero myth) treats with open disdain and cruelty.

The agent is sadistic and efficient, identified as “a man of the future,” proponent of progress, enemy of the past, enemy of uncertainty, enemy of feeling (except perhaps anger and disgust), of vulnerability, and certainly enemy of the feminine.

The asset, the captured aqua-man, is revealed, through Eliza’s silent hand-signed interactions, to be highly intelligent, sensitive, and also powerful, all qualities that the evil agent is blind to (if not actually blind, unwilling to acknowledge, committed as he is to the cold ideology of the dominator-heirarchy and the particular brand of masculinity to which he has pledged his allegiance).

The asset/Aqua-man too is clearly male, but is completely unlike the agent. A Dionysian figure dragged from his ancient home in the murky wet depths up into the dry and shallow world of Apollonian modern man, he is in fact a river god, embodiment of the past, now scheduled to die at the hands of the future.

It is up to Eliza to save him, and of course she does, and of course in the process she too is saved.

But there are marked differences between her Heroine’s Journey and the archetypal Hero’s Journey. Her tasks of courage are the same as the Hero’s. Her transformation and initiation are no less profound. As in the Hero’s Journey help arrives from unexpected sources. But unlike virtually every Hero’s Journey, Eliza is not called away from home… her quest finds her right where she stands. This seems to be a rarely recognized distinction. I didn’t really think about it until a colleague pointed it out, and I think the implications are worth exploring.

The Shape of Water could be called a feminist film, but rather than minimizing, discarding, or demonizing the masculine element, a distinction is made between styles of masculinity, while a distinctly feminine Heroine musters all that is required to face the challenges that have come through her door.

The story offers a refreshing, imaginative, and symbolically rich take on the Hero/Heroine’s Journey. The Heroine is pitted not against men per se, and not against just a random “bad man” but, and this is worth repeating, against a particular and distinct style of masculinity. Along her Journey, the Heroine, in typical fashion, receives help, sometimes unexpected and often from men. The complexity of character in the men who help her is actually necessary in order to appreciate the complexity of what the Heroine’s Journey demands. This understanding seems to be lost on many popular film-makers and storytellers who settle instead for simplified stereotypes.

I hope for more stories of this caliber to help express the myths, new and old, of the lesser known and equally potent feminine side of the transformative human Journey.

Recommended books –
The Hero Within by Carol Pearson
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Goddesses in Everywoman by Jean Shinoda Bolen

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Is it possible to love without attachment?

Is it possible to love without attachment?Dear Justice,

I’ve been listening to some Buddhist teachings on love and attachment. This teacher says that to truly love someone is to want them to be happy, with or without you, but usually what we really want is for ourselves to be happy, and we believe we need someone else to make us happy. We call this love, but that is not love says the Buddhist teacher, that is attachment, and attachment is the cause of suffering.

I’ve struggled a lot with love. It’s true that the love I’m used to has caused me a lot of suffering, so maybe it hasn’t been real love at all! My question – Is it really possible to love someone without attachment?

Signed,
In love and suffering

Dear In love and suffering,

The kind of love that is incompatible with being attached to someone or loving them for your own pleasure is a spiritual love. Spiritual love is a high ideal, and one that some people are called to. In a way, attachment IS the cause of suffering just as the ascetic spiritual traditions teach, and so it makes sense from that point of view that if we want to be free of suffering we should attempt to eliminate our attachments. Since romantic love has caused you a lot of suffering personally, I can see why it would be appealing to trade it in for a love without attachment. But please understand, it won’t be the same love.

Buddhists idealize a shedding of attachments, and the associated emotional equanimity. For some this offers a satisfying and enriching path, despite its difficulties. For others the ideal becomes an exercise in self-deception, what is commonly called “spiritual bypass;” rather than face the suffering that comes with the attachments of life, one tries to trick oneself into enlightenment by avoiding life rather than engaging with it. Still others manage to work fruitfully with the tension and dilemmas that come with attachment, even while they continue to live an engaged life.

The classical Greeks offer a different perspective on love altogether. They did not see love as mutually exclusive from attachment (or suffering for that matter), but rather they recognized at least four distinct kinds of love; we’ll look at two: Agape and Eros.

For the Greeks, Agape is spiritual, selfless love. Genitals are not included in this kind of love because bodily desire is not included.

Eros, on the other hand, provides a darker foil to Agape. Eros is romantic or erotic love. It is sexually charged and desirous (genitals included).

The Greek God Eros was said to be mothered by Aphrodite, Goddess of love, and fathered by Ares, God of war. This parentage should give us clues to the temperament of Eros. Erotic love is understood to be frictious and troublesome, obsessive and personal, full of projection and confusion, and yes, suffering.

So, do you want a cool and non-attached love? Or do you want a hot love that includes attachment, as well as passion and the associated suffering? There’s no wrong answer, but it’s worth adding that one makes a place for desire, including fucking and other forms of passion, while the other treats desire as a burden, something to be liberated from.

Interestingly, erotic love also has a psychological implication that non-attached spiritual love does not. In the old stories Eros himself falls in love with a mortal woman named Psyche. Their love relationship is rocky, there is attachment and suffering in spades, but the suffering is psychologically meaningful; it helps the couple grow.

The Buddhist perspective in your question assumes that liberation from the entanglements of both Eros and Psyche is preferable to the psychological deepening that suffering in love can provide. Another way to say this is that attachment and suffering (and fucking for that matter) might be the enemies of spirituality, but they can be necessary for the soul (to read more about spirit as distinct from soul and the spiritual journey as distinct from the soul journey click here).

We’ve been looking at this in polarized terms for the sake of clarity and understanding, but these may not be mutually exclusive realms. We can question our attachments in love even as we wrestle with and even indulge them (I sometimes hold my partner’s face in my hands and teasingly tell her “I’m so attached to you”).

Can you have it both ways – can you do away with suffering and still feel the kind of fiery love that many crave? Probably not. Is it worth trying? Maybe, but keep in mind that much hinges on the meaning that you make of your suffering. If you believe, as I understand Buddhists do, that suffering is essentially meaningless, then suffering and attachment merely become problems to solve, something to be liberated from. But if you find psychological or soul meaning in the suffering and attachment of erotic love, then suffering becomes perhaps not only tolerable, but even purposeful.

Thanks for asking hard questions.

All My Best,
Justice

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Fantasy: A different kind of understanding

Fantasy- A different kind of understandingIn my therapy work and writings I most often use the word fantasy to describe the patterns and images of the imagination that shape our preferences and inform our motivations, from subtle to strong. A fantasy is, in this way, related to what we might call a “belief,” but while a belief is mental and conceptual, the fantasy lives deeper and more vividly in the psyche.

The popular term “unconscious belief” acknowledges that we are not always entirely aware of the beliefs we act upon, or that act upon us. “Story” too is a word that gets used to flesh out the idea of these beliefs and the fuller inner narratives they spawn. I like to speak in terms of fantasy because it adds more depth to the ideas of belief and story, and fantasy includes the elements of image and imagination. Fantasies seize us through the imagination and so they contain an image (though this image may not be immediately available).

Examining our beliefs or stories is a valuable mental endeavour; examining fantasy through image and imagination brings us further, from intellect into psyche. Like the “unconscious belief” that reveals itself when we are ready (ie – “I don’t deserve love”), the fantasies that run our lives are often hidden or partly hidden even as they exert their force.

And so when I speak of fantasy in session or in my writing I will most often be referring to the root of these hidden beliefs/stories/narratives, and this root lives in images and imagination.

Fantasies, understood in this way, can be both welcome and unwelcome, pleasurable or tortuous. They can be hopes and desires or fears and repulsions. We all are subject to numerous fantasies of the psyche, some explicit and visible, others only hinted at or kept out of view except in dreams, daydreams, or other breakthrough moments.

Our fantasies fill the spectrum of life experience, tending to concentrate around the archetypally significant nodes. We’re subject to sexual fantasies, death fantasies, abandonment fantasies, career fantasies, success fantasies, failure fantasies, rescue fantasies, sadistic fantasies, masochistic fantasies, creative fantasies, destructive fantasies, hero fantasies, victim fantasies and oh so many more!

This description of fantasy is necessary because fantasy today has commonly come to mean merely the opposite of truth, anti-reality. The word has become pejorative, so diminished that its use reflects virtually nothing of its fuller potent meaning.

The word fantasy comes to us from original meanings implying “imagination, appearance, to make visible.” Also, “to show, to bring to light.” Fantasy is imagination, and imagination illuminates.

And so I will often speak of fantasy in a way that is different from how the word is commonly used, in a way that deepens it to the level of psyche, and elevates it to a place of illumination.

(Note – I wrote this in order to provide clients and readers an explanation of my use and understanding of the word “fantasy.” I owe this understanding largely to Carl Jung and James Hillman.)

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How to be present in your relationship – A guide for men and women

How to be present in your relationshipThree year ago I wrote an article titled “Why women leave men they love – What every man needs to know.” At the heart of this little article is one big idea… Presence matters. It matters a lot. Presence might even matter the most. You can be a great provider or parent and everything else, but if you are not able or willing to be present to your partner you are likely to find yourself in relationship trouble.

What is presence? Why does it matter?

What does presence mean in a relationship, and why does it matter so much? I will often hear a client (usually a woman, but not always) lament that their partner does not feel “present” in the relationship. This feeling of lack, so acutely felt by one person, can be a complete mystery to their partner. I’ll have someone tell me in session (usually a man, but not always) “My partner says I’m not present in our relationship… I have no idea what they mean.”

Here’s the short answer, then we’ll dig deeper into the question:

When your partner complains that you are not present in your relationship they usually mean you are distracted – in your head, on your phone, checked out, too tired etc – but underneath it probably also means that you are unable to meet them emotionally. There might be good reasons for this. You might find their emotions confusing, overwhelming, or even boring. You might not be used to engaging with someone on an emotional level (many people are raised in non-emotional or overly-emotional households and do not learn emotional skills). You might even feel cut off from your own emotions, which makes you unavailable to them. Or maybe you just don’t enjoy emotional closeness as much as your partner does, which is fair, and is probably a good thing to explicitly tell them.

The primary definition of presence in the dictionary is pretty straightforward – “the state or fact of existing, occurring” – but not very helpful. Clearly you exist, but existing or occurring is not always enough to be felt as present. The kind of presence we talk about in relationship is about the particular quality of your presence… how you show up… how you are experienced by your partner.

A second definition of presence sheds more light, “the bearing, carriage, or air of a person.” Here we begin to see how the mere fact of existing is necessarily coloured by particular qualities. But what are these qualities? What sort of bearing or carriage are we talking about?

A third definition of presence deepens the mystery, but also reveals a clue, “a person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen; something (such as a spirit) felt or believed to be present.” Ah! The kind of presence that many hunger for in a relationship (maybe you, maybe your partner) is actually invisible! In a sense this is true. The kind of presence desired in a relationship may be more felt than seen; it is the spirit in which you present yourself.

In what sort of spirit do you typically present yourself to your partner? It’s a good question. A spirit of curiosity? A spirit of problem-solving or solutions? A spirit of exhaustion? Limited attention? A spirit of acceptance? A spirit of denial? A spirit of confidence? Vulnerability? Receptivity? A spirit of scepticism? What is your typical bearing, carriage, or air? The possible answers are infinite, but probably you habitually show up in a narrow and predictable way just like most of us.

When a person complains that their partner is not “present” they usually mean that they do not feel seen, known, and engaged. They feel invisible, alone, and disconnected.

Presence in this sense is first about paying attention and not being distracted. Having your wits about you. Being solid, grounded, in the moment. Presence also implies a certain kind of non-judgemental attitude, a capacity to listen and to hear. When we are present with our partner we give them our attention and we allow them to be as they are. This kind of presence is simple, but also sophisticated. And these days it can be rare.

This kind of presence is also closely associated with the feeling of intimacy (I explain this more fully in my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples). This feeling runs deep for many, and it can become a deal-maker or deal-breaker in a relationship.

How to practice being present

If we want to learn to be more present in our relationship we must put aside our agenda for our partner. Most of us have an idea of how our partner could be improved – how they could be better, more happy, or more effective if only they would change this or that habit or way of being. This agenda for our partner is incompatible with being truly present. You can come back to your partner improvement plan another time, but if you want to practice being present you’ll need to put it aside for now.

Being present has zero to do with changing, fixing, or problem solving. To be present, we must develop a tolerance for the contradictions and dilemmas that our partner reveals. Our mind must remain receptive and clear, or these contradictions and dilemmas will get stuck in there and make noise, and soon we find ourselves offering advice or trying to fix our partner; in that moment our presence has disappeared, and our partner feels the pain of its absence.

Sometimes our partner has a criticism of us. If the criticism seems particularly unkind or unfair, our defences will likely kick in. As soon as we go into defence mode we have lost the spirit of presence. Addressing our partner’s criticism may be necessary, but first take a few moments to hear what your partner is really saying. Pause. Experiencing you as present, listening, attentive, might have a disarming effect. Sometimes this turns out to be all that is required.

Being present doesn’t mean being invincible; this isn’t about armouring yourself. You’re still allowed to feel the impact of your partner’s words and actions. In fact, being present makes you more sensitive, not less, but it also makes you more capable of tolerating emotional discomforts.

It also doesn’t mean being an emotional punching bag or doormat. We can potentially argue and defend ourselves and still remain present, but it’s hard to do both at once. And sometimes presence might not be called for, might not be the goal. It’s not like you have to be 100% present at all times. That would probably be exhausting. Nonetheless, for many people a move toward more presence in the relationship is called for and will have positive effects. Sometimes it turns a failing relationship around.

Being present first to your own inner experience helps you respond skilfully and accurately to your partner. When we are present to our own experience as well as simultaneously being present to our partner’s, we are better able to sort out our own emotionality. For example, being present allows us to discern between our hurt feelings and our anger, and thus gives us the opportunity to cut to the truth and then respond accordingly. Being present to yourself really just means that you know what you are feeling, that you’re familiar with yourself from the inside out.

Much non-presence stems from an unwillingness to see and feel without too much judgement. When we can not tolerate the truth of our self or our partner, and this is common, we will not allow ourselves to be truly present.

Presence, sex, and eroticism

It’s worth noting that the kind of presence we are talking about here can be a crucial factor for feelings of sexual connection. Without the feeling of presence in a partner, many people (especially women) do not become aroused, even if they wish it were otherwise. Presence in this sense is not the same as mere familiarity (nor opposite to it) but is instead related to the immediacy and the aliveness of the moment; presence indicates aliveness, and in a sexual context has a particular kind of feel.

This feeling of erotic presence and aliveness is difficult to define and to talk about. If we don’t have a clear understanding of it or a shared language for discussing it, the lack of erotic presence becomes all the more frustrating and damaging to the relationship.

Making your presence felt

Demonstrating presence sends our partner the message that we truly see them, that they are known. This tends to have a moderating effect on the nervous systems of both involved; it calms us down and reduces anxiety, and it just generally feels good. Regardless of the content of our verbal interactions, experiencing each other as present feels good and satisfying on a fundamental, non-verbal level.

Being present to our partner and sensing their presence with us is a way to build trust and goodwill. When this trust and goodwill is available we feel nourished from our interactions, and we are able to better weather the storms of life; we experience more enjoyment in the relationship, and more gratitude for each other. Presence also helps us navigate conflict when it arises. Presence is helpful and appropriate in times of relationship peace, love, conflict, and war.

Presence doesn’t come naturally to everybody, but it can be practiced and learned.

Practicing presence

The first prerequisite for being present is an ability to tolerate emotion, yours and your partners. Sometimes this means tolerating strong emotions. If you habitually avoid conflict (or instigate it) you’ll need to address this one way or another.

Other qualities of presence to practice include –

Curiosity
Can you be curious about your partner and their experience (maybe you think you know everything about them already)? Can you be curious about your own as well?

Awareness
Let all your senses be open to this person. Notice all that they are communicating, verbally and also subtly, through body language, tone etc. Let the raw data wash over you, do not get stuck in interpretation.

Self-awareness
Notice how your body and mind automatically reacts to your partner. Where does your body tense up? Where does it collapse? What are the words, stories, images that run through your mind as you are present to your partner?

Non-judgement
It isn’t the time to judge them wrong or right, good or bad. Let them be as they are. Practice moral neutrality. (Note – Discernment, aka judgement, is often necessary and appropriate, but it’s also worth putting it aside for a time in order to be present in a more simple and direct way.)

Courage
It takes courage to face someone exactly as they are!

Differentiation
Your partner’s experience isn’t yours. Feeling the boundary between you rather than taking what they say personally helps you be more present.

Listening
Even if you’re in conversation, practice listening deeply when it’s your time to listen.

Presence has a strong physiological aspect as well as mental, emotional, and psychological. Feeling “grounded” in your own body is necessary in order to be present to another. In fact, your partner’s body silently and automatically reads your body for cues (and vice versa) in every moment. These cues either agitate or calm their own physiological systems.

To optimize your own physiology so as to communicate the right kind of presence and send the right cues, use these tips –

1. Sit or stand tall and comfortably with your shoulders comfortably back.

2. Face your partner. Let the front of your body face the front of their body. Now let the front of your body soften and relax. This softened front body signals receptivity and willingness to engage.

3. Maintain eye contact, possibly more than usual.

4. Soften your facial features. This sends a signal to your nervous system (and your partner’s) that all is well.

5. Bring your awareness to your breath, to its natural pattern of rising and falling. If your breath is shallow, try deepening it. Keep your breath slow and deep, steady and strong, natural and relaxed. Let yourself feel nourished by your breath. If you notice yourself becoming agitated, falling into reaction or judgement, or otherwise losing your quality of presence, bring your attention back to the sensations of your breath rising and falling. Let the steady rhythm of your breath be the place that your quality of presence comes from.

Adopting a physical posture of presence along with the qualities of curiosity, awareness, self-awareness, non-judgement, courage, differentiation, and listening will make your presence feel even more powerful and satisfying for both of you.

Learning to improve your quality of presence in your marriage or relationship is a lifelong practice that pays big dividends. Use the instructions and outline above to hone your practice. A basic mindfulness meditation practice can also help. If you need more support, talk to a counsellor, coach, or therapist.

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“My counsellor says kinky sex and BDSM are unhealthy.”

My counsellor says kinky sex and BDSM are unhealthyDear Justice,

I recently found a local counsellor I like, but when I revealed that I enjoy BDSM and kinky sex (impact play, objectification, dominance and submission etc) she became visibly distressed. Her jaw literally dropped. She told me that what I do is unhealthy and that I should deal with my issues and trauma in other ways. I thought she was going to be a good counsellor for me, but her reaction made me really uncomfortable. What do you suggest? Any insight would be appreciated.

Sincerely,
Kinky and frustrated

Dear Kinky and frustrated,

Although the situation has improved since BDSM was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013, some counsellors and therapists remain ideologically opposed to BDSM and kink.

Counselling and therapy includes dozens of different modalities and approaches, each with their own theoretical and philosophical foundations. Sometimes these various modalities are contradictory to one another. One therapist might well support your kinky lifestyle, another will not. This can reflect the type of therapy or counselling they do, but it’s more likely based on their own personal biases and prejudices. The arena of human sexuality is especially fraught with shadow and difficulty, and counsellors are not immune. Our cultural puritanism runs deep, and often leaks into the counselling office, where concepts of normalcy get pitted against concepts of deviancy.

I’m curious – Are you indeed dealing with your “issues and trauma” through kink and BDSM? Or is this your counsellor’s assumption? Are your kinky proclivities troubling to you? Or are they just troubling to her? These are useful distinctions.

If you otherwise like this counsellor you could ask her about her possible prejudice and see if a way forward together is possible. If sex figures heavily in your counselling work, and if you want someone who can accept your enjoyment of BDSM and kink, you might have to cut your losses and look for a counsellor who is kink-friendly and BDSM-aware. Some counsellors and therapists will openly advertise this, or you can ask explicitly in your initial consultation.

My own professional (and personal) approach is to treat kink and BDSM as a rich and fascinating area of sexuality. Certainly there is important psychological material there, but it should be met on its own terms in a spirit of curiosity, not with reflexive disdain, criticism, or moralizing.

Kink and BDSM can be seen as a space for playing out particular sexual or erotic psychodramas. These psychodramas are not necessarily damaging, and can be the rare places where certain dark myths get a voice. Consensual BDSM is not literal abuse, it is symbolic and metaphorical. Unfortunately, not all counsellors and therapists understand this.

Beyond the psychological implications, kink and BDSM can also simply “feel good” for some people. There are plenty of physiological and biochemical explanations for this, ie – the dopamine release that comes from a sense of accomplishment or the endorphine cascade produced by certain kinds of strong sensations.

Plenty of research is available to support the health and legitimacy of kink and BDSM practices. All your counsellor or anyone else has to do is search “BDSM research” online and they’ll see about a million results. If you’re feeling generous and want to do your counsellor’s work for them, you can always send them a link to this Introduction to BDSM for Psychotherapists.

Is it possible for BDSM and kink to be unhealthy? Of course. If you have concerns about your sexual inclinations, taking these concerns to a therapist or counsellor is an option, but it’s the counsellor’s job to examine these possibilities with you, not to project their own shadow or assert their judgements onto your sexuality.

Bottom line? It sounds like your counsellor’s reaction to your sexuality is professionally outdated and inappropriate. You can agree to disagree with her on this one point, you can try to educate her, or you can look for a kink-friendly counsellor who understands or at least won’t judge this aspect of you.

All My Best,
Justice

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Learn to use kinky sex and BDSM as an awareness practice for healing and growth (like you might use yoga, meditation, or martial arts).

~ Bring more awareness, creativity, and intention to your sex life.

~ Reconcile your “darker” sexual desires with the deep love and caring that is the foundation of your relationship.

~ Make a place for consensual Dominance and submission alongside equality and respect

~ Confront the shame, doubt, or self-consciousness that thwarts or confuses you.

Campbell River Counselling Justice Schanfarber HakomiTrying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide individual counselling, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships. Serving clients worldwide by phone/skype. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

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Valentine’s day – Hallmark’s Cupid gives way to Eros and real erotic love

Valentine's day - Eros and PycheValentine’s day takes as its icon the innocent, though mischievous smiling image of Cupid, plump and cute, shooting his heart-tipped arrows playfully, with love blossoming like a flower wherever the arrow lands. This image of Cupid is a far cry from the Cupid of Apuleius’s “Metamorphoses” (aka “The Golden Ass” – circa 158 AD).

In the old stories, the arrows of Eros (Eros being the pre-Romanized Cupid) are suspected to be poison. They pierce real flesh, and they hurt, inflicting the pain and torment of erotic love – not just the flush of delight – upon their target. The passionate love of Eros is understood to be a mixed blessing/curse; passion here including meanings of fury, overwhelming feeling, being acted on by external forces, and suffering. Does this not describe well the reality of erotic love?

The Cupid of Valentine’s day cards symbolizes our insistence upon maintaining an attitude of innocence toward erotic love. Erotic love, that unshakeable blessing/curse kind of love characterized by Eros, has proven too psychologically troublesome and so has been replaced by a watered down version: “romantic love,” with an angelic Cupid as its mascot.

If romantic love is bubbly and sweet, erotic love includes deception and ill intent. When one is shot with Cupid’s arrow, expect swooning. When one is shot with the arrows of Eros, expect to bleed. Watch your back. There will be suffering.

This is not to say that erotic love should be denied (as if we have a choice!), rather we should view it with appropriate humility, deep curiosity, and perhaps a healthy fear or apprehension. Cloud-bound romantic love has little to offer of the earthy depths, but erotic love is bound to psyche, to soul, and wants to take us down as much as up.

The classic tale of Eros is also the tale of Psyche; their destinies are entwined. Eros loves Psyche, and Psyche loves Eros, but their love is not exactly the “romantic” kind. Psyche is a young woman living under a curse who is whisked away to the God Eros. Their love affair begins in blindness, deception, and mistrust… and goes downhill from there. Numerous external forces exert their influence. Eros pricks himself with his own arrow and fixates on Psyche. It’s a hot mess.

Through the many trials and tribulations of their love, Eros and Psyche come to mean something extraordinary to each other. In our lives too, erotic love means something extraordinary for us psychologically, and psyche means something extraordinary for our erotic love. This is no simple equation, and no fleeting romance; the relationship between Psyche and Eros is long, profound, and rife with difficulty.

Erotic love (Eros) is attracted to psychological being (Psyche), infusing psyche with desire and beauty, but also difficulty. These difficulties are not problems to be solved as much as rites of passage to be suffered, observed, even celebrated. And psychological being too is attracted to erotic love, infusing it with greater depth, and also difficulty, and again these difficulties can be understood as necessary and ever-deepening initiations.

This is what we must remember: Erotic love hurts us, and it is necessary for psychological being. There is no point in the infantilization of erotic love (a la Valentine’s day sentimentality), other than to avoid the uncomfortable psychological deepening that erotic love demands.

Is this a pessimistic view of love? Not at all. Erotic love is a necessary and beautiful calling, but it also necessarily contains frictious elements and tragedy.

In the myth of Psyche and Eros the lovers persevere in the face of tremendous obstacles including family betrayals, attempted murders and botched suicides. The couple’s eventual triumphs are hard-won, but it isn’t their personal heroics that save them; on the contrary, they effort endlessly, as they must (as we must), but their best efforts often backfire; then when all appears to be lost, fortune smiles serendipitously upon them.

The potent relationship between Psyche and Eros is full of importance, but is difficult to understand, just as the relationship between psychological life and erotic life is important and difficult to understand. Our best option is not to attempt to explain away the impact of psyche on eros (or vice versa) from an objective distance, but rather to enter the fray personally, to experience the dark mystery itself, and to report on what we find. I wonder – What kind of Valentine’s Day cards might result?

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Losing your innocence in love – Relationship as initiation

Calvin and Rosa had been working with me for six months. We were in the integration/completion phase of therapy, and were reflecting on significant themes and milestones. Rosa was reflecting upon a particular fight in which Calvin had said terrible, hurtful things to her. In this moment of our session she was noticing how she had been changed by that event. “I don’t think I’ll ever be the same,” she quietly mused.

I concurred, “I don’t think you will either.” I went on to explain, “We might enter a love relationship or marriage with innocence, believing that real love is always kind. When we discover otherwise, it changes us. We lose that innocence. We might then turn our back on the relationship, believing the love must be gone, or we might harden ourselves and turn our back on love altogether, believing it must be a lie, an illusion. Another possibility exists, one that I believe is more aligned with the deeper truth of the matter. We can expand ourselves, we can grow our capacity for holding the true complexity and inherent contradictions of romantic love. This changes us. We lose our innocence, but gain something deeper. And we’re never quite the same.”

Losing innocence in love

The experience that Calvin and Rosa had – losing their innocence in love, having their faith in love shaken, and beginning the journey of integrating their new, darker experiences of love – this is a rite of passage, a fiery initiation. It’s allowed to hurt. As we pass through the flames, our innocence is burned away and we emerge raw, shaken. Culturally, we tend not to recognize this critical milestone; certainly there’s little encouragement to honor or celebrate it. Instead we feel like a failure. As a therapist, I’ve come to realize that the appropriate response to someone who comes stumbling through this fire and into my office is not, “Oh, that’s a terrible thing that’s happened to you.” The appropriate response is, “You’ve come far on this journey. Welcome.”

Too many couples fight (themselves and each other) for too long trying to preserve their innocence. They stay stuck. Stuck is a word that comes up often in couples counselling. Each partner wants to preserve their own innocence, and to make the other understand, acknowledge, or validate them; in other words, to be understood as inherently good, doing their best, loving.

When love descends (it makes a thud)

Acknowledging our own cruelty, our own selfishness, our own weakness and fallibility marks our fall from innocence and begins the next part of our journey, where love descends from heaven and meets the earth with a thud. It’s a crucial step, but it hurts like hell, and hardly anyone talks about it or understands it, so it gets avoided.

We lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves, “My love is always kind.” This creates incongruence inside us. On some level we believe we have to be different from who we are in order to be in relationship, in order to love, to be lovable. Much disconnection results, from ourselves, from the world, from our partner.

Re-Connecting through initiation

Re-connection is not a matter of reclaiming our lost innocence or rekindling a love that once was (although it might include retrieving parts of ourselves that have been hidden away or rejected).

Re-connection asks us to recognize the initiation we are going through, and to keep going. The old relationship with our partner is finished, and that’s hard to accept. But when innocence is lost, something else is born. Birthing that something is our work. Like all births there is a natural momentum, a natural direction, a natural force of emergence that we can either align ourselves with or resist.

[This is an excerpt from my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples. To buy it or download a free chapter click here.]

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The “no-come quickie” – Sexual fuel for your relationship?

The no-come quickie... Fuel for a relationship?A woman colleague confided to me that three or four times a week she propositions her man with a casual, “Want to fuck me for a few minutes?” Apparently he’s very likely to drop what he’s doing and oblige.

I asked the woman (we’ll call her Linda) what she gets from these brief encounters with her partner. I was curious in a general way (because that’s my nature), but more specifically I was curious because of my belief, both personal and professional, that women tend not to be big fans of “quickie” sex.

Linda was happy to enlighten me –

“When I was younger I resented the quickie. The guy would get off, roll over and snore or whatever, and I was left there feeling like a chump. But these days it’s different. It’s changed.”

What is different? What has changed, I wanted to know.

It turns out quite a few things have changed. For starters, Linda’s partner rarely ejaculates during these impromptu sessions, and that makes a big difference for Linda.

“He has control over his ejaculation. Most of the times we have sex he doesn’t come, and he almost never comes during one of our quickies.”

Linda informed me that she usually doesn’t orgasm either during these short, spontaneous interludes, which had me curious again… If there are no orgasms, what does this couple get from this? Again Linda was quick to explain –

“I like sex. I like all kinds of sex. Our no-come quickies energize us both and make us feel connected. They’re a way to build up our sexual energy, and because there’s no release, that sexual energy is with us all day. Our quickies don’t replace the deeper, more intimate and creative sex that we also enjoy; they complement it. Our little fuck sessions are like foreplay for life.”

No-come quickies take about ten minutes out of the couple’s day. There are no orgasms, no loss of sexual energy, and so that energy gets carried forward, bringing an extra spark into the day.

Says Linda –

“It’s easy and energizing. There’s no cost, nothing lost… It makes us feel close and connected, it builds our sexual attraction and desire… Why doesn’t everyone do it?”

I considered Linda’s question. No-come quickies… why doesn’t everyone do it? I can actually think of many reasons why everyone doesn’t do it. It’s simply not going to be appealing to everyone, for many good reasons. But then again, it’s also a great reminder of what’s possible when we continue to embrace our sexuality within a long-term domestic relationship.

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“My husband’s anger is wrecking our marriage.”

My husband's anger is hurting our marriage

Brian and Glory had been working with me for just over a year. The complex impulses and patterns shaping their relationship were slowly being revealed. Brian had a war-like energy, and could escalate a conflict to massive proportions in a matter of moments. This frightened Glory, who disliked conflict and shied away from any expressions of anger, even just a raised voice. To Glory it was obvious that, faced with a partner’s anger, any reasonable person would naturally want to retreat.

Glory was a highly intelligent and sensitive woman, and she had been clear in our sessions that she was willing to investigate her role in perpetuating the conflict cycle that had developed. Nonetheless, despite her stated willingness in this regard, she always came up empty handed when searching for her own complicity. After all, it was HE who would raise his voice, it was HIS anger that would spark and catch fire.

Many counsellors, as well as family and friends, will naturally side with the more “peaceful” person in this dynamic, the assumption being that the onus is on the “war-like” personality to change. This bias has its problems, as we’ll see.

To really understand all that is going on beneath the surface of a relationship like Glory’s and Brian’s it’s useful to take problem-solving off the table for a time. I like to do this transparently with clients, and to get their explicit consent and participation. I assure them that we can and will come back to the matter of solutions, but for now, I ask, can we just investigate without any agenda… can we simply be curious? Interestingly, this is where change tends to actually begin. When we start to examine a relationship with simple, genuine curiosity we make new discoveries. Sometimes I make the discoveries and present them to the client to consider, sometimes they make the discoveries.

Putting problem solving aside allowed Glory and Brian to come to some new realizations about their relationship patterns. By doing “little experiments” (this is a Hakomi term for setting up small, carefully controlled interactions for the purposes of observing the experience and noticing habitual responses) Glory discovered that she had virtually no tolerance for anger or conflict. In the face of anger, even the subtlest anger, she would begin to retreat. The idea of meeting anger or conflict face-on had never even occurred to her as a possibility.

In Glory’s world, anger and conflict were intolerable. They were, in the simplest terms… bad. It made sense that she had been unable to identify any role that she might play in the relationship conflict cycles that plagued her marriage. After all, she always did everything in her power to avoid anger and conflict!

Once it dawned on her that her aversion to conflict and anger might actually be her role in the pattern, Glory had something to work with. She experimented with facing anger and conflict more directly. This let her see just how conflict-avoidant she was, and she got a glimpse of how this part of her personality had shaped her life.

Now remember, we’re still in simple curiosity mode. No problem solving, no prescribing, just noticing. And we’re not just talking about anger and conflict, we’re actually working with it as it comes up in session. We’re doing little experiments all the time. This requires a particular orientation from a therapist – they must recognize these opportunities as they naturally arise and use them for a client’s insight and learning.

This is not an orientation every therapist shares. I’ve been witness to many sessions where a counsellor does just the opposite; they try to calm down or smooth over strong emotions or outbursts in session so that they can get back to talking about the couple’s problems from a safe distance. Certainly there are times for de-escalation and peace-keeping, but if this is always the strategy, and if it is an automatic or unconscious strategy, opportunities will be missed, and old cycles will continue.

Back to Glory and Brian… Glory has now realized that she has always treated anger and conflict as inherently bad, something to be avoided, and she is beginning to see how this avoidance has both perpetuated their cycle, and has blinded her to role within it. She sees that her task may be to confront Brian’s anger and, it is revealed later in our sessions, perhaps her own as well; not surprisingly, it isn’t just other people’s anger that makes her uncomfortable.

Here’s what I presented to this couple and asked them to consider –

The moment that Brian feels Glory retreat in even the smallest way, he panics (it took some careful attention for him to recognize the degree of this panic response). Brian’s panic is expressed first as annoyance or criticism, but then moves quickly into rage. His rage is the rage of abandonment.

On her side of the equation, the moment Glory feels the smallest expression of Brian’s annoyance or criticism, she begins to retreat; she knows what is coming next. It’s crucial to note that we are talking about the tiniest expressions here. Barely discernible eye movements. Subtle changes in body language, posture, or verbal tone. Like most long-term couples, Brian and Glory are exquisitely attuned to each others state of being, and like most couples they are in denial of the power that their anxiety holds over each other and the relationship.

As I’ve often explained in my various writings, our nervous systems are in constant communication with each other, for better or for worse. Most of this communication is happening below conscious awareness, hence those conversations that everyone knows, beginning with –

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like THAT.”

“I’m not looking at you like anything!”

As we debriefed a particular incident that had threatened to escalate into a familiar multi-day meltdown, I was struck by the fact that both Brian and Glory experienced major incongruence between their two accounts of the event; they believed that their stories did not match. But I found their two stories remarkably consistent, the only notable discrepancy being this –

Each was acutely aware of each others subtle cues, but more or less oblivious of their own.

Glory could describe in detail Brian’s eye movements and the change of tone in his voice that led her to retreat, and yet she was blind to her equivalent cues to Brian, cues that essentially said “I’m disconnecting from you now.”

Conversely, Brian had a photographic memory of the moment Glory averted her gaze, and how that affected him, but he could not understand how his accusatory tone could possibly elicit such a strong response from her.

This was a good opportunity to draw some parallels. I explained that their two accounts of the same event sounded remarkably congruent to me, and I observed that each of them put disproportionate significance on each others cues, while downplaying the impact of their own responses on each other.

In other words, Brian couldn’t believe that a tiny little bit of criticism from him could make Glory retreat so dramatically, and Glory was baffled that the mere hint of disconnection or retreat from her could throw Brian into a rage. Each downplayed their own cues and reactions, while simultaneously inflating the other’s.

“I get a little angry. No big deal. But then she totally withdraws!”

“I take a little space for a few minutes, like any normal person, and then he totally blows up!”

The behaviour of each is deeply habitual, and feels completely “natural” from the subjective point of view. Neither Brian nor Glory could imagine how their minor little habits could trigger such a strong reaction in the other. A switch gets flipped, for both of them, a switch that runs right to their core.

As we continued experimenting and gaining insight through a collaborative curiosity and a willingness to suspend judgement, Glory and Brian each discovered how much impact their own triggers had on each other, and how this caused the escalation they experienced.

This was in important and ongoing discovery. Previously, they had dismissed each other’s reactions, while simultaneously holding their own to be natural and valid. Now they were each beginning to see how the other’s experience was as legitimate, in its own way, as their own. This, by the way, is an example of genuine empathy.

Practicing empathy is a foundation of much couples therapy. In my counselling practice, however, I have found it more or less futile to try and make couples “practice” empathy by force of will. Empathy has its own nature and arises spontaneously when the conditions are right. Having an actual felt experience of each other’s vulnerability, coupled with a growing understanding of each other’s life experiences, outlooks, and character provided the right conditions for empathy to organically emerge. This allowed Glory and Brian to imagine themselves more as allies than adversaries, and it set the ground for co-operation as we began to address behavioural change.

As we began to address behavioural change and taking responsibility for one’s own actions, we started with some education on what I call “building capacity.” Both Glory and Brian needed to develop tolerance for each others anxious behaviours.

Brian needed to practice allowing Glory to make small retreats. Glory needed to practice allowing Brian to express anger or criticism. Neither Brian’s anxious anger nor Glory’s anxious withdrawal were inherently bad or wrong, and they only threatened the relationship to the degree that each could not tolerate the other. By growing their capacity, stretching their tolerance for each other, the burden of change falls on neither, and yet both are apt to find their own way of changing. Like most profound relationship work, it’s paradoxical. By allowing each other to be themselves, by practicing tolerating one another, a behaviour pattern is interrupted and the stage is set for change based on personal maturation; much more valuable than ultimatums or even negotiated compromise.

Change that comes out of growing our capacity feels satisfying and nourishing. It’s a source of pride and freedom. Change that comes from making demands, ultimatums, or even negotiated agreements about behaviour – “You promise to do this and I promise I won’t do that” – tends to be short-lived and can even be potentially destructive.

You might have noticed that there is virtually no story, no content, no “he said/she said” included in the account above. That’s because the issue that this couple faces isn’t, at core, about a particular disagreement or argument. Their conflict is rooted in something much deeper. We might call it habituated nervous system responses, or we could use another lens and call it attachment styles. The point is, we could spend forever dancing around the details of who said what and who did what, but underneath all that are two nervous systems doing their thing. Attending too much to “story and content” would just distract us from the work of capacity building.

So how to build capacity? How to develop tolerance for our partner’s small cues that set us off?

First we must begin to notice that which has always gone unnoticed. Brian and Glory, like all of us, developed strategies early in their lives for getting their needs met – needs for safety, for connection, for soothing, for autonomy, and so on. These strategies are unconscious, and are sometimes even pre-verbal. We make certain decisions about how to be in the world and with others before we even begin speaking as children. These strategies do not live in our conscious mind, they are held in the body, in the nervous system, in the emotional and instinctive parts of ourselves.

When these unconscious strategies get expressed in our adult relationships, they might create strong impulses and feelings (or perhaps numbness), but they tend to elude conscious awareness. Because they feel so naturally a part of us, it’s necessary to practice recognizing them. Until we do some work examining them, they really aren’t negotiable, they’re more or less hardwired. It’s also worth mentioning that the gender associations in Glory and Brian’s case can just as easily be reversed; a woman might tend toward anger and a man toward withdrawal, in fact I see this just as commonly.

Our task is to start noticing how we respond to particular stimuli, how we react to our partner’s cues. We practice in session, slowing down these interactions and noticing the subtleties contained within. From here, with a little experience under their belts, client couples will take this practice into their lives. If they will continue this difficult work, they will likely be rewarded. To learn more, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples – Insights and practices for cultivating love, sex, and intimacy (even in difficult times).

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New Year’s Resolutions – The ritual glorification of egoic heroism

New Year's Resolutions - The Glorification of Egoic HeroismThe word “resolution” once meant “to loosen or release”

The word resolution comes from the Latin re (again) and solvere (to loosen or release). Today the meaning has reversed; resolution is now understood  to mean a tightening or holding. This reversal of meaning is  perhaps most clearly exemplified in our New Year’s Resolution ritual  where we hold tight to the ego’s heroic efforts against the world’s workings upon us and pit our force of will against every and all other voice, intelligence, or influence that might challenge these efforts.

One consciousness or many?

Ego consciousness is connected to the Hero archetype, and the Hero archetype recognizes only its own ego consciousness. The multitude of other  archetypal modes of consciousness – for example the modes of Trickster, Crone, Lover, Martyr, Magician – are unrecognizable to the Heroic/Egoic mode; they simply do not exist. If heroic consciousness cracks open – usually due to loss, illness, failure, or other tragic events beyond our control – and other modes of consciousness slip in, they tend to be denied or eradicated as soon as The Hero’s strength returns.

Our modern New Year’s Resolution ritual has become the blanket denial of any mode of consciousness other than Ego consciousness, and the redoubled fight against any archetypal voice that is not The Hero’s.

According to available statistics, around eight percent of new years resolutions stick, which should perhaps put the Heroic/Egoic approach into some perspective, and yet because ego-consciousness recognizes only itself, the only option available to it is to redouble its efforts at eliminating all else.

This is not to say there’s something “wrong” with the New Year’s Resolution ritual, but rather to point out its associations and limits, and suggest a possible return to origins of meaning. What if we revisited the original understanding of resolution? What if the New Year’s Resolution wasn’t merely a ritual glorification of the egoic heroism that is our cultural default, but rather a ritualized annual return to “loosening and releasing?”

What (or who) is asking to be let loose or released in your life?
What (or who) has the Heroic Ego been holding captive?

Looking beyond The Hero – A different kind of resolution

The Hero takes on more burden and responsibility than is actually theirs, and this blinds The Hero to the existence and workings of the endless number of other archetypal modes of consciousness. We do not often release The Hero of their duties until we have no choice, until The Hero has been killed or otherwise conquered by life (or death) and we find ourselves suddenly in unfamiliar territory, subject to other forces.

A yearly ritual “releasing” could give The Hero a much needed break, and if The Hero was released of their duties, if we were able to loosen our grip on the Heroic/Egoic consciousness that we rely on daily, who else might step in? Which other voices, characters, and personalities could we come to know in the absence of the familiar?

If the trickster made a New Year’s Resolution, what would it  be? How about the Crone? Or the Lover? The Martyr or Magician? Who are the other other personalities silently buried in you? What are the desires of these other characters? What do they offer and what do they demand? What would they say if The Hero loosened its grip at the turn of the year and allowed them a voice?

 

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Like great art, great sex disturbs.

Great sex great artThere’s a certain kind of sex that is like the best art. The best art expresses something hidden in the artist’s soul, something that calls, that may inspire and torture until it is revealed, borne through the artist’s medium.

Sex too can be the artistic medium, an expression of what is hidden in the soul, shadowy qualities and callings. But this kind of sex is maybe even more rare, more difficult, more demanding than the best art, for two human beings are required; two human beings collaborating blindly, blindly because they do not understand the contents of their soul any more than does the artist.

No matter how good you are at sex, how much “consciousness” you bring, how “sacredly” you view sex… Sex that speaks from the soul, sex that is like the best art, is always a blind or semi-blind invocation because it comes only partly from us and mostly from forces hidden, the soul’s contents being revealed in each moment – pleasure, then terror, then shame, hope, pleasure again – glimpses of understanding through the eyes of Psyche and Eros, glimpses fraught (as they must be, this is art!) with great danger and mysterious blessings.

And oftentimes no one to see. No witnesses. This art is hung in no galleries. It is mostly secret art.

Pornography attempts perhaps to reveal the soul in sex, to bring it out of hiding and into the cultural eye, but it captures only fragments of a particular frequency. Pornography fails to the degree that it does not only because it omits love; anyone who believes that sex is only (or even mostly) about love is missing the fuller soul message of sex. Love is but one face of soul’s desire.

Great art disturbs. And great sex too. Both pull at the threads of the veil that protects us from seeing too much, from going too deep; there’s a veil that protects us from seeing more than we can fathom. As the veil unravels we are confronted with hidden chambers of the psyche. Whether through great art or great sex, what we glimpse down there disturbs us… longing married to repulsion… tenderness mired in brutality. It’s difficult to know, moment to moment, if we are being created or destroyed, healed or wounded. We lose our innocence, so desperately clutched, and we become initiated.

Consider too the words of the 19th century German philosopher  Schopenhauer as he describes his ideas about the feeling of the “sublime” (from The World as Will and Representation) –

  • Feeling of Beauty – Light is reflected off a flower. (Pleasure from a mere perception of an object that cannot hurt observer).
  • Weakest Feeling of Sublime – Light reflected off stones. (Pleasure from beholding objects that pose no threat, objects devoid of life).
  • Weaker Feeling of Sublime – Endless desert with no movement. (Pleasure from seeing objects that could not sustain the life of the observer).
  • Sublime – Turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from perceiving objects that threaten to hurt or destroy observer).
  • Full Feeling of Sublime – Overpowering turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent, destructive objects).
  • Fullest Feeling of Sublime – Immensity of Universe’s extent or duration. (Pleasure from knowledge of observer’s nothingness and oneness with Nature).

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“I just want more harmony in my relationship.”

Harmony in relationships“I just want more harmony in my relationship.”

Many of the people who come to me for help tell me they want more harmony in their relationship, and I like the idea of using harmony as a metaphor for understanding what happens between two people in a marriage or relationship.

I recently had a client tell me “I love when my wife and I are just humming along at the same frequency.” I think this is true for many; we like humming along at the same frequency. Reflecting on the idea of harmony and frequencies in relationship some insights arose –

First, we all tend to have our preferred frequency… And we also have a preferred frequency for our partner. In truth though, while we have a frequency that we strive for, there are actually a multitude of frequencies continually vibrating our psyche and shaping our being, and the same is true for our partner. This is an important truth to acknowledge for reasons we’ll explore.

The musical notion of harmony means a mixing of frequencies, which is a somewhat different notion from “humming along at the same frequency.” Two people at the same frequency isn’t really harmony at all; it’s a monotone.

What is harmony in a relationship?

A harmony is a blending of different frequencies. In a relationship this means a mix of different moods, opinions, perspectives, ways of being. These different moods and ways of being move both in ourselves as individuals, and between us in relation to our partner. If we acknowledge this we see that many different kinds of harmonies are likely. (So why do we get so stuck?!)

We’re likely to favour one particular type of harmony in our relationship. Our favoured harmony may or may not match our partner’s.

Different harmonies reflect different moods, feelings, images. Harmonies are organized into various keys or modes. In musical language, a “major” key has a strong unified tone, it drives forward, implies action. A “minor” key lags back a little, there’s melancholy, uncertainty. Other keys or harmonies correlate with tension, aggression, completion, sadness, joy, and so on.

The classical Greeks understood musical modes (keys) as metaphors for archetypal patterns of feeling, the same archetypal patterns or forces that continue to move through us and our relationships today.

When we say we want “harmony” in our relationship, we are usually talking about one particular type of harmony based on our preferred moods, modes, or frequencies. We want to feel one certain type of “feeling tone” in our relationship.

Too often we forget or ignore the multitude of frequencies in and around us, and so we dismiss a multitude of possible harmonies that are being played (or playing us) in our lives together. We fail to appreciate the complex or difficult harmonies woven into our relationship, sounds that to the uninitiated ear sound dissonant, non-musical.

In this sense, it behooves us to broaden our musical repertoire. We may have a strong preference for upbeat pop songs, and so avoid those harmonies that evoke longing, sadness, tension, or other modes of feeling we deem “negative” or undesirable.

The less pleasant harmonies of our lives and relationships may be muffled through our efforts, but they will not be silenced.

The difficult music of composers like John Cage or John Coltrane might not match your preferred harmonies, but they may perfectly represent some of that multitude of frequencies that get too little appreciation in life and love.

Music that is built upon difficult, complex harmonies may not get us up and dancing; its purpose is different. Difficult harmonies give voice to the more dark, confusing, or troublesome frequencies that are part of the multitude running through each of us.

In a relationship we tend to reject difficult feelings out of preference for our favoured feelings, and yet if those difficult feelings get no voice they start to rattle and make noise. Harmonies reflect feelings, and feelings are multitudinous.

We may want a “happy” marriage, we may insist upon it, and so try to amplify only those chords that match our desire, but the multitude of frequencies that move us may pull us instead toward harmonies that are more challenging, and these challenges potentially introduce us to further richness and depth. There’s a reason that music appreciation classes are taught in colleges and universities; difficult and complex music requires a special kind of listening. The point of these classes isn’t to simplify the music, the point is to learn how to appreciate it, to listen differently, more deeply, to refine our musical aesthetic.

We can change the dial, always trying to find our favourite song, or we can develop a more sophisticated ear, finding the beauty – perhaps aching or terrible – in all the precious music, all the difficult harmonies running through our life and relationship.

Want more harmony in your marriage or relationship? Try this exercise –

If you’ve ever felt like you want more harmony in your marriage or relationship, try this exercise –

Choose some music that represents the particular type of relationship harmony you prefer. Discover the feeling tone of the music. Give it a name – Upbeat. Intense. Chill. Difficult. Sensuous. Fun. Dark. What music does your partner choose to represent the kind of relationship harmony they prefer?

Now find some music to represent the moods that are actually being played in your relationship. Maybe you resist, dislike, even hate the sound and feel of this music. How do you characterize this music? What sort of harmonies form this music? What’s the feeling tone? Can you let this music move you in some way? Can you find some appreciation for it?

Try having a conversation along these lines with your partner. Listen to different kinds of music together with this kind of metaphorical ear. Make distinctions between the various musical moods you hear and then relate them to the emotional tones that shape your lives as individuals and as a couple.

The literal differences between your musical tastes and your partner’s may become very clear, but try to go deeper with the metaphor. Relate the various musical styles, feeling tones, and “harmonies” to how you think about and experience your relationship. Music, after all, is a metaphor for our lives, and so can be used to glimpse life (and love) from other angles.

 

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Acro yoga – A different kind of date night

Acro yoga date nightAcro yoga date night

The other night I learned a little bit more about communication in relationships when my partner and I went to an acro yoga date night at our local yoga studio.

Acro yoga is short for acrobatic yoga and is also sometimes called partner yoga because it is designed for two people. Typically one person acts as a “base” and provides support to let their partner “fly.” At the event we attended, there was also stretching and some fun partner games.

It was two hours long, and everyone there was able to learn enough of the basics to have a good time. Our acro yoga experience was fun, playful, and physically engaging; all great qualities for a date night.

Acro yoga as relationship metaphor

It occurred to me as I looked around the room that I was seeing relationship dynamics in action all around me. Acro yoga was providing a metaphorical insight into the essence of each couple’s lives together.

It’s been said that how we do something is how we do everything, and an activity like acro yoga will often reveal the something we do that affects the everything we do, especially in relationship with our partner.

“We need better communication tools” is the refrain I hear daily from the struggling couples who call me for help. Partner yoga is all about communication, and it provides a format for practicing communication in an unfamiliar and neutral environment.

Acro-yoga requires qualities like trust, connection, surrender, leadership, collaboration, negotiation and personal responsibility. There’s a give/take sense of leading and following, of giving and receiving. A partner yoga class like the one we attended could very likely help someone see firsthand where they struggle with trust or other important areas of relationship, including –

  • Asking for what they want or making requests
  • Offering (or receiving) support
  • Working co-operatively
  • Dealing with frustration or failure
  • Tendencies to blame, shame, withdraw, or give up
  • Boundaries

If we’re able to use an experience like acro yoga (certainly there are many other experiences as well) to look at ourselves and our relationship, we might also be able to use it to work on ourselves and our relationship dynamic. The context of an acro yoga date night offers a possibility to first see things differently, and then to do things differently.

If the communication isn’t working there on the yoga mat, you’ll know quickly. Then you can use the space as a playground or laboratory to experiment with new approaches. It’s a relatively low-stakes situation, but it’s also visceral, immediate, embodied. You’re literally holding each other up. It demands your attention.

I’m not the only one who recognizes the partner communication benefits of acro yoga. I noticed that our teacher Katie Thacker was quoted in the news

“Just being able to say ‘hey that doesn’t feel good or that feels really great, or can you please bring me down?’ Being able to express things in those ways helps build communication.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Our teachers Katie Thacker and Brandon Sherbrook were great, and they offer their acro yoga date nights around Victoria and Vancouver Island (see their website here). If acro yoga holds any interest for you, look for classes in your area!

 

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Toxic relationship. Toxic partner. Is your relationship unhealthy?

Toxic relationshipToxic relationship, toxic marriage, toxic partner?

Toxic relationships. It’s a hot topic, and a difficult one. Three related articles passed across my feed recently –

“5 Questions to Ask Yourself If You Think Your Partner Is Toxic”

“13 Subtle Signs Your Partner Is Emotionally Abusive.”

“It’s not your relationship that’s toxic, it’s your partner.”

It occurs to me that as the definition of abuse in relationship continues to broaden, and as terms like “toxic relationship” and “toxic partner” are popularized, fewer and fewer marriages and relationships are going to be deemed healthy or legitimate.

I have no doubt that the light cast by articles like the ones named is valuable and illuminating for some people, but every light also casts a shadow. A possible shadow cast here is the self-righteousness, avoidance, and psychological projection that can slip in when we are quick to define a relationship or a person as abusive, toxic, or otherwise irredeemable.

The exclusive focus on identifying victim and villain / oppressor and oppressed suggests fundamentalist ideology at work and leaves no room for examination of deeper psychological structures, especially your own. If your partner matches the profile of emotionally abusive or toxic, you are apparently off the hook. No self-examination required. Your innocence is just as assured as their guilt.

Toxic partner? Or normal marital sadism?

One of the signs of a “toxic partner” according to this article is –

“…Are they engaging in the actions that they are with the intention of changing your behavior?”

I work with couples daily and I can tell you that this applies to virtually everyone in relationship. We manipulate each other, often subtly and often unconsciously, with the hope of changing each others opinions or behaviours. It is what people do. The question isn’t IF it is happening, it’s HOW… and what will we do about it.

One option is to read articles on the internet and then label your partner toxic and your relationship unhealthy. Probably an appropriate option in some cases.

On the other hand, marriage and family therapists David and Ruth Schnarch use the term “normal marital sadism” to illustrate the point that marriage and relationships inevitably bring out the worst in people as well as the best.

Relationships also provide opportunities to confront our own part in the explicit, implicit, or complicit dynamics of sadism, masochism, cruelty, manipulation, meanness, pettiness, power plays, abdication, and so on that will arise.

Uncovering our own hidden strategies

Another quote from the linked article above –

“Because when your partner manages to change your behavior – when you find yourself increasingly changing your usual way of being in order to avoid conflict with your partner – then they gain power and control over you.

And that’s more than toxic.

That’s abusive.”

When your partner gains power and control over you, it may indeed be defined as abusive. But there might also be other forces at work. If you find yourself “increasingly changing your usual way of being in order to avoid conflict with your partner” you might decide that you’re in a toxic relationship, or you might ask yourself… Why. Why are you avoiding conflict? What is your role in this dynamic? What happened to your power? How did it get away from you?

It may be true that your partner is playing out a domination/control strategy in your relationship. We all unconsciously employ various strategies for navigating life and relationships. Have you adopted a submission strategy for yours? Is “The Martyr” archetype activated in your life? Or maybe “The People Pleaser?”

Sometimes a person will knowingly attempt to overtly control or even gaslight their partner, but far more often what we encounter are two people’s unconscious strategies calling the shots from below conscious awareness.

In a move that can change everything, you might be called on to stand up for yourself in the relationship. Or it might be time for a closer look at how you understand and navigate the many different kinds of power that run through our lives. The author of the article quoted suggests that power is the same as control, but control is just one of many kinds of power (please see James Hillman’s extraordinary book “Kinds of Power”).

Power struggles in relationship, complicity, self-confrontation

People regularly give up their power and also try to wrestle it from their partner through complicated dynamics that are not easily reducible to  “toxic relationships” or even abuse.

While labeling a person toxic or unhealthy does give you an easy out (and sometimes that out is necessary), it can also become a crutch, an excuse for avoiding the difficult work of examining the ways we might abdicate our own power and blame others for our feelings of powerlessness.

For example, I’ve worked with plenty of mothers of young children who feel powerless and controlled in their relationship, but when we dig deeper we find that it is actually guilty feelings about taking time for themselves that keeps them feeling stuck in their lives. Where these guilty feelings come from is a good question and another topic, but suffice to say that the “toxic partner” story no longer holds water; in fact their partner may actually be their biggest advocate for change and self-empowerment.

I’ve also worked with plenty of men who panic in the face of a woman’s anger or disappointment. These men betray themselves at the drop of a hat if they feel strong emotions rising in their partner. Paradoxically, the partners of these men, upon deeper inquiry, are often desperate for the experience of being able to express anger or disappointment in their relationship without their partner automatically conceding or shutting down. Neither party are particularly happy with their habitual strategies.

In both these examples, and in many others, it is confronting our own complicity in the power dynamics of a relationship that becomes the true act of empowerment.

Let me be clear, certainly there are times when it is appropriate to label a relationship abusive and get out. But if we use popular definitions to label our partner or relationship without ever examining our own habits we can rob ourselves of potential understanding and even reconciliation.

Not long ago it was generally accepted that relationships had a “power struggle” phase. The new relationship idealism seems not to allow even for this.

Power struggles, “normal marital sadism,” and a myriad other expressions of the darker side of togetherness can be used as evidence that a relationship or a person is fundamentally “toxic” (bad, wrong, narcissistic, gaslighting, hysterical, crazy etc), AND these same expressions can be used as opportunities for expanding our ideas of relationships and of our experiences in them. Of course this is risky territory; the blade of discernment is called for.

I’ve worked with many couples (some of whom have previously had their relationship or partner labelled toxic or abusive by other counsellors) who choose to explore these darker sides of relationship together and have found the experience, though difficult, also  illuminating and occasionally even bonding. Of course there are no guarantees.

Portraying relationships as two-dimensional utilitarian transactions to be defined as either “healthy” or “toxic” seems to be the flavour of the day, but this misses a vast swathe of what relationships actually are, which is usually some of both and a whole lot more.

If you’re interested in these ideas, internet articles might be a good start (some of my own are included below), but are no substitute for the depth of thought that good old fashioned books provide. Some of my favourite books on these themes include –

The Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch
The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner
Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel
Soul Mates by Thomas Moore
Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly

Further reading on this website –

Counsellor confession… “I hate my partner.”

Gaslighting, shadow, and abuse – How protecting our unconscious can sabotage our relationships

Contradiction and paradox in relationships – The difficult work of holding opposites

The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 1)

Understanding relationships – Depth, darkness, and feeling your way from below

“Contradictions, Manipulations & The Tyranny of Orgasm” – Relationship podcast

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Michael Stone and The Wounded Healer Archetype

Michael stone and the wounded healer archetypeMichael Stone was a renowned international yoga teacher and author whose death by drug overdose was met with shock and confusion – and of course grief – by those whose lives he touched. Stone’s wife Carina, in an intelligent and compelling statement says “Culturally we don’t have enough language to talk about this,” and adds “…can we find questions?”

Carina wisely calls on us to resist finding comfort or conclusion in answers, and instead to do the difficult work of questioning. But questioning what?

Some of her suggestions include –

What was he feeling?
How was he coping?
What am I uncomfortable hearing?
What can we do for ourselves and others who have impulses or behaviors we cannot understand – Impulses that scare us and silence us?
How can we take care of each other?

(Read the full statement here.)

Michael, it has been revealed, suffered from something we currently call bipolar disorder, a condition or set of symptoms that has been called many things throughout the ages.

Deaths like Michael’s spark regret, outrage, blame, confusion, and increasingly a heartfelt outcry for mental health reform and de-stigmatization. Carina Stone asks “What can we do for ourselves and others who have impulses or behaviors we cannot understand?” Indeed, what can we do? But perhaps before we set about to the business of doing, we might begin at the tail end of her question: understanding.

How do we understand these happenings? What do they mean? We might ask – What does Michael Stone, his life and his death, symbolize?

As with all celebrity figures, Michael symbolized something profound and specific, if not for everyone, for a particular type of someone. Symbolism is the very nature of the celebrity phenomenon; celebrities are celebrated, and they are celebrated precisely for what they symbolize.

Michael’s own words give us a clue – “You’d think that given all this inner work, an incredible network of support, strong friendships, a loving partner and kids, and lastly, a life dedicated to embodying the dharma (literally every single day includes practice and study), that I’d be immune to extreme mental states.”

Apparently the yoga practice and teaching that made Stone such a celebrated figure grew out of an attempt to find immunity from that which plagued him. A picture emerges. It was Michael’s very real and visceral suffering that propelled him to work so hard, and to become a symbol of wisdom, healing, and inspiration to so many others.

We might recognize in Michael the archetype of Wounded Healer (a specific archetype named by Carl Jung, but we might also identify and name archetypes according to our own lives).

The Wounded Healer is motivated through their own suffering to help others, and the kind of help they provide is fundamentally connected to the suffering they experience personally; The Wounded Healer accesses their own pain as insight into the experience of others, and also gleans from the pain of others insights about their own. This biofeedback loop becomes a source of energy moving them through the world.

Most of us do not embody a single archetype in our lives. While The Wounded Healer seems present and active in Michael’s life, it would seem that another archetype was also in the forefront.

The Hero is probably the most obviously celebrated archetype in our contemporary culture. Ours is predominantly a cult of The Hero. We worship The Hero above all.

The Hero overcomes obstacles and achieves goals. They are “unshakeable” (a descriptor ascribed to Michael). They seek immunity.

When confronted with failure, The Hero has only one recourse: try harder. We can see The Hero archetype reflected in Stone’s words, “It can be hard to admit even to ourselves that there are times when the stability of awareness that we discover in [meditation] just isn’t there. When this started happening I’d say my practice needs to get deeper.”

Then he adds “But the truth is, there was a chemical change in my brain.”

We see in this statement first the quintessential Heroic approach to challenge – “…my practice needs to get deeper” – and then an acknowledgement of a hard-won truth: “…there was a chemical change in my brain.” This chemical change is, metaphorically, a bestowal from the Gods, for better or for worse, a confusing and troubling blessing/curse, resistant to The Hero’s (any Hero’s) best efforts.

This is a potential turning point; The Hero fails, and so matures. A force beyond The Hero’s efforts and control is acknowledged, giving room now for The Wounded Healer to emerge more fully.

To admit vulnerability, even powerlessness, is required in order to move beyond Heroism, and in a culture that worships The Hero so completely, power is the ultimate virtue, the ultimate currency; power to shape one’s own life, one’s own reality, power to slay the dragon and win the treasure; power of force and control. For a yogi or Buddhist teacher, it might be the power of finally achieving a “stability of awareness,” or becoming “immune to extreme mental states” that fuels their Heroism.

When we find ourselves wearing the mantle of Hero, and then we get public attention, we end up carrying not only our own self-burden, but also the heavy unconscious projections of others. Many others. Not only are we a Hero, we are THEIR Hero. This is a tremendous responsibility, and one that someone in the role of Hero does not necessarily ask for, and often does not fully recognize.

I didn’t know Michael, and I won’t pretend to know what would have been best for him. I do feel for his struggles, and of course for the family and community left behind.

I’m writing partly at Michael’s wife’s implied invitation when she states “Culturally we don’t have enough language to talk about this.” I couldn’t agree more. I write this now in the spirit of making some small contribution to the language we might use to talk about this.

Carina asks us not to “Feel the shame and tragedy of it.”

I’ll trade shame for humility. Humility means on the ground, of the earth; humus. Simple. Here and now. This sense of groundedness seems especially appropriate when remembering a man grounded in buddhist practice and philosophy, and also subject to such strong upward forces, forces that threaten to take one upward and away.

And I humbly suggest that this is by definition a tragedy. Not the empty sort of tragedy you shake your head at in bewilderment (“this shouldn’t have happened”), but rather the kind of familiar tragedy you nod at in recognition (“this is what happens”).

Tragedy in the ancient and mythological context connects us to the bittersweetness of Heroism and the glorious futility of living a life. The Hero in all of us is linked to the tragic in this way.

In Michael we might glimpse the tension between Hero and Wounded Healer; upon reflection we might recognize these archetypes active in ourselves and around us in the world.

Further reading –
The Hero Within by Carol Pearson
King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette
Re-Visioning Psychology by James Hillman

 

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What I learned at the couples retreat – 7 key takeaways from “Sharing the Path” with Judith Ansara and Robert Gass at Hollyhock retreat centre

What I learned at the couples retreatThis summer I was hired to assist at the Sharing the Path couples retreat designed and facilitated by Robert Gass and Judith Ansara at Hollyhock centre on Cortes Island. I hadn’t met Judith and Robert before the retreat, though I knew of them by their solid reputation. I showed up ready to be of service, and was happy to discover that my skills and expertise fit like a glove. It was great to be part of such a talented and attuned teaching team, and to support and witness all the courageous participants as they navigated their particular relationship terrains.

Over the five-day intensive there were many reminders and much learning. I thought I would share 7 key takeaways here with you –

1. Simple is good

It’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of complicated relationship theories. Models and maps like attachment theory, Imago therapy, family systems, personality typing etc can all be interesting, illuminating, and valuable, but I was reminded it’s possible to go plenty deep with basic ideas and simple practices.

Speaking from the heart, telling the truth, taking responsibility, listening deeply… these are understandable ideas and doable practices for most people; simple, yet infinitely challenging and infinitely rewarding.

2. Sex matters

Almost every participant at the retreat included sex in their list of troubles. I’ve found this to be true for the couples in my couples counselling practice as well. And yet the presenters at the retreat confessed that it was not until they had been doing couples workshops for some years that they began including sexual dynamics in the curriculum. I appreciated their willingness to address sexuality head-on. Too often sex slips through the cracks in this sort of relationship work.

I believe there are two main reasons that sex routinely gets excluded or marginalized in much conventional marriage counselling and couples therapy:

First, there’s a cultural prejudice against addressing and valuing sex on its own merits. The assumption – partly a moralistic holdover from puritanism ideals I believe – is that if “the relationship” is good, then the sex should automatically follow. It should be obvious by now that this is often not the case.

Second, sex is a difficult topic fraught with unconsciousness and shadow, complicated meanings, tender feelings, trauma, taboo, frustration. It’s a dangerous and awkward box to open. Even skilled professional facilitators and therapists can feel uncomfortable speaking explicitly about sex.

3. Relationship trouble is universal

Many people are not in the habit of sharing their relationship troubles and pain with anyone outside their own relationship, at least not in any constructive way. The result is that we tend to internalize an erroneous idea that our relationship problems are completely unique to us. This creates feelings of isolation and even defectiveness. The false fronts presented through social media exacerbates feelings of incongruence; shiny happy personas on the outside, tenderness, hurt, and desperation on the inside.

At this retreat carefully designed exercises allowed participants to switch off and provide coaching support for one another, always in ways that honoured safety and privacy. After these exercises, individuals and couples sometimes chose to share their insights and gleanings with the group; of course this was always optional.

4. The work is never finished

Relationship work comes with built-in traps, especially the assumption that we will somehow master this thing called relationship and one day be free from the difficulties it causes. What actually happens is that as we become more skillful we can’t help but raise the bar, and so we are continually called to navigate new and more sophisticated challenges.

Robert and Judith modelled this wonderfully by weaving in stories of their own significant trials and tribulations over their fifty years of relationship together, including sharing one challenge that arose between them in “real-time” during the course of the retreat.

5. A sense of humour helps

Relationships by nature have a bittersweet element. This bittersweetness is beautifully expressed through humour (etymologically related to humility) and laughing at and with ourselves. Judith and Robert exemplified this throughout. (Note – Humour can also be unconsciously used to escape uncomfortable but necessary tension. This is a self-defeating strategy to watch for.)

6. Move your body

It’s easy for many of us to get stuck in our head trying to figure things out. The presenters wisely had us getting up and moving, often through dance, at regular intervals. The change in energy and perspective this created was palpable.

7. It’s called practice for a reason

Finally, if we want to get better at relationship, including sex, we need to practice. There’s always that moment when it dawns on a person that their life is completely full and that they have no time to add “relationship practice” to the mix. Something will have to give.

If you want to play the violin or become a good skier it’s not nearly enough to gather information; you must practice. Relationships are no different in this regard. Learn tools (there are many – see my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples), then practice them, preferably daily. Learning tools without practicing them is maybe worse than useless because it amplifies disappointment. One way or another, you will have to make room in your life for doing relationship practices.

Relationship practice tips: Practice implies imperfection – give yourself and your partner permission to fail. Be curious and non-attached to practice outcomes. Practice in low-stakes situations; don’t wait until your biggest triggers are activated before you pull out your relationship toolbox! Get help if you need it, even if just to get started.

To learn more about Judith and Robert’s work visit www.sacredunion.com.

 

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Understanding relationships – Depth, darkness, and feeling your way from below

Understanding relationships - Depth, darkness, and feeling your way from belowUnderstanding relationships

People come to marriage counselling and couples therapy largely because they seek to understand (or to be understood). They want to understand their relationship, their partner, their selves, their situation. They want to understand why things have happened the way they have, why they feel the way they feel. They want to understand how to repair a rift, how to heal pain, how to make change, how to re-connect, how to move forward.

To understand is to comprehend, to gain insight. The word itself gives us a strong clue as to how we might orient ourselves in order to best gain the insight or comprehension we desire: Understanding requires that we stand under, that we view from below.

Standing under a thing gives us access to soft bellies, to hidden and vulnerable parts. From above we see the armoured shell, the prepared mask, the sunlit tip, the socially acceptable, the obvious. To under-stand we must get below. And yet this is so rarely the perspective we take. We prefer a bird’s eye view. The light of day. Brightly lit surfaces. We prefer the view from above.

The view from below

Viewing from below requires that we descend, that we drop down. Viewing from below – a thing, a person, an idea, a relationship – requires a certain quality in the viewer; it requires a deepening. To truly under-stand another, we must find our own depth, and we must perceive the depth of that which we seek to under-stand. Mere surfaces will not suffice.

Under-standing is essentially different from viewing from above. Standing below, gaining insight from a place of depth, requires us to develop senses in and of the dark. From the darker depths, the qualities of things are not revealed through the normal daylight processes of reflected light entering the retina and creating images in the brain. The images created and qualities revealed from standing below come in an entirely different manner. To gain insight from the dark, we hone our nighttime senses… Imagination, feeling, intuition, paradox, poetry. Rejected, exiled, and invisible parts may be revealed.

If I want to comprehend my partner and my self, to gain insight into my marriage or relationship, I might be tempted to use the senses I know best; daylight senses, senses of sight. I might climb the mountain of rationality in order to obtain a brightly lit view from above. This I do regularly, in my personal life and in my professional practice. This broad, well lit view gives valuable perspective and helps create the maps we use to navigate the terrain of relationships and life; the view from above gives us family systems theory, attachment theory, cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness practice, general discernment, a sense of morality, and so much more. But the map is not the terrain, and some of the most important parts of the terrain are actually sub-terrains. To penetrate these sub-terrains means going below, where it’s dark.

Synchronistically, this poem was shared with me by a Farsi-speaking friend as I was working on this article. Hafiz would have needed to venture below in order to understand that which he gleaned about loneliness; something hidden, elusive –

Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
so tender,

My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.

From above, from normal daylight perspectives loneliness is something to be avoided. Hafiz’s insight comes not from viewing the sunlit surface of loneliness, but from descending below it, standing under, and feeling its soft underbelly.

In my own poem below I too needed to descend beneath the obvious daylight judgements and beliefs on the topic of failure in order to find hidden insight –

Oh failure –
take me in
your strong
hands

your loving
hands

work me like
clay, find
my shape, my
beauty

Breathe life into
me, real life,
the life that
opens me,
tender and
raw, to the
struggles of
brothers, to the
loneliness at the
end of my
street, to the
disappointment beyond
my disappointment

Oh failure –
cradle me and
then kick me
out, drop me
off, let me go

With your wounds
and your blessings
I can find
my way

To truly under-stand a thing like loneliness or failure or love or relationships we may need to delve deeply into the underside, where time runs errant, rivers run backwards, and daylight fails to penetrate. An underneath perspective that includes unknowing, dreaming, and nightmares may be required. This underneath perspective must be in some way temporarily (few want to take up permanent residence) entered; not merely viewed from a safe distance.

Disintegration and initiation

To enter the below places, initiation is in order. For the client couples in my counselling practice this initiation into the non-rational, imaginative, disorienting, contrary, and sometimes nightmarish underside of people and things takes the form of a disintegrating marriage or relationship. This initiation is painful and frightening, and like all initiations we go it alone, but we also join others who have come before. It’s lonely, but it softens too. It feels like failure, but it opens us up.

A disintegrating marriage or relationship can provide the disorientation necessary to give up daylight living for a time and descend to the deeper subterranean realms. From here we might stand under the marriage or relationship, under self or other, and in this standing under, in the dark, in the depth, we might discover a different sort of insight.

The insights we get from descending, from going below, from standing under do not necessarily tell us the “why” of a thing, but rather they reveal other hidden qualities: texture, flavour, depth, and meaning.

From below, we might not learn the cause and effect equation that explains why our spouse makes such a great friend, but a lousy lover. Perhaps their clingy neediness (or our own) still resists a rational explanation. But… we might glimpse the depth of their desire. Or their pain. Or their dilemma. Or our own. This might not solve a problem directly, but it deepens our experience, which can have an unexpected impact, and can change everything.

*****

Years ago I went to a couples counselling session with my partner. It was through my partner’s health benefits plan; half hour sessions, with a problem-solving focused. At the time I was quite withdrawn in the relationship. I felt hopeless. Frustrated. Resentful.

We found the office building; large, concrete and glass; we paid for parking, entered the building, took the elevator up in silence. The receptionist had us wait for a few minutes, then we entered the tiny office and met a smartly dressed woman who wanted to know the problem. My partner spoke in her soft prepared voice and I recall saying very little.

I never went back to meet with that counsellor, although my partner did. In their next session the counsellor encouraged my partner to leave me. She mistook my quietness to be disinterest, and she quickly drew the conclusion that if I was unwilling to speak up in our first counselling session and unwilling to return for a second then I must be finished with the relationship. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth.

It is true that I kept my deeper feelings hidden during that first counselling session. It’s also true that the counsellor was not interested in understanding my experience from the point of view of “standing under.”

She made no attempts and showed no interest in delving deeper into the experience that was hidden below my surface. She was apparently a counsellor of surfaces, of daylight comprehension only; of clinical reports and checkmarks. Getting under surfaces was not part of her practice. I don’t hold any of this against her. She works in a high volume, get-it-done-in-four-to-six-sessions, insurance provider paid, utilitarian, fix it paradigm.

Understanding a relationship from the point of view of standing under, of depth, of soft underbellies and hidden treasure; this takes time. It probably can’t be done in four or six half hour sessions. The real work of understanding has nothing to do with an intention toward solutions or fixing, it has to do with curiosity, capacity, paradox, courage, and a willingness to be profoundly mistaken.

The kind of understanding that we generally seek, daytime understanding, the brightly lit view from above, results in answers, equations, explanations that are testable and replicable. The kind of understanding that comes from descending into the dark spaces and standing under a thing or person or relationship, this never provides dependable data. It gives us nothing to count on. It stirs rather than calms. And yet stirring is often in order, and stirring always gives way to calm, eventually, though not on our timeline or according to our agenda.

While the counselling experience I’ve described was certainly not immediately satisfying or recognizably beneficial at the time, in retrospect it deepened certain things, and that deepening came to be illuminating. By having my depths and hidden parts essentially ignored and dismissed by a professional couples counsellor, by an expert, I was forced to confront my own depths and my own legitimacy directly. I increased my trust in myself. What choice did I really have? And I had a laugh too, mixed with the tears. I mean, who goes to couples counselling early in their own counselling career and has their counsellor tell your wife she should leave you?! That is some seriously funny shit! There seems often to be a kind of poignancy that comes with the bittersweet.

These days I will sometimes find myself in session with a couple where one person has very little or nothing to say. I remember my own experience, and I consider what it means to understand in the way I’ve described in this writing. I let the quiet one be quiet. I let myself stand under their reluctance and their silence. Sometimes I even prop it up from below – “It’s OK to have nothing to say right now. You can take your time. You’re welcome to just listen. I trust that you’ll contribute when you’re ready.” I know there are hidden worlds below the brightly lit uncomfortable silence. I know the silence has its reasons and its own hidden nature.

Daylight understanding, with its maps, formulas, cause and effect equations, and defensible rationalities has many benefits, but the darker kind of understanding, where you feel your way from below is also called for. Experiment with both. Practice moving between upper and lower worlds as you seek insight and satisfaction in relationships, love, and life.

(Note – I borrowed much from the late James Hillman for this writing, especially the linking of understanding to “standing under” as outlined in his provocative and difficult book The Dream and the Underworld.)

 

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“Contradictions, Manipulations & The Tyranny of Orgasm” – Relationship podcast

Lee Davy podcast

I was recently interviewed by Lee Davy at Needy Helper for his Alcohol and Addiction podcast. Lee asks excellent questions and we ended up having quite a lively and candid conversation,  mostly about relationship topics gleaned from my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples: Insights and practices for cultivating love, sex, and intimacy (even in difficult times), including the themes that became the title of this particular podcast episode – “Contradictions, Manipulations, and the Tyranny of Orgasm.”

As well as asking great questions, Lee shared experiences from his own relationships, including his challenges, learnings, and foibles. He talks openly about his history of manipulating his partner to try and get the upper hand, and about his hypocrisy in punishing his partner for her contradictions while assuming the right to his own.

One of my favourite moments of the conversation is when Lee shares that, immediately after reading the section of my book about sex, he acknowledged to his partner that he unconsciously uses her for sexual release. Although she’s not surprised by his admission (“Yes, I know…”), his apology touches her, and I can imagine the tenderness of the scene playing out between them.

I found myself admiring my host’s willingness to confront his darker aspects publicly throughout our conversation. Listening back on the recording, it strikes me as a rewarding mix of humour, ease, tension, and poignancy. Lee’s revelations from his own relationship experiences ring true for me, and I bet you’ll find his stories and lines of inquiry illuminating.

Listen to the podcast now – Click here.

(You can check out other podcasts and audio interviews on my podcast and interview page.)

 

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Couples Retreat at Hollyhock centre with Robert Gass and Judith Ansara – I’ll be assisting

Hollyhock centre couples’ retreat: “Sharing the Path” with Robert Gass and Judith Ansara

Robert Gass Judith Ansara Hollyhock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Update – Read my 7 key takeaways from the couples retreat – Click here.]

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ll be assisting at this year’s couples’ retreat led by Judith Ansara and Robert Gass at Hollyhock centre on Cortes Island, August 4-9, 2017.

I feel honoured that Judith and Robert have invited me to join the team for the 5-day retreat. I’m very much looking forward to working with the participants, and I’m excited for the opportunity to learn from these two highly respected and experienced teachers. The venue is also inspiring… Hollyhock centre is fabulous!

Robert and Judith have been leading relationship retreats at Hollyhock for sixteen years, and everyone I talk to who has experienced their work has great things to say.

From the program description on the Hollyhock website –

Rekindle and deepen your experience of love and connection. Join the thousands of couples who have attended our couples’ retreat and found their relationships infused with renewed passion, skillful communication, mutual respect, deeper friendship, and greater joy and pleasure.

For those who already share a good and loving connection, this retreat is an opportunity for further enrichment and discovering new levels of intimacy. For those who are feeling challenged in partnership, Sharing the Path offers healing ways to rekindle and strengthen your connection and love.

Most couples report that this retreat has been life-changing. In a respectful and safe way, you will be both challenged and supported to break out of old unskilled habits and be guided in the practices of conscious relationship—authenticity, self-responsibility, empathy, appropriate boundaries, sacred sexuality, deep listening and effective problem solving. You will practice with the content that is most relevant to you and your partnership, thus tailoring the retreat to meet your specific needs. Our time together is also infused with play and fun–something many couples report wanting more of. You will go home with important skills and tools to continue creating a life you love.

All couples welcome.

I hope that some of the wonderful couples I’ve worked with over the years feel called to join us.

The dates are August 4-9, 2017. Space is limited and these retreats do typically sell out. Register early to reserve your place.

Hollyhock retreat centre Cortes IslandTo learn more or to register visit the Hollyhock website – Click here.
Or call Hollyhock at 1-800-933-6339.

Please direct all registration and logistical inquiries to Hollyhock centre directly.

 

[Update – Read my 7 key takeaways from the couples retreat – Click here.]

 

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Trauma in relationships – Recognizing and managing trauma and triggers in love and marriage

Trauma in relationshipsTrauma in relationships

Trauma in relationships can be a bewildering and powerful force, and one that is not always immediately obvious. Recognizing when past traumas are showing up in you or your partner can make the difference between eventually healing a rift, and repeatedly tearing it open. Once we realize that we are dealing with a post-traumatic pattern, we can shift gears, change course, and attend much more effectively to the real matter at hand. Whether symptoms are officially diagnosed as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or not, it can be useful to have some understanding of how trauma in relationships can shape individual behaviours and couple’s dynamics.

Trauma and PTSD are infinitely complex issues, and this article is meant to be a relatively simple and accessible introduction to the topic of recognizing and managing trauma in relationships. This article is not meant to be a comprehensive or prescriptive view of trauma. Many excellent books and articles are available for further study and understanding.

What is trauma?

Trauma can perhaps be best understood as an experience of being intensely overwhelmed, physically and/or emotionally, to the point of terror. There’s a sense of annihilation, either literal or symbolic. The traumatized person’s ability for comprehending and responding to the terror inducing event is pushed beyond their capacity. They become powerless in the traumatizing moments.

War, assault, rape, and accidental injuries like motor vehicle accidents can all result in an experience of trauma. Childbirth, surgeries, school, even learning to swim can all be traumatic events. Trauma can be imprinted in a brief moment, but it can also develop over years of repeated experience. What is traumatic for one person isn’t necessarily traumatic for another. Trauma is essentially subjective and individual.

Trauma is partly defined and understood by the effect it has on the nervous system. Trauma changes how a person’s nervous system regulates itself and responds to stimuli. This change, often referred to as dysregulation, can persist long after the initial event is over. To use a mechanical metaphor, it’s like a circuit gets overloaded or “blown” and stops working in a predictable or functional manner.

“Trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently. Some individuals may clearly display criteria associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many more individuals will exhibit resilient responses or brief subclinical symptoms or consequences that fall outside of diagnostic criteria. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors.”
~ Source: Understanding the Impact of Trauma – Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. NCBI.

PTSD and post-trauma states

Trauma can sometimes be quickly processed and left behind, or it may leave a lasting psychic/emotional/somatic imprint causing far reaching symptoms in the body and mind long after the original experience. Post-trauma symptoms reflect an unprocessed, un-integrated trauma experience. The nervous system experiences the event as “unfinished,” and the event can be suddenly, internally “re-lived” when certain conditions are present.

Because we’ve been unable to effectively respond to the trauma inducing incident at the time, something in the experience remains unfinished. This goes deeper than a cognitive experience of not understanding what has happened (although not understanding is certainly part of the picture). Below consciousness, our nervous system is impacted directly. Our nervous system is, in some way, changed. It no longer responds to the world in a way that is in proportion; a traumatized nervous system responds disproportionately to perceived threat, regardless of the real level of danger. A sudden sound or movement, a familiar object or scene, a particular tone of voice, or virtually any seemingly unrelated cue can trigger a post-traumatic response.

Trauma and the nervous system – fight/flight/freeze

When past trauma gets awakened in your relationship, it might have a lot to say… or it might say very little. Trauma is a nervous system response, and it often gets described in terms of fight, flight, or freeze.

When a trauma response is activated, the person might explode in rage (fight), withdraw (flight), or they might get very quiet, still, and internal, almost like they’ve “disappeared” (freeze).

[Note – The “freeze” response associated with trauma is sometimes called dissociation. Dissociation is a cognitive (mental) and/or somatic (physical) “distancing” from one’s experience. A person in a dissociative state may appear detached, numb, blank, checked out, or otherwise absent.]

Different nervous systems employ different survival tactics at different times, and make no mistake – these are survival tactics. When a trauma response is triggered, our primitive animal self is activated. The most basic survival instinct takes over. Language and cognitive abilities can disappear altogether.

This last part bears repeating – When a trauma response is activated, our nervous system becomes highly aroused and our language (speaking) and cognitive (thinking) abilities tend to collapse or become distorted. We may not speak or think clearly. This phenomenon is, I believe, much more common, and much more important, than we tend to fully acknowledge or understand.

In a post-traumatic response, we lose access to our higher “human” faculties; the reptilian brain takes charge. Therefore, trying to reason with someone who is in this state is not helpful. Trying to problem solve together is useless. The only thing to do at this point is to help soothe the nervous system so that the trauma response is de-escalated and the higher faculties can come back on line.

One of the biggest errors that people make when dealing with trauma in relationships is to push their partner beyond capacity. During post-traumatic arousal there is little chance of producing effective solutions. More likely, when pushed, a person in a post-trauma state will lash out irrationally, withdraw, or freeze up. Pushing them for clarity or change at these times is only likely to increase resentment and conflict, and ultimately damage the relationship. In my counselling practice I see many couples who have unknowingly and repeatedly pushed each other beyond capacity during a post-traumatic episode, and they bear the emotional scars to prove it.

Trauma and the window of tolerance

I teach people how to watch for trauma in relationships and how to recognize each others capacity during periods of nervous system arousal. When flight/fight/freeze responses are triggered, our capacity for negotiation and understanding shrinks quickly and dramatically. Part of the art and science of relationship is to learn to recognize and respect this level of capability in ourselves and in our partner.

It’s useful to have a vocabulary to symbolize this fluctuating level of capability. I like to talk about it in terms of a “window of tolerance.” When our window of tolerance is wide open, we are relatively able to tolerate challenging ourselves with complex concepts, with new experiences, with differing opinions or even conflicts. We are able to hold opposing or contradictory points of view without becoming too rigid or defensive.

When our window of tolerance begins to close, we lose the capability for all of the above. We become increasingly anxious and contracted. If our window of tolerance slams shut, we’re likely to be in full blown reptilian brain. Nothing really gets in.

I teach my clients to recognize their own window of tolerance, and their partner’s, so that they can recognize when it’s a good time to try and discuss an issue, and when it’s better to just wait for the window to open. We can tell each other “I feel my window of tolerance closing!” and the most skillful response is to stop pushing whatever issue is on the table and focus instead on supporting or allowing the nervous system to calm down and the window to open again.

One of the benefits of using the window of tolerance concept is that it is impersonal and value-neutral. It is non-blaming. It gives us a language for simply noticing and naming the phenomenon of nervous system arousal.

Trauma in relationships – The impact

Trauma in relationships shows up in the form of seemingly disproportionate reactions –

  • Your partner raises their voice and you freeze in absolute terror. Nothing they say can penetrate your terror. You don’t even comprehend the words they say, you are just frozen.
  • You glare at your partner for a moment and they explode in rage.
  • You’re having a conversation and suddenly your partner just storms out.
  • A loud noise from outside sends you into a full blown panic attack. Your partner asks what is going on, but you can’t even speak.

These are just a few of the hundreds of ways that un-integrated trauma from the past can create disproportionate reactions that impact your relationship. These disproportionate reactions are rooted in a nervous system that reacts automatically to certain stimuli. Your sexual relationship might be affected, especially if there is a history of sexual trauma. Intimacy of all kinds might feel uncomfortable or intolerable, causing confusion, frustration, and resentment. (Read more about intimacy, including what it is and why it can be such a sore spot in relationships – Click here.)

It’s currently fashionable in popular culture to talk about being “triggered” by virtually any uncomfortable experience. The term might get overused and misused at times, but in relation to trauma and post-traumatic symptoms, the idea of triggers is real and apt. When post-traumatic experiences are triggered, nervous system arousal is immediate and extreme.

Post-trauma triggers can be virtually anything – a sudden noise or movement, a tone of voice, startling touch, a particular word, a familiar face or image, smell, music. Triggers can be unpredictable and subject to all sorts of factors, known and unknown; one day something is a trigger, the next day it’s not.

Trauma and triggers – Tools for de-escalation

It’s important to understand that the disproportionate reactions of a trauma-related trigger, whether in you or your partner, come directly from the nervous system and reptilian brain. These are pre-verbal and “non-thinking” parts of self, associated with pure instinct. As such, they respond very poorly to reason or concepts. Trying to reason or explain yourself or your loved one out of extreme nervous system arousal is unlikely to be very effective.

So what do you do when a post-trauma response is triggered in your partner?

  • Don’t take it personally. It might not actually be about you.
  • Talk about how open or closed their “window of tolerance” is. If they don’t know or won’t say, you can assume it’s closing. (Introduce the concept and discuss it together when you both have your faculties.)
  • Slow down. Speak slowly, if at all.
  • Soothe your own nervous system. Your calm nervous system will help calm your partner’s.
  • Emphasize safety. Your partner is on red alert. On some level, they are in fear for their life.
  • Be soothing in simple ways. Use simple phrases and simple touch, if it is welcome.
  • Stay present, in body and mind. If possible, do not leave. Use eye contact.
  • Resist the impulse to reason with your partner, try to fix them, or ask them questions about their experience while they’re in it. Just “be with them.”

These tips are for while your partner is in an active state of post-traumatic nervous system arousal. Once this state has passed, the two of you may want to debrief and strategize. Discuss the topic of trauma in relationships, and how it might be impacting yours. If you start to watch for the indicators of nervous system activation in your partner (and in yourself), and if you develop the ability to calibrate yourself accordingly, you will gain access to another level of relationship skill.

[Caveat – While it can be useful and generous to learn how to support a partner who has strong post-traumatic symptoms, it’s not reasonable to try and be your partner’s therapist or sole support in this regard. Outside help may be required.]

Recommended reading –

Healing Trauma (book) by Peter Levine
Trauma and counselling – Recognizing trauma and choosing a suitable approach to therapy (article) by Justice Schanfarber

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“I don’t feel passion in my marriage… Is this an unreasonable expectation?”

I don't feel passion in my marriageI don’t feel passion in my marriage

A reader with a thirty year marriage reveals “I don’t feel passion in my marriage,” and asks an interesting question.

She says, “I have reliable and steady, but I want passion, creativity and fun. Our sex life has dropped off to almost nonexistent. I want to find HIM exciting. I have twenty or more marriage books. So, would your book work? Do I really need another marriage book?”

Read her full letter, and my response, below –

I like my husband. He is a good guy. We spend time together. He says thank you for things I do. We work together quite well on various charity organizations. We pretty much have the same value system: we are both savers, both have same parenting values, etc. The only things we have ever argued about was neatness of the house ( He is neater than I am). But after 30 years we have met in the middle on that issue and don’t argue about that either.

Neither of us want to hurt the other one and we are both very quick to apologize if we think we might have done something wrong. My husband is having health issues. I went back to work this year and that has helped my outlook on life tremendously. We only have 1 child left and she keeps us quite busy as she is social and cannot drive yet. I just don’t feel any passion anymore and I don’t think he does either, to be honest.

Our sex life has dropped off to almost nonexistent. When I went off birth control, my sex drive skyrocketed but he didn’t know what to do with that. He was polite and would try, but the passion of our early days just wasn’t there. Now that I have entered menopause and have a new job, I just don’t ask anymore, so weeks go by. As I mentioned, stress and health problems don’t help.

On our 25th anniversary trip to a very romantic destination, it took 4 days or so before we made love, but then it was every day. But then back to reality. We schedule a week long vacation once a year just the two of us along with several weekends a year (We have a long weekend coming up in a couple months). We hold hands. We talk about our dreams. We take walks on our place, the two of us, several times a week.

I have probably 20 or more marriage books. So why don’t I feel like I am in love with him? He is a good friend. I’m not leaving. Our marriage is a covenant for life. I just thought it would be more, I guess. I thought it would be this passionate, fun connection. Most women would kill for what I have: he fixes anything in our house immediately, if I ever ask for something to be done, he does it immediately. He tells me he loves me every day. He has giant to do lists, but he puts me on them to make sure he doesn’t forget me because he does love me.

He will go on dates, but I have to plan them. I plan great big fun ones, which he really, really likes (going out to dinner and leaving a key to a hotel with him, setting up camping on our property, making a scavenger hunt, etc). He especially liked the scavenger hunt for an anniversary where I put pictures of  something that happened each year and the clue to go find something that happened another year.

I have reliable and steady, but I want passion, creativity and fun. I have found a huge outlet this year with my job. I am having a ball and find myself just prattling on and on about it to him, but I know that gets old for him. I want to find HIM exciting. The job has helped my boredom, but unlike what people suggested, it hasn’t helped the relationship. I want to want to spend time with him.

To be honest, I wonder about just cancelling our weekend together so I can just do school stuff. I’m sure the problem is me, but I don’t know how to fix it. I just thought marriage would be more, I guess. Just an unrealistic expectation I suppose. But I don’t know how to not keep yearning for more. Would the book address that? Most books don’t really apply to us. As I said, we don’t fight, so all of the silly communication stuff with the “I-statements” and paraphrasing and all that… it doesn’t fit.

I managed to get him to go to counseling for his work stress (which eventually caused a health issue that has had some major repercussions) and he had me come in with him. He feels like we should share everything, so I know how he feels. Even then, the counselor couldn’t see the stress (My husband is VERY calm on the outside and has never lost his cool/yelled in our marriage, professional life, etc). He decided that he was like a person on the battlefield that can do his job, but then struggles after the battle is over.

My counselor recommended this game called Reunion that we played… We each guessed each others responses 100 percent of the time. We know exactly what each other is thinking most of the time. So, would your book work? Do I really need another marriage book?

Here’s my response –

First, congratulations on what sounds like a lovely marriage and life. Second, I’m not at all surprised to hear that achieving the success of heartfelt connection, security, respect, and friendship has left important parts of you feeling empty and unsatisfied. The cruel reality is that the very things we work so hard to create in a marriage or relationship can also rob us of the feelings of excitement and liveliness that many of us crave. Thus, I hear statements like “I don’t feel passion in my marriage,” alongside stories like yours quite often.

I agree that you probably don’t need more marriage books on conflict resolution, communication, love languages, or empathy. You already understand or possess these qualities in spades.

Unfortunately, most conventional thinking on marriage and relationships (including most counselling and therapy models) focuses exclusively on narrow definitions of connection, and misses other important areas.

Creating and nurturing emotional bonds is an important part of the equation, but the other side of the coin is important too. The other side of the coin includes differentiation, novelty, tension, friction, uncertainty, risk… all ingredients necessary for passion in marriage, for that crucial and elusive experience many of us crave: eroticism.

Eroticism thrives in tension and uncertainty, in distance and danger, even in conflict or anger; all things we labour at minimizing in our lives. Ironic right? There’s no simple formula to solve this paradox, but we can acknowledge it and begin to work with it intentionally. In this regard, my book, The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples might be quite helpful and refreshing for you. The chapters on differentiation and eroticism may help fill in some of the missing pieces for you. In addition, my second book Conscious Kink for Couples: The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing might provide relevant and useful insights and practices.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments and great questions!

All my best,
Justice

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Love languages – Can “5 Love Languages” fix your relationship?

Love languages5 love languages – The key to a happy marriage or relationship?

The 5 love languages idea has grown into self-help empire for author Gary Chapman. There’s 5 love languages for children, 5 love languages for men, 5 love languages for singles, and so on. Building a simple catchy idea into a brand and leveraging it into various niches is good business. But how good is it for relationships?

An endless stream of self-help books and relationship gurus try to convince us that they alone hold the key, that if you will just follow this one rule or strategy, your marriage or relationship will become bullet-proof.

The 5 Love Languages book and website promises to provide “The secret to love that lasts” with this simple formula –

  • gift giving
  • quality time
  • words of affirmation
  • acts of service
  • physical touch

For such intelligent animals, we seem to be easily seduced by the promise of simple solutions, even for complex phenomena like romantic relationships. For this reason, some of my clients come to counselling in search of an easily understood, tried and true solution to their marriage or relationship troubles… indeed, they are – as the book publishing marketing departments clearly know – hoping to find “The secret to love that lasts,” and they hope that I may reveal to them this secret.

But relationships aren’t simple machines. There’s no manual, no simple understanding of how they work. A truly difficult relationship does not necessarily present us with a concrete problem that is able to be solved through 5 love languages or anything else so basic.

Love languages – A valuable tool?

This doesn’t mean that learning and using “love languages” won’t be valuable. It very well might. I encourage you to try it. You can even take an online 5 love languages quiz (click here).

The love language model can be a great insight and practice. I like how it makes us reconsider who our partner actually is, and what it is they value as distinct from what we value. Dropping our assumption that our partner wants to be cared for the same way we want to be cared for; caring for a partner in ways that THEY find meaningful; seeing our partner as an individual with their own unique needs; these are important tasks, and may be game-changers for some people, in some situations.

But is it really accurate, and entirely honest, to claim that The 5 Love Languages is “The secret to love that lasts?”

Maybe it’s more reasonable to say that love lasts when we can keep up with it.

Love changes, and it asks us to change too. It’s possible that connecting with your spouse through the 5 love languages is precisely the medicine your relationship needs right now… but what if a relationship, a particular relationship – yours or mine, in this particular time and place, is asking something different of us?

What do relationships ask of us?

As I touched on earlier, relationships present us with tasks, (“developmental tasks” in popular psychology speak) and those tasks are always helping us become more mature, whole, integrated human beings.

What if our particular relationship is asking us to stand up for ourselves? Or to grieve a loss? Or to confront resentment? To address sexual frustration? Incompatibility? Rage?

Will 5 love languages help us recognize and manage our own nervous system arousal and the conflict it produces? Will 5 love languages help us wrestle with the deep dilemmas of being human… the inner conflict between wanting to be close to another, and protecting our freedom? Will 5 love languages help us acknowledge our own cruelty in the relationship, and where it might come from? How about power struggles, and the ways power dynamics shape the relationship? Will The 5 Love Languages help us recognize and retrieve the parts of ourselves that we have sacrificed in order to be in relationship? Will it give us a map for working with the trauma that we bring to our relationship?

These important questions and many others do not really get addressed by the 5 love languages or any other magical-seeming relationship solution. The 5 love languages is framed in an appealingly simple and disastrously naive (and perhaps incidentally, religious – Chapman is a Southwestern Baptist) view of relationships. The author seems to believe that if couples just focus on meeting each other’s needs, based on a 5-item menu, their relationship is sure to flourish, or at least to “last.” Frankly, this does not match my experience working with real-life couples.

Here’s one example from a client couple I ended up doing some very significant work with –

We read the 5 love languages book. I learned that words of affirmation is my wife’s love language, and so I really paid attention to speaking her love language. I gave her words of affirmation all the time. But it was never enough. In fact the more I affirmed her, the lower her self-confidence seemed to get. She became like a bottomless pit, totally needy, never satisfied. Her neediness really started to turn me off. I thought maybe I was doing it wrong. I got really frustrated.

The woman in this marriage was wrestling with some deep self-worth issues. No amount of “words of affirmation” from her husband was going to fill the emptiness she felt. Learning each other’s love languages was simply not what their relationship was asking of them. It was a nice gesture, but certainly not the secret to make their love last. (Love is actually rarely the key issue in most couples’ conflicts, but that’s another topic.)

I understand that we live in a culture addicted to speed, and that popular self-help authors are expected to deliver simple solutions in digestible forms. As a writer and relationship book author myself, I struggle sometimes in finding a balance between making an idea accessible and keeping it sufficiently robust, sufficiently honest. And so I can appreciate what Chapman is trying to do with his 5 love languages. I think it’s a worthwhile tool, AND I’m skeptical of it delivering entirely on its promise.

The 5 love languages idea doesn’t need debunking – probably it’s true enough, as far as it goes – it just needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and understood as merely one of the many tasks, and probably a fairly minor one, that relationships ask of us in the course of a marriage or a life.

Have you used the 5 love languages? What do you think?

[Note – I wrote this in response to the many questions I get from clients and colleagues regarding the 5 love languages.]

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Westcoast Bound – Relationship learning at a Kink and BDSM conference

Westcoast Bound Vancouver MVK BDSMLearning about relationships at Westcoast Bound kink and BDSM conference

I recently attended a conference on relationships where I got to learn from some of the most passionate, skilled, and experienced facilitators that I’ve ever encountered. This wasn’t a psychotherapy conference, or even a conference specifically on attachment theory, Imago, active listening, neuroscience, or empathy, although many of these topics were touched upon.

The classes at this conference were on topics like…

Passion, Joy, Fear and Healing at the end of a Whip.
BDSM, Sex & Shame.
Nonverbal Power & Surrender.
Control & Dominance Moves with Rope.
The Good, the Bad, and the Poly.

This is Westcoast Bound 2017, Metro Vancouver Kink’s (MVK) annual Kink and BDSM conference held at Burnaby Executive Suites Hotel & Convention Centre.

It might seem a strange place to learn about relationships, and a strange place for a marriage counsellor and couples therapist to continue their own learning, but here’s my profound discovery from my weekend at Westcoast Bound: The cutting edge of relationship work is being honed at the margins.

Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. Isn’t it always the pioneers pushing the edges who bring their discoveries to the rest of us, providing tales of adventure, and exotic spices to enrich our lives? Perhaps it makes sense that those pushing the edges of relationship would make discoveries that eventually touch us all.

BDSM, kink, polyamory… these are relational structures that exist outside of the mainstream, but as I point out in my book Conscious Kink for Couples: The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing, the ideas that have developed within these communities have potential benefit for everyone who participates in life as a sexual and relational being.

You may not enjoy being erotically flogged, or you might, but the communication, care, and visceral energy that goes into and comes out of such a scene is illuminating for anyone. The idea of whipping or being whipped by your beloved may create cognitive dissonance and be on your list of hard limits, but watching the dance of the whip in skilled and caring hands, its gentle kiss against trembling skin, and the intimacy between the people involved (despite the bright-light conference room setting) rivals the feeling of the most evocative dance performance you’ve ever witnessed.

Over the course of my career as a couples counsellor, and in my life as a human being hungry for connection, growth, and understanding, I’ve been to many workshops, retreats, and trainings. Many of these have been about communication, intimacy, and relationships. The part that is often missing is about what to do with the uncomfortable feelings that arise in relationship, how to work with the darker aspects, shadow, contradiction, paradox.

If you visit the Westcoast Bound website (click here), you will see a striking image of a woman wearing a gas mask, with electrical tape in an x shape across her nipples. You’ll probably see some irreverent quotes and potentially confusing language. What won’t be immediately obvious is the tenderness, courage, authenticity, presence, and playfulness – all crucial qualities for relationship – that is cultivated and celebrated at the event, to a degree I’ve rarely seen at other types of gatherings.

An interesting thing about empathy, compassion, and even intimacy and eroticism, is that they often arise more or less spontaneously out of duress, from experiences that feel raw and risky. Westcoast Bound is a place for screaming and begging, uncomfortable squirming, laughter along with tears. People here are creating experiences for each other that raise adrenaline and endorphins. It’s not for the faint of heart. Neither, for that matter, is an extraordinary marriage, a difficult conversation, or true intimacy.

If we want to create a sense of risk and courage to make a relationship feel more exciting and bonding, and we want to do this safely and well, we better develop skills – both physical and emotional. And so a conference like this is about developing these skills, both hard skills and soft skills.

A fingerbanging and g-spot orgasm workshop, it turns out, is as much about tuning into your partner’s experience as it is about perfecting a certain way of using one’s fingers. It becomes a class on intimacy and communication. Along the way there’s humour, and a few jaw-dropping spectacles (I’ll let you use your imagination).

With its x-rated language and startling imagery, a BDSM community – any BDSM community – creates a sort of boundary (“You must be THIS tall to enter”). An initiation is required. Can you handle the shock? Do you have a relationship with your darker side? Beyond this boundary of initiation lies a surprisingly rich landscape of relational, emotional, and conceptual riches, but only for those who can tolerate or are attracted to certain discomforts.

Speaking as someone who delves around the many edges of relationship, sex, and intimacy, and who also very happily works smack dab in the middle, with many conventionally minded “vanilla” couples, I urge those who dwell somewhere toward the centre to strike out and explore the margins. You needn’t embrace everything you find there, but you’re likely to discover something valuable. This is no prescription, rather a humble invitation.

By the way, tickets for the Westcoast Bound weekend cost around, wait for it… a hundred and fifty bucks. Hard to find that kind of value for a three day learning event. There are plenty of fetish nights in any city that will show you the shiny surface of this world of kink and BDSM, but if you want the depth, the grit, this is the type of conference to look for.

Some of the workshop presenters have been teaching for thirty plus years. They’ve written books and directed films. Many have lived through prejudice if not outright persecution. There’s an incredible collection of experience, wisdom, and diversity in this place. You will learn something from these people, although probably not what you anticipated.

You’ll be exposed to an intersection of trans, queer, kinky, poly, Top, bottom, Dom, sub, switch people and communities, and, if you are willing, you might emerge changed. Your world will get bigger. Your eyes may bulge, judgements flair. If you make it to the dungeon parties, you may be shocked by the unabashed sadism and masochism you witness. And you may be surprised by the… normalcy of it all. We all have a sadistic and a masochistic side. Some are willing to play with these aspects of self, wrestling them into consciousness. Others hide them away, setting the stage for being bit in the ass later, or doing the biting, neither consensually nor with awareness, let alone enjoyment.

Here are some words I overheard after the event –

I’m pretty proud. It was an incredibly cathartic experience. I let out tears and screams that I’ve been holding in for many years. I’ve been seeing therapists for 5 years and I was never able to release them. But in this environment I was able to let go. I felt so safe and accepted. This weekend was a life changing experience.

In my writing, I sometimes talk about the need for finding healthy expressions of sadism and masochism in relationships. I talk about acknowledging the power struggles and power dynamics that are always present in relationships. I talk about nurturing playfulness and erotic tension (WCB presenter Midori on BDSM – “It’s like cops and robbers… with fucking!”). I also point out the benefits of talking explicitly about sex and desire in relationships, and about the pain and shame that keeps us silent. All of these crucial relationship themes are woven throughout the Westcoast Bound experience.

In my work counselling couples, the root of the trouble turns out rarely to be the thing we began with, the core stuff is rarely the “presenting issue.” More often we discover that it is something about how a couple thinks about their relationship that needs addressing. Adding to the problem is that most of the people in our lives think about relationships more or less the same way we do. The messages we get about sex and relationship tend to reflect our own, and we find ourselves trapped in a cultural echo chamber. Without new ideas, new influences, we remain imaginatively and creatively stuck.

The purpose of therapy is, amongst other things, to broaden our perspectives, our thinking. Some of the most celebrated researchers and thought-leaders on sex and relationships come from the world of academia and psychotherapy – Murray Bowen, John Gottman, Harville Hendrix, John Bowlby, Harriet Lerner etc – but we need the wisdom from the margins too, people who have used their lives to dive into the darker depths, and then report on what they find.

A weekend immersed in a different way of seeing sex and relationships (kink and BDSM being just one possibility; certainly there are others) might not be therapeutic exactly… but it might just end up making us somehow more whole.

Below are links to some of the presenters I saw at Westcoast Bound 2017. Check out what they have to say. Sign up for their newsletters. You might find them challenging. You might disagree with them. But you might also find something that you’re ready, or even hungry, for.

Midori – Kink author and educator. Check out her books and workshops.

DaddyCrone (Leenie) – Whip specialist and energy worker.

Allena – Polyamory and kink educator.

Barkas and Addie – Rope bondage artists, performers, educators.

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Conscious Kink for Couples:
The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing

Conscious Kink for Couples - The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing - by Justice Schanfarber

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Click here now to download the 10-page sample (one-click pdf download).

Learn to use kinky sex and BDSM as an awareness practice for healing and growth (like you might use yoga, meditation, or martial arts).

~ Bring more awareness, creativity, and intention to your sex life.

~ Reconcile your “darker” sexual desires with the deep love and caring that is the foundation of your relationship.

~ Make a place for consensual Dominance and submission alongside equality and respect

~ Confront the shame, doubt, or self-consciousness that thwarts or confuses you.

 

Campbell River Counselling Justice Schanfarber HakomiTrying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide individual counselling, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships. Serving clients worldwide by phone/skype. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

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The trouble with intimacy – How can it hurt so bad and feel so good?

intimacyIntimacy – What is it actually?

Intimacy is one of those tender topics that comes up every day in my counselling work with couples. There’s a lot of confusion about what intimacy actually is. Intimacy often gets confused with sex, and while they are related experiences, they are also distinct.

The following is an excerpt from my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples (click here to read more) –

Intimacy is the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another. Intimacy can feel extremely gratifying for some people, but can also be frightening or confusing. Revealing ourselves is always risky. There is no guarantee that our inner self will be embraced by the other.

If we are not embraced for what we reveal, we may feel rejected or misunderstood. This too can be valuable, opening doors to further inquiry and understanding, and also perhaps most importantly, helping us build capacity for disappointment, for tolerating the experience of not getting the validation we crave. Thus we learn to validate ourselves, represent ourselves, soothe ourselves, accept ourselves, no matter how we are received. From this perspective, risking intimacy becomes a win/win opportunity.

Nonetheless, individual appetites and tolerances for intimacy vary. Intimacy doesn’t feel good for everyone. A mismatch between lovers in this regard can be a source of frustration, anger and disconnection. The person craving more intimacy may judge their partner to be cold or withdrawn. The person with less appetite or tolerance for intimacy may experience their partner as intrusive or overbearing.

Intimacy needs can differ between people in a relationship

It’s common to assume that our personal intimacy needs are “normal” and should be automatically met by our partner. It’s tempting to pathologize or condemn them when they fail to meet these needs. It’s also common in counselling for the counsellor to collude, consciously or unconsciously, with the person who wants more intimacy. Often (not always) it is a woman who wants more intimacy, and a man who doesn’t see a problem. Hence, perhaps, the cliche of the man who resists couples counselling. In my work I’m careful to take a value neutral approach to intimacy, honoring all personal preferences and capacities. Regardless of one’s personal tolerance or desire for intimacy, exploring the topic with curiosity is helpful and illuminating. (Intimacy is also discussed at length in my book Conscious Kink for Couples – click here to read a sample.)

*****

Liz and Colin appeared to have extremely different emotional experiences and needs. In their own words, Colin was rock solid; Liz was a rollercoaster. By the time they came to me for help Liz was ready to pull the plug on the relationship. She carried a lot of anxiety, and we talked openly about the impact it had on the relationship.

Liz also was very clear that she wanted a deeper level of emotional engagement with a partner, and she wasn’t sure Colin could provide it. Colin repeatedly stated his willingness to “do anything” to help Liz get her needs met.

This “can-do” attitude seemed consistent with his overall character and his way of moving through the world in general. Colin was good at holding a vision and making sacrifices as he worked for future goals. An interesting implication of this was that there was a sense of him always existing somewhere off in the future… somewhere else. But Liz wanted to feel him in the present, here and now. She would get so frustrated that she would question his love for her. This would launch him into an incredulous defense about how everything he does is for the relationship, which was probably true.

By his own admission, Colin did not understand what Liz was really asking of him. In session, I saw an opportunity to potentially help him get a taste of what she was looking for –

Me: “Colin, I’m noticing that even as Liz talks about leaving the relationship, a relationship you obviously care about, you don’t seem emotionally phased. What’s going on inside right now?”

Colin: “I’m thinking about what I’ll need to do to take care of myself. New apartment, that kind of thing.”

Me: “You automatically start thinking about how to deal effectively with whatever change might be on the horizon. You’re good at recovering from setbacks and at strategizing. It’s one of your gifts.”

Colin: “Correct.”

Me: “I’m going to ask you to back up a step, and check out what it feels like to hear that Liz is considering ending the relationship. Start with your body. What kind of sensations do you feel in your body when you hear Liz’s words?

Colin: (Pause) “I feel an emptiness in my belly.”

Me: “That makes sense. Stay with that sensation of emptiness in your belly. In this moment there’s nothing to do about it. Just let yourself feel it fully. (Pause) What’s the emotion that comes with that emptiness?”

Colin: “Fearfulness. I’m afraid of having no one to lean on.”

Me: “Ah. Yes. It’s scary to be alone. Again, I don’t want you to strategize your way out of this feeling quite yet. Are you willing to stay with the feeling of fear a little longer?”

Colin: “Yes.”

*****

Liz had been desperate to connect emotionally with Colin, but she didn’t know how to get through to him. Colin had tried everything he knew to care for the relationship, but he genuinely did not understand what she wanted. In those few minutes of our session together, Colin stayed with his uncomfortable feelings without automatically moving into problem solving mode. Importantly, he was also revealing this inner experience to Liz. This was intimacy, feeling Colin expose his tender feelings. This is what Liz was starving for. This is what made her feel connected.

Feelings… Strength or weakness?

It was unfamiliar and counter-intuitive territory for Colin. He considered his ability to bypass his feelings and get a job done to be a great strength of his, and he’s right, to a point. It IS valuable to be able to feel lousy and still get stuff done, but not always. In this case Colin was tasked with something different, a new addition to his repertoire. No matter how vigorously he used the old tools he knew so well, they would never be satisfying for Liz unless some occasional insight into his feeling self was also included.

I made it clear to Colin that he was under no obligation to change his way of doing things. This was all optional. It’s not our “job” to meet our partner’s needs, it’s a gift we give to each other, and a way of answering the calling of the relationship itself. Sometimes, in an unexpected moment of clarity or insight, we might feel like it’s a gift we give ourselves too. For Colin, this encouragement, this permission to have his emotional experience, and to share it with his partner, to have it be welcome, this was something strange and new. It turned out that he found some pleasure in it, enough to spark his curiosity and create willingness to experiment further.

Toward the end of our session, Colin confided that he had never really felt okay with sharing his emotional experience. He felt pressure as a man to minimize his emotions in order to perform in the world. I found this to be quite insightful, and to match my own observations about gender expectations and social conditioning.

Colin felt vulnerable revealing his emotionality, and he simultaneously felt some satisfaction in it. Vulnerability is a necessary part of revealing our inner self to our partner. When we reveal our inner experience, there is no guarantee that it will be received favorably. We risk rejection, judgement, ridicule. We might be tempted to mitigate this risk by securing carte blanche acceptance, unconditional love, or validation from our partner in advance, “You have to promise you won’t get mad…”, but this undermines real intimacy, which requires us to risk being ourselves no matter the consequences. Only when we risk revealing who we are inside, and accept the possible consequences, can we experience intimacy. Meeting our spouse in this vulnerable place of risk and uncertainty connects us to some alive part of ourselves. We feel bonded and strangely powerful even as we also feel uncertain and fragile. Paradox abounds.

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BDSM and Healing – Can kinky sex help heal your relationship?

BDSM and Healing - Can kinky sex help heal your relationship?BDSM and healing

BDSM stands for bondage and discipline; dominance and submission; sadism and masochism. In my work, I often refer to BDSM as “erotic power exchange.” In a BDSM experience, one person’s individual power and autonomy is consensually given to the other, within negotiated parameters, for erotic or sexual purposes.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but used carefully, with mindfulness and intention, BDSM can become a powerful tool for insight and healing. In my book, Conscious Kink for Couples – The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing, I explore this healing potential in depth. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s introduction –

What is “Conscious Kink?”

Every relationship that I’ve ever had the honour of witnessing in my work as a marriage counsellor and couples therapist has included aspects of sadism and masochism, cruelty, power struggles, role-play, and various psychological manipulation, headgames, and mindfucks – even as one or both individuals in the relationship work desperately to hide these qualities from themselves or each other, keeping the dark elements buried in unconsciousness, and maintaining a veneer of innocence and normalcy.

The unwillingness to confront one’s own complicity in creating the suffering that inevitably arises in a relationship can be understood in part as an avoidance of facing one’s own shadow; a reluctance to enter into one’s own darker realms.

Conscious Kink and BDSM , in addition to providing sexual or erotic outlets and pleasures, can also become a structure and a practice for revealing, observing, and befriending our dark and shadowy parts.

Sex is a window to our deepest core, to the material of our soul, and by following our kinky desires, and intentionally adding the element of conscious awareness, we end up doing important psycho-emotional work.

Doing this work as a couple, within the sexual/erotic realm, and witnessing each other in the process; this has the power to foster incredible intimacy, growth, and healing. Conscious Kink combines sexual adventurousness with an intention towards awareness, creating a valuable integration practice for life.

Kink and BDSM: For healthy, loving, sensitive people

Hollywood and popular culture have, predictably, distorted kink and BDSM for their own sensationalist purposes. “The gimp” in Pulp Fiction… the stalker-ish behaviour of Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey… these are to real-life kink and BDSM what Tom and Jerry are to real cats and mice: Entertaining perhaps, but mostly bearing little resemblance or relevance to actual kinky people or kink practices.

Real-world kink and BDSM is practiced intelligently, consensually, skillfully, and inspiringly by people across all socio- economic, political, and even religious spectrums. I know kinky social workers, administrators, and public servants. I know kinky social activists, Christians, pagans, and single parents. Welders and bus drivers can be kinky, so can school teachers and entrepreneurs. Married, single, gay, straight, black, white, privileged, oppressed, happy, sad, fat, thin… you get the idea.

I’m painting this picture to help dispel whatever assumption you might have that only “other” people are attracted to kinky sex. If you’re struggling with feeling alone, marginalized, or weird for your (or your partner’s) unconventional desires, I assure you that you are in plenty of good company. Many healthy, loving, sensitive, intelligent people are into kink and BDSM.

Conscious Kinky Couples come from all sorts of backgrounds, and show wide variations in preferences, styles, and personality types, but those with some practice under their belt tend to develop three qualities in common. Interestingly, these same three qualities, or more accurately their absence, predictably show up again and again in the work I do with non-kinky client couples. Could Conscious Kinky Couples have something to teach us all?

Three qualities of Conscious Kinky Couples

1. Conscious Kinky Couples talk openly and explicitly about sex.
They have the courage to ask for what they want, and to represent themselves sexually. They don’t assume that their partner will read their mind. They negotiate to get both partners’ needs met. They share their sexual fantasies and desires. Conscious Kinky Couples might use mystery and intrigue intentionally to cultivate turn-on and eroticism, but they’re ready to talk candidly about sex, and they don’t hide behind assumptions, social convention, or their own shame and wounding.

2. Conscious Kinky Couples work to heal their sexual shame and wounding.
The intentional and explicit nature of their sex lives forces Conscious Kinky Couples to confront their shame and wounding repeatedly, often in many different contexts. Their kinky play or BDSM practice may include consensual humiliation or objectification, sadomasochism, erotic power exchange etc. The Conscious Kinky Couple uses these experiences, and the debriefing that follows, as opportunities for self-examination and integration.

3. Conscious Kinky Couples make time for sex, and they consciously cultivate eroticism in their relationship. Lack of time is a universal theme I encounter with the couples I counsel. Kids, work, family, friends, holidays… there’s a long list of commitments and priorities that creep in to take precedent over sex. Conscious Kinky Couples, however, are more likely to dedicate time to sex. Conscious Kink gives couples a structure for actively supporting and growing their sex lives, a structure that is sorely missing in many modern relationships.

BDSM, Kink, and Shadow Integration

“We find that by opening the door to the shadow realm a little, and letting out various elements a few at a time, relating to them, finding use for them, negotiating, we can reduce being surprised by shadow sneak attacks and unexpected explosions.”
~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Each one of us has qualities or parts of ourselves that we have denied, repressed, or “split off” from consciousness. Pioneer psychologist Carl Jung called these exiled parts of self “shadow” because, pushed away from awareness, they remain hidden from us.

We deny these parts of self, often from childhood, because they were unacceptable to our parents, to society, or to our immature, narrow vision of ourselves. We all originally exiled parts of ourselves for good reasons; it was our way to adapt and survive, and also to create a positive self-image, to “be good.”

For some of us it was our anger or rage that was unwelcome, and so we rejected that part of ourself. For others it was our power, or maybe our weakness. Either strength or vulnerability might have offended our caregivers when we were young; any quality at all might have been deemed unacceptable, and so was driven underground.

Individuals and families have their own standards for which qualities are allowed and which are denied, and every culture and subculture also has its own codes for what it rewards and what it punishes.

Each of us in our lifetime is faced with the task of, one way or another, bringing these repressed parts into consciousness and finding them an appropriate and enriching place in our lives. Until we do, they continue to drive our thinking and our behaviour, and have an enormous, though invisible, impact.

These rejected parts of ourselves not only cause suffering as they shape our lives from beneath conscious awareness, on the flip-side they also have valuable gifts to provide once we do the work of retrieving them. Thus the benefit of retrieval is twofold.

Reclaiming our lost parts, integrating our shadow… this is a process of becoming whole, of healing. In fact, some psychotherapeutic models put shadow retrieval or integration, in some form, at the center of the healing journey.

This work is difficult because to integrate the shadow, to retrieve the lost parts of self, means to face tremendous pain and confusion. We must face that which we long ago deemed unacceptable, bad, or even evil. But we must first find it. We must summon that which we banished, that which we fear most. And we must do it without yet knowing how these parts of self will eventually be integrated. We have no place reserved for them in our home, and yet we must welcome them in.

We can not face our shadow directly because it is unconscious, and therefore invisible; otherwise it would not be our shadow. It must be viewed through a veil or intermediary. Shadow must be approached indirectly, through metaphor, myth, art, role-play, poetry, and other forms of suspended disbelief. Shadow retrieval and integration happens on the edge of consciousness, in the liminal spaces, in the places in between. Conscious Kink can provide these places.

Making a place for sadism and masochism in a relationship

“Hatred and aggression — and carnivorous sexual intent — aren’t our ‘dark’ side. Our dark side is the side that denies its own existence.”
~ David Schnarch

Two of the most commonly denied, most present, and most influential, though unconscious, aspects of self are in fact twin shadow archetypes: the sadist and the masochist.

We all have an inner sadist taking pleasure in the suffering of others, and also an inner masochist finding comfort in our own suffering.

BDSM can turn sadomasochism into an art and a practice, and provides, if we use it consciously, a structure for beginning to glimpse and reconcile our own denied or projected sadism and/or masochism.

Conscious Kink allows us a soundstage, a theatre for playing out a sadomasochistic drama, for bearing witness to our own sadistic or masochistic desires and tendencies, and potentially for finding them a home, an appropriate place in our psyche via our erotic lives.

Without a practice of this sort, we might continue unconsciously playing out our sadomasochistic patterns in our lives and relationships, denying our own complicity, and projecting our capacity for cruelty or martyrdom onto others, where we can judge it from a safe distance.

A conventional lover might protect their self-image of innocence, claiming, “Oh no, I never, ever punish my partner for not meeting my expectations. I take no joy in cruelty.” And then they give their partner the silent treatment, or with-hold affection, or explode with accusations.

By contrast, a practitioner of Conscious Kink, in a carefully negotiated BDSM session or “scene” with their partner says “Do as I say or there will be a consequence.” The sadism is revealed. It is summoned onto the stage where a couple can see it, work with it, play with it, learn from it, find its erotic energy and harness it. Here we find potential for mutual pleasure, as well as shadow integration; transformation; alchemy.

The BDSM scene becomes a sacred space between the world of reality and the world of pretending. Sadomasochistic dynamics are first acknowledged as desire in the self, and then they are given a life through collaboration and negotiation. Within a BDSM scene, sadomasochistic dynamics become “play,” but they are also rooted in our deepest, most real, core selves.

The BDSM scene provides the “in-between” space necessary for retrieving the sadism and masochism we have denied in ourselves but projected onto others. The result, by any name, is healing.

Erotic power exchange: Dominance and submission

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Power dynamics exist, mostly unconscious and unacknowledged, within all relationships. So much so that therapists often talk about the “power struggle” phase of a marriage or relationship as though it were inevitable.

Beneath the spoken agreements in any relationship, beneath the obvious labour divisions and the negotiated sharing of responsibilities, lurk shadowy power struggles, uneasy balancing acts, and resentment-laden asymmetries.

Consciously bringing power exchange dynamics into a relationship in an erotic or sexual form can add more than “spice” or excitement, it can shine a light on some of these hidden power struggles and imbalances.

Also illuminated is your own personal relationship to power –

Are you comfortable with power? Are you afraid of it? Do you fight for power in your relationship? Do you crave it? Do you share power well with others? Do you consider the responsibility of power to be a burden?

Are you trustworthy with power? Do you trust power in the hands of your partner? Do you abdicate your power and then resent its loss?

How about powerlessness? Do you fear loss of control? Do you crave loss of control? Do you long for surrender?

Uncovering the hidden power dynamics in ourselves and in our relationship through a practice of Conscious Kink can have surprising and even disturbing outcomes.

Control issues may be revealed. Fear, cruelty, punishment, with- holding… these are all normal dark-side aspects of power that may present themselves. They’ve been there all along, but now we see them in a new light.

Conscious Kinky Couples can collaboratively and consensually play with power dynamics, eroticizing them, finding pleasure in them, and perhaps, over time, gleaning some of the deeper meanings that power (and powerlessness or surrender) holds in their relationship and in their lives.

Conscious Kink and BDSM practitioners usually identify as either top, bottom, or switch. The terms dominant and submissive are often used interchangeably with the terms top and bottom. Tops (dominants) hold power, bottoms (submissives) surrender power, and switches, as the term implies, can go either way. The degree of power exchange, and the specific nuances, are carefully discussed and negotiated until full consent and understanding is reached.

You’re not bound (pun intended) to any particular identity, and you’re free to experiment with whatever sort of power exchange suits you and your partner.

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Conscious Kink for Couples:
The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing

Conscious Kink for Couples - The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing - by Justice Schanfarber

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Click here now to download the 10-page sample (one-click pdf download).

Learn to use kinky sex and BDSM as an awareness practice for healing and growth (like you might use yoga, meditation, or martial arts).

~ Bring more awareness, creativity, and intention to your sex life.

~ Reconcile your “darker” sexual desires with the deep love and caring that is the foundation of your relationship.

~ Make a place for consensual Dominance and submission alongside equality and respect

~ Confront the shame, doubt, or self-consciousness that thwarts or confuses you.

 

Campbell River Counselling Justice Schanfarber HakomiTrying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide individual counselling, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships. Serving clients worldwide by phone/skype. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

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Relationship triggers – How to take care of yourself without abandoning your partner when sh*t blows up

Relationship triggers

You’ve been invited to listen in on a marriage counselling session. They’re starting…

Susan: I get anxious and triggered then I want re-assurance about our relationship. All sorts of stories start up in my head about how he doesn’t love me enough, or if he really loved me he’d do this or that. It’s like torture, and I want help, so I ask him to tell me what I want to hear, but then he gets triggered and withdraws. For some reason he can’t say what I need to hear when I need it most. Then all my triggers are activated and I get even more desperate.

Marcus: It’s true. I feel her anxiety growing and I feel myself shutting down. Then she needs me to say the right thing, but it’s literally impossible for me. I don’t know how to explain it. I think it’s because old feelings of being controlled or manipulated come up for me. I withdraw, which is the opposite of what she needs, and it makes it worse for her, but I just can’t do the thing she wants. I can’t jump through the hoops. We crash and burn again and again. How do we fix this?

Take a moment and reflect on this story. How would you fix this problem? Where do you think the burden lies? Do you relate to Susan or to Marcus, or to both?

I have heard a hundred different versions of this same story from clients. It’s a perennial relationship quandary. Usually couples who present this issue come to me wanting a communication tool or technique that will let them finally get through to their partner, finally be understood, finally get their needs met.

But they’re in for a surprise. I have to tell them that I doubt there’s a communication technique that will help. I go on to explain that what they are dealing with is not a communication problem, at least not in the ordinary sense. They each feel misunderstood, but the misunderstanding isn’t about what is being said between them; the misunderstanding is about the very nature of their conflict.

Here’s how I explain it in my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples

Underneath all our words and our conscious intentions, our primary relationship follows the twists and turns of two highly attuned nervous systems. Your nervous system and your partner’s nervous system are in constant, silent communication. Beneath the radar of awareness, these two parts of self are setting the mood, raising the stakes, making peace, or waging war. This is happening under the surface of normal consciousness, despite whatever agreements you might be making and whatever “communication tools” you might be employing.

Nervous system arousal is like an invisible hand directing your relationship. The felt experience of nervous system arousal is called anxiety. This anxiety is, perhaps surprisingly, highly contagious.

Anxiety moves back and forth between spouses in predictable ways. We all try, mostly unconsciously, to offload our anxious feelings onto our partner. Think of a hot potato being tossed back and forth. No one wants to hold it, and so we quickly pass it along.

Many of our requests, agreements and interactions – and especially our conflicts – are unconscious attempts to find relief from our nervous system arousal.

As an experiment, let’s look back on Susan and Marcus’s revelations at the top of the page, but we’ll strip away the content, strip away the words, and instead simply imagine two nervous systems interacting.

Susan’s nervous system gets activated for some reason (any reason – for our purposes it doesn’t really matter). It sends a wordless message to Marcus’s nervous system, “Alert! Danger!” Now both nervous systems are activated.

These two nervous systems continue to activate each other, creating significant mental and emotional anguish. Both people want relief, and they want it desperately. They use the tools they know, they try to talk it through. But nervous systems that are on high alert do not respond well to words or reasoning, and so relief doesn’t come. With no relief, anxiety escalates, turning into panic, frustration, rage, or withdrawal (any history of trauma will exacerbate the situation, and should be addressed specifically).

Susan gets anxious, and she turns to Marcus for soothing. (Marcus’s anxiety may have come first, who knows. It’s a chicken and egg situation.) Marcus instinctively withdraws. Perhaps it’s his nervous system saying “Get me out of here! This shit’s contagious!” Susan feels his withdrawal, and she takes it as evidence of her worst fears, He doesn’t really love me.” Her anxiety spikes, and Marcus’s nervous system responds in kind. He retreats even further.

Here we see the classic spiral… the stuck relationship and hopelessness… the repeating conflict loop. We usually assume that these loops are related to something we are saying, and so we search desperately for the right thing to say, some better way to say it, some escape from the tortuous deja-vu we’re stuck in.

We turn to the tool we use for virtually everything… reason, intellect. We try to think our way through, and we share our thoughts verbally. The trouble is, when our nervous system is all fired up, we have limited access to our thought and speech centres. But we don’t know what else to do, and we desperately want relief from the uncomfortable anxiety we’re experiencing, so we keep trying, and, like Susan and Marcus we dig ourselves deeper into the hole.

Relationship triggers and de-escalation.

It feels agonizingly counter-intuitive for most of us, but rather than trying to express ourselves more clearly, or even to understand or empathize with our partner, we need to first turn our attention inward and attend directly to our own poor, suffering, anxious nervous system.

This isn’t an intellectual or communication task, it’s physical and internal. Most of us assume that anxiety is mental, but our nervous system resides more in our body than in our mind, and so it’s our body that holds the key. Not thinking, not talking, but attending to the body, your body, directly.

As much as we are tempted to seek relief outwardly, from our partner, through attempted communication, negotiation, empathy, or understanding, this is usually a case of putting the cart before the horse. It can be much more effective to turn inwards first, moderating our own nervous system. You can read my simple 3-step system for soothing an activated nervous system by clicking here.

Here we’re faced with the paradoxical, delicate and oftentimes confusing dance between self-care and other-care, between being an autonomous individual and being connected through relationship. The fact is, neither of these states are absolute or entirely exclusive; we are simultaneously distinct AND connected.

We live in an age of utility, and my client couples often expect practical tools and solutions that they can apply immediately. The advice I give is this: Practice attending to your own nervous system arousal, turn inward, as you simultaneously remain present and connected with your partner. Easy in theory, but not in practice.

I will sometimes have them practice this in our sessions. In family systems theory this experience of feeling ourselves as distinct and autonomous, while simultaneously connected, is known as differentiation. Think of it this way – Your ability to defuse your own triggers in relationship while also caring for your partner is determined by your level of differentiation. This practice of becoming differentiated begins with a conceptual understanding (hopefully this article helps; for more support have a look at my book), and then becomes a life-long practice of moderating your own nervous system and soothing your own anxiety.

Only by developing this kind of deeply personal relationship with our own inner workings can we manage to stay grounded solidly in ourselves even in the face of our partner’s and our own anxiety and emotional triggers. As we become more skilled at this, we may uncover unresolved issues – resentment, hurt, trauma – that do want attention, and then a focus on communication, conversation, discussion can be fruitful, but without first attaining a sufficient level of self-management and differentiation we end up stuck in the same old mess of hair-trigger nervous system activation. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s required if we want to have mature, satisfying relationships.

 

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

 

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Counsellor confession… “I hate my partner.”

 

 

 

I hate my wife. I hate my husband.

Relationship articles, facebook memes, and lofty platitudes about what makes a “healthy” relationship float across my virtual desktop daily. They always emphasize high ideals of respect, non-violence, kindness, trust, empathy, validation, etc. They never include anyone saying –

“I hate my wife.”
“I hate my husband.”

It’s no wonder that my counselling clients feel like failures, and doubt the legitimacy of their marriage or relationship (or even of themselves) if they experience intense resentment, anger, grief, rage, frustration or jealousy.

What are we supposed to do with these unwanted feelings when we’re repeatedly told that they have no place in a “healthy” relationship (or life)?

For many, the answer is simple. Ignore the feelings. Reject them. Stuff them deeply into a sack and drag it along behind, pretending it does not exist, even as it grows into elephantine proportions and begins to crowd everything else out of the room.

I confessed in an interview recently that I was feeling grateful for being able to express my outright rage and seething hatred of my spouse… to my spouse. That’s right, I told my partner that I hated her. And guess what? The world didn’t end. And neither did my relationship.

As a marriage counsellor working with clients worldwide, it felt risky to publicly share that I sometimes hate my partner, and that I have told her so. But I believe that because I am able to express a full range of feelings toward her, and because she can hear them, disaster is averted. This works in both directions in our relationship; I hear about her anger as well. It has at least once been expressed as “I want so badly to punch you in the face.” (She contained the impulse, but the message was received.)

In our relationship, my partner and I allow each other to express these difficult, dark feelings, and so they are, in a way, over time, transformed. Left in the dark corners they fester and grow, and they sneak up on us, often in disguise. Faced head on, they tend to reconcile of their own accord. The result? A clean slate.

That’s worth stating again: To the degree that we are able to identify and express our darker feelings about each other, to each other, we’re able to avoid lingering resentments in our relationship.

As I state in my book, The Re-connection Handbook For Couples – 

If your ideas about love are too narrow to accommodate the relationship you actually have right now, you may want to try expanding your thinking. Love is certainly not just good feelings, kindness and caring. Romantic and erotic love is compatible with resentment, mistrust, selfishness and even cruelty. Perfectionism, lofty platitudes and willful naivete about love are common in our culture, but real love may demand dark expressions from time to time.”

Are negative emotions so bad?

Emotions in our culture have been neatly divided into two columns: negative and positive. But what if emotions were neither negative nor positive? Neither good nor bad? What if emotions were simply acknowledged on their own terms?

There’s a popular idea that we should be able to control our feelings through sheer force of will. I’ve never, ever seen this to be true. But I have seen the damage that this belief causes. It IS true that by practicing mindful awareness, we may be free of some of the more painful and destructive emotions, but they fade largely of their own accord, and usually only after being acknowledged, and even expressed.

So how can we safely express potentially destructive emotions like rage and hatred? Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps they are inherently unsafe. If so, it appears that we must risk something if we are to give our anger, cruelty, resentment any real voice. (Sometimes what we risk is intimacy; the intimacy aspects of engaging with the darker emotions often go unrecognized.)

Popular communication techniques would have us calmly and quietly stating our angry feelings – “It makes me feel angry when you leave your socks on the floor.” But anger, real anger, is rarely calm and quiet. It is fiery and fast. It burns. I’m suspicious of techniques that sugar-coat or rely too much on pretending.

Of course, raw, unchecked rage and hatred freely expressed in a relationship is clearly not going to be acceptable to most self-respecting people. If we want to work with darker emotions, to allow them an appropriate place in our awareness, our relationship and lives, the answer must lie somewhere in between; still potent and alive, but not full force. We can practice allowing an emotion like anger without becoming it entirely. The key is awareness; the ability to have an experience (really HAVE it), and also to notice it at the same time. This requires us to grow our capacity for seemingly contradictory experiences, what I sometimes call “holding opposites,” and it takes practice.

There’s no reliable formula for successfully navigating difficult emotions like anger in a relationship. Talk with your partner. Examine your own taboos. See if there might be room to experiment with allowing some expression, even a basic verbal acknowledgement of the feeling.

Every relationship has its own unique culture, a set of agreements and rituals, implicit or explicit, that guide it. Does your relationship make room for expressions of the full range of human emotions? Or are only “positive” emotions allowed?

 

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Why men leave women they love – What every woman needs to know

Why men leave women they love - Justice Schanfarber CounsellingOver a year ago I shared a simple insight gleaned from my work as a marriage counsellor about why women leave men they love. (Click here to read the original article.)

The article struck a chord worldwide, and I quickly received hundreds of emails, comments, questions and requests of all sorts. Many readers, women and men both, wanted to hear a comparable counter-point, something about why men leave the women they love, the assumption being that there must be some innate symmetry to this phenomenon. I’m not sure there is.

I have wrestled with this counter-point, this question of men leaving women they love, in my mind and on paper, for well over a year now.

Why men leave women they love… Or do they?

The truth is, in my clinical experience, I rarely see men doing the leaving. Men compartmentalize. They withdraw into work, hobbies, fantasy, or addiction. They cheat or carry on secret lives and secret affairs. They might create situations that make it impossible for a marriage or relationship to continue. Men also suffer silently, shouldering massive burdens. The men I work with often have a high tolerance for disconnection. They might leave a dissatisfying relationship in spirit (sometimes they never fully arrive), but they are unlikely to leave in body. Certainly the description above does not fit all men, but the general patterns I see in my couples counselling practice recur too often to ignore.

I find it interesting that when women leave a dead or dissatisfying relationship they are celebrated for their courage. (You can see this in some of the comments on the original article.) Men though, seem to be held to a different standard; by society, by each other, by women, and perhaps most importantly, by their own selves.

It might be a sense of duty or sacrifice that keeps men from leaving. Or an ability to cleave off parts of themselves that don’t fit into the box they feel they must occupy. A man’s focus on performance and success might make the feelings of a failed marriage intolerable, and so the shame of leaving is not an option.

Or perhaps men expect less from a relationship, less from love. Perhaps the painful and revelatory truth is that men expect less from life. Beneath whatever bravado we may see from the outside, many men are disconnected from any real, living sense of purpose in their lives. Their chests may be puffed out, but their hearts are empty.

As many women are awakening to long repressed (and suppressed) desires – for freedom, for expression, sensuality, power, intimacy, eroticism, authenticity, aliveness – their male counterparts may be trudging on, heads down.

In his book Iron John – A book about men, poet and author Robert Bly suggests that –

“… the European novel, a lovely phenomenon of the last two centuries, has taught more than one contemporary woman what a rich reservoir of impulses and longings she has in her soul that can be satisfied or remain unsatisfied… A twentieth century woman feels complicated sensibilities in herself that no ordinary or mortal man can meet.”

These complicated sensibilities do not seem to be surfacing in men in the same way, and perhaps rightly so. Women’s paths and men’s paths, while intertwined, seem also to be necessarily different. Nonetheless, men too have their own “complicated sensibilities” and their own “rich reservoirs” to discover and attend to.

In archetypal terms, we could say that many women continue to take on the lover qualities in a relationship, while men embody the warrior.  The warrior is able to put feelings aside and work for a greater good based on principles and ideals. This ability is valuable, but when these principles and ideals are divorced from a man’s true calling, when they are in opposition to his heart, the warrior energy becomes twisted, and the man becomes mechanical, cold, withdrawn. (Of course these roles may also be reversed. Plenty of women are discovering their inner warrior, and men their inner lover. All configurations can be valuable, and all can be troublesome.)

There’s a saying, “Do not give a sword to a man who can not dance.” Warrior energy is powerful and noble in its healthy and lively expressions, but if it becomes too rigid it morphs into a sad and dangerous parody of itself. The man who can not dance is a man who can not feel. He can not feel the rhythms of life, of others, of relationship. Dancing requires an alertness, it requires grace. Dancing requires an erotic intelligence. A man singularly focused, without these qualities, ends up cut off from feeling, inaccessible to himself and others.

Many a man has expressed great bitterness at his wife’s leaving, even as he has sacrificed so much of himself to fulfill the bargain he believed was necessary for a relationship or marriage. He has worked at a job that is dangerous, for his body or his soul. He has turned off much of his feeling so that he can perform adequately to provide economically for his family. When women leave these men, bewilderment sets in. These men believe they did everything they could. If we are not careful, victim and villain archetypes settle into our bones, and men and women find themselves pitted against each other, and ultimately against important aspects of themselves.

In my original article that roused so much attention, I pose a question to male readers –

“Can you feel your passion? If you’ve lost it, why? Where did it go? Find out. Find it. If you never discovered it you are living on borrowed time.”

If men aren’t able to be fully present in their relationship, even for five minutes at a time, it might be that they are disconnected from their heart, from their passion; strangers to their own “complicated sensibilities” and “rich reservoirs.” Paradoxically, men’s connection to these parts of themselves allows them to be fully present in relationship, AND it simultaneously gives them the power to leave.

If we want men to show up more profoundly, we must also be prepared for their long bottled up rage at being used and abused – as cannon fodder, economic fodder, entertainment fodder, family fodder and so on. If we want men connected to their passion for life, we must be prepared to listen to what these passions have to say. Sometimes the words will be no. Or goodbye.

As it is for Bly’s twentieth century woman, an awakening man becomes capable of both strengthening and destroying a marriage. If we want to preserve marriage at all costs, then best to kill all passions, all heart’s desire, all “complicated sensibilities” and “rich reservoirs.” Indeed, this has sometimes been official policy, at the personal and the cultural levels. If, however, we want a relationship with an awake, passionate, present, and empowered partner, we had better be willing to face all the possible outcomes. Frightening perhaps, but I don’t know a better option.

 

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Gaslighting, shadow, and abuse – How protecting our unconscious can sabotage our relationships

GaslightingAs we noticed the topic of “gaslighting” coming up more and more in conversations, my partner and I decided to watch the 1944 film with Ingrid Bergman that spawned the term. In the film, and in common usage of the word, a “gaslighter,” for their own selfish gain, consciously manipulates someone into doubting themselves.

The classic gaslighter is a sociopath, calculated and relentless in breaking down their victim’s self-confidence, self-esteem, self-trust, and even sense of sanity. This sort of gaslighting is extreme and, one hopes, relatively rare. But I see a much more common, subtle and insidious form of gaslighting all the time in my work and life. I’ll call it “shadow gaslighting.”

It’s generally understood that we each have an unconscious aspect of self that influences us and drives our behaviour, beneath conscious awareness. This unconscious self is sometimes called our shadow. Our shadow consists of the parts of our self that we have disowned or denied because they are frightening, disappointing, socially unacceptable, or because they threaten our positive self-image.

Unconscious gaslighting –

“Shadow gaslighting” is when these disowned parts of ourselves manipulate people in our lives in order to serve their own purpose. An unconscious part of self expresses itself and pursues its own agenda but goes unacknowledged in our awareness.

Other people in our lives, especially our spouse, may sense our shadow at work, and because we deny the presence and influence of shadow unconsciousness in us and in our behaviour, these other people feel an incongruence in us: what we say does not match how they experience us.

They may take us at face value, wanting to believe what we tell them about our intentions, feelings etc, but underneath, at some level, the incongruence undermines their trust in us and perhaps their trust in their experience, in their self. Here’s a story to help illustrate –

Louise was shocked to discover that her husband Francois was considering leaving her. She knew things had been bad since the baby was born, but she was blindsided by his revelation that they were actually on the brink of divorce. When they came to see me it was quickly obvious to me that Francois held strong resentments toward Louise; resentments that spanned years and ran deep. And yet, interestingly, he would not admit to having resentments. It became apparent through therapy that he was unwilling to admit to being resentful because it would contradict the image he had of himself. “Resentful” was a human quality that Francois would not allow himself, and so he had driven it underground where it persisted unconsciously as shadow material. While Francois desperately tried to hide his resentment with denial (“I’m not a resentful person! You’re imagining it!”), the resentful part of himself grew more insistent. It was demanding to be seen, to be acknowledged and confronted. His resentment, long buried, was now breaking through to the surface of consciousness.

Francois’s resentment broke through the shadow realm into the surface of consciousness while we worked in session. This is not uncommon. Often an individual or a couple comes to see me when a powerful aspect of their unconscious shadow is working its way up into awareness. Subjectively, this feels like breaking down. Something feels drastically wrong, and so a person might decide they need help… fixing… therapy. If I am paying attention, and if the timing is right, I can potentially help this person as they retrieve the disowned parts of their self.

In this particular case, I could see Francois struggle to confront the long-held, unacknowledged resentments that were coming to the surface and threatening his self-identity, and his marriage.

For Francois, resenting his wife was incompatible with being a good person and a good father. To acknowledge that he was resentful meant that he would not feel like a good person or a good father, and so he hid it from others and from himself.

Confronting his resentment was viscerally agonizing for Francois. He choked and sobbed and wrung his hands. But he saw it through. In no uncertain terms he managed to face his resentment and to own it, right there while his wife watched and listened. Francois was resentful, and he said so.

Of course this was painful for Louise, but also a relief. At least now she could feel congruence in Francois. Because he was now able to confront (and tolerate) his resentment, his shadow would no longer need to gaslight her in order to protect him from the intolerable feelings of “being a resentful person.” Francois grew his capacity for tolerating these uncomfortable feelings and in doing so he become more congruent.

I see some version of gaslighting by the shadow in virtually every single person I work with or have any type of deep relationship with, including myself. I’ve come to believe that we ALL have disowned parts of ourselves that threaten to contradict or reveal the personas we present to others and identify with.

Here are some ways that we unconsciously or semi-consciously “shadow gaslight” a spouse or partner –

  • We might say “I feel hurt” when our shadow feels angry. (Anger has been disowned.)
  • We might say “I feel angry” when our shadow feels hurt. (Hurt has been disowned.)
  • We might say “I’m not attracted to that person” when we do not trust our attraction or eroticism. (Attraction and eroticism have been disowned.)
  • We might say “This is all your fault” when our shadow feels the burden of responsibility, but is unable to tolerate it. (Responsibility has been disowned.)
  • We might say “No, no, everything is OK” or “This is all my fault” when we are unwilling to risk conflict. (Conflict has been disowned.)

The list goes on and on. In every case, our words protect our shadow and belie the deeper truths of our desires and fears.

It’s important to understand that these are not outright lies or manipulations; we are not, after all, fully conscious of what they are based upon. When we are unable to confront the needs, and hence the influence, of our own shadow, our partner feels our dissonance and this creates anxiety, mistrust, distance, conflict.

Persistent gaslighting by the shadow is a significant but poorly understood cause of confusion, regret, bitterness and blame in a marriage or relationship. If we’re willing to acknowledge the existence of shadow within ourselves and within our relationship, we may be able to retrieve some of the disowned parts of ourselves that are creating unrest. If we understand the needs of these shadow aspects and attend to them, greater integrity becomes possible .

Through mindfulness practice, therapy or other means we may gain the insight, courage, and humility required to retrieve our shadowy parts and bring fuller congruence and awareness to our behaviour in our relationships and in our lives.

This retrieving of shadow, of the parts of self we’ve disowned, is an act of integrity. When we say someone has “integrity”, what do we mean? Usually we mean that we experience them as congruent; their speech matches their actions. We deem them trustworthy.

One way of understanding personal integrity is this –
Integrity is strength obtained through wholeness.

“Acting with integrity” doesn’t mean acting according to some high moral code as much as it means expressing oneself as a whole person; not necessarily whole in the sense of not having different “parts” or a variety of voices, but as someone one who has done some work with their unconscious shadowy parts and has built a relatively honest relationship with them.

This work is probably never complete, but is a lifelong journey. There are milestones and significant accomplishments along the way but no definite end. It’s unlikely that we ever become fully conscious beings with nothing to hide and no shadow to protect, although that is a worthy ideal, and is perhaps one way of understanding the quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Interestingly, if we deny the existence of shadow, of the disowned fears and desires in our self and others, we will always take literally the failures of integrity we see around and within us. We will judge harshly and assume we are being treated with hurtful intention. If, however, we acknowledge the existence of shadow, and recognize how shadow protects itself by acting out from beneath conscious awareness, we may respond appropriately without undue judgement and bitterness.

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Is mindfulness making us ill?

Is mindfulness making us ill?Is mindfulness making us ill? A reader recently forwarded me an article from The Guardian that asks this provocative question. Like virtually all popular journalism, it’s a divisive piece that will fuel both skeptics and supporters. I think the author makes some valuable and legitimate points, especially about how mindfulness can trigger dissociation related to trauma, and also about the political problem of trying to use mindfulness in the workplace to make people more productive in a work culture that is probably intrinsically unhealthy and essentially inhuman (my words, not the author’s).

What is mindfulness?

In my counselling practice I define mindfulness as having an experience and noticing it at the same time. This is a practice of awareness. Can deepening our awareness be disturbing? Yes, it can. Can it “make us ill” as the title of the piece suggests? The suggestion that awareness of our own experience is dangerous (and should thus be medicalized) is more than a little troubling to me, but I suppose we each put our faith where we believe it belongs.

Mindfulness billed as a “relaxation technique” (as stated in the article) is a problematic promise right out of the gate. Mindfulness is not first and foremost a relaxation technique, it’s an awareness practice. Awareness can ultimately have a relaxing effect, but it can also have other decidedly non-relaxing effects.

Assigning mindfulness practice en masse (whether through corporate wellness programs or mobile apps or yoga studio memberships) with the expectation that relaxation be the automatic result reveals a basic misunderstanding of what mindfulness actually means, and sets people up for potentially confusing and dissonant experiences.

True mindfulness is like peeling layers of an onion or delving into an old trunk of belongings. It takes you deeper. You might find sadness, joy, numbness, physical tension, fear. As the article implies, prescribing mindfulness for relaxation only, and then providing no support or allowance for the other experiences that awareness may uncover does seem irresponsible in some ways. Also, it fits perfectly with our current cultural paradigm, a paradigm that recognizes, validates and supports only the narrow slice of human experience that fits its own needs.

MIndfulness and social implications

A genuinely mindful (aware) society would acknowledge and make room for the full range of human emotional experiences that personal mindfulness may evoke. Much of the suffering that comes from numbness, grief, dissociation, panic, anxiety etc is less from the core experience itself, and more a result of the isolation and marginalization that comes from the absence of sacred space, of ritual where these experiences can be compassionately held, witnessed, acknowledged, shared. Perhaps the question that the article asks, “Is mindfulness making us ill?” begets further questions rather than decisive answers… “What does mindfulness ask of us? What does mindful awareness reveal about us, individually and collectively? What do we do with what is revealed?” The answers can be awkward.

The economic and political systems of our culture demand that we be materially productive at all times, at all costs. This demand comes with enormous human sacrifice. In ordinary consciousness, we’re mostly blind to this enormous human sacrifice because our cultural story is deeply woven as “natural fact” into the fabric of our being. This cultural failure to acknowledge (let alone meet!) real human needs for connection, compassion, love, patience and tolerance is much more pressing, much more tragic, and much more dangerous than mindfulness itself could ever be; and mindfulness, in a perfect paradox, may give us a glimpse into the price we routinely pay for membership in this culture. This glimpse can be incredibly disturbing, but blaming mindfulness for the disturbance is akin to blaming a microscope for the germs it reveals.

The trouble with mindfulness

Perhaps the real trouble with mindfulness is in what we expect it to deliver. Mindfulness does not fix us, it allows us to see things more as they are. As such, mindfulness is radical. Who has the authority on your awareness? Who decides how much self awareness is enough; how much is healthy; how much is dangerous? Should we sign away the care of our unconscious to the experts? Or should we accept the freedom and responsibility that come with self-inquiry? It is no surprise that mindfulness, a venerable practice probably thousands of years old, has been co-opted, diluted and commodified as a “relaxation technique” and corporate employee wellness panacea on one hand, and is now on the verge of being demonized as a public health hazard on the other. Ours is a culture that has a difficult time honouring both freedom and responsibility, and simply making room for awareness, ever-changing and uncontrolled, with all its necessary demands. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

 

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How The Revenant failed to move me – Brief thoughts on the crisis of meaning in modern movie storytelling

The Revenant movie review Leonardo DiCaprioThe Revenant looks spectacular on the screen. It’s brilliantly acted. It’s exciting. It has even received praise for its representation of indigenous characters. So why did it leave me, and many others, feeling so dissatisfied?

The primary themes in The Revenant seem to be survival and revenge, two evocative themes that have been successfully explored since Shakespeare and probably before – Titus Andronicus, Moby Dick and Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road all come immediately to mind. Unlike these examples however, The Revenant reveals nothing insightful about how survival or revenge shape our shared human experience. Essentially a story of surfaces, The Revenant fails utterly to deepen our questions or our understanding of ourselves. Secondary themes of resilience, determination, and love show up alongside survival and revenge, and all are consistently ignored as possible openings for deepening an inquiry of what it means to be part of the human journey.

To feel satisfying, a story must strike a chord within us. It must remind us of who we are. Stories that stand the test of time, that hold up to retelling again and again, stories that touch us deeply, are stories that reflect the mystery and nuance of life, real or imagined.

Stories that feel satisfying often have a redemptive or transformational quality. We see a character discover that they are not who they believed themselves to be. Or we see help come unexpectedly, impossibly, from either inside or outside of themselves. (The short section of the film when Leonardo DiCaprio is serendipitously saved by a Pawnee man is perhaps the most profound.) A character’s journey also speaks to us when we see them come full circle, returning home simultaneously changed and also more themselves than ever. These narrative themes are satisfying in stories because they are satisfying in life. They nourish our imaginations because they nourish our soul.

But mainstream culture today is disconnected from real nourishment. If we fail to recognize what is truly nourishing in our lives, it follows that the stories we share will reflect a similar  failure. The failure that we see in so much modern movie storytelling is, I believe, a cultural failure to discern disposable entertainment (or fake emotion; sentimentality) from a story that reflects something meaningful about the life journey.

Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies are satisfying because they resonate with our fear of loss and our deep knowing that the revenge impulse is certain only to escalate suffering. There’s wisdom in this knowing. The Revenant is markedly absent of all such meaning and wisdom, even in the face of enormous brutality and loss. It settles instead for being yet another empty tale of individual determination and cleverness, a fight against odds, but with no discernible reward either material or spiritual.

The absence (or presence) of meaning, human resonance, and wisdom in stories is not necessarily an issue of era or genre. This past Christmas season our family watched both A Christmas Story and Home Alone. I was struck by the deep differences in feel between these two holiday movies. In A Christmas Story, Ralphie is a boy who wants a BB gun. He wants it more than anything. You could say he’s on a quest. You feel his longing. As he’s foiled at every turn (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”) you feel his pain. Through a miracle Ralphie gets his gun, and promptly wounds himself with it (he nearly shoots his eye out). There’s a familiar depth of longing, hope, disappointment, and ultimately victory, that the story, though light-hearted, manages to evoke throughout.

Watching Home Alone is an altogether different experience. Home Alone, like The Revenant, is a story of survival and revenge, of individual determination and cleverness. Unlike A Christmas Story, Home Alone feels unfamiliar, disjointed. It’s entertaining (occasionally wildly so!), but empty. It rings hollow, not just because the plot is so farfetched (believability is not a factor for the kind of resonance that makes for a satisfying story), but because it seems to be written about human beings that you can’t imagine having ever known or been, and hence can not muster much care for.

I was surprised to learn that the director of The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu, also made the imaginative and  transcendental Birdman just a year earlier. Both films centre on humans with superhuman qualities. Interestingly, The Revenant, with the concrete superhumanity of its lead character, fails to connect the viewer with their own sense of (super)humanity, while Birdman, with its abstract (and deeply uncertain) superhero lead manages to put the viewer in touch with their own (equally uncertain?) heroic qualities. Both films are gritty, but in entirely different ways, and somehow Birdman reveals a very different, and I believe, far more significant sort of super-human quest. The two make a fascinating contrast in storytelling.

We may want super-human characters in our stories, but we still want to be able to relate to them from our own humanity. On some level we want to learn something about ourselves from the characters in stories, and, perhaps more importantly, we want them to affirm the learning we’ve already done.

What do you think? What sort of cinematic storytelling moves you? What leaves you cold?

Disclaimer – I’m not a movie critic, and this certainly isn’t a movie website, and perhaps movies are just supposed to be innocent passtimes, and maybe “good” is totally subjective. But as a counsellor and therapist, my work is about meaning; discerning meaning, making meaning… and so when I watch a movie I’m interested in the meaning (or lack) that it evokes. I just can’t help it.

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Contradiction and paradox in relationships – The difficult work of holding opposites

Contradiction asks much of us. On the one hand, there might be an opportunity to create greater congruence in your life by confronting the contradictions embodied in your own speech and actions. On the other hand, it takes great capacity to hold opposing points of view and disparate experiences without rejecting one or the other or both. I call this “holding opposites.”

The possibility for re-connection in our marriage or relationship is related to how we handle the contradictions we inevitably encounter; how we hold opposites. Our ability to tolerate, and as we’ll see, transform, our experience of contradiction into something more powerful requires a certain kind of personal capacity.

“Capacity” is an important concept in couples work. When I talk about capacity, imagine a cup. When the cup gets full, it overflows. In relationships, our cup gets full from anxious feelings that come from, amongst other things, an inability to tolerate the contradiction all around us.

When the cup overflows, these anxious feelings are expressed as rage, withdrawal, criticism, blame, denial, exasperation etc. We can try to iron out the contradictions we see in ourself, in our partner, in our life, in the world… or we can work on making our cup bigger. The advantage to making our cup bigger is that it holds not just the anxious feelings of contradiction, but ALL the complicated feelings that give life its richness and depth.

We may wish for simpler times in our relationship, a time when things were more black and white, but re-connection doesn’t want that. Re-connection wants you to grow your cup, to expand your capacity for holding the complexity that comes with a deeper, maturing relationship.

Some people habitually sniff out the contradictions in others and feel obligated to point them out. They believe it is their job to iron out the wrinkles they see in their partner. This includes playing “devil’s advocate.” If this is your tendency, please consider that this kills eroticism, dampens desire and attraction, breeds resentment, and makes re-connection difficult. Your first task in re-connecting with your loved one is to catch yourself in the act of using contradiction against yourself or others. I’m not asking you to ignore the contradictions you observe. On the contrary, please continue noticing them. I’m asking you to orient around contradiction differently, to change your relationship to contradiction. Stop treating it exclusively as a problem to be solved. If you will practice accepting contradiction as a normal aspect of life, you will be preparing the ground for re-connection in your relationship.

Much conflict and disconnection between lovers and spouses is due to a misunderstanding about contradiction. Contradiction is normal and healthy. It’s inevitable. If we see our partner’s inherent contradictions as a flaw or weakness, we essentially take a stand against their basic human-ness, and that is the real disaster. We also very likely take the same stand against our own human-ness. We remain apart, separate, because we have rejected a real part of being human.

*****

Paul watched his wife Marilyn eating pie for dinner after they both came home late from a frantic day at work. Just yesterday she had confided to him that she wanted to eat more healthfully. Now as he watched her hungrily annihilate two pieces, he pointed out how her actions were in complete contradiction with what she had said yesterday. When the three of us talked about this in session, Paul maintained that he was trying to support her. Marilyn erupted in frustration. She felt anything but supported. This was an ongoing dynamic that was becoming a major obstacle and source of disconnection in their relationship.

*****

When we are feeling combative, it’s easy to point out contradictions in the other as evidence of their shortcomings, implicitly making them “wrong” or “bad.” This reveals a narrow view of contradiction and it misses the deeper gifts and insights that working with contradiction can provide. If we believe, even unconsciously, that we should do away with contradictions, we have become too perfectionistic and are likely to find ourselves frustrated and lonely; disconnected.

We can judge ourselves and others based on the contradictions we observe, or we can inquire into these same contradictions with a curious mind and open heart. We might ask ourselves “What are the various parts of this person that are trying to have a voice?” We might try assuming that both sides of any contradiction hold an important truth, and rather than pitting them against each other, we might experiment with “backing up” until our perspective is broad enough to include both sides. This type of inquiry asks us to soften our focus.

We’re accustomed in this culture to seek answers, facts, quantitative data, to narrow our focus until we’ve solved the problem. It’s a reductionist way of seeing each other and the world, and it keeps us from finding solace in the mystery; it keeps us from experiencing the sweet surrender and easy humility of simply not knowing. “Simply not knowing” is a wonderful state of being. Have you practiced it? When we allow ourselves to be washed over by waves of contradiction, and we stop insisting on sorting out each one, we might find ourselves on new unfamiliar ground, a place where fresh experiences and re-connection become possible.

With some practice allowing contradiction, it begins to transform. Contradiction that is allowed, that is honored, can begin to mature into its wise relative: paradox.

Contradiction is that annoying know-it-all brother in law who seems oblivious to the way he rubs everyone the wrong way. Paradox, on the other hand, is that enigmatic uncle, mysterious and calm, whom you feel good around, even if he’s strange and maybe a little bit crazy. Contradiction is two dimensional, black and white. Paradox is multi-dimensional, full of colour. Contradiction is blunt, a dead-end, right and wrong, end of story, a door closing. Paradox is a door opening. As much as contradiction is confusing and deadening, paradox is illuminating and enlivening. Contradiction cuts us off. Paradox connects us. Contradiction is an annoying problem of logic. Paradox, like love, is mysterious and awe inspiring, unsolvable. When we see only the contradictions in our partner, we are looking at them like problems to be solved, like broken machines. When we are able to look at our partner and see the deep paradox underneath the contradictions, we begin to see them in their fuller mystery. We view them with our heart’s intelligence, not just our reasoning mind.

You don’t need to figure this out entirely to work with it. It’s ultimately not any technique, but rather plumbing your own depth and growing your own capacity that turns contradiction into paradox and enriches your life and relationship. If you will simply allow contradiction in your life, in the world, in your partner, rather than fighting against it, you will have begun this practice.

(This is an excerpt from “The Re-Connection Handbook For Couples” by Justice Schanfarber. Read a sample chapter or buy your full digital copy at http://www.justiceschanfarber.com/the-re-connection-handbook-for-couples/)

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Presents are nice, but PRESENCE is the best gift ever.

Presence is the best giftTwelve years ago I skipped the family Christmas and did a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat instead. I joked that it was my present to everyone in my life. It was part self deprecating humor (I wouldn’t be around for Christmas), and part acknowledgement that practicing deep presence is indeed a gift to everyone I touch.

Christmas can represent the best and the worst –
Celebration and frustration. Hopes and disappointments. Memories both sweet and bitter. The ridiculous stress of trying hard to relax.

Through it all, you are either present to the people you love, or you are not.

It’s tempting to sacrifice our presence in the moment in order to pursue our ideas about perfection – the perfect meal, the perfect tree, the perfect holiday, the perfect photos, the perfect gift. The result is usually disappointing. In retrospect, I’ve found myself wishing I had done it the other way around; sacrificed my perfectionist ideals and been more present to the moment, to the people in the moment.

I thought I’d offer a few simple ideas here about what presence is…

  • Presence is giving your full attention without distractions. It’s eye contact (and may be physical contact too). It’s no phone or TV or work.
  • Presence is allowing the other to have the experience they are having, even as you notice your own experience.
  • Presence is your curiosity about this other person in this moment.
  • Presence is patience, allowing the other to express their self in their way in their time.
  • Presence is dropping your agenda and holding space for whatever wants to happen.
  • Presence is having an experience and noticing it at the same time.

Presence is also at the root of my new relationship book, The Re-connection Handbook for Couples. You’ll hear more about it in the new year, but you can have a peek now if you like. Read a sample or purchase your digital copy by clicking here. Let me know what you think.

May your holidays be bright, and if they are not bright, may they be dark in the richest possible ways.

All My Best,
Justice

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Relationship question – Is it better to be wanted or needed?

 Is it better to be wanted or neededDear Justice,

I’m 21 and I’ve never been married. Reading your article “Why women leave men they love” and reading the comments just makes me never want to get married at all. I mean what’s the point anymore? It seems to me that in a modern day relationship we’re really just sexual objects for each other because once the passion dies everyone divorces and leaves each other for someone else who gives them this so called “passion.”

So riddle me this – I’ve read comments on here about how women don’t need men for this or that. Isn’t a relationship supposed to be something you can rely on each other for things? A marriage is also a cohabitation where people do what they can to help each other. I don’t see it as sexist if a man wants to work hard and provide for his family and the wife wants to be a stay at home mother and take care of the children. I feel this whole movement to have interchangeable “gender roles” is a major contributing factor in failed marriages in today’s time.

What’s the point of a marriage when you can do it all on your own and don’t need anyone right? I mean I don’t need you and you don’t need me so why even bother getting married or being together? So when I see people post these comments saying things along those lines, I feel as though it’s extremely arrogant and selfish because I believe that’s what a relationship is all about -relying on each other! And how people do this really doesn’t matter, but if you go into a relationship telling yourself you don’t need this person then you’re always going to treat the relationship as disposable. But what do I know I’m just young and naive.

Matthew

 

Dear Matthew,

I’m not sure that this polarization of needing/relying on each other in a marriage versus not needing/relying on each other actually exists in real life. Real relationships almost always contain elements of both, even if they are weighted more to one side or the other. I sometimes pose a question to my readers and clients, “Is it better to be needed or wanted in a relationship?” There isn’t a right or wrong answer. The question is meant to stimulate inquiry.

I’ll share something I’ve observed –
Spouses who don’t rely on each other economically or to fulfill religious or social obligations or gender roles stay together for an altogether different reason: They choose each other. This is an infinitely more complex arrangement, and in many ways it asks more of us.

This assumption of yours is interesting, and I’ve heard it echoed in one way or another many times, mostly from men who seem to be afraid or angry at the changing landscape of relationships “…if you go into a relationship telling yourself you don’t need this person then you’re always going to treat the relationship as disposable.”

Are you certain this is true? Are couples who are not bound together by necessity doomed to failure? Does being free to choose one another guarantee disregard?

Treating a relationship as “disposable” is only one of many possible outcomes in relationships where spouses actively choose each other more than they rely on each other. Consider – I have never once in my counselling practice encountered a person who treated their marriage or their spouse as disposable.

My position on the matter is this –
If disposability is the only imaginable outcome of relationships that are based more on choosing each other rather than needing each other, this is a call for more imagination, not for narrower relationship options.

As for passion, it comes and goes. Sex is one type of passion, and there are others. If dependence on your spouse is your guard against the inevitable ebb and flow of passion, sexual or otherwise, then you are probably in for trouble. If we understand passion as aliveness and engagement with life, then it takes on a new meaning and new importance. If it doesn’t breathe with aliveness and engagement with life, how can a marriage or relationship be anything but dead? (Unless it is sleeping or in deep coma, also possibilities.) Of course different people have different needs for passion (and different expressions of passion) at different times. A “good” marriage or relationship is perhaps one where these differences can be talked about, explored openly, respected, and not automatically used as evidence against each other or against the relationship. (We might even call this com-passion.)

At 21 years old, you’re asking good questions. A certain amount of naivete is appropriate at this age and indicates an open mind. See if you can keep an open mind even as you experience the inevitable relationship trials and tribulations ahead, marriage or no marriage.

Best wishes.

All my best,
Justice

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Growing wings on the way down – How the modern spiritual journey can leave our soul famished

How the modern spiritual journey can leave our soul famishedThe modern spiritual journey

A life crisis can be the thing that sends us on a spiritual journey. Through crisis we may realize that we have become attached to something – a relationship, an identity, even life itself.

Crisis gives us a taste of loss, and thus also a glimpse of liberation; off we go, seeking transcendence – from attachment, from ego, from the bonds of our old life. Up and away we soar, away from the dense matter of worldly stuff, up into the light of pure consciousness.

There is a particular flavour to the modern spiritual journey. It has its own ideology and its own language. It is secular, although tinged with eastern mysticism, and while practiced globally it is quintessentially American with its fierce individualism, emphasis on self-determination, and market-friendly accessorization.

The modern spiritual journey (MSJ) is built on self-empowerment, transformation, and perhaps above all, feeling good. Trouble may arise, but we’re told that it is always, ALWAYS, within our power to choose positive thoughts and transcend (if not transform) any circumstance.

The emphasis on feeling good is, interestingly, completely aligned with the desires of ego. It’s our ego that wants to feel good. And so here we encounter one of the fundamental contradictions that seems to run through the MSJ – we’re supposed to at once transcend the ego, AND use it as our compass.

We run into other problems on the MSJ. It simultaneously asks nothing of us – The universe made you absolutely perfectly. You deserve (and can manifest) anything and everything you desire. Everyone is responsible for their own feelings… And it asks everything of us – You and you alone are entirely responsible for everything you experience.

Consider this quote from a prominent leader of the MSJ –

Everything you do is based on the choices you make. It’s not your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age that is to blame. You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make. Period.

In this view complex family systems, political and social systems (and systems thinking altogether) are all neatly dismissed. Your relationships with people, over time, in various circumstances, your relationship with the world, trauma you have suffered – none of this has any bearing on your choices. None whatsoever. The absolutism is punctuated at the end for effect. “Period.” Discussion over.

Another quote, typical of the MSJ –

You cannot always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.

What an incredible ideal to promulgate! You can control what you feel? Emotions? Desires? Fears? The entire world of inner experience is under your control? And not sometimes. Always. This is zealotry and fundamentalism at its extreme. There’s no curiosity here, no exploration, no “Please experiment, test this statement yourself and discern its truth.” It would be one thing if these kinds of ultimatums were meant (and taken) in the context of metaphor, but they are not. They are, amazingly, pure literalisms.

I’m not arguing against the modern spiritual journey per se. I have practiced it extensively in my own life and supported it in the lives of clients and other people around me. We all have a variety of tasks to attend to throughout our lives, and when our tasks align with developing personal responsibility, dropping negative beliefs, simplifying, letting go, and lightening up in general, the modern spiritual journey can be a valuable path. But like every path it has its shortcomings.

The MSJ seems to ignore certain troubles that come with being a human being. It also creates its own share of troubles, troubles it is inadequate for attending to. Such as – What if you discover that you can’t always control what goes on inside? What then? What if what goes on inside has its own designs for you, beyond your control? This question is not the domain of the MSJ. This sort of question, if we dare ask it, leads us on a somewhat different journey.

The soul journey

We could talk about a soul journey as something distinct from the modern spiritual journey. The soul has its own designs. It’s different from spirit, and different from ego. The soul cares nothing for feeling good. It only insists that you FEEL. The soul isn’t interested in controlling what goes on inside. It’s interested in EXPERIENCING what goes on inside, showering you with it in all its colour and texture.

The soul is not into transformation, transcendence, or the light at the end of the tunnel. It is content in darkness if that is where it finds itself. In fact, if the soul is hanging out in darkness and it feels that you are avoiding it because you don’t want to enter its realm, guess where you might find yourself? You then face a choice. Will you look for affirmations to get you into the light as quickly as possible? Or will you risk exploring the darkness on its own terms? This is what the soul asks, and, I believe, what poet Robert Bly alludes to when he writes “The candle is not lit / To give light, but to testify to the night”. Thomas Moore puts it in clearer terms, “It is precisely because we resist the darkness in ourselves that we miss the depths of the loveliness, beauty, brilliance, creativity, and joy that lie at our core.”

If spirit is lightness, soul is weighty.
If spirit is airy and fresh, soul is earthy and musty.
The spiritual journey asks you to pack lightly; soul collects steamer trunks.

Soul runs deep and is not afraid of getting dirty. If spirit loves a clear and empty mind, soul is a collector of images and meaning. If spirit’s interests are oneness and connection, soul’s interests are in the particulars of what defines you as an individual different from everyone else. If spirit seeks liberation from attachment, soul seeks a deeper exploration of all that we are attached to.

Why does this matter?

The modern spiritual journey is clean-cut and friendly. You can take it to work. As I’ve pointed out above, the modern spiritual journey is aligned in many ways with conventional American culture (positive thinking, self-determination, meritocracy, individualism, sound-bites and meme-length philosophy). The MSJ has also been commodified through books, television, yoga apparel, tea boutiques, sacred vacations, spiritual breakfast cereal, one-minute power meditations and zen everything.

Followed too far, the modern spiritual journey provides a customizable life alternative for those who can afford it. I know people who are so far on the modern spiritual journey that they can not tolerate the slightest conflict or discomfort. Their spirituality has become a kind of compulsion. Everything must be organic. The feng shui must be flawless. Their aura must not be darkened by any negativity… “It’s not bathed in white light, get it away from me!”

The soul journey contradicts the modern spiritual journey, at least in appearance. It can also be the antidote for the MSJ that has reached far enough and become blind obsession. But if we have internalized the ideology of the MSJ, we we may not recognize the soul journey when it comes calling. We may dismiss and resist it as non-spiritual (which it is, sort of). We may starve ourselves of soul in order to be faithful to spirit.

Soul does not care to lift you up, it wants to take you deep

Contrary to popular belief, the soul doesn’t want chicken soup (it doesn’t care about feeling good, it just wants to FEEL). The soul journey may steer you in the opposite direction of the modern spiritual journey. This can be disorienting. The soul is often inappropriate for work. You dress it up nice and it gets drunk and throws up on itself. You tell it I’m in charge of what goes on inside! and it responds with a heart attack and six months of depression.

While the MSJ lets you pick up and leave, soul nails you to the spot. It doesn’t let you go. The soul can be cumbersome and contrary. Passive aggressive. The soul is not “in the moment”. It has TONS of baggage – crates of dusty old family photos that it insists on showing you. No escape. Remember, it cares not for transformation. It knows who you are and holds you to it. This can be really annoying at times – frightening, embarrassing, or deeply fulfilling at others. But again, soul doesn’t exist to make you feel good, or to control or transcend feeling. Soul does not care to lift you up, it wants to take you deep.

In session, I work with clients who are immersed in either their modern spiritual journey of ascension, or their soul journey of deepening, or both. Or neither. It isn’t the terminology that matters. What’s important is feeding the parts of ourselves that are hungry. A hungry soul and a hungry spirit want different nourishment. If we listen, we may get to know the difference.

You may also enjoy reading –
> Is victim a dirty word? On victim blame, victim denial, victim mentality and what the victim archetype can teach us
> The trouble with desire – Why do we fear what we want?
>On disillusionment, failure, and facing your relationship as it really is

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Trauma and counselling – Recognizing trauma and choosing a suitable approach to therapy

Trauma counselling and therapy - suitable approaches
A client came to counselling bracing themselves for what they expected would be a terrifying and awful experience. I was the fourth counsellor she had seen over the period of a few months.

This client was a woman who had been suffering from depression and anxiety following an extended period of abuse. In my office she fidgeted, avoided eye contact and appeared anxious and distressed. She told me she was tormented by something that had happened a few years ago. She had finally sought help, but after one session with her first counsellor she couldn’t bear to go back for a second.

She’d tried other counsellors too but it always ended up more or less the same. They would ask her about the event that was troubling her, she would tell part of the story, the session would end, and she would go home feeling like a wreck. Now she found herself in an impossible bind; her symptoms were getting worse but she was increasingly afraid to get help.

Conventional psychotherapy may label a client who balks at telling their story “resistant”. In Hakomi (and in my practice) client resistance is acknowledged as a valid aspect of self. Hakomi therapists use methods that support and validate a person’s intuitive, natural, strategic defensiveness. Paradoxically, by supporting the defenses, the nervous system may relax and ultimately doors may be opened.

Being with this woman in my office, I could practically feel her nervous system reaching out and clawing at me in desperation. I focused on moderating my own nervous system as we began our first session. (Our human nervous systems, like those of other mammals, are constantly, silently communicating with each other.) I explained that I would not be pushing her for any details around painful life events. In fact, I assured her that I didn’t need to hear the story of her abuse to help her.

Everything I was sensing from this person, from her story to her body language, hinted at trauma. Here’s a useful definition of psychological trauma –

Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions, in which the individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity.
(source sidran.org)

My trauma counselling approach is in some ways different from my other treatment methods. Without a suitable map for working with trauma, it’s easy to inadvertently re-trigger a traumatic response in someone and cause harm. This is true for counsellors and therapists, but also for doctors and medical professionals, teachers and educators, even parents and spouses.

This woman in my office had been repeatedly re-traumatized by helping professionals who either didn’t recognize trauma, or didn’t have a sufficient map for working with it.

(Note – Post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is the current label used to describe a lingering state of shock that humans have experienced in various forms for a very long time. PTSD is a politically charged and problematic diagnostic term, and one that I use sparingly.)

Traumatic life events are generally experienced in one of two ways –

  1. The event is experienced and then integrated over time until it takes an appropriate place in our memories, or
  2. The event is experienced but then continues to haunt us with a variety of persistent mental, emotional and physiological symptoms.

In the first case, when we talk about a traumatic event from the past it feels like it happened in the past. It has taken its rightful place in the past and although it may trigger painful memories we do not feel our safety threatened in the present moment.

In the second case, talking about a traumatic event from the past may trigger extreme distress in the present moment. We may feel, against all rationality, that the event is happening again or may happen any moment. We may understand logically that this is not true but our nervous system is in fight or flight (or freeze) mode.

When past traumatic experiences get triggered, we might become panicked. We might perspire, tremble, clench. We might feel rage or despair. We might freeze, go numb or dissociate.

As you can see, trauma can trigger a lot of different symptoms. What they have in common is immediacy and a sense of disproportion. We might be confused to see someone get so triggered or so shut down by just a few words or a sound or some other small cue.

It’s important to understand that the post-traumatic response is much more visceral than it is logical. It’s a body experience more than a head experience. Feeling more than thinking. When someone is panicked or dissociated it is very hard to get through to them with reason. Trauma therapy that works directly with the body rather than entirely cognitively, or that engages reason in slow, small steps can be effective.

By instructing someone to tell the story of their traumatic event we may be setting them up for re-traumatization, as happened with the client mentioned above. If we understand something of the nature of trauma, and learn to recognize its signs, we can better support people who are struggling with its lingering effects.

Pacing is critically important when working with trauma. There is a window of tolerance that must be carefully observed. Go too fast, push too hard, and a traumatized person can quickly go into hyper-arousal or dissociative states. Nothing useful happens in these states.

Here are some signs that a trauma response may be activated in a person –

  • Trembling, clenching, flushing of skin
  • Darting or wide eyes
  • Swallowing, fidgeting
  • Shallow breathing, minimal movement, “freezing”
  • Far away sounding voice, avoidance, sense of not being present
  • Rage, aggression or terror

If you suspect that a trauma response is activated, it’s best to slow down whatever process you’re engaged in. Back off the hot topic. De-escalate any conflict or stress. Simplify your language. Show support and caring with words and body language. Attend directly to the nervous system activation that is happening in the moment. This is vitally important.

As my sessions with this particular client continued, she slowly revealed details of her ordeal. It isn’t that she didn’t want to tell her story – on some level she wanted desperately to talk about what happened. But every time she did it made matters worse. By parsing out the details at a pace that was manageable for her, and by attending to her nervous system directly at every step, and by working relationally and building trust, I was able to help this woman get some relief from her symptoms.

Telling her story – to me and to key people in her life – was actually an important step for regaining perspective, moderating nervous system arousal, and healing the sense of alienation she experienced. But she had to build up to it slowly. Only by understanding the effects of trauma and having a map to navigate it in therapy could I work with her in a truly helpful way.

Trauma is complex, and there are many approaches to working with it. Understanding and treating trauma requires training, study and practice. I use somatic processing rooted in mindfulness and Hakomi principles. This allows me to gently work with the trauma that is locked in the body, without forcing clients into potential overwhelm or retraumatization.

To learn more about trauma, PTSD and treatment I recommend Peter Levine’s books –
Waking the Tiger – Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences
In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness

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The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 3)

Conflict in relationships 2

Over the past two weeks we’ve looked at how two couples, Chris and Stephanie, Leila and Franz, reflexively use “conflict loops” to cover up deeper issues and temporarily provide functionality to relationships that threaten to collapse.

Today we look at what is risked and what is asked of us as we grow through these patterns.

I take the position that we are brilliantly complex and resourceful creatures who grow and strategize with and without the benefit of conscious awareness. In other words, our conflict loops can be a kind of training ground where we build resourcefulness and capacity for facing the truth of our lives. The conflict loop in a relationship continues, below awareness, until we’re ready to see it and to face the task that it asks of us.

Imagine building a scaffold for years in your unconscious. This scaffold is made to support the weight of an as yet unknown truth about your life, about who you are or who you are meant to become. Eventually this scaffold reaches up and out of your unconscious and into the light of day. You look down with amazement at this incredible support you’ve “unknowingly” been building for yourself. Our relationships, including the challenges, are part of this.

Here’s the crucial part to understand –

Recognizing our role in the relationship system, and then changing it, is inherently risky. It is likely to break the relationship, at least temporarily, and there is no guarantee it will be put together again. We feel the risk of this at some level even if we don’t quite acknowledge it, and so we continue the cycle until until we’ve built enough depth of character, enough resilience, enough maturity to risk breakage.

Until we’re ready to confront our own dark fears (and desires) in relationship, we will continue to feel “stuck” in our own particular conflict loops.

People may come to counselling when they are ready to risk breaking the relationship… “I’m at the end of my rope. I’ve tried everything.” As Anais Nin puts it “…the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  What Anais Nin doesn’t say is that we can not know what blossoming will look like until we have risked breaking.

The breaking that we risk likely goes far deeper than the hot-button issue we face in our relationship. We end up facing patterns of avoidance, bullying tendencies, self-esteem issues or whichever life themes we’ve grown up with. Breaking our relationship system is one way to bring us to the heart of the most definitive themes in our lives. This is why the tension we feel as we simultaneously grow toward blossoming and feel the pain of breakage is so significant. Much is at stake.

In some cases entire life strategies may be crumbling. In this regard we face an initiation, a new beginning born from an impending ending. No wonder we remain stuck for so long – A huge amount of ripening and preparation is going on beneath the surface.

Even as you work to support your own awareness and insight through reading, self study, therapy etc, consider that this ripening has a life and intelligence of its own. Supporting our own ripening means being present to the tension without necessarily struggling to resolve it. Pushing for resolution too quickly can easily dig us more deeply into more conflict, more confusion. The insights we seek often reveal themselves to us only after we have exhausted ourselves. Part of our exhaustion comes from seeking answers, part comes from defending the position we’ve come to depend on. This is yet another face of that tension between blossoming and breaking.

This is difficult territory to navigate. In this short series we’ve looked through the lens of relationship systems, getting some insight into the functions that conflict provides. Let the stories of the couples in these articles sit with you. See if you can feel the tension these couples feel. Notice what the tension of your own blossoming and breaking feels like. Is there any sense of initiation in the feelings? What have you been protecting? What have you been unwilling to risk? Honesty? Feeling too much? Loss? Being wrong? Desire? Grief?

What wants to blossom –
Responsibility? Truth? Integrity? Surrender? Something else?

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The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 2)

Conflict in relationships 2

Last week we learned how Chris and Stephanie used their conflict loop to (temporarily) protect their relationship and avoid facing their deeper issues.

Franz and Leila have a different but similar loop.
Here’s what became apparent in our sessions –

Leila is plagued with anxiety. She constantly feels an inner struggle between her rational self and her emotional self. (This struggle is painful, but I believe critically important.)

As Leila struggles with her own internal dilemma, Franz steps in and gives voice to one side of Leila’s struggle. The rational side. Franz is in the habit of representing the rational side of every issue.

Watch what happens next –

The moment that Franz embodies the rational voice of Leila’s internal struggle, she gets some relief from her own dilemma. Suddenly Leila no longer has an internal struggle. She has an external struggle, and an enemy in Franz. Turning against Franz feels bad, but not as bad as endlessly turning against her self.

An example –
Leila works full time at a very stressful job and feels guilty about not spending enough time with their infant son. Their current childcare is not sustainable. Leila is thinking about preschool, but has mixed feelings. She struggles with her familiar internal dilemma. Franz sees her struggle and steps in with his own opinion, which is always the rational point of view.

“Think about it Leila, preschool is the only logical solution.”

Leila reflexively snaps at Franz and accuses him of being cold. The internal struggle that Leila was facing has now been externalized, and Leila no longer has to feel her dilemma. She can now project the criticism that she had for herself out onto Franz. This is their loop. It’s incredibly functional.

Franz, for his part, gets to be the logical one, which is important for his identity. He manages to continue avoiding feeling too much, a holdover from a strategy he learned early on in his family life. He also plays the unlikely role of rescuer for Leila, temporarily saving her from the endless conflict she faces in herself, and from the anxiety this inner conflict creates in her.

Franz is essentially fearful that Leila cannot handle her internal turmoil, that she might crack, and so he rescues her from herself. The resulting relationship conflict is painful, but apparently preferable to the fear of watching Leila implode.

At some level Leila is aware of the role Franz plays. If Franz waits too long to step in, her internal anxiety becomes unmanageable and she baits him with “What do you think?”. And the pattern plays out again. Functional.

As long as Franz takes on the voice of reason, Leila is spared the task of confronting her own dilemmas. Coming to terms with contradictory impulses, values, and desires is an important task we all face. But it’s hard work that we unconsciously protect ourselves from doing until we’re ready.

In session, I explain that Franz’s task in this case is to hold back on offering his opinion to create some space where Leila can wrestle with her own struggles. I assure them I am not asking Franz to withdraw. On the contrary, I want him to be exquisitely present, to slow down the process enough that he can pinpoint the moment where he gives in to his own anxiety and responds habitually. From that precise point, new possibilities emerge.

Leila and Franz were initially intimidated by the implications of these insights, which isn’t surprising, given the enormous function that their conflict loop has been fulfilling, but they’ve been willing to stretch themselves and experiment with what they’ve learned.

Next week we’ll tie the pieces together and look at what is risked, and what is required, to change these deeply embedded patterns and open a new chapter of relationship.

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The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 1)

It was deja-vu. Chris and Stephanie were arguing about dishes. Again. Her tolerance for a messy house was lower than ever since the baby came. His tolerance for being nagged or pushed was just as low. And so they bickered in circles. Tempers flared, ultimatums were declared and a familiar pattern played out until they both collapsed, each feeling isolated and exhausted. The whole thing would likely repeat tomorrow.

Repeating painful relationship patterns hurts. It makes us feel broken, hopeless. We wonder – Isn’t life hard enough with kids, dirty laundry, sexual frustration and work stress? What’s wrong with us? Why are we so dysfunctional?!

I’ve come to believe that our familiar patterns of conflict, far from being dysfunctional, actually have crucial functions to fulfill in the relationship, at least for a time.

After a few sessions with Stephanie and Chris, a pattern emerged –

Stephanie would launch into a complaint or grievance. Then before she could finish her thought, Chris would interrupt her and begin playing devil’s advocate, analyzing and reframing her experience. Specifically, he would emphasize their accomplishments or goals, putting a positive spin on the issue, or defending his actions –

“Yes, yes, yes, but you have to agree that we’ve gotten better.”

Every time? Really? Don’t you think that’s a bit of an exaggeration? Just the other day you said…”

Again and again Chris would hijack Stephanie’s thought mid-sentence. Even though we were working on the phone, I began to viscerally feel his anxiety and his need to manage (and effectively minimize) her experience. There was a sense of constant interruption, not just of the conversation, but of a deeper process that was trying to happen.

Stephanie and Chris were repeating their loop of criticism and defensiveness because it allowed each of them to avoid this deeper process for a little longer.

As we continued counselling it became clear that Stephanie was being confronted with the possibility that her husband would never meet her expectations. With a young child to raise, this was a terrifying prospect. Chris was being confronted with the flipside – The possibility that Stephanie would leave because he did not fulfill her expectations. “Not good enough” was the story of his childhood and the shadow that he avoided in his adult life.

These two underlying issues were creating enormous anxiety in each of them. Their conflict loop would allow them to discharge enough of this anxiety to remain relatively functional while continuing to avoid confronting their core issue.

Stephanie would focus on Chris’s minor daily infractions rather than addressing her own serious doubt about the relationship (facing the depth of her doubt might ultimately require her to make the difficult choice to either end the relationship or learn to accept Chris as he is – equally unappealing options). Chris would deflect and minimize Stephanie’s criticisms because he could intuit where they were potentially headed… ie – to his ultimate rejection and termination as partner. Chris had plenty of motivation to interrupt this process at every opportunity! Stephanie and Chris would unconsciously collude in seemingly pointless bickering so they could each avoid facing these most difficult aspects of their lives together.

Many couples find themselves stuck in conflict loops with similar functions – to avoid the deeper process that is lurking underneath. (By the way, I don’t pretend to always know what this deeper process is, or where it will lead. I only know that it wants attention.)

Next week we’ll look at the experience of Franz and Leila, another couple playing out relationship conflict with a surprising function.
Then in week three we’ll tie the pieces together and look more deeply at what is risked, and what is required to change these “functional” conflict patterns.

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The trouble with desire – Why do we fear what we want?

The trouble with desire

Photo by Sudheendra Kadri | Dreamstime Photos

Desire is instinctual. It lives deep in our animal selves. Desire wants what it wants, without rationale, often without full awareness.

Freedom. Pleasure. Rest. Nourishment. These are just a few names for our desire. Desire lives at our core. It can appear abstract and complex through the filters of reason and language, but when followed to its source it is made of basic stuff.

Desire is old. Desire, presumably, was around before words. It is pre-verbal. Perhaps that is why we sometimes have difficulty explaining precisely what we want.

In a baby or young child we see desire in its raw form. Shameless wanting. Shameless demands. Shameless pursuit of desire fulfillment. Shameless satisfaction. As civilized adults we tolerate this shamelessness for a short time and then we begin the work of socialization, which includes organizing desires into boxes labelled “good” and “bad”. As children we internalize these judgements.

Religious, political, family, community and economic ideologies provide us with sanctioned avenues for pursuing approved desires. Other desires we are expected to deny ourselves altogether. Most of us wrestle throughout our lives with the desires we’ve denied ourselves in order to fit into the “good” box and to be accepted in our family and community.

One of the primary tools we use against desire, our own and others’, is reason. When our wanting makes us uncomfortable we try to convince ourselves to stop wanting what we want.

We live in an age of reason and we tend to think of reason as our saviour from the dark ages of superstition. This may be, but reason can also be the murderer of important aspects of ourselves. The opposite of reason is not just superstition or un-reason. On the flipside of reason is also feeling, and feeling is where desire lives.

Nestled beneath our cerebral cortex (the relatively new and exclusively human part of our brain) is an older part that we share with other mammals. This deeper part of the brain is sometimes called the mammalian or limbic brain. As the conduit for empathy and emotion it connects us to others. It is, by definition, unreasonable. Two fundamental parts of our human selves, rational and emotional, are represented by these two parts of our brain. These two parts, both intrinsic to the human experience, do not always communicate well with each other. Feeling is unreasonable. Reason is unfeeling.

Wanting what we believe we should not have, head and heart find themselves at war. The self is turned against the self. This is such a common occurrence that we consider it a normal part of being human. More accurately, this is such a common occurrence that we tend not to consider it at all. This war against the self may be expressed as drug and alcohol abuse, addictive behaviour, depression, anxiety, even violence and self-harm.

Client couples often arrive in my office with each vigorously representing one or the other of these twin aspects of self – head and heart. The internal split has been projected out onto the relationship with one person taking a stand for reason, the other embodying feeling. In heterosexual couples it is most often the man who takes the position of reason, and the woman who champions emotion (but not always – sometimes it is reversed) –

“She’s unreasonable.”
“He doesn’t care about my feelings.”

As each projects either cold reason or emotional chaos onto the other, neither gets the opportunity to confront (and integrate) the same in their self.

Desire frightens us because it contradicts the ideas we have about our lives, each other and the world. We like to believe that reason is king, and all else its subjects. The logic of reason demands dominion over feeling and so also over desire. In the age of reason, desire is expected to conform to the shape of the intellect. The reasoning part of our brain, of our humanity, wants to understand desire in reasonable terms before acknowledging its legitimacy. This precludes letting ourselves actually experience the desire that is present, however dormant and boxed in.

Paradoxically, we reject desire that we don’t understand, but we don’t let ourselves experience desire fully enough to understand it.

Understanding comes from observation, and observation requires proximity. When we dismiss our desire as bad or unacceptable, we never get close enough to observe it, to feel it and thus to receive its message.

Putting words to desire helps bridge the complex and frustrating gap between feeling and thinking. Language supports the understanding of feeling and, obviously, its communication between human beings. But we must risk getting close to desire if we are to know it well enough to name it. Even acknowledging our desire is, in many instances, deeply taboo. For this reason we keep it hidden, from ourselves even, until we have built enough resource and courage to face the truth of our wanting.

The counselling or therapy process often includes an unearthing of our own awareness around our own desire.

The client/therapist relationship creates a container where it is safe to allow the presence of desire, sexual or otherwise, without the risk of judgement or condemnation. In this space desire can be felt fully without an expectation or requirement to necessarily act upon it. By allowing ourselves to simply get close to our desire through fantasy, visualization, and feeling we can begin to develop a personal relationship with it. With practice, we may see it in its most basic form, free from distortion. Only then can we hope to measure our desire against our internal guiding principles and then choose actions that are truly discerning and wise. Only when we have a direct relationship with our desire can we represent ourselves accurately and negotiate effectively with others to get our needs and wants met.

Recommended books –
Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life – Insights from Buddhism and Psychotherapy – Mark Epstein
Intuition: Knowing Beyond Logic – Osho

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Is victim a dirty word? On victim blame, victim denial, victim mentality and what the victim archetype can teach us.

Is victim a dirty word?Have you noticed that it has become fashionable in personal growth and self-help circles to believe that no one is a victim of anything, ever? Virtually every day I see some book title, workshop or facebook meme that essentially tells me that victim is a bad word. Not because it’s wrong to harm or victimize others, but because it has become shameful to let any life circumstance stand in the way of you getting what you want. Victim has become synonymous with loser, dupe, sucker, chump.

One implication of this position is that perpetrators, tyrants, bullies, and abusers (even industrial accidents and natural disasters!) apparently no longer exist or hold any power in this magical world of total self-determination where “no one can make you feel anything” and where “we create our own reality”.

Perhaps most troubling is that the blanket denial of victim-hood brings with it a general denial of wounding. To deny our wounds is to rob us of a primary source of wisdom and depth. If we fail to acknowledge the wounds inflicted upon us, we may never get around to examining them, and we we may never allow ourselves the experience of grief, of anger, of tenderness, of humility – experiences that ultimately forge our character and connect us to each other in incomparable and crucial ways.

Victim-hood can be seen as a human archetype. Archetypes are universal aspects of ourselves; universal because we can be certain we share them with other human beings. In other words, we all have an inner victim, whether we like it or not. Our inner victim provides us with practice in the areas of receiving, of surrender, of smallness, weakness, tenderness and vulnerability. On the other end of the archetypal spectrum, we all have an inner warrior. Our culture places high value on the warrior, while shunning the victim. We much prefer to see ourselves as strong, powerful, courageous.

If our inner victim represents vulnerability, our inner warrior represents strength. Both victim and warrior – vulnerability and strength – have expressions ranging from immature to mature. Our inner victim ultimately needs the strength of the inner warrior to mature (vulnerability, then strength). Our inner warrior ultimately needs the vulnerability of the inner victim in order to mature (strength, then vulnerability). In this way the polar energies of victim and warrior are paradoxically aligned. (As a sidenote, this paradox can sometimes be seen in the couples I work with in therapy. One person is expressing the victim archetype and the other is expressing the warrior archetype. Each simultaneously needs/fears/rejects/desires what the other represents. But wait, when the right cues are triggered the roles switch… No wonder relationships feel complicated!)

We will all identify with different archetypes at different points in our journey, and if there is a goal in this journey perhaps it is to grow through each one without concretizing it into a rigid permanent identity. It is our task to KNOW each archetypal aspect without getting locked into BEING any single one.

Be humble for you are made of earth. Be noble for you are made of stars. ~ Serbian proverb

Honouring weakness, smallness, woundedness and vulnerability in ourselves and in others can be uncomfortable for those who are currently growing into their warrior archetype. The warrior fears the weakness of the victim (“It may be contagious!”). And so the immature warrior, or “pseudo-warrior”, exploits or dismisses the weak. On the other hand, the mature warrior, the warrior who has learned to honour their own inner victim, protects and supports the weak. The mature warrior may choose to create a protective space for the victim to attend to the task at hand, simultaneously supporting the victim’s journey, and also the warrior’s own journey. This is difficult work.

When we condemn the victim in others, we can be sure there are “victim tasks” remaining undone in ourselves. When we sneer at victim-hood we reveal our own neglected work in the victim realm. If we attend to our own victim tasks, we will have patience and understanding and support for others when they are faced with theirs.

We are not victims merely of our own thinking, as new age gurus would have us believe. We are also victims of unjust social and economic systems. We are victims of war and hurricanes, car accidents and cancer. We are victims of family abuse and neglect. Acknowledging victim-hood where it exists challenges a culture that essentially preaches meritocracy – we get what we deserve. If we allow the idea of victim-hood, we allow the possibility that injustice exists, and that it causes harm. This crosses into political and cultural territory, a place that inward focussed self-helpers and even therapists seem reluctant to go. It also crosses into the realm of chaos, where bad things happen to good people.

I’m reminded now of a popular term, “victim mentality”. Dismissing victim-hood as a simple error in perspective attempts to provide a tidy solution to the problem of bad things happening to good people. I get the appeal, and I have been seduced by it at times. It’s easy for me to believe that behind the victim denial trend is, at least partly, a well-meaning desire to help people get unstuck, to push them along in a culturally predictable pseudo-warrior “I-did-it-you-can-do-it-hurry-up-and-get-over-it” kind of way. But I’ve come to suspect that it often has the opposite effect. By denying victim-hood altogether, and by abandoning the complex and uncomfortable tasks that the victim archetype asks of us, victim-hood is never allowed to mature, to complete and give way to whatever wants to come next. We collude in our own stuckness.

This collusion is at least partially conscious. Our suspension of disbelief only goes so deep. I recall being at a personal growth workshop where we were dutifully doing some kind of “re-framing” exercises around traumatic life events. At the break, one of the participants told me flatly that these types of workshops are routine for her – There’s a lot of talk of transformation, a lot of shows of deep significance, and a general going through the motions. Then she goes home to reality. She knew I was a therapist and so asked me, how does real change happen? How do we truly get past our victim selves, not just pretend with affirmations and bolster ourselves with self-help jargon?

I didn’t know exactly what to tell her then (“Quick, what’s the key to transformation?”) and I’m not sure I would know exactly what to tell her now. But I think I might say something about our willingness to feel what we feel. To stop pretending that we’re more powerful, or weak, than we are. To take a break from striving to be different and better. To settle more deeply into our experience of ourselves, others, and the world. To go through what we’re going through and to stop looking for shortcuts, for a way around. To question the cultural assumptions we have internalized. To be curious about our experience rather than hell bent on fixing or changing it. To acknowledge the presence and contributions of those who have come before and those who will follow.

We’ll end with a paradox – By rejecting victim-hood, we risk never getting the chance to fulfill the tasks like surrender, vulnerability and compassion that it requires of us. By identifying too strongly with victim-hood we risk concretizing the victim experience. But don’t worry too much about these things. Neither are permanent, or a problem to be solved. Life will provide plenty of opportunities for motion in both directions – toward integrating the victim, and the warrior – whether we like it or not. We need but remain present to the life we live, which is often the most difficult task of all, for victim and warrior alike.

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“Mating in Captivity – Have you read it?”

A reader asks Have you read Esther Perel’s book Mating in Captivity?

Dear Justice,

I really like the articles you share on your facebook page and on your website. I’m wondering if you have read the book Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel and if so, what do you think of it?

Mating-In-CaptivityMy response –

Esther Perel’s book Mating in Captivity has been recommended to me often enough that I picked up a copy recently and gave it a speed read. Here are my initial thoughts –

Perel’s observations and experiences mostly match my own, professionally and personally. Early in the book Perel gives nods to both David Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage and Mark Epstein’s lesser known and wonderful book Open To Desire. Her influences are my influences, and so I quickly felt resonance.

I appreciate how she respects the tension between the two poles of desire that commonly define relationships – the desire for security/safety and the desire for excitement/freedom. Rather than offer some easy solution to this dilemma, she invites the reader to sit in the uncomfortable paradox of wanting two seemingly contradictory experiences. This feels like a wise and respectful approach, and one that I employ in my own practice.

Her legitimization of the underlying impulses that drive extra-marital affairs, namely the desire for “aliveness”, will certainly be mistaken for advocacy by those who can’t discern between descriptive and prescriptive voices. Likewise, her willingness to explore kink/bdsm without pathologizing it, and to explore eroticism outside the marriage unit, including consensual non-monogamy, will likely confuse or offend those with fundamentalist ideologies.

Perel gives voice to the elephants in the room. Her truths suddenly seem obvious upon reading, and one wonders how they escaped recognition until now. (The answer likely has to do with the power of taboo and with our unexamined assumptions about sex and love.)

Mating in Captivity acknowledges traditional gender roles and the ways they have shaped our beliefs about marriage and relationship, while offering thoroughly realistic current assessments of how these roles are becoming fluid matters of choice rather than matters of inherited social convention.

Perel’s cross-cultural (and sub-cultural) points of view challenge core American beliefs about the nature of romance, marriage, and intimacy; beliefs that couples therapy as an institution has, itself, largely internalized. For example, you’ll find nothing about “emotional cheating” in this book. In fact, acknowledging and working with the presence of “the third” (whether real, metaphorical or fantasy) is presented as a valuable erotic tool for couples.

In a cultural environment where marriage is expected to become an increasingly serious, responsible, secure and, frankly, non-erotic venture, intentionally nurturing eroticism in the home becomes, as Perel puts it, “an open act of defiance.” Accordingly, Mating in Captivity speaks to those who have a defiant streak.

I’m grateful for the author’s contribution, and the book has earned a place on my shelf alongside Sex at Dawn and the aforementioned Passionate Marriage. For readers struggling with affairs, the loss of eroticism, waning desire, sexual shame, disconnection or other common relationship issues, Mating In Captivity will be a beacon of illumination and hope, while also posing significant challenges to the ways we are accustomed to thinking about fidelity, love, sex and marriage.

All My Best,
Justice

 

 

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“Why is it that men are always responsible for what women do or think? Do women have any responsibility to correct their own misbehavior?”

Why is it that men are always responsible for what women do or think? Do women have any responsibility to correct their own misbehavior?

A male reader asks about women’s responsibility in marriage –

I just finished reading your article on “Why women leave men they love”, and I have a major question. Why is it that men are always responsible for what women do or think? Do women have any responsibility to correct their own misbehavior?

I raise some ancillary questions. Why are most women incapable of recognizing their own failures? Whatever happened to women accepting their responsibilities? Whatever happened to “for better or worse,” or “forsaking all others,” or “in sickness and in health”? Women seem to have a very difficult time with loyalty or fidelity. It seems to me that a major element in their makeup is narcissism. Is there, anymore, any moral dimension or constraint that married women accept with regard to marriage?

It will be interesting to read what a post-modern marriage counselor has to say.

Thank you!

My response –

The content of your letter appears to be founded on certain beliefs. I hear these beliefs as something like this – “Lifelong marriage as an institution is intrinsically right and natural. Remaining married in spite of changes in circumstances and personal values is the goal and the moral imperative. People who can not or do not remain married despite their unhappiness in marriage are flawed. These people are mostly women.”

While I do not personally share these beliefs, as a counsellor I am accustomed to working effectively and compassionately within a variety of belief systems.

The term “post-modern” implies a deconstruction of meaning, and aptly describes the state of marriage and relationships for many men and women today. Not long ago we remained bound to social structures that dictated the terms of marriage and relationships. Today many people are re-assessing these institutions, along with the “moral dimension or constraint” that you ask about.

Women especially have been deconstructing their roles and exercising the new choices they have in post-modern relationships. I’m not at all convinced that women cheat more than men, although perhaps the double standard on fidelity is crumbling and so women are becoming more free to do what has previously been a male privilege.

As for recognizing one’s failures, this appears to be difficult for many of us, men and women alike; perhaps because the social, family, or internal consequence of failing has been so punitive. It requires a certain kind of maturity to confront our own failure. This maturity, for men and for women, is mostly discouraged in our culture. The very notion of failure (and success) is rooted in a system that rewards winners, punishes losers and fails to see the value of those experiences unconcerned with either.

In my practice I see many women and men struggling to preserve a marriage in challenging times because they value it, and each other, to the depths of their soul. I also see women and men make themselves literally sick or insane from the misery of staying in a marriage that they don’t want, that they have rejected but cling to for a variety of reasons. But mostly I see women and men trying to make sense of themselves and each other in a world where old rules no longer fully apply.

Many men are hurt and confused as women challenge conventional views of manhood, womanhood, family, marriage, sex and relationships. I get numerous messages from men that essentially say some version of this – “I work at a job I hate to provide for my family. I’m loyal. I make sacrifices. My wife has a duty to loyalty and sacrifice as well.” And so there is rage and bewilderment when a wife chooses loyalty to herself and leaves a marriage rather than continuing to sacrifice according to terms set by others.

If men are feeling comfortable and secure (or just sufficiently trapped) in their own dutiful sacrificial role, then they are probably going to forgo taking the life journey that may be calling. This causes additional stress, internal conflict and resentment. These men will see women who choose to take their own journey at the cost of their marriage as narcissistic and irresponsible.

It’s up to each of us to determine what sacrifice means, its role in our lives, and what an acceptable level of sacrifice might be. Sacrifice can be an important task that calls us to develop maturity, and it can be a tool of oppression that we use to crush ourselves and each other. My job is to help people discern these differences for themselves.

As a “post-modern counsellor” (I actually endeavour to be a post post-modern counsellor, that is I’m interested in bringing meaning back where it has been deconstructed and building appropriate structures rather than just tearing them down) I help people find suitable meaning in life experiences in a world that has been, with mixed results, largely stripped of meaning.

If I took for granted the “naturalness” and moral superiority of conventional marriage, with its views on fidelity, loyalty and responsibility I would impart this bias into my client relationships, which is precisely what many marriage counsellors do.

Who am I to say that someone is bound to remain in relationship with someone else for their entire life because they made an extreme but socially encouraged pact when they were twenty years old? Come to think of it, where else do we find such contracts in our culture? Where else do we say “No matter what happens for the rest of your life, you are bound to this agreement that restricts who you love, who you have sex with and virtually every other aspect of your life.” Even the most extreme business arrangements typically have a renegotiation clause, or some mechanism to ensure ongoing mutual benefit.

Whatever the benefits of toughing it out through an agreement we made two or twenty or fifty years ago – and there are many – there can also be benefits to changing or ending the agreement. When a woman comes to counselling and says “My marriage is a misery. I want to change it but my husband refuses to even discuss our relationship with me. We haven’t had sex in six years and he won’t talk about it. I don’t want to die without being held again…” shall I remind her of the vows she made twenty-five years ago and give her a pep talk on loyalty and fidelity? Do I know better than she about her experience? Does marriage?

Perhaps we’re being called to rethink this institution of marriage that we’ve inherited. I recently met someone who agreed to a five year marriage with a renewal option. They’ve been going for twenty and are now adding some unconventional clauses.

Thanks for responding to my article and for asking the questions that are on your mind. We live in a world of vast choices and infinite paradox. I lay no claim to “the truth” in all this, but I’m committed to exploring these complex topics.

All My Best,
Justice

Suggested books –
King, Warrior, Magician, Lover – Robert Moore
The Hero Within – Carol Pearson
Sex at Dawn – Christopher Ryan

Also read –
The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 1)

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Anxiety relief without medication – A three step mindfulness based approach to managing an activated nervous system

Anxiety relief without medication - Mindfulness based managementPerspectives on anxiety – “Please rescue me from this feeling”

All of life, family, community and relationships can be understood, in a sense, as an unconscious exercise in releasing ourselves from the anxiety of being a human being.

The anxiety of not being good enough, of past hurts and traumas, of not being known and loved for who we are, and of knowing that we – along with everyone we love – will one day die is a powerful, often invisible force driving us as individuals, and also shaping our social structures and agreements, both explicit and implicit.

“Please rescue me from this feeling” we plead in a thousand ways to spouses, bosses, employees, cheeseburgers, pornography, facebook, yoga, and television. We may recognize the insanity of certain actions – repeating abusive relationship cycles, poisoning ourselves with cigarettes, checking facebook a hundred times each day – but the underlying anxiety driving our actions remains unseen, residing deep inside our own bodies – our nervous systems most specifically.

If only the kitchen was clean, if only I had another beer, if only they listened to me, if only my team would win, if only we had more sex, if only I had more money, if only people weren’t so stupid, if only we had a holiday. The source of our anxiety always appears to be “out there” somewhere. So that’s where we focus, out there. Then we come to realize – That cigarette didn’t satisfy. My new car is already feeling old. Yoga hasn’t made me a new person. Nothing my partner says makes me feel better.

Trying to change ourselves and other people and the world is valid and reasonable and perhaps intrinsically human, but it doesn’t address the core anxiety that tortures each of us from the inside out. Whatever actions we take in the world will be more effective, more direct, and more healthy when we are also addressing the anxiety that lives inside us. So how do we do that?

First, notice your anxiety

Once you consider that your anxiety might be rooted inside you, not in other people and circumstances (no matter how it got there originally or how legitimate your grievances might be), you might assume that it’s in your mind, a head thing, something that comes from thoughts and beliefs, and so you try to change your thinking. That’s fine, but anyone who’s tried to talk themselves out of a feeling knows the struggle that can bring. The experience of anxiety often includes thoughts, but its roots are deep in your nervous system, in your body, out of reach of intellect and reason.

If you want to know your anxiety first-hand (and you do – it’s how you get loose of its grip), notice what it feels like in your body. Anxiety is a body sensation that happens when your nervous system gets activated. Your spouse nags or yells and you feel your throat tighten. That’s anxiety. Your kid slams the door and your face gets hot. That’s anxiety. Notice it. Notice it simply as a sensation in your body. Name it, internally or out loud. “Throat tight.” “Face hot.”

Now stay with it

Throat tight? Stay with that sensation. Face hot? Stay with that sensation. Feel your anxiety wherever it shows up in your body. Do this slowly, with curiosity and awareness. Unless your safety is actually being threatened in this moment, nothing needs to be done. If judgement or internal dialogue appears, notice it, but come back to the body sensation. Stay with it. Stay with it because you want to fully know it. Uncomfortable? Part of what we’re doing here is building our capacity for that discomfort. It’s like exercising a muscle. It gets stronger with the right kind of use. In this case, the right kind of use is to stay with the body sensations triggered by an activated nervous system. Think of it as physiotherapy for the nervous system. Be curious about the pure sensations, without jumping to interpretation, meaning or conclusions. If you find yourself in your head, problem solving or assigning blame etc, gently come back to the body sensation.

The normal tendency is for an activated nervous system to immediately trigger a reaction (ie – fight or flight). We move so quickly to action that we miss the actual sensation, the in-body experience of nervous system arousal. Slow the process down and notice it directly. Stay with the sensations.

An activated nervous system can be extremely uncomfortable. We instinctively want to be rid of this discomfort. This is why we reflexively lash out, shut down or distract ourselves. I’m asking you to practice not doing these things. Instead, simply notice the feeling of an activated nervous system, of anxiety, and stay with it, without doing anything about it, without trying to get relief. It’s hard, but it won’t kill you. Don’t move to step three until you’re intimate with the feeling, with the direct sensation.

Next, attend to it

Once you get used to what anxiety feels like in your body, once you can name the sensations an activated nervous system triggers (“Throat tight.” “Face hot.”) you can start attending to it. But don’t rush to this step. It’s important to build some capacity for discomfort before doing anything about it. Slowing down is key.

When you feel ready, start relaxing your nervous system directly using conscious breathing. Throat tight? Breathe. Feel yourself sending relaxing, nourishing, healing breath to your throat. Face hot? Breathe. Send relaxing, nourishing, healing breath to your face. Breathe into the places that are tight, contracted, or fired up. Also, notice if you have an impulse toward movement. Perhaps your hands want to cradle your face or stroke your throat. Perhaps your hand floats to your chest. Go ahead and follow those impulses.

There’s nothing fancy about this. Don’t worry about doing it just right. What’s important is slowing down, breathing, and feeling the sensations directly – without flying into reaction, decision making or problem solving. If there are thoughts, just notice them. Then come back to the sensations and soothe yourself with breath and touch. This practice can be quite profound. Tears are not uncommon. Rage and other strong emotions can also show up.

If you stay with the sensations of anxiety directly, tension eventually tends to soften, and then the mental chatter and negative thoughts also calm down. You’re practicing having an experience and noticing it at the same time. This awareness practice, sometimes called mindfulness, gets us out of the “loops” in our head. From here, new possibilities can emerge.

Recap – Managing anxiety in three steps

    1. Notice what anxiety feels like in your body. Name it – “Throat tight” etc.
    2. Stay with the feeling in your body. Don’t jump to action or conclusions.
    3. Attend to the sensations directly. Breathe into the places that are affected.

Nervous system arousal and the resulting discomfort of anxiety are facts of life for all mammals, and are normal human experiences. Our goal isn’t to get rid of anxiety, repress it, or cut it off, but rather to expand our awareness and tolerance of it so that it holds less power over us. The three-step practice above is one that I use with clients in session and that I teach for home use. Feel free to experiment and adjust it to suit you. Like practicing any new skill or exercising any muscle, results come with time. Be patient and kind with yourself. Small steps can have a big impact.

[Note – While we all experience anxiety to some degree, it can be overwhelming for those who suffer from unresolved trauma. Those who suffer from trauma induced anxiety (PTSD) can try the steps above, but may find themselves too hyper-sensitive or prone to dissociation to manage their experience effectively. These people should consider working with a therapist skilled in somatic processing and body-centred trauma therapy.]

Also read – The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 1)

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

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Orgasmic Meditation – A mindfulness based stroking practice is helping couples reconnect

“In essence I am suggesting that 20th-century women have been living for centuries in a male-oriented culture which has kept them unconscious of their own feminine principle. Now in their attempt to find their own place in a masculine world, they have unknowingly accepted male values – goal-oriented lives, compulsive drivenness, and concrete bread which fails to nourish their feminine mystery.” – Marion Woodman

Orgasmic Meditation helps couples reconnectHow can we reconnect as a couple?

A question I often get from client couples in marriage counselling is “How can we reconnect?” A few years ago I stumbled upon a sexual practice that caught my attention. It involves a man methodically and lightly stroking a woman’s clitoris for a set length of time. There’s no goal other than to be aware of the sensations, for both parties. Essentially, it’s a body-centred mindfulness practice that is relational and erotic. I found it personally intriguing, and as a mindfulness based, body-centred therapist working in the realms of sex and relationships, I found it of interest professionally. The practice evolved into what is known now as Orgasmic Meditation (OM), and it’s taught worldwide. I thought it might be useful to my clients and readers, so I caught up with OM teacher Bez Maxwell to ask some questions –

Justice: Is Orgasmic Meditation sex?
Bez: Orgasmic Meditation is not sex. It’s a practice that people do independently of having sex. It’s not foreplay, it’s not a replacement for sex and sex isn’t a replacement for it. It’s goalless, and simply focuses on connection around one point of contact — yes, a clitoris. Orgasmic Meditation is not a climax practice. It can feel really good and climax could happen, but it’s not the goal.

Justice: How can Orgasmic Meditation potentially help couples who are feeling disconnected or hurt or distant in the relationship?
Bez: What happens is that couples can simply BE together without an agenda and feel each other without any expectation in a very intimate setting. It’s a type of contact that we don’t often get a lot of in our culture, which is often very results-oriented or has an expectation that sex and connection are supposed to look or feel or sound a certain way. With OM, all those expectations are dropped. So the pressure to perform can be replaced by a true sense of real connection around what’s actually happening.

Justice: Do you talk during Orgasmic Meditation?
Bez: Only in a few specific ways around logistics. OM is really a time to calm the chatter, which is often around performance: Am I doing this right? Do you like me? Does this feel good? In OM you simply notice these thoughts without saying them out loud.

Justice: So the connection is mostly non-verbal?
Bez: Yes, it’s body-based connection. We favor sensations rather than stories. And the best part about Orgasmic Meditation is that nothing is supposed to happen. It isn’t supposed to be hot, or sexy, or loud. You don’t light candles or create a mood. You just connect around what’s here, with nothing extra. And what happens is that people get to relax. That’s what happened for me. It was the first time in my life that I actually relaxed around another person. Ever.

Justice: Wow! That’s significant.
Bez: Yes. Very!!

Justice: When there’s resentment or mistrust in the relationship how do you create enough safety for such an intimate practice?
Bez: Well, OM is very prescribed. The idea is that if we create a clear and easy to follow enough container, then it’s safe for anything to happen inside of it. That’s why in order to practice OM, you will want to get trained so that both people are completely clear about what OM is and what it isn’t, what the set up is, and what’s included and what’s not. That way, both people can relax. I OM with my boyfriend even when I hate his guts and can’t stand him and don’t even want to talk to him — we’ll OM. Because I don’t need to pretend. I can just be me, exactly where I’m at. Because even when you can’t stand your partner, there is still a way to connect with them there.

Justice: There’s an obvious asymmetry to the practice. Why?
Bez: That’s a great question. Orgasmic Meditation is purposefully asymmetrical. The best way I know how to explain it is through this article that my teacher and former OneTaste exec Ken Blackman wrote about why men like porn and women like vibrators. Basically, in this practice we give men and women what they actually want. If you look at the sex buying practices of Americans (and probably Canadians), then you’ll see very clear patterns – Men buy porn, women buy vibrators. Because what women crave and what they are under-nourished in is direct stimulation on their clitorises. They want to feel sensation, lay still, and do nothing. Right? That’s what they do with vibrators. Men, however, want what we call empathic orgasm in that they crave and are undernourished in watching others in states of pleasure and getting enjoyment out of seeing others in enjoyment. So OM actually puts us where we are lacking, and also puts us into the roles we are less comfortable. For women in particular, to lay still and do nothing but get their genitals stroked—and then owe nothing in return—is game changing and relationship changing.

Justice: Interesting! But aren’t we back to sex now?
Bez: Certainly there is sexual arousal. I mean, the stroker is stroking my CLIT. But it’s different from sex. It’s timed. It has a clear order that it always follows. And nothing precedes or follows it that is sexual. It’s not foreplay and you don’t need any foreplay to do it. We recommend that couples don’t OM in their bed, but in a different location so that it can be clearly separated from their sex. Think of it like a sexual wellness practice. We say it’s like yoga, for your orgasm. It’s like running laps or doing sit ups, or eating healthy food. It’s how you can take care of yourself so you can have the kind of connection you want, in life and in sex.

Justice: What kind of leap of faith or thinking do you think is required to start?
Bez: I think it’s a desire to have something different, something more. And a willingness to do the work to get it. Sure, Orgasmic Meditation is edgy. It involves genital stroking. And — it’s not THAT weird. Really. I mean, I have young children and I teach about Orgasm and Sexuality. At first I was nervous about what the other parents would think of me. But honestly, what happens more often is that some mom comes up on the playground with a desperate look on her face and is like, “I just heard what you do for a living. I need to talk to you.” Because while we may have a taboo about talking about our sex and our sexual needs and health, we ALL all have sexual needs and desires. We are all basically the same in that regard. So sure, the practice of Orgasmic Meditation is going to require that someone takes their pants off. And…. don’t you do that every day with your partner anyway, whether you’re stepping into the shower or getting dressed for work? To put that much attention on each other, now THAT is edgy. To go into the unknown, that’s what takes the leap of faith.

Justice: What surprised you about Orgasmic Meditation when you started?
Bez: I remember before OM I just thought, either relationships work or they don’t. The sex works or it doesn’t. It was either magically awesome and I was lucky or I was just destined to be under-fucked and miserable. And with OM, I found there is actually something I can do about it. What surprised me the most, two things: One, my first 50 OMs I just cried. I just cried like the entire time. Because I had no frame of reference for being of any value or use to a man while not doing anything. I couldn’t fathom that he would want to look at or touch my genitals just for his enjoyment. So that was a real life changer. The second was how much not owing a guy anything changed my life. Like, we would have an OM—and then, he would leave. It was over. I couldn’t believe it at first. I was like, I don’t need to give him a blow job or make polite conversation or even offer him some cookies and tea?? Nothing?!? I couldn’t believe it. It really messed with my programming in the best way.

Justice: I guess it’s changed how you do relationship!
Bez: It has in that I understand how much men love women in a way I never did before. And my ability to connect, with no ulterior motive, has given me the chance to have the kind of connection I really want. Which is not surface-level, but much deeper. Unconditional.

Justice: Can it help couples who are “out of love” after 20 years of marriage?
Bez: I’m not sure how to answer that because I can’t say if it will help them or not. I mean, not every relationship should be saved, you know? What I can say is that what Orgasmic Meditation does is provide a space for two people to truly connect with each other. It’s like a flashlight that can light the way towards more satisfying connection and towards more knowledge of yourself and your partner. So if you use that flashlight to find your way back to each other, then yes! If you use it for another purpose, then no. And I want to emphasize that it’s a practice. Just like running or stretching. It’s not a one-shot deal. If you want to get in shape, you practice your laps and you run every day.

During the wrap up of our conversation Bez asked me to emphasize that in order to have a successful Orgasmic Meditation practice, getting trained is key. To find an intro OM class near you, use this directory.

Learn More –
The How To OM Video
About Bez Maxwell

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“Why would my wife have a one night stand, although she swears up and down she loves me and is crazy about me?”

Why would my wife have a one night standA reader asks about cheating, love and betrayal –

Tell me this – why would my wife have a one night stand, although she swears up and down she loves me and is crazy about me? She was out of town on business, she said she had no control over it, she is deeply regretful and ashamed. God, what do I do now, just the thought of this breaks me everyday. If she truly loved me, where was I in her mind when this happened? Does she truly love me, can something like this really just happen on accident? Its been months since this happened but it still feels to me like it was yesterday. She tries everyday to make me feel better but I just don’t, she lays by me at night but I feel like she is so far away, this has changed everything between us. I love her and always have, I’m devastated over this and need help.

Cheating is a breach of trust and sexual betrayal hurts like hell. That said, there are plenty of voices ready to condemn a cheating spouse, so presumably that niche is well filled and I’ll take a different angle. I assume you’ve asked your wife the “why” question you’re asking me now, and that her answer was unsatisfying. She may not know the answer to your question, or she may be too confused and ashamed to admit it – to you and to herself.

Sex is powerful. It’s sometimes more powerful than we want to believe. Sex held power over your wife that night, and it’s held power over you ever since. Sex is paradoxically simple and complicated. Simple in its basic innocence and instinctual roots. Complicated in that we attach worlds of meaning and expectation to it. Have you examined the meaning you attach to sex? I suggest you do. Much of the meaning we attach FEELS like common sense – natural, inherent, universal. But upon inquiry we may discover that the meaning we attach to sex is unconscious, unexamined, and, ultimately… optional.

In simple terms – Yes, a person can conceivably love you AND have sex with someone else. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive things. In fact, couples negotiate all sorts of sexual arrangements to accommodate their values and desires. However, there’s a big difference between consensual agreements and betrayal. I know you’re hurt, and I feel for you. There will likely be a strong impulse for your wife to now pledge undying fidelity and demonstrate deep regret, for you to withdraw into your woundedness for a time, and for both of you to try and get back to “normal” as soon as possible. These are understandable and valid impulses, but see if you can muster the courage to use this window of opportunity for you and your wife to honestly examine, and possibly update your assumptions, beliefs and  agreements around sex.

All My Best,
Justice

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“My boyfriend wants a gangbang – Can this be good for a long term relationship?”

My boyfriend wants a gangbang or threesome

Photo © Pamela Hodson | Dreamstime

A reader asks about gangbangs –

My boyfriend really likes gangbangs. He’s done them in the past and watches a lot of this type of porn. I’ve never participated, being relatively new to this type of thing and I’m trying to understand. I wanted to know if engaging in something like this with a long term partner (as a means of pleasing him, and I would be okay with it too) would jeopardize the relationship. Our goals are to both grow holistically and I’m concerned it would go against that path. He has since made efforts to change his thinking, but it has got me thinking now, what’s the worst that could happen?

Opening your sexual relationship to include others is intrinsically neither helpful nor harmful. It can be either – or both – in different circumstances. I understand your concern that it could jeopardize a long term relationship, and the truth is that it might, but no more so than repressing sexual desires also might.

It sounds like you are warming up to the idea for your own sake. If you were seeing me as a client, I would want to cover some basics on what will help you have a successful outcome should you choose to try it. I do know smart, loving, “holistic” long-term couples who enjoy group sex, gangbangs, and kinky sex of all types, so I know it’s possible.

The word “gangbang” can have a violent connotation. Conventional porn tends to portray impersonality, objectification and degradation. This can influence our perception of sex in general and can come to define specific sexual activities like group sex. As you consider expanding your own sex life, please stretch your vision beyond what you’ve seen in porn. Much more is possible.

Someone close to me recently pointed out that for her a gangbang is really just “group sex with me in the starring role!” The point is that you and your boyfriend can choose whatever sort of tone or feeling you want for the experience. A so-called “gangbang” or group sex session with one woman and multiple men can be gentle, rough, tender, slow, fast or any combination that you choose.

The more clear and communicative you are about your own desires (and limits), the better your chances are of having a positive experience. Get in touch with what YOU actually want. What would feel good for you? Not just for him, but for you too? After all, YOU’RE in the starring role!

Be specific when you discuss the scenario with your boyfriend. Use candid language. Get clear on your limits and make sure you are both on the same page before you include others. Select your collaborators carefully. Are they trustworthy? Do they have sufficient empathy and communication skills to fit into the scenario you envision?

Talk about safety – physical AND emotional – and make sure everyone is on board. I encourage you to discuss and practice moment-to-moment consent. Make sure everyone knows what “Stop” means. Just because you agree to try something does not mean you are required to continue. Giving yourself permission to stop, or slow down, or change course at any time, and making sure this is understood by everyone, will go a long way to build trust and avoid regret. Hopefully it all goes fantastically and you have the time of your life. But if it isn’t going well for you, please stop and re-assess. Make sure everyone present is your ally in this regard.

Consider what kind of aftercare you want. Cuddling? Group shower? Just you and your boyfriend? I encourage you to debrief the experience together. How was it for you? Were there surprises? What did you enjoy? What would you do differently?

Obviously it’s best to practice safer sex using condoms/barriers. I also encourage you to play sober, especially to start. If you can’t muster the courage or chemistry without alcohol or drugs, you aren’t ready.

Please be patient and kind with yourself. Group sex is not as easy as porn stars make it look. Much like one-on-one sex, group sex can have a learning curve and it might require practice before it becomes truly enjoyable. As the woman in the starring role, you may find yourself feeling emotionally and physically vulnerable or awkward as well as excited. The more you can stay present to the experience, communicate your desires, and represent yourself before, during and after the event, the more likely you are to come away feeling good about the experience.

All My Best,
Justice

PS – I recommend the book The Ethical Slut for those exploring consensual non-monogamy in any form. Also, read my book Conscious Kink for Couples.

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Dilemmas, confusion and the spiral nature of growth – Why dual impulses are natural, “good” advice is relative, and one person’s poison is another person’s balm

Dilemmas, confusion and the spiral path of growthTwo basic impulses –

Virtually every message that tells us how to live has one thing in common. It champions one or the other of two fundamental dual impulses. One is the impulse to merge – to connect or be one with another, an orientation toward “other”. The other is the impulse to separate – to be autonomous, an individual, an orientation toward “self”. These two impulses, or “sides” of ourselves appear everywhere in our lives as polar opposites –

  • Hold on vs Let go
  • Trust yourself vs Trust others
  • Take charge vs Surrender
  • Stay the course vs Embrace change
  • Try more vs Try less
  • Listen to your head vs Listen to your heart
  • Take vs Give
  • Rational vs Emotional
  • Simplicity vs Complexity
  • Individual vs Group
  • Self control vs Self expression

At various life stages we will each, rightly, favour one impulse over the other. Over the course of a lifetime, we will likely change how we orient to these two impulses many times over. We may also simultaneously favour one impulse in one aspect of our lives, and the opposite in another. Cultural biases, gender roles, personality patterns and other factors all have a role in shaping the process.

The trouble with advice - yin yangNeither impulse is essentially better or worse than the other. In fact, each ultimately holds the seed of its opposite. (The yin/yang symbol illustrates this beautifully.) We all align with each impulse at different times in our lives because we have developmental tasks that call on either “togetherness” or “separateness” at each stage of life. Each of these tasks is associated with one side or the other of the two poles. We move back and forth between poles as we mature, honing one, then the other. Head, then heart. Self, then other. Hold on, then let go. As we successfully attend to one aspect of our development and then the other, our expressions of each become more mature, and we become more healthy and whole, with greater capacity to appreciate and respond to all that life hands us.

As we fulfill the developmental tasks associated with one pole, it will miraculously, sometimes painfully, give way to the other. A client, Christopher, was stifled by extremely strict parents as a child. When he came to see me he was face to face with the task of finding his own self expression, his own voice. It was awkward and messy for a while. He hurt people around him and created chaos as he learned to un-censor himself. Eventually, as he fulfilled his task sufficiently, life began providing clues that it was time to orient back toward self-control, self-discipline. But this new version of control/discipline was different from the version that had been inflicted on him as a child. It was of a higher level, healthier. This illustrates an important point – Each pole has a spectrum of expressions that can be seen as more healthy or mature on the “higher” end, and less healthy or mature on the “lower” end. Imagine moving up a spiral as you mature through your life. You move around the spiral from one side to another (self then other, independence then connection) but each revolution also moves you to a higher level. Thus, a six year old’s expression of self, or other, will (hopefully!) be different from a sixty year old’s.

Gaining maturity and developing healthier relationships to both sides of ourselves allows us to loosen our grip on a particular point of view. Our self-righteousness relaxes. We experience greater flexibility and choice in our beliefs and our actions. Our relationships improve. Eventually, through hard-won experience and insight, the dual nature of the poles begins to dissolve. The rigidity of either/or gives way to the flexibility of both/and. Self AND other. Freedom AND responsibility. Connection AND autonomy. Contradiction gives way to its wise elder, paradox. Until this happens, we have a tendency to reject the parts of ourselves, and others, that represent the other side of the spiral from where we currently reside. If we’re presently tasked with growing the cooperative, generous, other-oriented side of our self, we’re likely to be biased against self-reliance and independence in all its forms, seeing them as “selfish”. If, instead, we happen to be currently developing healthier levels of individuation and self-orientation, we might view acts of generosity as manipulative, and all urges for connection as weakness or co-dependency.

A recent marriage and relationship article I wrote sparked intense response and debate from readers on both sides of the poles. For readers longing for deeper connection, the article was balm… a deep soulful YES. For those currently orienting toward the value of independence, the message felt toxic and untrue. While both poles are ultimately valid and important (in marriages and in all aspects of life) the messages we get can feel alternately challenging or validating depending on which pole we currently favour, and how healthy or mature our own expressions of “togetherness” and “separateness” are.

Here’s a scenario to further illustrate the point –
A new client comes to see me. They feel perpetually stuck in a co-dependent relationship pattern. Through therapy we discover that they feel torn between a familiar (but tired) impulse for togetherness, and an emerging (but frightening) impulse for autonomy. Are they being called to cross the pole over to independence? Or are they ready to explore a more mature form of togetherness? Should they leave their co-dependent relationship? Or should they attempt to transform it?

The core dilemma for each of us, at any juncture, is essentially this – Do I now focus on healthier expressions of my current orientation, or is it time to cross the spiral? More simply – Take this path further, or take a different path? We’re wise to be wary of simplistic, universal answers to this question.

It’s useful to remember that the inner compass that provides direction to our lives is not merely a product of applied willpower and rationality (forces well sanctioned and preferred by our culture), but rather arises from some deeper congruence of body, mind and spirit. Unconscious aspects of our path may remain hidden from us until we are ripe to recognize them. Many useful tools, insight practices and wisdom traditions are available to help ripen us in this regard. Jungians work with archetypes, myth and dreams. The enneagram provides a map based on different personality types. Attachment theory and family constellations therapy help us understand appropriate boundaries and developmental timelines. Cognitive and narrative therapies help clients piece together congruent views of self and others through examining beliefs in the face of evidence. In Hakomi we use mindfulness to notice those subtle aspects of our experience which point toward the next step of our healing, growth and integration.

Choose whichever tools suit you, take advice with a grain of salt, and be prepared to change your focus many times as you move between dual impulses on your life path.

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On disillusionment , failure, and facing your relationship as it really is

On disillusionment , failure, and facing your relationship as it really is

The fight to improve a marriage or relationship is a fight against reality. It’s exhausting work. If you’ve tried to change your partner or your marriage to no avail, it might be time to face your relationship exactly as it is.

Facing your relationship as it actually is, in its full reality, is simple, terrifying, and ultimately liberating work. Actually, it’s not work at all, but rather un-work… allowing. A dropping of facades. It takes great courage to drop our projections and be willing to see our partner clearly, as they are. Flawed. Human. Not good enough.

“But he’s lazy. I won’t tolerate it!”
“She’s controlling. I never get a moment’s peace!”

So you have a lazy husband. Or a controlling wife. (Yes, these gender roles are interchangeable.) Your disapproval certainly hasn’t bent your partner to your will yet, so relaxing around the issue for a few minutes or days or weeks won’t hurt your case.

Many people assume that it is their threats, compromises, pushing, tantrums, demands, punishing, withdrawing that keeps the relationship grinding along; that it would collapse without their constant efforts. And so they drive it, and drive it, and drive it until they drive it off the cliff of no return and then say “I tried.”

“Are you asking me to settle?” one client recently asked. “I can’t do that. It feels like failure.”

Relaxing into failure

On the issue of failure… Congratulations. You’ve failed to fulfill your relationship fantasy. It hurts. It’s disappointing. But it’s also a milestone, a rite of passage. Welcome, you’ve arrived. Deep disillusionment isn’t the end of the world, or even necessarily the end of your relationship; it’s how relationships, and lives, are truly transformed – walking through the fire, burning away illusion, and facing reality head on. It’s courageous work.

Your task is to see your partner for who they really are. Possibly for the first time. Notice how attached you’ve been to them being someone different. (Ouch, right?) Spend some time here. See if you can feel your disappointment, anger, sadness without feeding it, fixing it, or drawing conclusions from it. Nothing needs to be done about it today. This isn’t an endpoint or solution, it’s a respite. Now that you’ve failed, relax for a bit. Notice your capacity for disappointment expand. It doesn’t mean the relationship is over or doomed. It doesn’t mean you’ve done a bad job. For now, just notice who your spouse really is, who you really are, free from the fantasy that has mercifully crumbled.

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Marriage counselling made it worse – A tale of caution and hope

Marriage counselling made it worseLeslie called me in a state of panic. She was worried that her twelve year marriage was beyond repair. She loved her husband David, but their long-standing differences were threatening to tear them apart.

Leslie was a worrier (self-proclaimed), and David, although cool-headed, wasn’t much for talking. Leslie would get overwhelmed with mothering, work and household responsibilities. Her anxiety would build, and she would desperately turn to David, who was consistently unable to validate and soothe her in the manner she expected. (She wanted him to say the right things.)

This set off a pattern of conflict that had gone on for their entire relationship and had landed the two of them in counselling early on. Their counsellor quickly came to the conclusion that David needed to improve his communication skills. A common assessment, here it is broken down into its basic points –

  1. Leslie and David have issues.
  2. They need to be able to talk about the issues if they are going to get better.
  3. Leslie wants to talk about them, David less so.
  4. Therefore, let’s solve the problem by helping David learn to communicate more effectively.

This can be considered a fairly standard marriage counselling approach, based on a belief that more talking about the relationship issues, with an emphasis on validation, will ultimately foster understanding and bring a couple closer together. Sometimes it helps.

In this case, the frustration between Leslie and David only grew worse. Leslie became more certain than ever that David held the key to their core issue. If only he could get it right! David tried, but found that the more he attempted to match Leslie’s verbal speed and agility, the more nervous he got, and the more he failed. No matter what he said, she was always upping the ante and staying one step ahead of him. Their well-meaning counsellor had unwittingly given a professional stamp of approval to the couple’s dysfunctional pattern. They stopped going to counselling and the issue continued to be a source of pain and conflict.

Much later, as life and relationship stress was becoming unbearable, Leslie heard about my work. She requested an information package and set up a call with the three of us. She was clear about her expectation that David participate, and she assumed we would focus on helping him learn to be a better communicator.

In our session, I listened with curiosity, looking for clues… What was driving the relationship system? What were the unexamined assumptions? Since Leslie was much more comfortable talking, the two of us talked. David listened. This matched everything Leslie had told me about their relationship dynamic, but I didn’t assume their differences to be a problem, and I said so as I managed the session.

Leslie explained their issues in detail and I listened, reflecting on key points I was hearing –

“Sounds like you get really anxious.”
Yes, she agreed emphatically.

“And it sounds like you turn to David and want him to reduce your anxiety.”
Yes again. Full agreement.

“And when he doesn’t reduce your anxiety successfully you find it intolerable.”
Yes.

“And the only relief you can find in the moment is to pull the plug on the relationship, which you do again and again.”
Here Leslie paused for a moment, letting the pieces fall into place, testing the implications of this. “That’s exactly what I do,” she finally confirmed.

As our weekly sessions continued, Leslie was shocked to discover that there was actually nothing David could say that would satisfy her. For years she had believed that if only David would say the right thing, she could finally relax. This belief was echoed by friends, family, counsellors and expert authors everywhere. The belief was so ubiquitous that it was never challenged, even though it never led to a happier marriage. But in our sessions Leslie discovered that this belief simply did not match reality.

From this point onward, new possibilities emerged. Fortunately, there were still feelings of attraction, love and respect between Leslie and David. Leslie’s ability and willingness to observe her own experience, beliefs and behaviours were an asset. Also, neither Leslie nor David were invested in making the other wrong. In fact, both were relieved to finally see a way out of their long-standing deadlock.

Our sessions increasingly focused on helping Leslie learn to track the anxiety in her body and to moderate her nervous system directly. This was a brand new experience for her. With help and practice, Leslie learned to use mindful awareness to turn her attention inward rather than reflexively projecting her anxiety out onto David. This change created a refreshing spaciousness between them. When he didn’t have to struggle to keep up with Leslie’s panic and demands, David was able to finally help her. She became more open to the tactile soothing that David was good at providing. (As long as she was expecting David to “say the right thing,” she had been closed to the idea of being touched while anxious.) I began facilitating experiments between them about what kind of touch each of them enjoys moment-to-moment, and they continue to explore new ways of soothing themselves and each other.

Paradoxically, only after Leslie let go of her attachment to David understanding and validating her in a specific way could she enjoy the genuine gifts that David brings to the relationship. Only after looking inside and taking responsibility for her own anxiety could she find any satisfaction in the soothing he was capable of providing. Unstuck after a decade, the process continues, with new layers constantly being revealed.

Do you have a story that is similar, or different, with insights to add?
Comments are now open.

Also read –
Why women leave men they love – What every man needs to know
When the love of your life leaves – 5 steps to help you heal

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Kink friendly therapy – What counsellors, therapists, life coaches and helping professionals need to know in a post Fifty Shades of Grey world

kink friendly therapyWhat does it mean to be a kink friendly therapist or helping professional?

With Fifty Shades of Grey thrusting kink and bdsm into the mainstream, kink aware therapists, counsellors and life coaches are more important than ever. Doctors, physiotherapists, social workers and other helping professionals should also be educating themselves on issues surrounding kink and bdsm.

The first thing to understand is that kink is not inherently pathological. Like eating, having (vanilla) sex, playing sports, going to work or many of the other activities we engage in, kink and bdsm can be understood to have a full range of expressions – from relatively healthy to relatively unhealthy.

For the uninitiated the whole thing can feel confusing and distasteful, especially for people who are in the business of healing or protecting. “Why would anyone give their power away or allow themselves to be hurt or humiliated sexually?” It’s a very reasonable question, and one that has many possible answers. The answers run the full spectrum –

At the healthier end of the spectrum, kinksters may be expressing mature, playful attitudes around sexuality and power. (Did you ever role-play doctor, or good guys/bad guys, cops and robbers etc as a kid?) Or they may be exploring shadow aspects and polarities within themselves  – victim/villain, exploited/exploiter, sadist/masochist, powerful/powerless, abuser/abused etc. When approached with awareness and consent, these can be considered healthy explorations of archetypes. Many kink practitioners consider their activities to have healing or sacred qualities. Or they may simply enjoy strong sensations, role-play etc… Sometimes a snake is just a snake.

At the less healthy end of the spectrum, your clients or patients may engage in non-consensual abuse, control  and manipulation. Abuse of power happens in the kink/bdsm communities just like everywhere else. Kink and bdsm can reflect low self esteem, poor boundaries and truly harmful beliefs and behaviours.

Some people are drawn to kink and bdsm in a conscious or unconscious attempt to integrate childhood abuse, neglect or trauma. The raw impulse to integrate and heal is primary and should be supported. The degree to which a client’s kinky proclivities actually further healing and integration is not a foregone conclusion, and so kink should be approached as neutrally as possible in terms of  your own values, projections and bias. Wanting to be slapped across the face during sex  is not inherently bad or sick. Your client may love extreme sports, or they may prefer floggings. Both can hold useful material. Neither is necessarily a problem. If you find yourself believing otherwise then please, as a helping professional, carefully  examine your prejudice and how it may be harmful to your clients or patients.

Your kinky clients will benefit from your self-awareness, self-education and kink friendly approach. Examining your own judgements, fears and beliefs will make you more trustworthy, confident and helpful. Whether your clients’ kinky desires, activities or relationships are presenting issues, or they come up peripherally, your willingness and ability to have frank discussions will be valuable. If in doubt, try transparency. Ask questions. Your open mind is the key to building trust in the client relationship.

Suggested reading –
SM 101: A Realistic Introduction by Jay Wiseman
Wild Side Sex: The Book of Kink by Midori
The Ultimate Guide to Kink by Tristan Taormino
Radical Ecstasy by Easton and Hardy

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Campbell River Counselling Justice Schanfarber HakomiI provide kink friendly, kink aware therapy, counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples all over the world by phone or skype, and in-person locally. (Vancouver, Campbell River, North Vancouver Island.) Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. Services also available for those in the helping professions. www.JusticeSchanfarber.comLike Justice Schanfarber on Facebook

 

 

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When the love of your life leaves – 5 steps to help you heal

Wife husband leaves marriage relationship counsellingThe end of a relationship or marriage can feel like death. Grief is an appropriate response. This means anger, sadness, denial might all arise.

It’s visceral. Breathing is hard. You can’t sleep. For the person being left it can feel like the end of the world. You wonder if you’ll even survive. To say you’re hurt and confused or angry is too little. It feels much bigger; like everything has been turned upside down and shaken, like the ground has disappeared under your feet.

Along with negotiating urgent practical matters like finances, housing and parenting, you might also come face to face with abandonment, rejection and self-esteem issues, some of which may have been dormant and are arising for the first time.

This is a very, very tender spot to find yourself. It’s immensely uncomfortable. In my work as a counsellor I notice patterns and common tendencies in my clients. I’ve also identified opportunities and choice-points for moving forward in a healthy way. Here are five principles that can help –

1. Feel what you feel
Feelings aren’t negotiable. They can’t be wrong. They simply are. It’s important to feel what you feel. When we deny uncomfortable emotions they come back to haunt us, or they drive our behaviour from underneath consciousness, without our active consent. Rule of thumb – there’s no need to either encourage or deny feelings. Notice them, name them (“I feel sad”) and watch them change over time. Note – Anger is a feeling. Fear is a feeling. Sadness is a feeling. “S/He’s a control freak” isn’t a feeling. (More on that in a future article.)

2. Take thoughtful action
We don’t necessarily choose our feelings, although we choose how we act on them. As much as noticing our feelings is important, it would be a mistake to act on them without consulting our rational, thinking self. The trouble is, when strong feelings are present we don’t have much access to the part of our brain that makes well-considered choices. Take some time. Let feelings settle before you make important decisions around child custody, financial agreements or emails to the inlaws. Breathe.

3. Get support, but not from your (ex)partner
The person who is leaving the relationship is almost certainly not the person to help you cope with the pain you feel. You might feel extremely needy or drawn to this person right now. Do not give in to the urge to seek comfort there, especially if it is not offered. If you are holding out hope for reconciliation, say so, but then get support elsewhere. Seeing you pick yourself up, brush yourself off and take support from others is the most attractive thing about you right now in your (ex)partner’s eyes. Turn to friends, family and community for support. Tell them what helps, and what doesn’t. Find a counsellor or therapist that you trust.

4. Stay open, even when it hurts
When we feel hurt and angry we look for an explanation. We want to understand. We assume we shouldn’t feel this way, that it’s a big problem. And so we search for a reason. The reason we find is almost always some version of I’m bad or They’re bad or The world is bad. What these three positions all offer is a way out of the confusion. Assigning cause (blame) does relieve some tension. The problem is that each of these three beliefs locks us into an adversarial relationship – with self, with other, or with reality (the world). I’m not saying that your relationship ending wasn’t caused by you or them or the unfairness of the world. But getting too fixated on any of those causes makes you rigid and closed to possibilities that might be just around the corner.

5. Help others
This piece of advice was given to me by a friend over a decade ago when a relationship was ending and I was in deep pain. His simple and wise words led me to the act of writing this for you now. Helping others gets us out of our own head and puts us in direct contact with the universal experience of suffering. Everybody hurts. Help someone. Share their pain, and feel your own soften.

Also read –
Dilemmas, confusion and the trouble with good advice
Is victim a dirty word? On victim blame, victim denial, victim mentality and what the victim archetype can teach us.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

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Why women leave men they love PART 2 – Deepening the conversation

Marriage - why women leave, cheat 2On Friday I wrote a short piece called Why women leave men they love – What every man needs to know. Three days later 500,000 people had read it. Something struck a chord. People are reading the article and seeing themselves. Many, many women have shared their relief at knowing they are not alone in their desire for deeper connection.

Men are responding too. “Presence is so damned hot!” says one. Another laments “If only I’d read this two years ago.” A few have pointed out that the roles are reversible, that men want the same things and suffer in similar ways. I agree. Which begs the question – Why are women so much more likely to show up in my office BEFORE they drop the hammer, while men tend to wait until AFTER the hammer is dropped?

We’re ALL subject to social patterns and structures, and gender figures heavily. Assigning blame is a dead-end that always gets us less of what we truly want. Trying to understand what drives our behaviour – collectively, individually and in marriages is potentially enlightening. And so I take the approach of inquiry.

Let’s start with Why are women staying in marriages for years when their husband is emotionally absent? I’ve had numerous women confide that their relationship strategy is basically this: Somehow hold out until the kids are grown, then bye-bye. Which leads us to… Men – how did you not see this coming? Why did you do nothing? (Again, you can flip the gender assignments to suit you.)

Frustrating as the questions are, honest answers exist. I hear them all the time, but never through smiling lips.

I didn’t know any other way.
I hoped it would get better.
I was busy with work.
That’s just the way it is.
I didn’t want to screw up the kids.

These sorts of answers can make us want to confront our partner with “ARGHHH… but, but, but… you, you, you…”
But it’s confronting ourselves that will reap benefits:

I wanted to avoid conflict so I abdicated my responsibility to myself.
I always got away with it, so I kept doing it.
I feel lost and disconnected from my own life.
I didn’t know I even deserved attention.

Forgive me if I make self-awareness sound easy. The insights above can be extremely hard-won. Of course it takes time, and tears, to get to this place of acknowledging our own part in a painful relationship. We avoid it because it offends our ego. But truth wants to find you.

Therapist David Schnarch says something like “Only marriage can prepare you for marriage.” What he means is that the problems we encounter in relationship are the right ones, at the right time. They reflect our current level of maturity or development. No one expects someone in eighth grade to ace grade twelve exams. But that doesn’t mean exam time isn’t stressful for everyone.

Once we begin coming to terms with the reality of a relationship in crisis, we may turn our attention to how we respond in the face of change. Change happens. It’s not negotiable. Yesterday’s experiences changed us, and we are different today. Our choice lies in how we align ourselves with the change process.

Whether or not a couple chooses to stay together when they hit their crisis point, some kind of change will be required. Often one partner makes a decision that changes everything. That’s reality. Avoiding reality has big costs. As Byron Katie observes “When you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time.” So do we actively participate in the reality of change, accepting the discomfort and uncertainty along with the exhilaration of growth?  Or do we resist because change is scary and painful? (Hint – the first one gives us more and better options.)

Also read –
The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together
Marriage counselling made it worse – A tale of caution and hope
When the love of your life leaves – 5 steps to ease suffering and help you heal

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Why women leave men they love – What every man needs to know

Marriage - why women leave, cheatAs a marriage counsellor working with men and women in relationship crisis, I help clients navigate numerous marriage counselling issues. While many situations are complex, there’s one profoundly simple truth that men need to know. It’s this – Women leave men they love.

They feel terrible about it. It tears the heart out of them. But they do it. They rally their courage and their resources and they leave. Women leave men with whom they have children, homes and lives. Women leave for many reasons, but there’s one reason in particular that haunts me, one that I want men to understand:

Women leave because their man is not present. He’s working, golfing, gaming, watching TV, fishing… the list is long. These aren’t bad men. They’re good men. They’re good fathers. They support their family. They’re nice, likeable. But they take their wife for granted. They’re not present.

Women in my office tell me “Someone could come and sweep me off my feet, right out from under my husband.” Sometimes the realization scares them. Sometimes they cry.

Men – I’m not saying this is right or wrong. I’m telling you what I see. You can get as angry or hurt or indignant as you want. Your wife is not your property. She does not owe you her soul. You earn it. Day by day, moment to moment. You earn her first and foremost with your presence, your aliveness. She needs to feel it. She wants to talk to you about what matters to her and to feel you hearing her. Not nodding politely. Not placating. Definitely not playing devil’s advocate.

She wants you to feel her. She doesn’t want absent-minded groping or quick release sex. She wants to feel your passion. Can you feel your passion? Can you show her? Not just your passion for her or for sex; your passion for being alive. Do you have it? It’s the most attractive thing you possess. If you’ve lost it, why? Where did it go? Find out. Find it. If you never discovered it you are living on borrowed time.

If you think you’re present with your wife, try listening to her. Does your mind wander? Notice. When you look at her, how deeply do you see her? Look again, look deeper. Meet her gaze and keep it for longer than usual, longer than comfortable. If she asks what you’re doing, tell her. “I’m looking into you. I want to see you deeply. I’m curious about who you are. After all these years I still want to know who you are every day.” But only say it if you mean it, if you know it’s true.

Touch her with your full attention. Before you lay your hand on her, notice the sensation in your hand. Notice what happens the moment you make contact. What happens in your body? What do you feel? Notice the most subtle sensations and emotions. (This is sometimes called mindfulness.) Tell her about what you’re noticing, moment to moment.

But you’re busy. You don’t have time for this. How about five minutes? Five minutes each day. Will you commit to that? I’m not talking about extravagant dinners or nights out (although those are fine too). I’m talking about five minutes every day to be completely present to the woman you share your life with. To be completely open – hearing and seeing without judgement. Will you do that? I bet once you start, once you get a taste, you won’t want to stop.

<Note – The gender dynamic outlined above is reversible. It can go both ways.>

UPDATE – Read this response > Why men leave women they love (click here)

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

 

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