On abusive and nonabusive relationships

On abusive and nonabusive relationships. Photo by Brady. Taken at Burning Man 2016

On abusive and nonabusive relationships. Photo by Brady. Taken at Burning Man 2016

“Brady, I just don’t know. Am I in an abusive relationship?”

Truthfully, this conversation comes up so often, and I love what happens when it does. There’s so much education and personal growth opportunities in these conversations, as frustrating and scary as they may be to have, that in many ways these conversations become important and necessary.

To start, it can be difficult to honestly ask yourself if a relationship you are in is abusive or not. It’s challenging even approaching that conversation because it means admitting that things probably aren’t exactly as you’d like them to be. Importantly, there is a huge distinction between being in a relationship that is great, that isn’t exactly as you’d like, or nonabusive, and being in one that is abusive.

What is nonabusive, you may ask? Well, figuring it out means discerning the vast spectrum of neutral relational behavior that isn’t exactly abusive, hostile, or trauma inducing. Neutral, like, offering a friend hot chamomile tea when they aren’t having caffeine, asking a friend to go for an afternoon run, allowing another person to initiate a conversation, unsolicited advice, and the like. Is any of that implicitly abusive? I’d offer: not really. Now, some of those may be things someone would absolutely love, and they would probably call them healthy or loving, and for some, they would call it unwanted or abusive. However, from my vantage point, many relational actions are neutral, but are interpreted as healthy or abusive, not necessarily because they are implicitly one way or the other.

To this end, deciphering if another person’s actions in a relationship are abusive or not is more than simply figuring out what is healthy and what is abusive, but more closely determining what is done, first, and how it is felt, second. It is a two-fold process, with lots of extra subprocesses throughout, which, in many ways, people quickly want to be a singular and simple process. This is where I find a lot of people reaching for convenient answers of whether or not a relationship is abusive, convincing themselves to stay in or leave a relationship based on what they want it to be more than what is actually happening.

Many relational actions are neutral, but are interpreted as healthy or abusive, not necessarily because they are implicitly one way or the other.
Categorically, I see it as people making a quick decision to end, or stay in, a relationship without going further to figure out what is happening without what they want it to be, which would look like seeing behavior as: healthy that is felt as abusive, neutral that is felt as abusive, abusive that is felt as abusive, healthy that is felt as healthy, neutral that is felt as healthy, abusive that is felt as healthy, healthy that is felt as neutral, neutral that is felt as neutral, and even abusive that is felt as neutral. Thats a lot of angles that a relationship can be seen from, and very rarely do persons consider relational actions from all of those perspectives, which can be intimidating. With all of that, the most common thing I see is one person conveniently deciding what another person’s actions are rather than spending some time examining what is occurring and allowing the room for multiple possibilities beyond a basic dichotomy.

My caveat here cannot be made enough: those with a personal history of being in traumatic and abusive relationships have an even harder time distinguishing between nonabusive and abusive relationships. Some of this, well, a large part of this, is because of the nature of abuse and trauma. To vastly oversimplify, being in a relationship with a person that is abusive, whether physically, sexually, emotionally, socially, or financially, also is to be in a tenuous state of interpreting behavior. Anything other than overtly warm and loving actions are often felt as soon-to-be hostile or hostile; there is no grey. And there really isn’t warmth, either, only a tacit knowing that it can get much worse.

Something not bad, isn’t automatically good; nor is something actually bad because it wasn’t felt as absolutely good.
So for those that have had a history of trauma with intimate partners, it can feel like the difference between abusive and soon-to-be abusive, which is hard to unlearn, especially when nonabusive and healthy relationships are such foreign experiences. It is hard to learn what a healthy relationship can look like, and what nonabusive behavior looks like, and how to see it for what it is, when you’ve a compromised initial idea as a foundational premise.

Or as I like to think of it, it is hard to distinguish gentle touch or firm touch over deep emotional scar tissue, when you only seem to feel rough touch.

The huge challenge with all of this, then, is being able to see abuse when it is there, rather than simply convincing yourself that it must be there.
Admittedly, it is challenging to figure a lot of this out, especially without a professional to help decipher what is going on. I’m not admitting this as a professional in private practice looking for more business, but as a person that has seen many relationships implode because one party convinced themselves what was happening was abusive, or wasn’t, and couldn’t see other perspectives. The huge challenge with all of this, then, is being able to see abuse when it is there, rather than simply convincing yourself that it must be there.

But, if I’m to give generic, decontextualized if impersonal advice, it would be this: in many ways, all relationships will have boundary violations, and those need to happen, and those violations aren’t implicitly abusive. Boundary violations will exist simply because other people aren’t us, so there will be a learning curve for better understanding how to do right by others. Implicit to a learning curve is being aware that a person is trying to do right by you, and that can be difficult to see when you’ve been wronged. Ideally, in all relationships it can be seen and felt when boundary violations occur, are addressed, and greater awareness of how to do right by both parties is openly discussed. It can also be seen when those pieces aren’t there. Things only become abusive when another person consistently doesn’t care or disregards another person’s pain, avoids or denies the idea that they might be wrong, and has little concept of the consequences of their actions. That can be very hard to see, both when you are being abused, and when you are abusing.

In many ways, it’s difficult to change your response to, to change how you feel, another’s actions. Something not bad, isn’t automatically good; nor is something actually bad because it wasn’t felt as absolutely good. Which is to say: ideally, we grow to feel things as they are, and experience others as they are, and less how we want them to be.

About the Author

Brady

Facebook Twitter Google+

I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn abusive and nonabusive relationships

On ghosting

On ghosting. Photo by Brady. 2016.

On ghosting. Photo by Brady. 2016

“I don’t know what it is that I am doing wrong, doc. And it must be me, right? Guys don’t just disappear on you like that. They can’t all be like that. Can they? I mean, I am the common denominator. This sucks. I’m done.”

The paraphrased sentiment above, though I hear it coming from different people, pertaining to different forms and stages of relationships, nevertheless points to an altogether too familiar problem that too many people face. Being in a relationship, or even starting a relationship, and it abruptly ending, not with a conscious decision to end it from the agreement of all parties, but from one person unilaterally ending it and not telling the other person that it was ended, is the operation of being ghosted.

It is deeply unsettling and uncomfortable for so many reasons. Notably, the person left behind is alone in figuring out what went wrong, what didn’t work, what they did do or didn’t do that caused distance, and they can never fully come to understand what happened because that other person isn’t there to answer the questions. Any empty, if conciliatory, answers one gives oneself, even if kind or compassionate, aren’t the needed answers from the other person, which makes ghosting all that harder to endure. There is no ability to answer the, “why,” of their absence. Therein lies much of confusion and bewilderment that happens in the wake of being ghosted.

And it must be me, right?”

Ideally, when persons decides to end a relationship together, in surveying the damage done, both parties can theoretically walk away with more discernible challenges and areas of growth, so that they can be better for their next relationship or for their own personal growth. Without knowing what one did do, or what one didn’t do, substantive growth is unreachable. And this goes for all parties involved.

The above blanket statement aside, walking away from a relationship without deciding together to end it isn’t ghosting in an abusive relationship. I can’t stress this caveat enough: for all parties in those abusive dynamics know what happened, even if it is hard to acknowledge.

Figuring out if someone ghosted you or didn’t ghost you does take some careful, and perhaps clinical, consideration. Being ghosted hinges, largely, on you being present in a relationship while they are absent. It isn’t something as simple as them not texting back. For example, it is them not texting back in the middle of planning communications, after you asked them what they are doing tomorrow night for dinner. There is a distinct difference there. Some people conflate the two kinds of non-responsiveness, which is to say: you might both be ghosts.

Before we even get into what to do about others being a ghost, or a potential ghost, a big part of the problem is developing an awareness of one’s self and our own capacity to ghost.

Any empty, if conciliatory, answers one gives oneself, even if kind or compassionate, aren’t the needed answers from the other person, which makes ghosting all that harder to endure.

To do this, to not become someone else’s ghost, means clearly, and unambiguously, ending relationships with others, preferably with concrete reasons. If you think this is mean, so be it. Nevertheless, please do so. And give no hints. No, “I’m just in a weird place in my life.” No, “I don’t know if I can handle a relationship right now.” No, “I’m too busy this week.” No hints. Because, if you are irked in any way that they aren’t getting the hint that you aren’t interested, then you are oblivious to the fact that you are actively ghosting.

Searching your own heart to better understand why you do not want to pursue a relationship with someone, is a big challenge. A vague answer of, “I’m just not feeling it,” isn’t enough. It is a non-answer, and for their sake, and your sake, a concrete answer, of what exactly you, “aren’t feeling,” provides a place from which to grow. They may grow in changing themselves, or may not, but that is for their growth. You may grow, too, in holding a boundary, or eventually outgrow a boundary, but not with them, and that is okay too. But all parties involved have reasons to work with, on their own.

There isn’t nothing you can do about others being ghosts. You can do some self care strategies to prevent over-injury from being ghosted. I like to think of it as preventative care, or wound care, so the injury doesn’t get infected.

One big strategy for self care is to not over extend the relational effort. Relational effort is the felt sense of a relationship moving forward, and more mechanically, it looks like introducing yourself, planning a date, counter-offering if you can’t give your partner exactly what they want, following up on a conversation, etc.. Lacking relational effort would be the negative, or the absence, of effort: wanting someone to introduce themselves, having someone else plan the date, simply rejecting without counter-offering, not following up on a conversation. So not over extending the relational effort means being aware of how much you are putting in and how much, or how little, they are putting in, when it comes to the effort of relating.

Now this is where it gets tricky: being at peace with the amount of effort you put in, knowing you could do more, call more, ask them out one more time, send another text, and yet, knowing you can’t do their effort for them. It is tricky because there is the inherent possibility that they might not put any effort in and it ending, as much as the possibility that they might put in effort and grow the relationship. You are allowing it to grow, or fail, equally.

If you are irked in any way that they aren’t getting the hint that you aren’t interested, then you are oblivious to the fact that you are actively ghosting.

It takes a lot of self reflection, and a lot of practice, to fine tune that sense of effort and operate from a place that feels right for you and does right by others. Because, if you are doing all the effort, even with earnestness, sincerity, or love, you also aren’t allowing that other person to do their part. You might be efforting the whole relationship, doubling-down on effort, and subsequently liking them more because you are putting effort in. Meanwhile, you could be efforting a relationship that the other person doesn’t like or want to be in. Therein lies more insecurity, and vulnerability, in putting effort into a relationship.

They may not return the effort. And it can be incredibly hard to allow another person to fail in this way. However, being more aware and in tune with your relational effort and limits, means you are less likely to grow more attached to those more likely to ghost.

Even if you do everything “right,” there is still another person involved that can’t be controlled. They can’t be, and that’s actually a beautiful thing if you look closely enough at it. If you could control, exactly, when other people come and go in your life, always on your terms, and your terms alone, then you are sabotaging dynamic growth from occurring in your own life. You would only ever believe that you should always be in control of all of your relationships. Which leads to becoming more afraid, more defensive, and more tense in relationships, unable to allow them to grow. And yet, so much beauty and growth comes from actively doing your part, and only your part, of a relationship.

But yes. It hurts. To open up to a person, to want them in your life, to invest in cultivating a connection, and to be coldly left, is to be left without an ending to tangibly feel. They have become a ghost to a relationship you can’t exactly grieve. They hunger for something they lack the ability to taste; those hungry ghosts can’t be fed. Not by you. There is the hope that one day those ghosts may be able to feed themselves, to put effort into being with others, to be seen. And other than allowing them to be ghosts, you can also allow yourself to be at peace with knowing you did your part, and you could only do your part.

About the Author

Brady

Facebook Twitter Google+

I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn ghosting

On bloated resilience

Photo by Brady. 2016.

“Why can’t I just get better, Brady? It’s crazy! And no one knows. No one really knows how depressed I am. I’m such a fraud. I just can’t seem to get over it like I should! I’m crazy!”

Admittedly, when I conduct therapy, I deal with a lot of resiliency narratives that are slippery, insidiously undermining, and hard to dismantle. People can come into therapy wanting to conquer depression, cure anxiety, rid themselves of insecurities, overcome every obstacle, and succeed at life in the most positive way possible. To this point, one of the first agenda items I write in my notes is: lance this bloated idea of resilience.

Because it naïvely does more harm than good.

Because it, in itself, is a problem.

Resilience is that plucky idea that you can, and should, be able to bounce back from any difficulty. Moving to succeed, after failing, thus demonstrating resilience and fortitude, erases the emotional and psychological necessity of the full experience of failure. Not the experience of failure for the purpose of eventually growing to succeed. Not failure for the purpose of future humility, to redefine the failure as an actual success. Not failure for the purpose of redirection to focus on other avenues of success. Fully experiencing failure means embracing failure as is, of being defeated, of losing.

It is important to experience our failures as failures, and not anything else.

To this point, one of the first agenda items I write in my notes is: lance this bloated idea of resilience.
Before I write further, yes, there is the natural caveat that there are many things in life which are neither successes nor failures. As such, there is an implicit possibility to view one’s actions or one’s life as a success or failure, when there isn’t necessarily that necessity. When it is though, when something is done that is felt as a failure, then it is. It is a failure. As a shrink, I don’t challenge it, and in my work with others, I try to not challenge another’s experience as much as possible. With others, I don’t deny the feeling of failure, the feeling of can’t, or of won’t. If it feels like defeat, then it is. If it feels too heavy, too hard, or too much for someone, then it is not my place to deny that experience.

Dismantling resilience, in part, means accepting failure as it is, and not denying its presence, which is what so many good intentioned resilience narratives do.

….

There is a line in Tera Naomi’s song, Job well done that states it clearly and completely: “maybe someday you’ll realize your mistakes and maybe make yourself accountable for one; and they say success has many parents, but failure is an orphan.”

I wish our failures weren’t orphaned, or disowned, or cosmetically changed into successes, but allowed to be as they are: owned failures. Wherein owning and feeling a failure isn’t beating yourself up for failing. Owning a failure isn’t shamefully or continuously torturing yourself for having failed and being defeated. Many people think that attacking themselves for failing is owning their failure, and in many ways it isn’t; because it de-centers the failure towards a feeling of being weak, awful, pitiful, stupid for having failed at all.

And this doesn’t help.

When we overvalue resilience, we do so at a tremendous cost.

Many people think that attacking themselves for failing is owning their failure, and in many ways it isn’t.
If a failure is met with a reactionary desire to succeed with more vigor, then the failure isn’t allowed to be felt. It isn’t allowed to be. You aren’t allowed to be. In many ways, we can double down in this regards: failing at allowing yourself to fail.

If the only narrative you, or others, or society, promotes is one of positivity, overcoming struggles, and never quitting and never failing, then all else is devalued, is dismissed, is deigned unimportant; but sometimes we do fail. We can hurt so much that we cannot imagine feeling better. Then in those times, empty platitudes of grit and resilience further inculcate worthlessness, because one didn’t succeed. Those supposedly encouraging words have in them an emotional shift of moving towards success that denies the very real experience of failure. You can hurl jargon and call it self-sabotage, narcissistically rooted denial, or even a subtle self-micro-aggression, but it’s all the same effect. Anything other than allowing a failure to be a failure disallows and denies a person from having their own experience. That hard if painful experience of failure.

For it is important to fail and to lose. Not so that you can win with more effort later, or to savor your success; that puts success at the center of failure, which isn’t the point. Failure is important because we have our limitations. And it is okay to fail. To cry. To not be strong. To be defeated. To feel our limits and our inability to push past them.

There is a necessity in failure. Not to jump to the next step for success, but to stay in the place of failure. Of maybe having hurt oneself. Of maybe having hurt others. But of owning your actions. Of feeling the impact that your actions, and yours alone, have had, and not using them to shame yourself and beat yourself up. This is the other slippery part. Shaming failure is as harmful as praising resilience; both are problems.

It’s okay to feel defeated. Because you are. And you aren’t crazy for being defeated.

 

About the Author

Brady

Facebook Twitter Google+

I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn bloated resilience

On false positive thinking

Photo by Brady. 2015.

“I know happiness doesn’t come from a relationship or a career, Brady… I try to be a good person, you know? I do my best and I just… am I depressed?” 

Oh positivity. That pesky and plucky idea. Supposedly, with the right positive, upbeat, encouraging message, yourself and others will be happy. If you aren’t happy, then it’s easily fixable, think the right thought and you can simply be happy and be the best you can be; for, it is the best. Happiness, in this plucky idea, is the ideal, unquestioned, positive state.

Insidiously though, positivity works. For some people, simply thinking happy thoughts, or reminding themselves of their blessings, helps evoke a sense of happiness and contentment. There are many people for whom a gentle reminder to think positive is all it takes to feel better. It is a vaguely nebulous feeling, this better, because it isn’t a graspable feeling itself, but a felt sense of movement away from one thing and onto another thing.

Being positive moves something away, shifts the focus, distracts.

Which isn’t to say that a distraction at all is awful. I don’t deny that positivity can be a beneficial distraction; it is also a beautifully devised saboteur.

A major pitfall to the power of positive thinking isn’t in the theory itself, which I’ll get into the theory’s blind-spots shortly, but in how it is wielded without skill or artful understanding by well-meaning friends, inspirational Instagrammers, #positivity retweeters, and a whole host of well-intentioned coaches, teachers, and advisors.

This is where positivity can blur objectivity: thinking positively and how you want to feel is as much a problem as thinking negatively and how you don’t want to feel.
In the hands of a more trained psychologist, positive psychology can be a particularly useful tool for particular problems. As any behaviorist will note, what is positive is what is added to a particular situation or interaction, and what is negative is what is removed from the same situation. The second mechanical component is that what is added can be either wanted (positive reinforcement) or unwanted (positive punishment), as well as what is removed can be wanted (negative punishment) or unwanted (negative reinforcement). This second component is where a lot of positivity, and the power of positive thinking, gets its pluck; it does something, it adds, it feels somehow more tangible. More doable. More concrete.

However, to a trained behaviorist and psychologist, all negative and positive tools can be used equally, with more or less precise aim and efficiency. Mostly though, positive psychology, and those neighboring ideas of setting a positive intention, focusing on gratitude, counting blessings, taking a strength inventory, and others, all have a narrow range of efficacy, because, as I mentioned above, it’s only a quarter of the possible behavioral interventions. Narrower still because of confirmation bias, and not seeing how positivity itself can be a problem.

Being positive moves something away, shifts the focus, distracts.
Confirmation bias, to take a slight tangent, is that other pesky idea that, to be succinct, is searching for a particular answer and discrediting all information that doesn’t support that particular answer. In terms of positive thinking, confirmation bias is thinking that positivity is the right way to think, so negativity is to be dismissed and discredited.

This is a bold statement, and I don’t write it purely theoretically, but from my own experience of doubling-down on positivity. Over the span of my career, I have come to realize in doing therapy with a firm desire to help others become better, with thinking more positively, that positivity itself got in the way of my helping. I didn’t consider that positive over-thinking could at all be problematic until, well, I started seeing the favored imbalance of thought as one that would leave many people struggling with their feelings that were anything other than positive.

This is where positivity can blur objectivity: thinking positively and how you want to feel is as much a problem as thinking negatively and how you don’t want to feel.

I was very fortunate in my clinical training to have amazingly sharp and deft supervisors. Perhaps sensing my own inclination to favor positive thinking, and an unshakeable idea that I, as a therapist, can know what’s best for others to think, my first supervisor told me, with unparalleled clarity, “anyone can give hope, but giving hope isn’t the answer to every problem.”

Narrower still because of confirmation bias, and not seeing how positivity itself can be a problem.
I didn’t initially get the meaning of my supervisor’s statement. Admittedly, I began my clinical career guilty of rushing to positive thinking too soon. I had many moments as a clinician when I rushed to give positive thinking, to giving the pep talk, because I nervously didn’t want to get into and examine someone else’s pain, their inner torment, powerlessness, despair, rage, fury, or grief. I would earnestly give positive affirmations, simply thinking it was what was best. Assuming, that is, feeling better is what is best, not dwelling on what was bad. If I could get someone to think differently, to feel differently, and by differently I meant better in my own definition, then I had done my job. However, I didn’t do my job when I was simply being positive.

It is very easy to sabotage another person’s growth, with your own hubris, from believing you know what is best for another person. It took me a long time to see my own positivity, my confirmation biases, my hubris, to make peace with them, and to be more cautious and precise in my usage of positive thinking, and to be aware of the root of my own desire to favor positive thinking which can setup further problems down the road.

Thinking positively, and encouraging others to think positively, is earnest in its aim to help, yet false, because positivity is no truer than negativity. However, the desire to think positively, for oneself to be more positive, or for another to be more positive, is a setup for difficulty when those positive affirmations don’t exactly materialize and happiness isn’t readily attained. A setup that someone who thinks positively might not see or even consider.

If I were to encourage your thinking in any way, it would be to see that those setting themselves or others up to think more positively may only have that tool for now, may only need that tool for themselves, and may not have the answer to every problem, and that may be okay for them. Thinking positively does a lot, but it doesn’t do everything. Being able to see what is lacking, what limits are there, what isn’t addressed, is to go beyond positivity; thinking beyond positivity isn’t better, it is simply beyond it, and there is a lot of valuable thought beyond thinking positively.

BradyOn false positive thinking

On boundaries and control issues 

On boundaries and control issues

Photo by Brady. 2015

“Brady, I can’t. Who would I even date if I started saying, ‘no,’ to all these men who don’t put in effort? No one does, so what else am I going to do? There’s not many options. I don’t want to not have sex ever again. But I kinda would if I rejected all these guys just cause they don’t try.”

At some point in most all of my professional relationships, we have a conversation about boundaries. On my end, it is a terrifying conversation because it is a very vulnerable and charged one that gets right to the source of most relationship difficulties and personal insecurities.

There is a palpable fear that I sense every time I encounter another’s resistance to setting boundaries; a fear of loneliness.

Some better relationship advice: don’t pick your battles.
A boundary, in essence, is a communicated and understood sense of what is wrong or unwanted for a person. A boundary is an expressed, “no.” Simple as. Yet incredibly challenging to do so, because it requires a level of self-awareness of what you do and do not want, and working out all of the ensuing conflict that may arise from standing up with integrity for what you do and do not want . Perhaps out of a fear of conflict and risking a relationship ending, many people won’t set boundaries, won’t address conflict, won’t stir the pot, won’t rock the boat, won’t be a person that would in any way jeopardize the relationship. With this, boundaries are not erected as a strategy to keep a relationship presumably going smoothly forward. However, that’s the implicit contradiction of not having boundaries. In not having boundaries for fear of losing relations when you make boundaries, you also do not experience being loved as you are and being in a tangibly trusting relationship.

By not setting boundaries, it is more than not smooth, it also is not having much of a relationship at all.

But how does this operate? Well I think one of the worst pieces of relationship advice is: pick your battles.

I’m not advising anyone to manufacture conflict in their personal relationships. There is a big difference from making up a conflict to make up a conflict, and not denying conflicts from arising, and thereby controlling them being addressed. I’m not saying you can control whether your boundaries exist or not, because that is a whole other topic altogether, but we can consciously control expressing our boundaries, and when we don’t express them we create relational problems in addition to personal.

Some better relationship advice: don’t pick your battles.

If you don’t like something and, “just let it go,” you are distancing yourself in your relationship. You are solving a problem by yourself and not with your partner. Yet, that’s why you have a relationship to begin with; figuring out who you are and what matters to you, and your partner figuring themselves out and what matters to them, and doing this together is what a relationship is all about. Letting conflicts and problems go unaddressed when they are noticed is an insidious tactic as well, for its aim is a vengeful winning and not a relating.

In not immediately bringing up a problem to address it as it arises, is to tactically wield that problem. You can strategically hold onto a problem, a boundary that you didn’t assert or address, only to use it later as ammunition, kitchen-sink style, to hurl it out with other things that were supposedly let go, but actually weren’t. This is using a relational problem designed to hurt another person, malevolently playing the victim wherein you made yourself the victim to gain the higher ground at some future point. This isn’t relating; this is aiming to win, and not solving a problem at all. Strategically, controlling how an issue comes up sabotages it being solved, and in not bringing issues up, well, you are also controlling how you are in a relationship at the cost of who you are.

Therein lies the personal cost of not having boundaries; you become less of a person and what matters to you, and you, matter less at your own doing.

There is a palpable fear that I sense every time I encounter another’s resistance to setting boundaries; a fear of loneliness.
And it is scary to give up this part of controlling yourself. To be unedited with another person and have them see you as you are is terrifying. There may be parts of you that even you don’t like, so you don’t share or express yourself fully. Mechanically, this is all done with boundaries around sharing and expressing the things you don’t like that you fear may be the cause of conflict. And it may. And you may not have your boundaries honored. But there is no chance of it being honored, of you being seen, of you being loved, if you don’t put up a boundary to begin with.

Controlling yourself and editing who you are to avoid conflict fundamentally distances yourself in a relationship. Which, to me, the purpose of being in a relationship is in part, being in relation, and along with it comes agreeing, disagreeing, opposing, collaborating, and conflicting. And you can’t be in a relationship by avoiding conflict, because there isn’t a you in that relationship. There is an idea of you, an edited you, acting in place of you.

I think this is lonelier. I think it is lonelier being an idea of yourself in a relationship, than it is not being in a relationship at all.

 

About the Author

Brady

Facebook Twitter Google+

I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn boundaries and control issues 

On unsolicited advice

Photo by Jonathan Brady. 2015.

“I’m going crazy. My girlfriend is driving me crazy! It’s always something. ‘Did you remember the keys?’ ‘Be sure to double-check the deadbolt.’ ‘Take this street, it’s quicker this time of day.’ She obviously thinks I’m an idiot, and she always has to be right. No matter what I do I just feel like she isn’t happy with me… Should I just break up with her now because I can’t do anything right?”

I hear these moments of frustration and hurt most days. The frustration and hurt are equally felt if rarely distinguished, especially in moments like these where it feels somehow certain that something is wrong, and uncertain what exactly is wrong. The confusion is also compounded, because there is a lot to figure out in a very delicate moment.

A single comment of unsolicited advice can lead to this Escher-y like ascent to emotional oblivion that might also be a descent into relationship oblivion; or maybe even closeness. Which is to say: it can be hard to fully understand or follow unsolicited advice. Unsolicited advice can vocalize expectations, responsibilities, balances of power, and relational history all as subtext, or tone, with a seemingly incongruent text of helpfulness, concern, or good intentions. In these moments it can be hard to know which way to move and what is meant with what is said.

The frustration and hurt are equally felt if rarely distinguished.
When someone tells you what to do or how they would do something, some sort of advice, there is a lot that is said in that exchange and a lot that can be felt. Emotionally, unsolicited advice can sound condescending, accusatory, disrespectful, demeaning, belittling, arrogant, presumptive, or even quizzically unrelated and a source of amusement. Relationally, it can feel like an attack, a jab, or an unsubtle undermining.

Unsolicited advice has a lot of emotional and relational nuance, but unfortunately it is rarely felt with any nuance. Most people simply feel it as unwanted and don’t look at it any further; they simply don’t want it. However, there are worlds of exploration waiting to be had in those moments.

I presumptively write this as a shrink that has spent considerable time dissecting emotional nuance in those moments, and with each instance of helping someone navigate unsolicited advice, I continuously encounter undiscovered twists and turns that we weren’t expecting to see nor were we looking for. Also, what can sharply twist it all around is the person, offering the unsolicited advice, can call it love.

Although in counseling I generally help people work towards hearing others from a loving place, unsolicited advice doesn’t feel exactly like love; it isn’t exactly love.

I think that one part of unsolicited advice that hurts is the realization that it is unsolicited, and in that moment of another person offering an idea that was not asked for, they demonstrate a kind of not listening; a jagged breaking. This advice comes, unbidden, unwanted, and as such the person receiving it can feel the implicit disconnection from the other person in that moment, and feel it as a kind of not listening, which therefore doesn’t feel like love. The advice itself can then be interpreted as an act of silencing; as more than a show of disconnection, but as an imposition of another’s expectations; as a reminder that we are not good enough like them; or an insidiously swallowed idea that we have never been listening or done right at all in our relationship. None of these interpretations look or sound like love either.

Unsolicited advice has a lot of emotional and relational nuance, but unfortunately it is rarely felt with any nuance.
This is one part of unsolicited advice, the not-exactly-listening leading to the not-exactly-loving, that I find most curious. It isn’t the only part, for there are many more, but it opens another psychological avenue to detour along.

I think how we hear other people, how we hear their intentions, how we interpret their intentions to suit our own emotional constructs of some idea of how a relationship is, is, well, brilliant.

Psychologically, it takes mental and emotional strength to hold both your interpretation and their intention as valid, without discrediting or dismissing either. Being able to hear unsolicited advice takes this strength.

Interpret it as you feel it, but interpret it for what it is and not for what it isn’t.
To throw some concrete, one therapeutic scenario I like to use is the unasked-glass-of-water. In this scenario, A is a guest and over visiting B. B, as a host, decides to go and get a glass of water for A, unsolicited, because B did not explicitly ask for a glass of water. B feels critiqued, as if A is implying that B can’t take care of their own physical needs. Or B feels infantilized, and not trusted to get water unsupervised. B might also feel it as uncaring, because food would have been preferred and felt as care. There could be many reactions and feelings that B has in response to A’s unsolicited actions, and they are all valid responses and reactions. Being given a glass of water can be felt as many things, but being given a glass of water isn’t being physically kicked in the stomach. This distinction is important; both the subjective distinctions and the objective distinction.

To stop my own digressing from my solicited advice about unsolicited advice, and to answer: interpret it as you feel it, but interpret it for what it is and not for what it isn’t.

To use the beginning part of this article to illustrate this point, in the unsolicited advice at the start, sure, feel it as a critique of your competency as an adult, a driver, and a partner, but also hear it as your partners own anxieties around safety, driving, and being late. Feel it like an unasked glass of water, because it is not a kick in the stomach.

Big picture here: this is an area that a lot of people struggle with.

It is long simmering emotional stew that I consistently challenge people to refine how they taste it. On a top-level, it is important to not dismiss one’s subjective, more personal experience of a moment. A little deeper is to also have some perspective on what may be happening intersubjectively, which is to say, all the possible relational moments that happen between persons. Further in, I encourage a little objectivity to see what is happening and what isn’t happening, and this requires more than a little imagination and an ability to not fully know, but to want to know, what is happening. As a grace note, I challenge people to not value or prioritize one facet of feelings or facts over another, because all are occurring simultaneously. This is all a lot to digest and discern, but I think this level of carefulness to one’s self and another is a balanced response to another’s unsolicited advice.

It may be hard to discern what is there: challenge, critique, conditional love and so much more. However, unsolicited advice isn’t complete disregard. It isn’t cold indifference. It isn’t silence.

 

About the Author

Brady

Facebook Twitter Google+

I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn unsolicited advice

On judging judgment

“Brady, my friends are so judgy. It’s hard being around them because they hate on everything. They’re so negative. I love them, but can’t stand them sometimes. I really try to be non-judgmental. Love everyone. You know?”

I don’t.

Usually in conversations about judgment, people’s feelings about being judged, personally judging others, others’ experiences of judgment, and so much more, the definitions of judgment and non-judgment are ill-defined.

On a rudimentary level, I like to think that there are “yes” judgments (like, want more, delight, love, etc.) and “no” judgments (dislike, want less, disgust, hate, etc.). Non-judgments then are simply data points removed of feelings. If we are to look at judgments, and what constitutes judgments, then as much as hate is a judgment, love, too, is a judgment. However, for many people, and more than a handful of good, nice, kind people, judgment is only considered judgment if the judgment is hate.

Why is that?

I think, on a cellular level, we are sensitive to our own feelings and the feelings of others. Sensitive in that we are moved in our feelings and can’t exactly consciously control our ability to feel, though we may consciously drown them out, suppress them, or hide them in shame. And yet we feel. We experience our lives, and others, and our world, and in doing so discover there are things we like and do not like. Then we may come to realize that our feelings aren’t exactly the same as others’ feelings. Ergo conflict.

There’s nothing inherently wrong in liking something or disliking something.
On a relational level, the struggle with feeling our feelings differently than others, is where I see and experience a lot of relational distance. If I love something that you hate, it truly does feel like we, in a relational sense, are worlds apart. Because we are. If I hate something and you hate something in a different way, then, too, it feels disconnected. In the act of judging, in knowing our feelings, we can feel, too, our experience of the world as different from others. We can feel distinct, separate, yet, if others somehow feel the same and therefore judge similarly, then we are united. We make an us vs. them position, which is a really comforting idea. It can mean, we think, we aren’t exactly alone.

With this, then, on an existential level we can not want to feel alone with everyone, and this comes out as a want for everyone to feel things as we feel them; we aren’t alone if others feel the same way. But they can’t, even if we expect them too.

Others can’t exactly feel what we are feeling, feel love like we feel love, or feel hate like we feel hate. Unfortunately, we can earnestly think this is how it should be.

In love, we can want the person that we love to feel the same way about us as we feel about them; we want to feel the same. In hate, we can also want other people to feel the same about what is being hated, and in doing so use others disliking to validate our own; we want to feel the same.

As much as hate is a judgment, love, too, is a judgment.
But to feel our own feelings, and to feel them as our own and not others, we run the risk of also feeling our separateness from others; of no one else feeling the exact same way. To avoid this, we can play cloyingly earnest mind games with ourselves, wherein we disguise our vulnerable feelings of love and hate. We can say we don’t hate a person, we don’t like their behavior; still a no, so still feeling hate. We can say we aren’t in love, we are simply really excited to see someone; still a yes, so still feeling love. We can say that we don’t hate anyone, but simply not support what goes against our sincerely held beliefs; still an oppositional stance, so still hate. We can say we only have a crush on someone else and that it isn’t love, because we don’t want to run the risk of feeling more for someone than they feel for us; still a delightful openness, so still love. In this, we hide our feelings from others, and even from ourselves.

To reiterate before redirecting, there’s nothing inherently wrong in liking something or disliking something. Not at all. But knowing and feeling our own feelings does separate us. We don’t exactly judge in the exact same way. This, too, leads to conflict. How does this conflict translate on a more therapeutic perspective? I think the more comfortable we are fully feeling our own feelings doesn’t always translate to allowing other people to fully feel their feelings. These are two very close yet distinct skills. There’s judging. There’s also judging judging.

If, and I don’t think I’m writing with too much assumption on the side, that judgment is equated with condemnation, contempt, or simply hate, then hating hate becomes its own judging judging conflict.

Hate needn’t be hated. Unless, of course, a person prescribes to the tidy idea that only bad, evil, hateful people feel hatred. In other words, good people are good and feel love, and bad people are bad and feel hate. Am I painting in broad strokes, and more than a little condescending, when I write that? Yes, but I’m not nearly as condescending as the fragile idea itself.

So no. Haters aren’t going to simply hate. A person can hate and love many things, and having one judgment doesn’t fully define a person as who they are. It is a start, but it is only a start if the judgment is more fully explored, deepened, reexamined, and judged further. Our judgments can only change through examination, and having an understanding of our own feelings to begin with.

Going even deeper, if we are fully committed to only loving what we love and only hating what we hate, we narrow our judgments and further isolate ourselves. The ability to see what others love, to see how it is lovable, to see how others hate, to see what’s important for them in their hatred, is to judge more. I love those judgments.

Hate needn’t be hated. Unless, of course, a person prescribes to the tidy idea that only bad, evil, hateful people feel hatred.
What I find remarkably curious are the people that cannot accept their own judgments; those that cannot embrace what they love or acknowledge standing up for what they hate. Owning and expressing what you love and what you hate, both, equally, are vulnerable positions. To know what a person loves, and how they feel and express that love is a beautiful and stark window into their personhood. To know what a person hates, and how they feel and express that hate is also a beautiful and stark window into their personhood. Knowing what someone loves or hates, then, makes them more known, and therein lies the possibility of that person being more fully judged.

Personally, and professionally, I think of love as a deeply felt sense of yes, and also as a soft yes. I also think of hate as a deeply felt sense of no, but also as a polite no. Being able to own, embrace, feel, and vocalize what you like and what you do not like is incredibly difficult on an intrapersonal level of knowing, but also on an interpersonal level. When others know more about what you like and dislike, they know you more fully. They can also judge you on deeper parts of yourself when they know what exactly you feel.

You not letting others know what you feel, well, keeps them from judging you and either hating or loving you.

You not letting yourself know what you feel, also, keeps you from judging yourself. Doing so then prevents you from loving yourself.

What judgments do I hate? Incomplete ones.

If someone loves something or someone, and doesn’t discern what they love or how they love, it sounds more like an idea of a judgment than a judgment itself. It seems hollow. It’s an I-like-it-because-I-like-it  judgment that doesn’t seem to start anywhere. The same is true about hate and a person being unable to articulate what they hate or how that hate feels. What I hate about these incredibly incomplete judgments is how much is relationally lost; how much more of a person I could know, could get closer to, could understand, if they were to judge.

If other people having strong feelings of hate, or love, is upsetting to you, then feel that hatred. Allow yourself, above all else, to fully feel your feelings and, after allowing yourself to fully feel them, allow others the same opportunity. If they cannot own their feelings of love or hate, you can hate them for their cowardice and their desire to not know their own heart. If they cannot own their feelings, you can also find yourself loving them and respecting how difficult and scary it is to know one’s self.

 

About the Author

Brady

Facebook Twitter Google+

I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

 

BradyOn judging judgment

On the consequences of sexual abstinence

unheld-hand.JPG“Brady, am I going crazy? My wife, maybe ex, I don’t know what to call her, us, right now, but we don’t have sex. We haven’t really since our wedding night and we waited until our wedding night. I respected her choice, mine too, but… it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Why is it bad?”

Admittedly, I was unpleasantly surprised when I started to see more and more persons, and couples, in my practice struggling with the consequences of abstinence on their marriage, their dating life, and their self-esteem. Maybe if I intermittently saw one person, or one couple, struggling with abstinence and waiting for marriage to have sex, then it would be a pleasant surprise. Pleasant in its affirmation that abstinence provides for more secure and stable relationships.

But not.

I see quite a number of individuals and couples that are struggle with the difficult consequences of abstinence, most after they have been married, and a few, before they have even become engaged to another person. I’ve seen abstaining from sex used as an out from addressing emotional problems of self-worth and loneliness, as a smokescreen for demoralizing ideas about sex, and as a way of gaining the approval of one’s parents or one’s community. I’ve seen, in many ways, how the tidy idea of waiting to have sex until after marriage supposedly makes things better, and yet it precariously places a whole new set of problems on the top of the problems that inherently arise in having any sexual relationship.

Pedagogically speaking, sexual abstinence rests on the teachable notion that waiting, delaying, or not-having sexual activity before marriage is ideal for marriage, which is also conflated to being beneficial for life in general. Abstinence only education, as set in Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act: has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity; … teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical side effects; … teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society.

There it is, an education on the benefits of abstaining from sex before marriage and the dire consequences of premarital sex.

I’ve seen, in many ways, how the tidy idea of waiting to have sex until after marriage supposedly makes things better, and yet it precariously places a whole new set of problems on the top of the problems that inherently arise in having any sexual relationship.
Psychologically speaking, encouraging someone to agree to something without fully informing them of the benefits, limits, and consequences is manipulative at best, unethical, at a minimum. I write this because sexual abstinence is presented without a discussion of the problems that arise from abstinence.

I’m not entirely certain where the idea comes from that when sex occurs after marriage, it’ll simply happen, with no attendant problems or complications, because waiting until after committing to a relationship to start a whole new aspect of relating makes it more beneficial. I don’t see where that jump happens. Logistical, mechanical, anatomical, emotional, and relational factors come into play to make sex work, and those factors don’t simply happen, premarital or postmarital. Focusing on those is beneficial for having a long and vibrant sex life, but is not part of an abstinence discourse. Why is it not? Regretfully, I have no idea why not.

Logistically, the when’s, the where’s, the desired frequency, the desired duration of sex are all negotiable and in flux over a person’s life, and they are for each person. Getting two people, logistically, to have sex together is a bit of a shuffle, in dating for sure, and especially for lifelong marital sex. The logistics of sex are a large part of one’s sexual identity, potential sexual problems, and an incredibly large part of making a relationship healthy and stable. Rewording it: prioritizing sex happens in logistical conversations. Without having sex prior to a marriage, it means figuring out the logistics and logistical problems that could occur prior to any form of contact occurring, and each party owning the responsibility of addressing logistical problems. There’s a lot to work out, logistically, in having a satisfying sexual relationship, short-term or long-term, which requires sex occurring and to the amount that satisfies all parties; harder if neither party has experience with taking responsibility for sex occurring.

Mechanically, sex has a lot of moving parts. Understanding the intimate choreography of sex, like eye contact whilst synchronizing thrusts, and how to navigate your and your partners bodies, like positioning oneself to avoid leg cramps but not make your partner’s legs fall asleep, is its own unique education. With both parties waiting to have sex, that means there will be a long learning process of awkward, anxiety inducing, fumbling, and uncomfortable sexual encounters to go through with a partner, and neither knowing what could be better and what better actually looks or feels like. Rarely do I hear of persons, who are waiting until marriage for sex, discussing the beginning of their marriage as including or expecting lots of awkward, uncomfortable, if painful, sexual activity.

If you add a level of perfectionism to either party, any semblance of a hint of imperfection about the first or the fiftieth sexual encounter may sound the alarms of sexual incompatibility. To assuage some anxiety, expect incompatible sex; compatibility is a long process of discovery, not some reward for delayed gratification. The idea that perfect sex will happen simply because it is delayed until marriage, well, undermines how sex is also a process of learning about how you and your partner can fit together. Mechanically, abstinence increases the problems of how sex operates, because no one in that moment knows how sex can operate differently, thus increasing the problematic nature of initial sexual experiences.

To assuage some anxiety, expect incompatible sex; compatibility is a long process of discovery, not some reward for delayed gratification.
Anatomically, how well you know your body, and how you know your own body and your partner’s body, is an evolving process. Your physicality, athleticism, and imagination are all important to sex, and so is your understanding of your and your partner’s anatomy. There are body parts, all worthy of considerable learning time, and there is also your experience of, and experience with, each other’s bodies. Yes, you can look at textbook diagrams of genitalia, very technical, very important, but that isn’t the same as knowing your partners reaction to your experiencing of their body and all its personal peculiarities. The experience of being touched so personally, if anatomically, is also an emotional and sexual touch.

Consequentially, and skipping ahead a bit to the emotional domain, the feeling of vulnerability when naked and touched, is heightened, and how you feel about your own body, your weight, your musculature, your sizes, your smells, your self-worth, your physically naked self, becomes its own delicate territory that both you and your partner are now navigating without ever having navigated before; without knowing better, you are at greater odds for emotionally and physically hurting each other. Being that it’ll also be your first time having sex, the impression that your first partner leaves on your body and how you feel your own body from their touch will be even greater and will have more of an impact on your sexual identity. It is hard to feel confident and capable in one’s own body, especially without the thoughts or ideas of others being imposed on your body; harder still when no one in the room has experienced being naked or engaged in sexual activity with another body, and distinguishing your thoughts (of your body and their body and sex in general and sex specifically with them) from their thoughts (of your body and their body and sex in general and sex specifically with them). Doing so makes sex, your sexual identity, and your sexual experiences, all the more nuanced; to not miss the person for the parts, but to see the person and all the parts.

The idea that perfect sex will happen simply because it is delayed until marriage, well, undermines how sex is also a process of learning about how you and your partner can fit together.
Emotionally there are many feelings and moods that can occur during sex itself, and many ways to have sex. I’m not referring to positions or technique here, because that is mechanical; I’m referring to feelings. Having sex to explore what feels right for you, what feels right for your partner, to be nurtured, to take care of your partner, to give up control, to take control, to comfort, to console, to reconnect, to lose yourself, feel powerful, feel held, feel wanted, feel important, and so much more are all distinct and to be distinguished. It is difficult to discuss emotions that are involved in sex, generally, because most people have a hard time identifying their feelings and moods, and problematic too when emotions are restricted to either love or lust, and only one is somehow deemed appropriate. From my side of the couch, emotional maturity means growing beyond idyllic notions of love as good and lust as bad. Sexual problems routinely arise when only one emotion, one mood, becomes the habitual norm, and there is an inability to desire, or discern, any other kind of encounter. With an abstinence only frame, where one emotion is the goal of sex and the focus of sex, consequentially, the breadth of emotion that can be experienced in sex is lost because of the restriction to love. A consequence of abstinence, then, is a more restricted starting place for sex, emotionally.

Relationally, how you navigate decisions about sex, together, is also a huge learning curve in sexual relationships. You may be in the mood and your partner may not be in the exact mood, or you may want a tender kind of sex and your partner a more animalistic encounter, or you may want to get your pregnancy on whereas your partner doesn’t. What then? Relationally, how you navigate and decide together what you want sex to be, for you and for your partner, is an evolving process, and one that is not concurrent nor simultaneous, as two people will naturally be in two different places emotionally and relationally throughout the course of a relationship. Being able to know and to assert your wants without minimizing or negating your partner’s wants is more easily said than done, and harder still when never done before and with raised stakes. Sex in marriage is also high stakes because you are choosing to do this for the rest of your foreseeable future. It’s raised stakes when you add the abstinence option like: jumping into the deep end of the pool, without ever having a swim lesson, or thought of drowning; not training for the marathon, but simply doing the marathon, and expecting to finish first; purchasing a car without even a license, demonstrating responsibility as a driver, or a test ride, and not even imagining what another might car might be like; buying a house without even seeing it, knowing its location, and never making any repairs because it had to be perfect as is. I could give more examples of stakes, even some nuanced ones that allude to sexual problems arising from abstinence, but I’ll hold back.

Relationally, how you address the consequences of having sex together, while not blaming each other for these consequences, is incredibly difficult. Harder still with no prior ability, heightened expectations of being committed to each other for the rest of your lives, and without any experience of solving sexual problems so far in your life.

Being able to know and to assert your wants without minimizing or negating your partner’s wants is more easily said than done, and harder still when never done before with added raised stakes.
In truth, all of these problems, logistically, mechanically, anatomically, emotionally, and relationally, arise in sexual relationships. However, when abstinence is a factor in a person’s sex life, it adds a uniquely opportunistic component: betrayal.

Betrayal is the largest problem that I have encountered in counseling couples who decided to be abstinent until marriage; because the person they agreed to marry, and they thought they knew, didn’t remain the person they were, or be the person they said they would be once they started having sex. Yes, sex changes things, but more specifically, you change by growing and discovering parts of yourself that maybe you weren’t even aware of. Yes, you are agreeing to a whole change in how you relate, how you interact, how you communicate, how vulnerable you are, without knowing what you are getting yourself into, and after you have agreed to a lifetime with this other person and these problems.

Changing so personally, and so globally, and also not expecting problems and difficulties to arise because you did the, “right thing,” by waiting until marriage, is a perfect setup for feelings of betrayal and broken trust.

With abstinence, ironically, betrayal and broken trust arises, not from sex outside the marriage, but with sex inside the marriage.

It is so much harder to get close to a person when parts of oneself are hidden. To date and never know the familial parts of a person and meet their family, has added consequence. To date and never know the social parts of a person and their friendships, has extra consequences. To date and never know the professional or financial background of a person, has more consequences. To date and never know the sexual side of a person, has implicit consequences. These are all personal and intimate parts of a person, and each and every aspect of a person is worthy of being known. If hidden, this precludes an informed knowing of another person, which increases the likelihood of betrayal, in dating and in marriage.

To date and abstain, means choosing to leave a part of a potential partner unknown. Like leaving unknown the feeling of holding a loved one’s hand.

If holding hands is something that is important to you, is intimate for you, then sexual abstinence asks of you to not even hold hands until after a ring is on a particular finger of that hand.

With abstinence, ironically, betrayal and broken trust arises, not from sex outside the marriage, but with sex inside the marriage.
Those that champion abstinence may disagree on handholding, but if pressed, would acknowledge the intimacy of the act, and thus the need for abstaining. Going further into extra expectations, if we assume a heterosexual pairing, with attendant gender assumptions… we actually wouldn’t assume otherwise. Again, abstaining from sex is pitched as part of the procreation within marriage discourse, which leaves out a lot of people who may not want to be married and/or a lot of sex that isn’t aiming for pregnancy.

With regard to the narrow intended audience of those choosing to abstain from sex, if sex is to be relegated to the narrow confines of a singular long-term relationship for the purpose of procreation, sex does lose some of its luster by becoming myopically goal oriented, rather than process oriented.

My not subtle and not secretive agenda: I would hope that those persons that believe sex is for the purpose of procreation also have purposeless sex that is process oriented, and is about reconnecting, about losing yourself in your partner’s body, or even about being silly.

My desire for those persons that choose to abstain from sex before marriage, and do eventually marry, is to address their sexual development and identity and extra-marital (because it is extra) problems, gently.

You are going down a harder road, not for greater reward, or a more stable union with less unknown variables, but for greater problems and more unknowns to explore.

There is this idea that love is limited, and that giving your body to another is like giving a piece of yourself away, and your ability and capacity to love is limited and to be rationed. Curiously, this idea  thinks lowly of love, that love is finite, that a person cannot grow to love more, and that your value lies in not fully loving another person.

Abstinence, then, is valuing the denial of love, and choosing additional problems. It is a choice of a certain set of extra problems, and a commitment to live with those extra problems for better or for worse. Metaphorically, and literally, it is choosing to hold onto a hand that you haven’t held before, and that hand now has the added weight of a ring.

About the Author

Brady

Facebook Twitter Google+

I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn the consequences of sexual abstinence

On boundaries and controlling others

East Side Galley, Berlin Germany: A portion of still-standing Berlin Wall was turned into a place for artists to display their work in 1990. Photograph by Benice Atufunwa, 2014.

East Side Galley, Berlin Germany: A portion of still-standing Berlin Wall was turned into a place for artists to display their work in 1990. Photograph by Benice Atufunwa, 2014.

Brady, why do I let others walk all over me? Why do I let others disrespect me so much? There must be something I am doing that says, ‘low self esteem here!’ What is it about me that says this is okay?!”

When someone asks me these questions in an individual  therapy session and goes down this brittle line of self reflection, or boldly ventures into this territory in a couples counseling session, I get a little panicky. In that moment, I’m in very delicate territory, flashing red psychoanalytic lights and all, and I can easily hurt someone even with my kindest of intentions.

To get into some of these questions, and if we are to spend some time exploring how others can walk over our boundaries, then it is important to discuss how boundaries are formed and wall are concretized.

Our boundaries are simply those things we don’t want (e.g. a phone call to go unreturned longer than two days) rather than what we do want (e.g. a return phone call within two days), and that line, either in stone or sand, marks where we stand and what matters to us. Making boundaries, setting limits, then, is an explicit process of acknowledging what we do not want, and altogether saying: no. With this, taking a stand, mapping a border, erecting a wall, growing thorns, all and more beautiful imagery, is an act that also acknowledges it isn’t in a vacuum; a slip occurs, borders are crossed, walls are sieged, flowers are cut. Therein lies an intrinsic utility of boundaries.

A wall is built to be pushed against, not to not be pushed against.

Making boundaries, in some large or small way, means expecting those boundaries to be tested. However, I know many people may think the exact opposite. They think: why are others walking over me? Rather than: of course others will try to walk over me. Or: why do others disrespect me? Rather than: of course others will disrespect me. Or going deeper: why won’t they do exactly what I want? Rather than: of course they won’t do exactly what I want, because I can’t control them. I’ll digress on that last point a little later.

Making boundaries, setting limits, then, is an explicit process of acknowledging what we do not want, and altogether saying: no.
The difference, to make explicit rather than implicit in my examples, is the inherent expectation that others will not challenge boundaries, and the existence of boundaries at all means an issue is settled, once and for all, and no longer in question. I don’t believe that. Furthermore, if you believe your boundaries are implicit, that what you don’t want is clear, or that others just know them without your communication and naming them, well, I would call those designed to fail, not designed to be tested. To hold someone to a standard of behavior without including them in knowing and understanding that standard, is also not relational at all. It’s a trap.

Setting a boundary to not let others walk all over you doesn’t mean they won’t try to do so, and that also means you have no control over their actions. Which isn’t to say it is futile to make boundaries. I believe it is important for our relationships and for our mental and emotional health to make our expectations explicit and known, even if they might not be honored. For how else can someone grow to love you if they don’t know what you want or do not want? If nothing else, I do think that loving someone is a deliberate and conscious choice to see another person in all that they want and do not want; I like to add the reminder that there will be much unseen in any person, especially one you love.

To hold someone to a standard of behavior without including them in knowing and understanding that standard, is also not relational at all. It’s a trap.
I mention this aspect of seeing as part of love because I also believe that others will disrespect you, walk over your boundaries, generally because they are doing what they want to do, or they don’t see or expect boundaries in the first place. The setting of boundaries to ensure you maintain full control of your life is, too, an exercise of you controlling others. Their not seeing your boundaries, their choices to honor them or not, is fully outside of your control, too. Simultaneously, your boundaries are an attempt to control others as much as their walking over yours is an attempt to control you. Relationships are messy, intrinsically so, because every person might have ideas of what is best for their life and best for others, but bringing someone into one’s life comes with this possibility of all parties imposing ideas and boundaries and controlling each other. To quote my friend Will Iles, who is perhaps more succinct than I am, “we can’t control all aspects of our lives. Especially if we want to share it.”

I think that’s the uncomfortable point I’ve been circling around. Sharing your life means giving up aspects of control.

I’m a little far from the idea of what a person does to illicit others’ desires to walk over another, but not that far. What other persons do is outside of your control, even though your setting of boundaries to be respected and loved, is a form of controlling others behavior as well. A necessary tension, if you will, inherent within our relationships.

A wall is built to be pushed against, not to not be pushed against.
Expecting others to do as we say simply because we say so, is earnest at best, believing that you know what is best for yourself and others, yet it is also the premise of considerable relational hurt, because others, especially the ones we love, aren’t under our control.  Setting a boundary doesn’t mean it will be any more likely to be agreed upon, respectfully honored, or obeyed. And yet, the act of setting a boundary, explicitly, is an act of making that boundary known, and in so doing, making you, the boundary maker, known. You making a boundary known makes you known, it doesn’t make you in control. It does, to thesis this writing, make you more present and able to be loved.

Overall, I would say that I like others setting boundaries, truly, but I like it more when their boundaries are moved. When a person’s ideas of who they are and what they want change, it is a moment of illumined personal beauty. To see walls made, those same walls crumble, then rebuilt anew, then dissolved again, each time important, each time necessary, is to also witness growth. To see these small movements of another’s growth, and to be with another as their boundaries are made and remade, is part of the honor and privilege of sharing your life with someone.

 

About the Author

Brady

Facebook Twitter Google+

I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn boundaries and controlling others

On picking a partner

picking_a_partner.JPG “Doc, what should I look for in a partner?”

This question.

I get this question a lot in my practice, and it breaks my heart in small ways and large ways each and every time. On the whole, the idea of what people find desirable in partners, and how they view particular aspects and qualities of the other person as criteria to date or not date, baffles me.

There’s the big philosophical and psychological question of why we pick the romantic partners that we pick. There’s also this operational question, which is the one that baffles and fascinates me most. Operationally, how we pick our partners, and on what criteria we pick them, offers lots of avenues of exploration. Especially, or maybe I’ll say remarkably, I encounter people that choose partners based on supposedly relational criteria that I don’t see as relational at all. For some linky examples of what I don’t see as relational choosing criteria, there are people choosing relationships based on: being a geek, cycling, being a doctorgirls who traveltall guys, curvy girls, and even that classic trope of bad boys. These are lovely lists, which most read as more of a justification for dating, or worthiness to date, but I’ve personally and professionally heard of types as being relational necessities, which I struggle to see.

To move away from types and onto characteristics, I still hear a lot of ideas of what to look for in a relationship that have nothing to do with relationships: “Ambitious.” Ambition says something about a person’s ability to work toward their personal goals but nothing about a relational capacity. “Stable.” Stability is lovely in theory, as some signifier of personal growth, but we are all a gentle nudge over a precipice of perceived permanence, and we can so easily lose our jobs, health, family members, financial plans, or any others placeholders for stability. This characteristic also says little about relational ability. “Hot.” Hotness and perceived sexual attractiveness is super temperamental, because you can like someone, and in doing so find them hot, but once you stop liking, that heat, that attractiveness, that chemistry, can easily dissipate. There are tons more examples of qualities (e.g. confidence) or characteristics (e.g. doesnt live at home with the parents) that people may use to deem the suitability of a partner which have little relational bearing, but I won’t go more into those.

This article is about picking partners, and to that end, here’s what I would call relational criteria, or some unordered guideposts for this exploration on picking partners:

Effort. Returning phone calls, going on dates with you, a generally even text-messaging ratio, remembering your friends’ names, remembering your work schedule, remembering prior conversations, holding the door, and asking, “how was your day?” are all what I would generally consider nice, but not really effort. It is easy to interpret any action done on the part of a potential partner as having effort, and in many ways it is a demonstration of your kindness to assume that positive intent, but it doesn’t mean that effort is there. In my book, effort is the intentional act of reaching out, going beyond one’s self, of seeing things from the other person’s perspective, and preferring to make decisions with you rather than for you. As an example of effort, if you planned a date on a specific night and they can’t do that particular night/place, they give a counter offer of another day/time/location, rather than disagreeing altogether. Simply agreeing to a plan isn’t effort either; working towards something that works for all parties, is. True, it may seem petty to think of measuring effort and monitoring who is doing the planning and work, but ideally both you and they are demonstrating effort. In my book, consistent displays of effort build a feeling of trust, which is key to knowing that your partner is there for you.

To consider effort: with distinction, how am I demonstrating my ongoing desire to relate and how are they demonstrating their ongoing desire to relate?

In many ways, this is our kindness, assuming positive intent in others’ actions, and their actions may in no way be coming from a place of kindness.
Kind. This is a tough one. If we think someone is a a good partner to be, then we may take any action or behavior that they do as a form of kindness. In many ways, this is our kindness, assuming positive intent in others’ actions, and their actions may in no way be coming from a place of kindness. Being bought gifts may be kind, but it may also be about their personal wants of showing off their partner in hot new clothes or their own personal thoughts on what is expected, but not requested. Being taken to dinner may be kind, but it may be about the other person’s control issues and not wanting to seem dependent. Having the door opened to you may be kind, but it may be more about a presumed formality of what should happen than what you want to happen. In my scorecard, that you are treated as you want to be treated, granted you also treat yourself kindly, is where kindness is felt.

To distinguish kindness, and to see it, I like to ask: how am I being treated as a person, especially with regards to what I don’t like about myself?

Generous. I’m not talking money and gifts here. Those are nice, cute even, but can be more about the person giving than the one receiving. Generosity, to me, is with time and priorities. If a relationship is to occur, it is with respect to everyone’s time restraints, and consideration and weight is given to all priorities of all parties involved. If only one person’s time, energy, or priorities are valued then there is an inherent imbalance of power that can make relating difficult. Within this, it is difficult for all parties to relate to each other when there is an imbalance to this degree that. And yes, it may seem like a given thing, or an assumed part of relationships for compromise to occur, but a person that sees the value in what you value, and generously prioritizes it because it benefits you, regardless of any secondary gain on their part, is a relational skill to prioritize.

To decipher generosity: are time and energy being given, by my partner to be, to my priorities outside the relationship? And I to theirs?

Loving. I’m not talking about niceness. Nor am I talking about generally vague good feelings. Being loved, and what feels like love for you, because it feels like it to you, is the relational component. Now, you may really like a partner that is super invested in your life and gets really close to your friends and family, but they seem to shower you with gifts, some expensive, some less than shiny; that’s all very nice. Not quite felt as love. I’d say, in not so many words, that it isn’t quite love when their showing of love is more about what matters to them than what matters to you. If you want physical touch to feel connected to your partner, and they show that they care by holding your hand, but only in private, and only at your initiation, then I wouldn’t call that enough. In many ways, whether with therapy, counseling, or a lot of introspection, knowing what feels connecting for you, and how you want to be cared for is essential in being able to have a relationship. It also gives you the nuanced perspective to consider how your partner wants to be loved.

As a great guiding question: how am I being loved by this person, and is it how I want to be loved?

I’d say, in not so many words, that it isn’t quite love when their showing of love is more about what matters to them than what matters to you.
Apologetic. Now, a person who is always apologizing, always putting themselves down to elevate you, who is constantly self critical isn’t the most relational. They may have a horrible relationship with themselves, which is a whole other thing, and that isn’t the kind of relational sense that I’m encouraging being sought after. Having a relationship does mean, in large part, impacting those close to you in pleasant and unpleasant ways, and being impacted and growing as a person because of this other person. Expecting a relationship to be always smooth, kind, generous, loving, and not conflictual, not tense, nor disagreeable at times is to be unrealistic. Accordingly, seeing any sign of hurt, disloyalty, or discomfort in a relationship as a sign of weakness and not worthy of working on, both personally and relationally, is also a sign of lacking relational ability and not working on a relationship. Apologizing, repairing, taking responsibility, having a partner that sees the impact of their actions on you, changing themselves and their behavior, and asking for forgiveness when having done wrong and putting the relationship in your gentle hands is a demonstration of many relational abilities. A fantastic demonstration. A demonstration of being in a relationship.

To discern an ability to apologize, consider: have they apologized for some wrong, an important one, and changed to correct it?

Small caveat: it is easy to believe that in romantic relationships we are treated differently by our partners than how they treat others in their life. I largely disagree. I rarely believe that in romantic relationships both partners are the exception to how they treat and relate to others. I believe in romantic relationships, we simply get more of the same. To simply assess a partner as pickable or not based on how they treat you, and not take into account how they treat others, is to miss a whole host of information. Picking someone who is kind to others, is giving to others, tailors their connection to others based on them, and has the dedication to apologize and mend relationships that aren’t with you, is also picking someone that demonstrates a relational capacity to be with others, and maintain relationships with others. It can be difficult to assess how a partner to be treats others, but it is also an important relational priority to have: prioritizing their priorities. See above on effort and generosity.

Big caveat for those who have already picked a partner and maybe this writing has induced some anxiety on your own part that your partner might not seem pickable: all of the above can be worked on. Working on the above, is relating. It is effort. Throwing in the towel because a person isn’t fully relational, fully able to participate in a relationship from the first date, the infinitesimal moment of a first greeting, of any meeting, is to not work on relating. That’s a whole lot of a lot of sabotaging mechanisms designed to only allow a perfect partner the possibility of a relationship. This mechanism of only accepting perfection and not perfecting your relational abilities, perfects, ironically, the inability to be in a relationship.

….

Even in all the work that goes into finding a person to have a relationship, to discerning their readiness to have a relationship, to working on yourself to be able to be ready to be in a relationship, the relationship can still fail. Refining your ability to pick only goes so far in a relationship working or not, but it does refine your awareness of relational qualities, which is largely helpful in being in a relationship.

So pick a partner. Pick a partner based on their ability to be a partner. Be their partner. Be kind. Be generous. Be loving, as they want to be loved. And when you do wrong by them, do better.

 

 

About the Author

Brady

Facebook Twitter Google+

I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn picking a partner