Couple’s Threat Narrative or What Happens in a Fight
A reason I write these blogs is to stay in touch with former clients and provide some kind of ongoing support. I need to be more faithful about that so here is a reminder for every couple I have seen about what arguments, conflicts, or fights are: Your partner is not “the enemy” or the problem, the threat cycle is, and the narrative in your head that goes along with it.
One of the more powerful insights from EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) for couples to understand is the threat narrative, that voice in our head telling us what is happening is not good. When we are threatened, either emotionally or physically, our brain and body go into reactive, self protective mode. Our perspective narrows as our fight/flight center in the brain ( the amygdala) takes over in a split second and our thinking, reasoning part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) goes offline. We are geared up and ready for action and the threat is our loved one. This is the genesis of our fights. And this little voice in our head is creating a narrative, a story that we tell ourselves about our spouse or loved one, and maybe even about ourselves, that is based on a narrowed, limited threat perspective. In other words it does not represent the whole picture of who your spouse/lover is and you cannot trust it as the truth. If we are to stop our fights with one another we must learn to recognize this commentary in our head and stop listening to it. This is what couples therapy helps us do. This is the first issue we address in couples therapy and it changes relationships.
No doubt it is challenging to slow down this adrenaline driven threat response, it is probably the most challenging hurdle to overcome in repairing your relationship. Everything in your body and brain is screaming “danger, danger” and it’s difficult to listen to the new voice of attachment saying “your partner is not the real enemy”. Well, your partner is not the real enemy, so listen to the voice of attachment and work with each other to get out of the threat, attack-defend cycle that may spiral out of control into a very ugly place. Then we couples can create a new, more safely connected narrative together.
Blessings and may peace reign in your hearts.
I have not written a blog since April of this year. Something about the nature of things, the pandemic, the election, social unrest, family matters, has made me mute. I really have not had much to say, which means I have not been reflective of my life experiences and what they may signify. Maybe my lack of reflection is from being overwhelmed by life. What I have experienced has been too much to process as this pandemic drags on and family changes and challenges mount up. The onslaught of visceral violence we all have witnessed through the media, eroding the life I am used to so that the routines, the rituals, the way of life being so altered that one loses their footing. Not that the loss of footing necessarily means falling, crashing to the ground, but rather a kind of disorientation living in a strange, new world of uncertainty.
Maybe the most impactful uncertainty has been because of the fear of letting others know what I think about ‘the nature of things”. I have become more cautious, even afraid to say what I think or believe, for fear of being attacked or rejected or misunderstood. So I say nothing, and I am subtly impacted with a degree of separation between myself and others that it takes a toll on my well being that is difficult to name and describe. I can think of many instances where I have chosen not to say something for fear of offending or being misunderstood. That is not my nature, to be so cautious. I usually don’t worry about what others think of me, but the continued state of uncertainty that we all are living in seems to have caused an emotional instability in more people, including myself, a sensitivity to differences that risks an eruption of disconnection.
And of course we literally are living more apart and isolated, intentionally distancing ourselves, even from our own family members who may be at risk. We are also living with a fear, either denied, repressed or expressed, of getting infected. Wether we admit it or not, we are more vulnerable, especially those of us who are baby boomers (the beginning of the end of baby boomer dominance). We can’t hug, touch, and be comforted, many are dying alone in a room. It is psychically destabilizing and disorienting, which worsening mental health statistics of depression and suicide substantiate.
And yet, at least for me, it is Christmas, the season of hope and peace, good will to all, a light shining in the darkness. (But even here, I wonder if I am offending those of you who do not celebrate the birth of Christ, risking putting a wall between us, especially those of you who are clients of mine. I hope you know I have no wall between us and that I am treating you with honor and respect, no matter what you profess. Please let me know if you feel otherwise.) And what is this light shining, this hope? It is love, a love that sees no divisions, no enemies, no separation. A love that connects everything and everyone, a love that perhaps brings two planets together again to shine a light that has not been seen in 800 years and it just happens to be 2020, a year of chaos, uncertainty and darkness. Boy, did we need to be reminded of such a light.
Invisible and Unseen Real
It is perhaps significant that our world, the entire world, is confronted with a silent, invisible enemy that can only be confronted, at this point, by social isolation. My wife Carolyn and I had dinner with friends last night, so we did not isolate; there was one child, and six adults, a total of 7 so we were within the 10 person limit. We mostly practiced social distancing but probably made mistakes, like touching our face, or hugging someone, and if any one of us has the virus we likely infected each other.
Carolyn and I also walked to the grocery store yesterday and practiced social distancing and hand washing when we got home, but again if anyone in that store was infected, it is likely we were exposed or that we have already been exposed. We have both been in the grocery store at times when it was very crowded. The virus is here, and we are exposed, and this makes us all vulnerable.
The irony is that we can only connect with one another in a meaningful way when we are vulnerable and we are more vulnerable right now because of an invisible enemy that can only be defeated with social isolation. When we most need each other we cannot readily turn to each other. Virtual connecting through social media or faces on a screen is not actual, face to face in the same space connecting, no matter how we frame (no pun intended) it.
I am a spiritual person, I believe in an unseen reality best known, I believe through Jesus Christ. There are different expressions of a Christian experience of the unseen real, and they all have their benefits and disadvantages in expressing the truth about God. The primary expression includes a vulnerable Jesus who before He overcomes, He succumbs. Americans seem to like focusing on the overcoming not the succumbing part of the story, but the overcoming does not happen without the succumbing. The resurrection does not happen without the crucifixion. We do not have life unless we lose our life. And what life are we to lose?
With Covid-19, the virus that originated in China, our life as we know it has been overturned, upended and disrupted. You could say it has been lost and lost for an uncertain period as we don’t know when it will end. If we are not infected by the virus, we are affected by the virus. The entire world has succumbed to its effects; the silent, invisible and unseen virus has brought the entire world to its knees. And no one fired a shot.
One of the great creeds of the Christian faith is found in Philippians 2:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Maybe we can view this virus as a prophetic reminder that the Christian path is one of succumbing, being on our knees and becoming “nothing”, or, as in other translations, “he emptied himself”; and so we empty and humble ourselves, even unto death. There is little about us that embraces this, but the invisible and unseen has moved us down a path that can lead to deep connection with a God who loves us. When there is nothing left of us, there is only Him.
We want to let all our clients know that Don Sizemore & Associates is offering telehealth services in a very convenient format. We can do all our counseling and many of our OT therapeutics through this format (my wife, Carolyn is an Occupational Therapist and partner). We will be contacting those of you who are active clients to arrange this service. Both Carolyn and I will continue to see clients face to face on a limited case by case basis either in their homes (Carolyn) or at the office (Don). We follow the social distancing and infectious protocols for disinfecting physical surfaces. Please let us know if you have any questions and our prayers are with everyone.
Please do the things that promote immune system functioning: meditation, exercise, good nutrition, stress management, and loving one another. Our spirit, mind, and body need to be made ready to battle whatever comes.
Meditation and mindfulness are increasingly popular practices for managing and overcoming anxiety, depression, PTSD and other mental health struggles, including addictions. As counselors we a have better understanding of the brain, the way it works and how to change it. Neuroscientists and therapists like Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz https://jeffreymschwartz.com/ have shown us that we are not our brain; in other words, we do not have to live under the tyranny of our thoughts and sensations. Counselors who teach the practice of meditation and mindfulness help their clients understand that they are not their anxious or depressed thoughts, that their best self identity is something other than what thoughts or sensations are saying they are. There is physical evidence from brain scans that this is so and that we literally can create new neural pathways that rewire the brain to work more effectively and change behavior. This is amazing stuff and I see the fruit of it in my counseling practice all the time.
It is obviously challenging to create new neural pathways and rewire our brain. It is not as if we can do away with thoughts we have had for years; I am still going to have the thought at times to eat more, a sensation of hunger even though my body really does not need more food. My body and brain are deceiving me into believing I am really hungry, or maybe for you it’s needing a drink, or a smoke, or to watch porn. But I, and you, do not have to respond to this deception because there is a part of us that is aware of these thoughts and sensations. Mindfulness helps me stop living on automatic pilot, to start paying attention. Meditation helps me grow the muscle to observe so I am more aware that I have choice in how I respond to my thoughts and sensations. I have a better self, a better me that realizes these thoughts are not “me” and I can choose another course, not only to not eat more, but as Dr Schwarz says, to refocus my attention on another behavior, doing something else like talking to a friend, reading a book, going for a walk, entering into prayer, any number of behaviors that rewire my brain and make it easier to stop eating more than I need.
These practices of mindfulness and meditation are nothing new. They have been practiced for thousands of years, mostly in spiritual traditions which were the only “self improvement programs” available until sciences like psychology developed. We are not at the mercy of our thoughts and sensations; it just takes disciplined practice and a lot of grace to overcome them. Listen to your better self, that voice or whisper you hear in moments of reflection that says, “things don’t have to be this way, I am created for more.”
Living into Contemplative Rhythm
"From the beginning, Jesus’s ministry modeled the interplay between prophetic utterance, public theology, and intense spiritual renewal. He launches his three-year ministry from the desert wilderness, a place that will be the home of latter-day desert mothers and fathers. After an intense time of fasting, testing, and submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returns ready to fulfill his calling. These rhythms of activism and contemplation, engagement and withdrawal resonate throughout his life." R. Rohr
Looking to live into this, 3 day retreat of silence and stillness at the Abbey of Gethsemane this weekend.
We need contemplative communities within the evangelical church who practice this rhythm. Most of us are activists who value doing and results. I wonder if we really trust the Holy Spirit.
Every Tuesday night at my office, 6:30 pm, meditative bible study, period of silence, meditation and listening.
I was agitated and troubled this morning with thoughts and emotions concerning things I feel somewhat helpless to resolve. Twenty minutes of silence opening up to the presence and action of God helped me settle and emerge with hope and energy. Meditation, any form, whether religious or not, teaches us that we are not our thoughts and emotions. The early church fathers considered their negative and fearful thoughts to be demons. There is a center we can live from and the practice of meditation helps us abide there. Come join me Tuesday nights. Blessings
Weekly Tuesday Nights @ 6:30-7:30 pm
Beginning June 19th, 2018
Office of Don Sizemore & Associates
698 Perimeter Dr. STE 101
Lexington, KY 40517
Meditation in its various forms is a practice that has demonstrated beneficial effects for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual life. It has been practiced for centuries in every major religion and is a subject of neuroscience research and application. It is especially helpful for changing bad habits, ending unhealthy thinking, and enhancing our spiritual life. I encourage many of my clients to meditate as a religious practice or for well being. A group experience is supportive of our individual practice of meditation.
The session will include a twenty minute group meditation exercise and teaching on the practices and effects of meditation as well as a discussion of our experience with meditation. This group is open to anyone wishing to participate. It is offered as a free service.
Judge Tim Philpot, Dr. Bill Doherty, and myself (Don Sizemore, LCSW), have worked together for over two years to implement a process whereby couples are given an opportunity to be sure that divorce is their best decision. Three marriages which came to me for the two hour court ordered Discernment Consultations have been reconciled, three families reunited. Families number one and two continue in treatment, going through the therapeutic protocol established by Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT. The third one that chose not to continue therapy is at greater risk for a return to divorce court, although as of this date they are still married and living together and report their relationship has improved. Three families were ready to divorce, standing before Judge Philpot waiting for his signature on the order. They have moved back in together, giving up their separate residences, and their children have one home.
A fourth couple postponed their divorce and attended 13 sessions, including 5 discernment counseling sessions and 8 marriage therapy sessions of EFT with an unsuccessful outcome. This couple has stopped therapy, lives separated but have not proceeded with divorce. One spouse continues to hold out hope but the other is in a position of stonewalling, unable or unwilling to stop self protecting. I do not think this relationship will survive.
The fifth couple, who is chronologically the first couple referred from the legal system by an attorney, not the court, was seen for 32 sessions of EFT. This is not an unsurprising number of sessions when there is a past history of childhood trauma that complicates developing secure attachment. Their therapy concluded over a year ago; they are still married and report their marital relationship is stable.
Do couples really want to divorce? Or more positive, do couples want to stay married? In my experience as a marriage therapist no one that I have seen is happy about their marriage failing from which I conclude no one really wants to divorce, especially those with children. This has not been more evidenced than with the 20 couples I have seen for the court ordered session. None of them were celebrating a failed marriage and the one common denominator was pain either expressed or repressed but still obvious on their faces.
Some might say that the pain on their faces is due to being forced to endure the Discernment Consultation session that has no chance of making a difference in their resolve to divorce and having to pay money to do it. There were two instances that come to mind where one spouse stonewalled their way through the session, not allowing one emotion to seep through, just a cold wall of protection. What impressed me about the other cases was that their certainty of being done with the relationship was based on their experience of emotional deprivation or rejection over an extended period of time. They were emotionally spent, had given up hope that their partner might change, and would not allow themselves to risk the pain of being disappointed again. It was never because they could not tolerate their partner and just wanted out; those kind of cases would likely not find their way to me and any abuse based relationships are ruled out for referral.
The judge, Tim Philpot, who was ordering discernment sessions was applying scientific advancements in the field of marriage and family therapy developed by Dr. Bill Doherty and colleagues from the University of Minnesota, to make a better assessment of the state of a marriage. Is this marriage irretrievably broken? Is reconciliation possible? Is there ambivalence about proceeding with final separation and divorce? Professional therapists who are properly trained now understand how couples gain and maintain a stable emotional connection, how they lose it, and how to repair it. The legal system has not kept up with scientific and therapeutic advancements and divorce is treated as an inevitable outcome when it gets to a lawyer and then to a judge. If this project has demonstrated anything it is that there is another way forward and simply processing a divorce decree because there are no other options is simply not true.
In most cases the couples I interviewed had not received couples counseling and if they had, it was ineffective. There are only a few research documented marital therapies that have efficacy and one of them is EFT with a 73% success rate. The others that I am aware of are Imago Therapy and the approach developed out of the John Gottman Institute. None of the couples had received counseling based on these approaches and the results were predictable. Many marriages that are in distress can be helped but too easily find their way onto the divorce track where the legal system offers no side track to slow the train down. This is tragic. It is as if we have accepted the inevitability of divorce. And worse, somehow divorce has become a right rather than an option of last resort. But what I have noticed in my sessions with desperate relationships (not just court ordered couples) is that more often than not if they can be shown a way, the couple will follow it to save their relationship.
Another benefit of connecting couples with the therapeutic community of counselors, is that in two other of my cases one of the spouses has continued to seek treatment. They wanted help making the transition through divorce for themselves and their children, how to best interact with their ex-spouse, and hopefully glean how not make the same mistakes again in their next relationship. It is well documented, and common sense, that patterns of behavior continue to repeat unless challenged by a thorough self examination such as that available with a trained therapist or wise mentor.
This experience has been an eye opening one. It is obvious we can affect in a positive direction seemingly hopeless and terminal relationships. Asking the question “Are you sure this divorce is best for you?” is not oppressive, it is compassionate and the just thing to do. To become numb and accept the inevitability of fractured marriages and families is to lose hope for ourselves.