Tag Archives: relationship

Addiction in Relationships, Part II

ratFor some time, the basic narrative in our society around addiction has been clear and simple.  It goes something like this.  Some substances are so dangerous to the human animal that once we start it is very difficult to quit, particularly for those people whose personality may predispose them to addiction. Addiction has been categorized as a disease that we can catch if we fall prey to a “gateway” substance or if, again, we just have some sort of predisposition to the disease.

The emerging science, and some important science that sat largely ignored for decades, is causing us to reboot our thinking around addiction.

Some of the first studies on addiction were very straightforward. Put a rat in a cage with two water bottles, one of which is laced with a narcotic. Which will the rat choose? Consistently, the results were the same. The rat chose the narcotic and kept choosing it until it died.

Pretty simple. It doesn’t seem like you need to be a scientist to interpret those results.

In the late 1970s, a Canadian researcher by the name of Bruce Alexander decided these results were not nearly as simple as they appeared. He asked, what if the problem is not the access to a drug but the fact that the rat is in solitary confinement in a steel cage?

He decided to perform the same experiment, except with a significant change. The rat would not be alone and it would be put in an enclosure with other rats and in an environment that rats would enjoy living in. The result? The rats rarely chose the narcotic-laced water and never died from an overdose. The rats consistently chose the plain water and enjoyed the good life with their fellow rats in what came to be known as “Rat Park“.

You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Alexander. He had trouble getting this ground-breaking research published. When it was published, it was ignored and his funding was eventually pulled. It’s hard to go against conventional wisdom and politics, even when you have science on your side.

For years, we’ve been encouraged to wonder what predisposes an addict to addiction or what bad choices they might have made that got them addicted.

Perhaps instead, we should be asking ourselves what particular sort of steel cage the person who uses has been in that has made drug or alcohol use a preferred alternative.

Does this mean that those who use don’t have to take responsibility for their actions?  Of course not.  My experience is that people want to take responsibility.  It’s simply much easier to do so if someone really works to understand you and your experience.   That can happen more readily if we have a better understanding of the nature of addiction.

Many of the assumptions that have undergirded our understanding of addiction for decades are under intense scrutiny. Some of the brands that have provided addiction support over that same period may need to check some of their fundamental assumptions.

Our ability to be in healthy and sustainable relationships may well be the best tool we have in dealing with the negative effects of addiction and other compulsive behaviours.

What’s Happened to Marriage?

photo by mrhayata on Flickr
photo by mrhayata on Flickr

A friend and I were sitting in the park yesterday, enjoying some delicious take-out shawarma and sharing stories of weddings we had been at recently.  Soon this turned to talk about marriage itself.

Knowing I work with couples, my friend asked, “What is it that’s changed?  Is it just that we see men and women’s roles so differently now?”  I certainly had to agree with him that our ideas about gender roles have changed.

I am in the midst of reading The Astronaut Wives Club, a book about the wives of the first American astronauts.  (A television series based on the book will air next month.)  Consider how the author describes the effect of the first Life magazine article about these women:

“Across the land, housewives opened their glossy Life magazines and saw seven glorious women they could look up to and emulate.  If only they could whip up an apple pie or a perfect batch of chocolate chip cookies like Annie Glenn, maybe their husbands would be more productive, better fit their gray flannel suits, and get ahead in business.”

These words describe gender roles articulated by a major media source just fifty-some years ago.  Can you imagine?  In terms of the whole of human history, that’s just the blink of an eye.  Is it any wonder that the institution of marriage, and couples relationships more generally, are struggling to catch up?

Gender roles are part of it, but the changes go beyond that.  We simply expect more out of our intimate relationships.  We expect our partner to be our best friend, our confidante, our lover, our financial partner, the one with whom we can share our must vulnerable feelings … the list goes on.

Is this a bad thing?

Jeff Belmonte from Cuiabá, Brazil - Flickr
Jeff Belmonte from Cuiabá, Brazil – Flickr

Surely it is not.  But how well equipped are we to deliver to one another on these expectations?  Were we fortunate enough to have these things modeled for us by our parents or by other couples we knew when we were younger?  How badly have we gotten hurt in previous relationships?  Do we know how to be close to and vulnerable with a partner while still feeling safe?  Sometimes it can feel like we’re being called on to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls without any training or experience.

I’m drawn to doing couples therapy because I think it is so important and because I think we can realize these high expectations we have come to have.  The work of John Gottman has helped us understand what works in a couples relationship and what doesn’t.  Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy gives us a way to get to the other side when it seems like we’re in danger of falling into the gorge.

It’s easy to get a little down on the institution of marriage, knowing as we all do  the statistics of divorce.  However, perhaps we need to give credit for how well marriage has weathered the storm, given all the change we have put it through.  Instead of focusing on the challenges associated with marriage, perhaps we ought to be amazed at the enduring power and potential of the emotional connection that can exist between two human beings.

Terry Noble is a therapist in Peterborough, ON. You can find information about his counselling practice at www.terrynoble.ca.

Trust, Part II

Huffington Post recently published a common-sense article about factors to consider when setting out to make a second relationship work.  Reading it on the heels of writing about trust I was surprised to see that issue not mentioned.

In my experience, many people come out of marriages or other relationships feeling like trust is a major issue.  The very idea of trusting someone again – of being vulnerable with someone again – is simply scary.

I like to offer the perspective that trust is not a switch that we can turn on or off.  Trust is something that can sometimes be destroyed quickly, but often needs to be rebuilt slowly.  I encourage people to see working with trust as a useful tool, both as something that can lead to healing for themselves and as a way to discern whether a future relationship is a good and right one.

heart-195147_640I encourage people to trust just a little and see how their new partner responds.  If a dating partner laughs hurtfully at you when you share your favourite movie, perhaps there won’t be much chance of you ever being able to share your deepest hurts, hopes and fears.  If you feel good about how your new partner responds to you trusting them with a little, it’s probably safe to trust a little bit more.

It’s also important to ask yourself whether trust is growing in the other direction, also.  Is your new partner showing increasing trust in you?  A good relationship is balanced and reciprocal.

Terry Noble is a therapist in Peterborough, ON. You can find information about his counselling practice at www.terrynoble.ca.

Time Heals?

Photo by Alan Cleaver - flickr
Photo by Alan Cleaver – flickr

There’s an old saying – “time heals all wounds”.  I hear this from clients every now and again, sometimes in the abbreviated form, “time heals”.

Is this true?

One thing I have become convinced of is that time on its own does not heal.  Physical wounds may heal with time, but emotional wounds can linger.

What I often say, particularly to couples, is that time can heal provided that you have new experiences over time.  That is particularly true when there has been an injury to a relationship, such as an affair.

When trust is broken in a relationship, it is particularly true that time alone will not heal.  In these cases, partners need to have a different experience of one another for healing to happen.  Trust is regained when one partner can feel safe enough to risk just a little bit, and the other partner can respond in a different way and show that trusting is now safe.

A lot of this is about baby steps, but somewhere along the way there have to be some larger steps.  An injured partner has to feel safe at some point to share how they’ve been hurt.  That safety comes when the injuring partner is ready to look their partner in the eyes and hear them and acknowledge their pain.

This kind of healing can seem impossible.  However, it can happen.  With help, this kind of healing is possible.  It takes time, but it also requires that you experience your partner in new and safer ways – something a trained couples therapist can help you with.  Emotionally Focused Therapy provides a road map for this kind of work.

Terry Noble is a therapist in Peterborough, ON. You can find information about his counselling practice at www.terrynoble.ca.