Tag Archives: relationships

You Have to Have Influence

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Photo Credit:  Al Wilson, http://www.naturespicsonline.com/

The recently deceased Barbara Bush, former First Lady, had this to say about marriage: “…you have to have influence. When you’ve been married 47 years, if you don’t have any influence, then I really think you’re in deep trouble.”

I couldn’t agree more. In couples counselling, I’ve found the word “influence” to be hugely helpful, mostly as an antidote for another word that’s almost universally problematic – “control”.

I’ve never met anyone who likes to be controlled or who likes to be described as “controlling”. Few things are as poisonous to a relationship as unbalanced power dynamics.

When both partners have influence on one another, power dynamics are fluid and have a good chance at being fundamentally in balance.

To have influence doesn’t mean you always get your way, but it does directly imply that:

  • You are heard.
  • You are understood.
  • Your thoughts and feelings matter.
  • The course of your common life together is determined together.

The control of one person by another via physical, emotional, financial and/or sexual means is abuse.

When relationship power dynamics are shifting in more subtle ways, consider asking yourself these questions.

Is a partner who is starting to seem somewhat controlling in some areas of the relationship doing so because they don’t feel like they have influence generally or in specific areas?

If your partner seems to be unfairly describing you as controlling, can you hear that as an ask for influence?

One of the best metaphors for a healthy relationship is that of dancing. In a healthy relationship we share the responsibility to lead at some times and at other times we can trade the lead back and forth seamlessly, depending on the situation. We influence one another as we make our way across life’s dance floor.

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When Fixing Doesn’t

fixingI think that before I became a couples counsellor, it’s possible that my wife said to me once or twice, “I don’t want you to give me suggestions about what to do, I just want you to listen.” Maybe it’s even happened since.

It’s a common issue in couples counselling.  One partner needs to share something and the other partner sees it as an opportunity to show they care by offering solutions or “fixes”.

I don’t like to bring gender into this, because too often we make assumptions about gender that simply aren’t true.  (Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post on sexual desire levels in relationships…)  However, in this case I think traditional assumptions about gender play a role.

We have been taught that men are supposed to fix and repair things and women are supposed to take care of emotions in the family.  This is, of course, just so much rubbish.  Women make fine mechanics and engineers and men have all the same emotions as women and can, with a little effort, even learn to do things like being Emotionally Focused therapists.

As a result of these assumptions, though, it does seem to more often be men who want to offer a “fix” when their partners are sharing that they’re in a difficult place.

The thing is, research and experience tell us that the key questions in any relationship are:

Are you there for me?

Do you approve of me?

Do I matter to you?

Do you have my back?

Will you be here when I need you?

Questions such as:  “Can you help me figure out how to deal with the coworker who drives me crazy?” and “Do you know why I can’t get this app to work?” don’t have even a fraction of the importance of the questions listed above, in relationship terms.

We have to reorient our thinking to accepting that being there, listening and empathizing aren’t just “enough”; these are the points upon which the whole relationship turns.

As with many other situations, it’s not enough to simply be putting effort into showing you care.  You need to be tuned into your partner closely enough to understand how they need you to focus that effort.

Is there a narcissist in your relationship?

Warren_Beatty_-_1975Our household has been in the process of rediscovering some classic rock and pop tunes, largely as a result of our 14 year-old son exploring his own emerging musical tastes.

One of the songs that has emerged from this is Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain – a song that I’ve come to think of as “Ode to a Narcissist”.

It’s not clear whether the song is about someone who would meet the clinical definition of a narcissist, or whether it’s about someone whose narcissism is perhaps, shall we say,  more situationally generated by fame and wealth.

To be diagnosed in clinical terms as a narcissist, there are a number of specific features that have to be present.  In my time as a clinician, I’ve only worked with one person who I thought could perhaps have benefited from assessment for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

However, as a couples counsellor I regularly hear the word “narcissist” as one partner in the relationship describes behaviour in the other partner.  Behind these descriptions there’s often pain and fear about the future of the relationship.

Your partner can seem like a narcissist to you because when the most important relationship in our life is not working the way we want and need it to, we do things to protect ourselves.  Sometimes those protective behaviours can seem quite self-centred, and hence, narcissistic.

However, resorting to protective behaviours in these situations is quite rational and understandable.  The basic problem is that when both partners have to focus on protecting themselves, the relationship doesn’t get nurtured and it is difficult to feel close and safe in the relationship.

Your couples counsellor can help you understand the protective pattern that you’ve fallen into in your relationship and can help you develop a new pattern where your needs are met in the relationship and you don’t need to protect yourself when you’re with the person you love the most.

Addictions in Relationships

heart-176879_640Sometimes in couples counselling things can get to a stuck place where progress isn’t being made, despite what seems like everyone’s best efforts.  A very common explanation for this can be that there is a hidden addiction issue present in the relationship.

Addictions take a huge toll on relationships.  Partners sometimes describe the presence of addiction in a relationship being like there is an affair going on.  Addiction can harm trust and a partner can turn to a substance (or a behaviour) for comfort in a similar way that they might to an affair partner.

The language of “codependency” has come into our speech to try to help people understand what goes on when their partner is an addict.  Here’s one definition:

codependency |ˌkōdəˈpendənsē|  “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically a partner who requires support due to an illness or addiction.”

The problem with this definition is that it’s not the reliance that’s the problem.  In healthy relationships, we rely utterly on one another so that language of “excessive reliance” isn’t always helpful.  The problem comes when we can’t get to our partner through the addiction.  The problem comes when partners can’t talk to one another about the role the addiction plays in the relationship and how it stops them from really being able to get close and meet each other’s needs.

When that happens, partners get stuck in a cycle where one of them self-medicates or numbs in order to deal with the lack of healthy connection and the other accommodates their behaviour to compensate for the addiction and/or burns up all their energy trying to draw attention to the addiction.  When that happens, it is profoundly difficult to get the relationship to a healthy place without some kind of help.

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

Forgiveness

forgive-208824_640One of the most difficult things for a human being to do can be to forgive.  In upcoming posts, I will delve into what makes it possible to move towards forgiveness, but today I would like to start with a simple question.  What ought to be the object of our forgiveness?

I think this is an important question, because sometimes forgiveness seems impossible.  We can feel so much pain that forgiveness can seem not just impossible, but unthinkable.

If our focus stays solely on what the person has done, forgiveness may actually be impossible.  Perhaps that is because there are actions that are unforgivable.  Some things human beings do are simply wrong – no matter what moral code you might follow.

Does that give us an out?  Does that mean that if someone has done something that’s just too hurtful that we don’t need to think about forgiving?

I don’t think there is an easy out here, because an important idea to start with on the road to forgiveness is that we don’t forgive actions we forgive fellow human beings.

Whatever else makes forgiving someone possible, I think we have to start with the basic idea that we need to focus on the person, not just on what that person has done.  What the person has done – the act that has hurt you – becomes a bundle of thoughts and emotions whose power can grow like a never-ending tornado, if we allow it to.

Forgiving calls us to focus on the person.  You don’t forgive actions, you forgive persons.  Without that focus, all of your best efforts may be in vain.  That would be sad, because forgiveness benefits you, not just the one whom you’re forgiving.

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