Blog by Miriam

Rocks and Mountains

“What are men to rocks and mountains?”

-Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice

Love is so much sweeter when we put it into perspective – when we don’t imbue our lovers with too much responsibility for our own sense of fulfillment or meaning or self-definition. It can be difficult (but perhaps not as difficult as we often think) to let go of how our spouses are not meeting our needs, and love them nonetheless.

I’m not talking about martyrdom. I’m talking about self. I’m talking about finding ways to not get so jacked up about our spouses and what they do and don’t do. They may not live up to our fantasy husband or wife, but can we recognize our fantasies have the power to sweep us (and our marriages) away entirely?

I’m also not talking about settling. I’m talking about settling down – calming down and not overthinking the whole darn thing. The truth is, we can’t help who we love. It’s a given nowadays for us to recognize the ways that we repeat patterns of the past – our own and our family’s and our family’s families. Better to become a student of our own individual family systems – to see what relationships and beliefs and themes shaped us. Then we are in a better position to discover how we ourselves carry on both the good and the bad relationship patterns. Worrying about our spouses’ bad behavior thoroughly removes us from discovering and getting a better handle on our own.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Picking Fly Shit Out of Pepper Part Two

Tracy started to get herself together. She did what many couples are loathe to do – get honest about their hatred for their partner. Dr. David Schnarch has introduced to the field of marriage and sex therapy the idea of normal marital sadism. (You can read about it in his books including his most recent Intimacy and Desire.) Most couples – and most marriage therapists – act as if hatred and aggression and hostility don’t exist when they try to keep their focus on affirmations, compromise, and communication skills. We seem to think that if we focus elsewhere, the bad stuff will melt away. It took Tracy some time, but she finally got honest about her hatred.

When she did, their arguments changed altogether. They stopped getting to the emotional and out of control level they had before. Tracy just didn’t get sucked in and Charles could no longer befuddle her into picking fly shit out of pepper. She had much bigger piles to deal with so she stopped getting lost in a sea of (pepper) oblivion. Her sense of calm was fueled by the reality that she was now going to deal with the real issues before her instead of continuing to dance around them in a vicious, bloody circle.

The initial shift in perspective came quickly for Charles when we started to explore his propensity to mess with other people’s minds. In the course of our exploration of his family of origin and where his expertise may have come from, Charles unabashedly shared with me his belief that no matter how negative or mean his parents might be, if they died feeling they’d lived a good life, then they’d had a good life. Charles was asked a question he’d never been asked before: “So, if your parents die with their heads up their asses, enjoying the view, then they’ve lived a good life?”

What Charles had never considered and what his parents never concerned themselves with was collateral damage. They lived, and they taught their son to live, as if the pain left in their wake was invariably the fault of others. Charles was overwhelmed mentally and emotionally when he began to see his narcissism and cruelty to his loved ones.

He had grown up being dubbed the Golden Boy. He was the youngest of 3 and he had learned by watching his sibs how to stay out of the fray by not talking. He learned, without even thinking, that if he was quiet enough or skirted around topics enough, his sibs would soon get the unwanted attention, and he would escape it.

But this story went well beyond Charles just learning to escape chaos. Being dubbed the Golden Boy by his parents, he was caught in a web he denied the very existence of. His parents were ruthless in their dealings, but always under the guise of “helpfulness” and Charles was their henchman. He walked around narcissistically believing he had himself together and the problems his wife and children and siblings were experiencing were because of their own choices.

After a few sessions and a lot of hard work Charles’ sight went from completely blind to about 10% visibility, but it was enough for him to change how he interacted with his parents and sibs and, of course, with Tracy and their children.

Charles limited his involvement in his parents’ personal and business dealings (something he was completely enmeshed with heretofore). He stopped criticizing his children’s every decision and opinion and started playing with them more. They warmed to him very quickly.

The changes he made with Tracy started with him thinking more about her and the effect he had on her mind. Because he was so overcome at just how blind he’d been to himself, the natural effect was for him to enter into their interactions with some serious self-confrontation. He’d ask himself what his real attitude was. He’d ask himself if he was working to steer their conversations in unfair ways and, if he was, he stopped and regrouped.

For the first time in his life, he slowed things down in his mind and watched his own behavior and attitudes and motives as well as those of others. Needless to say, Tracy started to see him as a man she could respect…because he finally had some self-respect that included consideration of his effect on others.

As the story went, they got along much better and interactions grew much warmer. But there was still work to be done. As it turned out, there was a lot more for Tracy to do on her side. And until she did it, sex and intimacy and deep partnership wasn’t going to reach the level it could. Stay tuned for the next post about Tracy and the work she did. You’re not going to want to miss this one, Ladies!

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Picking Fly Shit Out of Pepper ©

 

Ever start a difficult conversation with your spouse feeling clear as a bell at the beginning and then find yourself muddled and confused by the end? It’s a phenomenon I see almost daily in my work with couples.

Tracy and Charles had been married 18 years when they came in to see me. They were both feeling disconnected and they found themselves fighting more and more of late. They were both feeling on the hopeless side and wondered if they were going to make it. In their first session they told me about their most recent argument.

Tracy had just initiated a conversation about what to do about a serious issue with one of their 3 children, when the little one came in and interrupted them. When she left 2 minutes later, Charles, a busy executive, looked at his watch and told Tracy he needed to go do some work upstairs in his office. He got up and left the room. Tracy was incensed, and she followed him to point out what he’d just done. Charles “didn’t get it” and began explaining to her why he had to go upstairs. He had a vacation to plan for the 2 of them, and he had something to research for his mother.

She had already been thinking about how Charles would either “forget” about a lot of their talks, or how he “wouldn’t get it” when she’d explain an issue over and over and over. It was like a slow drip torture. Tracy felt both angry and crazy – a tough combination.

When she confronted him about his “forgetfulness” this time (he “forgot” they were having an important discussion), Charles – predictably – “didn’t get it”. She left the conversation – like she left many of them – feeling confused and frustrated, not having any idea where it had gone awry.

Tracy had tried to stay on topic, but Charles just kept repeating and adding detail to explain why he’d had to go upstairs…It was getting late…He had to get up early to make it to the gym…He really wanted to work on planning their vacation because in his very busy executive life there was very little fun to look forward to. He kept emphasizing that this was the only fun thing in his day, and that it was a vacation for the two of them for Christ sake! He didn’t say it but what he was communicating was what- more-do-you-want-from-me?

No matter how much Tracy tried to make him understand, he just “couldn’t see it”. Before she knew it she was arguing about everything from how he managed his time to how his busy schedule wasn’t her problem to how little fun he was having in his life. It wasn’t too long before Tracy was screaming at Charles about how she didn’t even WANT to go on the vacation with him!

Tracy was angry, but at this point, she was also lost and confused. Having grown up in a family who “didn’t get” that her mother was a raging alcoholic, Tracy was prone to thinking that perhaps her perceptions were incorrect – that perhaps she was just making too much of things. Should she feel bad for him? She knew how busy he was and how hard he worked. Was she being a “bitch”? But this happened so often!

Among systems therapists, this common pattern in marriage is known as the family projection process with a rigid triangulation pattern complicated by the invisible, emotional, multi-generational transmission progression. Among lay people it’s known as picking fly shit out of pepper.

Picking fly shit out of pepper means getting lost in a sea of little flecks while either missing or ignoring the big, stinking, mountain-of-a-pile of shit no one wants to deal with. With just the flick of a wand, Charles would move their conversations away from personal accountability into a sea of oblivion. His ability to dodge personal responsibility came easily to him. It was automatic, in fact. He didn’t have to think about it. When Tracy began to think about it – about what was really happening between them – things began to change.

In our first session, Tracy began to wonder, Why does he seem to “get it” at work but not at home? Charles held a high paying job that required he remember and understand complicated relationship dynamics. He was in charge of 90 employees and several complicated contracts. If he was this “forgetful” or thick minded at work he’d never have been able to keep his job! It didn’t make sense. Tracy started wondering in a new way what was going on.

Very quickly, she was able to shift from the misery of not trusting her own perceptions to taking them seriously by measuring them against the facts – facts like how Charles had to be sophisticated at work but could be a dunce at home. The more she reflected, the more facts emerged.

The systematic ways in which her family of origin trained her not to know what she knew became apparent. Her father played dumb and so did her sibs. When confronted directly, they got defensive, used guilt, and then gave her the silent treatment. Tracy was stunned when she saw clearly that Charles was doing the same thing.

The big, stinking, mountain-of-a-pile of shit had now been revealed. No more picking fly shit out of pepper. Tracy boldly got herself together and determinedly worked to not go blind to what was right in front of her. The clock had finally run out for Charles. The tables had turned. She wanted Charles to get his “shit” together and she wasn’t going to stick around for anything less.

 

Well…does Charles “get it”? Can Tracy maintain her sight AND a calm center? Do Tracy and Charles make it together? Stay tuned for Picking Fly Shit out of Pepper Part Two to find out!