Blog by Miriam

The Space Between

And if I’ve built this fortress around your heart

Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire

Then let me build a bridge

For I cannot fill the chasm

And let me set the battlements on fire

 

-Sting, Fortress Around Your Heart

 

A husband came to me several years ago, let’s call him John, having been sent to therapy by his wife. The wife, let’s call her Jan, had had an I-am-not-doing-this-any-more moment and demanded he either seek therapy or they divorce. John had spent their marriage working more than spending time with the family. He finally heard Jan and her distress, and he embarked on a mission to try to “make up for” all the years of distance and neglect. But all his efforts to make her feel loved ironically made her feel like she needed space, and it was starting to feel more and more like Jan had one foot out the door. John grew beside himself with fear and anger…and confusion. Hadn’t she asked for more closeness? Why did she keep saying she needed space?

Flying McCoy's

Flying McCoy’s

Negotiating Space in Tight Quarters

I remember, a long, long…long time ago, when I lived in a dorm with a roommate. How did the two of us live together peacefully, even joyfully, in such a small space? And I also remember when my then boyfriend (now husband) and I first moved in together, how tight his small apartment felt to me, even though it was at least quadruple the size of my old dorm room. What was the difference between these two “spaces”—between these two relationships? Why did one feel so roomy while the other felt so tight? What was the dilemma that John and Jan were struggling with? Did the relationship need closeness as Jan had initially requested, or did it need space?

Space vs. Connection?

The question of either space OR connection is actually a false dichotomy, a question that makes you feel like you have to pick one or the other. But when it comes to emotional space and emotional connection, the two are utterly intertwined. A meaningful connection is spacious. It feels like you and your spouse can respect each other as individuals even when you see (and feel) each other’s flaws. There is a measure of peace that descends when people can even begin to accept life as it has presented itself to them…flawed, full of wish-I-hadn’t of’s, and infinitely complicated and twisted and curious. This kind of peace leads to more spacious connections over time.

John had been over doing it, trying to force a connection in tight quarters…in a space that was filled up with anger, resentment, hurt, and longing. It was going to require much more patience and time than he’d thought. It was going to require that he grow.

4 Tips for The Space Between

  1. Get centered…calm down The way John put it after a few weeks in therapy was that he needed to stop “catastrophizing”—to stop filling any space between them with anxious reassurances and fear. John had to learn to stop taking Jan’s every silence, every angry word, every criticism as the end of the world. Yes, he had a serious issue in his relationship, but his reactions to every problem or bit of tension between them made the issues feel even more unworkable…even though the only unworkable issue was the anxious bouncing off of one another. The actual issues were quite resolvable.
  2. Connect with your family In addition to his marriage, John had also spent years too busy to spend time with his family (his parents and brothers). His father was more than tough on him growing up, and his mother’s passivity was overwhelmingly frustrating. The space between them was full of judgment and fear. But in his distress with his wife, he reached out to them for help. He was surprised to find his parents’ open arms. He was even more surprised to discover how reconnecting with them was adding to his sense of inner calm and sense of himself. Open-arms isn’t always the response, of course, but it occurs more often than people suspect. As John continued his work, he continued to be surprised by what he learned about himself by talking with his parents and brothers more regularly.
  3. Learn the difference between a distant connection and spacious one. Both distance and space are forms of connection. Distance is an intense and emotionally reactive connection. It says GET-AWAY-FROM-ME in such a way that invites the space between to be filled with anger, resentment, and hatred. You may feel lonely, but at the same time you can’t think of much else, and the tension (tense connection) can be cut with a knife. Space, on the other hand, is a calm, quiet connectedness that doesn’t try to force anything. It recognizes the intensity (pain, anger, etc.), respects it, but isn’t controlled by it. Space is often about a clear decision to wait until things are calmer to delve into important topics. Space can handle tough emotions without thinking the end of the world is coming, while distancing is an automatic reaction to move away from pain. Space builds a bridge while distance creates a deeper chasm.
  4. Have a look at Bowen Theory For those of you who are real nerds about this kind of thing, have a look at Bowen Theory if you haven’t already. John learned to use the theory to make more accurate and neutral observations of his marriage, his parents, and himself. He learned to create spacious connections with his mother in particular. Instead of automatically reacting to her passivity he learned to be curious about her. This translated to his marriage slowly but surely over the course of a couple of years.

Space in a relationship isn’t full of anything except peace…which leads to a feeling of fullness. While distance is tense or vacant, space is relaxed. Space creates an atmosphere where people can share themselves and where they can receive and give generously.

Thanks again for reading the blog.

 

Easter: Bringing Dead Relationships Back to Life

“I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems; I’ve got to open my eyes to everything. Without a thought, without a voice, without a soul; Don’t let me die here. There must be something more. Bring me to life.”

                                                                        Evanescence lyrics “Bring Me to Life”

 

Easter is a time of year when Christians begin to think about atonement—the idea of a kind of reconciliation between themselves and God. In my work as a marriage and family counselor, I tend to think of the concept in terms of husbands and wives, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, etc. What is it that reconciles two people together who have either grown apart or who are so angry at each other that compromise or making peace seems impossible? Does it have to do with some kind of “cleansing” of “sins” as Christians celebrate at Easter? How are dead or dying relationships brought back to life?

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If you have a look at most religions, you’ll find this idea of atonement or reconciliation via cleansing is at their heart. It’s the idea that community or union or connection comes through a cleaning out, a detoxifying, a letting go…a death of sorts. A death that leads to new life.

In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes described it as the “life/death/life nature of love.” She wrote that in order for people to live and love in a “way that is most wise, most preserving, and most feeling, one has to go up against the very thing one fears most. There is no way around it…”

She tells the story of Skeleton Woman which she describes as “a hunting story about love.” In this story “love does not mean a flirtation or a pursuit for simple ego-pleasure,” but rather “a union which prevails through bounty and austerity, through the most complicated and most simple days and nights.”

It starts with a girl, living in the frozen north, who “had done something of which her father disapproved,” and although no one could remember what she had done, her father “had dragged her to the cliffs and thrown her over and into the sea.” It was there, in the bottom of the ocean, being turned and tossed about, that her flesh was worn and picked away, and she was turned into Skeleton Woman.

Eventually caught by a fisherman who’d lost his way, she became helplessly entangled with him and with her own bones. Just when he thought he was free of her he realized she was as entwined with him as ever. But something happened to him in the dark night, once on land and back in his bungalow. Something softened toward the whole mess of her, and he began to tenderly untangle her twisted bones. His work done, he rested. As he dreamed, a tear dripped from his eye. Untangled and watching, she moved toward him and drank, and she found the single tear “was like a river and she drank and drank and drank until her many-years-long thirst was slaked.”

By the end of the night together Skeleton Woman had sung her flesh into being. Pinkola Estes writes that the woman “sang for hair and good eyes and nice fat hands. She sang the divide between her legs, and breasts long enough to wrap for warmth, and all the things a woman needs.” And the fisherman and the woman were tangled together again, “in another way now, a good and lasting way.”

I find this story deeply satisfying. It speaks to the importance of untangling the emotional mess that human life and relationships can become. It speaks to the importance of tears and of their potential to nourish. And it speaks to what can happen in a person’s life when they can attend to and soothe their own emotions and existential dilemmas.

You may have thought of this story as a prescription for marriage. As something that can or should happen between spouses…that one should tenderly untangle the other and then feed her with tears of love. The story could certainly be interpreted as a primer for spouses to heal one another, but I think it’s much more interesting (and effective) when thought of as an emotional process one does with oneself, with spouse alongside.

But how do you soothe your own emotions, ones that may be as deep and painful as to have hollowed you out over the years like for Skeleton Woman? How does one “drink a river of tears” as to have one’s thirst be slaked? It’s an ongoing process, one that I believe we continue unto our dying breath.

Attending to our painful emotions is just one aspect of the process, but it is a critical one. Our emotions can lead us toward our core values or away from them. They can lead us deeper into ourselves to be lost forever in a sea of moodiness, anxiety or depression, and they can lead us deeper into communion with others. Self-soothing is key to living a happy life. Here are a few principles or tips to help you along the way.

5 Tips to Dealing with Strong Emotion

  1. You can’t let go of or be “cleansed” of something you don’t know you’re dealing with. In order to become aware you’ll have to create the space…the time…the quiet. Even if you’ve done this work before and if you’re stuck, chances are there’s some emotion that needs tending. It’s different for everyone, but one method to get the emotions flowing is watching sad movies that in some way tell your story. Other ways to get things flowing are meditation, reading, and journaling. Try to get past anger as the only emotion you deal with. Usually with anger, there are other more vulnerable emotions lurking in the background like sorrow, grief, despair, and fear.
  2. Once you are able to feel some feelings, the next step has to do with naming them. This can be harder than it sounds, especially for emotions that have been lurking around for years or even decades. The hard part for people seems to be in the naming of an actual feeling like scared, helpless, sad, etc. Most of the time people want to say something like: “I feel like he doesn’t love me…” Try to stick to actual feeling words. I remember in my training as a therapist 20 years ago our professors would hand us sheets of paper covered in emoting faces as a way to train us in identifying our own feelings.

The final three tips have to do with soothing the emotions that come up. It’s so important to not stop at having one’s feelings but to also grow skilled at soothing them. Keep in mind this is not self-love. This is self-soothing.

  1. One important way to soothe emotion is simply self-care. Maybe it looks like rest or nourishment, but it can also look like time with a long time friend or an important family member or maybe it looks like a weekend away alone. It can also look like quieting your mind when you find you are over-thinking or over-analyzing your problems. Self-care can mean finding a way to stop banging your head against a wall.
  2. Artistic expression is another powerful way to express and soothe emotion. Get your guitar out and learn the chords to a song that has particular meaning to you. Then play it loud along with the band. Or get your canvas and paints, and sit outside in this beautiful Spring weather. Write some fiction. Write an autobiographic short story. Chanel the emotions into something important to you.
  3. The next and most important tool in your self-soothing tool kit is finding out what is important about your emotions. How are they a reflection of you and your core values? I had a client who suffered a terrible loss about 4 years ago; his wife left him after 35 years of marriage. After 3 years he was still not “over it.” He was very upset with himself for this. Among other things he worked on forgiving himself for his mistakes, but even this didn’t soothe him fully. When he started accepting his grief and sorrow (rather than being upset with himself for having it for so long) he began to see that his grief and sorrow had something to do with a core value of his: family. When he realized this he began putting much more effort into his familial relationships…with his 97 year old mother…with his 3 children…with a couple of cousins he’d lost contact with…with his little sister. And slowly, with acceptance and persistence, he found meaning in his life again.

If you’re in a dead or dying relationship there is a way back to life. It often begins with tuning into your emotions, but more importantly with learning to soothe them meaningfully. Is it time to untangle Skeleton Woman?

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Yule Tide Boundaries

The holidays are over, I know. And, yes, for the first time since I started the blog, I missed my holiday post. But when I got my friend’s Christmas letter mid January, I thought, Is it ever really too late to talk about the holidays…and…the in-laws? I mean, I know we just had Valentine’s Day, and some of you are recovering from THAT, but some of us are still recovering from December. Ahem… And then there are those who are already setting up for next year.

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And of course, these issues don’t go away magically after the Christmas tree is down, the menorah packed away, and the solstice sacrificial chicken blood all cleaned up. No, just like cellulite, these problems are here to stay.

On a more serious note, the pain we feel about our in-laws can be completely overwhelming. Rejection on both sides is plentiful, like when you know your mother-in-law has never really approved of you or when your daughter-in-law isn’t terribly excited about you taking care of the grandkids. To borrow a phrase from my 14-year-old daughter… it pretty much sucks. Perhaps a deeper understanding and a broader view would be helpful.

A Conventional View: Feelings then Boundaries

Feelings

A conventional view of the problem encourages people to first and foremost feel their feelings about the situation. The feelings formula goes something like: when you do/say __________, I feel _________. This can be a very important first step (to do on your own or with a friend or therapist) especially if you’re unaware of your feelings or if they’re so strong that your perspective is entirely colored by them.

But I find that for folks who’ve been “identifying and feeling their feelings” for a long time, it can be helpful to add another piece to the process: putting feelings in perspective, which doesn’t mean not feeling them. On the contrary, it’s often essential to know what your feelings are and to create space in your life to feel them, but it’s also best to eventually work toward developing some knowledge, some perspective on them.

One useful tool to put feelings into perspective is to think of our emotions as having the size and force of an elephant. Massive, beautiful, exciting, interesting, and something you might not want to get in front of if it were on the run. Our intellectual system might be like a rider on top of the elephant. If the elephant gets spooked, then the man or woman on top is along for the ride…meaning there’s not much thinking or reasoning they can do to slow the beast down once it gets going. And if they try to slow the great beast down, it is likely to end in a sense of fatigue or futility or even injury.

Suffice it to say that when we feel hurt by our in-laws (or anyone for that matter), the elephant tends to be in charge. In calmer times we can grow in awareness of our elephant-al nature and the ways it takes over, but when feelings like hurt or fear or rejection are up, best to feel them, value them, embrace them, journal about them, share them with a trusted friend, and cry them out without putting too much effort into “thinking them through” or analyzing them. Chances are if you try, your intellectual system is going to be wrangled into submission by the great, beautiful, terrible beast. In your pain, you’ll start diagnosing your in-laws as “narcissists” or “evil,” and you’ll start to believe that there is no other way to see them.

Boundaries

In the conventional approach, once a person has identified and felt his feelings, the next step is often called “setting boundaries.” It’s an approach that encourages people to get clear about what they are responsible for and what someone else is responsible for. Sounds reasonable, right? Tell it to the elephant.

I get it. Therapists know that people will do better when they are taking responsibility for their own part in relationship problems, so they try to get folks to see their own part in things. But can we force a sense of responsibility on a scared, sad, or hurt elephant?

I mean what if your pain is still on the raw side, and in your desire for relief you jump ahead to “take responsibility” for your part with your in-laws? You’ve been encouraged by your therapist or a book you read, and so you work to wrangle your elephant into submission, get it to take responsibility for freaking out, tell it to calm the heck down. I mean if you’re not part of the problem, you’re not part of the solution. That sounds so darn reasonable, what reasonable person would argue with that?!

So, maybe if your rider on your elephant could get a rope and somehow get it around your elephant’s neck and pull back. Or maybe the rider could squeeze its thighs together to let the elephant know it should slow down. Maybe the rider could just start screaming at the elephant to wake it up and set it straight. Or maybe, just maybe after we’ve bumped along and struggled and gotten good and sore or seriously injured, we decide screw this! I’ve done my part! They haven’t done THEIRS! It’s time to set the ultimate boundary; it’s time we simply part ways. Problem solved!

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Rather than realizing we can’t wrangle elephants. And that all the wrangling has led us to the very place we started: focused on someone else, in pain, and not terribly aware of self or the systems in which we live.

Developing a Self vs. Building a Wall

No matter how good you may be at wrangling your emotions into submission, eventually they will take you down and possibly those around you as well. The more we resist them, the more power they seem to have in the long run. Giving our emotions either too little or too much credit will lead to dysfunctional elephants and riders, which is where developing a self comes in.

Developing a self doesn’t happen in our heads or in earnest attempts to “be better” (elephant wrangling). Nor does it happen when you think that trusting your gut implicitly is the ultimate reality. It happens when we put ourselves into relationship. Not loosey goosey, like stepping in front of a train. But with knowledge of self (having the elephant in perspective for what it is, what it can add, and what it can get in the way of) and strategy (having gained broad knowledge and perspective on how relationship systems work).

Kevin

Take Kevin, for example, a 38-year-old man, with a history of depression. He would describe himself as a very hard worker, harder than most. He is an older brother and someone who took a lot of “shrapnel” from both his parents to protect his younger brother. Both of his parents have passed away, but his wife’s mother reminds him eerily of his own mother, someone who he spent his life avoiding if he could because of her negativity and neediness. Kevin is an elephant wrangler extraordinaire. Less feeling his feelings, more making himself good and busy and acting like they’re not there.

Through his therapy, he learned that for the sake of his marriage and his own depressed state, it was important to become more aware of his emotions and how they were sending subtle and not so subtle messages of expectations to his wife. He worked to identify them, and he worked to connect them to his own family history. Kevin even went back a few generations in his journey to discover where his people had come from and what struggles they may have had. It all went to a greater understanding and ownership of his emotions and life dilemmas.

While things improved in the marriage, he began to realize that his reactivity toward and avoidance of his mother-in-law was putting a lot of pressure on his wife. She was caught in the middle, frustrated with her mother but feeling defensive of her at the same time. Instead of “setting a boundary,” Kevin decided that while his feelings were important, he could set them aside for an hour or two for the family’s Sunday dinner together. He had skipped it any chance he’d gotten for the past few years.

When he showed up at her front door one particular Sunday, pecan pie in hand, he could tell his mother-in-law was surprised. She came out with one of her snarky comments, covered in goo so as not to be recognized as an insult. But Kevin was ready for it. Instead of his normal withdrawn silence, he stepped forward and hugged her hello and made himself useful in the kitchen.

One of the things Kevin didn’t like about his mother-in-law and one of the reasons he avoided her so much was because she would talk negatively about her daughter to him. But Kevin was ready this time. He knew it was coming. Instead of defending his wife and then stomping away, Kevin stated sincerely that he thought she and his wife would find a way to work through their difficulties. With this strategy, Kevin was able to remove himself from what belonged between his wife and mother-in-law while still being in relationship with both of them. He wasn’t taking any shrapnel, and he wasn’t dishing any out either. Kevin felt relieved and he felt a growing sense of confidence in himself.

Of course, this wasn’t a once and done kind of strategy. Kevin had to do it another couple times before his mother-in-law stopped talking to him about his wife.

Conclusion

There are no easy solutions or quick fixes here. Lots of hard work, but not too hard. When working to build a self starts to feel like it’s too hard, you might be wrangling the elephant instead. See if you can take a step back, take some deep breaths, and give yourself a break.