Blog by Miriam

The Highest Animal

“Man is rated the highest animal, at least among all animals

who returned the questionnaire.” ~Robert Brault

Dog In A Hoodie

 

It is a commonly accepted belief that dogs have similar feelings to humans. A broader perspective might ask us to consider that humans have feelings similar to dogs – that many, if not most, of the emotions we feel are as mammalian and automatic as they are for our beloved pups. But the similarities between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom extend well beyond just emotions or emotionality. Even unto ways of relating in a “pack” mentality where behavior is governed less by individuals and more by characteristic group dynamics.

Our feelings aren’t what define us as distinct from the animal kingdom. Not really. What distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our potential to develop the ability to think about our feelings and how they may fit a larger pattern of an emotional system.

Therapy that focuses on our feelings often times makes us feel like the most automatic parts of us (our emotional reactions) are the most important or relevant parts of us. An understanding of what our feelings tend to be – part of a long standing dynamic of a larger pack (a.k.a a family, a society, or a culture) – tends to be more beneficial. More often than not, our feelings have us. We don’t have them.

An understanding of the forces that lead to resolution of human problems goes a long way. These forces include  triangles (for example, your wife is overly involved with her mother who doesn’t like you), projection (when our bad days or stomach aches – a.k.a. negative emotions – are attributed to those closest to us), and sibling position (yours as well as those of your parents), just to name a few. These kinds of organizing forces in a family trump anything else we do. Which is why date nights, extra sex, communication techniques, and love languages don’t make a lasting difference in our relationships. There are  larger, systemic, “pack” realities extending back to your great grandmother, if you will, that mitigate the process.

Every family has large and small stressors to deal with. But what makes the difference between families that are destroyed by these stressors and the families that aren’t? This is a complicated question with a complicated answer. Suffice it to say that the difference is in how the family responds to the crises. The difference is in how much any individual family member understands those mitigating factors like triangles and can act upon his or her understanding. Can we use the idea of a triangle, for example, as a springboard to greater understanding and change or are we washed away by the emotion of it all?

I have found in my own life that studying about the family emotional system makes an important difference in how I handle arguments or illnesses or individual dysfunctions as they inevitably come to pass.

Most of the folks in my industry are trained to help people grow distant from their family emotional systems, in a stance that blames parents for either being too much or too little or too toxic or what have you. This only intensifies problems in the long run. It is better to re-enter the emotional field of one’s family system in order to learn what makes your pack tick. You might be surprised what it can tell you about how you tick and how you contribute to the problems you are now facing in your nuclear family. Chances are, whatever problem you are dealing with in your own nuclear family has happened before in some shape or size. So, congratulations! You are the proud owner of your great grandmother’s problems.

The advantage we have over our four-legged friends is we can do more than just feel. We can observe and think. We can educate ourselves about how emotional systems function, and when we have that knowledge, we can make a difference.

Check out Roberta Gilbert’s books to get your education started: The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory and Extraordinary Relationships.

5 Tips To Improve Bad Communication

Have you seen the movie This is 40? You won’t find any kind of sage marital advice or existential profundity – but you will find yourself hopefully able to laugh hysterically about the absurd situations every married couple has found itself in, at one time or another. Check out the fight scene from the movie here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NN-XC4_TAE

Ever had this kind of a fight with your spouse where both of you are trying to follow the “rules” of “good communication” and it turns out rather absurd, rather quickly? Consider these 5 tips to improve bad communication in your marriage.

  1. 1. Good communication is not about following rules or squeezing techniques into tense moments. Sometimes tense moments are just tense moments. Trying to “behave” during them sometimes misses the jewels and gems you may learn about yourself and your spouse. I’m not advocating “blowing” at your spouse. Walking away when things get tense can be a very important relationship saving discipline. But on some occasions losing your cool can be useful. It may help you recognize the load you are carrying in the relationship and it may help you let go of it a little. It may help you identify feelings you weren’t aware you had. It can sometimes even help you let go of these feelings. One wife I spoke to recently saw her husband’s newly emerging, occasional angry vents as a sign of progress – a change from his normally stoic approach to their every problem. He experienced the relief of not holding on so tightly. They both look forward to a time when feelings and thoughts can be shared between them openly and without too much fear.
  2. 2. Good communication is separate, equal, and open. Good communication is about adopting a stance characterized by 3 qualities: separate, equal, open. When individuals can separate themselves, even just a little, from the emotionally reactive blob of couple-ness, they can start to settle down and respond more from thought – much like they may be able to do with, for example, a work colleague. Working toward separation from this blob in turn generates more of a sense of equality and openness. The two shall become one may be a truism rather than an ideal for couples when it comes to good communication. 
  3. Bad communication is a symptom, not the problem. What is the problem? According to Bowen Theory, the problem has to do with an imbalance between two powerful relationship forces: the force toward togetherness and the force toward individuality. When the relationship togetherness pressure is greater than the ability of each spouse to be separate individuals, communication falls by the way side. It is a matter of too much anxiety or togetherness pressure and too little individuality. Being able to be an individual when the pressure to conform increases is key to improving bad communication.
  4. 4. It’s about the “I” Position – not “I” Statements. Did you see the couple’s absurd application of using “I” statements in the movie clip above? Using “I” statements is a way of thinking – not a technique or formula to apply as if we are in grade school learning how to write sentences. Perhaps a better way of thinking about “I” statements is the “I” position.  An “I” position is a way of being – a lifestyle not a diet. An “I” position is a way of being we develop over a long period of time with sustained focus and effort. It involves increased self-awareness, not only of what principles we live for and live by, but also a self-awareness of how we contribute to the stuck-ness and crises in our relationships. Harriet Lerner does a wonderful job of describing the “I” position in her books. The Dance of Anger or The Dance of Intimacy would be great places to start.
  5. 5. Keep it light. Ever think about why friendships seem so much easier to maintain than marriages? One theory I read about recently – in Roberta Gilbert’s book Extraordinary Relationships – posits that friendships tend to automatically make fun and lightness a priority. When you can cool off some of the emotional reactivity to make a point of having more fun with your spouse, you will go a long way to being able to resolve some of the stickier issues in the relationship. This is not a quick- fix kind of idea. Developing this ability and having it be a more stable aspect of a marriage takes a long time with sustained effort. But if the married couple in This is 40 could have broken down and started laughing at each other and at themselves during this fight, we would all have been laughing with them. Some of us were anyway.

The Peacock and The Maiden

Ever wonder what a peacock would say to his mate if he could speak? A number of ideas and images come to mind.

I was talking to a wife recently whose husband, post divorce, was making dramatic displays of dominance and power. Even though the courts were clearly on her side and the case was settled, she felt small and weak and she cowered. It was the typical pattern of their marriage. When she began to consider that they were equals, that he didn’t have any more power than she did, she began to see his threats and outbursts as much like the stomping, dancing, and feather displays of the peacock. It helped her gain the perspective that he was as much a part of the animal kingdom as she was. This helped her put into context her own submissive, reactive posture. The dominance and submission pattern is one that can be observed everywhere in nature.

Nat'l Audobon Society

Can you see this pattern in your marriage? Or in your divorce? Sometimes the pattern looks more like dominance vs. dominance. What posture do you take? The fact is we are born into families with particular patterns of dominance and submissiveness that are well developed and full of momentum. The majority of the time it’s not about evil or bad intentions; it’s about being a mammal living in a family of mammals. When people can slow down the thinking and feeling process and begin to see, moment-by-moment, the displays of either dominance or submissiveness, they can begin to settle down and not get so taken by it.

Looking One's Best

Of course, understanding patterns is only one step in the process. Nothing changes if action isn’t taken. Sometimes the highest form of action is in-action. Sometimes it is saying and owning one’s “no,” one’s voice, one’s own authority. This thing is bigger than we are – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And it can be helpful to remember that when we’re trying to raze mountains in our relationships.