Do we marry the wrong people?

An article about "How We End Up Marrying the Wrong People" in the Philosopher's Mail is wonderfully thought provoking, full of great insights and very wrong.  I probably should agree with it since it recommends that people undergo lots of self-reflection and guided psychological processes before they get married.  In fact, the last line is a call for "psychological marriages."  Sounds like it would be good for business. 

The good.  

The article -- which, oddly, is unsigned -- has many fantastic observations about relationships.

We ‘project’ a range of perfections into the beloved on the basis of only a little evidence. In elaborating a whole personality from a few small – but hugely evocative – details, we are doing for the inner character of a person what our eyes naturally do with the sketch of a face.
We don’t see this as a picture of someone who has no nostrils, eight strands of hair and no eyelashes. Without even noticing that we are doing it, we fill in the missing parts. Our brains are primed to take tiny visual hints and construct entire figures from them – and we do the same when it comes to the character of our prospective spouse. We are – much more than we give ourselves credit for, and to our great cost – inveterate artists of elaboration.

This is a lovely way of showing us how much we project onto our partners.  I spend a lot of time with couples trying to get people to disentangle what they want or fear or expect from their partners, from what their partners are actually saying or doing or feeling. 

Prior to marriage, we’re rarely involved in dynamics that properly hold up a mirror to our disturbances. Whenever more casual relationships threaten to reveal the ‘difficult’ side of our natures, we tend to blame the partner – and call it a day. As for our friends, they predictably don’t care enough about us to have any motive to probe our real selves. They only want a nice evening out. Therefore, we end up blind to the awkward sides of our natures.

In my experience, both personal and professional this is true.  Couplehood can make us to examine our faults because there is a lot at stake.  But is knowing oneself a prerequisite for a good marriage?  Of course a publication called the Philosopher's Mail thinks so.  Me, not so much.  

The Mistake

What follows from this smart, though pessimistic, view of human nature and relationships -- that a battery of psychological testing prior to marriage will enhance self-knowledge and knowledge of the other person and thereby fix what ails marriages -- is a mistake.  A whopper of a mistake.  A mistake on the order of picking a life-partner with eight strands of hair and no nostrils. 

The mistake is that it both underestimates and overestimates what psychology is. 

I recently saw a couple who had been married for 25 years in which the man was completely resistant to all my psychological blandishments, he wasn't hostile or 'in denial' or 'defended'; he just was completely uninterested in his own motivations.  As he saw it, over the course of a long marriage, he had forgotten to treat his wife well and now he wanted a chance to do what she was asking for; more attention, more romance, more sex.  I wanted to know 'why' but after three sessions he had changed and she was happy.  The surgery was a disaster but the patient not only survived but felt much better.  The lesson: Who cares 'why' if a relationship works?  There are plenty of couples who are happy enough, for enough of the time that they don't need to spend a lot of time reflecting on it.  (This is one of the great discoveries of John Gottman's research).  It is easy to extrapolate from unhappy couples in a therapist's office to assume that all couples are unhappy.  The dubious statistic (Philosopher's Mail, thankfully does not) about 50% failed marriages can re-enforce this idea (for why the statistic needs to be taken with a grain of salt see here).  Even if we grant it for a moment that 50% of marriages will last sixty years, it is worth noting that the vast majority do so without without anybody ever stepping into a shrink's office.  As I have remarked before, marriages, like people, are resilient.  A realistically optimistic focus on individual and couple resiliency is honest and healthy. 

The most serious problems people encounter in couples are not magnifications of the same problems they encounter in friendships or the work place.  The reason for that is that a couple relationship isn't the same as other relationships.  I see a lot of young couples, couples who have recently moved in together after a year or two of dating.  They fight, they hurt.  They come in bewildered because what they are experiencing is so different from what happens in the rest of their lives and what happened for the first year of their relationship. 

From what I have seen, after a year or two in a relationship, if and when we feel safe with our partners people sometimes do something different than they do in other relationships such as friendships.  My metaphor for this is: we come to our partner timidly, expectantly, filled with hope and reach out to them and offer them a beautiful silver platter filled with our shit.  When we feel safe and loved and secure enough we bring out things that we haven't paid attention to or thought about or reflected on for years, things that we are ashamed of, afraid of, mistrustful of, don't have any idea how to handle.  It is a paradox that the tribute of love is our own least loved parts.  These are things that psychological testing won't discover.  And our partner's reaction to us offering up our damaged bits can't be easily predicted. 

Couples can and should talk about their expectations: money, career, housework, children, sex.  People need to be honest with themselves about what is important in a partner but also need to know that will change over time. 

I don't believe in compatibility so much as I believe in kindness, flexibility and positivity.  Those qualities will see couples over a lot of hard stuff including a lot of incompatibility.  

 

What "The Americans" gets right and wrong about families, deceit and violence.

I have been making my way through FX's "The Americans."  (Spoilers ahead!)  It is about a seemingly normal couple, the Jennings, who are, in fact, Soviet agents living in a Washington suburb and raising two children.  The politics of the show are complicated; the Soviet agents at the centre of the show, Philip and Elizabeth, are very sympathetically portrayed but the very idea that Russian-born Soviet agents were able to successfully pose as native born Americans seems more like post-millennial sci-fi paranoia à la Battlestar Gallactica than cold-war Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy realism.  That aside, the appeal of the show is the marriage at its heart.  How can two people who are expert deceivers and trained to see deceit everywhere, trust one another?  Because they absolutely need to trust one another.  They are alone in enemy territory.  They are one another's only source of safety.

Transient

This is the dilemma at the heart of every relationship; No one can betray me like my lover and my lover is the only one who can heal betrayal.  The show manages this with great psychological realism.  Its creator is a former CIA agent. 

I have a serious quibble with the Jennings children though, Paige and Henry.  I am about nine episodes in so this may change but the kids seem ridiculously well-balanced.  This isn't meant to be an action-comedy like "Spy Kids" where the parents bring the diaper bag instead of the bomb disposal bag but the show can't shake the very American convention that to be likable, the spies need to be good, loving parents, with essentially lovable, if slightly troubled kids.  Paige and Henry hitchhike when the parents don't come to get them (because they have been abducted) and Henry smashes a beer bottle over the creepy driver's head to get away and the sibs pledge to keep it a secret.  They get mad and sullen when the parents separate.  This is the early 80s and by the standards of the time all this is pretty small potatoes as troubled kids go. 

Meanwhile Elizabeth and Philip are patient and present for their kids when they hurt over the separation and sneak into their rooms and give them loving looks at night.  These are the same people who stab, blow-up and shoot enemies of the motherland while living a double life as tour agents, people who have given up their pasts and country for an ideology they can never publicly avow.

I haven't worked with someone who lived a double life (any more than we all do).  But I have worked with families that have kept big, dark secrets.  I have worked with families where one or both parents are violent.  There can be protective factors that mitigate the impact of these things but their children are always impacted.  Granted, the Jennings kids' don't see what their parents get up to at night.  But it is very hard to shut off violence and deceit, to keep it hived off, prevent it from leaking out.  And the show recognizes that, plays with it... except when it comes to the kids. 

When Elizabeth and Philip tell the kids that they are separating, one of the kids asks, "Will you stop loving us?"  It would have been far more interesting (and chilling) to show how profoundly Elizabeth has been marred by years of constant deceit if we were offered the possibility of doubting her sincerity rather than seeing a model of connected parenting.  It would be far more interesting if, instead of staring off into space in class, Henry reacted to his parents' separation (and years of hidden violence) by becoming violent himself.  How would Philip and Elizabeth see their son -- and each other -- if Henry was beating the crap out of other kids every week?

 

It is interesting: The show's creator, Joe Weisberg, said in an interview that spy-parents usually have "the talk" with their kids at some point and let them know that they have been living a lie.  I suspect that if their parents are doing anything one-tenth as convoluted and violent as what the Jennings get up to, the kids already know.  "The talk" probably doesn't involve much listening by the parents or they would have learned that.  Like so much that has to do with children, we don't like to face the reality of the impact of lies and violence on them, so much so that a gritty show, all about the subtle, polyvalent impact of deceit and violence on human relationships, can't dare to get it right. 

Your therapist, Ron Swanson?

Men often fear that therapy is stacked against them.  Whether it is couple, family or individual therapy, they think that they are entering a domain where their skills and strengths will be counted as liabilities and they will be asked to do things that aren't just difficult or scary but unbecoming.  That isn't a man problem.  That's a therapy problem.  I was talking recently with another male therapist, Dr. Darrell Johnson, a friend and mentor.  I mentioned this campaign to him... (Okay, it isn't Ron Swanson but a Ron Swanson knock-off.)

It is from the Office of Suicide Prevention of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.  It's geared at connecting with men, particularly working-age 25-54 men who are twice as likely to commit suicide as any other age group according to the white paper that was used to develop the Mantherapy campaign (US stats).  Darrell and I talked about the idea that men are typically more resistant to therapy (part of what accounts for their higher suicide rates than women).  I joked that soon it would be possible for therapists to use cookies to give different design templates to their websites so that women and men would be presented with different web sites that are gender specific since too much "feelings" language might be off-putting for men, essentially presenting themselves as Rick Mahogany when men click through.  But the Colorado campaign doesn't seem to have been a raging success despite the high production values.  The Richard Mahogany video that has the most views on YouTube is at around 8,000.  Maybe those are 8,000 saved lives and if so, great, but I don't imagine that therapy's problem with men has been touched much.  I think the character seems inauthentic, not just playfully unreal, and for men or women authenticity in therapy is important. 

There were a few things in the white paper that I thought were really interesting for therapists to consider about working with men, things that hadn't occurred to me despite having worked with boys and men a lot.  One is the value men often place on fixing something themselves and how to make therapy an exercise in 'solving it myself (or ourselves) with help'.  One man said to the researchers of the white paper, "Show me how to stitch up my own wound like Rambo."  Okay, that's some pretty serious hyper-masculinity but the point is that therapy can benefit from emphasizing the client's efficacy in problem-solving with the therapist as trusted assistant. 

The other thing that I thought was really wonderful was the importance some men place on giving back.  I was in Hawaii last year.  A companion and I went kayaking.  We visited a small island and had a great time but when we went to get back in our kayak, we got hit by several waves in succession and my companion got knocked over in the surf and couldn't get up.  I watched, barely able to keep myself afloat trapped on the other side of the kayak thinking I might very well see this strong, capable person drown before my eyes in three and half feet of water.  But before that could happen two kayakers (much more capable than us) grabbed our kayak and my companion, hoisting him out of the water.  I thanked them.  They said, "That's what we do."  They viewed helping as part and parcel of who they were.  I, on the other hand, felt grateful but unsatisfied as they paddled away.  I couldn't pay back the debt I owed them.  Therapy is a uni-directional process as far as help goes; codes of ethics forbid outside relationships so it is very hard for a client to pay his debt with his skills through labour exchange or barter.  I never thought about how important it can be for some clients to be able to show their competency and mastery to a therapist by doing meaningful work or sharing their own products, to give help for help received, and that men might feel that more acutely.  The report points out how central the idea of repaying a debt is to AA, for instance.  Now I am considering requiring clients in some circumstances to agree to pay part of the cost of therapy by "paying forward" to others using their own strengths and capabilities (see the Milwaukee African Violet Queen).  Ron, would like the idea of paying off your therapy by carving duck decoys with kids in an after-school program? 

"I'm a a bit fearful that we are verging on what I call 'feelings territory.'"

The label of "sex addict" and sex negativity.

Dr. Marty Klein makes a really fascinating argument about the term "sex addiction" in an article in "The Humanist"; that that label  is a way for people not to have to reckon with the conflict between their desire for what certain kinds of sex gives them and the consequences of acting out their desires.    

New patients tell me all the time how they can’t keep from doing self-destructive sexual things; still, I see no sex addiction. Instead, I see people regretting the sexual choices they make, often denying that these are decisions. I see people wanting to change, but not wanting to give up what makes them feel alive or young or loved or adequate; wanting the advantages of changing, but not wanting to give up what makes them feel they’re better or sexier or naughtier than other people. Most importantly, I see people wanting to stop doing what makes them feel powerful, attractive, or loved, but since they don’t want to stop feeling powerful, attractive or loved, they can’t seem to stop the repetitive sex clumsily designed to create those feelings.
— http://thehumanist.org/july-august-2012/you%E2%80%99re-addicted-to-what/

He goes on to argue that this condition of wanting certain things sexually and not wanting to take responsibility for the consequences is made more troublesome by a sex-negative culture which punishes people for wanting any kind of sex or relationship that isn't socially sanctioned. 

...the diagnosis of sex addiction is in many ways a diagnosis of discomfort with one’s own sexuality, or of being at odds with cultural definitions of normal sex, and struggling with that contrast...

The culture today communicates two out-of-sync messages about sex pretty strongly; one, that we should be ecstatically sexually fulfilled all the time and two, that non-socially-sanctioned sex is highly dangerous and scary (gay, non-monogamous, kinky).  And there is the meta-message which says that commenting on the discrepancy between these two messages -- "Everybody may not be sexually and romantically fulfilled with one, opposite-sex partner for the rest of their lives" -- is not allowed.  A million romcoms have taught us that everyone will end up in a monogamous, same-sex couple and will never feel the desire to masturbate or fantasize about other people or look at pornography because they are so fulfilled.  According to Marty Klein, the label "sex addiction" leaves us stuck in that double bind rather than helping us step out of it. 

3 great insights into couples' trust and betrayal in 4 1/2 minutes

John Gottman, the most important researcher into how couples function and fail working today, offers three great, research-based insights into what helps or hurts relationships. 

We have a choice to turn away or connect with our partner dozens of times a day and that is more important for the health of a relationship than betrayal itself.  What turning towards a partner looks like: ATTUNE, an acronym for Awareness of feelings, Turning towards the feeling, Tolerance of two different viewpoints, seeking Understanding of one's partner, responding Non-defensively, Empathy.  How CLalt (Comparison Level Alternative or "I can do better") when you are frustrated with a partner can lead to relationship destroying cascades.  Great!