Normative Masculine Marital Despair

Normative Masculine Marital Despair is the fancy name I have given a thing that I could probably do a research project on with 12 participants and then call it a thing-conclusively-proven-by-science, then trademark it and write a book and go on a speaking tour, but for now I will content myself with a humble blog post.

Never pick up a cat by the scruff of the neck

Many men, myself included, have moments where we feel that we are incapable of pleasing our female partner. Usually this happens when our female partner is telling us we have screwed up in some way. Sometimes we think, “Okay, fair enough, I blew it.” Sometimes we think “Hm. I don’t think that’s accurate. I think I did pretty well.” Neither of those is NMMD. NMMD is when we say “I will never be able to satisfy her. I will always get it wrong.” Women may have a similar feeling, but in my experience with couples most women may fear being a not being happy or that their partner will not be happy but it seems to me that is slightly different than fearing that you do not have the capacity to ever satisfy your wife or female partner. I have rarely seen a woman react in the ways that many men I have seen.

Margaret Atwood said “At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them." Appearing incapable before one’s female partner is a powerful fear that subjectively holds some of the same terror of helplessness as the female fear of being overpowered and killed by a man. We can view this as silly and dismiss it or as so powerful that men should never have to experience it but I prefer to take it seriously as an element that may drive a lot of conflict in opposite-sex couples, but that does not have to.

This video may be a upsetting but it is a good illustration of the mammalian freeze reflex “freeze”

Lots of men take a deep breath, know that the feeling will pass and get on with their day. Some men get aggressive when they feel this way, some men seek to get away. Some men freeze. I once heard the feeling of hopelessly failing at marriage described as similar to a cat being “scruffed.” Not being a cat owner I had to go check it out and when I saw it I thought it was actually a pretty powerful analogy. Stephen Porges and others have theorized that extreme stress or the memory of extreme stress particularly when there is an element of helplessness or immobility can result in “dorsal vagal shutdown”, that is collapse. This is described as the same reflex that makes the springbok that gets jumped by a lion go limp when it senses that it cannot escape. Many men talk about feeling trapped, stuck or unable to breathe when they talk about this feeling.

When these responses have a lot of secondary gain, for example if a female partner backs off from asserting that something isn’t working for them, NMMD and the response may become more likely to recur. The feeling may also reactivate other, earlier traumatic experiences of being powerless from earlier in a man’s life which can amp up the emotional intensity of the response.

The reactions that can come out of this feeling can fuel a lot of crappy stuff in a relationship, as I think is probably pretty evident, particularly if they happen regularly. But feelings are always legit, worth noticing and breathing through. By calling it Normative I hope people will understand that it is common, both to take the shame out of feeling it and also to help men realize that while lots of other men feel this way, other men have figured out how to manage their responses to it in ways that don’t blow up their relationships.

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.  


Resistance is where the work begins

Ginger Campbell host of the Brain Science podcast, after a great interview with Norman Doidge about neuro-plasticity, said that doctors often don't prescribe behavioral therapies because they have the experience of patients not following through (1:05:00). "Many patients would rather take pills than follow treatment regimens that require them to do most of the work themselves."  I will write about Doidge at some point soon, but I thought a lot about Ginger's statement about homework and follow through. 

Recently, I have been finding that the most interesting moments in therapy come when I ask a client to try something that he/she/they won't or don't do and we unpack that resistance.  I have said before that on a handful of occasions, I have given people really good advice in therapy.  But much more common are people who know more or less what they need to do to make changes in their lives but resist it for reasons they cannot fully understand

I recently told a client who was feeling ambivalent about his marriage -- he couldn't commit to it and couldn't leave --  that he should try being fully invested in his relationship for 3 months.  At the end he could still leave or stay or continue being undecided, but in order to see what the relationship might be, he should try actually working at making it good for a limited amount of time.  He physically writhed at the idea.  He almost began to twitch.  What makes committing to the relationship, even provisionally, so hard? 

I told a couple that they should spend ten minutes a day talking about something tough in the day and supporting one another.  When I asked them about the exercise he said, "It feels weird because we see each other all day, she knows everything about my day."  They began to see how her being available to him for almost all his emotional needs throughout the day was not so great for their relationship. 

I told a client to meditate so that he could be a little more present to his partner.  "Sitting still for ten minutes is my idea of hell," he said.  She began to cry because she wants him to be able to be still for her.  It turns out that he has missed some crucial hurt feelings of hers because sitting still with emotions is so painful for him. 

People have reasons for not changing.  Sometimes it is a cost benefit analysis: "This requires a lot of work and I don't have enough confidence that it will make a difference."  I think a lack of confidence that medical science actually knows what is good for us is an important and neglected part of that cost benefit analysis.  It is hard to take your doctor's prescription seriously if you don't think s/he understands what is going on with you and what you want.  That doesn't come in 15 minutes.  Sometimes the road to such confidence comes from taking the time to unpack what else makes change hard.  

It is ironic that most doctors probably know that just prescribing behavioral change is unlikely to get people on board, yet they still do it.  Another opportunity to ask the question, "What makes it hard to do this?" And perhaps the beginning of real change. 

Cheese factor five; the therapist's secret fear of being Elle magazine.

"How about a nice Wensleydale?"

"How about a nice Wensleydale?"

I broke down and did it.  Between appointments, I wrote index cards that said, "Your partner's favourite band," "What your partner was wearing when you first met," and "Your partner's secret ambition."  These come from a series of exercises developed by John Gottman called "Love Maps".  You hand the cards to the client and s/he says what s/he thinks is the right answer or asks his/her partner.  Gottman is one of the most prominent and serious researchers of couples ever.  There's a whole lot of theory and research behind "Love Maps" but the first time I handed these cards to my clients, I cringed a little (I hope I did a reasonable job of hiding it). 

My cringe went a little like this: "I went to graduate school for three years and then did post-graduate training for years afterwards.  Now I am doing an exercise that feels like it has been clipped from Elle magazine."

Love Maps has a high 'cheese factor.'  That kept me from using it for a long time even though it is an evidence-based practice for helping couples do better. 

What is it about cheese?  I rely on being able to offer people something they can't get from a popular magazine or an online quiz for my living and my sense of professional attainment.  Not only that, coming to someone who they believe knows a thing or two, helps people feel safe, which is a prerequisite of a lot of the work of therapy.  I worry that the pungent odor of cheese can destroy that confidence that my clients and I rely on. 

Its not just me.  My training has been aimed at instilling a sense that therapists have complex, scientific knowledge that allows us to serve as serious professionals with something to offer that goes beyond the self-help section of a book store.  I think that is true.  But I also remember what Sylvain and Elise told me (names are made up).  They came every week to therapy and used it really well.  But at one point they said to me, "You're nice and all and you're probably good at what you do but for us the metro ride over is the most therapeutic part of the whole thing. We never have a half an hour where we are just sitting and talking about what's going on with us." 

Family doctors are highly trained professionals who spend a big portion of their time telling people stuff that their moms could have told them; "Have some soup and rest."  "Stop picking at it."  Sometimes you need a professional to tell you (because you won't listen to your mom).  In plenty of cases the mechanics of having a loving relationship aren't rocket-science; be kinder to one another, develop affection, show caring, stop bad habits that drive one another away, pay attention to your own and your partner's feelings etc.  What is hard is making the commitment to do it; taking the weekly metro ride over to my office may be some or even most of the therapy. 

So now I don't cringe (much) when I take out the Love Map cards.  Some couples roll their eyes and laugh at how cheesy it is and I laugh with them, but usually they smile at each other they laugh at one another's foibles or shared memories.  When they do the Love Maps exercise, couples understand one another a little more.  They have a little more feeling of affection after they do it.  And despite doing something they could have done online or from a magazine, many of them find it worthwhile to come back. 

Not doing things because they feel cheesy is actually a pretty big issue for some clients as well as for their therapist.  Some people hate the idea that doing basic, pedestrian things is going to help them.  (I wrote little about this here).  As the therapist, I sometimes have to model that we can push past our impulse to eye-roll just like we can push past other things that keep us from doing what helps. 

I would love to know your experiences of cheese in therapy.  The person who sends in the best example will get ... hmmm. a lovely stilton? or perhaps a nice wensleydale? whaddya say Gromit?

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth. Can you explain how your plumbing works?

My supervisor and mentor Sylvia always says that "clients come in with an idea about what the story is and our job is to confuse them."  I have seen this borne out.  Clients have a very firm idea about what the problem is and how they got there but no idea how they can solve it.  The therapist drills down and down and down, "slicing it thin" as Sue Johnson says.  "I don't think I understood that.  How does your mom being too lenient keep you from getting a job?"  "Sorry.  You said that when she gets angry, you shut down.  What does 'shut down' mean?"  "I missed that.  You were talking about how in 1985 you had a miscarriage and that was connected with not wanting to eat.  How does that work?" 

How does that work? 

I recently read about "The illusion of explanatory depth."  The illusion of explanatory depth is what research psychologists Frank Keil and Leon Rosenblitt call the human tendency to be confident that we understand something -- usually how a familiar but complicated piece of machinery works -- until we are asked to explain it.  Suddenly we recognize that a toilet or a sewing machine is way less familiar than we thought. The illusion falls apart and we become more humble.  We start to know that we do not know.  

I was amazed that nobody seems to have written about this in the context of psychotherapy.  It used to feel to me like this kind of questioning that psychotherapists were doing about a person's experience was disrespectful.  Aren't we supposed to see the client as the expert in his/her/their own story?  But there is a difference between being intimately familiar with something and being an expert in it.  Asking people to tell a coherent story about themselves and their difficulties can be painful but that doesn't make it disrespectful. 

One of the things that can happen in a family in difficulty -- particularly where there is a lot of secret-keeping -- is that the explanatory depth is very thin.  These families often have very limited, incoherent stories of themselves yet they are often very convinced that there narrative makes sense.  If a therapist asks clarifying questions it can feel very scary because the family may intuit that the illusion of explanatory depth is about to fall away.  Like all illusions, the IOED serves a very important function, it gives us a sense of coherence and comprehensibility in the face of things that feel chaotic and scary.  But more coherent narratives are therapeutic. 

John Byng-Hall citing the work of Mary Main among others wrote about attachment and coherent narratives in families.

This would suggest that making sense of the events that traumatized the attachments is important. But the most effective way of creating a coherent story line is to help the family to manage their current attachments in a way that takes into account all its members’ attachment needs. This will require them to tune into each other’s pain. The children might then also be able to tell a coherent story to their children.

One of the interesting elements of the IOED is that if we know that someone knows how something works, we take on that knowledge as if we knew it, too.  "Well somebody understands how a toilet works," our brains say, "So I must, too."  In a psycho-therapeutic context this can manifest as jargon not connected to real feeling or much detail; "I'm codependent."  "He's got a borderline personality disorder."  "It's because of early trauma."  "He's from Mars and I'm from Venus."   This is why a not-knowing approach by the therapist can be so important, even when it is frustrating for the client.  Families need to go from being familiar with their own family functioning and stories to being experts in them.  That doesn't mean they need to replace one prepackaged expert story with another, as easy as it is for our human brains to do that. 

When all goes well, the client or clients are able to construct a more coherent and flexible understanding of themselves, understandings that can better tolerate challenge and reorganization. 

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.


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. 

When knowing isn't enough

I have been reading John Gottman's latest book "The Science of Trust."  It is an interesting read on the subject with some great little tangents into history of science which I really appreciate.  Gottman became famous after he was featured in "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell because Gottman is able to predict with great accuracy if a couple will divorce based on very short interactions. 

I love Gottman's approach to relationship questions.  He is a social scientist perhaps first and foremost.  He has spent years having couples come into his lab and seeing what they do that works and what doesn't.  He has discovered that much of what therapists thought was true about relationships wasn't.  In some ways, thanks to Gottman, now is the best time in recent history to seek help for your relationship.  Gottman has identified what he calls "the four horseman of the apocalypse" for relationships; contempt, criticism, stonewalling and defensiveness.  Couples where these are regular features of conflict are likely to set off a cascade of negative feelings that can be very hard to recuperate from.

My biggest dissatisfaction with the book -- and with other things that he has written -- is that it seems to say that people should "Just stop it."

Sometimes I feel like Gottman's prescription is; Read the book, understand the pain you are causing yourself and your partner and don't do it anymore.  (John Gottman is a couple and family therapist as well as a researcher and I would love to know what his therapy is like and in what ways, if any, he goes beyond a psycho-educational model).

This approach is useful for couples who are feeling some rockiness and want some tips to help them address it.  But I find it limited for the couples who go into a therapist's office or the therapist who treats them.  These couples usually say something like 'I know I probably shouldn't ____________ (fill in the blank: criticize, stonewall, put my partner down, insult my partner) but when s/he does ______________ (fill in the blank) I can't help it.'

There is a limit to the power of our intellects to think our way out of emotional entanglements.  There are a few times in my career where I have instructed people to stop some really destructive behaviour and they have listened to what I said and then complied.  I can count those moments on one hand.  Usually, by the time I see people, they know that what they are doing is hurting them and/or the people around them and they continue to do it.   So far as I have gotten in the book, Gottman describes these "absorbing" states in which the interactions are "nasty-nasty" very well and documents the destructive consequences of them for a relationship.  He says that they are not subject to the same game-theory model he proposes for the other elements of relationships in which people in a couple act rationally by maximizing their payoffs.  He determined 'payoff' by having people rate the payoff for the interaction after the fact while watching video of themselves interacting.  They rate these very miserable moments as very low on payoff.  Why then do they get into these states?  Why not "Just stop it?"  Gottman's answer, as far as I understand it, seems to be a sort of black box; it is an absorbing state, not subject to rationality.  Deal with other states, foster more neutral or positive states when couples are in them and try to keep the couple away from the powerful gravitational pull of these interactions. 

Assessing payoff for these highly negative states in the way Gottman describes might be subject to an important methodological flaw that has implications for therapy; the payoff is clear at the time but hard to access afterwards.  My experience both personally and professionally is that when someone is very angry and in conflict with another person, especially a loved one, the assessment of 'payoff' changes dramatically.  After people really stop being angry, they will often say that they don't understand what happened when they were angry, why they acted the way they did.  They may even have trouble recalling the details of what happened.  There is a sense of dissonance or discontinuity with the angry state.  While a person who is very angry may make decisions that are incomprehensible to him/her later, those decisions make good sense to the angry person who is feeling extremely negatively stimulated; s/he wants to eliminate the negative stimulation.  This poses a problem for a person who is angry about the relationship because his or her partner is both the cause and the cure for the negative stimulation.  That's why we do things that both hurt our partners and simultaneously try to keep them under our control by either keeping them near or at a safe distance. 

Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, has a different take on this from Gottman that I think makes a good counter-point here.  She sees couples in therapy as needing to work on what I think of as the operating system level rather than the software level.  Those absorbing negative states need to be addressed precisely because they are not subject to intellectual scrutiny in the cold, hard light of day.  When I am calm and able to reflect, I do not have access to my operating system, to all the things that are going on in a primal emotional state.  I have to go to that state.  My partner comes along with me and if I experience my partner as a supportive figure (a positive attachment figure; Johnson's EFT is very attachment-based), then when I re-enter that state I will turn towards my partner rather than seeking to hurt and control.