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Into the Crucible

The Phoenix Philosophy - part 11

For the next several weeks, I'm going to pull quotes from Passionate Marriage, and use the quotes as a means of discussing the idea of healthy inter-relationship.


Many are the excuses that people use to avoid confronting themselves. (This self-confrontation is what David Schnarch describes as happening, "in the crucible.") One of the avoidance methods I see as a therapist is "therapist shopping." Typically, it goes like this. Client comes in and lists off a tale of woe. Said woe is emphatically external. They were parented wrong (who wasn't?), their partner disagrees with them (whose doesn't?) they're physically or mentally anxious (part of life), they've had therapy and done a pile of workshops, but nothing seems to change (why would it?)

Now, you'd think that a person willing to go for therapy would be there for the long haul, and be would willing to deal with their issues through a change in their self. Strangely enough, this is often not the case. No matter what the precipitating event - relationship breakdown, physical symptoms, mental distress - whatever - what many people are looking for is justification to stay the same.

The goal for them, is not self-regulation through discipline. Their goal is symptom removal. (Very western.) As Schnarch puts it,

"… we never doubt that therapists have clever tricks to get us around our problems without going through them. Few of us enter therapy to change ourselves - we are usually seeking ways to change our situation or our spouse, while we remain the same. We seek out simple tips, techniques, and benedictions that tell us how to communicate and be compassionate (read: easy ways to feel understood and receive compassion.)" pg. 322

I recently had one session with a couple. They were separated. He described himself as "controlling" (he blamed insecurity over an auto accident that happened 37 years ago - one that claimed his sister's life) and as the session went on, all he could talk about was what he needed from his wife. (This is called enmeshment.) He was lonely, he was unhappy; he needed his wife to come home and look after him. He had done 2 sessions of anger management and now had been once to couple therapy. He needed her to look after him, to affirm him, to tell him he was a good and worthwhile person.

Now, interestingly, she was not biting, not rushing home. She was adequately holding her ground. He had hurt her a few months earlier,  and she wanted to talk about her fear of him. He laughed it off. Said she was painting him as being violent. That normally he only yelled and threatened - the push was a fluke. So, she went inside, calmed herself down, and said, "I hear that you're hurting, and I'm not coming home until I feel safe."

Boy, did he piss himself off over that one. (I guess those 2 whole sessions of anger management hadn't "taken," eh?) That, and that I wouldn't help him get his wife to see that she should have nothing she'd want to do more than make him happy. I was heading in the opposite direction - indicating a 3-month trial separation, with each of them working on his and her self. I indicated that I felt that both could benefit from growing up, getting over themselves (she wasn't off the hook - she was an enabler and needed to look deeply at her enabling behaviours) and standing on their own two feet.

Husband got angry with me. Paced the office, out to the waiting room, back, forth. Said that all of his friends thought his wife had an "imbalance of power." (Read: "I'm supposed to be in charge here. How dare she assert herself and not look after me?" He's also playing the teenager's favourite card - "Why can't I? All my friends are doing it!") I agreed that he didn't like the situation, and that his wife was learning to look after herself. It was his job to look after him.

"This is not how the therapy is supposed to be going! She's supposed to see that I did what she asked (2 anger management courses, 1 session of therapy, so far - and, I guess, a partridge in a pear tree...) and come home." (Read: "Wayne, if you were doing your job, you'd tell her to come home.") He knew I was a former Minister, so he trotted out, "Show me in the Bible where it ways that I should stand on my own feet, and that my wife shouldn't look after me!" I just smiled and repeated myself. He kept shaking his head and muttering, You're not doing this right!"

They booked another session. Quoth the woman, "This has been great!!!" Husband glowered. Several days later he called and cancelled the next session. He decided they would seek counselling at their church, where, I am sure, he hopes to find a Minister who has read the same Bible he has. My only regret is that she went along with him. I would guess that his manipulations finally caused her to give up on her self and return to "doing it his way." Problem is, as long as one partner tries to control the other, the relationship is doomed.  Or as Schnarch puts it,

"Long-term intimacy within marriage hinges on validating yourself rather than "trusting" your partner to make you feel safe." Pg. 113

As we've said in many issues of Into the Centre, my life is not about me understanding other people. Nor is my life about demanding that other people understand me. My job is to figure myself out.

I can listen as others choose to self-reveal. I can, as a therapist, help clients to cut through the bullshit they tell themselves. (One of the biggest, "I just gotta be me!" In the case above, someone is going to die if one or both don't stop "being themselves." Being themselves has led to their present dilemma. You need to get over "being you" and decide to grow up.)

Growing up means hearing hard truths about ourselves (which our partners gleefully provide J ) and, rather than get defensive and run around whining about being ill-treated, go inside, and self-soothe. Once I'm calm, I want to look at the criticism and decide if the behaviour needs changing. I then choose to change, not for the other person, but for myself.

Schnarch: "My point is: communication is no assurance of intimacy if you can't stand the message. "Good communication" is often mistaken for your partner perceiving you the way you want to be seen or understood. "We don't communicate" is code for "I refuse to accept that message- send me a different one! How dare you see me [or the issue] that way!" pg. 102

The crucible concept is this: I'm in a boat all by myself. I am in charge of where I go, how I get there and what provisions I take. I recognize, from an existentialist perspective, that there is no goal, and no destination, other than death. I nonetheless choose to paddle. I look at who I am today, and how I am doing. I work on me, and me alone.

What I'll discover is, left to my own devices, I suck at paddling. So, I have two choices. I can try to manipulate someone else into paddling for me (making me happy) or I can learn to paddle. And that's going to require help. Working with a therapist is like getting a paddling instructor. (Dar and I learned to white water kayak from a woman rated #2 in slalom - she showed us how, but couldn't climb into the boat with us to make sure we did it right or didn't drown. She was in her boat, and for a while, we paddled together. Whether I learned or not, whether I drowned or not, (and it was up for grabs, as the last paddle was on the Ottawa River, in class 4 rapids…) was totally up to me.)

In my little boat, I am alone, and self-responsible. No one is "supposed" to make it all better for me. That's my job. Given all of that, what of relationships?

Dar is in her boat, too. I can't do anything for her. We can, however, choose to paddle along together, and keep each other company. I can reveal to her what I know about myself, and especially the embarrassing, stupid, messy parts. She may choose to do the same, although it's not a requirement. However, and it's a big however, I choose who I paddle with. I choose to be with someone who is choosing to self-reveal to me. That's a personal choice.

I remember teaching teens to paddle a kayak. There are "lily-dippers" and paddlers. Lily-dippers have learned to paddle on flat water, in protected areas. They're sloppy, they miss strokes, and they lumber rather than glide. If they are willing, they can learn to do things more efficiently. Better. Most don't. They paddle along, and talk about how well they are doing. Typical, know-it-all teens. (I know a lot of adults just like them.)

Until you put them in white water. And remove the rudder from the kayak. Oops!

I don't spend much time with lily-dippers. Unless they're looking to find a new way.

It is impossible to live life free of anxiety. There is the anxiety of the crucible - of change, of pain, of growth. Or there is the anxiety of trying to stay the same, in denial, pretending. The crucible, to me, seems the better choice. From there, I can be intimate, and choose to love well.

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