Learner therapist (20)……Interpersonal politics of coupling, intimate or otherwise!
January 27 , 2013
The blame and responsibility challenge – creating truth in shared facts
NB – this is a first go at addressing these issues. I expect it may not be the last because they are so difficult for me.
Michael and I have been having this discussion since we met 20 months ago. It keeps coming up so it must matter, at least to us. I'll call it the truth in relationship discussion. Mike might call it the responsibility in relationship discussion. I start from the question: how can we be jointly responsible for anything? He starts with the belief that we have to be responsible for ourselves first. The struggle between individual and group perspectives is the mental history of modernity, one prefigured in the outstanding lives of ancient individuals in all domains of human endeavour rising above terrain of their socio-historical contexts, without which they, too, could never have risen!! Some say, me among them, that the historical balance is out of whack now. Too much me, too little us.
Both are important perspectives and practices, but neither can stand alone. 'How do we get to be responsible?' is one question on the pathway of upbringing. It emerges from the WEness of family, community, and society in their various overlapping institutional forms. No surprise there.
Along the path of upbringing we may have experiences which compromise our capacity for being and feeling responsible for ourselves. Our social systems are as imperfect as our personal ones. Around this fact roils the search of many wounded individuals to parcel the responsibility (blame!) for 'bad outcomes' which they are subject to, and which they fear reproducing themselves in the next generation. This struggle can only be avoided by self-numbing – a long-term strategy bound for failure.
The compromised self develops distortions (I mean that, not disorders) in its capacities to relate to others and itself. Distortion is a normal occurrence because others' responsibility for us can never be perfect, or even close! As some poet roughly says, parents eff us up. We can only learn responsibility from responsibility; our parents learned theirs from their parents, ad infinitum. As well, the generally accepted contents of adult responsibility have changed measurably in the last century or so, and continue to do so now.
Unintentional offense and responsibility
M and I had been stuck in this discord for months, and amicably so, until one day:
M commented on his distress at my dismissive celebration ("Uh yeah…" w/self-satisfied tone) of him seeing something I clearly thought he should have seen before. (This is an often repeated verbal punctuation in the course of our acquaintance and a behaviour I was aware of; I had not yet gotten to the point of being able to interrupt it, only acknowledge it to myself as it irrupted once again.) I asked what feeling he was having after I said it and with some reflection he came up with "offended" or similar, to which I suggested "disrespected" and he accepted that, too.
I agreed he should feel "offended" because it was an inappropriate expression on my part…though I expressed it then, still do at times and not just between us. It is not my intent to hurt and wasn't then. But, I was to blame, he agreed, for his bad feeling about himself at that moment. His feeling included some anger….unsurprisingly. As part of our professional self-development, we have built a relationship of shared responsibility which contained the insult and the complaint about it and so opening another level of discussion between us. This experience lifted us up to the level of our relationship as the subject of conversation in a new way.
This article is a step towards formalising the difference in our understanding of responsibility so as to reduce the distance it provokes between us. Recently, I rediscovered on a back shelf Dr Harriet G. Lerner's book The Dance of Anger (1985) which includes a chapter titled "Who's responsible for what?" It brings together two of my favourite subjects – anger and responsibility in the context of intimate relationships. Here she notes:
It is tempting to view human transactions in simple cause-and-effect terms. If we are angry, someone else caused it. Or, if we are the target of someone else's anger, we must be to blame; or, alternately – if we are convinced of our innocence – we may conclude that the other person has no right to feel angry……
…We begin to use our anger as a vehicle for change when we are able to share our reactions without holding the other person responsible for causing our feelings, and without blaming ourselves for the reactions that other people have in response to our choices and actions. We are responsible for our own behaviour. But we are not responsible for other people's reactions; nor are they responsible for ours ...
I think this is Mike's view, too, though not his exact words… and the view of not a small proportion of my patients who've been exposed to modern no-fault processes which are under-pinned by attitudes / principles like those Lerner proposes above.
Therapy, for those who choose it, is one pathway to undoing distortions of the self. Some undoing takes a few sessions; some takes years. The principal means of effecting recovery is the therapeutic relationship – the most reliable, "evidence-based" characteristic of therapeutic effectiveness, regardless of 'school' of therapy! The relationship stands or falls on the ability of the therapist to be present for patients in ways their histories have not made available to them. In doing so, the therapist is taking responsibility for the patient's recovery…while recognising they cannot be responsible in the end!! This paradox will reappear later in fractured couples' relationships.
Offenses to the self
We had a minor offense to M's self by me. The vignette of its occurrence and our recovery through "shared responsibility" is exemplary of the relationship challenge, while barely noteworthy in the greater picture. A bigger offense might elicit feelings like this:
What is it that is so unacceptable, that I react with such a survival instinct style reflex? What is so horrific about my reaction to these words that has me revert to this primal state? or if not primal, infantile or juvenile, and has me cry ...
"Now look what you made me do!"
I'm particularly interested in childhood experiences which underlie chronic depression and anxiety. Pretty consistently these experiences are major abuses of trust by parental, or broader familial, violations of personal space and self-control – often co-occurring sexual, physical and psycho-social violences. These can be usefully considered offenses to the self, are classified as such in legal systems and labelled traumas in western cultures.
They are chronic for two reasons: one, the offenses are sustained into the present by the social system(s) (families, churches, schools, clubs, workplaces…) in which they were first committed and/or reproduced, and two, optimal recovery often requires some change to those present sustaining systems. Children are not responsible for these behaviours, though almost every adult with an abused childhood attempts to take responsibility for others' abuse of them. Efforts to recover must pass through the blame grinder.
'my pain is your fault'
One couple I have worked with off and on for 2 years found the perspective from which to rise above and hold the pains of their struggles: a place which they shared with equal interest and need. They are a couple both deeply injured in ways which when touched by the other regresses them to catastrophic positions – 'my pain is your fault.' Whichever gets there first on any given occasion, their catastrophic feelings incite the other. They have developed a number of effective workarounds and pre-emptions for many recurring circumstances they share, but not even these can stand up against the most conducive conditions for regression – co-occurring overtiredness, professional stress, excess drink, demanding kids and unbalanced, living parents .
The new perspective came into view as they were sinking for the Nth time into the fires of their respective recriminations about each other, dragged down or blown up by the catastrophic certainty of repeated disappointments, each with the other. I interrupted the rising tide of exasperation and suggested they stay with the very specific topic they were on…a matter of how physically close they needed to be when both were highly stressed by various things in their joint and separate lives at that moment. This is, of course, a quite sophisticated exploration already.
One, I don't remember which, verbally stepped back and noted that I had proposed on another occasion that their respective needs for closeness were almost exactly opposed when crisis struck: one withdraws and the other approaches, generating a massive reciprocating tension powered by catastrophic thinking. He/she checked that the other was experiencing it now, which she/he was, and the tension dropped. This was the first time they had created a respite from their struggle without leaving it in a heated rage or quiet despair. That creation remains as a shared platform for their struggle for a workable togetherness at their times of greatest vulnerability. Both acknowledged the achievement.
They had created a shared fact about their relationship which undergirds the potential for getting to new places in it instead of replaying the past, deprived places. This fact expresses and symbolises what the relationship is for, its purpose(s) rather than its product(s). Sometimes it's a revisiting of purposes still in play but lost from view which liberates deep motivation – in fact, the most important things about the relationship: its aspirations.
The blame and responsibility challenge
Now back to Lerner. She says our anger can become a source of useful change,
"…when we are able to share our reactions without holding the other person responsible for causing our feelings, and without blaming ourselves for the reactions that other people have in response to our choices and actions."
The blame and responsibility challenge – people show up for couples work because they are stuck in patterns of repeating failure to meet each other's needs, especially those which make being a couple worth the effort. It is impossible to progress as a couple without transgressing in the view of one or the other, or both, at some times!! There are three domains of likely transgression: (1) style (intellectual, expressive, etc. - preferences of congenital origin), (2) cultural role determined behaviours (responsibilities, tasks, authorities, etc.) and (3) personal needs/wants arising from particular normal developmental transitions. The manner of transgression often includes violences of aggressive (hitting, yelling, betrayal) and passive- aggressive (withdrawal, sniping, silence…) sorts. Often a number of manners and domains are involved together.
Complicating the effort to connect is the fact that injured parties carry loads of self-blame which inclines them to expect they will fail the needs of the other (I'm not good enough, don't care enough….), and they expect the other to blame them for the failure – a self-sealing circle of partner-assisted, covert self-accusation. Someone has to break through that circle to change the relationship disconnect cycle. To do so requires confronting their own sense of failure and their sadness /rage about it and doing so in a way that minimally elicits the partner's version of the same system. This is what the couple above achieved.
It's all a perception…not.
It cannot be achieved from a perspective which says everything in relationships is just a perception, and nobody's perception has a better claim to attention than anyone else's. That perspective is the driver of irreconcilable differences in which the members of a couple stand on their "right" to their perception, and giving any of it up to have a joint perception is not on offer. It only takes one person with such a stance for the relationship to be doomed all the way to the courts and beyond. This is a small part of the broken relationship population, at least judging from the fact that 90+% of broken marriages do NOT end up in court. They create some kind(s) of shared truth out of their "shared facts".
And this is the area of personal development into interdependence – partnership as the playground for skill building in joint ownership, authorship construction and so on. There are no free kicks in couples development, unless the couple are already developed enough to provide them freely?!! There have to be stumbles along the way and some way to do better than build up personal grievance banks loaded with material to prove the justice of ones disappointments with the other, and vice-versa. A combustible collection.
And so couples therapy has one task above others, which is helping the couple to see their existing and near horizon emerging successes in interdependent functioning, a joint ownership where the boundaries of who owns what are dropped, melt, disappear…which is what the romantics dream of in the merger/ melding of self in love, etc. but can't be dreamed, must be achieved…and all the more difficult in our times because the jointness historically was given by roles, which have for some time now been corroded by modernity. They have to blindly take responsibility for each other. An act of faith, repeated.