Dating Wisely 1.26: Beware of Emotional Cut-off, Part 1

Beware Emotional Cut-off

Dating Wisely Concept #10: Beware of Emotional Cut-off follows directly from Dating Wisely Concept #9: Study Your Family Projection Process. When parents unwittingly project their unresolved intra- and inter-personal issues onto their children–and all families do to varying degrees–the children will automatically react with physical, emotional and social symptoms. When they become adults and make choices of their own, they may decide to escape from that emotional pressure by cutting off from the family and/or various parts of it.

Cut-off can be emotional, physical or both. Emotional cut-off refers to avoiding sensitive issues in one-to-one relationships; physical cut-off refers to avoiding physical contact, by either moving away or avoiding visits. These strategies may give the appearance of peace, but beneath the surface the issues remain, rumbling like a volcano.

What Cut-off Looks Like In the Dating Game

Adult children who don’t resolve early attachment conflicts and who cut off from those relationships either 1) put pressure on their adult intimate relationships to fill up emotional voids left by the emotional processes in their families of origin, or 2) overly accommodate to the expectations of the adult relationships they form for fear of compromising those relationships.

What might that look like in the dating world? Asking questions about the dating process that reveal an undeveloped sense of self, a result of unresolved attachments in family of origin relationships, is one manifestation of this reality. For example, in a discussion group that Brad and I lead, we hear the following questions over and over:

  • Who should pay on the first date?
  • Should women ask men out?
  • How can I spot a player? (male or female)
  • What does a good on-line profile look/sound like?

Who Am I?

These questions won’t help someone find a good match. They attempt to guess what’s in the mind of a potential date so as perform in such a way that will attract the attention and approval of that person. They do not address the person’s own sense of values or virtues, or allow the individual to be attractive just as s/he is to someone for whom s/he won’t have to perform.

The only real question that a single person needs to ask and answer is, “Who am I?”, and the answer to that question is best resolved by the time a person is four years old. Solid families create an environment in which a child builds a secure attachment in his or her toddler years, and by the time the child reaches school age, s/he has a solid sense of self that recognizes that others are different, and that differences can actually enhance relationships.

Footprints of Insecurity

The family emotional process allows for this development when two solid parents who are secure in themselves respond to the child’s real needs, not the needs they imagine the child has based on the parents’ own unresolved attachment issues.

Parents who aren’t secure, solid individuals unwittingly leave their insecure footprints on the child’s psyche, and the child eventually ends up in adulthood with approximately the same level of differentiation as the parents. Fortunately, adult children can earn a secure attachment style by re-engaging those early relationships that have been cut off and by learning to define oneself within them.

We’ll talk more about that work tomorrow and over the next few posts.

Dating Wisely 1.25: Study The Family Projection Process, Part 5

Another Mid-Life Complication

Yesterday we discussed how mid-life daters take the same unresolved attachments into their dating life the second time around as they did the first time, if they aren’t diligent in trying to understand how the family projection process led them to make those choices.

Mid-life dating, strange animal that it is, features another unique characteristic regarding the family projection process. The projection process from the nuclear family they established in their marriage also comes with them into their post-divorced life.

This injects a a couple unique wrinkles into mid-life dating 1) emotional baggage from previous relationships, and 2) blended family issues.

Emotional Baggage

As social creatures, human beings are affected by the emotional processes of all their relationships. Basically, hurt people hurt people, and unless we’re actively engaged in tending and healing our wounds, we carry them around with us unconsciously, affecting us and those around us.

In the mid-life dating pool, this means we’re not only carrying around our unresolved attachments from our families of origin, but from our broken nuclear family relationships, too. And so are the people we date–a quadruple whammy: unresolved attachment issues from two families of origin and two nuclear families, colliding in a potentially nuclear blast.

Fortunately, knowledge is power, and if you know and remain conscious of the patterns of your own family projection process, you can be thoughtful about how it may be impacting your new love life. If both you and your potential partner are doing this, you can navigate the unique realities a little more smoothly and skillfully together.

Blending Families

Blending families, a unique feature of new mid-life relationships, requires especially skillful navigation, due to the complex triangles that result. A family of five includes nine interlocking triangles. Put two families together and the number of interlocking triangles increases exponentially; the new family includes not only the new relationships but the old ones from our previous nuclear family relationships, the unresolved attachments of which remain active in our psyches. For a simple example of that reality, see my post titled “Dating Wisely 1.13.”

These are truly complex issues that require wisdom to navigate. If we’re diligent and thoughtful, we can draw on the emotional maturity that sometimes comes with age to help us think through the difficult dilemmas of the mid-life dating game.

Tomorrow we’ll move on to Dating Wisely Concept #10 which will address how these unresolved attachments stick with us, and what we can do about that.

 

Dating Wisely 1.24: Study the Family Projection Process, Part 4

Regression

Yesterday, I alluded to the idea that mid-life dating has some particular intra- and inter-personal obstacles to contend with. One such obstacle is the strange regression that mid-life daters inevitably experience when they unnaturally find themselves in a process that fits naturally into the developmental process of young adulthood.

We don’t go to the marriage altar in young adulthood anticipating that in 20 years or so, we’ll be doing the same process all over again. Instead, we expect that we’ll beat all the odds because our endless love will carry us through richer or poorer, sickness and health, better or worse.

Through Thick and Thin

What we find is that when thickness become thin, it’s a lot harder than it seemed. When the difficulties and developmental stages of life replace the honeymoon high, our anxieties lead us to do exactly what we had expected and intended not to do, which is to recreate the worst of our parents’ relationship. Not having anything else to model our own intimate relationship after, we unconsciously do the only thing we know–in a slightly different way, perhaps, but with the same results. In fact, we often think we’re doing the exact opposite of what our parents did, only to realize that we’ve done the same thing from a different angle.

As our relationship slides toward (or into) disintegration, we have choices, including: 1) get help to arrest the process and figure it out together; 2) get help to arrest the process of our own contribution to the disintegration, even if our partner chooses not to; 3) blame the other for the disintegration; 4) continue our own downward spiral post-divorce until we finally cry “uncle” and decide to get help in figuring out what went wrong so we can make better choices with better insight and understanding.

The Silver Lining: A Do-Over Opportunity

Whenever we choose to seek understanding, we find a silver lining to mid-life divorce: the painful but hopeful “do over” opportunity to do it better this time, with the wisdom of age and the emotional maturity earned from an honest introspection process. We have better information about how relationships flourish, flounder and fail than we’ve ever had before, and you can learn it.

When you seek insight into your contribution to the demise of your partnership, you’re likely to find that you became one of your parents and married the other. For example, one may have been an over-functioner and the other an under-functioner. Or one may have been the pursuer and the other a distancer. If you look far enough back, you’ll find these patterns in previous generations, too. And it’s not only in your family, but in all families to different degrees, with corresponding levels of dysfunctional outcomes.

In other words, you were simply unconscious of powerful forces of conditioning, temperament and human nature that you now get to become conscious of. I encourage you to do as much of this discovery work as possible before you get back into the dating game. If you take this opportunity to do things better, knowing now what you didn’t know then, you’ll be wiser in the dating pool than most people, and you’ll likely eventually find another insightful person who is trying to learn from past mistakes, as well.

When You Get Out There

That said, some of that do-over work can only be done in the context of an intimate relationship, which gives you endless opportunities for more of those “do overs.”

The first do-over opportunity will be how you select whom you date. What conscious and unconscious factors played into how you dated and mated in your young adult life? These are the factors that’ll come to play again in mid-life. Whatever unresolved attachment issues from your family of origin led you into to your marriage the first time (or the second, third…) are the same issues that you’ll have to resolve now, if you want to avoid making the same mistakes again.

The Halo Effect

As you do that, you’ll have those same happy hormones that you had when you were much younger, tricking you into thinking just like you did back then: s/he’s perfect, gorgeous, funny, powerful, etc. It’s called the “halo effect,” a natural human phenomenon in which our positive feelings about a person’s likable characteristics blind us to the neutral or negative characteristics that will come into play after the happy hormones have dissipated. And they will dissipate, I promise you.

So yes, expect yourself to regress to feeling 18 again, or 24, or whatever age you were when you met your partner in young adult life. Whatever unconscious motivations were driving you then will drive you again, if you don’t become conscious of them, and they’ll still be powerful beyond measure…and beyond your control if you aren’t actively trying to be in charge of them, rather than the other way around.

Differentiation, Differentiation, Differentiation

Biology and conditioning from your family projection process are difficult enough to consciously identify and resist; you’ll never be able to avoid them if you’re going through life asleep. As always, differentiation is the key.

Remember:

“The two spouses begin a marriage with life-style patterns and levels of differentiation developed in their families of origin. Mating, marriage, and reproduction are governed to a significant degree by emotional-instinctual forces. The way the spouses handle them in dating and courtship and in timing and planning the marriage provides one of the best views of the level of differentiation of the spouses. The lower the level of differentiation, the greater the potential problems for the future. People pick spouses who have the same levels of differentiation” (Bowen, in Theory in the Practice of Psychotherapy, p. 79)

You’re wiser now, though–more self-aware and more self-defined–and can do it differently. I hope you and your potential partner save yourselves and each other unnecessary pain by doing it over well.

Dating Wisely 1.23: Study the Family Projection Process, Part 3

The Friend Zone

Yesterday, I observed that going headlong in the dating process won’t get you a good match any quicker than going slowly. In fact, there may be an inverse relationship between rushing and finding a quality individual. Let me illustrate with an example.

By the time I met Brad—the guy who’s the “right wrong person” for me (see post titled “Radical Acceptance”)—I had been divorced for almost nine years. In that span of time, I met many men, all but two of whom never made it out of my friend zone, which is where I placed every potential partner until it became clear to me that we shared some critical core values and virtues.

After nine years, I had become used to a pattern: 1) friend-zoned men didn’t believe me when I told them that I was only interested in friendship; 2) friend-zoned men didn’t believe me when I told them that I don’t do “friends with benefits,” so they tried to get me to change my mind; 3) when they realized I meant what I said, they moved on within six months. I like people, so it was hard to see new friends come and go, but I also knew that I simply couldn’t compromise my core values and virtues if I wanted to be available when/if I met my match someday.

Eventually, I got used to the pattern, and accepted it as part of what I would need to go through if I was going to be out there dating; it was a natural consequence of how I needed to live my life if I didn’t want to same mistake twice (attaching to someone just for the sake of being attached).

An Exceptional Need

Over time, it had become clear to me that finding a good match may be impossible for me, given what I knew I needed: uncommon intelligence, remarkable self-awareness, unusual thoughtfulness about relationship. OMG! Guys like that had been happily married for 20 years. They simply weren’t in the dating pool.

I wondered if maybe I should consider funeral crashing. Perhaps widowed men would be more likely to be free of emotional baggage than divorced, embittered players. But then meeting a widow at a funeral would mean that he still had an entire grieving process to go through, and I didn’t want to compete with the ghost of his deceased wife. Hmm. Funeral crashing might not be any better than letting natural processes take their course, even if I never found a compatible mate. Just kidding, folks! I don’t recommend funeral crashing.

Unnerved by the Exceptional

Then I met Brad at a philosophy discussion group. When I introduced myself to the group, Brad learned that I’m a psychotherapist and that I was considering a doctoral program in a Jungian school. After the meeting let out, Brad placed himself in a position where I’d have to pass him on the way to the door, and said, “Hey, I’ll have to read up on Jung so that we can have an intelligent conversation about him.”

“Okay, sounds good,” I replied. “See you soon!” And I swept out the door. Brad tells me that I vanished like a vapor trail, and that he had never had such a brief interaction with a woman. He was intrigued, and he messaged me within an hour through the discussion group site with an invitation to go to the next discussion together.

His interest was clear, as was his uncommon intelligence, but I’d been fooled by that lone quality before. There were other equally exceptional qualities that needed to come in conjunction with large intellectual capacity if I were to be willing to move beyond friendship.

The Unlikelihood of Exceptionality

Besides, I knew the probability of Brad’s all-around exceptionality was slim. I hadn’t found anyone like that in almost nine years, so it wasn’t likely to happen now. However, if Brad were the kind of guy that I needed to be with, he would be looking for an exceptional woman, and the likelihood of him finding one in the three weeks before we would see each other again was also slim; women of large character were happily married, too. So I was in no hurry.

Hence, my vapor trail. Plus, truth be told, Brad’s confidence and clever pick-up line shook my composure a bit, and I needed to get it back before I interacted with this charming stranger again.

Turns out I was right. Brad didn’t meet an exceptional woman in the next three weeks. His experiences with women left him believing that exceptional women didn’t exist.

Unicorns

Maybe you don’t need a unicorn, which may make your search for a compatible mate considerably shorter. But rushing won’t make it happen faster. In fact, desperation will likely get you more of what you don’t want; it’s easy to find someone who’s also in a rush and who has no interest in doing the work of dating wisely.

It’s a jungle out there. Be careful.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about how we regress to a less mature state of development when we find ourselves in the dating pool in mid-life.

Dating Wisely 1.22: Study the Family Emotional Process, Part 2

A Family Study

Yesterday, we began looking at how the anxiety between parents gets passed along to their children in an unconscious, automatic emotional process. Today, I’ll apply the pattern to a dating scenario.

I mentioned yesterday that when one child gets the primary focus of the parental anxiety, the other children have less pressure and can develop more freely into less needy, less reactive, more goal-direct, more responsible individuals. In my family system, I became least triangled into my parents’ anxieties, and consequently became the most responsible child. With my brother as the primary focus of my parents’ anxiety, and my sister as the secondary focus (she had endless physical complications from Type 1 diabetes), I got lost under the radar.

The Star-Child Focus

That’s not to say that I escaped the shrapnel that shattered our home. It’s just that I looked like I was doing so much better than my brother and sister that I became the “star-child”–the child who played opposite my brother, the “problem child.” I excelled in academics, sports, and music, and it seemed like my principles were solid. What could be wrong with that picture? Beware: in chaotic families, appearances are rarely reality.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I entered my young adult life with unresolved issues of sexual, physical, emotional, verbal and spiritual abuse. Although I was the least focus of my parents’ anxiety, I had experienced, absorbed and internalized the chaos that happened to me and around me. I was far from unscathed. In fact, I was a mess inside, and was operating on auto-pilot, even though I, and everyone else, considered myself thoughtful and well-adjusted.

Appearances vs. Reality

I was actually operating from a host of automatic behaviors that characterize the lives of trauma survivors (see The Betrayal Bond, by Patrick Carnes), and I didn’t see it. It was from this place of unconscious reactivity that I chose my husband. I went into marriage with a deep well of emptiness that I wanted him to fill so that I didn’t have to face, feel and deal with my pain. He, too, came into the relationship with his own emptiness–left by the pattern of his own parents anxiety projected onto him–that he was hoping I would fill.

With hindsight, these patterns are easy to spot, but when you’re in the throws of them, they operate completely outside of awareness. When Scott and I met at that fated house party, we had no idea that the emotional processes of our respective families of origin had left footprints on our souls that would determine our next 20 years. Instead, both of us were sure that we would do life differently than our parents.

Then we went about creating the very same dynamics that we were trying to avoid.

Fast Forward 20 Years

Fast forward 20 years when we ended up divorced and back in the dating pool. Having learned from life, psychotherapy, graduate school for counseling, and my own voracious reading about relationship, I knew to be more thoughtful, more conscious, about my own emotional processes. In that personal growth spurt, I had also became more confident and forthright about who I am and more thoughtful about getting to know the person I was dating before I moved a potential partner from friend-zone to dating-zone…and then again to long-term commitment-zone. It took me almost a decade before I found someone with whom I could go to that third level.

I mentioned in a previous post that with all my diligence, I still made a couple errors in judgment, but I’m happy to say that I made a lot of really good choices, too–choices to not go beyond friend-zone with all but three of the men I met in nine years. Remember, sometimes failure is success (see “Dating Wisely 1.4”). Listening early to wisdom’s whisper that a relationship isn’t a good match, before your mind and body are screaming danger signals, is a good sign of increasing emotional health.

When a single friend of mine was matched up with my ex-husband through an on-line dating site within three months of our divorce, I learned another lesson. I knew that Scott was nowhere near ready to be in another relationship–that he was simply taking his unresolved issues from his family of origin and from our relationship with him into the dating world–and whoever he dated would be affected by them. I learned from this that if this was the level of readiness of people in the on-line dating world, I didn’t want to be in it. It’s probably an extreme position, but I decided then that on-line dating wasn’t for me.

On-line Dating or No

Whether you choose to do on-line dating or not, I encourage you to go slowly. Wisdom would caution that rushing won’t lead you to a good match any quicker than carefulness will. I’ll tell a story to illustrate that tomorrow.

For now, I encourage you to bring your attention to the feeling inside of you when you consider the option of taking it slowly. Does a slow pace leave you feeling anxious, peaceful, frustrated, confused, ambivalent? What does your emotion tell you about your motivations for dating at this point? What do you want to do about that?

 

Dating Wisely 1.21: Study the Family Projection Process, Part 1

The Family Projection Process

Over the last several days, we’ve discussed how a family employs four mechanisms to relieve stress. Today we’re going to begin zeroing in on one of those mechanisms, because it represents the primary way that unresolved conflict between parents gets inadvertently passed onto the next generation. Looking at this process in your own life will constitute Dating Wisely Concept #9: Study the Family Projection Process.

The family is an emotional unit, each person reacting to the emotions of every other person in the system. Like a swarm of bees or a flock of geese in flight, these patterns operate automatically, largely outside of our awareness, until we become enlightened to them.

In the family projection process, the pattern goes like so:

  1. The parents, afraid something is wrong with the child, focus on the child. (scan)
  2. The parents interpret the child’s behavior as proof that something is wrong with the child. (diagnose)
  3. The parents treat the child as a problem. (treat)

Parental Anxiety vs. Real Needs

Much of the time, the only thing “wrong” with the child is that the parents are worried about their own parenting, based on some unresolved attachments from their own families of origin. As the parents focus on the child, the child’s behavior, in self-fulfilling prophecy form, confirms the parents fears, even though they aren’t based on the child’s real needs.

This over-focus usually centers primarily on one child, with the other children being freer to develop with less pressure, allowing them to become less needy, less reactive, more goal-directed and more personally responsible. Consequently, these children tend to do better in life, as would the “problem child” (or the “star child”) if s/he weren’t so singled out.

Mom and dad play an equal role in this projection process, mothers tending to be more emotionally involved with the children and fathers tending to play a more supportive, outside role in this father-mother-child triangle.

How the Projection Process Plays Out

How this may play out in the child of parental focus includes:

  • excessive approval and attention seeking
  • difficulty with expectations
  • tendency toward blaming (either self or others)
  • feeling responsibility for the happiness of others; or expecting others to take responsibility for his/her own happiness
  • emotional impulsivity, rather than thoughtfulness, in dealing with problems

The child’s sensitivity to the parents and his/her automatic reactivity to their over-focus increases the child’s vulnerability to physical, emotional and social symptoms, which then in turn, fosters behaviors that escalate chronic anxiety in the family relationship system.

Unconscious and Unintentional

All of this occurs outside of conscious awareness, so any effects on the child/ren are entirely unintentional. Most parents want their children to do well in life, even at great personal sacrifice to themselves. Projection and triangulation is simply how family systems operate because it’s the most natural thing in the world when they’re on auto-pilot. Fortunately, these processes can come into conscious awareness of parents, and when they do, they can learn more effective ways to manage stress and anxiety.

Keep in mind that parents learn these patterns in their own families of origin, who also learned them from the previous generation. Being curious about how that occurred in your own family system over the generations is a useful way to begin understanding it and seeing it in your own nuclear family, particularly in your own relationship patterns, so that you can become more thoughtful and skillful in all your relationships, including your dating relationships.

Tomorrow we’ll provide an example of how the family projection process impacts one’s love life, but I suspect you could come up with one already from your own experience.

 

Dating Wisely 1.20: Study Your Nuclear Family Emotional Process, Part 4

Study Your System

For the last few days, we’ve been noting the importance of knowing and understanding the relationship patterns of the family system you grew up in. If you can place yourself in the context of that system, you can change the patterns that you identify as unhealthy, relationally crippling, or developmentally delaying.

I wish I had had access to this information when I was just emerging from my family of origin. What a difference it would have made in my dating choices. Instead, when I was 18 and went to another state for college, I was unaware that I was operating on auto-pilot in survival mode. I had very little information that was useful in real life and relationships.

A Personal Example

Consequently, I made some of the most costly choices of my life. For example….

Having grown up in a family system where emotional, verbal, physical, sexual and spiritual abuse were the daily cocktail, I learned from a very young age that the adults in charge didn’t have what it took to teach me how to do life, and that if I wanted to get that information, I’d have to find it for myself. I decided that education would be the best way to do that, so I pursued my studies with vigor. It was something I could control in a predictably unpredictable environment.

Powerlessness and Control

In my unconscious attempts not to be in a powerless position ever gain, maintaining control became part of my personality structure. Then I met a nice, good looking young man at a church house party in college, and lucky for me, I didn’t know how to get back to my dorm from the party. He offered to lead me to the highway, since he was going that way, anyway. Demurely, I accepted the offer.

Lest he think I was helpless, however, and lest he see me as powerless and vulnerable, I passed him as quickly as possible, waving “thanks” to him as I went by demonstrating my independence. I could only bear being the damsel in distress for a short time before I had to make my personal power known. Keep in mind that none of this was conscious at the time. Totally automatic.

Dating, Powerlessness and Control

When this young man and I began dating, I was sure to remain in control and independent, although I was also careful to be demure. The fundamentalist religious system of which I was a part made it clear how women were to act with men, and I (mostly) conformed.

Conflict arose between us after I shared with my now-boyfriend that I had been sexually involved with several of my big brother’s friends when I was a child. Ignorant as we both were, neither of us named what had happened as rape, molestation or sexual abuse. In fact, Scott blamed me for that involvement, and I was crushed. Scott felt that I had violated him by defiling what was eventually supposed to be his, and he was crushed, too.

This was the bizarre foundation of our dating life and of our marriage. That initial conflict, driven completely by automatic reactions and unconscious emotional processes, was just the beginning of the next couple decades of contention and disconnect.

Making Sense of it All

It took years and dogged commitment to unravel the story and understand the forces that had been operating against us for our entire relationship. With much counseling, journaling and voracious reading about relationships, I was eventually able to see that the patterns learned from our lives predating our relationship came with us into our life together, forming an unconscious foundation of dysfunction, stress and anxiety.

That anxiety turned into conflict, conflict turned into distance, distance turned into emotional, physical and social dysfunction, and had we had the children that we were unable to conceive, we would simply have passed our dysfunction onto them.

Fortunately, there is useful information to help make sense of the most complicated dynamics, and as diligent as I was to find it, I was bound to. It took many years, but this is the information I pass along to you now.

What Difference Does it Make?

If you’ve been following this blog, you know the difference it made in how I conducted myself in the dating world the second time around. From my point of view, the hard work of studying yourself and the relationship system in which you grew up is worth the effort…especially when you consider the potential joy that can result from making conscious, wise choices.

 

Dating Wisely 1.19: Study Your Nuclear Family Emotional Process, Part 3

Skillful Sleuthing

For the past couple days, we’ve been looking at four relationship patterns that occur when tension enters a relationship, and we’ve noted that partners tend to take the patterns from their respective families of origin into the intimate relationships they form as adults. Consequently, it behooves us to study how these emotional processes operated in our own family of origin so that we can consciously change them, if they aren’t working for us.

Of course, changing automatic reactivity is no small task, and even becoming aware of it is difficult. Someone said, “If you want to know about the water, don’t ask the fish.” If we don’t know anything else and have nothing else to compare these patterns to, it’s hard to ferret them out. But ferret them out we must if we want to live more consciously, and that takes skillful sleuthing.

Tension Converted to Medical Issues

Yesterday, we began considering how the four relationship patterns (conflict, dysfunction, distance, and impairment in a child) might have occurred between Brad and I, had I not consciously chosen to address a dynamic that was uncomfortable for me the first time we met together. I may have spared some awkwardness and discomfort in the short run, but our relationship would have paid with unnecessary conflict in the long term (relationship pattern #1).

Over the following years, that initial choice to quell my concern and to ignore the intra-personal tension, might have turned into a psychosomatic medical condition (relationship pattern #2), which would have been difficult to trace back to that automatic reaction of that first date and the string of subsequent accommodations that internalized into chronic physical problems.

Tension Converted to Social Issues

Furthermore, I may even have tried to manage the tension by drinking, using prescription or illegal drugs, having an affair, over-eating, over-working or some other compulsive behavior and social dysfunction (relationship pattern #2).

Tension Converted to Distance and Conflict

To quell the inter-personal tension and conflict (relationship pattern #1), Brad and I would likely have sought distance from each other (relationship pattern #4), and increasingly so, the longer we were unable to identify and resolve the problems that arose. Furthermore, if I were unable to see or acknowledge my own inability or unwillingness to address my tendency to over-accommodate, perhaps due to an unidentified fear of abandonment, our inter-personal conflict would likely come out sideways with secondary issues, such as money, domestic issues, toilet-paper roll position, etc. (relationship pattern #1). Consequently, we’d never really address the initial real problem of not knowing myself and being unwilling to suffer some awkwardness on that first car ride together.

Tension Converted to Impairment in Children

Over time, if we had children, one or more of them would likely become a conduit for our tension (relationship pattern #3). We may do this by focusing on their problems to distract ourselves from our own; venting our frustrations to them, putting them in a position to take sides; and/or seeking their acceptance and love in place of our our blame-worthy partner.

In turn, the child/ren would then unconsciously accommodate the emotionally tense system by creating a diversion for us (a problem around which we could unite); by getting sucked into taking sides; or by becoming a source of comfort for one or both of us.

Any of these reactions would then translate over time into a host of their own emotional, physical, and social problems (potentially providing Brad and I with an endless source of distraction from our own problems or by giving us a reason to incessantly blame one another), which they would then take with them into their own adult relationships.

All because Brad and I weren’t solid people when we met.

Know Thyself, Be Thyself

And so, over time, avoidance of conflict on that first date, potentially fueled by a fear of abandonment (likely from unresolved family of origin issues), would actually create even more debilitating conflict, threatening the foundations of the relationship and the future well-being of our children.

On the other hand, identifying these patterns and how I play into them would allow me to determine the kind of person I want to be, not just the kind of person I’ve been conditioned to be. And if I were to do this as much as is possible before I put myself in the dating market, how much wiser I would be when I put myself out there. Then I’d be able to distinguish between healthier and unhealthier people in the dating pool, so that I could make wiser choices.

Relationship = Growth Opportunity

Some of our automatic patterns are hard to identify until we’re in an intimate relationship, however, which means that you and your date will find them as a result of how you interact, if you’re committed to becoming aware of them. And yes, that means conflict will arise, and you’ll get an opportunity to identify more issues to resolve within yourself. Great! Every conflict that comes your way is an opportunity to grow more and more into the kind of person you aspire to be.

A Predictable Path to Disaster

Just remember that your date is also coming with unresolved issues and will need the same commitment to growth that you have, or the relationship will go down a predictable path, with you and your partner having front row seats and leading roles in the arena of relationship disintegration.

No thank you. I’d rather have necessary conflict at the front end so as to spare unnecessary conflict later on. I’ve mentioned before that the process of establishing a solid foundation for a solid long-term relationship takes about three years, and requires both partners to be equally committed to it.

In the meantime, study your own emotional patterns stemming from the emotional processes in your family of origin, and you’ll do a great service to whatever dating relationship you choose.

 

 

Dating Wisely 1.18: Study Your Nuclear Family Emotional Process, Part 2

The Honeymoon Hormone

Yesterday we looked at four patterns that emerge when relationship stress builds up. Today, let’s apply those patterns to a dating relationship.

For the first several months of a dating relationship, the real problems of life don’t crop up much at all. The new relationship is unencumbered by financial, sexual, parental and familial issues, because the new couple is simply enjoying the fun and frolic of the happy hormone, dopamine.

How frequently the couple gets together, how rapidly the relationship develops, how quickly sex enters the mix, when the couple starts cohabiting, when and how they introduce children and other family members, etc., will determine how soon the relationship has to contend with the realities of their lives.

Development is Inevitable

As each of these new realities enters the mix, the tension will increase–a natural result of moving from the first stage of new love (symbiosis) to the next two (differentiation and practicing). (For more on these stages, see post titled, “Why Men and Women Fight, Part 8.”) There’s no point in trying to avoid this progression; it has to happen some time. In fact, if it doesn’t, the relationship won’t last. Some relationships fail simply because one or both partners want/s to hold onto symbiosis rather than do the more difficult work of relationship development.

As life’s realities come into play more and more, the four relationship patterns introduced yesterday will also come into play more and more. Conflict will arise–relationship pattern #1); one partner will become the more accommodating than the other, and the overly-accommodating partner will develop psychological symptoms (panic attacks, e.g.), medical issues (digestive issues, e.g.) or social problems (using alcohol or drugs to quell anxiety, e.g.)–relationship pattern #2; the couple will talk about their issues less and less because they can’t seem to solve them anyway–relationship pattern #4; and they may either focus on a child’s problems and/or use a child to vent to or receive comfort from–relationship pattern #3–rather than seeking help from an unbiased third party who could serve as a mediator or relationship coach.

Catching Patterns Before They Become Patterns

This process, of course, takes years to develop. Fortunately, you can catch it before it gets that far, now that you know how it goes.

I won’t tell the story again, but armed with this useful information, I began to ward off these patterns on our first date (see post titled, “Dating Wisely 1.10”). By the time I met Brad, I had been single for almost nine years, and had placed many men in the friend zone during that time. I simply wasn’t finding men with the essential qualities of solid relationship, and I wasn’t willing to settle for less than what I knew I needed. When you find out that you can live without a man, you’re free be alone until you find a man you don’t want to live without.

By the time I met Brad, I’d also learned that being myself was the best way to start a relationship, because I wouldn’t have to later present who I really am. So I was willing to put myself our there, even if it turned out that my date was disinterested in who I am.  That would likely stir some conflict, but I’d learned that conflict was a good way to find out whether the conflict style of my potential partner was compatible with mine.

Disaster Averted

Consider what might have happened on that first date if I had made a different choice. What if I had decided not to share with Brad how I was experiencing his presentation in that first car ride? The tension within me would have increased, and I would have simply friend-zoned him, missing out on the most beautiful experience of my life so far.

Let’s take it a little further. Imagine that I wasn’t conscious enough of my own needs to friend-zone a guy whose character I questioned but was too afraid to challenge, and imagine that I decided, because of unconscious desperation or loneliness, to let the relationship develop by accommodating or overlooking a perceived character issue. Fast forward a few months after the dopamine high had diminished. By this time, having squashing my anxiety too long, I’d now either explode (intense interpersonal conflict–relationship pattern #1) or implode (develop some psychosomatic issue–relationship pattern #2).

Let’s say I unconsciously internalize my stress, and I develop panic attacks. It’s unlikely, if I’m this undifferentiated, that I’ll be able to tie this symptom directly to my pattern of muzzling myself when what I really need is the self-awareness to kindly but firmly voice my concerns, and trust my partner to be able to enter into the teamwork of problem-solving. In my undifferentiated state, it’s likely that my body will continue to carry the internalized stress to a greater and greater degree. Eventually, not dealing with my own undifferentiation could cost me my life (as it did my father at age 48, as noted in “Dating Wisely 1.16”).

Yes, that’s the import of becoming solidly differentiated. I highly recommend it.

For now…

I had intended to address all four relationship patterns in this post, but I see that I’m waxing long, so I’ll hit the pause button for now, and apply the other two patterns to a dating example tomorrow.

Don’t go away! I’ll be right back!

 

 

Dating Wisely 1.17: Study Your Nuclear Family Emotional Process, Part 1

Nuclear Family Emotional Process

At this point, we’ve applied two of the nine concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory to the act of dating, as a way to diminish the inherent anxiety of the dating process and to offer a structure by which one can make informed, wise dating choices.

Dating Wisely Concept #8: Study Your Nuclear Family Emotional Process refers to becoming consciously aware of the package of four relationship patterns that develop when tension arises between intimate partners:

  • Conflict between partners – includes blame-shifting and trying to control one another
  • Psychological, medical and social dysfunction, especially in one partner – results from one partner trying to accommodate the other at the expense of his or her essential self
  • Impairment of one or more children – occurs when the partner/s focus their anxieties on the child/ren
  • Emotional Distance – attempting to use psychological and/or physical space to make the problem/s go away

Most Localized in One Person

As the emotional intensity and anxiety in the relationship system increases, these four patterns generally localize most acutely in one individual, making that individual appear to be the (biggest) problem. The more anxiety this person takes on, the less others do. Practically speaking, this allows some members of the system to function better at the expense of others, although no one is consciously aware of the patterns governing the chronic anxiety of the whole system.

In Dating

In dating, hormones prevent this process from occurring for several months. However,  life eventually creeps in, and the issues change as a relationship develops. This reality tends to leave both partners feeling like the other is changing, but in reality, hormones have been in charge and the couple hasn’t been challenged by any of life’s real problems.

After six months or so, the hormone high dies down, and the new dating relationship is  tested by the realities of life. This is when the couple finds out if they actually have cake under the icing that has been sweetening their relationship so far.

In Your Family of Origin and Beyond

The best way to open your eyes to these unconscious processes is to study the dynamics of your family of origin. Who functioned best? Who functioned least well? How did these four patterns–these four symptoms of relational tension–get expressed and passed around when you were a child?

If you’ve gone through a divorce, see if you can identify the tension that each person in the family was carrying, and how it eventually resulted in a complete breakdown of the system. Understanding these patterns can help you identify them when they crop up in your dating process now.

Tomorrow, we’ll provide an example that includes all four of these symptoms of stress, and how they may get expressed in the development of a dating relationship.