Tag Archives: marriage and family therapy

The Roach Motel has an Emergency Exit

I sat in the dark, staring up at the aging, Jewish researcher sporting his yarmulke and hunkering over the lectern on stage.  He had the rapt attention of 3,500 marriage and family therapists as he intertwined his lifetime of research, vulnerable and human stories of his own marriage, and a joke here or there.  John Gottman was on a roll.

I had heard most of his speech before, but noticed that his personal examples were getting more poignant.  He had peeled back a few layers of caution; a nice trait you rarely see in addresses to such large audiences.  I was about to lean over to my colleague, Suzanne, for the twentieth time (we had been whispering back and forth, making those “aww” noises when he would say something heartfelt…you know, the classic therapist speaker-interaction behavior), when Gottman’s words stopped me.  He was saying, “You know…getting into one of those really crazy intense conflicts with a partner is like checking into a roach motel.”

I forgot what I was going to whisper to Suzanne and began to search frantically for my Blackberry instead.  Digging around in my purse proved rather noisy and I received three “shame-on-you” glares by the time I found the thing.  I didn’t care.  The Memo Pad on my phone needed a notation.  I pulled up my “Relationship” file and typed in: “Negative conflictual escalation like a roach motel…check in, but can’t check out…runnin, dark, worst selves”

The fact that I correctly typed all words but “running” in the dark on that tiny keypad pleasantly surprised me.  I hit “save” and turned my attention back to the spotlighted man on stage.  He was already into something else cool and I had missed half of the lead-in.  I decided not to ask Suzanne to catch me up lest I receive more glares from those around me.

I made six more notes before the speech ended, but my mind kept jumping back to the Roach Motel metaphor.  It was true.  Roaches follow the bait into a place they really shouldn’t go.  They can’t get out and really have no idea how they got there in the first place.  They enter quickly, into a dark and sticky place and become immobilized.  Stuck there with the others who did the same thing.  Not a pretty sight.

Couples do this.  People do this.  Someone drops the “bait,” another begins to follow the trail and before they know it they’re both stuck in dark and sticky fight they can’t leave.  Once those involved engage in a negative and escalating sequence, the fight usually builds until it explodes…or until it dies down and simmers for a very long time.  Neither of these potential endings are desirable.

Gottman went on to say that at any given time, based upon everything else going on in a person’s life, the probability that one person in a relationship can be “emotionally available” or “attuned” to their partner is 50%.  Put that with another person who is also attuned at a 50% probability level, multiply them together and the result becomes this:  At any given time a couple is together, they might BOTH be emotionally aware or available to their partner 25% of the time.  The other 75% of the time could potentially end up in a dark, sticky place with both trying desperately to get out of what they just entered.

I’ve been there.  Have you?  In the middle of a conflict with someone you love and you just can’t get out?  So where’s the “Emergency Exit?”  Gottman called these times “Sliding Door Moments.”  He coined the phrase from a Gwenyth Paltrow movie that Suzanne said ‘wasn’t really that good, but must have had redeeming values to provide this metaphor.’  (Yes, she whispered that to me during the speech.) Sliding Door moments basically boil down to a split-second of time where you reach out, slide away the glass and open up yourself to the other person in the fight.

Gottman described one of these moments wherein he noticed his wife was sad.  He began brushing her hair and asked, “What’s the matter, baby?”  She disclosed to him that her mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she couldn’t grasp the fact that she was going to die in such a difficult manner.  He said that the moment before he “attuned” to her sad face, he wanted his own needs met.  He chose, instead, to ask her about the look on her face.   He wasn’t in a conflict with her at the time, but they were definitely in that 25% time where neither were really regarding the other.  An escalation could have easily happened.

So how do you find a Sliding Door moment in the middle of a Roach Motel fight?  Look at their face.  Your partner is hurting, they’re sad, they’re angry, they’re alone…they need something.  You stop, slide the door open, and think about what they’re really trying to say to you.  You might not necessarily have to pick up the hairbrush and begin stroking their hair, but you CAN connect with them and ask, “What’s really the matter, baby?” Some people call it a time out.  Some people call this slowing things down.  I call it realizing your partner is a human being with feelings and thoughts.

Chances are, they’ll look into your eyes and see the exit.  Isn’t it nice how Emergency Exit signs illuminate a dark place?

Alphabet Relationships: What A, H and M Shapes Mean

Some people are visual learners.  Some people are “repeat the information over and over and I’ll finally get it” learners.  And some people touch things or are walk-around-and-think learners.   Visual, auditory, tactile or a blend of all three…which are you?

What I’ve noticed in working with couples over the years is that many times the same message or intervention needs to be implemented using two different methods in order for both of them to really get it.  That’s because they each learn or process information in slightly (or vastly) different ways.  The context, process and perspective of each person has to be understood in the therapy room, as well as how it looks when they are together.

This is why although therapists utilize their theory of therapy to guide, assess and manage what goes on in a room with couples, they also make occasional trips to their “Toolbox.”  A therapist’s toolbox can include actual “tools” such as games, figures, assessments or other manipulatives to use in session, or ideas and resources.  Today I’m going to share a resource that I seem to use at least once or twice per year because some couples (or individuals) are visual learners.  The lesson for them with this tool is understanding the difference between “unhealthy dependence” versus “healthy interdependence.”  Here is a copy of what I summarize on a white board or provide them to take home. I apologize for the tilted view. CLICK CHART TO SEE LARGE VIEW:

An “A” shaped relationship is frequently seen in those with co- “needy” behaviors.  A couple might get together because one is the life of the party (filling a need for the other’s wish to be expressive) and one is structured and responsible (filling a need for the other’s wish to be respected or mature).

We often see this in co-addictive relationships involving substance abuse, but we also see it in couples who sometimes describe themselves as acting like a “parent and child” or “victim and rescuer.”  These couples will ultimately get their real needs met when they find their own self-actualization; their own individual happiness.  If they continue to lean on each other because of their unmet illegitimate needs, the tension becomes too great (the bar in the A breaks) and they fall (which would happen to both sides when the bar was no longer there).

A, H or M...which one represents your couple relationship?

An “H” shaped relationship is very common in the U.S.  We especially see this pattern in “DINK” couples (double income, no kids).  The independence they feel from meeting their own needs to such an extent, and avoiding engaging their partner in asking for legitimate needs to be met, distances the couple over time.  If you look at the H shape you’ll see that the middle bar could eventually be broken due to extreme independence and distance (pulling away), but both sides would remain “standing” as “I”s…still themselves, but certainly not a couple.

And finally, the “M” shaped relationship is a type that most couples find they can grow and thrive within best.  They each have a healthy identity for themselves, but they also engage each other in requesting and meeting needs.  Their relationship with one another can develop and strengthen over time because they support each other in ways that don’t rob the “self” of either individual.  This dynamic is very powerful and is a worthy goal of couples who might find themselves in a different part of the alphabet.

Dependence, Independence or Interdependence.  A, H or M.  Which are you?

Signing off on R-day (relationships), K-E-L-L-Y.

Note:  Most of the basis for this information and the chart come from “Illusion and Disillusion: The Self in Love and Marriage,” by John Fulling Crosby, 1991, Chapter 2.

Day 30: Belle Conversation. Conversación hermosa. Beautiful Conversation.

Today I needed comfort food.  I was tired, a bit worried about my upcoming exams, and strongly considering whether or not to take a hotel room here in Oxford for two or three nights so I could get some rest before finals.

Since my arrival, I have both appreciated the lovely view of High Street, and cursed the never-ending foot-traffic noises of said thoroughfare…sometimes on the same day.  Sometimes simultaneously.  After three weeks, the continued lack of a complete night’s sleep was wearing me down.

Hence the comfort food run.  For me, this meant my favorite restaurant, only a hundred yards from the entrance to Brasenose College.  It is a small establishment in the back of St. Mary’s Church called “The Vaults and Garden.”

The place really does deserve it’s very own post.  Everything organic, vegetarian and vegan friendly, free trade engaged – something for everyone.  The food is magnificent, the staff are collectively warm and friendly, the setting is divine…and if you sit there for very long, you’ll be entertained by all sorts of “storylines” taking place at each table.  For example, yesterday I went there for afternoon coffee and saw two young sisters dressed in darling outfits hopping around on the ancient gravestones and vaults, shouting out little British girly notices to each other:

“Let’s go to the shop and buy some sweets!”  “Yes! Let’s buy some sweets!”  “Let’s pretend we’re bees and buzz around.”  “O-KAY!   Buzzzzzzzzzz!”

Hip, hop, look for a spot, jump! – – they cautiously jumped from vault to vault in their brightly colored clothes.  I chuckled thinking of the saintly skeleton only a few feet beneath them and thought the old body probably never had it so good as to entertain these toddlers during their play.

There is certainly a nurturing feeling about the entire venue.  I’ve already adopted it, and I will miss the feeling I get while there after I go home.

Today my comfort food consisted of a roasted vegetable medley with lentils (onions, sweet potatoes, chunks of goat cheese, red peppers, tomatoes…yum); steamed English peas with baby onions, fresh crusty bread with butter, and lemon pound cake with just enough lemon filling to make you want more and more.  By the time I had added a bottle of my favorite sparkling water to the tray, I was already feeling better – – and I hadn’t even begun to eat!

I headed outside and looked around for a table.  “Yes!” I thought as I spied one vacant, usually a rare occurrence.  I sped up my steps to try and get there before someone else snagged it.  The weather was too beautiful and the sun too bright to waste the day eating inside.

Approximately half-way into my meal I began to realize another “storyline” at the table next to me was revealing itself.

Sometimes certain words or phrases familiar to a listener can sort of punch through even the most dense gray fog of introspective thoughts.  That’s what happened to me when I heard…

“…you cannot do that.  No good will come of it.  If you push and push, the only thing he is left to do with all that inertia is either run away or push back, don’t you see?”

The voice was just about as close to Kevin Klein’s “French Kiss” character as can be found.  My ears began to radar in on the subject matter.

“I know this, but I cannot just Turn Off all that I am between the hours of eight and five, then go right back into a conversation with all that emotion.  I cannot just leave all of my life at the door! I must do something…something with all (she gestures by balling up her tiny fist and placing it on her heart) of me!”

The best way I can describe her voice was Penelope Cruz, only with slightly less heavy of an accent.  As she continued, I made the connection that she was probably Spanish.  She sounded like most of the Spanish folks I’d met during my trip.

He listened to her with intense focus, as did she to him when he responded.  He thought out loud, she considered his remarks.  She thought out loud, and he disclosed some of his struggles.  Volley, think…volley, respond.  Their conversation went on for 20 minutes.

He suggested to her that “you can’t understand why something is until you understand how something is….you need to break it down.”  She responded, “I think about these things.  When I first left home, I used to wish people would rescue me…I would call my mother.  I wanted her to solve my problems.  But over time I am working on myself.”  He reflected, “I know what you mean.  I have done that too.  I discover sometimes that when I think myself out loud with someone like you, I see myself anew.”

What was I doing while this beautiful conversation was taking place?  Honestly?…I was cursing the fact that I didn’t have my camera.  I wanted to capture their relational dialogue in some way.  I made a snap decision, left my table, ran back to my dorm room and grabbed my camera.  Halfway across the public square on my trip back to the restaurant I spied them.  They were still talking.

I waited a moment upon arriving, then approached them.  I asked them if perhaps I could take their picture, and that their conversation had moved me.  They looked at each other, smiled and then began talking to me.  “Who are you? What was it we were saying that touched you?  Have you had some of these thoughts?  How do you solve these problems?”

I introduced myself and rather briefly I told them that I thought they were doing just fine.  I told them that as long as they had friends like each other to share intimate struggles with, then they would overcome whatever they set out to find.  The young man seemed intrigued that “somehow something they say has touched something in me,” and she told me, “I have thought about becoming a marriage and family therapist myself.”

He was doing his doctorate in nuclear fission.  She was a philosophy student.  The Frenchman and the Spaniard were extremely warm, generous and open.  They asked if I wished to join them, but I declined – asking rather, for a photograph.

They agreed to let me take a picture and told me they would have not even asked for permission.  However, he said, “Could you let us resume our discussion for a few minutes THEN you take the picture?  It would be difficult for me not to pose if I knew of your intentions.”  I agreed, and went to get coffee.  Later, I peeked around the stone corner of the castle and took their picture.  In less than a minute they got up and walked away….

Side by side, she would talk then he would respond.  Then he would state an issue, and she would respond.  Volley, think…volley, respond.

The rhythm of human kind, solving their problems without therapists, eventually walked out of site…around a corner and down an alley.  I was comforted by the interaction, by the storyline at the table.  Perhaps by these thoughts even more than by the food.

Nah…the food was amazing.