CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Monogamous Marriage and What To Do About It

A recent article, “Married with Infidelities,” by Mark Oppenheimer was published in the New York Times a couple weeks ago. And yet, many people are still talking about it! Don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read it, but it seems to have triggered significant feelings about monogamous relationships, here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/03/magazine/infidelity-will-keep-us-together.html. The author interviews Dan Savage, a pop writer whose column is entitled “Savage Love”. Savage began his column years ago helping folks learn how to cope with their sexual proclivities, and now attempts to help people with their love lives.

The article makes the point that we often assume that monogamous relationships must remain so and suggests that couples who are open about infidelities they may have happier marriages. I think if he is talking about saving peoples individual sex lives, this might make sense. But it doesn’t sound like a remedy to help one’s, or the couple's love life. Savage suggests that there are couples, or one part of a couple, who need more than one partner or periodic extra-relationship sexual experiences. This is called an open marriage. It’s been around for quite a while, perhaps saving many marriages.

Though there are some folks who want to be able to desire and be desired by their partner with whom they have a commitment and many years invested in each other. Some are skeptical about this being a real possibility in a long-term relationship. Long-term monogamous relationships can get stale and perhaps boring and can begin to feel restrictive and limiting to one or both partners. These feelings can translate into thoughts about remedies. An obvious and easy one is to have a fling or two, but the problem may remain. Trying to avoid those feelings of limitation is a missed opportunity to create something new and satisfying.

An interesting point that arises from the article is the emerging need in our society for a “quick fix”. There are tons of claims to have the right formula for being thin, wealthy, more attractive, you name it, someone can tell you how to do it. Treating individuals and couples with issues around intimacy and sex is not necessarily formulaic; each person has a different set of histories and life experiences. And we know that people’s sex lives are directly related to their love lives and vice versa. Therapy helps people understand themselves and their uniqueness so they can make difficult life-choices that work for them.

Psychoanalytically and attachment informed couple’s therapy helps people experience uncomfortable feelings and more importantly expands their ability to make use of them. Being bored in a relationship can mean a whole host of things about each person and the couple that may be remedied by using each other in the service of extinguishing boredom without involving an extra-relationship fling. All relationships and individuals in relationship change over time. Desire can wax and wane in long-term relationships as can love. Finding the ability to be vulnerable with each other and recognize each other’s (and one’s own) needs and limitations actually produces growth. Each part of the couple can find within themselves some part that meets the needs of the other and themselves without having to substitute.

The suggested solution for couples to avoid feeling bored in a long-term monogamous relationship by having affairs “above board” is one way to avoid feeling the loss that inevitably comes with choosing one thing over another. Another way of dealing with that loss is to face it head on, be honest about it with themselves and the one’s they’ve committed to and find ways to deepen and enjoy their experience of being human, with all its limitations and flaws.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

What we can learn from Betty Ford

By Eric Sherman, LCSW

With her death at 93, Betty Ford leaves behind a legacy of grace and courage that can be a lesson for us all.

Her ability to overcome cancer, depression, and, addiction -- and to turn these personal struggles into a public commitment to help others -- is nothing short of inspirational. Few of us will ever be thrust into the public spotlight the way the former First Lady was, but there is much we can learn from her unflinching honesty in struggling with, and ultimately overcoming, adversity.

Mrs. Ford became a role model when, in 1974, she underwent a radical mastectomy for breast cancer. She used the opportunity to speak openly about her experience at a time when such a topic was taboo. As a result, tens of thousands of women sought out breast exams in the months after her surgery, undoubtedly saving many lives.

But she is best known for her decades-long battle with addiction to alcohol and painkillers, a problem that began in the 1960s.

"From the outside, (my) life looked like a Norman Rockwell illustration," she said at one point. But despite her seeming fairytale life and public outspokenness, privately she harbored debilitating feelings of loneliness, self-doubt and shame. She questioned her intelligence, and began to feel useless and empty as her children left the house and her husband became more successful in his career, and later was defeated for reelection. "I'd lost my feeling of self-worth."

Like many others, she turned to alcohol and painkillers to numb her insecurities. The more she drank to escape her self doubts, the more they intensified -- a spiral well known by many addicts, as well as to others who suffer from insecurities that seem too overwhelming to combat.

"Now I know that some of the pain I was trying to wipe out was emotional," she wrote in her autobiography, "Betty: A Glad Awakening." "I was convinced that the more important Jerry (her husband) became, the less important I became."

Ultimately, after a painful family intervention, she chose to face her problems by entering rehab, a decision that would forever change her life and sense of self.

These days, public figures entering rehab are about as common as humidity on a summer day, but at the time to go public about one's battles with personal demons was largely unheard of. Mrs. Ford did more than just gain and maintain her sobriety. She found a sense of purpose by using her experience and influence to found the non-profit Betty Ford Center, a rehab facility, and to speak openly about her struggles.

Hers is both a cautionary and inspirational tale about the corrosive nature of self-doubt and what it takes to overcome it. Low self-esteem leads to anxiety, depression and, often, avoidance. Overwhelmed, many people turn to substances, sex, food, shopping and other obsessive-compulsive behaviors to fill the emptiness within. This may work temporarily, but soon leads to greater shame. Some, like Mrs. Ford, put on a brave face and keep their pain a secret. Others retreat from family and friends, while some wield their insecurity as a weapon, proclaiming their victimhood as loudly as possible in a misguided attempt to be rescued. Unfortunately, they end up feeling all the more isolated, fraudulent and hopeless.

Until these patterns can be addressed, they are likely to intensify. Ironically, in the midst of such shame and despair, the person may need to find whatever hope and strength they can muster to risk looking at their problems, often through therapy. I say risk because the process is uncertain and at times can be painful -- the very feelings the person is trying to avoid. But facing our shame and fears can not only detoxify them, it could make us feel stronger and more confident. Therapy can help us find our voice and a sense of purpose.

That is the legacy of Betty Ford -- a woman who found a way to use her triumph over pain to not only find personal meaning, but to help others in their struggles as well.

-- Eric Sherman, LCSW

Friday, July 8, 2011

Presence: Meditating On The Gift That Keeps On Giving

By Mitchell Milch, LCSW

Meditation is perhaps the most important “best practice” I employ each day in the service of warming my self up so I can develop, apply, and identify obstacles to being present in an emotionally intelligent manner. I’m defining emotional intelligence as a measure of one’s facility to apply experiential learning to understanding and accurately predicting one’s influence on the outcome of new situations. I label meditation a “best practice” because it is a quality control measure in the same way a chef will codify cooking processes to ensure that the quality of dishes are consistently maintained. My use of meditation is the psychological equivalent of a ballet dancer rehearsing movements on the barre to stimulate his muscle memory or a tennis player volleying before a match to hone the timing and rhythm of his hand-eye coordination. It’s about finding an optimal level of emotional arousal conducive to the effective employment and coordination of our experiential and observing selves. On a neuro-physiological level this translates to the maximal recruitment and coordination of the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Meditation anchors us in the present. It’s a mindful orientation to a bodily awareness. We drop anchor in the present moment by slowing and deepening our breathing. Our bodies are integral parts of our information storage and retrieval systems. We may liken our brains as coordinated and interactive multi-processor networks. Our stored intelligence is dispersed throughout our bodies. I have borrowed many times from a colleague of mine who might ask a patient: “If your stomach could speak right now what tale might it tell?”

The wisdom of “reliable“ intuition is distilled from thoughtful investigations into what we learn from trial and error and how we apply these lessons to more accurately predict and influence future outcomes. I place reliable in quotation marks because as a case in point, the unconscious intuitive false alarms of a traumatized brain are easily tripped by unreliable and invalid innocuous stimuli. The onset and impact of such stimuli may be as random and unpredictable as the fluctuations of the stock market. An intuitive “gut feel” that can be relied on must be applied to events that cohere in some logical fashion. Such intuition is the direct consequence of processed experiences resulting in the ever expanding growth of anatomical structures supporting the increase of ever sophisticated decision trees. We stretch our knowledge by discriminating and making sense of sometimes minute anomalies in patterned behaviors. Let’s call this the evolution of best tailored practices. As a former supervisor once pointed out to me, the “right feel” on how to engage a patient in a timely manner may not be understood on a cognitive level until it’s too late. If you’ve ever been tested by a patient on his way out the door with the alliance hanging in the balance, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a matter of now or never in terms of accessing the correct response. One is operating strictly from what feels like the right thing to do or say. There’s no time to make cognitive sense of this pivotal moment.

What slow, deep breathing does is to open us up psychologically speaking as permeable interpretive containers of bounded space. To anchor one’s self in the moment is to set the conditions for being a sensitive tuning fork to a patient’s multi-leveled communications. Some of us call this meditative state the empty brain- open heart consciousness of being. Others prefer such conventional Freudian terms as “being neutral without memory or desire.” In the fields of arts and athletics this state of consciousness is labeled as “flow,” or “being in the zone.” Meditation is the multi-faceted operations of self-monitoring, disciplined attentive focus, and the modulation of states of emotional arousal. It is the optimal state of arousal that permits our brains to work in the most coordinated and effective manner. We know that the tragic flaw of the traumatized brain is that it is seldom if ever “cool under pressure.” Equally important is how meditation offers us the awareness that we are resistant to anchoring ourselves in our bodies. We may struggle on any given day to contain and observe parts of our selves. Any awareness of anxious pendulum-like swings between the past and the future may indicate a need for some self-analysis before we return to the challenges of our day.
Practicing meditation can be as easy or difficult as your level of resistance to being with yourself. I liken it to starting an exercise program. You can convince yourself that to begin exercising you need the right outfit, the right gym, the right trainer, the right comfort looking in the mirror etc., to begin. The same could apply to meditation. It can be as simple as using deep breathing to anchor yourself in your body while you are washing dishes, or it can be as difficult as deciding that you can’t start meditating until you research the most effective technique, pick a mantra, and figure out when and where you have 30 minutes each day to sit quietly.

Eckert Tolle, the world renown spiritual teacher and author defines presence as the moment you are aware that your mind has been on an excursion elsewhere. The father of mainstream meditation in the west is probably Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University. Benson in his book “Beyond The Relaxation Response” suggests that one can learn to be present any time and any where. It’s a matter of attending to your sensory experiences as anchors. You can create conditions for flow or being in the zone while walking down the street. All that is required is slowing and deepening your breathing and paying attention to the sensory experiences of your foot falls. It only takes the creation of bounded space and one degree of separation between our experiential and observing selves to open us up to new possibilities for being with ourselves, our loved ones and our patients.

Benson doesn’t know he is preaching to the analytic choir when he touts the indispensability of breaking free of our habitual non-learning ways of thinking to access the creative transformative mind. There may have only been one Mozart but there’s a little bit of Mozart in each of us to tap into if we design the conditions for our artistry. Enjoy!