Posts Tagged ‘causes’


Understanding Layered Communication

March 22, 2014

Years ago, a man who had been married many more years than I told me some advice about wives.

He said: “If she says ‘Go ahead’ in response to something you want to do–and you notice she isn’t smiling and her arms are crossed in front of her–it isn’t permission, it’s a dare”.

Funny. Wise. Layered.

I owe much of my understanding of the dynamics of interpersonal communication to one of the greatest psychoanalysts of the 20th Century: Dr. William Glasser. What made Dr. Glasser so helpful to our society is he could take complicated subjects and make them so obvious and simple to understand.

Perhaps he is best known for his definition of communication. He defined all communication between two people as this: “It is only information. If you think it is more than that, you are self-deceived.”

Since marriage represents the most intimate dynamics of communication, they are also the most dangerous. If I misunderstand something a stranger says to me, it doesn’t matter that much. But if I make the same error with my life partner, it can be devastating. And after 30-plus years of doing counseling, I can attest that most marriage problems are communication difficulties.

We need to understand three things in order to make all communication easier.

First, what you are hearing is just information.
Second, if you believe otherwise, it is your problem, not the other person
Third, the main difficulty we have with what we hear other people say is that they have layered their communication and we often do not know it.

Let’s look at a standard marital conflict that illustrates all three parts.

Let’s say Jim has had a hard day at work. He was given an impossible task by his boss and it wasn’t going well. He is tired, frustrated, feeling abused and disrespected, and needing to rest and recuperate.

However, as soon as he comes through the door, his wife tells him all about how bad their two boys behaved at the grocery store after work. She never asks about his day, never notices the look of exasperation on his face.

Jim honestly can see that his wife is frustrated. At the same time, he needs support and rest. So, he tries to communicate all of this to Tonya his wife and says, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” She is hurt by this and storms off to make dinner, slamming cupboards and huffing.

She assumed something Jim was communicating. She assumed wrongly. He was giving information about his desire to avoid more drama and the need to rest. She assumed he was communicating something about their relationship and his lack of caring for her. He gave her information. The rest of what happened was hers.

Taken at face value, his statement is fairly simple. He doesn’t want to talk about the kids at that moment. He didn’t say he would never talk about it. He didn’t say that he couldn’t care less about her feelings. His communication was a case of simple information. Tonya did not understand this or accept it.

This leads us to the second truth about communication. Her emotional reaction was her problem. Any time we react to information being given to us we are responsible completely for our reaction. The other person is only responsible for the information they gave us. In Tonya’s case, she carried the frustration of being the only care-giver that day in the household. She was angry that Jim seemed to be reticent to help her. She assumed his motivations. All of these assumptions and reactions are her responsibility. If she had been wise–and we will talk about how to use this approach with any other person–she would have asked Jim why he didn’t want to talk about it at that moment. She chose to be hurt and that was her choice. Jim did not make her do that.

Now for the most complicated part of this scenario: Tonya reacted to Jim’s dual layers of information with a multi-layered communication response. I define multi-layered communication as any information which is layered with one or more of the following:

1. Emotions
2. Bitterness or resentment
3. Sarcasm
4. Physical body language instead of words
5. Unspoken assumptions
6. False beliefs
7. Distraction
8. Revenge or hatred

Let’s analyze Jim and Tonya.

Jim had two distinct layers of information:

1. He didn’t want to talk about the current situation at that moment
2. He was angry and tired and did not state this up front.

Jim made the situation a degree harder by not giving the second piece of information before the first one.

Tonya had several layers of communication which she put across using passive-aggressive behavior:

1. Anger at the boys
2. Frustration that she was the primary care-giver and Jim did not seem to be interested
3. A desire to hurt Jim for the perceived hurt Jim had laid on her.
4. Perhaps a deep-seated belief that people would not assist her when she needed it.

Tonya only expressed the first layer and let Jim assume the existence of the other layers. Because neither of them had carefully dissected their own layers before communicating, they could not connect with each other mentally or emotionally. This is the type of fight that can linger for weeks, months or even years if not corrected.

In the next article, we’ll dissect the 8 layers and examine how to attempt to give other people information about each one.


Phantom Affairs

March 14, 2014

phantomAuggie and Tami felt the emotional distance between them. They fought, made up, fought some more, made up less often, fought more vigorously, didn’t make up any more. They didn’t know what the other was angry about, but constantly replayed their own story of hurt in case anyone asked. No one did.

Tami filed for divorce first, but Auggie was willing too. They settled their legal differences amiably and spared the world the bother of having to listen to their public complaints. A year later and they legally didn’t have to contact each other for any reason.

Yet for some reason, they kept in close touch. They met for lunch and endlessly dissected the reasons why their marriage fell into the toilet. That’s when and why they came for counseling. They didn’t desire to resurrect their relationship, but they wanted me to do a post-mortem with them on the corpse that was their marriage.

After meeting three times, I discerned the basic reason for their marriage failure and I shared it with them. At first, they were both confused. Then they denied it was true. It was almost a year later Tami came back and admitted I was right. I don’t know if Auggie ever agreed with me.

Here was their problem. They both had someone else. They both had chosen another person over their partner.

Yet neither of them had a physical affair. Neither of them had met in clandestine circumstances to give their love to another person. But they had still chosen someone else. Once they began doing that, it was inevitable it would ruin their relationship.

We wrongly assume that affairs have to actually involve knowing and interacting with the other member of the tryst. Today, there are multiple warnings about emotional affairs, relationships between married people that do not result in sex. These can be devastating of course. As Laura Berman observes,

Emotional cheating (with an “office husband,” a chat room lover, or a newly appealing ex) steers clear of physical intimacy, but it does involve secrecy, deception, and therefore betrayal. People enmeshed in nonsexual affairs preserve their “deniability,” convincing themselves they don’t have to change anything. That’s where they’re wrong. If you think about it, it’s the breach of trust, more than the sex, that’s the most painful aspect of an affair and, I can tell you from my work as a psychiatrist, the most difficult to recover from.

However, neither Auggie nor Tami were enmeshed in emotional affairs. They discovered some of the alternative ways we can tie our hearts to another person without them being aware we are doing so. Let me outline the most common ways we do this:

Old Flames: A healthy person continues to process their memories long after they have experienced the original happenings. We must do this to be emotionally grounded. We need to understand what has taken place in our lives so we don’t develop the wrong ideas about our history. But when we spend an inordinate amount of time processing past romances–and especially when we do this to replace time spent thinking about our spouse–we conclude that those days were better than these. The current troubles always pale in comparison with these idealistic memories.

Romantic Novels and Movies: One wouldn’t think you could form attachments with fictional characters, but psychology has proven that this is not only possible, but certainly widespread. Yes, there are women who imagine themselves in the arena with Peeta, or men who see themselves as Danaerys’ companion. this explains the almost fanatical appeal of some fan-bases. This intrudes on a marriage when the spouse replaces their affection and admiration for their partner with the character they have obsessed upon. People can also imagine celebrities and read every article about them, taking time and mental energy away from their spouse and pouring it into a famous person.

Pornography: Most people reading this assume porn is all about taking affection away from a spouse. Actually, it is not as common as with the first two examples. Most men use porn as a mechanism to deal with relational pain, especially when they use porn to stimulate themselves.

But there are indeed some men and women who picture themselves with the people in the videos. This causes them to make constant mental comparisons between the porn stars and their partners. As I said, this is not the most common use of porn–it is most likely a pain manager–but it does exist. When a person uses porn to mentally replace their spouse, it can destroy a marriage.

Co-workers, neighbors and professional acquaintances: Throughout life, there are people who treat us well, affirm our value through their words and deeds, and give us comfort when we are emotionally distraught. When they do not receive these things from their spouse, they place even greater value on the person who is willing to give them these things. Though they do not approach them for a deeper emotional attachment, they remember how they gave us something desperately yearned for. Counselors find this happens regularly in the counseling office. Those we counsel with often form attachments based on appreciation for the help we give. Doctors, nurses, teachers, therapists etc. all have to set careful and obvious boundaries so clients do not expect to have inappropriate relationships. But just because there are boundaries, the person receiving help can fantasize about how wonderful it would be to have a deep intimate relationship with their help-giver. Perhaps neither party acts upon this and the two of them maintain a professional relationship. But the one person magnifies the other past the point of help to a much deeper bond. This can be done with people at work, neighbors we have come to know more than casually and family friends.

Horror stories are told of people who assumed someone else felt as strongly as they did in the relationship, only to find out the affection was completely one-sided. The mind has the ability to fill in both sides of the relationship, assuming the kind words and actions are proof of an intimate connection.

Auggie and Tami both had these phantom affairs and had maintained them for a long time. The upshot of this error is that every mistake their spouse made was compared to these phantom ideal people. In their minds, the phantoms would never have treated them this way.

In Auggie’s case, he obsessed about old girlfriends. Tami focused on a man who lived across the street who appeared to treat her with the respect she had always longed for from her husband. Neither of them sought out a romantic partner outside of their marriage, but the phantom partners provided the manure for all of their resentments to grow.

Strangely enough, a year after divorcing, Tami dated the man across the street. After the second date, she realized he could really be a jerk. Coming home that night, she cried over her lost marriage. She began to see how great a mistake she and Auggie had made.


A Look at Suicide: An Outsider’s View

April 12, 2013

yellowribbonBy age 12, I thought about a lot of morbid things and, regrettably, these included thoughts of suicide. I was both depressed and full of anxiety, and the thought of ending my life gave me a sense of power over events and a promise of relief from my inner turmoils. I even made a few plans on how to do it, though I never carried any of them out.

By age 13, I never thought about suicide again. I was fortunate. Many are not.

From Roger Establet, and his book “Suicide: The Hidden Side of Modernity” I learned I would have fit into the prototypical suicide demographic had I gone ahead with it. I was male (men commit suicide 4 times as often as females), I was young, and I had an alcoholic parent. The only demographic I didn’t fit was the birth order: More suicidal males are the youngest among the siblings. I am the oldest.

Three weeks ago, one of my childhood friends contacted me and let me know his youngest son had taken his life. Two weeks ago, I had lunch with a college friend who told me one of our professors had taken his life after finding out he had cancer. This past weekend, one of America’s best-known pastors announced to their congregation that his son had committed suicide.

This horrific subject of suicide rears its head in the forefront of my brain again.

One of my closest colleagues experienced the agony of his son’s suicide ten years ago. The last time we talked, it was just as painful as year one.

In the 33 years I have been a counselor, two of my clients took their own lives. The first was a 42 year old woman with a lifetime history of depression and suicide attempts. The second was a 27 year old man who had kicked a cocaine habit, but was arrested for possession a year later in a bizarre circumstance. Out of shame for how this would look to his family and friends, he hung himself in jail.

Both suicides made me want to give up counseling. Even though I resisted this thought, both lives convinced me I needed to understand as much about suicide as I can. Yet, I found very few helpful resources on the subject. There is good reason for this.

Only the dead know what really happened inside of them. And they aren’t talking. If we could just ask them to describe the downward cycle right before they ended it all, we might know how to prevent this.

Yet no one wants to talk about suicide. Very few people feel they can ask the questions that niggle at our brains. Even fewer will allow their emotions to surface when we discuss why and how someone took their lives. Why is that? Do we all fear somehow by talking about it we will dishonor the person or their family?

Perhaps we all fear the power that suicide vainly offers us to end all our miseries. And we all have some misery at some time.

I was asked many years ago to officiate at the funeral of a police officer who had shot himself. I had actually been called on the scene of his death as the police arrived, primarily to support the mom and step-daughter who were part of our church community. The step-daughter and the man had been fighting. He excused himself, went upstairs, took his service revolver and ended his life.

In preparation for the funeral, I met with his family. He and his four brothers were all police officers. This was the second brother who had taken his life. I asked their permission to get direct and serious with everyone at the funeral. I looked the other three brothers in the eye during my homily and told them how selfish the act of suicide is and can be. I wasn’t being unsympathetic; I was trying to prevent a third suicide.

I now know that what I said was oversimplified and inaccurate. I should have just offered support and counseling.

Malcolm Gladwell in “The Tipping Point” highlights a sociological study done in Micronesia in the 1970s. Suicide on that tiny chain of islands was almost non-existent before a particular date. After that date, for ten years, Micronesia had the highest teen suicide rate of any country in the world. Then, just as quickly as it started, suicide was rare again. As Gladwell studied the statistics, he found that near the beginning of the epidemic, two very prominent young men had committed suicide. This led to a rash of copycat behavior and many young people died copying these examples.

One of the things that Gladwell concluded is that suicide is one of life’s most difficult decisions; but unfortunately, it gets easier to make if people you know have done it.

In 1995, in Kalispell, Montana, 18 teens made a suicide pact with each other. They had a crazy notion they would die and then haunt each other’s funerals and get even with their enemies. Anyone who broke the pact would be haunted for the rest of their lives. Four of the students actually took their lives and then one of the still-living students spilled the beans to her parents. The entire town was shaken to the core. Pastors, counselors, social workers and teachers were brought in from a great distance to counsel every student at that high school of 1800. We were trying to prevent an epidemic.

Some of my colleagues interviewed the surviving girls who signed the pact. Strangely, these girls did not have a bad life. They were not depressed or particularly angst-filled (at least, not more than any other teen). They had signed the pact because they wanted to be part of something esoteric and supernatural. They were toying with eternity and knowing that others were joining them made death less scary. Unfortunately, the real death of four friends struck them with an emotional punch. They couldn’t go through with it.

But they still had contemplated it. And that is the danger of suicide in a culture: Once one person takes that route, it gets marginally easier for others to do the same. That is why I preached the message I did at the police officer’s funeral.

However, here is my point. Suicide comes in flavors and it would be good for us outsiders to understand that as we intelligently discuss it. To be helpful for your understanding of this real tragedy of people taking their own lives, let me give some reality checks about what may be happening inside a person who ends their lives.

1. Not all Suicide Is for the same reason. This excellent article from Psychology Today lists the six reasons people attempt suicide. To summarize, they come down to these:

  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Impulsive behavior
  • A cry for help
  • A philosophical desire to die
  • They made a mistake (as in, they didn’t intend for their action ┬áto end their lives).

2. Not all self-destructive behavior is suicidal behavior. For instance, a girl who cuts herself with a razor blade may not be trying to kill herself. More likely, she is cutting herself to relieve stress by triggering endorphins when the pain starts. People sometimes like to hurt themselves to relieve a sense of shame also.

3. Mental illness is not a spiritual disorder or a sin problem. It is a malformation of the brain. We would never say a Down Syndrome child has a sin problem. They have a misjoined chromozomal pattern. Yet when a man has a Limbic system that has been malformed since birth, causing him to have depression and suicidal thoughts every day, we often associate this with a lack of faith or bad behavior. It is revealing how many times the family of suicidal men describe their lost loved ones as kind, thoughtful and moral. This is not the profile of a sin-obsessed person.

4. Some suicides are copycats. Having said that, the best thing for someone who is contemplating suicide, being spurred on by another person’s example, is to talk about it. Once it comes out of their minds and into the arena of discussion, it will sound differently to them.

5. Never call their bluff. If a person says they are thinking about suicide, it may be a call for attention. But it may not. Even the most skilled professionals are unable to tell the difference between a serious cry for help and a call for attention. If someone tells you they are thinking about suicide, ask them if they are willing to go to a professional for help. If they aren’t, ask them if they want to talk about it. NEVER, EVER say “Go ahead.”

6. Some suicide is rooted in selfishness; some is not. There is no way as an outsider to tell the difference. I suggest you don’t try.

7. Suicide is almost never the result of someone else’s actions. Romeo and Juliet aside, most people are not driven to suicide; it is completely their choice. It is a decision of course, but there are always alternatives. If you are one of that tragic group of people whose friends or family members have taken their lives, you may be tested by the thoughts of what you could have done to prevent it. Or, conversely, you may wonder if you were one of the causes. If you are even thinking that, it means you are not one of the causes.

8. Remember, you don’t see the world the way they see it. If you could see the world through the eyes of someone with psychosis, suicide may make sense. If mental illness had caused you to construct a psychological world where you are the superhero and your death would save hundreds of people, it looks noble, not meaningless. To wit: Do not try and evaluate someone who kills themselves. We do not have their internal point of view. Grieve for them certainly and find a way to move on. You will never fully understand.

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