Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What You Have to Offer that Pornography Does Not: A Message to Women from Lori Schade, PhD

The following is a guest post by marriage and family therapist, Dr. Lori Schade. She's helped many couples struggling with the issue of pornography. This controversial article--see her note below--has provided tremendous relief to many. After reading be sure to check out Lori's blog and her website.
Note: Even though both males and females may hurt their partners with pornography use, this article is directed toward a typical couple presentation with a male user.  Because this post has been misunderstood a number of times, I want to point out that my overall point is that human connection is a large part of the antidote to addictive behaviors, and when men are in active individual porn recovery, women need to understand that they offer the ability to connect in a way porn does not.  I realize that many men who have learned to cope by choosing to numb themselves out by using porn or other substances may not respond to the availability of connection.  I am concerned that women start believing they have to provide or become pornography to keep their partners from using, and that is a losing battle.  You cannot compete with pornography from a visual standpoint, because the images are supranormal.  You do have an advantage in the long-term recovery process, however, by being a three-dimensional person.  If you would like additional clarification, I would be happy to hear from you.  This post wasn’t written frivously–Having seen couples in therapy since 1989, I am a witness to how pornography has proliferated and hurt marriages in the last few decades.  I’m not naive to its lure. Women are not responsible for men’s porn use, and men have individual responsibility to stop using it, but committed relationships provide one of the best contexts to heal from its use.  
I sighed as I sat across from an impeccably dressed, doe-eyed female client.  She was tearfully explaining how she didn’t think she could ever bring herself to be physically safe with her husband again after finding out that he had been viewing pornography, even though he was actively involved in individual and group therapy to discontinue its use and had achieved several months of sobriety. He was working very hard to change the destructive pattern in his life and in his marriage.  As she wept, she made her message clear, “How am I ever supposed to feel close to him again after knowing what he has been looking at on the computer?…I mean…I can’t compete with that…I can’t compete with those women.”
I answered without missing a beat, “Those women can’t compete with themselves either—first because they are false images, implanted, airbrushed and otherwise enhanced and second because one pornographic image of an individual isn’t satisfying over the long term.  That is exactly why a pornography habit is not characterized by viewing one ‘perfect,’ female, but by repeatedly seeking novel images designed to fuel an insatiable need for the next sexual high.”
My heart ached for her as she sobbed, and I momentarily yearned for the year 1989, before the internet provided such easy access to pornography which was wreaking havoc in so many marriages.  I handed her a tissue, leaned in close and waited for her to make eye contact with me.  I wanted to make sure that when I responded to her, she was tuned in and emotionally regulated enough to hear me.  I spoke slowly and carefully to emphasize a message I believed in, but which I knew was counter to popular culture.
I lowered my voice for emphasis.  “As a female, I know about the prevailing messages you hear around you all the time in our image-driven society.  I know pornography is everywhere and it feels hopeless.  However, I must adamantly disagree with what you just said, and I hope you, or at least a part of you will be able to hear me.  I must tell you that I see something quite different than you do from my work with couples.  The way I see it, you actually have a huge advantage over pornography.  You are a three-dimensional person who has the capacity to be a connected friend and lover in a way that pornography never can.  Ultimately, pornography cannot furnish what you can potentially provide in a relationship.  It leaves its users dissatisfied.  You actually have the ultimate competitive advantage over pornography.  The trick is to leverage those advantages.”
Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not na├»ve.  I’m deeply aware of the proliferation and ubiquitous use of pornography and its resistance to treatment.   I’m familiar with the neuroscience explaining some of the powerful reinforcing properties of internet porn and its associations with a unique physically rewarding delivery system, shaping the brain in profound ways.  I have seen too many cases displaying some of the long-term effects of its use, and the relapses which so frequently plague its users.
However, I reject the fear-mongering which routinely accompanies reports of pornography use, because I believe in many ways we give pornography more power than it deserves.  Overwhelm and hopelessness generate powerlessness, and in couple relationships, this is death in the form of ultimate disconnection.  When women believe they “can’t compete,” with porn, they often hand themselves over to sexless, friendless, lonely marriages, further victimizing themselves.
A typical scenario is one in which a husband is either caught or volunteers the information that he has been viewing porn.  Since this is a betrayal of the committed sexual relationship in the eyes of many women, they end up feeling deeply wounded.  They don’t understand the porn use.  They make sense of it by believing that they were somehow not “enough,” for their husbands.  They can’t be physically intimate without worrying about what their husbands have been viewing, and if they are measuring up.  If they have struggled to be engaged sexual partners, this exacerbates the personal feelings of failure.  It is so painful, that they often just disengage from any attempt at a couple physical relationship at all.
Even though they aren’t ever to blame for their partners’ porn use, the withdrawal often increases the probability of a husband viewing pornography again to medicate the loneliness, which leads to more betrayal, and on the cycle goes.  Both partners end up ultimately lonely and isolated and feel helpless about how to fix it.  Husbands don’t know how to fix the betrayal in the past and wives don’t know how to ever trust their husbands or feel like they are “enough,” making sexual contact too risky.
I do not want to minimize the pain and complexity in a marriage with a history of porn use. These situations are deeply personal and intense, highly nuanced, and often layered with sexual traumas and other sexual impediments.  However, I believe it is a movement toward healing for women to realize how much they have to offer their long-term committed partners that pornography cannot offer.  In a sense, I am hoping women will take their power back.  This isn’t meant to pin the responsibility for healing on the female partners, but to help them access hope that recovery is possible, and to increase their recognition of their unique value in long-term relationships.
Here’s just a quick, off-the-cuff list of things a real committed partner can provide in a relationship that pornography cannot:
  1. Words of reassurance
  2. An intellectual discussion about an idea
  3. A walk together
  4. A pick-up tennis match
  5. A recreational bike ride
  6. A shoulder rub
  7. A sincere, spontaneous compliment
  8. An inside joke
  9. A list of meaningful memories
  10. A photo album of days of yore
  11. Real friendship
  12. Actual skin-to-skin contact, promoting the release of specific “bonding hormones.”
My experience leads me to believe that both males and females alike ultimately want to feel emotionally and physically connected to their long-term partners.  However, as life happens, they often get detached, and when porn is accessed by one of the partners, the ensuing betrayal makes it seem nearly impossible for them to find their way back to connection.  I know it is painful, but giving up is not the answer.
Really, as a first step, we must stop giving pornography so much power. 
Pornography is in no way improving the overall quality of sexual relationships, but rather diminishing it.  We are so flooded with sexual images that much of the mystery that historically fuels excitement is absent.   In that regard, we are all victims, male and female alike.
We can improve our relationships by focusing on the unique aspects of real bonded togetherness which pornography completely lacks.  Couples can also begin generating new conversations and new experiences together in order to unite against pornography, leaving it behind.
Again, the road may be long and rocky and likely circuitous, but there is a way back to recovery.
Choose one item from the list above and start taking your relationship power back today!  Exercise your relationship power in a way that pornography cannot.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Bomb Squad

Terry's wife, Crystal, was more than willing to see if conversations dedicated to empathy might help him with his depression. In fact, when I told Terry about how those conversations might go, he said, "Wow, she already does that naturally."

One night the week before he had gone in to put their three year old son, Carter, to bed. She'd heard Carter saying, "I want to go to bed by myself!" Terry walked out of the room thinking, Fine! Makes bedtime easier for me. But he couldn't help feel a pang in his heart. He told himself Carter was just a little kid trying out his independence. Despite that reasoning, the emotional hit lingered. "Unfortunately, sometimes interactions like that throw me off for the rest of the night. A painful interaction with Carter is sometimes the beanbag that’s right on target, dropping Terry's into the dunk tank of his depression.

When he walked into the bedroom Crystal said, "Sounds like he's in fine form tonight. You okay? Want to talk about it?"

Terry had responded. "No, I just need a few minutes."

That's the way he usually dealt with hurt feelings: take a few minutes alone to re-gather himself, and then get on with life again.

"Kind of like an animal licking its wounds," I said. Terry nodded.

"But I go away from that kind of exchange with Crystal knowing that it could have been deeper, I just don't know what else I would have said. We've talked about the issue of me feeling a lack of acceptance from Carter, and how it pushes all my old rejection buttons. But we've talked about it enough now that I don't know that there's anything left to say about it. She understands where I'm coming from, and I know she cares, so why rehash it?"

"And yet it feels like she steps toward you and invites you to engage with her at a level of emotional intimacy that is deeper. And it seems like you're somehow unable to meet her there at that same level."

"Yeah. I don't know if she senses that. I've thought it was just a male/female difference. She talks that way with everyone: her mom, a couple of her friends, her sister, even her brothers. I've never really had that depth with anyone in my life. My interactions with her come the closest."

I encouraged Terry to think of his distressing emotions as an improvised explosive device. Just like an IED or any other bomb, it has a bunch of parts to it. Separating out its components can defuse it. Once dissected, an emotion, just like an EID, becomes more benign.

Terry and I practiced right then and there to prepare him for the next time he had the chance to talk about his feelings with Crystal. We sorted through his emotion in an attempt to identify these five facets: situation, thought, impulse, feeling, sensation. Here's what he came up with:

Situation: Abruptly dismissed by son I'm putting to bed
Thought: "I know he's a three year old, but ouch"
Impulse: Walk out and give the door a little bang shut.
Feeling: Rejected
Sensation: Sinking in my chest, deflated

The first initial from each of these words spells STIFS. I complimented Terry on successfully dissecting his feelings into STIFS and encouraged him to try out the same process over the next few weeks as he talked with Crystal about hard experiences for either of them.  

A couple of months later he said he was feeling more connected with Crystal, and it seemed to be helping relieve his depression. “I'm becoming more poignantly aware of feelings of un-acceptance and just how painfully I experience those emotions. When I work through those feelings alone, it's less productive. When I share my feelings with people I care about, it's much more effective. Using the STIFS has helped me do that."

A few times each week I send out by text an example of STIFS to about 70 people, most of them clients. Quite a few have told me that it helps them become more aware of their emotions. Not only that, it also helps tame those emotions in a way I don't fully understand. I know that from experience. Somehow putting feelings into words must wake up the language cortex of the brain and other affiliated regions where our more mature mindsets reside. Perhaps those mental muscles then act as a sort of caring older sibling to our brain's limbic system, where our strong feelings do their work.

If you're interested in receiving STIFS examples from me a few times a week, text "add me to STIFS" to my cell phone: 801-564-7566. If you end up not wanting to receive them anymore, you can text “stop” at any time. (Recipients' only see my phone number, never those of other recipients.)

Whether or not you decide to receive examples from my by text, next time you find yourself in a state of distress, be it mild or intense, see if you can identify these five facets of your experience: the situation, your thoughts, your impulse (what you feel compelled to do), your feelings, and the sensations you are experiencing in your body. You might find it very interesting to do. Then, if you keep practicing the process again and again over a period of weeks, you may discover that it gets both easier and more helpful over time.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Emotional Jackpot You Can Give Your Spouse Today

Bells go off and coins clang as they fill up the tray of the slot machine. You hit the jackpot.

That's how it feels emotionally when your spouse can tell you're having a hard time and, instead of turning away and leaving you alone in it, they connect by empathizing on a deep level. You can tell by what they say, by the look in their eye, or by the way they squeeze your hand or hug you that they're letting in some of what you're feeling. They get it, or at least they're trying to. 

Suddenly, you're not alone in your distress anymore. And just as quickly, that distress isn't the same anymore, it's somehow more bearable. And even in that bitter moment, the connection you feel with your spouse is sweet. 

That's what it's like to hit the emotional jackpot.

You can get better at providing this kind of profound experience for your spouse. In fact, they will bond to you more securely than ever as you become their most reliable and potent way to hit the emotional jackpot. 

Here's how to do it:

Look for opportunities to encourage your spouse to talk about a time that was upsetting for them.
  • When they bring something up, encourage them to talk out the hurt rather than trying to quickly move on from the uncomfortable topic. 
  • Proactively ask about an event you know they found painful. 
  • Explore in a general way what experiences from the past still eat at them, whether or not those experiences involve you. 
If you have the courage to run into the fire of their feelings instead of fleeing their distress, you are giving them an incredible gift. You can't rewind time and take away their suffering, but now they have the opportunity to no longer suffer alone!

As they recall the events, listen for what it was like for them emotionally to go through that experience. If they don't spontaneously mention how they felt at the time, ask. Check to see if they're feeling some of that same emotion now as they think back on and talk about that time. Also ask what they were feeling in their body at the time and where they felt it. Was it in their chest? Their gut? Somewhere else? Are they feeling some of those same sensations now?

This gives you all you the raw material you need to practice deep empathy. Do it by letting into your own heart and body some of what they went through and are going through even now.

Let them know you've let in what they're feeling in any or all of the following ways:
  • Let yourself make an "ugh", "ouch", or "mmhh" noise that goes along with what you feel.
  • Let your face--especially your eyes and mouth--convey the pain and compassion you feel inside.
  • Give some other form of physical comfort such as holding or squeezing their hand or embracing them and holding them tight (if it seems they're receptive to that).
Ask them what it's like to be on the receiving end of deep empathy. Did it feel like an emotional jackpot as I predicted?

After you've tried it a time or two, share this post with them and ask them to return the favor. What's it like for you to be on the receiving end?

You and they might find that it's harder to implement than it sounds. But it's certainly something worth practicing to improve as a skill.

Let us know how it goes for you--and please pass along this post along to others. Every single one of us, as human beings, is walking around too lonely in our suffering. There's not a soul I know who couldn't use more empathy, especially deep empathy of this sort.