Thursday, March 22, 2012

From Fixing to Feeling

Image: Ambro /
Nate had been in recovery for almost two years. He had a rare relapse to porn four months in, but other than that he'd done remarkably well during the first eighteen months of his work on the issue. He felt great about his progress.

He wasn't so enthusiastic about the state of his marriage relationship. The issue of Porn remained supercharged for his wife, Amanda. She told him that she hated looking over at the nightstand and seeing the book he was reading and being reminded that porn is an addiction he has to overcome. 

As I explored Nate's approach to communicating with Amanda, it became clear that over the last couple of years he he had been trying to "fix what he'd broken" during the first nine years of their marriage. He would look to her to see how his efforts were paying off. When she had a hard day, he'd offer her suggestions and encouragement. Since he'd been overjoyed to find Sexaholics Anonymous, he encouraged her to attend S-Anon and "do her own recovery work." He was frustrated because he'd been through the 12-steps three times over, whereas she was still on step 3 the first time through. 

"She asks me if I feel like she's the one holding us back now," he admitted, "and I'm sure she feels that way because I'm so often trying to manage and coach her."

I gave Nate the assignment described in this post. I encouraged him to explore what it's been like for her to learn of his addiction. Simply ask and then listen, without trying to fix. 

The next time we talked, Nate said he used the questions as directed, without making promises or asking for forgiveness or trying to reassure Amanda what a great job he was doing these days.

"I'd ask the question, let her talk, and then go onto the next question. She was bawling the entire hour. But for the next few days things were better. The air seemed a little clearer. She even seemed to sleep better."

Nate's description reminded me of the findings from research by James Pennebaker. His interventions are quite simple, but they can have profound effects. 

In most of his studies, he gives subject the simple assignment to think about the worst thing that has ever happened to them and write for fifteen or twenty minutes for four consecutive days about their innermost thoughts and feelings about that experience.

Then he checks in later to measure the differences between the disclosure group and the control group, filled with individuals who didn't go through his little writing exercise. 

Those who get their feelings out on paper later feel happier and less negative. Their immune systems function better. Depression tends to lift. Self-destructive behaviors (such as eating disorders) become less compelling.

If you get that from putting it down on paper, how much more meaningful to have an attentive audience? And to have that receptive individual, that witness of your pain, be your primary attachment figure instead of some therapist or church leader (or buddy or bartender or hairdresser), that's even more powerful! 

Try it out. 

And then, please, let us know how it goes.

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