Learn and Grow

Learn and Grow

Learn and Grow

Learn and Grow:

The most important life lessons uncover your strengths.

“May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.”

Catherine Jane Lotter

LEARN AND GROW: We all want to learn how to work on ourselves, grow and learn, and become the very best version of who we are. Sometimes, the true path of personal growth is not forcing yourself to change into some new iteration of yourself, but rather to discover and embrace the strengths and virtues you already have.

For the last several years, on the Love happiness and Success Podcast I've done experiential growth actives with my listeners in order to help them reflect on past years and set goals for their future aspirations. There's a time and place for that type of forward focus and personal challenge. If you are here seeking a goal setting experience, I invite you to check out last year's Ten Year Plan podcast and activity.

You're Already Amazing

But it's also true that there are also times when it's more helpful to rest and reflect, and embrace our strengths, life lessons, and accomplishments rather than charging forward into new goals and aspirations.

I believe that this is a time for reflection and acceptance, and this episode of the podcast is going to be a personal development podcast that walks you through an activity designed to help you do exactly that. By the end of our time together today I hope you have:

  • Greater appreciation for your strengths,
  • A sense of empowerment for all that you've already achieved,
  • Deeper clarity about your values
  • A different perspective about your obstacles
  • Receive wisdom from your dark emotions.

I have created a set of journaling prompts / exercises to help you not just follow along with the personal growth activities I describe in this episode, but to dig in!

Download the workbook that goes with this podcast (below) then scroll down to the bottom of this post to listen and follow along. Or you can listen to Learn and Grow on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen to things.

Learn and Grow

It can be easy to over-focus on constant-and-never-ending improvement, new goals, the next step, and all the things you have yet to achieve.

But the truth is that you have already grown so much, learned so much, and done so much. Sometimes it can be more empowering to slow down and respect the enormous amount of work you already have done rather than pushing yourself.

So often, personal growth can feel like chasing some idealized version of yourself. It can feel discouraging rather than inspiring, especially if you feel like you're never quite good enough. In contrast, radical, compassionate self-acceptance is the highest form of growth because from this place of self-awareness and self-love we can truly be the very best of who we are.

The love, happiness and success we seek through our efforts to “change” can sometimes be elusive. But so often, they miraculously show up on their own when you stop working so hard to change yourself, and instead focus on how strong, amazing, and accomplished you already are. (You are).

This type of self discovery process is often achieved not by charging ahead into the next level of your personal evolution, but rather by digging in to who you already are.

Important Life Lessons

It can be easy to over-focus on the things we haven't done, or the mistakes we've made, or the times that we have struggled with disappointment. But a door to powerful personal growth and self-development opens when we shift into what the hardest times revealed about our character, our values, what we're capable of, and what's truly most important.

When we have the courage to face the hard parts of life from a place of compassion and radical acceptance rather than anger, we have the opportunity to receive the hidden gifts they have to offer.

Uncover Your Strengths

It's often said that “character is revealed through adversity.” But in my experience, character is often formed through adversity. You don't know who you really are until you've experienced disappointment or hardship. Only then can you fully be aware of how strong you truly are, and what you're capable of.

Those are often moments that lead us to greater self-love, self-acceptance, and self-esteem too. It's often the personal qualities that we don't love the most about ourselves that are the most useful to us when times are hard. Recognizing and embracing these aspects of your “shadow self” can help you appreciate yourself in a whole new way. (For more on this topic I invite you to check out the “Shadow Work” episode of the podcast).

Sometimes personal growth happens when you challenge yourself to think, feel, or do things differently. But sometimes the most important growth occurs when you realize that you don't have to change or do anything in order to be good enough, strong, accomplished, and worthy of love and respect. You're already there. Your life lessons and strengths are yours to keep.

The “personal growth work” is not one of creation and effort. It's of discovery and acceptance.

Thanks for joining me today. I sincerely hope that these ideas and activities support you on your journey of growth.

With gratitude for the gift of YOU…

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Learn and Grow

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast

Spread the Love Happiness & Success

Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Let's  Talk

 

 

Real Help, To Move You Forward

 

Everyone experiences challenges, but only some people recognize these moments as opportunities for growth and positive change.

 

 

Working with an expert therapist or life coach can help you understand yourself more deeply, get a fresh perspective, grow as a person, and become empowered to create positive change in yourself, your relationships and your life.

 

 

Start your journey of growth today by scheduling a free consultation.

Personal Growth: The Greatest Gift

Personal Growth: The Greatest Gift

Personal Growth:

Why You Are The Greatest Gift

PERSONAL GROWTH — Why YOU Are The Greatest Gift: You are already amazing. You, and your life, is a gift to the world. You are on a courageous path of personal growth and development. As you work on yourself, cultivate areas of personal growth, develop yourself, and liberate yourself from the things that are holding you back… you are actually helping others. Not only are you inspiring them, you are benefiting them and their wellness just as much as you are your own.

Does that idea surprise you? That you are actually the greatest gift of all? That by working on yourself and your own personal growth, you're helping others too?

If so, it's worth re-evaluating your understanding of personal growth.

Why Is Personal Growth Important?

If your personal growth feels like an afterthought, you may not fully appreciate just how incredibly important and impactful you already are. Without having a full awareness of how much you really matter it can be easy to dismiss the importance of your personal growth, and make it (subconsciously) less of a priority than it should be.

When you don't recognize the true power of your presence in the lives of others, it can be easy to think that people value things about us, or want things from us that they might not. This misperception makes us think that the way we “give” or show love to others is through giving presents or doing special things for them. While those typical gift actives are certainly nice, they are no replacement for what people really want.

The truth is that what your loved ones want (and need) more than anything else is the very best, happiest, and healthiest version of you. 

The Greatest Gift You Can Give Someone

This concept of giving to others by our own personal growth is sometimes more easily understood when we think about it from the other side. Think about it this way: Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was exhausted, or constantly stressed, or had super-low self esteem, or who was struggling with untreated mental health issues? (We all nod our heads).

Think about how you felt with them: Like, perhaps, they were in such a not-great place that it felt like they didn't have the capacity to be your soft place to fall. Or that they were in so much pain that they legitimately couldn't be there for you. Or that, due to their own issues, they reacted to you in a way that didn't make you feel emotionally safe, or understood, or secure, or that you could trust them.

I bet that the thing that would have mattered more to you than anything (much more than anything they could give you, or buy you as a present) would have been their fundamental mental, emotional and physical health. If they were healthy and well, they would have been able to be what you needed them to be for you. 

Their wellness would have been a gift — both for them, but also for you too.

Self Care is Not Selfish

From that perspective, it can be easier to understand how you and your personal growth is truly the ultimate gift.

We think of loving others as being outward in nature. Our idea of “love in action” may include the way we do things for others or gift them with things. Particularly in our consumerist culture, it can be very easy to get tricked into believing that gifts or presents or experiences or things is the ultimate expression of our love and care.

It can be easy and understandable to lose sight of the fact that what people want the most, more than anything in the world, are the big things. Unconditional love, trust, kindness, appreciation, attention, time, understanding, empathy, respect, to feel emotionally safe, and to feel cherished for exactly who you are is truly what we're all craving.

However, when we neglect our own personal growth and fundamental wellness, it is nearly impossible to have the level of mental and emotional wellness that those things require. Think about it:

  • When you're personally depleted and exhausted, it's impossible to feel fully present and patient with others.
  • When you struggle to have compassion and empathy for yourself, you'll struggle to feel it for others too.
  • When you aren't taking care of your physical health and wellness, you won't have the energy to spend time and energy with others or engaging in fun activities.
  • When you're pushing yourself, criticizing yourself, and judging yourself, you inadvertently become emotionally unsafe for others.
  • When you'e depending on others to make you feel secure or worthy, you'll become emotionally reactive and others won't feel safe and secure with you.

I could go on. The point is that our ability to give others what they genuinely need and want from us is dependent on willingness to invest in our own personal growth, our own mental and emotional wellness, and our own devotion to becoming the highest and best versions of ourself.

Being who others really need and want us to be is not selfish, it's selfless. Your being okay is the ultimate act of love towards others.

The Gift of Personal Growth

On the latest episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, I'm taking a deeper look at the topic of personal growth counseling and discussing some specific ways that, through your own growth, you can become an even greater gift in the lives of others. We'll be talking about some new ideas that can foster your personal growth and wellness, in domains including:

  • Your self esteem
  • Your empathy for yourself
  • Your appreciation for yourself
  • Your physical health
  • Your unique strengths and talents
  • Your mental health and emotional wellness
  • Your emotional intelligence
  • Your financial wellness
  • Your being emotionally safe and compassionate for yourself
  • Why cultivating all those aspects of your own wellness directly benefits others, as well as yourself

This episode is intended as a gift to YOU. I hope that this discussion helps you appreciate and embrace just how incredibly important you are. I hope that this new perspective helps you to prioritize your own personal growth, release any notion that your personal growth and self development is “selfish,” and instead, embrace the truth: The ultimate gift you could ever give anyone is actually you. (YOU!)

With much love to you and yours,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

The Gift of Growth

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast

Music Credits: Rodello's Machine, “The Beauty of Your Life”

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Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Let's  Talk

 

 

Real Help, To Move You Forward

 

Everyone experiences challenges, but only some people recognize these moments as opportunities for growth and positive change.

 

 

Working with an expert therapist or life coach can help you understand yourself more deeply, get a fresh perspective, grow as a person, and become empowered to create positive change in yourself, your relationships and your life.

 

 

Start your journey of growth today by scheduling a free consultation.

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In this season of gift giving, it can be easy to forget what our loved ones really want: Our unconditional love, trust, kindness, appreciation, attention, time, understanding, empathy, respect, emotional safety, and cherishing. However, we can't give those to others without prioritizing our own wellness. On this episode of the podcast, learn the personal growth strategies that will help you grow into your best self, and also become a true blessing in the lives of others.

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What Men Secretly Want: Emotional Intimacy

What Men Secretly Want: Emotional Intimacy

What Men Secretly Want: Emotional Intimacy

What Men Secretly Want: Emotional Intimacy

Men Crave Emotional Connection Too…

What do men secretly want? Emotional intimacy. Despite popular belief, men have feelings too. I can tell you, as a Denver therapist, online life coach and marriage counselor specializing in emotional connection, that I've worked with many, many men, that they have just as many feelings and emotional needs as women do. Men secretly crave to talk about their feelings, men want to be understood, have their feelings be cared about, and — just like everyone else — have their feelings be important to others.  

A basic human need is to be connected to others. Connection happens when we feel genuinely known, emotionally safe, and cared for. That can't happen without our honest, authentic feelings being part of the conversation. (How else can we possibly be known?)

However, sexism and gender stereotypes negatively impacts everyone, male and female alike. We know that egalitarian relationships are healthier than ones that force couples into inflexible gender roles. But it goes further than that, when it comes to mental and emotional health. Men are oppressed by sexist forces from earliest childhood. One of the injuries they sustain is being conditioned to repress their emotions. Because of this, some men struggle to stay connected to the full range of their emotions, express their vulnerabilities to others, be it to women or their fellow men. This is the individual legacy of toxic masculinity, and — for the wellbeing of men and the people who love them — it has to stop.

In this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, Andrew Reiner, a professor of men's studies, a frequent contributor for the New York Times and the author of Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency, shares his experience of toxic masculinity and his advocacy toward enabling an open, healthy, and transparent emotional life for young boys and older men.

Tune in to this interview to get Andrew's insight into why men secretly crave emotional intimacy, why it feels so hard, and the battles men and boys must often must fight to create emotional connection in themselves and in their relationships.

Listen to “What Men Secretly Want” to . . .

  • Discover how toxic masculinity affects men.
  • Learn the importance of a well developed emotional guidance system and how to create it.
  • Learn how to cultivate healthy masculinity in order to have greater courage and emotional resiliency.
  • Realize men’s needs for emotional intimacy and enormous capacity for  emotional intelligence.
  • Understand the importance of expressing genuine emotions and empathizing with others.
  • Discover why male privilege is more of a trap than a privilege.
  • Find out how men and women can emotionally support each other.
  • And more!

You can listen to “What Men Secretly Want” on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App, or by scrolling down to the bottom of this page to listen to it on GrowingSelf.com. (Don't forget to review, share, and subscribe!)

Or, keep reading for the highlights of this episode. You can find a full transcript of this interview at the bottom of this post.

Thanks for listening!

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

What Men Secretly Want: Podcast Takeaways

Overcome The Trauma of Toxic Masculinity By Pushing Back

What are we teaching our boys every time someone says, “Don't cry” or “Shake it off,” or “Hit back harder.” It’s common for kids to squabble, but no one routinely encourages girls to assert themselves through violence. We do that to boys though. Boys are expected to fight back for themselves or to get back at their enemies. If they don't, they get labeled as cowards and lose status in the eyes of others (even their parents). Anger is good. Empathy is bad. What does that do to them? 

Because of these culturally indoctrinated expectations that start at such a young age, boys engage in aggression as a way to express feelings and prove their masculinity. Andrew says, “Boys and young men, because of the lack of awareness, look for ways to prove themselves.”

At a young age, Andrew himself got into fights to prove that he was not a coward. However, by the age of 12, he realized he did not want to hurt people. He wanted to stop succumbing to the pressure to be aggressive. So he began to find a better way.

As a young teen, Andrew frequently observed boys his age during junior high. He saw the aggression, the violence, and had empathy for the pain that many of his peers were carrying underneath. He saw other boys and young men around him learning to withdraw from their emotions. He recognized that happening inside of himself, too.

“I carry that with me well into adulthood, refusing to back down and also starting to pick apart the things about masculine identity that I saw were just hurting and harming other boys,” Andrew recalls. “It wasn’t just me. I mean, I was just sitting back in junior high, just watching, and just taking note of all this, and just thinking, ‘I’ve got to find other ways to push back against this.’”

Finding an Outlet For Feelings

Andrew shares that he found emotionally saf(er) spaces in his relationships with women. He says, “It’s leaning into the place where you can feel safe with your emotional life. And that was in the research in my book, I mean, just endlessly, boys in high school talking about the friendships they have with girls not surprisingly because those are the places where they have that safe space.” 

Just like women, men also want to show and reveal their genuine emotions. However, they cannot freely express their vulnerabilities, especially with fellow men, because they tend to regard their emotional lives as feminine.

He also observed that younger men of this generation tend to push back against this perspective. This was evident in his Jericho Circle Project, where younger male inmates of a prison in Massachusetts led the discussion group and older men would follow suit.

Sexism Impacts Everyone

Andrew shared a relationship phenomena uncovered by his research, which is that some women, whether consciously or not, tend to dismiss and undermine men’s emotional lives and vulnerabilities because of a disinclination to offer more “male privilege.” However, Andrew explains that such responses are counterproductive. He says, “All the privilege that they've had so far has not really encouraged or fostered a healthy masculinity that's the thing.”

Historically speaking, Andrew recognizes men’s privilege and power. However, it is much more complex than that. This power embraced by men becomes more of a trap than a privilege, particularly when it leads to the withering of their emotional selves and to the detriment of their marriages and families. Men who were socialized out of emotional intelligence can struggle to maintain relationships, both personally and professionally. In the end, toxic masculinity can stunt men and make it difficult for them to be happy, healthy and whole.

Andrew says, “We know that when you teach men and encourage men to get in touch with their emotions beyond the happiness and the anger . . . only good, generative emotions and changes in the way that they think and see the world better arise from that. And then, of course, all women and girls are going to benefit from that, too.” However, Andrew admits that there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve this.

Healthy Masculinity

Even as the idea of masculinity evolves, both straight and gay men still struggle with being more open about their emotional lives. Fortunately, Andrew finds “[t]here is more encouragement for a different kind of masculinity in this generation.”

Here are some of Andrew's recommendations for fostering emotional health in men:

  • Women expect emotional intimacy from men. In return, however, they should also support men by welcoming various degrees of vulnerabilities.
  • Andrew recognizes that this hypercompetitive culture expects men to be fixers or problem-solvers. Thus, we should encourage men and women to be more understanding and empathizing of each other. 
  • Men can and should also start being emotionally supportive of each other.

“I think it would go a long way if men could learn to reach out in really small ways to other men. That is something that we do not encourage in this culture,” Andrew says. Men tend to isolate themselves during difficult times. However, they also need emotional support, care, love, and affection from other people.

Andrew says, “The thing that we often forget is that even though a lot of guys won’t take the help, deep down, they appreciate it.”

Resources

Andrew Reiner just shared how men can learn emotional transparency. Which part of the episode was the most helpful? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.

Did you like this interview? Subscribe to this podcast to discover how to live a life full of love, success, and happiness!

Wishing you all the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

What Men Secretly Want: Emotional Intimacy

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast

Spread the Love Happiness & Success

Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

iTunes

Stitcher

Spotify

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Let's  Talk

 

 

Real Help, To Move You Forward

 

Everyone experiences challenges, but only some people recognize these moments as opportunities for growth and positive change.

 

 

Working with an expert therapist or life coach can help you understand yourself more deeply, get a fresh perspective, grow as a person, and become empowered to create positive change in yourself, your relationships and your life.

 

 

Start your journey of growth today by scheduling a free consultation.

What Men Secretly Want — Emotional Intimacy: Podcast Transcript

.
Access Episode Transcript

What Men Secretly Want: Emotional Intimacy

With Andrew Reiner

 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.

That’s a beautiful song called “Nowhere To Hide” by the singer-songwriter, Daniel Robinson. I chose it for us today because it is an excellent example of a man being incredibly emotionally transparent, and honest, and vulnerable. And that is what we’re talking about today on the podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m a licensed psychologist. I am a licensed—no wait—board certified life coach. 

And I mentioned that as the stepping stone to say, I have many years of experience in working with couples, and individuals around matters of the heart, personal growth, helping people figure out what they want, figuring out how to be more connected, and have happier, more satisfying relationships. And I don’t know that I have ever had a single client who was either a man or in a relationship with a man where it wasn’t necessary to talk about some point. The fact that men are just as emotionally alive as women are. 

Men have a very rich and real inner life, and they crave emotional intimacy and connection, and to be known, and understood, and accepted, and loved on a very deep level, just the same way that women do. And fascinatingly, but understandably, that idea is not immediately apparent to a lot of people. That is something that we need to cultivate together in our work in either a couples counselling or individual coaching to help men, and the people who love men really develop the kind of healthy satisfying relationships, and even life that they want and deserve. 

Too often, men starting as very, very young boys, toddlers are socialized out of having feelings of being vulnerable, of having emotional needs or attachment needs. And so that part of themselves can get pushed away. In a recent podcast, we talked at length about shadow sides, and this is kind of an extension of that topic, but specifically around what happens to men as a result of that kind of socialization and how it’s so necessary to help men get reconnected with how they really feel on a deep level in order to help have more satisfying relationships, and also just more connected to themselves so that they really can use all of their emotional guidance as well as their ideas about who they are and what they need to be happy. 

And I am so incredibly thrilled today to be speaking to a real expert on this subject. My guest today is Andrew Reiner. You may have seen his work recently in the New York Times. He is the author of such provocatively titled articles as It’s Not Only Women Who Want More Intimacy in Relationships. He has another amazing article about teaching men how to be emotionally honest. And he is the author of a new book called Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency. 

And in addition to that, he is a professor at Towson University. He teaches writing, as well as men’s issues. His work has been featured all over the place, the Chicago Tribune and PR the CBC, and he’s here today to share his wisdom and insights with us. So, Andrew, thank you so much for coming here today to speak with me and my listeners about the emotional life of men.

 

Andrew Reiner: I’m really grateful for the invitation to be on your podcast. I really appreciate the fact that so much of the focus of the work you do is on intimacy because it’s such an important part of my own life.

 

Dr. Lisa: Mine as well, and I so appreciate you. You bringing this up and sharing lessons, and you know what, maybe we can just jump right in and talk a little bit more about that because one of my first questions for you, if it’s okay to ask, was really to learn a little bit more around, where the idea and kind of drive to write this book came from? Because I got the sense that it was very much related to a personal journey, and I’m curious to know what that is if it’s okay. 

 

Andrew: Oh, of course. Yeah, of course. So, but as I said, I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be on here and really honored. So thank you.

 

Dr. Lisa: Thank you.

 

Andrew: You’re welcome. So my own journey has been, yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s been extremely personal. And really, it started for me, unfortunately, with well as it does in situations like this very often with kind of a—with a trauma. And so, when I was about seven or eight years old, I got into a really brutal fistfight with a neighborhood kid. And, it was just, it was unlike anything in our neighborhood that kids had ever seen before, and it really became a spectacle. Typically, in our neighborhood, we, it was the kind of neighborhood where fights ended, after a couple minutes, you got the animosity out of your system, the frustration, and you went back to playing together. 

 

This was a brutal, brutal fight. I remember a lot of the details of this fight because it was traumatizing. We were both really young. And he just, even when I would get up to run away from the fight, he would track me down, and he would just keep hitting me. So, I was just, I mean, it was just a bludgeoning fight, not the kind of fight you typically expect seven and eight-year-old boys or kids do it, adore. So what happened was, that alone was hard enough. 

 

But what happened was, later in the afternoon, I got home, and I heard my brother, my oldest brother was talking to my mother about this fight that everybody in the neighborhood was talking about it. And so I expected my brother, five years older than me, who I guess would have been 12 or 13, at the time, to be talking about, in some shape, or form, how he was going to support me in this—stick up for me, whatever it was, he was telling my mother what a coward I was, and what a black sheep in the family I was, and well I was basically, a loser, and all these things. 

 

And my mother really didn’t say anything. And that was the beginning of what became basically a smear campaign. By my brother for decades, in my family after that, I was always considered, he always made a point of shaming me as much as he could about being a coward, and it all started with this fight.

 

Dr. Lisa: That’s terrible, I’m just like personally, I am so sorry that you live through that because that’s awful, and especially in your family. I mean, that, of all the places.

 

Andrew: Yeah, well, thank you. I appreciate that. So, but the point of it was—was that that began a campaign for me. And of course, I didn’t know it at the time. But first, it began with, as so often happens with boys and men finding ways to kind of, to overcome, and to redeem yourself from the shame. And so it often happens, boys and young men, because of the lack of awareness, look for ways to prove themselves in ways that other boys and men are going to find acceptable. So for me, that was—I leaned into fighting. I fought constantly, as a young boy after that. Got into lots of fights. 

 

And I didn’t realize it, but I was basically trying to redeem myself. And at some point, I think it was in sixth grade, I just stopped. I just realized it became really clear to me that this idea of being in fistfights was, even though I was also getting hurt,  it was painful to me to be hurting other kids, other boys over such really trivial things. And it was a huge wake-up call. I mean, I actually remember this specific fight, and it was in sixth grade. And so, after that, my awareness, once I stopped fighting, everything just kind of shifted. And so because of that, I was no longer trying to prove myself through fighting. There was just kind of an awareness where I suddenly became, in junior high, really cognizant of the ways that boys just really brutalize each other.

 

Dr. Lisa: Okay, but can we just pause for one second? I mean, that just the fact that you are such a self-aware 12-year-old and also like, and I just have to ask, so there were clearly all these messages coming at you from your brother, and other societal factors around, what it meant to be a male, and all of these kind of pressures to be fighting, and aggressive. But yet you had all this empathy and the self-awareness around, “I don’t want to hurt people,” and I’m getting cultural messages that don’t feel congruent for me. I’m just like, amazed as a therapist, I have to tell you, like…

 

Andrew: Sure.

 

Dr. Lisa: …where did that come from? At that age, it’s amazing.

 

Andrew: Well, I mean, as you know, as a therapist, what often happens with people who have endured traumas at a young age, is that there’s this kind of part and parcel with that is there’s an awareness, a consciousness where it’s raising, that occurs, and you can’t really qualify it, you can’t, I’m sorry, you can’t quantify it, and it just kind of—it occurs. And what often happens with boys and men is it goes one of two ways. The most common way is that boys and boys will start to, if there is any kind of consciousness-raising, they’ll often suppress that. And they’ll say, “Well, the path of least resistance is being accepted.” And so the way to do that is to swallow back the things that other boys and men are telling me—are getting in the way for me to have my man card stamped. The other way that it can go is you go the path that I took. And you kind of, for me, it was very much still fighting, even though I wasn’t getting into fistfights anymore, it was still holding on to a fierceness, a sense of kind of like that, the fear of feeling of like I still want to be a warrior, but I’m going to put everything I have into it to fight against this. So that’s really what was going on. 

 

Dr. Lisa: That’s amazing.

 

Andrew: That’s what was going on. I refused. It was just a matter of refusing to back down. And I carry that with me well into adulthood, refusing to back down and also starting to pick apart the things about masculine identity that I saw were just hurting and harming other boys. It wasn’t just me. I mean, I was just sitting back in junior high, just watching, and just taking note of all this, and just thinking I’ve got to find other ways to push back against this. And so that consciousness after I stopped physically fighting, really started to kind of take off, and it really just burgeoned in junior high. And it wasn’t something that I was writing about. It wasn’t something I was talking about; but it was something I was observing. And I was just trying to figure out ways that I could kind of push back against it.

 

Dr. Lisa: Thank you. I mean, one thing that comes up, as I’m sure you can imagine, over and over again, is this—men who have not been exposed to those ideas, or have had a champion saying, wait, there’s more, it doesn’t have to be this way, and they don’t know that there are options, and so they really kind of fold and acquiesce to these messages about it’s not okay to have emotions—it’s certainly not okay to have vulnerable emotions. The only acceptable emotions there are for a man is happiness and anger. And what this creates is such a constriction that it becomes very difficult to have the emotional intelligence skills that are necessary to have high-quality relationships later in life. 

 

And it’s incredibly damaging on so many levels, both relationally but also in terms of their own psyche. And just to think that you have been a champion for changing this is hats off to you. I mean, I can only imagine how many people you must have come into contact with over the years in your various roles as a teacher and as a writer who have heard this different message and maybe taking it on board—men who have taken it on board as a kind of counter to this toxic masculinity narrative that takes so many good, nice, decent men down.

 

Andrew: It does. Yeah, it does. And it’s—what often happens is, what I was doing was very much typical for a lot of boys and men, so for me, it was finding outlets for my emotional life through girls and then eventually women, right? I’m sure you see that a lot in your own practices. It’s leaning into the place where you can feel safe with your emotional life, and that was in the research in my book, I mean, just endlessly, boys in high school, talking about the friendships they have with girls. Not surprisingly, because those are the places where they have that safe space. 

 

And a lot of men, of course, as you probably know, I’m sure they take that into adulthood. And you can see that the writing on the wall, the problems with that is that it becomes, men learn to still look at their emotional lives, and their emotional awareness is something as being feminine. And so the feminine is the safe place that they can put that into, we are very much at a place, and this is more true. I think with younger men today, where there is a reckoning, where these younger men are trying to find ways to reconnect, or I should say, connect with boys with young men, and they’re trying to push back against that. We’re not there yet. I mean, we’re definitely not there yet. But they are the ones who really kind of leading the charge with that. 

 

When I sat in men’s groups throughout my research, often it was the younger men that were leading the charge, and then you might have the older men, who eventually, after a lot of his inner resistance, would start to let their guard down, because they felt like, “Okay, so these guys are making it safe, where I can do this.” 

 

And one of the best examples of that was in a prison up in Massachusetts, and that was a really great experience because there were these younger inmates, younger men sitting in this giant circle in this program called Jericho Circle Project. And they were the ones that were really kind of, you could just tell they were really setting the tone. And they were the ones who are learning, they were still learning, but didn’t come easily to them, but they were more willing to see the value in this process. And then the older men would follow suit.

 

Dr. Lisa: That’s a need. The older men learning from the younger ones and thinking about just generational differences, and I just, had a thought that probably the women’s movement, and feminism and so many of the other social justice movements that have become stronger over the last few decades are now finally able to go back into the fire and maybe assist the men who came of age prior to some of those messages and who maybe hadn’t had the benefit of those ideas and those kinds of nurturing relationships prior to now. That’s amazing that… 

 

Andrew: Yeah.

 

Dr. Lisa: … that’s happening.

 

Andrew: It is, and you bring up an interesting point about that, Lisa, because one of the things that came up in the research—it was actually a bit counter to that—there are women and I found it’s a lot of older women. When I say older, I mean, more middle-aged and older, who I think are showing a lot more empathy, and encouraging men to kind of create the space, actually, and I find this in the course I teach at the university where I teach, called “The Changing Face of Masculinity.” 

 

A lot of younger women really resist and really aren’t crazy about the idea of men because they feel like, “Here are men trying to suck the oxygen out of the conversation again, here are men saying” or “Oh, we need a safe space to talk.” And “Here are men trying to say that we are the ones who need a little bit more empathy and a little bit more understanding.” And understandably, a lot of them are very resistant to this, and they get—some of them get just downright indignant. And that’s it’s something that it’s an interesting dynamic, it’s that what’s happening today, I think, with younger, a lot of younger feminists is that it’s kind of a turf war for them. And you see this on college campuses, where there have been men’s groups.

 

Dr. Lisa: That’s interesting. I didn’t know that.

 

Andrew: There’s been a lot of resistance to, for instance, when there’ve been a few groups, young men who have gone to like this, ESGA, the student governments and said, we’d like to be funded to have a safe space too, and they’ve met with a lot of resistance. There was a—what school is it? I can’t remember which it was, one university, I think it was University of Massachusetts and in the States, and there was a school in Canada, in British Columbia, where the young men who were trying to form this met with a lot of resistance from, unfortunately, a lot of female faculty members and from a lot of younger feminists. 

 

So it’s a little more complex than that, it’s, of course we know that when you teach men and encourage men to get in touch with their emotions beyond the happiness and the anger, we know that only good, generative emotions and changes in the way that they think and see the world better, arise from that. And then, of course, all women and girls are going to benefit from that, too. But we’re not there yet where I feel like we’re really not there yet in the conversation, to be honest.

 

Dr. Lisa: Well, and this is really interesting, and something that I had honestly not considered until speaking with you about it. But, and I don’t know if this is the conclusion that you came to, but it’s almost like, this group of men, who, by many standards have all of this privilege that they have been exercising for millennia and using that sometimes unfair ways that now there’s this sort of push back against men as having the opportunity to develop themselves in the same way. 

 

Like, you have all of this privilege, you don’t deserve to have this kind of safe space, you don’t need it in the same way that we do, which is maybe unintentionally creating a consequence of not having the type of growth environment that would allow men to develop the kind of empathy, and self-awareness, that is the antidote to that unconscious privilege. Is that kind of the gist of it? Or did you just discover something else?

 

Andrew: No, I think, Lisa, I think you really summed it up very well. It’s the idea that, as you said, for millennia, men have had the privilege, oh my God, I mean, historically, when have they not? Right? And then all of a sudden, that we’re in this new kind of paradigm, there’s this new epoch that we’re in. And so, and I completely understand a lot of the frustration, and the anger, and the resentment. 

 

But then, the other part of that is that if we want men to change, if we want boys and young men and even middle-aged men to potentially had that changed, all the privilege that they’ve had so far has not really encouraged or fostered a healthy masculinity, that’s the thing. That’s the crux of it. Everything that they’ve had so far has been ways of wearing and embracing power, that hasn’t always been on to use that word, again, generative, in terms of benefiting everybody else. It’s been a very one-dimensional approach to power. So, all of that privilege doesn’t really mean anything for these guys, who many of them are clueless about their deeper emotional lives. 

 

And so it’s true, absolutely, absolutely men have completely controlled and embraced all the privilege. And now that they suddenly are seeing the ascent more of girls and women, they’re not understanding why. And I think to some extent, some of the younger women aren’t really understand why that, all that privilege, really didn’t mean anything in terms of them becoming the men we want and need them to be. If they still were looking at their privilege in a way that was very one dimensional, and that wasn’t really emotionally healthy for everyone, including themselves.

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah.

 

Andrew: So that where that disconnect, I think, is coming in.

 

Dr. Lisa: No, that’s good, going back to that idea that racism, sexism really does impact everyone whether or not they know it. And it’s interesting to hear you talk about that, but the privilege sort of, like, was a trap in some ways. As we’re talking, though, I’m also realizing that you and I just slid so naturally into like this fascinating conversation.

 

Andrew: Yeah.

 

Dr. Lisa: Probably, it would be worth going back a little bit just to also provide an overview of your work and of your research. And so you were talking about how, from a young age, you kind of developed this the sense of mission and purpose around pushing back of some of these cultural forces related to what it means to be a man, and so you have a book coming out, quick plug, Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency is coming out. 

 

And can you talk a little bit about some of the questions that you had in mind, some of the topics that you wanted to write about? And you mentioned several times, like your research process, and I’m so curious to know more about what specifically you were exploring and what you learned through that research. And of course, this will be very high-level compared to the depth and nuance that you go to in your book, but what was the high-level story of your research in the process?

 

Andrew: Yeah, sure. No, great question. So, let me start off with some of the questions, some of the questions because I, like, I can tell you’re a fan of questions.

 

Dr. Lisa: I am such a nerd, card-carrying, yes. So I love the questions.

 

Andrew: Absolutely. That’s how we learn; we learn through curiosity. Right? Okay, so some of the questions for me were, of course, the big one, what does it mean to be a man? Right? What does it mean to be a man anymore, when we’re trapped? When some of us are really doing hard work to really kind of push back against that? What is it? When so, what does it mean to be a man? And if we’re trying to change that script, what are the parameters? Does that mean that there are no parameters? Even if we could—best case scenario, change that script? Are there still parameters? Or should they be taken off? Right? Should we just say that, just like that, we don’t say be a real woman, right? Thank God, we don’t, I mean, just like, we don’t say that, even if we take away that limiting script, of what it means to “be a real man,” where do we go from there? What does that look like? 

 

And so do we still have to have limitations, because one of the things I discovered throughout my research with both men and women—not just with boys, and men—but men, and women, and girls, too, is that the vast minority of people really feel that completely taking away all those constraints of masculinity that we’re familiar with—and comfortable with—by the way, completely, taking those away, still leaves a lot of people and a lot of very progressive-minded people a little bit uncomfortable. 

 

And so, because one of the things I would hear, for instance, when I would interview some young women at the college level, for instance, was, I want guys to be able to experience more ranges of their emotion, guys shouldn’t be stuck with just, and one of the thing that they always said was always anger. And then it’s okay, so what does it look like? How do you feel if a guy gets really weepy in front of you? 

 

And I did this, one of the things I did was I did kind of a survey in a lot of the classes I taught semester in, semester out. And it came down to about 90 or 92% of them said, “That they were very uncomfortable with guys crying in front of them.” Ranging from “it just didn’t seem right” to “they just didn’t know how to respond.” And so, of course, that’s just not crying, right? Crying is just the window of vulnerability. It’s just a manifestation of that. And so that’s still something that a lot of women are so uncomfortable with. 

 

And I mean, this is something that my wife and I, I’ve had to work with her on, in our relationship. Because there have been a lot of times, I could very clearly tell she wasn’t comfortable with my own vulnerability. So it’s something that I think that’s a good example of ways that we’re—that we’re not completely there yet. To say that, “No, sorry, there still are some expectations that were that we still have for you”—even if you can, for instance, be more entitled to like—wrong word they’re entitled—but even if we’re going to give you access and encourage you to to get access to the deeper range of your emotions, there are still thresholds that we haven’t really crossed yet. There still are some limitations. 

 

Dr. Lisa: So interesting, but again, that like that women to have received these messages about who men should be, what’s okay, what’s not okay, that are really also limiting the depth, and the quality of their relationships in heterosexual relationships. It’s so fascinating because, especially as a couples counselor, I have so many women saying, but I just want to feel more emotionally connected—but don’t cry. Don’t like, actually show how you feel.

 

Andrew: Right. I hate to plug a piece of this…But I just did this piece to New York Times, and it was about…

 

Dr. Lisa: Yes.

 

Andrew: …men, there are men out there.

 

Dr. Lisa: My husband is one of them.

 

Andrew: There you go, who want more emotional intimacy, and one of the things that other researchers have found, and I mentioned this in the piece, and is that a lot of women do say, yeah I want this from you because they haven’t gotten at all that kind of emotional connection, that intimacy that they want, and what a lot of the research has shown, and then I even spoke anecdotally, to a therapist who works a lot with men, and he echoed the same thing, he said, “A lot of my male clients, I get them to the point where they will finally open up with their female romantic partners,” and then often it’s met with the women appreciated first, but then if the men keep going there, it’s, “Wow, I didn’t realize you were this needy.” So it’s and so that kind of thing—that’s what I think a lot of men are up against, and there’s been other research on that speaks to this as well. 

 

Brené Brown comes to mind in her book, Daring Greatly, right, the great Brené Brown. And she has a great passage about that, about how women are constantly begging men to be more open to create this intimacy with me. And then when men really do cross that threshold and give them—feel safe, a lot of women recoil. And so that’s what—I think that that is to give you an example, with the research I found, it really does speak to that. It’s the idea that there are still ways that we still are uncomfortable with men redefining what this healthy masculinity looks like. I’m not saying it always. But I’m saying there still are some ways that we’re still kind of holding each other back.

 

Dr. Lisa: But what a wonderful question, though, to be posing to women to say, “How do you react when your male partner expresses these vulnerable feelings to you?” Because that might be a point of self-awareness and growth around if I do want more emotional intimacy in my relationship, what am I doing to support it on the other side? 

 

And I have to ask, just to have balance here, has your research extended to same-sex couples, like I’m wondering around male couples? Were there two male partners, are these dynamics still in place? Or does it feel almost more emotionally safe, potentially, for males who have done this type of growth work? I guess this is a very awkward way of trying to frame the question that should be much easier, but I’m wondering if it feels emotionally safer for men to be partnered with a man when it comes to these expressions of emotional vulnerability? Or is it sort of the same kind of dynamic that happens no matter if it’s heterosexual or homosexual relationship? 

 

Andrew: Yeah, no, that’s a great question. I haven’t done as much extensive research in gay relationships. But when I would speak with gay men, a lot of them did. And just in anecdotally, in conversations I was having with gay friends, there still are, for a lot of gay men, there’s still, I should say, there still is a lot of resistance, in terms of that feeling of wanting to open up, of wanting to feel really safe. In fact, it’s interesting, in some ways I feel this way, and I think it’s true, I think it’s true for hetero men, and for gay men, I feel like we have actually kind of, I don’t know if evolved is the right word. But I feel like we have, in many ways, the masculinity that we have right now, or what some of us are really working to kind of unravel, is more hyper-masculine than it was in the past. 

 

Anybody who’s lived through the 70s in the 80s would know that the kind of progress that was being made, as the women’s movement was really kind of hitting its stride with that second wave of feminism. There was a lot more encouragement for a different kind of masculinity with boys and men. And so there was kind of a much more sensitive kind of masculinity. That was much more—was becoming more acceptable then.

 

Dr. Lisa: The encounter groups of the 1970s. And yes, like hairy men hugging each other, I get

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Andrew: But it’s interesting, if you look at for instance, if you listen to music from the 70s, if you watch TV shows, and watch movies from the 70s, I’ve kind of gone back, and just to kind of immerse myself in some of that stuff is like guys is different. And today, for younger men, especially, there’s this real kind of polarity that they’re trying to straddle, where on the one hand there’s huge degrees of body dysmorphia, with younger men, huge degrees of and it’s all—I, in the book, I even say it’s caricature-ish, it’s cartoonish, because all the guys, and this is true of a lot of gay men too. 

 

This is really inflated, buffed upper bodies. And, I mean, they’re, it’s like, that’s really kind of the norm. It’s the limitations that women have had for God knows how many hundreds of thousands of years with body image. And this is really the first time that you’ve got men really kind of succumbing to this one dimensional image of what they should look like, as men. And so that’s an example of, but and, then you look at, like, the popular culture they’re consuming. I mean, there’s still a lot of hyper-masculinity, for instance, in rap. You look at the action hero movies that are really, really big with younger guys. They are completely one-dimensional.

 

Dr. Lisa: No crying. 

 

Andrew: That’s right. The only place that you see any really, kind of, nuance in the heroes, in these action movies, is there’s a little bit of, kind of, complexity in their morality, and the morality they’re wrestling with. But when you look at the messages these guys send, they’re swaggering, they’re cocksure, they’ve got these powers that other guys would love to have. They don’t second guess themselves. They’re not really emotionally. You rarely see any kind of outpouring of anything other than anger from revenge or constantly in combative action. I mean, it’s real; it’s very hyper-masculine. You said the kinds of things when you asked about questions. 

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. 

 

Andrew: I wanted to ask guys, well, on the one hand, you say that you do once in a while, I’d like to talk to a male friend, although most of them would talk to girls. But on the other hand, how do you kind of how do you reckon that idea with wanting to kind of change that with feeling beholden to this kind of action hero? You know, thos?

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah.

 

Andrew: So these are the kind of things the nuanced kind of thing, just because I, one of the things I was at the outset that I was really—it was very important to me, is that I not cover all the terrain, the kind of same old, same old terrain that a lot of books have already come. I mean, even if this was ten years ago, I would have felt the exact same way. I absolutely, positively wanted to get to the crux and the contradictions, and the complexity of what this masculinity thing is today. 

 

And so I also wanted to look at this idea of fatherhood for some men—what does it mean to be a father? Because that ties in with the idea of, what does it mean to be a man today? And I feel like these are conversations that do need to be talked about. Because it’s not just all, it’s not just theory? I don’t even get into theory in the book. It’s all about questions that a lot of us wrestle with. They keep us awake at night, that stresses us out, that makes us feel uncomfortable. I wanted to really lean into the kinds of questions and the kinds of issues that we wrestle with these boys and men that really affect all of us.

 

Dr. Lisa: Well, let’s talk about that part for a second. And this is just so interesting. And you bring up that there’s this like, hyper-masculine ethos that is more present in the culture in recent years that I also hadn’t thought of before, which is very interesting. And I could see that, and you say that there is this sort of internal struggle in many men and boys around how to be connected, be whole and also sort of meet the overt or covert expectations, right? That are being given to them about, who they should be. I’m curious to know how you have seen this impact men and boys in terms of their relationships, in terms of their personal development. I mean, you mentioned body dysmorphia, which is a huge thing. But like, particularly when it comes to relationships, how does this show up? For men and boys.

 

Andrew: So a lot of them are still—they—initially when I would talk with them, a lot of them would say, and this was true for boys in high school, this is true for young men, even in the men’s groups, a lot of them would say things like, “Well I do have a friend that I can talk with, I do have a friend that I can tell things to,” and almost always the kinds of things that they were sharing, were almost always things that invited and led to advice. 

 

And so, they were looking for, they were very solution still, as a lot of guys are as they think they need to be very solution-based. And so what they were always looking for were practical steps. They were looking for basically, somebody that to basically fill the role of what we tend to think of in a very stupid, stereotypical way is kind of like a father they were looking for another father. And this was true for a lot of high school-aged guys I spoke with, and it was even true for guys who are a little bit older and men’s groups. And so they might share that, for instance, “Oh I really cared about this girl.” And that’s great that they would even share that with another guy. And then instead of it really getting to the point where there would be this kind of support, what it became was, “What should I do?” And the other guy being all too happy to step in to say, “This is what I think you need to do.” 

 

And this was true for guys even in—even sometimes in the men’s groups, and what was lacking so often was exactly what they still would do, when they would be with girls who are friends, which is saying, “I feel awful”, and wanting that other person, in this case, who is always a female, to say things like, “It’s okay, or “It’s gonna be okay,” or basically the metaphorical equivalent of crying on their shoulder. And the guys were not doing that. They were still looking for practical ways to find solutions to the problems even, they would even look for ways in the emotional relationship ends, they were still looking for solutions, but they weren’t giving each other the emotional support that they really need. And a lot of it, Oh, go ahead.

 

Dr. Lisa: I was going to say it sounds like in there that that is what they really not just needed, but also wanted, and we’re kind of craving was just that that safe place to just be, without having their feelings, “fixed,” that it was okay for them, is that it?

 

Andrew: Yeah, to lapse into that old dynamic of guys feeling like they’ve got to be the fixers all the time, completely fits into that. And it’s the idea that there’s a really deep subtext here, Lisa. And the subtext beneath a lot of this dynamic is that when boys and men are in the company of other boys and men, excuse me, that is not a place where they’re supposed to be, the full degree of their humanity is supposed to be present, and it’s supposed to be encouraged and supported. 

 

That’s the subtext; it’s the idea that you’ve got to embrace the other parts of your humanity and save it when you can be with a female because that’s the domain of the—that still is the domain of the female—the feminine is emotional literacy. It’s having the depths of your humanity embraced and accepted. And so, that’s really the deeper subtext there. 

 

And there’s so much there in terms of the way guys are taught to relate to each other at a very young age. One of the things that I’ve always—one of the things I wanted to explore, you asked, what I would explore at the outset, in the book? One of the many things was the role of competition because we don’t talk about that a lot in this culture. 

 

We are such a hyper-competitive culture. And the way that boys and men are taught to relate to each other at very young age centers around different levels of different ways of being in competition with each other. And that and so, a lot of the points of an interview would say, “Well, no, here’s a good example of us not being competitive because we help each other.” And it’s a, you do, you do give each other practical advice, but it’s about ways of still distancing that from your deeper emotional life.

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah.

 

Andrew: If you could take away that other layer, the fear that you’re going to be judged, which is a form of competition. If you could take away that fear of being judged, and rejected, all speaks to forms of competition, then we’re getting somewhere.

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, what a powerful message that even in cooperative behaviors, that the goal is still some variation of winning, which means sort of coming out victorious, as opposed to leaning in to the reality that they’re experiencing and figuring out how to understand that and even be okay with that. 

 

Andrew: Absolutely.

 

Dr. Lisa: That’s also wonderful.

 

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. That really, yeah, that was really something competition that I really wanted to get into. Because it’s not something that there’s been a lot of, there’s been a lot written or talked about, and even when I kind of pushed this to some editors, I’ve worked with the different publications, they’ve been kind of cool in the idea because there’s this real resistance in our culture, to question or challenge, the idea that maybe the form of competition we have is really not that healthy?

 

Dr. Lisa: Uh-huh. 

 

Andrew: I mean, the only time we really ever start to question, the way that we compete in this culture, is when things get too far too fast. We look for instances at levels of like toxic competition in sports, for instance, and we’ll look at the ways that boys and men as examples, in certain kinds of sports, like NFL football, sometimes NHL hockey, or maybe we’ll look at guys who are in high school. And I read about this in the book a lot about the kind of toxicity of the culture of, I’m sorry, I’m like drawing a blank here. But it’s within sports of hazing, within… 

 

Dr. Lisa: Oh, yeah, I can totally see.

 

Andrew: So much of that is rural sexual assault, and at the high school age, and so until it gets that bad, it gets really off the rails, we don’t question the ways that we compete. So much about the messages about how we compete is now not about winning as much as it is about dominating. When you take it to that next level, you ratchet it up to dominating—that invites a lot of really toxic behavior. 

 

Dr. Lisa: Oh, yeah. 

 

Andrew: And so this is the kind of thing that the more that we kind of lean towards a dominating culture. It’s hard to, kind of, challenge that, unless we can say, “Oh, yeah, well, Sure. Absolutely. We’re against the sexual assault, hazing.” No, we’re against guys in football hitting each other really hard just to like take the other player to the game. Sure, we’re against that. But when we look at this in a relational level and the ways that we relate to each other, that ethos is still, to some extent going to influence the way that we relate to each other. And so it makes it even harder for guys, when they’re kind of raised in this culture of dominating, which is pretty much very much part of our zeitgeist now. 

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. 

 

Andrew: How could that not trickle into the way that you see yourself as a guy in the way that you can relate?

 

Dr. Lisa: Yes, in your intimate relationships… 

 

Andrew: Yeah.

 

Dr. Lisa: …in your parenting relationships… 

 

Andrew: Absolutely.

 

Dr. Lisa: …in your work relationships. So there is so much here, and clearly, you’ve just spent so much very thoughtful and productive time and energy into developing these ideas. And so I would encourage everyone to read Andrew Reiner’s book, which is Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency

 

And also, check out his piece in The New York Times provocatively entitled, It’s Not Only Women Who Want More Intimacy in Relationships. So there’s a couple of resources where you can dive deep into Andrew’s ideas. But I’m also wondering, and I hope this isn’t too much putting you on the spot. But in the few minutes that we have left, would you mind sharing a couple of ideas with my listeners around if you want to, either as a man develop the kinds of—like not just emotional awareness, but self-compassion, we’re talking about. What are some first steps might you do with that? 

 

And for the partners of men, what are some ways that you can shift your thinking or way of interacting that kind of see and value the emotional life of men that may too often go unseen or unmet in a relationship? I know those are two giant things. We could probably talk for many hours about that.

 

Andrew: Yeah. I know.

 

Dr. Lisa: Places for people to be doing that kind of growth work in addition, of course, reading your article in your book.

 

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the things that guys can do out there and out in the world, in their lives, is I think it would go a long way if men could learn to reach out in really small ways to other men. That is something that we do not encourage in this culture. Of course, men do that. Men may do that with their friends, with their intimates. But it doesn’t mean you’ve got to necessarily go up and hug a strange guy. But it means, for instance, if you’re in a grocery store, and you see a guy accidentally knock over a bunch of cans… 

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah.

 

Andrew: …go over and say, “Hey can I give you a hand?” 

 

Dr. Lisa: Uh-huh.

 

Andrew: That’s not the kind of the guy—most guys will probably say, “No, I got it, I got it, I don’t need help with this.” If you see a guy drop something, if you see a guy with his arms full coming out of the liquor store, the beer or wine store hold the door open. And it’s true that a lot of guys who are uncomfortable with their own masculine identity would probably feel comfortable for that. But it’s a way of kind of doing a very kind of harmless, very un-invasive thing, where you can start to feel like, you’re reaching out to other guys in ways that are, again, very un-invasive. But you’re taking small but really powerful steps. 

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. I see you, yeah.

 

Andrew: That’s right, where you can show, where you can practice, really experiment, practice ways to reaching out to other guys in ways that are small, but helpful. And I think, for a lot of guys, that is no small thing—holding open just a door for a guy. And there are some guys who are, have their own insecurities about their masculine identity. And they may say, “Dude, I can get my own door.” But it’s also about just doing this, as it’s a way of habituating and finding ways, to feel comfortable with reaching out to other guys. 

 

If you see a guy upset, just walk by to say, “Hey, you, okay? Is there anything? Anything I can do? Are you doing okay, man?” Or just something like that. Because the thing that we often forget very conveniently, because it’s a lot harder to do things like that. The thing that we often forget is that even though a lot of guys won’t take the help, deep down, they appreciate it. 

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. 

 

Andrew: Everybody does. Everybody appreciates being cared for, especially by strangers; knowing that you—somebody else has your back out there is a really powerful thing to be out in public. And to know that even though you may not allow yourself to be helped, knowing that somebody else was there, it feels really, really powerful. 

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. 

 

Andrew: In terms of relationships, a lot of men can never practice assertive listening enough, really listening. And something, I think a lot of men a lot of us can really benefit from, myself included, is, as we are listening when we can tell if it’s something that, for instance, our partner, we can tell, it’s really important to them, is mirroring back and saying, “Okay, so what I think I hear you saying is this,” when it’s something, really, you can tell that it’s important to them. It doesn’t matter whether we think it’s important. It’s about listening and saying, “Okay, I can tell this matters to you so let me make sure I’ve got it right. This is what I think I hear you saying.” That small thing, I think, in terms of creating intimacy, is a door-opener. 

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. It really is. 

 

Andrew: It’s only going to help our relationships.

 

Dr. Lisa: And to piggyback on those ideas, I’m also going to remind all women within the sound of my voice that men are actually just as emotional, and in need of love and connection, and affection as you are, and that I think some women buy into this myth that men somehow feel differently or care differently, and that is not at all true. Many men have been socialized away from some of this, but it’s all still there. And I think that women have a responsibility to remember that, and see that, and attend to it just in the same way that they would like to be attended to.

 

Andrew: Absolutely. That’s a great point, Lisa, because, in terms of that, one of the things I mentioned in that article with, about men and intimacy is that all men struggle differently than women do. For instance, in relationships and when relationships end the difference that women work to have support networks so that they can have these emotional needs back. And men don’t do that, and they isolate themselves. 

 

And so even though guys will cook, give us this very convincing front that a lot of times it’s very convenient because it makes it easy for us to say, “Okay, great, you take care of it.” And they’ll say, “I’m okay, I’ve got this,”—they don’t. They don’t because most men do not really have the chops and the network and the support networks they need to really kind of navigate the ups and downs of their most—of their relational lives.

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, that’s another great reminder, and because a lot of my work involves like breakup recovery, and divorce recovery, and that’s absolutely true is that men don’t have those support networks, and particularly when their primary person, that relationship ends, they can feel incredibly alone, and it is difficult to cultivate those kinds of supportive relationships with other men. I’ll also just add as a little tip: there are such things as men’s groups and supportive, kind of, therapeutic groups that are, by for, and about exactly that. And so that that may be another resource to look into potentially if you find yourself in that situation.

 

Andrew: You’re right. It’s a wonderful resource, and men’s groups are a burgeoning movement that is starting to get some traction, finally, and there are only a good things for men.

 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Such a fascinating conversation. I feel like we could just talk for hours and hours, but so instead, I’m just going to read your book again.

 

Andrew: Good. Thank you.

 

Dr. Lisa: The book is called Better Boys—wait, hold on, I lost it—Better boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency. And if my listeners wanted to find out more about you or your work or find the book, where should they go? Andrew?

 

Andrew: Actually, if you google me, “Andrew Reiner with New York Times,” there’s about six or seven articles about healthy masculinity. And I’ve got another one actually coming up about, the next one I’m doing for them, which is going to run I think in late November, is going to be on this topic we’ve been talking about, about the need for men. In addition to things like men’s groups, men need this deep in their friendships, deep emotional support networks; they need to learn to create.

 

Dr. Lisa: I love it.

 

Andrew: But that you could easily find just Google Andrew Reiner.

 

Dr. Lisa: Andrew Reiner, New York Times and I’ll be on the lookout.

 

Andrew: That would be, and hopefully in the next couple of weeks, my website at some point soon.

 

Dr. Lisa: Stay in touch with me. I’ll be sure to put a link to it and the podcast.

 

Andrew: Thank you. So I’ve really enjoyed this. Thank you so much.

 

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Marriage Counseling For Couples On the Brink of Divorce

Discernment Counseling: Why the type of marriage counseling you've never heard of of is the only one that can save a marriage on the brink of divorce.

Sometimes marriage counseling fails. Why? Generally, it's because one of the partners is no longer committed to the relationship or, more often, if they're still committed in theory, they're not committed enough to do the actual work required to repair the relationship. Inexperienced marriage counselors assume that when a couple seeks help, they want the relationship to work. Couples therapists who practice discernment counseling understand that is not always the case.

What I know from years of experience as a Denver marriage counselor and online couples therapist is that many couples come in to couples counseling with “mixed agendas.” This means that one person really wants the relationship to work, and the other person is feeling ambivalent. Many times these couples are on the brink of divorce. 

At these moments, it's too late for marriage counseling. But even at this point, discernment counseling can still help save your relationship.

What is Discernment Counseling?

When couples get past a certain point, it's too late for couples therapy or conventional marriage counseling. They may say they want marriage counseling, but on the inside, they are too angry or have lost their hope. Wise, experienced marriage counselors use a type of marriage counseling called “discernment counseling” to get clarity about what's really going on before plunging ahead into misguided, conventional marriage counseling.

Through discernment counseling, a good couples counselor can help partners get clarity about their commitment and motivation for change. Once that is in place, then marriage counseling can be successful. Without the necessary prerequisite of discernment counseling, marriage counseling for couples on the brink of divorce can easily fail.

Unfortunately, discernment counseling is not widely used among marriage counselors. Many have never even heard about it. For example, here at Growing Self we work with only the highest caliber, most effective marriage counselors, and most of them have never had discernment counseling training before starting with us. (We get them up to speed fast, don't worry).

How to Stop a Divorce When It's Too Late For Marriage Counseling

If it feels like the fate of your relationship is hanging in the balance of marriage counseling, and divorce is on the table, discernment counseling is the one approach that can potentially turn the tide. Not conventional marriage counseling. In this episode of the podcast, I'm discussing what dynamics are at play in a relationship on the brink, why these dynamics make conventional marriage counseling for the purpose of relationship improvement a bad idea, and how you can use the principles of discernment counseling to see if there is still hope for your relationship.

You can listen to “Discernment Counseling” on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App or scroll down to listen right here on GrowingSelf.com. If you're more of a reader I've also included cliff notes for you in this post as well as the full transcript of this episode.

Learn about Discernment Counseling and why it can make or break a marriage on this episode of the podcast. (And please share this post if you have a friend or loved one who's marriage may be failing. This information could make all the difference for them!)

All the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

Discernment Counseling: Episode Highlights

1. Different Relationships Require Different Types of Marriage Counseling: What's the state of your marriage?

There are many reasons couples seek help from a Denver marriage counselor or an online relationship coach. But generally, there are three types of couples who seek Denver couples therapy, marriage counseling online, or relationship coaching depending on their orientation to getting help and the severity of their relationship problems. Which type are you?

Proactive couples: These couples are defined by the fact that they both love each other and have generosity and goodwill in the partnership, and a willingness to take positive action to benefit the relationship. They view marriage counseling or couples therapy as a positive, valuable experience and don't hesitate to seek help as soon as they take notice of the initial signs that their relationship may be in trouble. These are strong, successful couples typically. Not that they don't ever have problems. All couples have “issues.” Strong, happy couples just take proactive steps to resolve them. Marriage counseling works for them, and usually in just a few sessions.

Frustrated but committed and motivated couples: These are the “middle-of-the-road couples.” Many couples in this space have been struggling with unresolved issues for some time, and they experience a fair amount of stress in the relationship. They are fighting or having communication problems and tend to have the same unproductive arguments or ongoing relationship issues that aren't improving. They have often been attempting to do everything they know how to do to create improvements, but have not sought effective professional support. Even though the've been putting off getting help and are feeling some frustration and resentment it's not too far gone. They still have a fundamental love and respect for each other. Both individuals are still actively committed to the relationship's success, and with the right support they can make real and lasting positive changes in their relationships. Marriage counseling works for these couples too, it just takes a little longer.

Mixed agenda couples: Mixed agenda couples develop over time, usually after many months, often years, of unresolved relationship problems. These couples tolerate relationship problems until they are no longer tolerable.The partnership has been in a downward spiral for a while, resulting from years of lost trust and respect. They are waiting on each other to change instead of exerting any genuine effort towards making the relationship work. They do not get help until one person is already halfway out the door, and divorce or a breakup is being seriously considered. Generally, when these couples arrive in marriage counseling one partner is frantic to stop a divorce and save their marriage. The other person may no longer be willing to participate in the relationship. At this point it is too late for marriage counseling. Couples in this place require discernment counseling before marriage counseling, relationship coaching or couples therapy has any hope of succeeding. If commitment, hope, and motivation are first restored through discernment counseling, then subsequent evidence-based marriage counseling may still be successful.

2. Why Relationships Fail 

Discernment counseling works when other types of marriage counseling or couples therapy fail, because it puts the predictable dynamics of a failing relationship at the front and center. Good Denver discernment counselors know that relationships don't often explode; they spiral down for a long time first. One of the first signs that a relationship is failing is that a negative relationship cycle takes hold. The sooner you notice that this is happening, and take effective action to correct it, the better.

Negative relationship cycles get going in small ways first, and then grow larger without intervention. When communication is a struggle, relationships tend to become polarized and contentious. If left unattended, it will only get worse. This may begin once you stop doing the nice small things you used to do. Or it could also start when you become outright disrespectful towards your partner. In return, they will likely feel entitled to mistreat you too. When a negative system starts taking hold, people react to each other's negative reactions. It can get pretty bad over time. 

Often, as this negative cycle continues unchecked, people can begin to feel entitled to treat each other quite badly. They can stop believing that better things are possible for their relationship. Worse, the pattern of negative experiences can make them lose trust in each other. At this point, people withdraw emotionally from a marriage. Interestingly, the person who spent years dismissing and minimizing the problems and was formerly resistant to marriage counseling is the one who's often blindsided and anguished when their partner withdraws. Even though it may have felt sudden to them, the truth is that their partner had been quietly separating (emotionally) for quite some time.

 When this truth becomes known, couples enter a crisis. A marriage counselor is often called (sometimes a divorce lawyer too). These are make-or-break moments for a marriage, and most be handled with sensitivity and expertise.

3. The Importance Of Discernment Counseling

When these “on the brink of divorce”couples land in marriage counseling, one partner “is leaning in” and the other is “leaning out.” Under these circumstances routine marriage counseling and couples therapy will not be appropriate or helpful. Honestly, jumping right into marriage counseling in these moments can actually extinguish any hope for the relationship to be repaired. Instead, discernment counseling is necessary first.

The goal of discernment counseling is to help both partners get clarity about what is possible for the relationship — and what isn't. From that point, they can either transition into evidence-based marriage counseling or couples therapy that helps them heal their bond… or separate in the healthiest way possible.

The primary goal of discernment counseling is not to improve or change the relationship. The purpose of discernment counseling is to ensure clarity about whether or not positive change is possible. Specifically, discernment counseling explores whether or not sufficient commitment and motivation exist for doing the work of couples therapy.

In most cases, couples find that there is still enough hope and commitment to try. In some cases, consciously “uncoupling” might be the best for both people involved. It can salvage a friendship or some aspects of the relationship, especially if they're co-parenting. Discernment counseling can help start this healing process.  

4. Discernment Counseling Strategies For a Mixed Agenda Relationship

If either you or your partner are unsure about whether your relationship has a future here are some crucial things you need to know. 

  1. People who are “leaning out” fantasize about what their life will be when they're out of the relationship. This may or may not be realistic. Through discernment counseling, the person leaning out can better understand and perceive the situation from a fresh perspective. It can also lead them to reflect on attachments and the implications without them.
  2. “Leaning out” partners are often emotionally beaten down after years of negative experiences with their partner in the past. They can often feel hopeless about things changing or improving. Discernment counseling can help them understand, more realistically, about what is possible and what is not. 
  3. “Leaning In” partners often feel incredibly anxious about the possibility of their relationship failing. Discernment counseling can help them regulate their emotions, and also gain accurate understanding of why their partner is half out the door. Then it becomes possible to work on changing the dynamic that led to this crisis.

How Discernment Counseling Works

First, a professional will establish if individual sessions would be best for your situation. Like all ethical and professional therapy sessions, confidentiality is crucial. Counselors will talk to the partner who's leaning out of the relationship. They will check if there's still some motivation that can be restored. This process needs to happen before deciding to “repair” the relationship. 

To the partner who's not yet willing to let go of the relationship, the work may focus on making them understand their partner's feelings more clearly. The session will focus on helping them manage their anxiety and getting them into a good place.  

Note: Discernment counseling sessions tend to be limited — generally 3-6 sessions max. If one partner is still highly ambivalent towards the relationship, and neither of you are ready to make decisions, that in itself is a decision. It allows couples to create a clearer vision of where they are, what they're willing to tolerate, and what the next steps are for the relationship… one way or the other. 

I hope that this overview of discernment counseling helped you understand the unique relationship dynamics of a failing marriage, and to use this understanding to see the path forward for yours. If your marriage is on the brink of divorce I sincerely hope you first consider discernment counseling in order to determine whether it can be saved. If it can, you may find that this was a painful, but necessary moment of reckoning for your marriage that opens the door to an incredibly satisfying new chapter for both of you. And, even if discernment counseling leads you to the conclusion that it's for the best that you separate,  you will be able to do so with the confidence that you really did do everything you possibly could have to make this work.

Wishing you all the very best on your journey of growth,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. More resources for you:

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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Discernment Counseling: Podcast Transcript

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Access Episode Transcript

Discernment Counseling — The Podcast

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. And you're listening to the Love Happiness and Success podcast.

That's an interesting song by an interesting band to set the mood for an interesting topic. The band is Toxic Water with this song, We've Only Just Begun. And our topic today is about something that almost no one has ever heard of. But if your relationship is in trouble, it is the only kind of couples therapy that will actually save a relationship and stop a divorce. And that's what we're talking about today on the Love Happiness and Success podcast. If this is your first time catching the show, or welcome, I'm so glad you found us.

I'm Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. And my background is as a licensed marriage and family therapist. I'm also a licensed psychologist, and I am a board-certified life coach. And I draw from all of those different modalities in order to provide hopefully helpful and actionable advice that will help you create love, happiness, and success in your life. And so today's topic, as many areis drawn from listener questions. I have been hearing from a number of you lately, through commenting on the blog at growingself.com, through Facebook Dr. Lisa Bobby, or on Instagram at @drlisamariebobby.

Relationship Advice: “Can This Relationship Be Saved?”

And the question is if I were to paraphrase, because this has come in many, many shapes, sizes, and forms. But as some version of, “Let me tell you about all of the horrible things that have been happening in my relationship and how I'm feeling about that. And can my relationship be saved? My partner doesn't want to go to couples counseling? Is there any hope? Or I don't know if I want to keep doing this? Is there any hope for my relationship? Or should I just let it go?”

I'm also hearing questions like, “You know, my partner is stonewalling me, they have one foot out the door, is it too late to save our relationship?” And, so really hearing from many people whose relationships are in quite a bit of distress and really understandably feeling very upset and heartbroken and even desperate about what do I do to fix this? Can it be fixed?

And I wanted to create this podcast just for you. Because there are some really important things that you need to know about this particular moment. And what could possibly help you repair this relationship. But even I think more importantly, what to avoid, if your relationship feels like it's on the brink because there are a lot of things that could make it worse right now, instead of better. And there's really one thing that can make it better. And I don't mean to be overly you know, inflammatory or scary. But I mean, this is borne out by a lot of experience.

When Couples Need Discernment Counseling

And so once again, on today's show, given you the real deal. So first of all, we'll just like to orient you to where we are and what we're doing. There are generally three different situations that will bring a couple into couples counseling, marriage counseling, relationship coaching. There are certain couples who are proactive, you know, they are committed, they care about their relationship, they want it to be as good as it possibly can. Oftentimes, they've had experience with some kind of therapy or personal growth work in the past. They're like, they understand the benefits of counseling or coaching and they want to do it together. And so they are like, very proactive, and they come in for marriage counseling at the first sign of trouble, you know.

They're maybe not feeling as great about each other. They're communicating, communication is starting to feel hard. It feels like it's difficult to create agreements or get on the same page. And they're like, “You know what, I love you so much. We need to get into couples counseling and just fix this.” And so they go and they talk to somebody like me or somebody else on my team here at growing self. And you know, they come in for about four to six sessions. They do what they need to do. They walk out with tools and things that resolve and they're like, “Oh we are so much better now.” And they go on their way.

And you know, might come back in the future. Life’s paces made things feel harder again, like, you know, moving or having a baby, or something like that normal, unexpected. But they really like, believe in growth, they're reading the books. They're doing the things they're talking to me. And these couples are incredibly advantaged and they keep their relationships healthy and strong. And so this is like, you know, a couple number one, and a lot of the education that I tried to do is to connect with couples in this stage, because when they do come in for couples counseling and support, they're very easy to work with, they love each other, there's a lot of generosity and good will. And it's easy to make positive changes in a relationship that last. And it's good. So that's category number one.

Category number two, a certain percentage of couples will show up for couples counseling, marriage counseling, relationship coaching, when they're actually fairly stressed and unhappy. They have been experiencing issues in their relationship, maybe they're fighting, communication feels hard, they're feeling frustrated, sometimes even resentful. But even though it hasnobody's having a good time, there are still positive aspects of the relationship.

They're still like, basic love and respect for each other. And they're still motivated to like, work together, own their piece of the equations. “Yeah, I guess I do that.” And work on themselves for the benefit of their relationship. And there's just a lot of commitment, you know. And so these are couples whoit takes longer to repair a relationship that has sustained trauma and damage through a series of regrettable incidents. But it's not so far gone, that it's impossible, feels impossible to do it. 

You know what I mean, there's still an attachment, there's still a desire to have a better relationship with each other. And so, you know, these are kind of like the middle-of-the-road couples, and a certain percentage of couples that come into couples counseling, I think fall into that kind of category.

Now, there is a third situation, which is really, really important for you to know, particularly if your relationship has not been in a good place for a while. There is a category of couple who will only initiate any kind of marriage counseling, couples therapy, relationship coaching, when one person is like halfway out the door. These are couples who have been kind of in a downward spiral for a while, often years. And over time, they have reallylike degraded the fabric of their relationship they have lost trust, they have lost respect. And you know, often times, as they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. These are couples who are like, oh, it's not that bad, it'll get better or you know if we just take a vacation or do XYZ things will change, or things will be better once we move, or once we do a thing or have a kid or whatever.

And so like they're sort of waiting for something to change their relationship, as opposed to doing the work that's required to change relationship. Or they're very, very focused on that partner needing to change—maybe less involved in what they need to do to have a better relationship with each other. And so, you know, many reasons for thatcouples counseling is too expensive, there are those people. But what happens over time is that relationships tend to become more polarized, and more contentious.

If communication is already struggling, it continues to get worse because there are these negative cycles that will take over a relationship. For example, if you are annoyed with your partner, and you feel that they are being unreasonable or disrespectful, or they're not doing what they need to do. Youand by you, I mean we all of us will feel you know, somewhat entitled to kind of be a jerk to them or not talk to them very nicely, or stop doing small nice things for them that really strengthen the relationship. And so when we kind of pull back into that emotional withholding space or not being quite as nice, they very predictably again perceiving us as being under reasonable and disrespectful and not very nice, which in turn leads them to feel entitled to not treat us quite as well. 

So as you can see, there's this, there's a systemic component to relationships that I've talked about before in previous podcasts, but it's very powerful stuff. And when a negative system starts taking hold, people are reacting to each other's negative reactions. And it can get pretty bad over time.

And so this third category of couple that I'm talking about, has had that going on in their relationship. And either they have not taken effective action to try to change it, which is like, “Okay, we have to go talk to somebody, it's time to go talk to the marriage counselor.” Orand this makes me crazy, they have sought support from “couples therapist” who does not have specialized training and experience in couples and family therapy, which is like 95% of the people out there offering couples counseling. They are trained as general practitioner therapists, or they don't even have that. They're like some, you know, self-proclaimed relationship coach who has a slick website and has been married before. 

So it feels eminently qualified to shepherd other couples through their own relationship issues. And, as you can imagine, in neither of these situations, does the couple who you know, reaches out with a very sincere intention of getting help for their relationship, connect with someone who knows how to help them. And so they have, from their perspective, done couples counseling, you know. “We've done everything.” But they don't know that the help they sought was not the right kind of help to mend their relationship. It was an evidence-based couples therapy, which really does make a difference.

 Is it too late for marriage counseling? 

So, that's, I think, incredibly tragic. But anyway, so either they didn't do anything, or they sought help, you know, with good intentions, but what wasn't the right thing. And they have arrived in a space where one personsometimes both but usually, one is likeI don't want to do this with you anymore. I have stopped believing that this relationship can get better. I don't trust you anymore. Not sure if I like you. And I don't even know if I want to try to make this better with you. Because I've had so many bad experiences that I think maybe I'm just done.

And often times, the person in this position of a failing relationship is the one who for sometimes years previously, has been the one agitating for change, saying, “Why don't you talk to me? Why don't you do these things with me? Why don't we work together, you know, around parenting or responsibilities, or I really just want to feel more emotionally connected to you.” Like this person has been trying for a long time to have a better relationship, to create that connection. And over time, they've just had bad experience after bad experience. And they get to a point where they're like, “I think I haveI'm losing hope that this can be better. What am I doing?”

You know, and so they move into this emotional space. And as soon as they do, the person who prior to that, had been like, “Oh, it's not that big of a deal. No, I don't feel like talking right now. No, marriage counseling is too expensive. No, I think actually, that's your problem. That's not my problem.” But as soon as their person is like, “I think I'm probably done with you.” That galvanizes this person who had been kind of, you know, minimizing and sort of like. Yeah, I don't knowif they want to talk to you. All of a sudden, they're like, “What do you mean? Let's talk. How are you feeling? How are you feeling now? How are you feeling today? You told me how you're feeling like 10 minutes ago, but what about now?” And they get all this you know, anxious energy into, “Oh my goodness, my partner is like, done with me.”

And it turns into this huge, like threatened attachment reaction. And they're like, we are going to the best marriage counselor in Denver, today. I'm making an appointment ofspare no cost. I love you so much. And so they're the ones calling my office being like, “Can I come?” And like, “What are you doing in like an hour? Can we come in an hour?” They're like so eager to get started. And this is the context, unfortunately, of many, many people whocouples who show up for marriage counseling online, marriage counseling in person and Denver doesn't matter.

But it's like it's gotten to this point where there is a desperate like Hail Mary kind of quality to it. And the person who formerly had been resistant to this whole idea is now the one often times who is super motivated to do this. And they show up for couples counseling. Now, here's the thing that is really important, and that you must understand if you're like, resonating with any of what I'm talking about, or even if you're thinking of like somebody you know who has gotten divorced or gotten close to it, like you're probably recognizing some of the dynamics that I'm describing in this.

And I would say, probably 30% of couples we see are those proactive couples that are like, we love each other, let's communicate better. Middle 30% are couples who are stressed and frustrated, but committed and motivated. And that final 30% of couples who show up for couples counseling are in that desperate sort of space. Now, I am going to tell you a big secret. This is something that I didn't learn about in a—extremely good Master's program and couples and family therapy. I did not learn about this in a PhD program that, you know, wasn't about couples and family therapy, but we did some of it.

And I would say, you know, after having worked with many couples therapists over the years, and we probably have 40 couples therapists running around here Growing Self, and they are excellent. I mean, we are super selective about who we work with, we make them demonstrate that they will be effective for our clients. And we require them to be eligible for licensure as marriage and family therapists and you know, all kinds of specialized training and experience. And even them, I would say, probably 90 to 95% of them have never heard of what I'm about to tell you, until they start working with us.

There is an assumption that alleven highly trained couples therapists makethat when a couple shows up for that first appointment in couples therapy, the core assumption is that this couple would like to work on the relationship. They would like to have a better relationship forwith each other. And they are both willing to, you know, do the hard work that it takes on both sides to make positive changes in service of this relationship. And in service of their love for one another. That is the basic assumption of any form of couples counselingthat people are going to sit down. And they're going to talk about the problems and they're going to talk about how they're feeling. 

And then, you know, after we figure out what's going on what needs to change, you know, in the marriage counselor be like, “Okay, now that I understand what's going on, here are some things that you guys can try in order to have a different experience with each other, or here are some of the experiential things, I think, would begin to change the way that you guys feel about each other. Let's do these together.”

So it's like, the goal of couples therapy is positive change, right? And what they totally miss and what will make marriage counseling fail, even if there is like a little shred of a possibility that it could be helpful, even for the most, you know, damaged couplesI hate to use the word but it's trueis discernment counseling. Which takes a core assumption that I have two people sitting on my couch either in the actual therapy office or in the virtual therapy office. But these two people are a mixed agenda couple. They have very different feelings about this relationship. They have different goals for the relationship. They may have differing levels of commitment about whether or not they want this relationship to continue.

And what discernment counseling does is to say to this couple: couples therapy for the purpose of improving this relationship is not appropriate right now because at least one of you isn't committed enough or hasn't resolved their ambivalence about whether or not this relationship is something that you want to work on. And until you two are in agreement about whether or not you'd like to work on this relationship together, we can't do couples therapy. What I can do with you is discernment counseling. This is a totally different thing. And the goal of this process is not to necessarily improve your relationship. It is to help both of you get clarity about what you want to do, and whether or not you want to try. And this is a very different way of understanding the 30% of couples who come in where one person is like, “I don't know about you.”

 The Importance of Discernment Counseling

What happens when couples, counselorseven very experienced onesdon't have this idea in the forefront of their mind is that they jump into couples counseling with couples and they do the things that should work. If a couple is committed and motivated, that they will work if it's in that kind of likemiddle space of stressed yet motivated couples. And it doesn't work with those highly distressed like desperate couples, one person is willing to do anything. And the other person might say the right thing and couples counseling, because they don't want to be a bad guy. You know, they'll be like, “Yeah, mhmm.”

But what happens over time is that they're not following through with the things that are being discussed in couples counseling. They're not really engaging witha work. They're not displaying, like empathy for their partner, or a willingness to take responsibility to keep their own side of the street clean. And it's not because they're bad people, it's because they have had so many bad experiences in this relationship that they don't knowreally like on a deep level if they want to do it anymore.

And so here is what happens in discernment counseling and why this is so important. So if ayou're working with a couples counselor who understands and provides discernment counseling, and they get a sense that this is the dynamic happening in your relationship, the first thing that they will do is actually advise separate sessions that are balanced. So it might be one or two or three sessions with you alone. One, two, or three sessions with your partner alone. And it is not individual therapy, there are still boundaries around confidentiality.

So ethical couples, counselors do not keep secrets for two people who are coming to see them together and this would still apply. But in those separate sessions, the couple's counselor would be talking to the partner who is leaning out of the relationship emotionally, to try to get a sense of why that is. And to do some work to see if there can be motivation resurrected to actually improve the relationship or not. Because that has got to be determined before any work to repair the relationship is going to be successful.

Leaning In: Desparate To Stop a Divorce

On the other side, there is a partner who's like leaning in, and this is the person who's like, “Please, please, please save my relationship.” There's often a lot of work that needs to be done with this partner, to help them understand, first of all, why their partner probably feels the way that they do. And also a lot of coaching around, “Okay, I understand that you want this relationship to be saved. And here are somehere's a long list of things not to do right now, so that you don't make this worse. And here's some things that you can do.” Often times, we're talking about ways tolike manage anxiety, and kind of get yourself into a good place in these individual sessions.

But so, you know, the first goal is to really, almost like make a deal with a couple who has a mixed agenda to say, “Alright, I want to meet with each of you two or three times, not forever, two or three times and the goal of this is to either decide, ‘Yes, there's enough here to move forward into couples counseling. We both are committed to trying this for a period of time, like really sincerely trying for a period of time.’ The other choice is to say, ‘No, actually, after talking all the way through those I do not want to try. and then we have our answer.’ And it turns into conversations about how to, as Gwyneth says, “Consciously uncouple in the way that is highest and best for all involved.”

And then there is a certain subset of couples who, you know, don't want to do either. And they just like, well, we're just going to stay In the sort of, you know, purgatory space, after this process is done probably 50% of couples who come in and they, in a desperatelike one leaning out one leaning in kind of space, do transition into couples counseling. Probably, you know, another percentage of those maybe 30 or 40%, the other partner is, is actually done. Like, done, done!

And that's, you know, hard to hear, but in some ways good because having that clarity is worth a lot, you know, like, we can begin to grieve and take this apart and move on as opposed to remaining in purgatory with each other for another year, or three, which isn't good for anybody. And then, a small subset of couples don't do anything with it. Choose to stay in the purgatory, which is fine.

 

Leaning Out: Lost Hope

But the goal of discernment counseling is clarity. It is that clarity, and it is commitment. Right? And so, here are some things that are important to know about each other. If you and your partner are in this mixed-agenda-kind-of-situation where either you're unsure if you want to work on this, or they aren't. So people who are leaning out of a relationship will often times be fantasizing a little bit about what their life is going to be like, you know, if only they were out of the relationship. 

There's kind of this “divorce as liberation” narrative, you know. That's like freedom, you know, narrative like this marriage has held me back, tell me down. They may or may not have had an affair, they may be have a crush on someone else, or an emotional affair going on that they're kind of idealizing this new person can be part of something that happens, or they're kind of imagining this amazing future for themselves, like we know once they're not married anymore.

And having these fantasies or these other attachments can really obscure their level of desire, or commitment, or motivation to work on the relationship. And so part of something that can happen in good discernment counseling is conversation without leaning out partner to do some reality testing around. Okay, well, “What would your life actually be like if you got divorced and kind of walk all the way through some of those scenarios?” Or, you know, maybe talk a little bit more if there is an emotional attachment to someone else and see how that may be confounding thisthe situation and try to raise awareness around. You know, the fact that they might perceive the situation differently if they didn't have that emotional attachment to another person.

So that can be something that happens in discernment counseling with a leaning out partner. Another thing though, that can happen like there are someI would honestly say many people that have gotten to this place where they're like, “I don't know if I want to do this anymore.” It's not because they're fantasizing about how great their life would be if they weren't married anymore. If they were divorced, they don't want to get divorced. But it's like, they feel so emotionally beaten down and that their experiences with their partner have been so negative, and just so yucky feeling, and it feels intolerable for them. You know, they're like, “I can't handle being spoken to this way anymore. I will not continue existing in a relationship without emotional intimacy. I don't want to be in a sexless marriage.” You know, they're feeling bad about what has been happening. And understandably, they're like, I don't want to do this anymore.

But they can also be so desperate for resolution. And they can have these unrealistic ideas that a change in a relationship needs to happen fast, and it can happen fast. And so if people in this space go into couples counseling, and you know, their relationship has been spiraling down for like seven years. And I have actually had people say to me, like, “We've met with you three times, and it's not different yet.”

Well, let me just adjust your expectations because in a highly distressed relationship that has a lot of history, by session three, I'm still trying to figure out what's going on in terms of the dynamic and what happened and the attachment injuries and all this stuff. And so people who have been really suffering in a relationship can be very impatient with couples counseling, even really good evidence-based couples counseling.

They're like, “Well, you know, we've been having four or five sessions, and it's just not different yet. So I think this isn't going to work. And so I'm not going to try.” And, you know, they're angry, and they're resentful. And they don't have a lot of patience for the growth process, sometimes understandably so. But discernment counseling, and those individual sessions can help people understand there's a lot of history there and growth is a process. It took you guys seven years to get to this place. I need at least seven months to get you back out again, you know what I mean? And so there's that kind of like psycho education piece that can happen. 

But you know, through that process, they can become open to it. Because of learning, I think, what would actually be required if this relationship is going to change. And so through that awareness process, they can become more committed to trying. And really, I think, in those individual sessions, learning more about what they will need to do in order to see if this relationship can be better, or not through couples counseling.

And, you know, there's also people who really don't want to get divorced. But they don't know what else to do to resolve this, they have done everything they know how to do to improve this relationship. They have read the books, they have tried to talk to their partner. They have done all the things they have done the relationship advice, tips, and they're like, “I'm out, I don't know what else to do.” And, and I think that there's also this process that can happen in those individual sessions of discernment counseling, where again, there's like this insight that can be generated aroundhere is how relationships are actually healed. Here's what damages relationships, this is what happened to you. 

This is what I see in this dynamic. This is why it feels so bad. And here's what we will need to do in order to get out of this. Are you willing to try to give this one last chance with the information that I've provided with you around what this is really going to take? We're going to have to talk about hard things. We're going to have to make real changes. You are going to have to learn about yourself in a different way, and grow in a way that might feel uncomfortable and challenging. Are you interested in doing that with me? Those are some of the conversations that we have, you know, with partners who are really leaning out in discernment counseling.

And it's also okay for that answer to be “no” for them to say, “You know what if you'd asked me this question three years ago, I would have said, “Yes.” I would have said, “Let's do it, I will do the work. I will feel the feelings I will be challenged.” And that was three years ago. And let me tell you about what has happened since then. And, “I'm done. I don't believe it anymore. And I don't want to. I don't want to.” And that's okay, againand I hope I'm not scaring anybody by talking about thisso honestly, but I think it's always better to go into these things with honesty and open eyes instead of spending weeks and months in marriage counseling that is destined for failure, because these conversations are not being had.

And it's important. And that's why discernment counseling matters so much. If your relationship is on the brink, in my experience. Inexperienced couples counselorsor even experienced couples counselorswho haven't been exposed to the ideas that I'm sharing with you today, we'll often make the mistake of kind of like, almost falling into that relational dynamic. So the partner of the person who is leaning out is often very anxious about the relationship and really wants it to get better and is sort of pursuing the partner emotionally. And believe it or not, couples counselors can fall into that too, where they are also sort of emotionally pursuing the disengaged partner, like trying to get them to connect and engage with a work. And it tends to make this dynamic more pronounced and kind of pushes the already ambivalent partner all the way out the door when maybe they were kind of teetering on the edge previously.

Now, it's also important to know that the other side of this equation really matters. I mean, for practical purposes, the partner who is leaning out and deciding if they want to be in the relationship or not. You know, they're kind of holding all the cards in terms of whether or not this is going to work. But there are things that the person who is the leaning-in spouse also needs to understand if they want to have a fighting chance of this relationship being improved. You know, first of all, there's a reality around threatened attachment. 

Like you've heard me talk about attachment bonds on previous podcasts. We've talked about attachment styles, we've talked about anxiety in relationships. And we humans, when we are attached to someone who is pulling away from us, always experience this surge of anxious attachment anxiety, does not mean that you have an anxious attachment style. It means that you are a human being having a normal response to a threatened attachment.

And so there's a lot of anxiety about the relationship, a lot of thinking about the relationship, lots of big emotions. Sometimes it's fear, sometimes it's sadness, sometimes it's anger. Interestingly, because all of these things are coming out of theour limbic brain, which is like our emotional center, and it's kind of our monkey mind. And so when we are in pain, when we are afraid, it can have all kinds of impacts on us. And it can make us behave, let's say not like our usual selves. So, you know, it's important for someone in this space to take care not to be really pursuing. Not to be insisting that your partner have super serious conversations that they don't want to have about the status of things.

 

It's important to be able to regulate your own emotions, to the degree that you are not engaging with your ambivalent partner in a manner that makes this worse. So pursuing them for sex, pursuing them to talk to you, needing reassurance from them, getting angry with them, berating them, calling family members, and telling them to talk to that your partner to talk some sense into them. Your work if you're in this position and what you would do in discernment counseling is be talking about what you need to do individually in order to manage these feelings. And keep yourself in a good enough place so that you are bringing your best self forward and helping your partner who is already ambivalentexperience you as someone with whom there is a future.

They need to see you as being capable of changing and being a good partner for them. Because whether or not you agree with a statement, they don't trust you anymore. Because of the experiences that they've had over the years. And they're feeling done for a reasonmay not be a reason that you agree with, it may not be congruent with your perspective. But it needs to be understood from their perspective, it needs to be validated. And it requires a certain level of calmness and introspection and insight to say, “You know what, I could understand why you're ambivalent, I shut you out for years. I remember four years ago, you were begging me to go to marriage counseling with you and I blew you off. And there was that time that I hurt your feelings. And it was right after our baby was born, and you were feeling so anxious and I went golfing instead. And I can understand looking back how even though it seemed like a small thing to me at the time, it was kind of a nail in the coffin wasn't it like, and I'm not saying that you should be like chasing your partner around the house.” Like telling them these things while they're trying to avoid you because they not might not be in a space to hear it but just know that this is the work ahead of you.

These are the kinds of bonding, rebuilding experiences that will begin to repair trust. And it is through an experiential process that involves a lot of empathy, and patience, and understanding and authenticity, and making space for other people to have their real feelings and being able to validate and accept those feelings as they are. It takes a lot of emotional strength to do that. And so, your work in discernment counseling will be figuring out what you need to do in order to be an emotionally safe partner under the circumstances because that's the only possible path forward. And at the end of that it may be that your partner is so done that you don't actually ever get the opportunity to show them that you can do that, that you can understand them and have empathy for them maybe in a way that you didn't before.

But either way, you will have begun a very important growth process where you have the opportunity to reflect on what went wrong. And, you know, yes, there's part of it, how did we do this wrong together. But it's really, really powerful to be reflecting on knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently if I had a time machine. And that's not to generate regret, it's not to beat yourself up, it is to say, “Because now that I know better, I can do better in the future.” And I’m not saying that you should jump into another relationship, but it's an opportunity to understand how you relate to others. And it sets you up to have more successful relationships in the future .

 Growth Opportunities Are Possible No Matter What

It could be with a partner, certainly, but even with your children, co workers, friends, you know, if you identify patterns, like, “You know, what, I was really critical to him for years and years. And I would get mad at him and I would be withholding and punishing, and you know what, now, he's done with me. And let's take a look at why do I do that? Where did I learn to do that? Do I do that to other people in my life? You know what, I kind of do that to my sister sometimes.” And so, you know, it can turn into a growth opportunity for you to have healthier and more satisfying relationships in the future, whether or not this marriage can be repaired.

Many times it can, many times it can. The process of discernment counseling has very specific goals. And the goals are to have clarityclarity that we both want to try to do this with sincere intentions, and give it our very best for a period of time. You know, it could even be three months. But during that period of three months, we are going to do everything we possibly can and dig deep and have the talks and do the things and see what happens when we both really apply ourselves. That is the first clarity decision point that can come from discernment counseling. And again, the majority of couplesso through discernment counseling, do come into that space where they're like, “You know what let's tryreally try for three months.”

And there is also a goal of clarity, which is clarity around: There's nothing here to fix, even though I feel kind of guilty about saying this, even though I wish I did want to even though I you know, feel sad about what might happen to our family, it is actually me being honest and authentic to say, “No, I do not have it in me to try wholeheartedly to make this relationship better. And it's not fair for you, for me to keep stringing you along, hoping that I can, you know, decide that I love you again because, you know, after going through the process of discernment counseling, I feel very resolved in themy truth, which is that it’s over for me.” 

So, you know it, clearly, we'll say it out loud. And now let's talk about what we as a couple want to do with that, you know, in order to start taking things apart in a way that feels healthy for both of us. So you know, hopefully on the other side of this, we can salvage some kind of relationship or friendship, particularly if we're going to be co-parenting because that's important. So that honesty is worth a lot. 

And you know, it is also positive for both people, positive for the person who is actually done to be done, and positive for the person who may really want the relationship to continue. But to have that unambiguous knowledge that it is actually overas much as it hurts to hear that, it really jumpstarts the healing process. Because and I say this for my work as a breakup recovery therapist, a breakup recovery coach, divorce therapist, the people that wind up hurting and just being in agony for such a long time after a divorce, or have such a hard time moving on after a breakup, are the ones who are in this purgatory space of “maybe”. 

Maybe it could still work out, maybe they still care about me if we could just talk, there's still kind of really like the emotional attachment to their ex persists long after the relationship ends, which, again, sounds kind of crazy from a rational perspective. But from like a human attachment perspective, it is not crazy at all, it makes perfect sense. But even though it's hard to hear for your partner to say, “I am not in this relationship with you anymore. And I'm not going to be. And here are the reasons why.” And to kind of like, almost have those closure experiences in the room with a mediator can reallylike make the lossyes, more acute for the person whose relationship is ending when they don't want it to be. But again, jumpstarts, that healing process, because there is no bargaining, you know, you just move straight into grief. And there can be a gift in that compared to the alternative.

And then again, a very small subset of the couples, you know, because discernment counseling has to be limited, right? We can't stay in this meeting with a discernment counselor for individual sessions in perpetuity. It's going to meet with each of you three times, and we're going to get clarity, or you guys are going to stop doing discernment counseling and we're going to decide that neither of you are ready yet to fully process this or make decisions one way or the other. And so, you know, go back to your lives as it is. And just know that, in order for anything to change, we do need that clarity. And I am available to have that conversation with you again, when the time is right. But you know, we're not going to take forever to do that. Sometimes, you know, if a discernment counselor meets with each of you for two, three sessions, and there's still really a high degree of ambivalence in one partner, we have to stop discernment counseling.

And the recommendation could be, you need time and space to really get clear about what you want to do leaning out partner. And so I would recommend that you get involved in some individual, you know, sometimes therapy. But honestly, therapy in the most typical, real sense, it assumes that there's something wrong with someone you know. Therapy, psychotherapy is for the treatment of mental illness, of psychiatric conditions, right? And so for somebody to be in this life space, where they're ambivalent about a relationship, you know, to go to a therapist who wants to talk about how you're depressed, and how you're, whatever were traumatized by your father, when you were three.

Okay, fine, like go do that. But a more direct route to getting clear about how you feel, what your values are, what you want, why that makes sense, can actually be through evidence-based life coaching with someone who's really more about helping you just get that clarity, right? Like, here's what you want, here are your obstacles, what do you need to do to make that happen? Is that possible in this relationship? And you know, certainly to a degree talking about feelings and sorting through historical experiences in the relationship, but it tends to be much more positive. And just based on this assumption, that you are a strong, confident, capable person who is not making decisions out of a space of like deficit or psychopathology. But rather, that you are trying to figure out what is the best path for you, and your future, and that is congruent with yourself. 

And so in these cases, many times, life coaching can be a more positive approach, let's say. One last thought to put in your hopper before I leave you for today. If you do work with a life coach to get clarity around this. So say, for example, you are the partner leaning out and after doing discernment counseling, you're still in a space of “I don't know what I want to do about my relationship.” It can be really, really helpful to seek out the services of a life coach who does have a background in couples and family therapy, or at least relationship coaching, because in individual work, it can be very, very easy to fall into a dynamic with a therapist or a coach, where you are talking about how terrible your partner is and how they hurt your feelings.

 Individual Therapists vs Marriage and Family Therapists

These are all the mean things they've done to me and you know, your very sympathetic therapist or coach will be like, “Oh my gosh, that's terrible.” And if you have a ethical action oriented therapist or coach, particularly one that has a background in couples and family therapy, you will say, “Let me tell you about the meeting, my husband did to me.” And of course, they will be compassionate and kind to you. 

But sooner or later, they might also ask, “Why do you think your partner is reacting to you that way?” To help you get insight into your blind spots and your growth moments so that you don't unintentionally kind of fall into this victim place where your narrative about your partner becomes increasingly monster as because you don't have a therapist or coach who is either knowledgeable enough or ethical enough or active enough to challenge some of that.

And you know what, your partner could actually be a monster, and you need to get out of this relationshiplike stat! I have worked with people in toxic relationships, this is a thing.

And I would also say that out loud to a client describing that situation. But I believe that you deserve to have someone who cares about you enough and respect you enough to at least ask the questions to help you determine, you know, “Yeah, why is that happening? And do I play any role at all?” In the outcomes that I'm getting the answer again might be no. But you deserve to know if there are our blind spots or growth opportunities that you need to know about, if you're going to have a positive relationship with anyone in the future. Either this person who you may or may not decide to end the relationship with, or another one because these things don't go away.

Now, if you're on the other side of this, and the recommendation at the end of discernment counseling is for you to seek individual work, if you're the person who's feeling really upset about the relationship ending, it can kind of depend on what's going on. In my experience, it's very, very normal for people to have feelings of anxiety and depression and sadness, and sometimes grief and loss. That, again, coaching strategies can be helpful in figuring out how to develop emotional regulation skills and self-care and kind of rebuilding positive things in your life, and shifting your thoughts into ones that feel happier and healthier for you and sort of looking towards your future.

All of that is in the realm of coaching. And, again, in my experience, if you're on that upset sidethat you're the person who doesn't want the relationship to end, I would advise to work with somebody who does actually have a background and who is able to practice therapy with you. If it turns out that that's what you really do need because people can feel so bad and particularly in the early days of a relationship ending, particularly if it's an unwanted ending or traumatic ending, can really be experiencing a lot of big emotions, lots of anxiety, lots of despair. 

And it's, I think, important to work with someone who's able to help you on that level, if it turns out that that is what would be beneficial for you. So, again, not that you want to work with somebody who's going to make it all about like, “Well, the only reason that you feel as badly as you do is because you have terribly low self-esteem from the way that your mother treated you.” Like that is probably not going to be helpful, but it will be helpful to say, “Okay, this is turning into depression.” And let's talk about what you need to do in order to be well, because there's a path forward. So let's talk about that. That is what I would want for you.

Anyway, so I hope that this conversation about discernment counseling was helpful for you. And if you are in a relationship, or it's like feeling on the brink, please look for someone who is knowledgeable in discernment counseling. Look for something with an MFT after their name, which means that they are credentialed as a marriage and family therapist, so they have a background in marriage and family therapy. Ask questions, make sure it is evidence-based marriage and family therapy. And when you are interviewing prospective couples, counselors, make sure they are familiar with discernment counseling.

People who are trained in individual therapy or even couples counselors who are not trained in discernment counseling won't have insight into the dynamics that I have described to you so be an educated consumer. Of course, if you would like to do that work with Growing Self, you know where to find us. But otherwise, I hope that this conversation has prepared you to make informed choices, either for yourself or if this again is making you think of someone else in your life who is struggling in this situation. I sincerely hope that you forward this podcast on to them because it might make a big difference. Okay everybody, thank you for joining me today and I will be back in touch with you next week on another episode of the Love Happiness and Success podcast. 

 

 

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Dysfunctional Family Roles

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Dysfunctional Family Roles

Functional vs Dysfunctional Family Roles: Ever wonder why you are the way you are, especially in terms of your patterns in relationships and habitual ways of relating to others?

As a long time Denver therapist and life coach I can assure you that we're all a sum of many things: our innate temperament, our personalities, our thinking styles and our accumulated life experiences. But the dynamics of the family system that that you were a part of growing up can having a profound impact on you too, for better or for worse.

If you're interested in personal growth, self development, and improving your relationships, at some point it is vital to ask: Who  was I in my family? What role did I play in that system? Who did my family want me to be? What did my family bring out in me? Most importantly: Who did my family need me to be?

Understanding the functional and potentially dysfunctional family roles that shaped you can give you insight into yourself, and a deep level of self understanding that leads to choice and empowerment.

Today's episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast is taking a deep dive into understanding the power of family roles, how dysfunctional family roles can create long-term impacts on the adults we become, and how to use this awareness to grow into the person you want to be.

How to Overcome Dysfunctional Family Roles

Our families shape our way of thinking, feeling and behaving. Unless (or until) we do deliberate personal growth work in life coaching, evidence-based therapy in Denver (or online therapy), or couples counseling, we will subconsciously bring these ways of thinking feeling into adulthood. Some of the patterns and expectations we unknowingly carry with us are helpful to our adult relationships, and some are not.

If we want to create positive changes in our adult life and relationships, it's important to understand how we were forged in the crucible of our family of origin.

I've seen time and time again, as a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach, that as my clients do this work they become aware of themselves in an entirely new way. Most people come into contact with the fact that they are reflexively operating on a set of core beliefs, values, expectations and habits that they didn't even know they had. Many of these “operating instructions” instilled by families of origin are positive and helpful. But some are not.

Let's face it: We were all raised by fallible, imperfect humans who were almost certainly operating on the subconscious legacy from their own family of origin. It takes both hard work and support to become the clear-eyed, self-aware, mindful and compassionate parent and partner that intentionally cultivates healthy family dynamics. Most people never get the opportunity to do that type of personal growth work.

As a result, our parents didn't know what they were doing either. If they came from (mostly) healthy, nurturing families, that's (mostly) what they gave to us. If your parents grew up being forced to participate in dysfunctional family roles, unless they were privileged enough to do high-quality therapy, they probably subconsciously re-enacted those old ways of being in your family growing up.

On the bright side, the fact that you're even reading this and learning about these subterranean psychological forces gives you awareness and power that your parents probably never had. You get to deliberately make changes in yourself that lead to your ability to create an entirely different outcome for your family.

But the first step is developing a genuine understanding of how the legacy of dysfunctional family roles may be operating in you. That's what we're talking about in today's podcast!

Dysfunctional Family Roles: What they are, and how to transcend them.

Listen to today's episode of the podcast to:

  • Learn how your role in your family of origin can affect your relationships in adulthood.
  • Know the impact of our early experiences in how we manage stress and anxiety.
  • Get insights and direction into how you can break the patterns of your dysfunctional family role (and cultivate the strengths of a healthy family dynamic).
  • Learn to recognize other people’s patterns and see them with compassion.
  • Discover how you can be independent and empowered in creating the relationships you want.
  • Know how you can build real and lasting changes in your family life and relationships.
  • Discover strategies to improve your family dynamics.

You can listen to “Dysfunctional Family Roles” on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App, and anywhere else you listen to podcasts. Or, you can scroll down to the bottom of this page to listen right here on GrowingSelf.com.

If you're more of a reader, I've provided some episode highlights (below) as well as a full transcript. Otherwise, thanks so much for listening, subscribing, and sharing this with anyone in your orbit who could benefit from hearing it.

Family Of Origin

How did your experiences in your family of origin shape you?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Growing up, who did your family need you to be?
  • Are you the same or a different person when you are outside the family system?
  • How do you feel about yourself when you’re with your family and when you’re with others?
  • Do you change when you’re with other people and go back to your patterns when you’re with your family?

Considering the answers to these questions can begin the process of giving you some insight and self awareness around how the dynamics of your family of origin impacted you.

Psychodynamic Therapy, Attachment Theory & Family Systems

Tackling your deepest, most entrenched patterns often requires the support of a great therapist. There are many effective ways to accomplish this work, but it can be very helpful to work with a therapist who understands psychodynamic therapy, attachment theory, and family systems. In these evidence-based types of therapy, you will have the opportunity to explore your family roles, your patterns in relationships, and why you are the way you are. This type of therapy focuses on first raising self-awareness and insights. Then, once that is established, a good therapist will help you begin to actively experiment with new ways of being that help you overcome dysfunctional family roles, and begin practicing new ones. 

Family Roles Follow Us Everywhere

We think of our patterns in relationships as being exclusive to how we show up in our actual families. Not so. Your habitual ways of relating will also show up in your friendships and even your working relationships. Family systems dynamics appear whenever groups of people form, because people naturally assume different roles in relation to one another. When the roles are complementary, cooperative, and flexible, they make for a healthy relationship.

Healthy Family Roles vs Dysfunctional Family Roles

Dysfunctional family roles are characterized by inflexibility and that they serve to maintain homeostasis. (Meaning that when one person stops engaging in the dysfunctional family role other people in the family fall apart). In contrast, healthy family roles are flexible, supportive, and interdependent. The individuals in a family don't “need” each other to be a certain way in order to be okay. A child can be imperfect or sad without a parent becoming overwhelmingly anxious or angry. One member can step into another’s role. In a healthy family, for example, both parents can be nurturing at times. Both parents can also be appropriately authoritative at times. 

In contrast, the roles in a dysfunctional family are rigid, fixed, and distinct. The members must stay in their roles in order to maintain the functioning of the others. When one steps out of their role, it disrupts the system, and places an enormous amount of pressure on individuals to resume their dysfunctional role. (Often at the expense of their own mental and emotional health and wellbeing). 

Understanding Dysfunctional Family Systems

There is not a cutoff line between a functional family and a dysfunctional family. It doesn’t have an on and off switch. Instead, it is a spectrum.

In some families, someone tends to over-function. This person makes up for the deficit of another who is not functioning fully. People in codependent relationships easily over-function in fulfilling their caretaker or enabler role.

There is also someone who plays the victim. They always blame their problems on others. This person is always having a hard time, usually because of mental health issues. The victim also often has a substance abuse problem because that’s how they cope with the unfairness of life.  

These are the other roles commonly found in a dysfunctional family. Listen to the full episode to learn more some of the most common dysfunctional family roles including:

  • The Problem Child (aka, “The Scapegoat”)
  • The Family Clown
  • The Lost Child
  • The Gold Star Kid

In extremely toxic family systems, the roles are more rigid. There isn’t enough space for everyone. The three primary roles you will see are:

  • The Abuser
  • The Protector
  • The Victim

When a person is in a healthy family, they get to inhabit many different roles — or better yet, just be themselves. They can be funny and nurturing and accomplished, and they can also be sad and in need of help and even lazy too. They can be their whole selves, and it's all okay. In healthy families the roles that do emerge tend to be more task or responsibility based rather than serve an emotional purpose. (Think, one person usually takes out the trash or manages the finances). But again, there is flexibility. For example, even if a family member goes away for a while, the family can adjust and cooperate because they are an interdependent system.

Examples of Dysfunctional Family Roles

In this episode of the podcast I talk through a number of examples of disfunctional family roles in order to illustrate how they all work together.

A family composed of a victim-feeling mom, an enabling dad, a perfect daughter, a clown son, a silent child, and a problem child is a stable family system. However, just because it’s stable doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Being in a dysfunctional family system creates an artificial sense of stability. If any one of the family members decides to change for the better, the others would be forced to confront their problems, disrupting the system.

Self-awareness and recognition take an enormous amount of emotional health, emotional stability, and emotional regulation skills. Dysfunctional families can't do that easily. Professional family therapy is often required.

The Path of Growth

This podcast was intended to provide information and awareness about the fact that dysfunctional family roles exist, and to help you think about to what degree they may have impacted your life. However, this podcast is in no way meant to resolve these patterns: It can't. Growth and healing from dysfunctional family roles is a process — often a long term one. However, you can absolutely change and overcome the impact of dysfunctional family roles. Through the awareness and self reflection that you get from therapy, plus guidance around how to experiment with different ways of being, you can take action to change yourself. And when you change yourself, you will become a force of positive change in your family too.

Dysfunctional Family Roles —Resource List

If you think you've been impacted by dysfunctional family roles that are affecting they way you think, feel and behave as an adult, the most important thing you can do is get involved in effective therapy. Look for a highly qualified therapist with a background in psychodynamic therapy, attachment therapy, and / or family systems. If you'd like to do this life-changing work with one of the therapists at Growing Self, the first step in getting started is to schedule a free consultation session to discuss your hopes and goals and see if it's a good fit to work together.

In addition to therapy, there are some self help activities that can support your work to overcome the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family role:

I have shared valuable advice on coping with dysfunctional family roles. Which part of the episode was the most helpful? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.

Back in touch soon, with more Love, Happiness and Success advice for you. 

xo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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Dysfunctional Family Roles: Podcast Transcript

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Access Episode Transcript

Dysfunctional Family Roles —Podcast

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

[playing Stars by Ayla Nereo]

Isn't that a great song? That's Ayla Nereo—I hope I'm saying that right—Ayla Nereo and the song is called Stars. Such a nice song. We’ll listen to it together more at the end of our show today, but I thought it was a nice intro for our topic. Today, we're talking about something I think incredibly, not just important, but also interesting. And I think it will be very relevant for you and the kinds of questions and concerns that you've been bringing to me lately. I've been hearing from a lot of you through Instagram, through Facebook, and certainly through the blog at growingself.com with questions about your relationships and how to improve them.

And we're taking a deep, deep dive into this topic today. We're going to be talking about family systems. Specifically, family systems and the way that our roles in our families of origin can shape us as adults and have a pretty big impact on the way that we feel in relationships. The kind of partners that we choose, the way we relate to others, the way we communicate, the way we manage stress and anxiety can all often be found in some of our earliest experiences.

And my hope is that by talking about these things today with you, you will be able to recognize and notice where some of those might come from inside of you. And also be able to more compassionately see this in perhaps your partner, or your mom, dad, brothers, sisters, family of origin, and also even in your friends, and extended circle to be able to gain awareness of who people are, why they are the way that they are so that you have some insight and also like direction for how you can begin to break some of these patterns, if you decide that they are actually not serving you well anymore. And really feel empowered to act more independently and create the kind of life and relationships you want. I know that this sounds like very big stuff, and it is. And I feel like we kind of need to go here because, again, I get so many questions from you guys about specific relationship kinds of questions lately.

And I think it's very easy, and even tempting, for relationship coach types or family therapists to say, “Let me give you some strategies. Try this specific thing”. And the risk here is that while the specific strategies can be very helpful, they are often blown away like a little dandelion puff in a hurricane. And the hurricane, the much more powerful thing at the root of why these relationship experiences are happening, why you're feeling the way you do, are in these family of origin issues. And so for me, to hand you this little dandelion puff and say, “Good luck with that,” it feels like not me being a good friend to you or truly of service to you. And so I really wanted to talk more about the issue of family systems to provide you with a little bit more meaningful and hopefully helpful guidance that will lead to your making real and lasting change in your life and in your relationships. Not just one more piece of dandelion fluff, three little tips to change your life kinds of things. There's a time and place for that too. But I mean, we are keeping it real here on the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

And if this is your first time tuning in and you're wondering what in the hell you have just stumbled into, I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I’m licensed as a psychologist. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m a board-certified life coach, and our practice at Growing Self, we say we specialize in love, happiness, and success. We do a lot of couples counseling, marriage counseling, but also, like, take a holistic approach to life. So we're doing individual therapy, life coaching, also career coaching, and professional development coaching, because all of these different aspects of life are intrinsically related. You are a whole person. And to have any of these things: love, happiness, or success, it really involves paying attention to all of them and, really, particularly the stuff at the center that impacts the way you think, feel, and behave in all different aspects of your life.

And again, the family systems, ideas, we’re going to be talking about today are incredibly impactful. It goes into the way you feel about yourself, the way you take care of yourself, the way you manage your own emotions, the way that you communicate, also directly impacts the way that you relate to other people, the expectations that you have of your partners, the kind of partners you select, your responses to people, particularly in moments of stress. And it is absolutely incredibly salient to the way we relate to coworkers, or tasks, or the way we show up on the job, or the way we communicate in professional roles, or even the role that career or work serves in our lives are all directly rooted in some of our earliest life experiences.

So I'm excited to talk about this with you today. And as I'm recording this, we are going into the holiday season. And I think it can be very helpful to talk about family roles, and family dynamics, and family issues because much of the time around the holidays, we get to spend more time with extended family. Although, this particular year, as I'm sure you're well aware, the year of the pandemic, this is different. You may or may not be spending the holidays with your family of origin, or you may be in a situation, like many of the therapy or coaching clients that I have here at Growing Self, that I hear people on my team consulting about are increasingly adults now bunking with their parents again, or siblings again or having your mother-in-law move in with you, just because of the pandemic situation and the realities that many families are facing. There is an increased incidence of multigenerational households. So you're having the opportunity to splash around in family of origin. Dynamics may not be contained to just a challenging Thanksgiving dinner. It may be waiting for you at the breakfast table, eating cereal and calmly looking at you first thing in the morning when you get up and pad into the kitchen for your coffee. So lots of excitement, and let's call it an opportunity for growth.

So diving in to the topic of understanding family roles and understanding, in particular, dysfunctional family roles compared to healthy family roles and family systems. Again, this is a huge, huge topic. And I feel a fiduciary obligation to give you a disclaimer, is that I'm going to be talking about a lot of things on this podcast today. And many, many books have been written on this subject. The subject is one that has been studied for decades by people who have devoted their entire careers to this. There are whole university programs that will train you for years on the different facets of this topic. And so we are going to be going deep, but please know this is a drop in the bucket of the complex and fascinating topic of family systems. And so I hope that this is one informational tool that you use along your path of growth. But do not think for a moment that this is all of it. There's much, much more.

I'll be throwing other resources out for you as we talk through things. And of course, there's much, much more on various aspects of this topic on the blog at growingself.com. You'll hear me referring to those through the podcast. But instead of boring you with a lot of specific links and titles, for all of them that I'll be mentioning, if you just go to growingself.com, and go to the expert advice page, we have hundreds and hundreds of blog posts, articles written by experts, other podcasts, videos, all kinds of stuff, and there is a search bar on that page. And so if you hear me mention a resource over the course of this podcast or like, “I want to learn more about that,” that's where you'll find it. Just go to the blog at growingself.com, and type communication, or boundaries, or whatever it is into that search bar that I'll be mentioning. And you will find the article in question as opposed to having to write everything down as I'm discussing, because who has time for that?

Okay, so jumping in. Let's start with a question. When you think about your family, your family of origin, the people that you spent most of your time with growing up, and what that experience was like for you, most of the time, I would like for you to take just a second and consider who you were when you were in that situation? Who did your family kind of need you to be? And how does that maybe feel similar to or different who it feels like you really are when you are outside of that family system? Did you sort of feel one way about yourself when you were with your family? And then when you went to college, or moved out, or built your own life and your own family, did that change? And do you notice yourself kind of being drawn into those same types of patterns when you're back around your family?I’ll just pause for a second to let you reflect on that.

Because our families shape us. We're born with personalities. We're born with basic ways of being. But then it is because of our role in the family that we were born into is where we really learn how to be in relation to others. We learn who we are. We internalize a kind of narrative about ourselves. We learn what to expect from other people. We kind of develop ideas about who other people want us to be. It's where we develop our ideas about our worth as people. Like, “What do I need to be or do in order to be loved and respected and cared for by others?” 

And this is not conscious stuff. This is so subconscious. It is preverbal much of the time. But it's also very real. And it matters because we take this with us into our adult lives, whether or not we want to, whether or not we're even aware of it. And, we kind of need to know who we are, and where we came from, and what shaped us, and why we do the things we do in order to be empowered, to create positive changes if we want to—if we want to. And it is the case that many people, I would say most people—all people, really, I mean, even people who come from the most difficult and traumatic family backgrounds, it wasn't— very rarely—is it ever like all bad. We get so many good and valuable things from our family experiences.

And so this is no way to bash families, because I would venture to say that when we reflect on the best parts of ourselves, many times—our values, the things that give us meaning and pride—there are so many wonderful things that we pick up along the way from our families of origin. And those are all to be embraced, and shared, cherished, and feel so grateful for. And it is also the case that we sometimes have developed ways of relating to others in our families of origin that made perfect sense. And were really even necessary at that time in our lives, but that when we get older, and get into adulthood, and create our own families, and own relationships, we can arrive at the conclusion that those old ways of being are no longer serving us or helping us achieve the goals that we have as adults. Or that we are now partnered with someone that our old family of origin way of being is not really compatible with, and that we need to make some changes in order to have a really healthy relationship and family. And so the process of being able to do that begins with awareness and beginning to reflect on “Who am I?” and “Where did that come from?” Now we're going to be talking about this.

But I also want to just say out loud and very clearly that there is a certain breed of therapist, a certain type of therapy, that's called psychodynamic therapy. It was born out of kind of the Freudian school of thought, the sort of original therapy. But psychodynamic therapy is all about exactly this. How did your earliest relationships shape you, and why are you the way that you are? It is very insight-oriented. And if you get involved in psychodynamic psychotherapy, you will spend many, many, many, many sessions talking about family roles, and relationships, and why you are the way you are, and this all makes sense. And this is the thing that I personally have like… kind of makes me crazy. Many, in my experience, psychodynamic therapists will analyze all of this, and be like, “Okay, your dad was cold and emotionally unavailable. And your mom was depressed. And so this is why you avoid conflict”. And you're both like, “Okay, yeah”. And there's this like triumphant, “Okay, so we figured it out”. And then the therapist is like feeling very pleased with themselves for having figured this out. And you're like, “Oh, okay. That makes sense”. And then that's where it stops.

It's like that insight was the goal of the therapy. And many times if you have been involved in this kind of therapy, you may have had this experience. If you're like, “Okay, well, all right. Well, now I know that. So now what? Like, what do I do with that?” And the therapist is like, “Well, you know, we need to process that.” What does that mean? Okay, and so I have a reaction to that. And my way of being as a therapist and a coach is much more practical. And it's not to knock that self-awareness and that insight. We need to have that in order to be able to make conscious changes, and understand ourselves, and have compassion for ourselves. But there also needs to be more. And so, our way of being here at Growing Self is a more direct route like, yes, okay. We need to figure it out, make sense of it. But then we need to actively work to change it. And so you'll— if this is— you've been in therapy before and what I'm describing to you today sounds a little bit different, that’s why.

It is because really my primary orientation is more of a coach. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist. I'm a licensed psychologist. That is part of my background. But I think a bigger part of my work and way of helping clients is through more of a coaching model, which is, “Okay, what do you want to do with that?” Like “What's your goal?” So with that in mind, if this is something that you want to explore, the first step of gaining that foundational self-awareness—with the assistance of a therapist, or coach, or not— is to first notice, or even do some journaling around who do you become when you are around your family, and how is this functional in your early life

And figuring that out, like when I reflected on that and was well, well into my 20s before I even considered any of this as a possibility, realizing that when I was around my family, I kind of needed to hide certain parts of myself. I had to be fairly like rational and kind of stable. Family therapists are also made in the crucible of their family system. And that was very much my role as a child. And while that was helpful to stabilize my family, there were consequences to me later in life in terms of my own relationships and my ability, I think, to be as vulnerable or authentic as I wanted to be, and I think on a deep level, craved. But in my family, it wasn't really okay for me to do that. So that was something that I had to do a lot of work around as I got older and wanted to have a good relationship with my husband. That's been an area of growth for me. And this can look like so many different things. And I'd like to invite you to sort of reflect on how you feel, or what you find yourself doing or saying, or ways of being when you get around your family that are maybe a little bit different than who you really are or who you want to be.

And with that in mind, I also want to share that family systems are always present in the sense that people in families are really any group. You see it in coworker kinds of groups or working relationships too, is that people will always kind of naturally move into different roles. And that is very healthy, particularly when roles are cooperative. They are complementary, and also when they're flexible, they can change as needed. And also, a virtue of a healthy family system or a healthy relational system is that people can grow and change without it creating disruption in the rest of the system.

So like, for example, and this is a very superficial example, but I'm sure you can relate to it in your own life, like in in my house, I do not take out the trash. I don't know what day the trash comes. It always surprises me. My husband, he rolls our trash cans out to the curb on the correct day of the week. He knows what time they're going to be there. It is just not something that I think about. It is his role in our home to think about that and to do that. Therefore, I just don't. Now, there have been times when he's gone out of town. And thankfully he'll text me or something like, “Don't forget to take out the trash, okay?” and I can go do that. I can be flexible in that role. Or God forbid, if he got sick or something like, I would do that. It's completely fine, I could step in to that role.

And so there are practical kinds of functional roles in families that people just kind of have their little jobs, and so that everything comes along. But there are also emotional and relational roles in families. In healthy families, these roles tend to be cooperative, flexible, and like much less fixed. Like, in a healthy family, both parents can be nurturing at times. Both parents can also be appropriately authoritative at times. Sometimes mom makes breakfast. Sometimes the other mom makes breakfast, if that's a same-sex couple, or sometimes dad makes breakfast. There's this flexibility and a— what am I trying to say? People can make space for each other and behave like this healthy interdependence, as opposed to what happens in a dysfunctional family system with dysfunctional family roles. Those tend to be much more rigid, much more fixed, much more distinct, and functional in an emotional way that when people stop their roles or try to move out of those roles, the system becomes disrupted.

And so people stay in those roles, and they become increasingly rigid for like matters of emotional safety, and sometimes even literal safety or survival. They're not flexible. And also, in a healthy family system, the roles are good for people. Everybody feels okay. And while nobody is perfect or needs to be perfect, there is a— people are able to be authentic. It's healthy, it's nurturing. Nobody's being harmed by any of the family roles. Whereas in a dysfunctional family system, the roles that people inhabit are often not really healthy for them. They're not the highest and best for them. And also, people feel locked into those, not consciously but subconsciously, because if they try to be different, it will be very disruptive to the system. And they might experience personal consequences, or the system might experience consequences.

And I know we're talking about this very theoretically right now. So let me let me go into some more concrete examples so you can understand what I'm really talking about. So when we look at a dysfunctional family system with dysfunctional family roles, people from, oftentimes, early childhood, get kind of shuttled into various adaptive roles to support various parts of the system. And these roles, over time, tend to turn into like almost personality features or identities. And they have a almost global impact on the way that people relate to others, both inside their families and outside of their families. A lot has been written about different types of roles. There are many of them. But I'll just go over some of the most common ones so that you can think about, “Hm, is this me? Was this happening in my family or not?”

In dysfunctional family roles, there is quite frequently a perfect person who gets the gold stars—who is amazing, who is responsible and conscientious, and does not need to be told to do their homework, and will clean their room, and pick up after themselves, and kind of often inhabit like a caretaking role as well. Like “Oh, somebody needs to make dinner. I'm going to go ahead and do that.” Caretaking for other children in the family and generally like not needing a whole lot. It's this parentified child many times, but can also have a like achievement orientation. Like they can be stabilizing the family by virtue of being a gold medal winning figure skater at age 13 or gymnast. There are a lot of ways the perfect child can show up in a family.

In addition to having usually at least a perfect one, there is often a dysfunctional family role that is really more like actively a caretaker that is so caretaking, so over the top in terms of rushing around kind of over-functioning and doing things for other people that it can really be kind of an enabling role. That this person is really making up for the deficits of another, or kind of propping up another person that isn't really functioning fully.

If you recall, I did a podcast a little while ago around codependent relationships and what those look like in marriages and in families. Oftentimes, people who have strong codependent tendencies and find themselves falling into those patterns in their own marriages were the caretaker or enabler in their family of origin. And so they're very used to this like, “If I don't wake my mom up for work or make my little brother breakfast, mom might not get to work, or my little brother might not eat the breakfast. And so I need to be very vigilant and kind of like motivating everybody to do what they're supposed to be doing.” You often see that in families where there is a parent who is chemically dependent or has a substance abuse problem. Very, very common.

Additionally, dysfunctional family roles, there is usually at least one victim. The person who is having a really hard time, and who is being treated unfairly, and who isn't feeling good, and who went to see the therapist. But that therapist didn't give them good advice. “And I don't think that I like them anyway. So I'm not going to go anymore.” Kind of can have on like some murder-y sorts of tones, but often this person can have mental health issues in a family, or always sort of have a problem that makes them not feel good. It's usually the fault of someone else and that other people in the family need to sort of help them because they are not being treated fairly, and not feeling good, and have chronic migraines. “And I just don't think I could deal with this today.” That's sort of the victim-y kind of role. The victim person is, often in alcoholic or chemically-dependent families, the one with a substance problem because they need to have four glasses of wine at night to cope with the stress of their unfair life and the cruel world. And so they're just going to drink the whole bottle. You know, it's like that kind of mindset goes along with the victim mentality.

You will also commonly find a problem child in a dysfunctional family role. There's at least one kid in a dysfunctional family who is acting out, and being bad, and doing poorly in school, and is clearly the problem. And if only this child could get it together, all this stress would be reduced in the family. And so this is the kid who gets taken for therapy appointments to fix this kid. And the rest of the family is like, “What? We're fine. It's the kid that's the problem.” And that this can often be like a rebellious sort of angry child. And this could look like all different things.

There is very frequently and in certainly larger families where there is space for all of these roles to be inhabited. You will generally see a clown show up. The clown is the sort of irrelevant, irreverent, possibly hyperactive, usually entertaining and witty, good talker, can sometimes even be anti-social but gets away with it because they're funny. But it’s kind of this “look at me” kind of distracting force in a dysfunctional family. Often starts using alcohol or other substances as teenagers or young adults, but usually have a good time. And you can often also find a silent child—a lost child—in a really dysfunctional family.

And all of these roles make a lot of sense when you think about the way they work together, and variations of these roles can be found in lots of families. And also, just let me add that there is not a cut off line between a healthy, functional family and a dysfunctional family. It's not like an on/off switch. There is a spectrum. And in healthy, functional, happy families, you will also see people going into various family roles and sort of emotionally occupying these kinds of spaces, but in a very gentle way that aren't extreme.

They are also flexible. Yes, there's probably always going to be one kid that's a little bit of the gold star kid. But sometimes, that kid can goof off and eat all the Cheez-Its and not always have to be perfect, right? Or another kid can be the family clown and sort of the fun one but is also okay for them to have a sad day and tell their family about it. And that's all right. Like there's a flexibility to it. And in many families and in a parental dyad, one person notices when, “Somebody needs to buy stamps,” or “Has that bill been paid?” There’s that one person who's kind of the nerd, and the other person who's like, “I think we should go on a hike this weekend. You know, we'll clean the garage later”. So there's always this stuff, but it's gentle.

The person who's like, “Let's go on a hike,” could also say, “We are out of so many things. I'm just going to go ahead to the grocery store. You guys make a list. Let me know what you want.” Like, they can also be in that kind of functional role. And maybe the person who's a little bit more of the taskmaster can also say, “I am going to get a massage. You people fix yourself lunch. I'll see you later.” Like it's not rigid. There's space for people to be all kinds of different ways, even if primarily, they are usually the one that buys the stamps. It's healthy. It's flexible.

And so on the spectrum of healthy families on one side and more dysfunctional families on the other, at the lower ends of dysfunction., if we get into more extremes of dysfunction, is when you'll see a lot of rigidity around these roles. And they will be very extreme, that people are very much fully inhabiting these roles. And in really, really bad toxic family situations, there isn't even enough space for all of these different roles. You see three primary roles, and I'm talking about families in which there is abuse, very serious substance abuse problems. The roles are an abuser or an oppressor, a protector, and a victim, and that's about it. And people stay in those roles, and it is incredibly toxic and unhealthy for everybody involved.

And so we're not talking about that end of the spectrum. That if you've come from a family where that was happening, that is, you require specialized treatment, often in the form of trauma-focused therapy to recover from some of that stuff. And so, if you would like to learn more about that very far end of the pathology spectrum, you could Google—it's called the victim triangle based on Karpman’s work, which was in the 60s, I believe. So anyway, just that is not on the blog at growingself.com, okay? You want to Google that elsewhere because that's trauma. Trauma-focused work really requires a specialized kind of therapy that we don't really do at a Growing Self. But I wanted to mention that because if you have lived through that life experience, you probably should get that type of therapy. And I hope that provides you with some guidance about what to do with that.

But there is also quite a continuum of dysfunctional on one side and healthy on the other. There is a lot of space in the middle that, honestly, most families are kind of in, where not everybody is perfect, not everybody is fully actualized. Maybe mom and dad do have some issues, and you see some of these family roles popping up, but it's kind of like matters of degree. And the reason why these roles start to happen and perpetuate is because families are systems, like work groups are also systems. But families, because they spend so much time together, form these systems that maintain themselves because people react to each other's reactions. You've heard me talk about— if you’ve listened to the show before, you've heard me talk a lot about this dynamic when it comes to couples. And so like, husband and wife having reactions to each other's reactions that then elicit more reactions, that kind of keep that cycle going. And it happens between two people. But it also happens within a family in a way that it all sort of sticks together and works together.

So, for example, imagine a family of five, or seven, or however many, sitting around the dinner table, and the family clown falls out of his chair because mom and dad start to get into a tense conversation. Nobody else notices. But the clown immediately falls out of his chair and starts flopping around like a halibut on the floor. Everybody would be like, “What? What are you doing? Get back on your chair!” Right? And mom and dad are getting irritated with each other because mom is kind of drunk at dinner. So Dad is getting irritated. At the moment of the clown falling out of the chair, the perfect child will say, “Oh mom, I'm going to the national championship for fencing. I think, you know, and I'm also getting nominated to be the captain of the fencing team at school,” which in her mentioning that immediately soothes mom's kind of underlying anxiety.

Mom, the victim— she doesn't have to think, “Oh, maybe I'm drinking too much, and my family is suffering as a result.” Because she's like, “Look at this perfect child. I'm such a good mom. My child would not be this perfect if I wasn't such a good mom. I'm going to have another glass of chardonnay to celebrate this, as a matter of fact.” And so it like maintains the system. Now, mom also is probably drinking too much because dad is working nonstop. He's working ten, twelve hours a day. He's always preoccupied. He's kind of working himself to death and doesn't really have anything else to say when he gets home because he's exhausted, because dad is totally worried about making enough money to pay for the fencing lessons, paying all the bills, making sure that all the stuff happens, and that we can continue paying for this nice house in the suburbs to pacify mom, and her desire to be like good enough, and maintain her social status. And he is not getting any of his emotional needs met because he doesn't trust mom, who's a little bit erratic and doesn't believe that she's even competent to pay the bills if he did hand that over to her and let her be responsible for it. So he's kind of in that enabler, caretaker role in the family.

And then, there's the kid who is upstairs in her room as the family is eating dinner, refusing to come down because she is smoking pot out the window, and cutting her arm with a razor blade, and making melodramatic videos on TikTok, “Goodbye, cruel world,” to get fifty people being like, “Are you okay?” And the mom and dad are both very preoccupied because we have got to get her into therapy like right away, possibly residential treatment. And as soon as we do, that will be so much less stress because dad won't have to work so much because the kid will be on the other side of therapy. And how are we going to pay for residential treatment, which is like twenty thousand dollars? And so it's like all perpetuating, all perpetuating this.

And the kid with a problem has everybody's attention because she's clearly not okay and wait, there is— we have another kid right? Where? What is his name again? Oh, the one who's in the closet reading books with a flashlight? I think he's on, like, book 17 of some 27-volume sci-fi series that he's read for the fourth time. Who doesn't talk to people or plays video games for like 11 hours a day. Like, that's the kid that hides because there's no space for him to get any of his needs met.

And so when you— this is kind of stereotypical example. But if we look at this system with all the different parts, the sort of victim-y feeling mom, an enabling dad, a perfect daughter, clown son, another kid who's clearly having issues, and the silent child, like this is an incredibly stable family system. All of these people are in roles that support the roles of the other person. And it's very, very balanced. If any one person in the system started to change, or become more emotionally healthy, or self-actualized, it would be incredibly disruptive for the rest of the system because everybody else would be confronted by their patterns, by their difficult feelings. And it would be emotionally uncomfortable. And while we think of these family systems, I mean, none of these roles are good for anybody that I'm talking about. But they're familiar.

They're sort of safe. They're sort of known. Like, imagine if we start at the beginning and the clown kid, instead of falling out of his chair is like, “Mom, you're drunk. Dad, you're being mean to mom. What is going on?” That kid would get punished and maybe sent to his room, and maybe start turning into the problem child because parents cannot cope with that kind of confrontation because of their own unresolved pathology. They're like, “I'm going to make that kid the problem.” Right? As opposed to saying, “You know what? You're right. I am drinking too much.” Or dad saying, “I am totally emotionally unavailable and so focused on overfunctioning for your underfunctioning mother that I don't even know what's going on around here half the time.”

So, I mean, that kind of self-awareness and recognition takes an enormous amount of emotional health and emotional stability, emotional regulation skills. And in dysfunctional families, people can't do that. So everybody has to stay in their roles in order to kind of just get through it. And so, again, these things can exist on a spectrum, but that's why they become so inflexible is because as soon as somebody starts to change, it requires other people in the system to change. And what you can always expect in a family system is that if you try to change and have a healthy relationship with appropriate boundaries and a level of authenticity that would be considered healthy, if you bring those things back to a dysfunctional family system like, “Mom, I want to have a more authentic relationship with you. And I think that we need to have authentic conversations about how we're both feeling,” and you and your mom have been in dysfunctional family roles for a long, long time, your mom is going to be, “Why are you being so mean to me? You are so selfish. You always make everything about you. Don't you care what I'm going through?” And will essentially beat you back into that old position where you're like, “Oh, okay. Mom. I got a promotion at work. Did I tell you about that?” She's like, “Oh, really? Tell me more about that,” because that makes her feel good. That's what she wants from you. And so it's like through our interactions, these roles all get reinforced.

So going back to the original question that I posed to you, who does your family want you to be? And who did you have to be in your family in order to maintain the system? What did you get in trouble for? What did you get attention for? What did you get positive attention for? What did you get negative attention for? In our little story about the problem child up in the room, cutting her arm with a razor blade, and crying, and on TikTok, she's getting a lot of negative attention that is very functional for her. She's feeling loved, and cared for, and taken to therapy appointments, and all kinds of things. And people reaching out to her on social media telling her that there's so much to live for. That is negative attention, but it is attention, and it really works.

So it's like, “How is this functional? How is this working?” are always the questions to be asking. And also know that systems are always balanced. One thing that you will see very green and inexperienced therapist is looking at a family or a couple and seeing, “This is the person with the problem. And this is like the good, nice, functional person.” That is never true. People are always balanced. And you see it over and over again, even in a couple where like one person has the problem, they are “problem.”

And you see this like in recovery. So there was one partner who was abusing substances. They get into recovery, they do their treatment. They do the work. They get into this healthy place, and you will often see the codependent spouse who had been the one who was overfunctioning and so upset with their partner for not getting it together, like, as soon as they do get it together, the partner who had been over functioning, oftentimes, is all of a sudden like getting depressed, and withdrawing emotionally, and starting to wonder if they even want to be in this relationship anymore after all that they've lived through. Because now they are in the situation with a healthy, emotionally available partner who would like to have a authentic, emotionally intimate, sexually intimate relationship with them. And this partner, who was the overfunctioning, codependent one, had, in actuality, been very protected from any kind of vulnerability, or any kind of challenge to be working on their own stuff because they got to be the perfect one in the relationship when their partner was an alcoholic.

And now, all of a sudden their partner is saying, “Well, you know, how can we do this better? Here's what I need from you.” And that can be incredibly uncomfortable. That as difficult as that dysfunctional role was, in many ways, it felt safer and more comfortable for them than having to risk trusting someone or being vulnerable with someone who might actually be able to be emotionally available and responsive to them. Intimacy is very scary, and particularly, people who are coming out of dysfunctional families are very wary of authentic emotional intimacy. So don't ever think that it's— there's actually a good one and a bad one in a family.

You see this a lot like with the perfect children. The straight A valedictorian squash champion who finally goes off, gets into the Ivy League school, and goes off to college, and sort of immediately falls apart, and has to be hospitalized for anorexia, and suicidal ideation because they're eating like one crouton every day because they can't cope with all the pressure, and these sort of self-imposed things. And they're very, very fragile in actuality. Particularly when they're confronted with, like, “What do you want to do? What makes you happy? Do you really want to keep being the international squash champion or would you rather do something else?” Totally blows them apart when they have been in these very rigid family roles.

So there's a lot here. And if you're just sitting here trying to take this all in, I want to say, I know, I know that this is a lot, and these are very, very different ideas. These are family systems ideas. And there is so much that's been researched on this through the 50s, 60s, this whole family therapy movement in the 1970s. I mean, this is big, big stuff. And I feel like in our day and age when people want little quick, digestible nuggets of “tell me what to do,” or “tell me what to say,” or “give me a strategy for fixing this relationship thing,” again, it’s so tempting to say, “Okay. Try this. You unload the dishwasher Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He does it Tuesday, Thursday,” and whatever those kinds of superficial fixes are totally ignoring the whole foundation that a relationship is built on. And so when you go into these family systems ideas, you begin to see how they interact, how they impact people, and maybe even how they have been impacting you, whether you have been conscious of it or not.

And so this podcast is in no way intended to serve as the work itself. Right? I mean, to really be digging into this, and specifically what it looked like in your family and in your family currently, you know, it involves a lot of deep digging. Family therapists will do things called genograms, which is like an assessment of family roles. Different kinds of assessments, a lot of like structured interviewing to sort of flush out like, “Okay, who are you? And tell me about your brother,” and all these different things. We could do enactments, like recreating certain situations. But also, even, I think, through really solid cognitive behavioral therapy or cognitive behavioral coaching, we're still going into, “What are some of the core beliefs that you have internalized without being aware of it?”

You may have heard a podcast that I released a while ago about the shadow side. We're getting into, “What do you believe without knowing that you believe it? How do you automatically feel without fully being aware of why?” Oftentimes, our clues to our family of origin roles can be found when we feel dark feelings, when we feel guilty about things that we probably shouldn't feel guilty about. But if you find yourself feeling guilty anyway, there's a good chance it's related to a dysfunctional family role. Or if you're feeling angry, or victimized, or if you're feeling a lot of shame about something that happened, or anger towards another person—resentment. These are oftentimes clues, not always, but it's like— a good family therapist would be like, “Sounds like you feel guilty a lot and in situations that not everybody does feel guilty. And so let's pull on that string together and see if we can figure out why this makes sense that you would feel guilty when you know somebody else has a problem. Take me into this feeling. And how does this make you want to behave?” I mean, like these kinds of questions can begin to get into it.

And so, again, this kind of work is very much a process that's beyond the scope of this podcast. But it's also really important. And if you have been one of the many people that has reached out to me lately with a specific relationship question, “Dr. Lisa, what do I do in this situation?” Believe it or not, me talking about these things is an attempt to meet your need in a more meaningful and authentic way than providing you with sort of a superficial fluffy strategy that probably won't work, or at least not long-term. Like it might work for a little bit, but it won't create real and lasting change because the origin of the dynamic that is happening in your relationship or with your family member is worthy of deeper exploration. And whether or not you are aware of it, you are participating in this dynamic, and it is contributing to the result that you're getting.

And so, me telling you to say “please,” and “thank you,” or use I statements is not helping you understand what your role is, related to the current relational dynamic, or where it came from, and what is keeping that alive inside of you in terms of the core beliefs, in terms of your negative emotions, in terms of what you feel like you need to do in order to be worthy of love, and respect, or care, or consideration. And without that kind of awareness, you can't really take meaningful action because this isn't strategy; this is a growth process. I talked about my work that, again, I did not even know this was a thing until I was well into adulthood. And realizing that when I get stressed out, or when I'm feeling vulnerable, I tend to withdraw emotionally from my husband. And that was creating problems in our relationship.

And so I was like, “Okay. How do I make my relationship better?” And had to confront, like, why do I do that? And let me think about why that made sense as a functional part of my family of origin, and that that allowed me to be able to really change it. But even now, I still have to be aware of that when I'm getting stressed out or when I'm feeling threatened, and I feel myself kind of withdrawing. I have to very actively say, “No, I'm not going to do that. I'm okay. Say what you're feeling. Be authentic, trust this person. It's okay. You can talk about it.” And I kind of have to move myself into that space of who I want to be, which is hard won through a lot of effort and through not, I think, just the therapy strategies around realizing why but the coaching strategies around “How do I manage my anxiety in such a way that I'm able to stay in the ring with people, and be authentic, and communicate appropriately, and say what I want to say, and what I need to say?” I mean, those are our very real and deliberate relational skills that we need to learn.

So again, closing questions, “How do you react when you get stressed? How do you try to cope with anxiety or fear when you're feeling vulnerable or insecure in a relationship?” You see it in a lot of ways. People who feel unlovable and are worried that they're not good enough for that caretaking role, or even a perfectionistic role, you'll see them in relationships when they're dating, like with promiscuous sex, like kind of using sexuality as a way of gaining love or attention. Caretaking, over-giving to people, not having healthy boundaries with people, not being able to say no to people, coping by sort of gentle self-harming behaviors. Even like eating all the banana bread, or drinking too much, or sort of anaesthetizing themselves with various substances or activities.

And so, when you think about this and what you do when you're stressed, and who you feel like you have to be around your family, and contrast that with, you know, who do you get to be when you feel healthy, and safe, and emotionally accepted? Those are the clues. Those are the clues, and while they're not the whole answer, they're the breadcrumbs on the trail that can guide us to the ultimate truth. And, I’ll also share, I am a huge advocate for self-help. I believe that you can read books, and you can listen to podcasts, and you could do online classes, and get so much benefit from those. Journaling is helpful. It's all good. And I don't think that the answer to growth is always in private therapy or coaching.

But when it comes to tackling these kinds of things that we've been talking about today, we all have blind spots because these patterns and ways of relating are so ingrained. They're so baked into us that we literally have no idea that we're doing anything until we are in a relationship with someone who is either getting upset with us for being the way that we know how to be. And we're like, “What? What's wrong with you?” Or when we are in a relationship with someone like a therapist or a really good coach who can see what we're doing, maybe we start engaging in those kinds of behaviors with a therapist or coach, which is a thing it's called transference. Somebody shows up to my office with a loaf of banana bread, I am going to want to talk about why that just happened, and why they thought that that would be something that I wanted or needed from them. And like going into those relational kinds of patterns and doors.

So it's being in a helping relationship with someone who can shine a light on those blind spots and help us understand our own patterns and ways of relating because when those things are lifted up into the light, we can see all of it. We can see the good things, and the things that we're so grateful for, and the things that we love, and cherish about our families and about ourselves. And we can also see the old patterns that maybe we needed to do in our families but are no longer serving us well as adults. And then we can make intentional choices to do things a little bit differently so that we can get better results in our most important relationships.

So thank you so much for listening to these ideas with me today. And I hope that they helped you. Again, listening to me talk about this stuff is not the work. This is me standing here with you, pointing my finger in the direction of the road that you will need to walk down to achieve this growth process. But I hope that just by virtue of listening to this podcast, you are more aware that the road is there, and that there is an invitation for you to walk down it and do that work if you feel that it would be helpful on your journey of growth and personal development.

If you have follow up questions for me or would like for me to expound on another topic that would support you on your journey of growth, don't hesitate to get in touch. You can leave a comment for me on the blog at growingself.com. You can get in touch through facebook.com/drlisabobby or track me down on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby. And last of all, thank you so much, all of you who have left positive reviews for the podcast, either on iTunes or Apple Podcasts, or Spotify.

This is a labor of love for me. It is intended to help others. That's why we don't do advertising. I'm not doing affiliate programs or pushing weird things on you guys. It's really intended to be genuinely helpful. And your reviewing it or sharing it with others is the payment. You are paying it forward and putting this information in front of other people who need to hear it. When you leave a review or share it on social media, you are giving one of our fellow travelers the opportunity to stumble upon it. So thank you in advance for your generosity. In doing so, you just might change a life in the process. Thank you.

Okay, that's it. I'll be back in touch next time with another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. Bye-bye.

[playing Stars by Ayla Nereo]

 

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