It was with great sadness that I heard today of the closure of Relationships Aotearoa, something only decided upon this week as talks between the Government and Relationships Aotearoa broke down. RA is New Zealand's largest psychotherapy and counselling provider, with 60 locations, 183 employees, and 7000 clients. Furthermore, they have been known as specialists in relationships and couple's counselling, having trained many other practitioners in Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples.
Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley has explained the government's position by focusing on dysfunction within RA, and has said that it is not the taxpayer's responsibility to take up the slack for poor financial management by RA.
Unfortunately this is a scenario that I have witnessed repeatedly under National Governments. Rhetoric about efficiency and hostility towards the public sector from the National Government has put immense pressure on social service and health organisations. I am convinced that the effect of funding and contract uncertainties, and closures, is anything but efficiency.
It has become normal within counselling and psychotherapy agencies to function under the considerable stress of funding uncertainty, and for the individual employees, loss of livelihood. The National Government would like us to think that this is the market delivering us taxpayers efficiency, through healthy competition.
What I have seen and heard about in many counselling and psychotherapy agencies is clinicians becoming debilitated by dealing with this additional pressure on top of dealing with the stress and pain that their client's bring them to work with. Research on burnout in mental health professionals includes various studies, a UK study showing that 21% to 41% of professionals at any one time report high levels of emotional exhaustion. When these staff burnout, they become more physically and mentally sick, less effective, and become more rejecting and judgmental of those that they are supposed to be able to help. I have seen agencies waste countless hours of their staff's time managing the stress of financial pressures, rather than be able to do what they do best - help their clients. Clients get switched between clinicians due to closures or difficulty with staff retention, often negatively impacting their emotional healing. In summary, clinicians are hurt and are less effective due to constant funding uncertainty delivered by the National Government.
By Anne Tolley's own admission, these sorts of "efficiencies" are likely to continue. Whilst the RA closure is nation-wide, Christchurch is particularly in need of steady and effective support whilst in post-earthquake recovery. Tolley mentions the shift of funding to families and young children. While this is supported by our increased understanding of developmental neurobiology, what we have also learned from this field is that babies and young people do not develop in isolation. I am sure that the clinicians at Relationships Aotearoa have helped thousands of young New Zealanders by ensuring that they never have to be impacted by their parents abusing each other or physically fighting.
Mental Health professionals play an absolutely vital role in New Zealand society. We rightly expect high standards of them, when the lives or the happiness of those we love are at stake. Do we give them the support they need in order to fulfill our expectations?
To understand more generally about the concept of defence mechanisms, and how they relate to psychotherapy and counselling, please read prior posts in this series. To learn more about the defence of this post: sexualisation, please read on.
When we use the defence of sexualisation we imbue something (or someone) with sexual significance in order to avoid our anxieties around feelings such as aggression, dependence, or loss. Like other defence mechanisms, there is something remarkable about our capacity to do this. We not only avoid experiencing something painful, but through the pleasure we receive through the sexual association, we may actually be able to make that experience pleasurable. In general, a psychotherapist or counsellor will only confront a client with their defence if it is hurting them. This seems worth pointing out given our propensity to make judgements around sexuality. Sexualisation isn't bad, and is not something to be ashamed about, but sometimes it gets in the way of living a fulfilling life.
To clear up another possible misconception, the defence of sexualisation is quite a different concept from the concern about people (usually children or women) becoming sexualised. According to Duchinsky this different and later use of the term sexualisation developed in the USA in the 80s, to describe a maladaptive form of socialisation which causes a premature entry by the child into adult forms of sexual subjectivity and desire. It seems likely that many of those who have been prematurely sexualised in this later sense of the word will then resort to the use of sexualisation as a defence mechanism, but they are different ideas.
To bring this out of the heady realm of theory, it might be useful to give a couple of common examples of the defence mechanism of sexualisation. Because men are often taught that we must be independent, many of us feel uncomfortable with dependence. But, inescapably, being social animals, we are dependent on others for social connection. When men who are uncomfortable with their need for dependence feel lonely or disconnected they may sexualise this threatening sign of dependence. Instead of seeking out intimate emotional connection, they may go out on the town looking to "get laid" and having the sort of sex that leaves them feeling more empty and alone than ever. (This pattern is not restricted to men, but seems more common in men due to masculine socialisation to be independent.) In extreme form this can result in men (or women) seeking psychotherapy or counselling for sexual addiction or other sexual problems that are really problems with emotional intimacy.
A more common example of the defence of sexualisation amongst women can arise in women who have been taught in one way or another that women are weak and men are powerful. Such women, being afraid of powerful or aggressive men, may sexualise this fear to the point where they instead feel attracted to powerful or aggressive men. Another side effect of this is feeling understandably envious of the power that men are perceived to (and may actually) have. This form of sexualisation is actually the basis of Freud's much maligned and misunderstood concept of penis envy, which (depending on how you interpret Freud) can be seen as a sympathetic and understanding view of the terrible impact on women of patriarchy. Women (or less frequently men) who sexualise in this way often come to psychotherapy or counselling having had a string of very painful relationships with men.
Most of us find talking about sex uncomfortable, perhaps especially if we're talking about a difficulty that relates to our experience of sex and desire. This means that often in therapy I've noticed that clients talk about everything other than sex. Therapists may be hesitant to ask about sex, out of fear of this being interpreted as dirty or seductive or leading by their clients. On the other hand, because of many of our shyness about discussing sex, if a therapist doesn't ask, often a client won't talk about sex. It's difficult. In couple's therapy, talking about sex can be particularly complicated, as sometimes the sexual topic that one couple feels they need to bring up, is the source of great shame for the other. There is no easy fix for this, but having a therapist who feels comfortable talking about sex, does help.
Though it's not developing at the break-neck speed of the physical or biological sciences, research is developing our understanding of what helps relationships to work, and why. As a couple's counsellor or therapist I was reading the research summarised below to help me to help the couples I work with, though you may find that you can directly apply these findings to your own relationship and get some benefits. Research summarised in psychology today affirms that couple's therapy does work, and looks at first factors that give the most benefit.
Though this is a list for couples therapists, none of it is anything that you can't improve on your own. On the other hand, if you would like a helping hand with this, please get in touch with us!
I've noticed that the recent tipping of the beautiful Christchurch weather into rain, wind, and grey skies has had an effect on my mood. I find myself feeling slightly more serious, a bit more withdrawn, and a little bit somber. (You don't have to worry about me though - I'm not getting depressed, and as a therapist, I'd know!)
We all know weather affects our mood, but interestingly, I rarely meet people who are angry at the weather. We don't tend to look up at the sky and shake our fists in anger at it, even when the weather really has ruined our day or our plans. I think we don't get angry at the weather because we don't personalise it. There's just no point getting angry and geared up to fight the weather, because it really is hard to convince ourselves that the rain is coming down out of a sense of spite and malice or intent to personally hurt us. It's just laughable. This makes bad weather generally a nuisance, but nothing more than that, because we don't add an extra layer of suffering through getting angry and getting into conflict with the weather.
What if we could similarly avoid unnecessary suffering in our relationships? Actually, it is possible. By talking through in therapy our rationale for our anger, we can familiarize ourselves with it, and then often let it go. For instance, if I get angry at my partner, and realise that a belief that reinforces that is that my partner takes me for granted and exploits me, then in therapy I can really examine that. Are there other possible explanations for his or her behaviour, explanations that may move us towards compassion rather than anger? Or, on the other hand, maybe my explanation that my partner exploits me is actually correct, but, will I be better served by examining my own complicit patterns of naivete?
Through therapy we can develop the capacity for emotional balance, in which we may be affected by the storms of our life, but do not become pulled into fighting ourselves and others unnecessarily.
Doing sex therapy, either individually, or as a couple, often involves looking deeper into the meanings that we may give sex, without even realising it. Here is a partial list of some of the meanings that people give to sex: love, lust, enjoyment, stimulation, connection, comfort, duty, conquest, competition, validation, entertainment, work, distraction, relaxation, attention, security, reproduction, reward, and affection. This partial list can give you a little bit of a sense of how complex sex can be.
We rarely directly discuss the changing multiple different meanings each partner can hold around sex, and how these meanings and needs might best be fulfilled. Sex therapists are trained to help you to talk about these sensitive and personal topics in a way that is likely to get things unstuck in the bedroom, and out of it.
Mindfulness is becoming increasingly well known in the west, and it utilised in spiritual and religious practice, but also in physical and mental health care, social services, education, even in the military and business worlds. Mindfulness can also help your relationship, and you don't have to see a couple's therapist to get these benefits.
The basic practice is to be still, bring a relaxed yet focused attention to your breath, and gently release distracting thoughts, feelings, or sensations. Try doing this for ten minutes. It's endlessly subtle, but you can do it. Release any judgements about whether you're getting it right, or what it's supposed to feel like.
Try doing this for ten minutes with your partner, then spending ten minutes after that by using the calm non-judgemental mind that you've cultivated, to talk with your partner about the important stuff. Stick to the time limits, and take responsibility for your own mind. When you get pulled into judgements or reactivity, let go!
Let me know how it went by leaving a comment, or sending an e-mail.
Addiction has some common themes, regardless of the object of addiction. It often lives in the middle of intense, mind bending denial. It is fed by and lives in shame and guilt. It is fiercely protected by the person who is addicted, and it is often the very last thing to be sacrificed. It is incredibly contentious, and often better to not call addiction at all - after all, who wants to be the implied "addict." Often in the focus on addiction, those who are missed are the partners, children, and family of the person who is addicted. If that's you, these are some points to consider:
You are powerless over your loved one's addiction, but you are not powerless. You have choices that you may not be able to see, and you may benefit from working with someone who understands relationships and addiction.
You have probably become incredibly adapted to living with the addiction, by small increments, over a long period of time. You may not be living out of your own values at the moment, or even be sure what your values actually are.
It may help you to take stock of the impact of the addiction. Make a list of the ways the addiction but helps and hurts. You could do this in regard to the ways your loved one is helped or hurt by the addiction, but more importantly, do this list regarding the ways your are helped or hurt by the addiction.
I got to thinking about this after I heard that in relationship is the easiest place for us to hide our selfishness. Often we're so much more ready to examine other parts of our lives. It might seem self evident, or strange to ask the question: what is my relationship dedicated to? Is it dedicated to comfort, stability, pleasure, love, intimacy, liveliness, predictability, perfection, appearances, spirituality, fending off loneliness, filling a void? What's the default thing that my relationship is dedicated to? What would I actually like to dedicate it to? Have I ever discussed this with my partner? Would I be willing to do so?
Lots of people are waiting until their relationship gets bad enough to leave. It's sad, painful, but I suspect not uncommon for at least one partner to be doing this weighing up on a daily or weekly basis. More constructive is to be considering, have things gotten bad enough for us to get some couple's therapy? This is still a painful question to ask oneself, and each partner may have different degrees of willingness to try relationship counselling. Sadly, the number one issue for couples coming to couple's therapy is simply that their issues were workable, but they've left it too late. It's often the therapist's sad job to preside over the end of a relationship, rather than to help heal the relationship. We don't completely neglect our house or car until it explodes or falls down. We understand that these things require maintenance. How about our most important relationships?
We're all control freaks in relationships, whether overtly or in really subtle ways that don't look like control at all. To work with issues of control in your relationship, or to just have fun, try this. Buy a big roll of paper, or tape together a few big sheets of paper, get some large tubes of cheap school grade paint, and a range of cheap brushes. Set aside an hour to paint, together with your partner. it doesn't have to be beautiful, correct, tidy... in fact it doesn't have to be anything in particular. While you're working get into each other's parts of the artwork. Notice what comes up for you when this happens. Talk about it afterwards. You won't create a masterpiece, but see if you're able to let go of control a bit, and make a mess. If you feel drawn to do this again, you could agree on any topic regarding your relationship before you start. Then forget about it. Your artwork will still be a reflection of the topic you've named.Try trust, sex, aliveness, or intimacy, if you're not sure what to start with. Happy creating!