Relationship Tips: Help Your Self First or “The Mesh!”
Many couples who come to me for help are what we shrinks call “enmeshed”—they focus more on giving their partner what they think they want, and the partners’ own needs get inextricably intertwined, like a mosquito mesh.
In a healthy relationship, I am me, and you are you (fancy that!). We’re separate people, who try to be aware of our own needs, to communicate them to each other, and to negotiate how to meet them—to figure out a “win-win.”
We’re with each other because we love and need each other, not NEED each other! People who come for couples therapy often want to learn how to be more “giving” to the other, but they’ve become resentful about “giving,” “loving” so much—not realizing that their assumptions about what the other person “wants” or “needs” may be inaccurate. (I call this an attempt to “mind-read”—maybe they need a psychic more than me?)
Sometimes this resentment is so strong that I feel like a referee at a WWF match, in which both fighters are at opposite sides of the ring, and I need to keep them from squashing each other. The partners are interrupting each other (remember The Mesh), yelling at each other, trying to prove who’s “right”—that is, who did what and when. (I’m still working on that one, despite my being the most psychologically-evolved gay man in town!)
If I try to help them understand each other, and they’re not ready, I know that they need to learn what their own needs are first. It’s hard for me to be really open to your needs—which may be in conflict with mine—if I don’t know what mine are.
When the couple seems too “polarized” (think North and South Pole), I may suggest that I do some individual sessions with each member of the couple. These sessions will focus on helping the member identify what they truly need from their partner. It may be a need for the partner just to listen without trying to “fix” it (I’m still working on that one, too, after coming home from a day of listening!). On the other hand, a partner may need and want advice. On the third hand, they may just want some alone time after a hard day’s work, before being available to their beloved.
It’s not easy to separate the strands of The Mesh—it takes delicacy, caring and patience on the part of each partner and the therapist. But it can work. I know this from years of working with couples, and—fasten your seatbelt—my own experience! Yes, Robin and I have been in long-term couples therapy, and have found it extremely helpful. (Many of you already know how nuts most of us in the mental health field are—but it doesn’t stop us from wanting to, and sometimes even succeeding in, helping other people!)
So don’t wait until the relationship is almost broken to go for help—there’s nothing to be ashamed of. If Doctor-Jon can go for it, so can you!
Jonathan Lebolt, PhD (“Doctor Jon”) is a licensed clinical social worker, psychoanalyst, and group psychotherapist specializing in relationship issues. He lives with his partner of 14 plus years, Rev. Dr. Robin Gorsline, and their princely pooch, Cocoa. Robin and Jonathan are proud grandfathers of a beautiful one-year-old girl, Juna. Feel free to contact Doctor Jon at his website.
My sweetheart and I don’t pay much attention to roles in our marriage.February 15, 2016
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