By Bernie Dunning, retired Marriage and Family Therapist
At one time in our history a family was defined and assumed to be mother, father and children. There were some exceptions. There were rich people who had nannies to take care of the children and became part of the family. During the First and Second World Wars, as a result of the death of fathers killed in action, mothers took full responsibility for the family. Sometimes there were sisters who took responsibility, and at times there was the mother and live-in friends. However, society still thinks about a family as being father, mother, and children.
There is one other factor which needs to be acknowledged, and that is the inclusion of the family of origin. These members of the family unit have an influence in the nuclear family we are discussing. I cannot talk about all the issues surrounding the family of origin since this would take up too much space. For the purpose of this article we will discuss primarily what is called the nuclear family.
As we move into the 20th and especially the 21st century families have become very diverse. The reasons seem to be three-fold: couples divorcing and remarrying, homosexual couples adopting and some having children with a surrogate, and since people are living longer siblings are experiencing one parent dying and the other remarrying. There are many single women bringing up families as a result of being financially independent, and not wishing to marry. It seems that our image of what is a family is becoming obsolete. However, I feel that the basic issues of family life are the same as they were from the beginning of time: that is creating an environment which allows each person to fulfill their humanity and their full potential. In this article I will focus on families that have multiple parents all trying to parent and help each other with family life issues. In my opinion the challenges today in bringing up a family require people to be more mature today than in the past.
The first challenge is to help children whose parents are divorcing to understand the basic reasons for the divorce. This is important because children are quite ready to blame themselves for the divorce. There needs to be a family meeting with both parents present to make sure the children do not take any responsibility for the divorce. Children may try to prevent the divorce, so parents need to be specific (without going into too much detail) and firm about their decision. This will help the children with their process of accepting reality. Children, especially young children want to know if their life going to change in any way. They want to know things like, will I still be able to have my friends? Will I still be going to my school, and will I still have my own room? You get the idea. For children life is concrete. The big question (usually without asking) is always and always will be “am I loved”? There should be as many meetings as possible, since there may be more questions in the second meeting.
The next issue for the children is who is going to take care of me? Do I get a say in where and with whom I will live? It may be because of lack of resources and limitations that everyone will not get entirely what they want. These issues need to be worked through. After all you may be asking the children to eventually deal with two sets of parents, and possibly have to relate to siblings they inherit. They may have to live in two homes at designated times. This will require both sets of parents to iron out basic parenting issues. Thus, frequent meetings are needed in order to sort through issues about parenting which will arise.
Some behaviours need to be avoided: first, not dealing with issues by sending messages with your child to the other parent (such as, “you will get the money owed to you next week”). Second, try not to get into the middle of issues between parent and child. If you start seeing your child as being persecuted by the other parent, do not get in the middle and be the rescuer of the situation. Stay out of the middle and try to let the two involved solve the issue. The solution they come up with may not be to your liking, but it will be their solution. If you try to rescue the situation, you will become the persecuted person in the triangle. The only time you need to rescue your child is if he/she is being abused or their life is being threatened. Third, try to be as specific as possible if the partner (who is not the biological parent) will have authority and if so, what authority will that be. An example would be, can he/she give out consequences for poor behaviour on the part of the child. Fourth, every adult needs to back up what consequences a parent gives out. Again, if there are issues, the adults need to get together to work through those issues. Fifth, the adult who is coming into the family as a stranger must refrain from trying to bribe the children to gain their love and admiration, and /or compete with the natural parent. This is important, because the child may play one against the other to get what they want. This scenario will lead to poor behaviour on the part of the child. Sixth, if you have feelings of rescuing the natural parent who is having a difficult time with his/her children, resolve those feelings, or do not get involved with this family. You will fail and do more damage than good if you do not resolve your feelings of rescuing.
Remember, all the adults are parents of the children. Even the person who is new to the children, and might not want to be involved as a parent, is being a parent by simply being there. It is impossible to not be a parent. He/she is living there and interacting with their spouse, and responding to life situations. Modeling is always occurring because children are always listening and observing. The adults of families are always giving messages to their children about life by just being. Therefore the adults in the family need to realize that parenting is an ongoing process. It never ends until children become adults.
Adults need to be open to each other and realize that their children want them to be happy and succeed in life, and to be there for them. They do not want perfect parents, and realize this is impossible. It is parents who have problems with the realization that they are not perfect.
Families are evolving. Regardless of how many parents are involved in raising children their task is to provide an environment that encourages those children’s potential and full expression of humanity.
Other very insightful articles on this website outline how women can become abused by men. This is (by far) not the only time partners are abused! Men are also abused by women, and gay couples can abuse each other.
When the abuse is between a man and a woman it is more often true that the man is abused verbally and/or emotionally than physically due to the usual difference in physical size and strength. But because women are far more likely to report physical assault than are men, and police (sadly) often believe women more often than men when they have been called to a situation of assault, men are usually afraid to physically respond when they have been assaulted by a woman. She may “only” slap him across the face or kick him (or worse) but these actions are also considered to be assaults.
Consequently men can find themselves in a situation in which they are a) being physically assaulted and b) dare not respond even to protect themselves and c) may not be believed or taken seriously when they report the incident to the police. What is he to do?
Regardless of whether the man is being physically or emotionally abused he needs to first firmly inform his partner that this conduct is unacceptable, to not accept any responsibility for her abuse of power, and to act on his belief that he deserves to be treated better than that. This usually means leaving the situation and letting his partner know that the conversation will not continue until such time as she can be respectful toward him. If he has been physically injured, regardless of whether he is believed, he needs to report this to the police. This may be a key step to helping her to finally get help, even if she is never charged.
In order to be strong enough to act with self-respect he will need to believe that he does, indeed, deserve better. Anyone who is abused has usually endured a history of such, so often lacks this self-respect or self-esteem. Professional help is often needed if friends or family are unable to reach him.
The best way to address a man who is being abused in any form is to let him know of your concern, that you love him and that you believe he deserves better. If he responds well to this then you may be in a place to listen to him say what he is experiencing, being careful not to try to counter his sense of shame but to appreciate that he is willing to risk this with you. Then he may be open to doing something about his situation.
Regardless of the gender, abuse is degrading and undeserving. Anger is usually fear-based (e.g. a fear of the mate leaving the relationship).
Help is available. Our agency runs a group specifically for women who struggle with anger. Our caring, informed staff are available to help anyone do better. Just contact us.
There are many forms of violence one can talk about. There is violence toward children on the part of adults, which includes sexual abuse. There is also violence toward women and men in the work place.
Here I would like to focus on violence toward women in intimate relationships. This would include adults dating or married or living in common law. This would also include heterosexual and gay and lesbian relationships. This article will not include women who are involved in prostitution and, as a result, are abused.
There was an article on the CBC news web page about family violence. The article reported that every 4 days a woman is killed by a family member. Here is the reference for the article, well worth reading (http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/family-violence-1.3815523). A book I highly recommend is called “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence” by Gavin de Becker. His main thesis is that, just like animals, we are programmed to be fearful and take measures to protect ourselves when we are in situations which may contribute to our harm. However, he says that because of our socialization we tend to over-ride these feelings, and tell ourselves we are being foolish and this cannot be. He says women especially tend to be socialized to nurture and take care of the other. As a result some women do not pay attention to their feelings of being at risk, and over-ride their feelings –at their peril. It seems to me that as a society, which includes the courts, there is some of this going on. In our minds we tend to minimize or even disregard statements made by women about fears of abuse or being abused depending on how sensitive we are to the plight of women regarding intimate situations. Even our language re-enforces control over the other in intimate relationships. Men and women talk about MY WOMAN, and women talk in terms of MY MAN. We even introduce ourselves by our position in life, not by who we are. We are introduced as “this is my wife” or “this is my husband”, and our name comes second. I contend that language is important because it speaks to our interior life of how we feel and see ourselves vis-a-vie the world.
There is a progression with regard to women being abused in relationships. The progression happens gradually. Usually the male sees himself as taking care of his partner, and is so insecure he is on the lookout for any act of his partner which seems like he is losing her. In his mind, dominating her becomes the safe way of keeping her, and he can take this attitude all the way to thinking, “if I cannot have her, no one can”. He does not see his actions as control but as caring for his loved one. However the more he cares (controls) for her the more she wants to distance herself from him (to be her own person).
In the beginning of the relationship this behaviour on his part is seen as loving and caring. He is always THERE, and being ATTENTIVE. The only request he denies her is when he decides she is not being logical and reasonable. He disagrees with her not because he sees the situation differently, but because she is being “stupid” or not “logical”. I think this is why others seem to down-play the woman’s complaints, because he is such a nice guy, and he speaks so flattering of her and is so caring.
Here are the steps a woman must be attentive to:
First there is the message received in the relationship that the woman’s thoughts and feelings are not valid, or “faulty”. The male partner becomes the authority on what are the correct feelings and thoughts to have about any given situation or experience. In my opinion this usually progresses gradually.
Second: Along with monitoring her thoughts and feelings he next becomes the “decider” on what is appropriate to wear, and when the house is messy. Along with being unreasonable, and illogical most of the time, the partner finds herself now being “provocative”, or “slutty” if she wears certain clothes. She is also now not a good house keeper. Control starts to creep into every part of her life.
Third: He always wants to move to isolated areas. This has a lot to do with controlling who she socializes with. He feels more secure when she has very few friends, as they may have, from his point of view, terrible ideas. Isolated, he has more of a chance to monitor and control her friends. At this stage of the relationship, when they socialize he becomes critical of her spending too much time with some males. He perceives her as always flirting, or being with friends who have the WRONG ideas. At this point she may start to stand up for herself out of her perception that she is being unjustly accused. Her opposition and his attempt to control turns into fights where he may start to put her down even more forcefully through intimidation.
Fourth: When they are fighting, the fight turns from words to physical actions such as pushing her, and grabbing her forcefully. At this stage when one asks the women, “Is he violent toward you”, she responds by saying no, “He only pushed me.”
Fifth: The fights become more violent in that the words and the pushing become more intense. He now hits her. The violence becomes more intense because she is not responding to what he wants from her. His ego is being threatened. He fears he will lose her, evidenced because she is starting to rebel. He also fears his friends looking at him in a critical way, meaning, “Why can’t he control his woman”? This means he is seeing himself as a failure, a shame he cannot tolerate. So now he now totally blames her for his misery. All these factors increase the violence. After violent fights, he apologizes, and promises he will never hit her again. His behaviour is meant to keep her in the relationship, hoping she will be more compliant.
Sixth: Now he is becoming desperate. He starts to threaten suicide because he sees her as not loving him. Or he starts threatening to kill her, and the children, saying if he can’t have them no one will. Gavin de Becker feels that murder between intimates is the easiest act to predict, because the perpetrator always tells her he will do it. De Becker believes that most victims and most of society over-ride the threats because of socialization issues. We are conditioned to believe that a family man would not do such a deed, even thought statistics indicate differently. I personally think that the reason authorities have trouble believing the threats involves their perception of the perpetrator. Most perpetrators are Anti Social, and their pain is very real. This makes them very convincing when they say they would not kill their spouse and/or their children. However, their pain is totally based in having low self esteem as well as seeing the other and society as totally responsible for their suffering.
I think that women who are in a situation where they are being threatened need to disappear from the area, and leave no trail of where they are going. Court orders will not work in these situations. His goal is to get rid of his psychological pain. Her goal needs to be safe.
These six stages are red flags to which women need to pay serious attention. Their decision to leave or stay, of course, needs to be their decision. I have encountered couples who have been in therapy, and the violence never happened again. However, even going to therapy needs to be looked at with some caution. It can be an opportunity for the perpetrator to blame the therapist, and seeing his spouse as aligning with the therapist against him.
It is also important to mention that some relationships stop at the second stage, and never go any further. In the end the spouse and society need to work at taking these red flags seriously, and realize the attitude and behaviour of men controlling women, of seeing women as something to be used, is very deep and has a long history. I hope this article will be of some help in moving beyond this attitude and the risks it endears.
All of us suffer from shame at times, but it turns up as embarrassment, anger, anxiety, fear, distancing, arguing, convincing, pleading, addictions, eating disorders, suicidal wishes, and much more! Most relationship problems are rooted in shame (communication problems are merely the symptom).
What can you do about it? Lots! Risking sharing one’s shame to another (if appropriate) can help -especially if the other does not try to ‘make’ us feel better but simply appreciates the courage it takes in sharing it. Obviously a skilled therapist can also help.
You can read the resources from a shame seminar (shame-seminar) and/or go through an exercise booklet (dig-deep-activity-2-0). Both were created by Mary Moore of our agency.
There are individuals who feel frustrated about their life because despite believing they are always doing the right thing, they keep on failing. They can’t maintain close relationships and/or they fail at their parenting efforts.
Tragically they may tend to pride themselves for being righteous. They are nice people, who work hard, and are usually successful in business terms. There homes are well kept, and they would feel terrible if other people saw their child misbehaving or their house untidy. If this were exposed they would feel so bad they would become extremely self-critical, and come down hard on their child who misbehaved or a spouse who left a mess.
Why? They tend to see everything around them as a reflection of how people see them. Unfortunately the more they work at controlling events and people around them, the more they feel events and people seem out of control! I am sure most of us can identify with this dynamic in our own life to some degree; however I am talking about an extreme: people who Freud would diagnose as operating primarily from their Superego. These are folks about which others would say: “God save us from people who are always right.”
These perfectionists focus on “Rules and Standards.” It is difficult to argue with them as they are mostly right!
These folk are quite rigid, and for the most part do not see “Gray” in human interactions. Ironically they often attract those who love “a good time,” but they end up judging their choice of a mate as “one who is not responsible.” This becomes another disappointment in his or her life, leading to yet even more rigidity.
They have a difficult time softening this outlook on life for obvious reasons. Why should they? They are always holding the moral high ground. They see change as compromising their standards, and thus not being true to themselves. They see behaviours as good or bad, and have difficulty opening to the possibility of having good and bad in the same behaviours.
For instance they would fail to appreciate that their son came home on time but instead focus on why he went to a place he is not allowed. That son would be questioned: Why did you do this? His struggle to totally obey his parent’s orders would be irrelevant. The focus would instead be on the disobedience.
The opportunity to learn about their son, and what difficulties he is having with his world, are thus lost. So, too, would the opportunity to recognize and affirm his effort of coming home. You can see that any affirmation of his effort is gone.
It is no wonder that this type of personality has difficulty sustaining emotional contact with other people! When a person experiences being alone in their world it is little comfort to them to hold the attitude that they are right about most (if not all) issues.
They confess in therapy that they give their spouse everything (new car, jewelry, and a nice house); yet the spouse still complains and is unhappy. The perfectionist complains that they give their children everything –yet the children are unhappy and always asking for more. They moan: “my children are never happy.”
The problem is they have a difficult time connecting on an emotional level. Being present to what is going on with a person’s internal life of feelings and emotions is extremely hard. I think this is a difficult area because there is no control about what might emerge nor how “these feelings coming at me” can be dealt with.
Here are a few tips on how to get out of this conundrum.
First: They need to understand and accept that they are lovable for who they are as a person, not for what they do. I think this is very difficult for the personality we are talking about. Claiming our own lovability is a process; it takes some a life-time to finally have the sense they are lovable for who they are as a person. This is important in order to stop feeling they have to do something to fix someone or something. Consequently this allows others to take responsibility for their own life. Which brings us to the next point.
Second: They need to begin to let go of taking responsibility for those around them, and to make sure others are always on the straight and narrow. They need to realize they cannot make their children happy, and understand that people choose to be happy. Learning how to play is very helpful in order to overcome the sense that they are being “irresponsible” when taking care of themselves. As they overcome this fear of being irresponsible they will eventually be able to enjoy the experience of play.
In other words, they need to better balance the inner dynamic of responsibility and playfulness. When these two qualities are out of balance we become unhappy people.
I notice that people who are stuck on one of these qualities tends to marry a person who has the other quality; they eventually end up hating each other because the responsible person becomes “super” responsible (and see their partner as being super irresponsible) while the playful person sees the other as being too controlling –and no fun! Therefore each person becomes more ‘married’ to their preferred way of functioning.
These two dynamics are key to a satisfying life: accepting oneself as a lovable person, and thus trusting that others will love us for who we are; and working at keeping a balance in our life between being responsible and playfulness. These are vital to not falling into the trap of being the Law and Order person, the fear that my family and others will be going to ‘hell in a handbasket.’ The other danger of not having this balance is eventually giving up on people, thus becoming a very lonely person.
Bernard Dunning holds an MA in Family Systems Counselling, and is a volunteer Board member with our agency.
On Wednesday of this week I was told by a client that she very much doubts she would be alive today had she not engaged in our services. She was not being dramatic.
Jacqueline Gautier, our Eating Disorders therapist, said that her clients are at an even higher risk of dying from that condition.
You can help us raise funds by simply becoming a member. How so? When you become a member (or rejoin) our agency we have a better chance at receiving the funding we need from the provincial government’s Gaming Fund. With these funds we can reach far more people whose lives or relationships are in crisis, making an even greater positive impact in our community (one that reaches as far away as Port Alberni and Duncan).
Did you know that we are the only agency in the mid-island area to offer eating disorders therapy for adults by a highly experienced Eating Disorders therapist? We have a growing reputation: we are about to take on an Intern who will be learning from Jacqueline, helping us to extend our services for the next few months.
Did you know that we’re the only agency in this region that offers a group that helps women use their anger more helpfully? And that we run a preventative program in a local high school that mentors teens while they learn practical skills? Or that we assist hundreds of clients a year with professional therapy?
We so believe in what we are doing that this year the agency will use at least $20,000 of our savings to keep the doors open and serve the growing number of clients.
We are hard working volunteers and staff. Our overhead costs are extremely small (over 95% of donations go directly to running programs).
We invite you to renew or take out a membership. It is by donation (suggested $5 for low-income to $20). The donation/membership direct link can be found immediately to the right. Any amount $20 or more will receive a tax receipt.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
As humans we seem to be drawn to seek control over our environment and ourselves. When we are infants, we immediately attempt to control our environment by making sure we are fed and changed. Later, we try to get our parents and siblings to do our bidding. Parents often talk about the power struggle with their children –their experience of not succeeding or celebrating the illusion of success.
As adults we talk about being in control of our feelings and our environment, be it work, play, or home life—but are we? People who seem to exhibit control all the time get a lot of praise. They are usually seen as strong people and are rewarded for not crying; or as people say, not “falling apart”. Usually women have been seen as weak for being “too emotional”, and have even been referred to as “hysterical”. They were traditionally hidden from unpleasant things and experiences.
However, this cultural norm seems to be disappearing. At this point, it is important to mention that as we grow up in our families, one of the tasks is to develop enough self-esteem to be able to deal with the eventual feelings of powerlessness or not feeling in control of our lives.
Those who are obsessed with controlling are usually called “control freaks.” They feel very anxious and vulnerable if they give up their attempts to have power and control over people close to them. Control and power gives them a false sense of well-being. However, power and control can be counterproductive, and even dangerous. Being obsessive about power and control can lead to a disorder called Anxiety Disorder, which can be treated with medication and/or talk therapy. One of the reasons control leads to a debilitating Anxiety Disorder is that it is impossible to feel powerful and in control at all times. A vicious cycle can occur: the minute we feel not in control, compromising our sense of power, we want to get our life back into control; yet there are just some times when this is not possible. So, we may become involved in behaviours which are fruitless: such as making sure things are done RIGHT; being authoritarian; and being in control of all situations. The more we may seem to fail, the more desperate we become, and then, we work harder and harder to try and get some order back into our lives. This can happen in all aspects of our life.
Here are some examples involving work and relationships. This article will concentrate on these two areas of our lives.
It happens at our job, when in the process of making things work, we start to feel we are losing control. We can become very authoritarian, ruthless, and unjust. This causes others to revolt, and then we feel we have to become more authoritarian. You can see where this pattern is going. It seems to be difficult for some people to cope with their feelings of not being in control. Instead of working with people, they compensate by being authoritarian and then create a tense work environment.
In relationships, we have the capacity to become violent when we feel unloved, and seem to be losing the ability to make our partner love us. This is the foundation of violent and abusive relationships. It is usually men who are involved in abusing women, looking to power and control to get their needs met. As a result of low self-esteem, we want to feel we have power and control over the person we love. This gives the Illusion we have secured our partner’s love. However, as we know, this sense of control and power can lead to abuse and violence toward the person we love.
Typically we tend to think the abusive person does not really love his partner. How could he love a person he always abuses? The abusive person loves his partner, but behaves in a way which destroys love. Because of his low self-esteem, he is always trying to manipulate the loved one, first through charm and excessive acts of doing for the other. Then, when the first signs of a threat to their love is perceived in his mind, he becomes controlling and authoritarian. The trigger could be his partner talking too long to another man at a party, or supper not being served on time. Women, as a result of their socialization, may over-ride their feeling of being in danger, and may believe that they can get this man to be the “giving person” he was in the beginning of the relationship. This type of thinking on the part of women can lead to disastrous results. For some men, even murder is not out of the realm of behaviors to set the relationship straight. (If I cannot have her, nobody can.)
Our culture warns us about thinking such thoughts, but we witness how some legal authorities and abused women will allow for excuses on the part of the spouse. We hope that the spouse will change based on his saying so. Our seeming inability to live with feelings of loss of control and power will inevitably lead us to the illusion that we can get control.
The above example is an extreme case, but many relationships do become abusive (i.e. being pushed, or being put down) as a result of not being able to respond adequately to the fear of losing a partner, and due to low self-esteem. It is important to recognise our feelings for what they are. This will help us to react in a way which will enhance the relationship –instead of destroying it.
Another situation which is of importance is having control and power over the children we are raising. Here again, this control and power we feel is an Illusion. In reality we do have control over our children, because ¬they allow it and want us to have control. Children and parents want to keep the bond they have with each other. Children want their parents in control, but eventually they look for areas in the relationship where, as they say, “they can be their own person.” This is natural but parents sometimes “dig in” to make sure they keep control. Then children revolt. This situation offers another mile-stone in the parent’s relationship with their children, and it is very important for parents to stay in communication with them.
However, if children are feeling they are being unjustly treated and feel they can never win, they will start to rebel in a serious way. Justice, like with adults, is very important to children. If at any time they feel they have no power in the relationship, they will show parents they cannot control them. In this situation there is no amount of punishment that will make them obey. The only way into their lives is to re-establish the bond. In some cases this can be quite difficult.
As you can see, no matter what the age, we may voluntarily allow another person to have control over us at any particular moment of a relationship. It is an illusion to think and behave in a way that communicates “you are mine,” and, “I always know what is best.”
Bernard Dunning holds an MA in Family Systems Counselling, and is a volunteer Board member with our agency.