Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Entering the Crucible

This is the first of a series of posts where I work my way through the crucible that David Schnarch describes in his book Passionate Marriage. I'm using the bullet points that he lists on pages 336 ff.

Look within your gridlocked issue or situation and extract your own unresolved developmental tasks.

Schnarch rephrases this as treating the gridlock as a personal dilemma to be resolved rather than as a situational problem.

The situational problem is the deep disagreement between my wife and me regarding sex in both frequency and activity.

The personal dilemma is my faulty belief system, the Nice Guy Working Paradigm, as stated by No More Mr. Nice Guy author Rober Glover:

If I can hide my flaws and become what I think others want me to be then I will be loved, get my needs met, and have a problem-free life.

I adopted this mindset long before I met my wife, and it is independent of her. Because it has nothing to do with her, attacking this paradigm will accomplish the key goal of focusing on self, according to Schnarch:

You'll lose your puffed-up sense of righteous indignation and you won't feel like a victim.

If you go back to the bulletin board threads that gave rise to this weblog, you'll be able to see my commentary reeks of both indignation and victimhood.

With the core issue identified, we are now able to ask the question suggested by Schnarch:

In what ways are you contributing to your own unhappiness?

Let me count the ways:

  1. I secretly place the responsibility of getting my needs met upon others by doing nice things for them and then expecting reciprocation. I then develop resentment when I don't feel like they have returned the favor.

  2. I let my life choices be governed by my fears rather than my principles, needs, and desires.

  3. I avoid expressing my feelings when I think they may lead to conflict and let them accumulate to noxious levels.

  4. I fail to set and enforce boundaries with family, friends, and coworkers. When people violate these boundaries, I wallow in self pity.

  5. I don't take the time to develop an awareness of what I really want.

  6. I worry too much about what other people, especially women, think of me.

By not asserting direct responsiblity for my life, I feel unfulfilled and disappointed. I place the blame for this unhappiness on others, especially my wife.

Coming next: How is this current situation particularly relevant for me?

Monday, September 11, 2006

2am Returns from the Wilderness

It's been almost two weeks since I posted here. There are a couple of reasons. I'll start with the more mundane of the two.

About a week and a half ago, I started to develop a sinus infection. For about a week, it proved to be a minor irritation. I felt awful when I woke up, but after getting into gear and taking some decongestant, I was okay. Over that same period, my daughters and wife took turns suffering a shortlived virus that involved fever and vomiting.

By the time Thursday night (9/7) rolled around, I was starting to feel chills and aches, so I thought that I was catching the bug. I took Friday off and spent that and the next day in bed fighting a fever that peaked at 102.9 oF. Interleaved doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen kept the temperature in check, but it refused to subside. On Saturday morning, a very sore throat was added to the mix.

On Sunday, I saw a doctor at an immediate care clinic. He did a strep swab and the culture turned up negative. He diagnosed me with a sinus infection that was going bad. So now I'm on an antibiotic through Friday and popping ibuprofen at regular times to keep the fever in check. I took today off because I wasn't fully up to speed yet.

Prior to being smitten by that plague, I was spending a lot of free time reading and digesting the book Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch (PM). I then cross correlated some ideas brought up in another book I had read just prior -- No More Mr. Nice Guy by Robert Glover (NMMNG). I find that these two books complement one another in a fascinating way, and they will become the philosophical core of my own therapeutic work from here on out.

Even if you strip out the portions on having really fantastic sexual experiences, Schnarch's book has some very keen insights on the dynamics of committed intimate relationships. The key, Schnarch argues, is to strike a proper balance between individuality and connectedness. Murray Bowen called this differentiation.

When you can't soothe yourself when dealing with your spouse or when you're relying on your spouse for validation, you're operating at a low level of differentiation, also called fusion. Problems kick in when there are disagreements. Each spouse bends and compromises in ways that do not hold onto one's self. Like a game of Twister, there comes a point where neither spouse is willing or able to bend further. This leads to a state of emotional gridlock.

Usually at the heart of the gridlock is a choice between two anxiety-producing alternatives. Because neither is partcularly attractive, we try to avoid making a choice, thereby having cake and eating it, too.

Scharch's book argues that this gridlock is what kills off the sexual dimension of marital relationships. Traditional sex therapy won't fix this problem because it focuses only on improving techniques. Mainstream marriage therapies won't do much good, either, because they are built around reinforcing the dependency of validating one another.

What is the fix then? Schnarch says that each member of the couple has to go about improving his or her own level of differentiation, a process he calls the crucible. The crucible is an individual process. You don't focus on what you think your spouse's problems are. You focus on the issues that contribute to the dilemma you are avoiding.

When one spouse goes into his or her crucible, the other spouse is faced with the prospect of going into his or her own crucible. That may result in resistance, but if the other spouse pushes forward, he or she must face down those issues, or the relationship will most likely come to an end.

I realize now that this whole project comes down to the simple two choice dilemma:

  1. Accept a sex life that will be infrequent, sterile, detached, and nonexploratory.
  2. Live a life as a divorced father of two children.

Both of those options give me anxiety. The first one seems like hell because I enjoy sex, and my drive is strong. The second one is difficult because it will be expensive, embarassing, and potentially damaging to the kids.

Going through the crucible for me will be to examine the unresolved issues in the dilemma and deal with the causes of the anxiety. This involves self confrontation, which can be a very harrowing experience, but it is necessary because you can't "hold on to yourself" if you don't have an accurate view of who you are.

Here is where NMMNG becomes useful. Glover introduces the notion of a nice guy. He describes them as men who operate under a flawed central idea: if they are good and do everything right, there will be no problems in life and all their needs will be met.

Superficially, they seem to be pretty good people, but operating under this skewed philosophy results in lots of unhealthy behaviors. They wind up getting nearly the opposite of what they want from life. Perplexed, they keep applying the belief with added intensity. Early on in the book, Glover lists the traits of nice guys and several of the common unhealthy behaviors they engage in. As I read the list, my jaw dropped when I saw how much I had in common with them.

Glover's prescription for recovery is to shatter the core belief through a series of "breaking free" exercises. The exercises encourage the nice guy to work on developing a truer picture of himself and embracing that self as fundamentally good. This allows the nice guy to stop relying on others for validation and take responsibility for getting his own needs met. The later chapters give concrete information about how this is done in different dimensions of life: relationships, sex, work, etc.

I believe that Glover has drawn up a roadmap that certain kinds of low differentiated males can use for going through Schnarch's crucible. In fact, Peter, a client mentioned in Chapter 11 of PM, probably would fit the bill of a nice guy. Ultimately, Peter found out that his wife, Audrey, didn't want to have sex with him because she didn't respect his passivity. She went through some pretty tortuous mental gymnastics to convince her husband that she just didn't enjoy sex at all when the opposite was true. She loved having sex with assertive men. She had done some bad boys just before they married and then a couple more in affairs.

So, I am embarking on a difficult stage during the six-month countdown (which stands at 5 months, 3 days). I will be entering my crucible to confront myself. I will no longer worry about what my wife is or isn't doing to improve her sex drive. That doesn't matter any more. What does matter is that I stop letting my life be driven so much by fear, and let my true self do the guidance.