Sharon Coulter, MA, PPS, MA LMFT is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist.
Holding on to our sense of self in loving relationships is a tough act. The process of individuation is the key to our emotional maturity and renders us able to balance our desire to please another with our drive to do what feels right for ourselves. Family dynamics either hinder or support our individuation. Think about it: As a child, were you encouraged to think, feel, and act as an individual? (Do not confuse independence with individuality). Or did your family demand for the most part that you cooperate and that you please them in order to be accepted and loved?
If this balancing act were not difficult enough in our families of origin, it becomes more precarious as we move into adult relationships with partners and spouses. As our partner grows in importance to us, so does the struggle to cooperate with him/her and stay true to our sense of self discovery and innate need for expansion. It’s easy to understand this dilemma when we recognize that of all the needs we have, loving relationships are the most critical for our happiness and well being. We are social beings who desire and require connectedness with others to thrive.
The struggle to remain connected while holding on to our sense of self can cause great confusion for couples because they are unaware of what is transpiring. When one is repeatedly succumbing to the needs of the other for the stability of the relationship, the toll can be physiological and emotional. In truth, the “pleasing” partner is out of integrity with him or herself because cooperation is taking place at the expense of individuality. A therapeutic term for this kind of relating is fusion or emotional dependence – not to be confused with love. The more emotionally dependent we are on our partner, the more we are going to be threatened by their potential rejection.
What makes this dynamic even more complex is the fact that we tend to choose a partner who possesses a similar level of emotional maturity to our own. One partner may predominantly acquiesce; one may predominantly control; and both may frequently disengage, but all these behaviors reflect an emotional dependence that slowly erodes the relationship.
If this is sounding like you or your relationship, take a breath. With awareness and the willingness to take action, change is always possible. The following are some ideas to consider if you recognize your weak sense of individuation is hurting your relationship and requires work:
1. Learn ways to manage anxiety/hurt instead of running away from it or putting oneself/another down.
2. Become aware of tendencies to catastrophize and awfulize situations. Check out your motives for doing this.
3. Look at your boundaries. Are they healthy? Are you able to speak up for yourself in a respectful way and state a difference of opinion?
4. Get to know yourself better – your values, beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses — and see them as opportunities for expansion.
5. Find ways to increase your self esteem.
6. Practice communicating your needs with others – friends, family, and your partner.
7. Stop taking what your partner or another does personally – then you can better understand what’s going on.
8. Become aware of tendencies to withdraw in your relationships and explore what’s happening—what emotions are coming up for you when you do this.
9. Consider your childhood experiences and how some of those may be triggered today – especially with your partner.
Welcome the difficulties that arise in relationships – don’t panic. They are your indicator and opportunity for growth and personal transformation.Take responsibility for becoming a better YOU — you’ll be amazed how your partner and others around you change as a result.
For children, when they experience death of a parent, grandparent, sibling or best friend, we often are ill-equipped to know how best to help them. In my work as a psychotherapist and grief/bereavement counselor, I share the following fundamental tips with caregivers.
- Don’t use euphemisms. For example, don’t talk to the child about death as sleep. Research has found that children become afraid to go to bed, because they worry they might not wake up.
- Don’t avoid the reality by saying the deceased has “gone away.” At ages 7/8, children can understand that death is universal, irreversible, and has a cause.
- Don’t say God has taken the child because God could become something to fear/hate. If the family believes in an afterlife, the child needs to understand that concept for this explanation to be helpful.
- Do understand that the child may show anxiety for some time. This may look like sadness, irritability, acting out, mentioning death in conversation at odd times, difficulties sleeping, upset stomachs or headaches. School performance may also decline for a time as children may have difficulty focusing on their work. All are normal coping patterns and part of the grief process. Show love and understanding. Have the child see a pediatrician if symptoms are not diminishing.
- Do be honest. Don’t tell lies about how the person died and keep explanations very simple. The child may well need you to repeat them over the course of time. An exception to this would be if the child is young and will not understand the cause of death or it seems inappropriate to tell the child the cause of death, e.g. death by addiction or suicide. If you are unsure what to say because of the circumstances, speak with a grief counselor.
- Do let your child cry. Crying is healthy and releases hormones and energy that promote healing. Telling your child to stop crying or “be strong” will only result in emotions being released in other ways – often through anger.
- Do let your child know that family and friends are also sad. If the child is school age, do contact the school counselor and the child’s teacher and let them know what has happened so they can give the child extra support, time, and attention.
- Do talk about the deceased person. The healing is in the talking and the memories – difficult and happy ones.
- Do create traditions to celebrate the legacy of the deceased person. These can be simple or on a larger scale. Let the child be a part of the creation of these.
- Do consider that a bereavement group for the child may be helpful after a sufficient amount of time has passed. Explore the options in your area.
- Do find books to help the child process what has happened and their emotions. Your local librarian can provide you recommendations.
- Do remember your own self care. Parents/caregivers are often so quick to get the child help. Remember, you can only help the child if you are getting the support you need to navigate this extraordinarily complex journey.
May 14, 2022
While the divorce rate dropped 18% between 2008 and 2016 and is currently around 32%, divorced individuals meeting new partners continue to come together with their children and attempt to “blend” families. Though best intention may be at the heart of the desire to bring two families together, successful outcomes seem few and far between (with more anecdotal than hard research data available). As a therapist who does work in the area of grief and bereavement and has a blended family, I feel the complications in trying to unite two families are mostly tied to themes of loss.
The potential pitfalls that blended families will have to navigate are complex. Here are the top 10:
- Conflict over differing boundaries – what is and isn’t okay in each family.
- Confusion and anger about differing rules and consequences.
- Loss related to the definitive ending of a child’s original family constellation is triggered (children usually hold out hope that biological parents may unite).
- For children to embrace a stepparent may feel like a violation of loyalty to the child’s biological parent.
- For children whose parents have been divorced for some time, the introduction of a new spouse may feel like another loss and bring up fear that they will be loved less (children tend to think of love as finite). Anxiety and depression may manifest.
- Sharing of one’s home, personal belongings, community space, bedroom may trigger anger and further feelings of loss for children.
- Children may feel pulled in many ways in terms of their role as they go back and forth between biological parents and try to navigate different households.
- Parents may struggle to form attachments with their step children and stepchildren may struggle to form attachments with their stepparents.
- Relationships with ex-wives and ex-husband’s take on another degree of complexity for adults that affect the children.
- Financial equity of all children may be especially difficult when ex- spouses are involved.
My goal in highlighting these difficulties is not to deter people from attempting to blend families. The blending of families can benefit children in many positive ways and provide stability and a healthy environment that was previously missing from their lives. However, what most families fail to do is enter counseling prior to blending in an effort to anticipate and resolve many of the issues above, which may be further complicated by children’s ages, ethnicity, and cultural and religious factors. Instead, couples forge ahead hoping that love and patience will be enough.
Hopefully, this blog will help adults have a deeper understanding of the potential issues that may arise. If you’re contemplating blending your family, I encourage you to work with a mental health professional who has experience in this area and who can help guide you and your loved ones in a way that will support the best possible outcome for everybody. Anticipating issues, talking them through, and figuring how to handle them before they arise is key.
Reference: University of Maryland; The Coming Divorce Decline, Philip Cowen, https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/h2sk6/