It’s that time of year when that rosy-cheeked, potbellied, bow strung Valentine’s cherub reappears. As you weave your way through heaving Hallmark stands I invite you to consider the question raised by the old tunesmith: ‘what is that thing called love?’ There are few things harder to prove than what love is but we sure know what it is when we feel it… or do we?
The title of this opinion piece is taken from a play that ran about 15 years ago in the now defunct Andrews Lane theatre. My wife Ruth and I went to see this comedy and the one thing that remained with us was the title. It has become a get-out-of-jail card in our relationship when we hit a speed bump. Some of you may find, like we have (and others whom I have shared this idea with in my work as a family therapist) that this can be quite a life saver. It helps to offer relief when you are dangerously digging a bigger hole through saying or doing something which you may regret when the dust settles.
In these moments of relationship ‘farce’, Ruth or I will often play our ace. One of us will operatically sing with exaggerated feeling ‘I love you your perfect now change!’ The person being serenaded usually starts to laugh and certainly begins to take themselves a little less seriously. Once humour starts to flow the issue begins to shrink.
I would like to offer some ideas which have the capacity to turn your relationship world upside down. Henning Mankell said that ‘sometimes the truth needs to be turned on its head to see its correct structure’. Surrounded by so many half baked notions is it any wonder (like the band Foreigner) we struggle to know what love is?
The first idea I would like to describe is the ‘compatibility myth’. Oh if I had a penny… when as a therapist I heard someone say ‘the problem is we are just not compatible anymore’. To those who have entertained this notion I reply: ‘Hallelujah and welcome to my world… the good news is that no couple is compatible’. This is greeted with relief as I describe how every couple has to find a way to manage incompatibility and explain that the ones who make their relationship look easy have usually put in the most work.
So if it’s a given that you will not agree on everything (or anything!) with your partner, you can take the ‘compatibility’ pressure off yourself. Freed from the performance anxiety to always get along with each other, you will ironically find yourself more capable of getting on. Where did the idea come from that you must agree on everything with each other anyway? Instead of taking offence, why not give grace? Who cares if there were seventy people at the party or merely fifty? Does it matter if the wallpaper is more orange than yellow? What’s at stake is far more than who’s right or wrong – what’s at stake is the perception we start to shape in our imagination that we can manage our incompatibility.
The second idea I’d like to share is the ‘arrival fallacy’. This is the belief that when you get that home, car, promotion or have children then and only then, can you really start living. It has been well said that ‘it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive’. Couples are often so busy building a future for themselves that they steal away the joy of the present, which is actually all you really have. How can you say with confidence that when you arrive at a point in time in your life you will know for certain how you will react? Do any of us know ourselves that well?
Why not challenge the perceived wisdom that external things should govern your internal state? How can you start to invest in your relationship today, not tomorrow? Remember, small differences create great change. Acts of kindness expressed to each other along with taking the time for perhaps 15 minutes per day to talk to each other about how you are doing, can go a huge way in conveying the importance of the relationship in a meaningful practical way.
We all know what it’s like to feel that we are living off the scraps in a relationship. If everything else gets the steak and the relationship is asked to survive on what’s left, the relationship will either limp along or collapse. If as a couple you place all your eggs into any external basket, don’t be surprised when you arrive at your destination to find you built pyrite foundations.
The third idea for your consideration is to imagine what it would be like if you were married to you? How much fun would that be? Perish the thought! Even the vainest egotist will, concede that ‘it can’t be easy being married to me’. Relationships are full of contradictions. This is why the one we love can hurt us the most and why best friends can become sworn enemies. You may remember the Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas starred movie the War of the Roses? This movie highlights how a loved up couple go from walking down the aisle to literally trying to kill each other. Here we see, beautifully enacted, where the pursuit of heaven ends up in hell.
You might believe that ‘if I could only iron out my partners creases then all would be well’. However not a single one of us has a monopoly on the truth or can see through every issue clearly. Many couples avoid trying to resolve issues because when they tried previously they ended up going round in circles. The art of compromise involves reaching a joint decision which both partners fully support, often in spite of neither person getting everything they desire.
What about the old chestnut which we often hold on to and rarely express directly, ‘Why can’t you just be more like me?’ Consider for a moment, when as part of a couple relationship, you feel you are not getting what you want. Is it not invariably so that your partner feels the same? How often have you thought ‘Oh if only s/he could see things my way, then all would be well’.
From this perspective of righteous indignation you can feel like the guy, who having broken through one wall with his head asked himself ‘what do I do now in the neighbouring cell?’ Of course you can choose to rally against the injustice of it all or emphasise how misunderstood you feel, yet all the while love will feel even more elusive. Or instead you can remind yourself that no one sees the full picture and your partner’s viewpoint matters to them as much as yours does to you. In relationships an issue for one party is an issue for both, wise is the man or woman who acts on this basis.
I would now like to offer a brief thought on the role of managing emotions in relationships. As emotional beings sometimes when we get what we want we feel that it’s not what we want anymore.Our emotions change like Irish weather. You have a choice: you either allow emotion to control you or learn to control your emotion. If emotion is the tail that wags the dog in your relationship then strap yourself in for a rollercoaster ride. Love is not a feeling it is an act of the will. Emotional maturity involves choosing to act lovingly even (or particularly) when you don’t feel like it. If that sounds trite, try it on for size to experience how much you control your emotion or how much it controls you.
Intimate relationships can be fantastically invigorating and at times extremely hard work. Think of how you can shift between these two states in a heartbeat. In relationships you can use each issue as an opportunity to confirm your belief that you are just not compatible and pull that parachute cord. Alternatively, you can inject some imagination into proceedings. Simply accept the invitation to creatively manage the inevitable incompatibilities which will arise. Resist the temptation to defer hope until you arrive, remember it’s the journey not the arrival. What’s the point of a relationship if we don’t pause en route to smell the roses? Lastly, if even you can admit it would be little fun if you were married to you, spare a thought for your long suffering partner. Rest assured the thought has crossed their mind too!
DON BOARDMAN: Don is a Senior Family Therapist/Supervisor. He has worked in Hesed House Psychotherapy service since June 2009 as a Family Therapist. Since becoming a supervisor in 2011. Don has continued to supervise individuals and groups of both systemically trained and non-systemic professionals.
At the start of 2011 Don began to collaborate with Padraic Gibson, Director of Hesed House in researching the efficacy of an Advanced Brief Strategic Therapy model. This research on OCD has been published in the British Medical Journal. Don and Padraic were invited by Imelda McCarthy and Gail Simon to contribute a chapter to their 2016 book ‘Systemic Therapy as Transformative Practice’.
Don is particularly inspired by the early pioneers in the systemic field and feels a particular affinity to the work of Paul Watzlawick. Through his research and practice Don endeavours to channel the same spirit of creativity and adventure which early systemic practice was immersed in. He also seeks to ground his systemic practice within a scientific method, namely looking for what works in helping clients to resolve their difficulties as quickly as possible.
Get real: This season, give yourself the gift of authenticity
Being true to yourself is good for your mental health. Here’s our guide to being authentic
Irish Times 13th December 2016
There has been a lot of talk lately, at a national, local and personal level, about the importance of putting mental health front and centre. Therefore, as the Christmas season approaches, during this time of gift-giving, we have an opportunity to focus on what we can gift to ourselves, in order to impact in a positive way on our mental health.
Living life authentically, getting in tune with our true sense of how we wish to be in this world, is one of the most positive things we can do to enhance our overall wellbeing.
Research carried out by Abigail Mengers in 2014 looked at how, as humans, we each have a desire to be authentic and when we are, even if it sets us up to be different from others, it still correlates with increased levels of joy and wellbeing.
We have many social duties to fulfil, many roles to play and tasks to complete. Often, living life authentically is something that can get drowned out in the daily grind but it is worth carving out time to look at how to live authentically. It is worth doing because our mental health is worth enhancing.
Realising your own needs, and not being held back by fear of what others might think or say, matters.
Here are five ways to move towards living life more authentically.
Check in with yourself about how authentically you are living
To be authentic simply means to be real, to not be a copy, to be yourself. So if you spend time trying to do what you think others expect of you, if you’re often trying to be as good as someone else – as rich , as beautiful, as powerful – then you will likely feel anxiety. Society places all kinds of pressures on people and inadvertently tells us all the time that in so many ways we are not enough. It’s good to step away from that mantra and focus on being yourself and going with your own intuition more.
Set the intention to be genuine
If you set the intention to be genuine, you are on a path to embracing imperfections. Perfection is a toxic notion and it can make people feel they need to “be more” or “do more” all the time. Being genuine does not mean you cannot strive for things and be ambitious. What it does mean, though, is that the only person you’re interested in comparing yourself to is you.
Know yourself well
Being alive means being in flux, so as we grow, our values and our dreams can change. When life is hectic, these dreams and values often remain dormant because there is no time to spend acknowledging their presence.
Making time for self-reflection can change this – and plugging out from devices can help create space for this.
Shift from ingesting information from an outside source to tuning in to what is going on inside. New ideas have a chance to emerge and when they do, if you feel called to consider a big life decision, allow yourself permission to consider that. It’s easy to get caught up in a “doing, producing, getting more information” mentality but it’s not always mentally healthy. It is worth tuning in more to yourself.
Tune into a story that aligns with how you wish to live
It can be hard not to be sucked into narratives and stories about what it means to be successful and powerful in the world today. Stories such as “success means wealth” and “power means power over others” are no more true than any other story, but because certain “stories” become dominant, we tend to absorb them as truth.
Give space to stories that align with your authentic self. Is success for you more aligned with a sense of living life the way you want to, having time to spend with the people you care about? Is your story of power about having power over your mind? Own your own truth.
Give yourself permission to be vulnerable
Everyone needs to feel emotionally safe when it comes to relationships with other people, and spilling your heart out to everyone you meet might make a person feel somewhat exposed. But there is value in allowing yourself to be vulnerable and, according to David Brendel ( Harvard Business Review, July 2014), it can fuel growth and success. Expressing vulnerability bears witness to strength as the person expressing it is not allowing fear to hold them back.
We all feel vulnerable sometimes and to express it creates transparency. The ability to be transparent is part of what makes people authentic. Anyone can look deep within to uncover barriers that might be holding you back from being real as you go about your day. Give yourself a gift this Christmas: dismantle the barriers.
Anne McCormack is a family psychotherapist registered with ICP and FTAI.
Now that the 9th EFTA conference is over and we have had time to recover our energies and reflect on the experience, I am writing to update you on what was a very busy and productive conference for our Irish participants.
First some background – The European Family Therapy Association (EFTA) is the European association established in 1990 as an international scientific association dedicated to linking and coordinating European national associations, individuals and institutes in the field of family therapy and systemic therapy. It has three constituent chambers National Family Therapy Organisations (NFTO), Chamber of Individual Members (CIM) and the Training Institutes Chamber (TIC). Each Chamber has an elected board of 7 members and the EFTA board is made up of all three boards. The board has a three-year term with chamber elections being conducted at the congress. Ireland, at the last congress in Istanbul in 2013, was successful in getting two FTAI members elected. I was elected to the NFTO board and have served as its chairperson for three years, Philip Kearney was elected to the TIC board and served as its secretary. We have had a strong presence and voice in the EFTA board due to the commitment and encouragement of all the current and previous NFTO and TIC representatives.
The 9th EFTA conference was originally due to take place in the Netherlands. However, it migrated to Greece as the high costs associated with the original venue in Amsterdam would have led to a very prohibitive registration fee and put the conference out of reach for many EFTA members, trainees and students. The move to Greece and organising the conference in a shortened time frame of 9 months involved a tremendous effort from both Conference presidents: EFTA president Maria Borcsa and President of ETHOS Mina Todoulou, supported by the executive committee of EFTA of which I am a member, the organising committee which Philip Kearney and myself served on, and the scientific committees of the conference.
With the goodwill and effort of the Greek organisers, the conference was successful in attracting many participants with over 1500 registered participants from 44 countries and 5 continents. What was so encouraging was the many students and trainees that were a very visible presence at the conference. The tone of the conference was set by the sun drenched opening ceremony conduced in the Dora Stratou open air theatre and while the plenary halls were very congested for some of the keynote speakers, in general the organisation was very good.
We had eleven presenters from the island of Ireland attending and presenting at the conference. Our colleagues were involved in chairing symposiums and open forums to speaking in invited symposium and presenting their work in workshops and brief communications. The opportunity to network and make connections in the broader systemic community provided by the conference was significant both at the academic events and at the many systemic cafes and social events organised as part of the program.
The elections to the EFTA boards took place on Thursday the 29th September at the conference. I had been nominated by FTAI as a candidate for the NFTO chamber board and Dr Valerie O’Brien was nominated by the Clanwilliam institute as a candidate for the TIC Board. Election to the boards is not an easy task – to be elected in the NFTO chamber you must gain votes from 29 other countries and in the TIC chamber election from 120 training institutes across Europe. I am delighted to report that we were both elected on to the respective boards. This was an excellent result. The NFTO board have also elected me as the chairperson for the next three years. The EFTA board elected Dr Rodolfo De Bernart to serve as the next EFTA president and now we begin the work for the next three years. I must say this continuing strong Irish presence at the centre of EFTA would not be possible without the foresight of successive FTAI boards in making the commitment to send our representatives to the EFTA meetings.
Want sex and intimacy? You need courage and honesty
Broadside: Loss of sexual desire after the early stages can prove difficult to fix
Mon, Sep 19, 2016, , Irish Times
Perhaps sex is another area of our lives that we have to excel in and we are too exhausted or too fearful of recrimination to engage with it.
New reports from the US, the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, suggest that those born in the 1980s and 1990s are having less sex than those born in the 1960s. The fact that sex is happening less than ever, even while online dating apps such as Tinder are so widespread, is a strange dichotomy.
Some theories suggest that stress, lack of time and technology are all having an impact on our intimate lives. The growing usage of porn is influencing our expectations of sex and it is arguable that performance has become the focus rather than pleasure or fun. Perhaps sex is another area of our lives that we have to excel in and we are too exhausted or too fearful of recrimination to engage with it.
Another aspect is that much satisfaction is achieved via a screen and the trouble and trauma that might be involved in engaging another human can result in procrastination or avoidance. One half of a couple can go to bed and the other go online. They can argue that they are not causing their partner any bother, but the impact can be similar to an affair: betrayal, questioning of attractiveness and some level of deceit. Intimacy requires that we are honest with each other, face up to the issues underlying our relationships and that we like the other person enough to let them really know what is going on.
Many couples do not have sex, and loss of desire following the early initial sensual phases of a relationship can prove difficult to fix. They often hope that romance will return by itself at some future time, but this rarely happens as the couple becomes used to a pattern of a relationship with little or no intimacy. Mismatched desire is also a common feature and couples struggle with the consequences. One person may spend their time looking for opportunities for intimacy while the other tries to predict when this might be and avoids it. The result is often suffering, rejection and frustration. Individuals too can avoid engaging with sex as performance anxiety and overexposure in social media can be extremely off-putting.
The aim of sexual intimacy is not mutual orgasm (though this might, of course, be desirable) but to experience pleasure, connectedness and spontaneity. In established couples, this will require deliberateness and effort, and many couples will find it awkward and somewhat excruciating. We all know how difficult it is to change a habit such as taking up exercise or giving up chocolate; it takes motivation and self-discipline, but in the end we expect that we will be better off because of this effort. Sexual intimacy might need to follow the same track in that it will need to be scheduled; motivation will be needed to overcome the impasses and focus kept on the overall aim of a pattern of sensual connection.
Many failures If there is a porn issue, there may be many attempts at giving up; and many failures. The partner cannot be kept in the dark about this as secrecy and deceit are what keeps the couple separate and suffering. For both the porn user and the partner, this is a very difficult time as admitting to failure and feeling betrayed again and again are huge difficulties to overcome. Yet sticking by that person through the rough times might be the cornerstone of a relationship. If we want sex and intimacy for the long run, we need to have the courage to address what is happening now and not wait for some time when circumstances will be better.
All relationships involve taking a risk and being somewhat vulnerable, but this grows confidence and courage and so whatever our age or circumstances are, it might be a great developmental step to risk a relationship. Of course, the risk includes rejection and separation and yet if we can accept this as part of the process, we can get to share our lives with someone for whatever time it lasts. As Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book Committed: “To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow – this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.”
Trish Murphy’s new book, #Love – 21st Century Relationships (Mercier Press, €14.99), is out now
Sometimes it is hard to make sense of a senseless act. Some things are even harder to acknowledge.
As individuals, families and communities, we are all struggling to comprehend the recent events in Cavan. One thing that makes sense is that we need to talk. It may not always be easy, but we need to find ways to do so #weneedtotalk
We extend our condolences to the families, friends and community who have been affected by this awful tragedy.