Chinaberry Wars

Rotten chinaberries were plentiful where I grew up. My aunt had a chinaberry tree in her yard. Fragrant purple flowers would drape from the tree each spring. So would clusters of chinaberries. Ornaments, as they’re called, from a tree that had made its way to the United States in the late 1800s from India and China. The soaptree. The berries can be mashed and mixed with water to create a laundry soap for clothing.

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Eventually, the berries would release from the tree and scatter about the yard. After days of heat, rain and humid temperatures, the berries rot. As kids, we’d pick the berries from the yard and throw them in a pail for later use. Girls against the boys. Ammunition. Organic pellets.

Walnuts-in-bag-300x168Walnuts made good ammunition, too, but chinaberries were surprisingly effective. They’d give a walnut a run for its money any day. Walnuts were harder to come by. They didn’t have as far of a reach, were less dependable and wobbly when thrown at your target. Chinaberries would sting. They’d leave a welt. The rotted ones also had the added bonus of stink. The stink factor alone made for extraordinary psychological warfare preceding any physical contact with the skin.

We’d tricked our young minds into thinking that a fun way to pass a summertime morning was to climb on top of my uncle’s storage shed and throw chinaberries at the boys.

Survival skills

home.jpgI wanted to get along with everyone. Seemed like a waste of time and energy to fight when we could just play and have fun. We could have been sipping sugar-laden Kool-Aid or swimming somewhere. Listening to music, riding bikes or exploring some forbidden territory near the creek. But instead, it was often full-on violent chinaberry wars.

When someone is throwing chinaberries at you, you have three choices: retreat from enemy forces, attack and throw back or surrender and be pummeled with berries. There’s really no good option. The best option is for no one to be throwing chinaberries in the first place.

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Couples come into therapy throwing chinaberries at one another and then wonder why their spouses are retreating, attacking or have given up! Most couples have good intentions. They’re looking for energy, joy, spontaneity, passion and companionship. Some desire a higher level of intimacy on an emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual level. At the very least, some couples are just trying to survive and get what they think they need. When we don’t get what we want from someone else, we may get confused or angry and attack.

You will never criticize your way to closeness.

Throwing chinaberries at your spouse leaves everyone with emotional welt marks. The psychological stink of shame, blame and behaving like a victim create unproductive arguments and acting out.

Instead of throwing berries, you might ask yourself what it is you’re really trying to accomplish. If what you’re after is validation, love, closeness, passion and connectedness, you’re not going to get it by attacking your spouse or by shutting down and hiding from emotions, either.

heaart-300x213.jpgTake the focus (blaming/being a victim) off of your spouse and spend some time with yourself. What’s your part in it? Could it be that what you “want” from your partner is something you’ve been afraid to give yourself? When is the first time you felt this “want” missing from your life? Chances are, if you dig deep, you’ve felt this way long before meeting your partner.

Inspire your spouse to connect instead of attacking your spouse for not connecting. Learning constructive and healthy ways of experiencing and expressing your emotions will help with this. It’s difficult to understand another’s point of view if you don’t understand how you developed your own.

As an adult, another person can’t create your emotions and behaviors.

Set the bucket of chinaberries aside

Stop blaming. Stop chasing. Stop avoiding. Stop retreating. If this sounds foreign, understanding your own internal emotional world can lead you to becoming an insightful and emotionally safe person instead of an emotionally reactive person.

What do you want to create for yourself?

Diving In

Overhead Feet In Prow With Turquoise Water On Tropical Beach.My mother and I were sitting at a table in an Italian restaurant waiting for our order. I noticed the plant sitting up just inches to the left of my head. Perched in a nook in the wall. Dividing our table from the one on the opposite side from us.

“Is that plant real?” I asked my mother. “Not sure,” she replied.

I touched the leaf to see if there was any indication of life. The leaf felt waxy. The plant looked vibrant. Bright green leaves. Symmetrical. Cheerful. Friendly.

There was my answer. No tiny little brown edges on the green leaves. No drooping or discolorations. No signs of new life or tiny buds. No shriveled blooms on their way out. No dirt. No fallen pieces surrounding the pot. No stains on the wooden wall from the occasional over-watering. It was a fake.

Natural things aren’t supposed to be perfect. People aren’t supposed to be perfect.

Have you ever noticed that the most interesting people have some quality of depth about them? A depth that stems from some type of imperfection? Stories they share are interesting because there is always something to learn. Something to take from the conversations about past mistakes, unexpected mishaps, an adventure gone awry, a left turn when it should have been a right, a figuring out of things when all was stacked against them.

The world can be superficial. Full of people trying to capture a feeling by buying things. Full of confused middle-aged people relentlessly trying to smooth and correct. Neighbors who spend thousands to convert their patio into a mini-Tuscany. Conversations feel more like a networking event leaving me wondering who this or that person really is? Shallow. Boring.

I recently found some childhood photos of my grandparents’ property. I was taken with how beautiful it was. Unspoiled. Cows roaming in the background. Barbed-wire fence behind the house. Green grass and dirt patches mowed without any fancy borders or edging. Watered by rain. An enormous sweet gum tree where we’d painfully find the “fruit” with our bare feet in the front yard. Sticker-burs. Painful and imperfect.

There is such beauty in natural surroundings.  Strength, wisdom, empathy and understanding are the rewards of accepting thorny imperfections. More beauty in the perceived defects than in the contrived.

Having depth requires leaving the surface of the water. Maybe leaving those points near the surface is too frightening for some. But all of the good stuff happens deep beneath. The most profound experiences happen after diving in.

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Focused Energy & Affairs

Purple flower growing on crack street, soft focus, blank textIt’s tough being an adult. We all spend our lifetimes trying to become one, no matter what age. In couples’ therapy, people show up for a variety of reasons. In the early stages of therapy, couples tend to focus their energy on the other person’s faults. One or both people have to be woken from this dream of, “If only my spouse would__________, then we wouldn’t be here.”

Criticism, resentment and victim stories ruin relationships. The more energy one focuses on someone else’s faults, the more distance gets created, resulting in more criticism, resentment…and more unwanted distance.

Whatever we put our time and attention into will flourish. Whatever we neglect, avoid, ignore or criticize, will, at best, remain the same, but most often, withers and dies. Most couples in therapy for affair recovery discover that when they focus their attention and energy on their spouse, their relationship not only turns around, but often, flourishes. Two relationships cannot be maintained if one of those relationships is meant to be a committed one. Splitting energy between a triangle of three people leaves everyone hurting and deprived.

All of us have to tackle tough issues if we want to experience mature, deeply satisfying relationships. Focusing energy, whether consciously or not, among superficial habits won’t get you there. Having guts will. It takes guts to face problems. Sure, anyone can numb out or have an affair, avoid, and pretend; but it takes guts to face a situation that isn’t working and have a mature conversation about it.

Couples who can’t find the courage to resolve their issues, (which began long before they even met), may decide to divorce and remarry, while continuing to feel like they were victimized in the previous marriage. The sad reality is that most find themselves in a very similar situation only with a new partner. (An exception here is if one person has been working hard in therapy but has an unworkable partner).

Some important questions to ask yourself:

What would you like to experience in your relationship?

What have you been doing to create those experiences?

Where do you focus most of your energy?

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Dating Smart

Dating with new eyes for those who want a long term monogamous relationship.

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Give it time

Probably the number one, most helpful thing you can do,when dating and you’re trying to decide if the person you are dating is someone you want to spend the rest of your life with is to give it time. Time is essential. In the beginning of relationships, most people go through what we call an enmeshment phase where you feel really bonded with the other person. This feels really good but it can also interfere with good decision making. You may not really be seeing who the other person is when you’re caught up in the newness of the relationship. What’s interesting is that sometimes, it may not even be all that great because the other person is honest enough to tell you– “this is who I am, and I don’t have a very good track record and these are my tendencies, these are the things that I like to do and these are my habits, and I’m not interested in working on these things or changing anything about myself”—but during enmeshment–you won’t hear it. Then 5 years down the road, you’ll think the person has changed, but really haven’t. You just weren’t willing to see or hear what was there from the very beginning .

Self-awareness

Take time to know yourself and understand yourself. There is no such thing as ” the one.” Believing that there is “the one” somewhere out there and that you’ll be “complete” person when you meet your “soul mate” just slows down your own self-work.

Do you know how your family of origin shaped you? Are you really familiar with your own tendencies? If you are, that’s great. Do you know how to manage your tendencies in a healthy way within a relationship? If you have some fear of rejection or abandonment issues, and you know this, that’s great. Do you know how this impacts relationships that you tend to get into? Are you familiar with shame and how this affects your ability to connect with others?

Your first and primary relationship is the one you have with yourself. If you have a list of qualifiers that you want your potential partner to have, maybe check in with yourself and see if you have those qualities first. Develop the qualities in yourself before seeking those qualities in others. Are you insightful enough to offer the person you are dating reasons that your past relationships didn’t work out? If you don’t understand why past relationships didn’t work out or you tend to put the blame on your ex partners, then you’ll repeat your old patterns without this insight.

Self-differentiation

Self-differentiation is the ability to separate your own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the family (Bowen, Family Systems Theory). If you didn’t learn this in your family (hardly anyone does), then you won’t relate this way in a romantic relationship either.

Codependency

Are you codependent? Do you look for someone else to rescue you and resolve your issues? It can feel good to have someone come swooping in and rescue you but other people aren’t here to fix us or rescue us from what are essentially unresolved childhood issues. You can learn to take responsibility for your behavior and make healthy changes. Focusing on developing healthy self-esteem, taking responsibility for your own feelings, and working through past disappointments will go a long way tot help you self-differentiate.

Counterdependency

On the flip side, are you counterdependent? Do you try to resolve others’ issues for them but then get accused of not doing enough? Counterdependents tend to be love avoidants. You probably attract needy partners. If you want a somewhat balanced, healthy relationship, then watch out for needy, dependent, hurt rabbits. Instead, investigate why you have the tendency to be attracted to those who need rescuing. Counterdependents rescue and run. You can learn to not be love avoidant by engaging in more emotionally intimate, vulnerable dialogue and behavior when your tendency is cut-off or shut down.

Get to know the person you are dating (and get to know yourself)

A very important question you can ask someone who you’ve been dating for a while and you’re considering a more serious, long term relationship with, is:

In what areas do you see yourself wanting to make some improvements? Looking back, how do you think you could’ve handled a past relationship differently for a better outcome?

If the person looks at you with a blank stare or gets defensive or puts all the blame on another person, you better run like Sea Biscuit, because this isn’t indicative of someone who is emotionally developed. This isn’t a person who knows him or herself or really understands their own core issues. If the person seems open and motivated for personal growth, that’s different. You want a long term partner to be motivated, open and humbled enough to create a heartfelt, deep connection. Healthy self-esteem isn’t grandiose.

Don’t be paranoid, but do be aware of personality disorders. One of the best and simplest books on recognizing personality disorders is by Gordon Livingston and it’s called, How to Love. This is an excellent guide on choosing wisely.

Side note: Ask yourself the same questions above and be willing to share how you’ve changed and grown. Are you motivated to do your own personal work?kal-loftus-673614-unsplash

When someone tells you who they are, believe them

If someone is telling you and showing you who they are, believe them. You don’t have to get mad about it. Be thankful that someone shows you who they are early on while you’re dating, or that you recognized it and be grateful that you found out before getting into a more long term relationship. Ask yourself, what is it about you that attracted you to this person? There’s always an opportunity to learn something more about yourself.

No matter how badly you think getting married or having children will cause someone’s character to change, it won’t. Byron Katie has been quoted as saying: If you want reality to be different than what it is, you might as well try to teach a cat to bark. If you try to teach a cat to bark, and it inevitably doesn’t, because it’s a cat and cat’s don’t bark, and then you get mad at the cat, just know that this isn’t the cat’s fault. The cat is being a cat.

If you’re dating someone and they tell you that they don’t want to stay in one place very long and they like to travel for work, or they don’t want to get married or whatever…and you want to be with someone who works locally because you want to get married and raise a family, listen to what the other person is telling you. It’s not about your worth if someone else has a different view of what will be fulfilling for them. There is also an opportunity for you to investigate why it is, for example, you tend to be attracted to someone who needs space or distance when you don’t. This goes back to really understanding your family of origin and how your experiences a long time ago affect your choices in dating.

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You’d think it would go without saying, but ask yourself questions about what attracts you to another. If you’re unfamilar with the theory that we marry our childhood issues, then invest some time in therapy understanding how your family influences your choices in romantic relationhips. Being good-looking isn’t enough. Attraction is definitely important and necessary, but if you can’t get past the superficial and can’t come up with any other qualities that attract you to someone else besides good looks, then this is a big red flag, if you are ultimately wanting a long term relationship with this person. Because, if we’re lucky we’re going to get old, and good looks will fade, and you’ll want qualities that are more than skin deep.

Dating smart is really about becoming a whole healthy person. You could ask yourself this question: Would I want to date me? If not, then why not? There’s your starting point.