Monday, July 29, 2013

"Before Midnight" and Relationship Dynamics

I’ve just come back from seeing “Before Midnight”.  I haven’t seen Linklater’s two earlier movies that make up the trilogy.  I found this one a bit heavy and it reminded me a lot of Ingmar Bergman’s  “Scenes from a Marriage." Both are portraits of marital stress with intense dialogues and close ups that verge on being claustrophobic. I often wanted the camera to pan out to give Jesse and Celine and me more space. Mainly, I wanted Celine and Jesse to stop talking.  These were tired old arguments.  While I respect Linklater’s attempt to dissect the tensions in this couple, it felt too didactic, and sometimes contrived.  He did, though, cover a slew of relevant issues: gender stereotypes, work-career issues, cultural differences, parenting obligations, blended families, marital fidelity, attraction, sex and aging.  

Ethan Hawke Before Midnight

Perhaps because I see couples in distress, I desperately wanted to slow this couple down and ask them to talk less and listen more.  As someone interested in emotions, I wanted them to notice the feelings behind the words.  When we get so caught up in the content of what we’re saying we don’t listen for the feelings beneath the words.   We especially don’t slow ourselves down enough to hold our opinions in check and really hear what the other person is trying to communicate. 

 I was particularly struck with how this movie-long argument began and how it might have been avoided.  In couples, I don’t think any one person is to blame.   I see couples as part of a system, yet just looking at the movie’s beginning scene, I suspect if Celine had simply been able to empathize with Jesse’s sense of sadness things would have gone differently.  Jesse was separating from his son, Hank, who only visits in the summer, and he was feeling the loss.  

Separation is hard for everyone and Hank is someone Jesse cares about deeply.  Sometimes, as it is in this case, the disconnection is especially difficult.   Jesse not only feels the sadness, but it’s accompanied by the sense that he hasn’t spent enough time with his son.    He worries that as Hank gets older he might be needed more, and that he won’t be around to do the things dad’s are supposed to do with their sons.   

I wish Celine could have reacted differently to Jesse’s sense of distress.  I just wanted her to let him have his sadness and regret without her being triggered to say or do anything.  Sometimes we’re called upon to just listen and be empathetic.   All of us know times when we wish we had been available to someone whom we love, and weren’t.  We don’t want to let down people we love.  It’s what Jesse was feeling and trying to express when he came up with the option of moving to America to be close to Hank. 
That obviously elicited fear in Celine.  If I had been sitting with them, I would have asked Celine to hold her concerns for a moment and just let Jesse talk about this idea.  I know this would have been hard for her.   It is hard to be quiet when you feel something so strongly, like how this suggested move might change her whole life.   But if Celine could have been less reactive she might not have gone to the extreme of predicting the end of the relationship.   She has some past history to guide her.   She’s seen Jesse in this emotional space before.   She, in fact, comments on it.    At one level she knows he is still processing his feelings of loss and powerlessness.    We don’t know where things might have gotten if Jesse could have fully discussed everything he was feeling.   Maybe he would have needed to talk more of possible solutions or maybe if he had felt permission to just be sad for a while, the feelings would have  dissipated on their own.   Then maybe Celine might have been able to take a turn and talk about her relationship with Hank, and how it was hard at first and how that’s changed:  how they’ve become closer and it’s a loss for her as well.  She and Jesse could have shared this feeling.   And then she could have shared how threatening the idea of moving felt for her and how it jeopardized their original agreement to live in Paris.   A calmer more productive discussion could have occurred.  Unfortunately, everything got derailed as soon as Celine’s fear took hold and she was no longer able to see how Jesse was caught in his feelings.   She saw it briefly, but as soon as she lost sight of this and her own fear took hold we’re in an endless loop of argument- counter argument; threat-counter threat--in other words, we’re lost.  

It is Jesse and Celine’s inherent caring and commitment to one another, as well as their wonderful playfulness, that save the day.  Being able to have fun, to be goofy and use humor to defuse tense situations allow them to come back together.    Even through their argument are sometimes mean-spirited and harsh, they are still able to repair and recover.   As much as I would have loved them to have avoided arguing, it’s important to note their desire to move back toward one another and to remember that in relationships the ability to repair ruptures is an important skill to cultivate and use.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Emotions After Divorce

This post was originally featured as part of Peggy's guest blogging at Huffington Post Divorce.

Divorce creates challenges for everyone in the family. It involves loss and significant change. It can create uncertainty and stress. At times like this, there is often less emotional flexibility and more emotional reactivity. Anxiety or exaggerated fears should be expected. They're a normal part of managing changes that might not be welcome. Things will be forever changed; giving kids time to talk about what's happening will decrease anxiety and ease their adjustment. As parents it's normal to feel guilt and lost on how to help your children cope, but I've listed out some way that can certainly help ease the big transition. 
Reassure children they are not to blame
Children often worry that divorce might in some way be their fault. Kids are concrete thinkers and they can imagine specific misbehaviors that might have contributed to the divorce: "You left because you got sick of telling me to put away my bike." That kind of distorted thinking is a heavy burden. You'll want to dispel it right away. Children need to know that you are separating as a result of your relationship with your spouse, not your relationship with them. You can say something like: "Nothing you said or did made this happen;" or "You did not make mom/dad go away;" or "This happened because of adult problems between us that have nothing to do with anything you said or did."

Assure them you will not leave them
Children sometimes worry that if one parent can leave, the other one might also leave. All children fear abandonment. They are vulnerable and they know they need parents. Fairy tales are full of all the themes of young children's vulnerability: being kidnapped; being lost and alone; being tricked by a wicked witch; or preyed upon by hungry wolves. The parent-child bond is what offers them security, and keeps their world safe. It is also most needed when changes, like divorce, leave children feeling insecure. While adults might choose to leave a marriage, children cannot choose to not be attached--it's a biological imperative. When I worked in foster care it always amazed me what tenacious loyalty children had to even the most abusive and neglectful parents. So, reassure them that both their parents are committed to taking care of them.
Reaffirm their Specialness
Another way to support children and allay anxiety is to reinforce their importance to you. Children know when parents are emotionally unavailable, which might cause them to worry about whether they're really all that important to you. So being fully present and sharing why you think they're special can reinforce their sense of worthiness. Make a point to comment on the things you truly find special about them: "You give the best hugs;" "You take such good care of Fluffy;" or "You know how to be a really a good friend." Hearing positive traits is not only affirming, but also can reassure them that they are special to you and that you know exactly what makes them unique.
Expect Unpredictable Behavior
Children can exhibit anxious behavior in a number of different ways. One common way is by reverting back to younger forms of behavior. For example, you might find your child having trouble getting to sleep, being clingier or less able to be alone with the babysitter. Anxiety will also be expressed by less consistent behavior. A child you could rely on to be well- behaved might instead be rude or aggressive. Or an outgoing child might become reserved and aloof. For all of us, stress alters our normal behavior. With your patience, and without making them feel guilty, these behaviors will resolve. Anxiety might also cause children to express their concerns in extreme ways and anticipate the worst outcomes: "I'll never be happy again;" "You'll move away and I'll never see you again." Resist the temptation to immediately correct their exaggerations. Later, after all the feelings are expressed, they will be better able to hear a more realistic perspective and to engage in problem solving.
Be A Detective
Sometimes children won't be able to name what they're feeling. They might feel confused or have more than one feeling at a time. When you detect an unexpressed feeling you might need to express it for them: "You don't look happy about being here tonight. I think you're mad that you weren't allowed to stay with your Dad. "Or, "I wonder if you're trying to be brave, but you're feeling kind of scared about sleeping in your new room."
Check to see that your children are feeling comfortable talking with you about their feelings. Children are keen observers so they might hesitate to share their feelings if they believe they're adding more stress to your life. You can reassure them that even when you're preoccupied they're still a priority in your life and you'll always want to know how they feel.
Being present and attentive to your children's emotions and mood will go a long way towards helping them move through the transitions that divorce brings. It's important to remember that children often have had little choice about what's happening to them, so helping them to understand what emotions they are feeling is imperative. They may feel hopeless about events, and will have reactions and feelings that they need to express. By encouraging the sharing of their feelings you can help them move with more resilience through a difficult time.