Created for Connection, Part I


I consider it courageous to show others our vulnerable, less polished and impervious sides, in situations where it is most tempting and easy to be jaded, phony or manipulative. I see this question of whether to connect when interacting with couples, families, friends, politics, and even day-to-day encounters with strangers. While we have exercise caution and care with our hearts and guard against being taken advantage of, we also can act as though we have more to fear than we actually do. How do we decide where there is a real threat of being hurt, physically or emotionally, and where we can let down our guards?

The Disconnected

I have met people who were extremely guarded and afraid of being hurt, although they would never admit to this. They hold up their shield of not-caring, or of cynicism or even aggression to keep themselves from being hurt themselves. The world can indeed be very frightening and dangerous, and we have a duty and responsibility to ourselves to accurately assess when to defend ourselves from others.

But when we can’t shift from that state of protectiveness once the threat is over, or can’t tell a truly dangerous situation from one that merely seems threatening, or one that is neutral but reminds us of past hurts, then we become rigid and incapable of opening up when we want to. And that is a sad and lonely state of existence. Even when such people connect, they often do so from a superficial, win-lose stance. By this I mean that the person feels that they must win and someone else must lose to be safe. Are they concerned for the loser? At this point, it’s every man or woman for themselves, and all such people care about is that they weren’t the loser. Empathy is lost at this point, and when empathy lost any kind of dehumanizing, cruel behavior is possible.

Hearts-Wide-Open

I have also met people who are so open and willing to experience anything and everything that they often get hurt in relationships. They tend to attract people like the ones described above, because they are easy prey for cynical, selfish people. They expose their soft, vulnerable sides in hopes that people will take care of them the way a parent takes care of a child. Unfortunately, the world is not made that way. When we reach 18, our society assumes that we are adults, capable of taking care of our own emotional and physical needs. When we depend on others to look after us and protect us from situations where we should exercise good common sense, we run the risk of being treated pretty savagely. We need to balance of looking after ourselves, but not exclude considering others’ needs and wants.

A Balance of Connection

Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, we can meet each other and have a reasonable expectation of civility. Some of what we expect of each other depends on our cultural backgrounds. In some cultures, to leave oneself open for possible exploitation is a foolish act that leads to automatic exploitation. For other cultures, there is a level of trust that favors the tender-hearted and assumes the best in people. I think the United States is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but is edging towards the cynical end increasingly as time goes on.

We have to make choices about how to use our sensitive, tender parts of ourselves with others, and how much to give of our vulnerabilities to others. Unfortunately, the world is becoming increasingly inhospitable to this practice, as violence escalates and we become increasingly jaded and greedy. How do we carve out a space to meet soul-to-soul with others’ vulnerabilities and hold each other, and ourselves, in a tender, careful way? How can we show love, appreciation and kindness to each other even when we’ve been hurt in the past and have doubts about humanity’s worth? These are some of the issues that are especially salient to people who have been in traumatic situations, and can be explored in psychotherapy.

My Part, Your Part


Fights don’t usually start with only one person. This will help you recognize your part and drop the defensiveness that erodes and stagnates relationships.


Lately I’ve been noticing that many people notice what other people do wrong and get quite upset about it, without taking time to consider their participation in the perceived problem. This often takes place in arguments with loved ones, whether the loved ones are friends, family members or lovers. I’d like to take the time to help you rectify this problem if you notice it in yourself.

We love to be right. We don’t like having people point out our flaws, because we fear their rejection and negative opinion. This is perfectly human and understandable. But it we persist in seeing only what other people are doing wrong and ignore our contribution to the interaction, we miss the opportunity to take responsibility for our actions and improve the situation by acting differently. So we keep feeling like victims, put upon by the whim of other people who are totally unpredictable and unfair.

Do you want to stay in a victim role? Or would you rather feel like you can behave differently in an argument? Hopefully you want the latter, because that is the only way I see out of this mess.

Next time someone gets angry at you or has a problem with what you’re doing, try these four steps:

  1. Notice the feeling that arises in you and accept that feeling. That doesn’t mean you indulge it by acting on it. But it also means that you acknowledge, “I feel angry and like defending myself” without judging yourself for feeling that.
  2. Reflect on what happened before this person got upset with you. As if you were observing the interaction on TV or in a movie, look at the actions that preceded and came after the anger. What were you doing, what were they doing, how did you react to their actions, how did they react to yours…. you get the picture.
  3. If you can see something that you might have done to contribute to it, accept responsibility for that. Don’t conveniently block it out of your mind. Don’t pretend that you had nothing to do with it. If you’re not clear on why they’re angry, ASK, don’t assume.
  4. If they’re not ready to take responsibility for their negative behavior, give them time to cool off before writing them off. If this is new for you, asking for responsibility from yourself and others in such interactions, then try to have patience for the other person and for yourself. It’s a new skill. You’ll get better the more you do it. So will they, hopefully.

Sometimes people don’t take responsibility because to admit fault is to sink into a quicksand pit of shame. If admitting wrongdoing does that to you, it’s probably indicative of low self-esteem and probably a good idea to get professional help. If you feel really angry every time someone points out something you did wrong, it may be an indication that you are covering up your shame or over-compensating for low self-esteem.

Hopefully you can take responsibility for your part in an argument, and the other person can too. It’s really a pain when only one person routinely takes responsibility, and that can lead to resentment, which makes your relationships suffer as a result.

 

 

When Your Partner Can’t Cope


Considerations when one member of a couple fairs better psychologically than the other does.


When I work with couples, there is sometimes a difference in the level of functioning between the partners. Sometimes, people who like to take care of other people wind up with partners who are very damaged psychologically. This can be challenging, because the partner who isn’t as damaged expects more out of their partners them what they can deliver. It is a fine line between accepting abusive behavior and understanding that the person has had a difficult childhood or difficult past experiences in general. I do think that compassion is always a good idea, but sometimes compassion can turn into enabling behavior. We can be supportive and understanding of each other’s painful past, and accommodate it to a degree, but when it starts becoming a one-way relationship wherein one party is always favored or given his or her way, it stops being healthy for both partners.

This difference in functioning is not necessarily restricted to heterosexual couples. It can also happen in gay, lesbian, or polyamorous couples as well. I use a heterosexual couple as an example here but it could be any two people whose psychological function differs significantly, enough to cause relationship problems.

Meet Mary and Mac

Let me give you an example. Mary and Mac have been together for six years. Mary has been through a lot of trauma and often has angry outbursts where she cannot be talk to in a reasonable way and she cannot control her anger enough to have a productive conversation. Mac, wanting to be understanding, allows himself to be talk to in a demeaning, hurtful way that makes him feel insecure and depressed. This is been going on for at least two years, and Mary expects back to tolerate this without question or objection. Mac has asked Mary on repeated occasions to get help, but Mary says that she’s not ready yet. The truth is that Mary is frightened of the idea of facing all the horrible things that happened to her, and would rather skip processing that and just go on with life as if nothing happened. I can understand why this would be more tempting, but when she drinks or is just stressed, the anger and frustration that she was never able to express to her perpetrators come out. What should Mary do, and what should Mac do?

Often by the time they reach couples therapy, a lot of damage has been done because they say things to each other during fights that cannot be undone. Max starts to shut down more and more, or stonewall his partner. As Mary senses Mac pulling away, she becomes more desperate and her emotions more out of control. Usually these situations don’t work until individual therapy for the person who is in the most distress, has taken place. This is especially true if there is domestic violence going on. Couples therapy can bring up a lot of painful issues, and it’s important that both partners have a safe, responsible way to cope with their feelings. Sometimes therapists mistakenly think that they can see a couple where battery is going on, but it is best to refer them to anger management and other resources before attempting couples therapy.

 

Recommendations

It’s also important for the person who is coping better to get some help. Work on boundaries and self esteem is crucial when you have a partner who is emotionally needy or abusive. If you feel as though you’re always giving in the relationship and never getting very much back, it’s important to look at that and ask yourself why. A few books that can be helpful are Stop Walking on Eggshells, by Paul Mason and Randy Kreger, and¶ Coming Home to Passion, by Ruth Cohn. I also find a lot of couples like Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver, although that book is more general in its audience.

The hope is that both of you can cope with stress and an effective, healthy way and thus truly enjoy your relationship. A relationship should be mutually beneficial, warm, and loving. If yours is not, consider getting some help.

Room for All of Us


Since this is LGBTQQIA Awareness Month, I thought I might share some thoughts about diversity and how we as a country have yet to fully embrace it. Diversity benefits us as a community, a nation, and a planet. Sameness may make us feel safer psychologically, but ultimately leads to creative stagnation if we allow fear to keep us from experiencing and exposing ourselves to the differences that make up the human race.

I see many people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and I love it. I strive to make my practice open and inviting to everyone, regardless of gender identification or sexual preference. I learn so much from everyone I see who is different from me. I try to make myself as educated as I can, but there are times that I am not fully aware of my bias, and I strive to correct that. My graduate school, John F. Kennedy University, emphasized multicultural awareness and for that I am extremely grateful. This has been an interesting experience for me because I grew up in a very liberal area (the SF Bay Area) and went to school in equally liberal Santa Cruz (go Banana Slugs!). In that bubble of acceptance and outright pride in diversity, it was less common to see people disenfranchised for being queer-gendered or gay, lesbian or bisexual. However, when I moved to the Antelope Valley, I started seeing people having to hide their sexuality or gender differences from their families, as well as hearing strikingly sad tales of adolescents being kicked out of their family homes for being LBGT.

I see homophobia and transphobia hurt people, not only those who identify as LGBTQQIA but also cis-gendered and heterosexual people. I sometimes see self-mutilation, low self-esteem, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and a sense of hopelessness in the people who have been ostracized. And in heterosexual people who are involved with gay, lesbian, bi and trans people, I also encounter hatred and disgust, rigidity, fear, anger, and unnecessary restriction of association. Relationships are ruptured and strained because of fear and bigotry. One family prevented their child from being best friends with a girl who identified as bisexual. Another person rejected her son because he was gay. These stories are all too common and horrible to hear. When we shun people who are different from us, we miss out on a different perspective, and our intolerance and ignorance makes us enemies where we could be allies. If you think about it, we all do best when we feel loved, accepted and respected by one another; why should that be different for someone who is different from you?

Where did we go wrong, I wonder. How did we become so intolerant of what we don’t know, or understand? How can we repair the ruptured bonds that hold us together as humans? And what can we do to educate people, including ourselves, about what it means to be LGBTQQIA? When can we let go of viewing diversity as a threatening force, and instead see it as stimulating, refreshing, exciting, interesting, an opportunity to hone our own self-understanding as well as grasping what it means to be one little person in a big wide world?

I think education is part of what we can do; but there are frankly those who choose not to educate themselves or embrace acceptance of difference. Can we effectively stand up for diversity, by not allowing bigoted comments like “that’s so gay” to go without confronting it? Can we intercede when we see bullying against an LGBTQQIA child or adult? Sometimes change has to happen at a political level, with policies that end bigotry. Such these battles are not easily won, for any group deemed non-dominant. Maybe we need to address bigotry against anyone on many different levels, both within ourselves, between people, and at the national and international level. I encourage you to be aware not only this month but all year round, of the lack of acceptance of people who are different from you. Hopefully it will be something you want to change, enough to change it. It’s a small planet in some ways, but I still maintain that there’s room for all of us.

Dealing with Rejection


There are few situations that are harder to accept than being rejected by another person, or even organization. Even if we are mentally healthy, we are social animals and want to be liked and loved by others, or to have their approval. After all, when we were more primitive beings long ago, our very survival depended on being accepted by the people in our clan. Perhaps that need to survive is what lingers with us now, in spite of our vastly more complicated social systems and circumstances.

There is also the missed opportunity of being part of a desired activity, whether it is getting a job, hanging out with cool people, having fun, being invited to parties we’d enjoy, etc. That, combined with the sting of not being part of the “in” group, can bring us back to being kids on the school yard when the cool kids didn’t want to play with us. It can hurt even more when the rejection is at the hands of our family members. Nonetheless, rejection is still the same: someone else has determined that there just isn’t a fit between you and them.

Don’t take it personally — “duh!”

The first thing to remember is not to take this personally. Yeah right, you might say. How do I not take this personally? Good question. There are a number of ways to not take it personally. First, remember that you are the same person whether accepted or rejected by others, and that your inherent worth is unchanged. Yes, you might feel cruddy right now in the heat of the moment, but that doesn’t have anything to do with how good or bad you are. Only you can determine your worth in absolute terms.

Just as Good as Anyone Else!

Knowing, liking and accepting yourself is a subject for another post, but basically it boils down to this: you have talents, gifts and limitations like anyone else on the planet. You might shine in one area where I am really not as talented, and vice versa. The more you know and accept these areas within yourself, the easier it is to gauge that against what others are saying (or not saying) about you. Other people might have a different idea of what they want in a friend, lover, employee, etc. that doesn’t make what you have to offer subpar; it’s just not a match.

The Myth of Universal Appeal

Second on your agenda is remembering that not everyone has to like you, just as you don’t like everyone you come across. The idea that you can please everyone uniformly is not only unrealistic, it can make you subservient or angry, neither of which is socially attractive or effective. There are people you will mesh well with, and people who make your tummy turn when you get in their presence. That’s OK! It’s liberating when you think of it. You don’t have to be perfect for them and vice versa.

Who do you Love?

Finally, focus your attention on the people who you do enjoy. You might not have a large circle of close friends yet, but that can change over time. It is vital to remember that relationship-building takes time and effort. You can’t just walk into a room and have an instant friend. I don’t care what Hollywood movies try to portray at times – not very many people have that instant charisma, and if they do, I’m often a little wary of them. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing friendship with people, but don’t let your ego get mangled in the process.

The Look of Love


If you’ve stopped hurting your lover’s feelings, congratulations! Now it’s time to figure out how to celebrate and nourish your love for each other.


love family at sunset
love family at sunset

At times, couples in therapy can reach a point where they have stopped hurling insults and hatred at each other, and find that they are not sure what to do next. If they had poor modeling from their own childhoods and families, they may not know what a healthy relationship looks like. We all have ideas from the movies and television of what the ideal couple should do when they have a disagreement, or that couples don’t have disagreements at all. However, this is not the case. Most couples disagree on a number of things and it’s not very important that they disagree, but how they disagree and whether they get their disagreements resolved.

Sometimes look at me funny when I suggest this, but I would recommend that you and your partner right down what your ideal argument would look like. It’s a fact of life in any relationship that there will be disagreement. But how do you want to resolve those disagreements? You can’t realistically expect that your partner will think exactly the way you do on every issue. Yes, there are some important issues like whether or not to have children and how you will spend your joint money, that you should probably agree on early in the relationship. Premarital counseling can be helpful in flushing out some of these potential landmines, if they are not agreed-upon. However, new disagreements and smaller ones pop up during the course of the marriage. Sometimes they are unpredictable, and depend on changing health or income status, and sometimes they are long festering wounds that were never addressed earlier in the relationship. In any event, it would be good to figure out what you don’t like your partner to do and what you do wish they would do instead.

You also need to look at how you behave in the fight, not just what the other person does that drives you up the wall. If the other person is speaking harshly to you, are you aware of your voice as well? Are you saying things that you know will make the other person upset, or disregarding their thoughts or feelings? These are all ways that you can clean up your side of the street, so to speak. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, each person’s opinion and thoughts are worth considering and it is important not to insult the other person just because you don’t understand where the coming from.

So what is a healthy relationship look like? What do you want to be doing differently with your partner, and what do you want them to be doing differently? Some key pillars of relationship health are, in my opinion, the ability to take responsibility and to have empathy for the other person. Listening is essential to the ability to empathize with your partner. If you are just assuming that you know how they feel, without checking it out with them, then you are expecting them to be just like you. If you truly want someone who is just like you to spend the rest of your life with, then perhaps being single is a better option for you. Usually we get together with our romantic partners because there’s something exciting and different about them that sets them apart from other potential mates. In a healthy relationship, we celebrate and appreciate those differences rather than seeing them as character flaws the other person.

Acting from your Center


Keep your relationships from becoming destructive by holding onto your center and doing what you know to be right.


“Even if everyone else is not doing good, I alone will. Even if everyone else is doing wrong, I alone will not.” – Master Chin Kung, Heart of a Buddha

Sometimes when people around you are acting in a way that tempts you to reduce your own behavior to their level, it’s hard to hold on to what you know to be the right thing. I see in human relationships reciprocity that can sometimes be damaging and disturbing. What I mean by this is that one person will hurt the other, and instead of inquiring about why the person did this or trying to understand the context of the behavior, retaliation ensues. In couples, this can be retaliatory affairs or insults. In families it can be trans-generational physical or emotional abuse. In communities, it can result in gang violence or political maneuvering that hurts both parties ultimately. At the level of international affairs, it can lead to war and corruption. And all these instances, the knee-jerk reaction that comes from the limbic system is to get that person back. How dare they hurt me! How dare they render me powerless? The temptation is very strong and it takes a lot of work and discipline to train our brains to pause, reflect, and consider our options in a rational way.

Think of it time that you’ve been hurt by another person, or even by a group of people. What were your choices at the time? Do you feel like you did the right thing in that moment for all consider? Did you protect yourself adequately? Sometimes we do need to take action and act firm and strong in order to protect ourselves. However, sometimes what seems like protection actually gets more violence or pain. It can be very confusing in the moment to distinguish between the two. Another thing to consider is whether, upon reflection later, he will still think that was the best choice for you. We regret having acted this way, simply you think, “I wish I would’ve acted differently”? I know that in my life, I’ve spoken in anger more than a few times and regretted it later. It can damage relationships or even end up, and you can’t unsay what has been said. The tide of pain and suffering is very hard to turn on your own. But when I work with children I see that many times, the children know the right thing to do in the moment they’ve been hurt. But their ego makes it impossible for them to do that right action. We are all doing our best, wherever we are. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t train ourselves to use our prefrontal cortex more actively in our decisions. For those of you who aren’t familiar with your marvelous prefrontal cortex, it can act as breaks on acting out from the steam engine of our emotions. For more information about how it works, click this link: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/i/i_08/i_08_cr/i_08_cr_dep/i_08_cr_dep.html.

We need to learn to find our center. The center in my mind, is the place where I observe what is happening within me and outside of me. I’m able to detach a little from my emotions and use reason. Things may distract me momentarily, but I can stay calm and consider all the things that I need to do in this situation. Unlike the ladies in the picture, I can avoid conflict if it is unnecessary and use my words if necessary, to diffuse potential harm. Not everyone is blessed with a healthy prefrontal cortex or with training and discipline already in place to develop the prefrontal cortex. However, if you have it, you might as well make use of it. Some disorders, like attention deficit disorder and people with brain injuries to their frontal lobes, need extra help in this area. They may act or speak impulsively and have a hard time finding their center. For most of us however, we are capable and fortunate enough to have this wonderful capacity at our disposal. Some people develop their center – finding capabilities through meditation or prayer; others can do exercises to develop the capability.

Once we learn to pause, reflect, and consider our options we will not be swayed by what other people are doing. We will know how to protect ourselves from being damaged or hurt, but we will not flowing mud at the offender. We will hesitate before harming the other person, not because of anyone’s value or level of deserving, but because we don’t want to be that person. You know, the hothead who always gets and arguments and says nasty things? That path leads to loneliness, heartache, and alienation from other human beings. Is that the life you want for yourself? I have learned that I don’t want that for me, and I try to help my clients avoid that path as well.  if you would like to learn how to improve your relationships and hold on to your center , please call  661-233-6771 .

Loss of innocence


Childhood sexual abuse is hard to cope with, but it’s better dealt with while the child is young than when the experience has a chance to infiltrate the personality.


Sexual abuse, especially in childhood, is one of the hardest experiences I have helped people resolve. It is not always as brutal and acute as physical abuse or an isolated rape incident; in some cases people can be led to believe that what’s happening to them is normal and fine. I’ve heard a lot of people say that what bothers them most is not the sex act itself, although that is often disturbing (especially if it happened to them as children). It is the inappropriateness of the touch or sexual attention that bothers them, haunts them to the core.

I have seen mothers who have been sexually abused themselves as children become hypersensitive to any adult touching their children, even if it is not with sexual intent and is objectively appropriate. I have also seen the opposite extreme. Some parents thing that because what happened seemed “normal” to them, they disbelieve their children when the children tell them about being abused. Or they think the child is doing it to seek attention. I’m sure there are some children who do lie about such a serious matter, but I think that far more often, the child is telling the truth and the abuse goes unreported because they are afraid of getting the perpetrator in trouble. It is especially difficult for some parents to believe when the perpetrator is their own husband, wife, or romantic partner. There are also people who distrust the governmental agencies to whom they would report such incidents. I can understand that, and I don’t pretend that child protective agencies or the police always handle these matters well. However, they are still there to protect children from abuse and neglect, and if the abuse continues unabated it can have lifelong, damaging consequences.

Children need to be able to trust their environments and their caretakers to take appropriate action when they tell their parents they’ve been touched inappropriately. It wouldn’t kill us as a society to take them seriously until the facts have proven that they are not telling the truth. By their very nature, children don’t have the resources and awareness to protect themselves. We need to be in tune with our children to know when something is off with their behavior. We don’t need to necessarily jump to the conclusion that they’ve been sexually assaulted, but we do need to protect their innocence for as long as we can. If you think your child has been touched inappropriately, you can get them help: proper medical attention; psychotherapy; and legal and physical protection against the perpetrators. Don’t let it become their problem later on in the forms of depression; anxiety; PTSD; dissociation; and other psychological and behavioral problems.

Getting curious instead of furious


Quite often when I work with couples, and also other family dyads, I notice that people get themselves wound up and heated about common misunderstandings. Once the people involved allow themselves to calm down and talk about what was bothering them, they find out that they were misinterpreting each other, adding projections from their own past, or misunderstanding what the other person intended to say. A lot of the problems stem from not just what is said, but how things are said (e.g., in a sharp, aggressive tone of voice or with threatening or disrespectful gestures). This is where the interpretations and projections from the past go wild, usually. It’s very hard to stay centered and rational when you’re being flooded with emotional responses that have as much to do with an abusive past, as with what is happening now.

This is why I recommend first that people have a weekly check-in as a couple. Sit down without any distractions (social media, phones, television, computer, kids) and talk as calmly as you can about one thing you liked that your partner did, and one thing you didn’t like. Take turns (even use an egg timer to ensure that both get a chance to speak). Then reflect back what you heard your partner say. Be open and humble enough to be corrected. If you’re doing the correcting, don’t shame the person (e.g., “You’re so stupid, I can’t believe that’s what you thought I said!”). Instead, say, “No, that’s not what I intended to say; this is….” A book that is very helpful to couples (and any) communication is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, which helps people be responsible for their own emotional reactions and not blame and shame each other.

The second thing I recommend is that if you find yourself in an argument and you just can’t fathom where this person is coming from, take a moment, breathe deeply, and then tell them, “I don’t think I understand what you are saying/intending. Help me understand, please.” I know, easier said than done, right? But it can make a world of difference between having a horrible night fighting for hours, or helping the other person clarify what they want to communicate. Each of you has the right to be heard, understood and validated. Each of you has a unique perspective that is equally valid to the other’s. Don’t lose sight of that when you have disagreements. There may be a perfectly valid reason the person is saying or doing what they are right now; you just don’t have the magic decoder ring to understand it. Even when they explain it to you, it still may not make sense, but stick with it and you will have a better chance at “getting” your beloved’s point of view.

Third, I suggest that both partners keep in mind, “what is the end game?” Is it to be right and lord that over the other person like a kid in the school yard, or to remain happily together for a long time? Is what you are defending, or fighting about, important enough to risk alienating the other person and having bitterness and resentment between you? Is it something that you might laugh about later, saying “I can’t believe we fought about that! How silly!” I ask people who get angry to rate how important this matter you’re getting upset about is, on a scale of 1-10. If you can honestly say it’s above a five, ask yourself why that’s important to you. If it’s below a five, consider letting it go unless it’s emblematic of a greater sense of disrespect and pain in the relationship.

With Valentine’s Day coming up next month, I thought I might arm those of you in relationships with a few pointers to get through that holiday. It has its own set of expectations and cultural meanings that sometimes get in the way of really enjoying each other. If you think that your relationship is in trouble and could use more help, please call me at 661-233-6771.

Responsibility for Symptom Management


We need to have compassion for our loved ones with mental health and behavioral issues. We (and they) also need to minimize the damage that can come with mental illness symptoms. Taking responsibility includes getting consistent help and observing and managing our own behavior.


Much as some of us struggle to get well from mental illnesses like depression, Bipolar illness, and PTSD, sometimes we have a hard time keeping those troublesome symptoms to ourselves. This can make our lives miserable, and also be difficult for those whom we love. It can be hard for partners of mentally ill people to balance compassion with self-preservation, especially if the symptoms hurt or frighten the loved one.

I often see couples where one person has been traumatized by something that has happened in the past, whether it was done by the partner (as in infidelity or domestic violence), or by someone else in the person’s past. This increases the reactivity of the trauma victim. The trauma survivor can become very sensitive to noise, sound, tones of voice, or cues that remind him or her of the prior trauma. When the person gets triggered, they might yell, become angry, get scared, or act in ways that are hard for the other person to understand.

Often the person who acts differently feels bad about it afterward, once their brain has restored balance and they are no longer in the grips of overwhelming emotion. However, many times their loved one feels hurt and reluctant to trust them again, for fear of recurrence of the emotional instability and erratic behavior.

There is some grace that we allow each other in relationships, whether they are friendships, intimate/romantic relationships, or family ties. On the whole, if we know our loved one has a good heart and kind intentions, we can forgive some of the erratic or hurtful behavior. But the person with the mental issues also has a responsibility to take care of themselves as much as they can so that they can prevent hurting those they love. If a person keeps yelling at someone or treating them poorly, and says, “it’s because I’m triggered by you”, then they are not fully taking responsibility for their part in the interaction. It can be hard to forgive this kind of assertion. Yes, loved ones should educate themselves about their loved one’s mental illness and try to put the strange behavior in context. At the same time, however, the mental illness diagnosis doesn’t give a person carte blanche to act as they wish at that time.

There is nothing wrong with seeking help in coping with mental issues, and in going to groups like National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) to get education and support. Both the person with the illness and the partner/friend/family member need to care for themselves and take needed medication, therapy, or whatever will help them cope better, as well as learn to act in a way conducive to healthier relationships.