Dr. Stephanie, is a licensed psychologist in private practice. She has helped many different clients overcome a number of personal hurdles. I spent an hour talking to Dr. Stephanie about both the issues she discusses most frequently these days and her thoughts on some of the more challenging aspects of relationships.
Here is a bit of what she had to say.
What are the most common reasons people in relationships come to talk to you?
What I have seen lately is a lot of people coming to me because of infidelity or the threat of infidelity.
Also, people are coming to me because they are up against the reality of what a relationship can and cannot provide them. People got married, have kids and then wonder, ‘Is this all there really is? Am I done? Is there more?’ People have questions about how they get fulfillment out of one relationship and what they can expect one relationship to be. People wonder if they are entitled to total fulfillment and if they are not getting it out of this relationship can they leave it in search for something better, but I don’t know if I agree with that.
Why don’t you agree with that?
I recently heard psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams give a talk about what constitutes mental health, and she described one aspect of mental health as how to love what you have in your relationships. In American culture, we have this idea that there is always something better out there. Sometimes, we have to wonder: how many marriages/relationships are you going to go through before you feel fulfilled? Another psychologist I know treated a man who had been married four times to four great women and he could not understand why he could not be happy. He had an idea that trading in his wives would make him happy. Good mental health may be tolerating in the other person what is not exactly perfect for you. People come to me asking, ‘Is what I have good enough? Should I be satisfied? What if this isn’t it? I have never felt deep passion for this person, should I be looking for something else?’
What do you think is the cause for the increase in infidelity?
Technology is not helping. We are hyper-connected. Technology gives us this feeling of closeness or attachment, but in actuality we do not really even know what is going on, on the other end. For example, when you are texting or emailing or g-chatting with someone, you often have to imagine what is on the other end. It is easy to fall in love that way. You can project some kind of fantasy about the person who is on the other end of your message. As a result, you can get into a love-like state with an idealized person who is not really there. I cannot tell you how many examples I have of this.
Is technology increasing the rate of infidelity or the rate of recognizing it?
My guess is that technology is increasing the rate of infidelity. People connect more easily. You do not need to make a phone call. You do not need to be hiding out in the den whispering on the phone. These days, technology makes it so much easier to be private or to do something in secret. And, as I just mentioned, it is easy to idealize the person on the other end of your messages, so that they appear to be more right for you than your wife or husband is.
How do relationships rebound from infidelity?
It has to do with how the unfaithful partner deals with the infidelity and how his/her spouse make sense of it with him/her. Also, it has to be clear that infidelity is not going to happen again. If the partner is good at coming clean and remaining an open book for a long time – that goes a long way. The couple also must reach an understanding of what that [the infidelity] reflected about their relationship at that time.
There will almost always be a residue of mistrust after an infidelity, but it does not mean that the relationship necessarily has to end. There are some cases, for example, where the wife, let’s say, continues to be suspicious of a cheating husband, who continues to hide things. Then, there are other cases where the cheating husband has been totally upfront and forthcoming about the affair and its aftermath and the wife over time can trust him again.
Have you seen relationships that have become as good or better than they were before the infidelity?
I have heard of cases where it does happen. I have heard of couples who work with therapists and learn so much about themselves and their relationship that in the end they are closer than they ever were.
What is the difference between acceptance and settling in relationships?
Sometimes I hear stories where it sounds like someone is being mistreated, and certainly I would consider staying in such a relationship to be “settling.” On the other hand, I hear about people who are not being fulfilled in relationships that actually sound pretty solid. For these people, the struggle is more about acceptance, since none of us are perfect, and we can only idealize the other person for so long before reality sets in. So, in this case, a person has to accept that their partner may be good enough, even if s/he is not perfect.
In the cases where you see people who are not fulfilled, how many of those people are not personally fulfilled and then blame it on their partner.
That is what we do, right? “I am not happy and it is your fault.” Although, we have to keep in mind that some people always blame the other person, while others always blame themselves. When a person is blaming others for feeling unhappy, sometimes he has to look at what in himself is keeping him from finding fulfillment. Is there something in his history that leads him to think he doesn’t deserve happiness, for example? Or is there a reason why he thinks someone else has to be responsible for his personal fulfillment? It all comes down to someone’s personal history. It all goes back to mom and dad, essentially. They gave us the road map of how to be in relationships.
What about the loss of individuality in a relationship?
It comes down to how did each person in the relationship come to experience relationships and how did they come to know themselves in relationships. Is their relationship history one where they were allowed to differentiate as an individual or does being in a relationship mean blending yourself into another? Some people look at relationships as self-sacrifice. There is an element of masochism that happens in healthy relationships – look at the mother and the baby. You need a little bit of giving up of self to be in a relationship, but it can become pathological when people lose all elements of themselves. There are cases of abusive relationships where the person being abused stays in the relationship for the sake of preserving the connection. The threat of abuse is better than breaking the connection. Reik referred to this as “relational masochism.”
How do children affect relationships in unexpected ways?
There are at least five dissertations in that question.
It seems like a lot of people thinking about kids only think about the walk on the sunny fall day and not the reality of children.
With kids, the couple often cannot take care of each other because they are both taking care of the baby. My first baby was colicky and although I had been studying parenting and motherhood for years, I was still like, “Oh my God I want to give the baby back.” I was thinking, “What have I done?” In my relationship, it went from me and my husband being there for each other to each man for himself. No one slept for months. Someone always had to be holding the baby. It was a nightmare. That can be the reality. If you have a couple who already has a lot of vulnerabilities, kids can be their breaking point. If you have a couple that is more resilient and aware and psychologically minded those couples are going to fare better with kids.
Is there anything couples can do to prepare themselves for what their lives will be like when the baby comes?
I feel our society fucks parents over left and right and in turn it fucks the kids over left and right. Our society has it all wrong. There is absolutely not enough support for young families in our multitasking world. Parents can’t be available to kids the way they should be. Couples can’t be available to each other like they should be. You put a new mother in a house with a brand new baby and you expect her not to get clinically depressed? If you are around a lot of friends and family that have had children perhaps you have a better idea of what being a parent will be like, but a lot people have no idea.
I don’t think the message of having kids is ‘not easy’ is being communicated.
It is interesting because I have considered setting up a program that would educate parents on just this. There is such a program in Seattle. But the question is, would expectant parents come? Do they want to know the reality?
Maybe the time to have the class is when couples are thinking about having a kid. I just do not think couples think about the financial costs, the logistical costs, the emotional costs. I just don’t think they think about it.
I can tell you it sucks at times, but I can also tell you that there is a lot of amazing beauty in having children. It is the most profound growth opportunity of your life. And it can be a growth opportunity for couples once they get past the baby period and couples find ways to live together as a family. Having kids is the biggest growing opportunity known to man. Your children will hold a mirror up to you and show you exactly who you are. They will make you live in the moment. You almost have to be a Buddhist to do child care! Babies force you into it. When you make a mean face and they make it back at you, you are like, “Holy shit! That is what I look like.”
My husband told me that he would do this mental exercise with himself every day before he came in the door when we first had our son. He would say to himself, “Imagine the day Stephanie had.” Because he knew that when he came in the door he would get hit by a blast of toxic rage. So he said he would always take a moment to imagine what it was like to be in my shoes, home with a crying baby all day. This helped him know that my rage was not really directed at him. He would be calm without retaliating and that is probably why we are still married.
What is the biggest surprise to parents about being parents?
The lack of sleep. I think that is the universal thing that no one can prepare you for–especially the relentlessness of it. You always have to feed that baby. You start to sleep and you are woken up. You start to go crazy. There is no way of explaining this to people.
But how do you not tell future parents this?
Some people just do not want to hear it. And when some people watch the relentlessness of caring for young children, they have no interest in having kids. When my brother saw what we went through he decided he liked not having children. I read a study about parents and happiness and it showed that parents are the least happy group of people. But then when asked if they would do it again they all said, ‘Yes.’ There is a piece of having kids that is also deeply gratifying and deeply rewarding. And that part is also impossible to describe.
Are there right and wrong reasons to choose to have children?
I don’t know…I guess if you want to have a baby because you just lost someone and want to name the baby after them, as a way of bringing that person back to life – that would be a pretty big load for that baby to carry. Of course, we all hope that parents would know themselves well enough where they can give what is needed to their child. Sometimes the motivations to have a child are not going to be 100% perfect, but that can be OK. Parents can have kids for what seem like the “wrong reasons,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean doom-and-gloom for the baby. There is a theory by Winicott of the Good Enough Mother, which emphasizes that a parent doesn’t have to be (and, actually, shouldn’t be) perfect. She should just be “good enough” to help the baby bond. The reasons to have a baby do not have to be completely and purely about the baby, but parents do need to be available for healthy bonding and attachment with the child. Winicott also wrote about the normal experience of hating your baby, which I tell my patients about…I think this is a relief to them, especially when times are hard.
What are your thoughts on what couples could do on a daily basis to strengthen their relationship?
I think the example of what my husband was doing – trying to put himself in my shoes before walking in the door at the end of the day is a good example. This kind of empathy goes a long way. When my husband told me that he was doing that, it was really endearing, and I really appreciated his effort to understand me instead of just feeling attacked. In general, a couple’s capacity to understand and empathize with each other’s perspectives, and their ability to think about where the other person is coming from (and why they act the way they do), is directly related to the strength of their relationship. I guess in that sense, compassion is the key.