Stephen Crippen Therapy

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Archive for the ‘Big Themes’ Category

Big Theme II: Values

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Here’s another Big Theme that often comes up in counseling: values. (I might start a series! First installment here.)

Let’s start with the same example I used last time: the couple is fighting about money. Let’s say the fight looks basically like this: “You spend money like an irresponsible fool!” “No, you never spend money because you’re selfish and cheap!” A couple could have that fight for hours. But if we look at it through the Big Theme of values, it looks like this: one of them is generous, the other thrifty.

Generosity is more than a temperament: it can be a value. You want to give nice gifts to your friends because they are supremely important in your life and you want the meaningful experience of giving them thoughtful and generous gifts. You don’t want to nickel-and-dime your way through life. You believe money is a way to express kindness, or freedom. Or you have a value that your life (and that of your friends and family) should include beautiful things, or delightful experiences. This is a central part of your value system.

But wait! What about the value of thrift? Your partner grew up in modest circumstances (or let’s face it, he grew up poor) and he never, ever wants to be poor again. Or he wasn’t able to provide a necessity for someone he loved because he couldn’t afford it, and he never wants that to happen again. He was taught never to use a credit card, and the teacher was someone he deeply respected. He was taught to live within his means. He was taught that being careful with money is the mark of maturity. This is a central part of his value system.

Can you see how, when we talk about money on the level of values, it stops being a fruitless argument full of accusations and insults? Both people are acting out of their value system, but because they don’t share the same value system, they have trouble seeing that in the other.

Another quick example: how do you two deal with your families of origin? I come from a big family that traditionally has valued lots of social contact, but perhaps not a high level of emotional or physical connection. (I said perhaps! If you’re in my family and reading this, don’t freak out.) My spouse comes from a family with different values, different assumptions and patterns and beliefs. It’s tempting to encounter your partner’s differences and judge them as faulty, but they’re just different. Maybe your partner’s family values privacy more than yours, and yours values openness. Privacy and openness: those are two good things. But they don’t mix well together. So a discussion about them as values helps you understand the other person much better, and see each other in a constructive, positive light.

“Yeah, but my partner is still crappy with money,” you might say. Sigh. Okay, yeah, maybe your partner could stand to tighten things up a bit. But how receptive would you be if someone criticized you and failed to recognize that—for all your faults—you are acting out of your own value system?

Big Theme: Kinship

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Often enough in counseling, we come across what I sometimes call a Big Theme. Typically people think of money, or sex, when they hear the words “Big Theme.” But I actually think those topics (exciting as they are) are rarely the central issue, even if a couple is arguing vigorously about them.

One of my favorite Big Themes is kinship. It’s an old-fashioned word, I know, and maybe that’s why I like it. It evokes something beyond the everyday. And here are a few ways it can reveal itself in a counseling session. Let’s say we’re talking about your aging mother and the conflict you’re having with your siblings about the question of whether to transfer her to an assisted-living facility. It’s obvious how issues of kinship can come up in that conversation: what is the role of an adult child in your family? How does a family deal with a matriarch who no longer can make decisions for herself? What are the obligations siblings have to each other, and to the rest of their busy lives and relationships? Easy: this is a kinship conversation.

But here’s another, less likely one: marriage equality, or even the basic concept of marriage itself. I often work with couples who have different views on the topic. One wants to get married, and the other finds the concept—but not the partner proposing it—appalling. (But you can imagine having trouble distinguishing his negative attitude about marriage from his attitude about you, right?) Sometimes I’ll take them away from the “M” word and ask them what they think “kinship” is, and how they choose their own “kin.” Who are your people? What is “home”? Who lives in this “home” of yours? Why do they live there? What are the ways you mark major transitions or developments in your life? (Marriage is only one of many possibilities.) It’s a kinship conversation, and the back-and-forth about the politicized and electrically-charged word “marriage” can obscure that, and get the couple lost in a fruitless argument.

(Sidebar: debates about marriage equality go better if they’re understood as kinship conversations. Does the government get to tell me who I can and cannot choose to be my kin? If so, why?)

One more example: arguments about money. I’ve had one or two myself, with my spouse, and making it a kinship conversation (instead of “you do [insert annoying behavior] about money and I’m sick of it!”) helps us get to the real thing we’re discussing. What do we believe our kin—our clan, if you will—should do with our money? How much should our clan have? How do we share it, save it, spend it, invest it? Why? It’s “our” money, but it’s also mine, and yours. How does that work? Is it really “our” money? Why? What beliefs and assumptions do we bring from our families of origin (more kin!) about money, and how are we living out those beliefs and assumptions (or not)?

Bottom line: if you’re kin, you can go deeper with your kinfolk on these issues. That’s what you do for your people. And it usually leads to a richer and more productive conversation.

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