Stephen Crippen Therapy

A blog about you (and me) by Stephen Crippen.

Archive for the ‘intimacy’ Category

Fix it, then you can forget it

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Back in grad school I learned about the Zeigarnik effect, and I ran into the concept again when I was attending a Gottman workshop last month. You don’t have to know everything there is to know about this, but the bottom line is interesting: humans have a hard time forgetting unfinished business.

Think about a relationship you’ve had that has gone sour. This usually happens over time: you and your partner (or friend, or mother, any relationship) have little interactions over a span of months (or even years) in which you feel slighted, misunderstood, maybe even mistreated. And then you discover that you’ve been collecting these grievances and keeping them in a little bitter file in your mind, your anti-partner file, if you want to call it that. Your memory of these events may be distorted, but there’s little chance you’ll forget them because you keep rehearsing them in your mind, over and over. They may not be accurate memories, but they’re certainly powerful ones.

Meanwhile, anything neutral or good that has happened in your troubled relationship is either forgotten, or (worse) discounted and twisted into a bad memory, ready for the anti-partner file. You are suffering from the Zeigarnik effect. Until you resolve your unfinished business with the other person, you won’t be able to let go of these nasty memories.

But once you do resolve them, something happens that almost feels magical. They slide away. They become distant echoes of a bad time for which no one is responsible…or if someone is to blame, they’ve copped to it really well, so no problem! And you start collecting positive memories again. Bluma Zeigarnik studied and described this effect by working with restaurant servers: if they had taken an order but not turned it in to the kitchen, or if they had served a customer but the customer hadn’t yet paid the bill, they could remember with sharp clarity what the customer ordered. But as soon as the business was transacted—the cook had the order, the customer paid the bill—the servers had no idea what the customer ordered. The now-irrelevant information just slipped away.

Wouldn’t that feel good? If you’re nursing an old wound,* or if someone you love feels wounded by you, it might help to simply sit down, listen non-defensively to one another, and resolve the problem. After that, may not even remember what all the fuss was about!

*I need to say that some wounds run very, very deep, so this concept is not a suitable replacement for long-term relationship therapy or individual therapy when a person has been seriously harmed, abused, or betrayed. The problems I’m referring to here are in the category of everyday slights and injuries. And, I’ll also say—since it’s what I do for a living, after all—that working through small problems is also easier when you’re seeing a counselor!

Talk to me

Friday, April 16th, 2010

I’m hoping to facilitate a discussion on this blog about GLBT culture, and particularly the cultural assumptions, beliefs, hopes, and fears of gay men on the topic of intimacy. By ‘intimacy’ I mean both physical and emotional, and yes, sometimes the physical is sexual, but my main question is this: how difficult is it for the gay men you know (or for you, if you’re a gay man) to be held by your partner, to be emotionally available to your partner, and above all, to ask your partner for intimacy?

I’ll contribute insights to the discussion from gay men and others in my field who study the issue, and of course I can share my own experiences, both as a therapist and as a person who, like you, needs intimacy with others to survive. For now, I’ll start with a basic assumption to give some shape to the discussion: many, many gay men I know (and read about) are—what’s the word?—skittish, I guess, about inviting their boyfriend or partner into a more intimate relationship. In the first stages of the relationship, it can be almost comically awkward. “If I tell him I want him to hold me, he’ll think I’m needy. He’ll think I’m smothering him,” said one friend. In your experience, is this typical for the gay men you know? And if so, why do you think that is?

Some of the answers are probably pretty obvious. Gay men are socialized as men—and in our dominant culture, men are not rewarded for being emotionally available, generally speaking. And gay men suffer the added pressure of being a marginalized group: their development from boyhood to manhood is deeply complicated by their sexual orientation. You have to be tough to be gay. And so when it comes to dating, co-habitating, and cultivating a relationship, it makes a lot of common sense that gay men are slow to open up.

But is it this simple? And if it is, are their ways you think we can work on it? In addition to my ideas, I plan on consulting this gay man, and also this one. (Though I expect I won’t agree with everything the latter one says.) And I very much want to include the voices of those who are not themselves gay, or male.

We don’t need to discover a set of answers. We may find that the dialog opens up our consciousness on the issue and enlightens us in ways we can’t fully articulate. But I hope we can have this discussion, and above all I hope all people—especially my fellow gay men—can find the deep and nourishing and thrilling intimacy that all humans so deeply need.

If you’re interested in contributing to the discussion, please comment below or email me directly at stephen[at]

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Stephen Crippen
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