NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Books: On Chesil Beach: How the Entire Course of a Relationship Can Be Changed By "Doing Nothing"

Usually, when you think of a relationship that doesn't work out, you think of something that one or both people actively did that resulted in the breakup.  But there are times, like in the book and movie, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, when the entire course of a relationship can change by appearing to "doing nothing."

On Chesil Beach: How the Entire Course of a Relationship Can Be Changed By "Doing Nothing"

This occurs more often than most people think, and it's often only in hindsight, sometimes many years later, that the people in the relationship realize the impact of "doing nothing" when a response might have changed the course of the relationship.

On Chesil Beach is a good example of this dynamic but, in case you haven't read the book or seen the movie, I'll give another example so there are no spoilers in this article.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: How the Entire Course of a Relationship Can Change By Doing Nothing:
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how a relationship can change by seemingly "doing nothing":

A year after a breakup, Rick sought help from a psychotherapist to deal with the emotional aftermath of the breakup.

According to Rick, he and his girlfriend, Diane, had been seeing each other for two years when they got into an argument about an insensitive remark that Diane made to Rick.  Specifically, he got angry with Diane after she called him "stupid" for forgetting her birthday.

Rick told his psychotherapist that he became so livid after she called him "stupid" that even after she apologized several times, he refused to talk to her.  After a few weeks, Diane stopped reaching out to him, and he made no effort to reach her.

How the Entire Course of a Relationship Can Be Changed By "Doing Nothing"

By the time Rick came to therapy, more than a year had gone by since he and Diane had any contact with each other.

It was only in hindsight, Rick said, that he realized that he shutdown emotionally and he was unresponsive to Diane because his father used to call him "stupid," and when she called him "stupid," he got emotionally triggered.  As a result, he didn't accept her apology (see my article: Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Your Emotional Triggers).

Since that time, Rick realized that his relationship with Diane had been the best thing that he had ever experienced, and he made a mistake by not being willing to talk to her.  In hindsight, he realized that she had never done anything like this before, and she lashed out at him that one time in hurt and anger.  He also realized that when she apologized to him, she was sincere.

But when he contacted her a year after the breakup, she told him that she was in another relationship, which was serious, and she couldn't see him.  She said she felt no resentment or anger towards him, and she wished him well, but she couldn't have any more contact with him.

As he sat in his psychotherapist's office, he told her that he felt tremendous regret for shutting down and not accepting Diane's apology when the incident occurred.  He realized that he overreacted at the time, and it was now too late to get back with her.

He told his therapist that, looking back over his life, he realized that he had done this before in other relationships, but he never felt such regret as he did with Diane.  He came to therapy to overcome the emotional triggers that caused him to shutdown emotionally so he wouldn't keep ruining his relationships.

As Rick and his psychotherapist discussed his family history, he talked about his critical father, who belittled Rick from the time he was a young child.  He also talked about his passive mother, who did nothing to protect Rick or intervene on his behalf.

His psychotherapist recommended that they use EMDR therapy to work on the more recent issue involving Diane as well as the history of being criticized by his father (see my article: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain and Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

His therapist helped Rick to understand that his defense mechanism of shutting down emotionally was useful to him when he was a child to keep him from getting overwhelmed, but it was no longer useful to him as an adult.  Not only was it not useful, it was actually doing him harm (see my article: What Happens When You Numb Yourself to Emotions From Your Traumatic Past).

The work in therapy was neither quick nor easy.  During their EMDR sessions, Rick felt such grief and compassion for the sad child that he was when he was younger.  He also grieved for his relationship with Diane and dealt with his fear that he might never meet anyone that he loved as much as he loved her.

By the time Rick completed therapy, he was no longer getting triggered by criticism or when someone called him a name because he worked this out with EMDR therapy.  He also understood that shutting down emotionally can be just as harmful to a relationship as being outwardly reactive in a negative way.

Romantic relationships often involve getting triggered by core unresolved issues, including trauma experiences from the past, as in the fictional vignette above.

When someone shuts down emotionally, also known as emotional numbing, s/he can be unreachable and unable and/or unwilling to try to reconcile the relationship because of the emotional trigger.

When this occurs, the person who experiences emotional numbing isn't thinking clearly.  The defense mechanism of emotional numbing "works" so effectively that it might take a while (if ever) before this person can look back in hindsight and realize the damage of being outwardly unresponsive.

Although from the outside, it might appear that "nothing is happening," there is actually quite a lot that's happening internally for the person who shuts down emotionally.  S/he is very overwhelmed, even though s/he might not be aware of it.

To the other person, it appears that s/he is being "stubborn" or "rigid," but, in actuality, the emotional numbing keeps the person emotionally inaccessible even to him or herself.

Getting Help in Therapy
Experiential psychotherapy, like EMDR therapy, helps you to overcome unresolved trauma so you no longer get triggered in your current life (see my article:  Why Experiential Psychotherapy is More Effective to Overcome Trauma Than Talk Therapy Alone)

If you realize that you keep getting triggered by unresolved trauma, you owe it to yourself to get help so you can free yourself from your traumatic history and live a fulfilling life (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.