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Saturday, February 26, 2022

Relationships: Telltale Signs You and Your Partner Aren't on the Same Page About Your Relationship

In my previous article, I discussed why it's important for you and your partner to be on the same wavelength in your relationship.  I also talked about the many different relationship choices these days, and the consequences of having divert needs on major relationship issues.  In this article I'll be discussing the telltale signs you're not on the same page (see my article: Are Your Emotional Needs Being Met in Your Relationship?).

Telltale Signs You and Your Partner Aren't on the Same Page

Telltale Signs You and Your Partner Aren't on the Same Page
The following list might indicate that you and your partner aren't on the same wavelength with regard to your relationship:
  • Less Emotional and Sexual Intimacy: When you're not happy in your relationship because you and your partner aren't in agreement about what you each want, you might feel disconnected from your partner which could lead to a reduction in emotional and sexual intimacy or you feel like you're just going through the motions (see my article: What's the Difference Between Sexual and Emotional Intimacy?).
  • Arguments About Time Apart vs Time Together: If one of you wants to spend more time together than the other, you could be having more arguments about this. Often the person who wants to spend more time together feels rejected and abandoned by the partner--even though this might not be the case. It might just be that one partner needs more alone time to recharge (see my article: Learning to Compromise in Your Relationship About Spending Time Apart vs Time Together).
  • Arguments About How You Spend Your Time When You're Not Together: If one or both people are feeling insecure about the relationship because they don't know where it's going, they might argue about how much time you spend with friends, hobbies or at work. 
  • Discussions About Life Decisions Are Avoided: You and your partner aren't talking about long term relationships goals because you don't have a common understanding about the direction of the relationship, so you avoid dealing with these issues. This avoidance, in turn, creates more tension and misunderstandings (see my article: 7 Tips For Creating a Stronger Relationship With Relationship Goals).
  • Arguments About Money: If you're not discussing relationship goals, you won't know how to prioritize decisions about money, e.g., buying a house, saving for a vacation, and so on (see my article: Arguing About Money in Your Relationship).
  • Arguments About Flirting With Others: As mentioned in the prior article, there are so many different types of relationships (monogamous, monogamish, open relationships, etc), so if you each have a different understanding about how you define your relationship, you might argue about how your partner is interacting with other people, including being overly flirtatious.  If you're feeling insecure, even if your partner has no intention of being with anyone else, you might engage in "mate guarding," which can create even more tension in your relationship (see my articles: Irrational Jealousy and Mate Guarding - Part 1 and Part 2).
  • Family Events Are a Problem: If you and your partner aren't on the same page about the type of relationship you each want, you might find family gatherings become problematic because you don't go to your partner's family events and/or your partner doesn't go to your family events. This can create tension for significant events like parents' birthdays or holidays. Even though some family events might not be fun, if you're in a serious relationship, you're there to support one another.  You also might end up making excuses to your family about why your partner isn't there.
  • Boundaries Aren't Respected: Whether it's emotional, sexual or other physical boundaries, it's hard to know what the boundaries are when you and your partner aren't in agreement.  If you want to be in a monogamous relationship, but your partner wants an open relationship that includes sexual and/or emotional intimacy with others, you or your partner are bound to get hurt and disappointed.
  • A One-Sided Relationship: If you feel you're making most of the effort in your relationship so that your relationship feels one sided, you're going to feel resentful and disappointed. Another sign of a one-sided relationship is when your partner talks about something the two of you did together and instead of saying "we," they tend to say "I."
  • Frequent Misunderstandings About Your Partner: If you feel like you don't know your partner anymore, you could be experiencing a sign that you're not on the same wavelength anymore (or maybe you never were). You might be growing apart because you have divert views about what you want in the relationship.
  • Together But Feeling Alone: When a couple isn't on the same page about the relationship, one or both of them can feel like they're alone even though they're physically together. If you're with your partner but you feel lonely, this is another indication of being disconnected from one another (see my article: Are You Feeling Lonely in Your Relationship?).
The items listed above aren't exhaustive, so there might be other telltale signs that you detect with your partner.

In a future article, I'll provide a clinical vignette and discuss how you can try to resolve these issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
Just because you and your partner aren't on the same wavelength doesn't necessarily mean you can't get there.  Sometimes you just need help.

These kinds of problems usually don't get better by themselves, and if you don't know what to do, you could benefit from working with a licensed psychotherapist.

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to discover what you want, how to communicate your needs and how to work out a possible compromise.

So take the first step of contacting a licensed mental health professional so you can have a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

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 or email me.

Relationships: Are You and Your Partner on the Same Page About Your Relationship?

It's not unusual for people to enter into a new relationship without discussing what they each want.  Instead, each of them assumes that what they want is what their partner wants.  As a result, a few weeks or months into the relationship they're surprised to discover that they both want a different type of relationship (see my article: Are You and Your Boyfriend on the Same Wavelength?).

Are You and Your Partner on the Same Page?

Differences Between You and Your Partner Can Be Complicated
When you think about all the possible differences between people--wants and needs, personalities, family histories, cultures and religions, experiences in prior relationships--you can see why there would be misunderstandings if the couple doesn't talk about what they want before they enter into the relationship.

One person might have come from a family where they observed their parents in a happy monogamous relationship and this is what they envision for themselves. The other person might have come from a single parent home where they didn't see their parent in a relationship at all.  Another person might have witnessed two parents that were emotionally estranged.

Similarly, someone from a traditional culture or religion might not have much experience dating or being in a relationship so they're unclear as to what they want.  They might not even be sure if they want to be in a relationship, while their partner, who has a lot of relationship experience, might be ready to be part of a committed relationship.

New Relationship Energy at the Beginning of a Relationship
New relationship energy (NRE) is a state of mind at the beginning of a relationship. 

When you first start seeing someone new that you really like, it's easy to get caught up in that heady NRE where you feel like you're on top of the world and nothing could possibly go wrong.  

Everything is new, the sexual chemistry is probably strong, and you have so many other things to talk about because you're getting to know each other.  

While NRE is usually thought of as being desirable at the start of a relationship, the heady feelings involved can also distort how you perceive your partner or the potential for a satisfying relationship with this person.

If, in addition to NRE, you also bypass the step where you have a discussion about what you each want, you and your partner can feel disappointed later on when you realize you're not on the same page and you want different things.

Alternatives to Monogamy
In addition to the ambiguity of a new relationship, there are so many alternatives to a monogamous relationship, which could include (but are not limited to):
  • Monogamish: A term coined by Dan Savage where the couple is mostly monogamous, but they allow for an occasional outside sex partner where there are no intended romantic feelings (although emotional attachments can develop even if both people don't intend for it to happen).
  • Open Relationship: There are variations in open relationships, but open relationships usually mean that the couple considers themselves to be the main partners, but they also see other people, often for sex with no intended emotional connection (although, once again, unintended emotional connections can develop).
  • Polyamorous: This is a form of consensual non-monogamy where each person sees other people outside the relationship and these other relationships might or might not be sexual and might or might not involve emotional attachment, depending upon what the couple has negotiated with each other. 
  • Friends with Benefits (FWB): This is another category that has variations depending upon what each person wants. Sometimes FWB can start between two people who are friends but who also have a sexual attraction to each other. FWB can be for a limited duration or it can be ongoing for years. Sometimes the two people go back to being friends after they stop being sexual or when one or both enter into a more committed relationship with someone else, and sometimes they end the friendship altogether (see my article: The Pros and Cons of Friends With Benefits).
  • Swinging: There is a lot of variety in this category which often brings to mind "wife swapping" and "key parties" from the 1970s. But the term actually covers a broad spectrum. Some couples who are swingers only engage in sexual activities together with a specific group of people and other couples each go off on their own individually to have sex with other people.  Swinging usually implies that there aren't intended emotional connections with other people outside the main relationship but, as in any type of relationship, emotional attachments can form.
You and Your Partner Need to Communicate
Misunderstandings and hurt feelings can develop if the two of you haven't defined your relationship from the start.

So, for instance, if you think you're in a monogamous relationship, but your partner assumes that the two of you are "monogamish," there can be serious consequences which lead to a breakup.

In upcoming articles, I'll discuss the signs that can alert you that you and your partner aren't on the same page and how to fix this problem (see my article: Telltale Signs You and Your Partner Aren't on the Same Page).

Getting Help in Therapy
Relationships are much more complicated these days than they were in your parents' time with many more choices.  It's not enough to love each other and just hope that your relationship will work out.

Knowing what you want and communicating it to your partner is important if you want to have a happy relationship. But this is often hard to do because people don't always know how to do it.

Whether you seek assistance individually or in couples therapy, you owe it to yourself and your partner to seek professional help if you're struggling with these issues.  

So, rather than struggling alone, get help from a licensed mental health practitioner so you can have a healthy relationship.

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to discover what you want and learn how to communicate effectively with your partner.  

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individuals and couples.

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 or email me.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Are You Clinging to Unrealistic Expectations in Your Relationship?

In my previous article, Moving Beyond Blaming Your Parents, I discussed how remaining stuck in a blaming attitude towards your parents about your childhood is counterproductive in the long run to resolving your problems as an adult because it keeps you clinging to your past and, in many circumstances, unrealistic expectations.  In much the same way, clinging to unrealistic expectations in a relationship can keep you stuck and continually disappointed (see my article: Unrealistic Expectations Can Lead to Great Disappointment).

Clinging to Unrealistic Expectations in a Relationship

How Do You Know If Your Expectations of Your Partner Are Unrealistic?
People often tell you, either directly or indirectly, what you can expect of them. Usually the problem is that your wish for things to be different overrides the information you're getting from your partner. If your wish is so strong that you overlook the reality of your situation, you can remain stuck trying to change them even though they can't or won't change (see my article: 10 Reasons Why Trying to Change Your Partner Doesn't Work).

If you're not listening or observing what your partner is communicating, you're doing yourself and your partner a big disservice (see my article: How Do You Know If You're in an Unhealthy Relationship?).

Clinical Vignette: Clinging to Unrealistic Expectations in Your Relationship
The following clinical vignette is a composite of many different cases without any identifying information about any particular clients:

Ella and Jim were both in their mid-30s.  Two months into dating Jim, Ella felt frustrated that he called and texted her once every few days.  She expected him to contact her at least once a day so she felt neglected by him.

When she spoke to Jim about this, he told her that he wanted to keep things between them casual, which disappointed Ella even more.  In addition, he mentioned that he didn't consider them to be in a relationship, and even when he was in a relationship, he didn't like feeling  obligated to contact his partner every day because he was busy and focused primarily on his career and hobbies.  He told her that his partners have never been his priority.

After their talk, Ella felt disappointed.  She talked about this at her next therapy session.  In response, her therapist reminded her that she tended to choose narcissistic men who were self absorbed and that she and Jim wanted different things from each other.  She asked Ella why she remained with Jim if he continually disappointed her.  

Ella responded that she wanted to be in a relationship with Jim, and she was sure she could convince him eventually to spend more time with her.

Knowing Ella's family history and her prior history in other relationships, Ella's therapist pointed out that she was continuing to repeat the same pattern she had with her father.

She reminded Ella that when she was a child, she had the same feeling--if only she could make her father see that she was "good enough," he would pay more attention to her, but that dynamic with her father never changed.  

Two weeks later, Ella came in to therapy looking miserable.  She told her therapist that Jim told her he didn't want to see her anymore because she was "too needy."  She said she tried to convince him that they could work things out, but Jim wasn't interested.

Ella began ruminating about how to get Jim back, but her therapist interrupted her rumination by pointing out to her that even though it was clear that Jim didn't want to see her, Ella felt compelled to change his mind. Her therapist asked Ella to get curious about this.

When Ella calmed down, she conceded that she was obsessing about Jim.  She said that on an intellectual level, she knew he wasn't right for her but, on an emotional level, she felt compelled to get him back--even though he wasn't willing to give her what she wanted. She also conceded that her expectations of Jim were unrealistic.

Prior to her breakup with Jim, Ella refused to work on the childhood issues related to her father's emotional neglect of her.  She only wanted to talk about the present, but two weeks after the breakup, Ella felt ready to work on her traumatic childhood experiences and to integrate what she knew intellectually with what she felt emotionally.  

She realized that, unless she worked on the unresolved trauma, she would continue to be susceptible to falling for other narcissistic men like Jim.  She also knew that, even if she was in a healthy relationship, she might still get triggered whenever she feared her partner might lose interest in her.

Her therapist used Parts Work, which is also known as Ego States work, Internal Family Systems (IFS) and other names.  Parts Work helped Ella to access the child part of her, which contained the unresolved childhood trauma, as well as the adult part, which could serve as a protective, compassionate figure to the child part (see my article: How Parts Work Helps to Empower You). 

Over time, through Parts Work, Ella developed a more psychologically integrated experience with an integration of what she knew intellectually and what she felt emotionally so there was no longer a split.  The adult part of herself was able to soothe the child part so that, gradually, she healed from her childhood trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
Although clinging to unrealistic expectations in familial or romantic relationships can be painful, many people don't know how to stop because this dynamic is usually a repetition of an unresolved trauma.  

A skilled trauma therapist can help you to work through the unresolved trauma that's impacting you in the present (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

Once you're free from your traumatic history, you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

As a trauma therapist, I help clients overcome trauma.

I work with individual adults and couples.

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 or email me.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Moving Beyond Blaming Your Parents in Therapy

Many people think that contemporary psychotherapy is all about blaming your mother or blaming both of your parents for your unresolved problems, but this is an outdated view of therapy that is part of the many myths about modern psychotherapy (see my articles debunking common myths about contemporary psychotherapy, including the myths that Going to Therapy Means You're WeakPsychotherapy is "All Talk and No Action," and Psychotherapy Always Takes a Long Time).

Moving Beyond Blaming Your Parents in Therapy

While it's true that historically traditional psychoanalysis from a generation ago focused blame on parents, especially mothers, most contemporary psychotherapists have moved beyond that.

Most contemporary psychotherapists know that while it's important to understand how problems might have developed early on, they also know that if that's all therapy has to offer, clients will remain stuck in an angry, frustrated place and change will be difficult at best.

Developmentally, our perspective about our parents usually changes over time (see my article: How Your Perspective About Your Parents Changes Over Time).

While many young children see their parents as being wise and powerful, as these children get older they begin to see their parents in a more realistic way.  They recognize that their parents have their own problems, which might be intergenerational (see my article: Psychotherapy and Intergenerational Trauma).  

This isn't to say that some parents weren't emotionally and physically abusive to their children which created trauma. But, after recognizing the origin of their problems, which might also include genetics, temperament, and other important relationships, clients need to be assisted in therapy to move beyond blaming their parents so they can make progress in therapy.

How to Move Beyond Blaming Your Parents For Your Problems
Everyone's situation is different, and I don't know your particular situation or your personal history.  

While you might have good reason for being angry with your parents for things they did (or didn't do), at the same time, this can't be the where your development in therapy stops if you want to overcome your problems because, as previously mentioned, you'll get stuck blaming your parents and not taking steps to overcome your problems.

After you process your anger in therapy towards your parents (or someone else), you need to move beyond that stage to actually process your problems because your parents can't do it for you.

Processing the trauma is how you will heal. Depending upon your individual problems and what therapy might work best for. you, therapy could include the following forms of experiential therapy:
  • Parts Work: This form of therapy, which has many different names, including Ego States work, Internal Family Systems (IFS), as well other names. It was developed by many different therapists over time, including Dr. Richard Schwartz.  It involves recognizing that we're all made up of a multiplicity of selves, which includes a child part as well as an adult part, and many other parts. So, to give just one example of how this type of therapy can be used, if you grew up in a home where you were emotionally neglected, a Parts Work therapist can help you to develop a more nurturing adult part so that you can nurture the child part of you that holds the trauma. With this type of therapy, there's a recognition that you mihjt not have gotten what you needed emotionally when you were a child, but you can always give it to yourself if you learn how to do it (see my article: Understanding the Many Aspects of Yourself).
    • attachment theory
    • affective neuroscience
    • trauma research
    • developmental research 
    • mind-body/somatic therapy
    • emotion theory
    • phenomonology 
    • transformational studies
  • Somatic Experiencing (also known as SE): SE, which was developed by Dr. Peter Levine, takes into account that trauma is stored in the body.  This often leads to emotional numbing also known as dissociation. SE can help clients to release the trauma and help them to feel more integrated emotionally and physically.
  • Clinical Hypnosis (also known as hypnotherapy): Clinical hypnosis helps clients to achieve a relaxed state where they can have access to deeper, unconscious material and that can help clients to become more open to change.
It's not unusual for experiential therapists to use the different modalities mentioned above during different stages of therapy, depending upon what the client needs.  

For instance, in my prior article, where I discussed that clients aren't defined by their psychological trauma, I gave an example in the clinical scenario where the therapist started with Parts Work and then used EMDR therapy.

Unlike outmoded forms of psychotherapy from a century ago, contemporary psychotherapy recognizes that if clients don't move beyond the stage of blaming their parents, they will remain stuck with their problems.  

Experiential therapy, including EMDR, Parts Work AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis provide clients with an opportunity to work through unresolved problems so they can move on with their life (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

Rather than remaining stuck in a blame trap, contact an experiential psychotherapist who can help you to overcome the obstacles that are blocking your growth.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Parts Work and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

As an experiential therapist, helping clients to overcome trauma is my specialty.

I work with individual adults and couples.

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 or email me.    

You Are Not Defined By Your Psychological Trauma

In a prior article called Psychotherapy: You Are Not Defined By Your Diagnosis, I discussed how clients who have been in therapy before often define themselves by their diagnosis (e.g., "I'm depressed" or "I'm anxious").  

You Are Not Defined By Your Trauma

This is especially true when clients use their health insurance to get reimbursed for their therapy and their therapists provide them with a diagnosis, which is required by the insurance companies for reimbursement. 

As I stated in that article, while it's often useful to know about certain diagnoses, a diagnosis cannot possibly define a whole person.  As a whole person, you're much more than your diagnosis.  Also, diagnoses change and many diagnoses are only an approximation of the problem--or as close as a therapist can get for insurance purposes.

Rethinking How You See Yourself
Whether they realize it or not, aside from defining themselves based on a diagnosis, many people think of themselves as being defined by their psychological trauma. This is often unconscious. In other words, if they were neglected or abused as part of their personal history and their family treated them as if they were unlovable, they take on that identification as if it were true (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

To say it another way, people who have no awareness of identifying with their trauma often see themselves through the eyes of the people who traumatized them.  If their parents treated them as if they were worthless, they feel and behave as if they are worthless.  They also expect very little from their relationships because they have completely taken on this identification without even realizing it.

For people who completely take on this identification, there's no separation between the identity that was forced upon them and how they see themselves.  They don't question this identification because it's so ingrained in them.

Clinical Vignette: 
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed, illustrates these dynamics:

Throughout her childhood both of Nina's parents were highly critical of her to the point where they told her that she would never amount to anything and no man would ever want her.

They also said similar things to her older sister, Ann, but Ann was a fighter and she fought back against her parents' criticism.  Ann would get angry and tell her parents that they were wrong.  This incurred their parents' anger and they would punish Ann, who would find other ways to rebel against her parents.  When she turned 18, Ann moved out to live on her own and spent very little time around her parents once she was free of them.

But Nina was a quiet child.  She would never think of arguing with her parents or rebelling.  Her parents' criticism hurt her, but she responded by working harder to get excellent grades and being "extra good" in the hope she could appease her parents and she would finally get the love and praise she wanted so much from them.  

She also saw the impact of Ann's rebelliousness in terms of how much tougher her parents tried to be with Ann, and she didn't want that.  She hoped her parents would see her as "the good one" in the family.  But even though her parents' nurturance never came, Nina didn't give up hope that if only she could show them she was "good enough," they would love her.  

As an adolescent, Nina was shy.  With the exception of a couple of close friends, she tended to isolate at home.  Sensing the problems in Nina's home, her high school advisor encouraged Nina to go away to college and helped her to get a scholarship.  

Since Nina got a scholarship, her parents agreed reluctantly to allow her to go away to a college in Upstate New York.  At first, Nina was unhappy at college because she saw herself as an outsider (see my article: Feeling Like an Outsider).

But, over time, when she found a group of like-minded students who were focused on academic achievement and intellectual activities on campus (as opposed to parties and other social activities), she was happier.

Although Nina was attracted to young men on campus, she felt too shy to talk to them.  Even when some of these young men approached her to ask her out, Nina found dating to be fraught due to her feelings of low self worth. There were times when she couldn't understand why these young men were interested in her.

Without realizing it, Nina had internalized her parents' critical view of her. She took on the identity of someone who wasn't lovable or even likable.  She had no understanding that she was defining herself based on her parents' treatment of her--until she sought help in therapy to deal with anxiety.

Her therapist helped Nina to question how she saw herself, which was difficult at first.  Gradually, by doing Parts Work therapy, Nina came to understand that there was a big part of her, the part that held the trauma, which continued to be critical in the same way that her parents were critical of her.  But, aside from the critical part, she also discovered another part of her (even though it was a very small part at first) where she believed in herself (see my article: Overcoming the Internal Critic).

Her therapist helped Nina to develop this smaller part over time so that she had better access to it, and whenever she felt her critical part berating her, she would ask that critical part to step aside to allow this other more confident part to emerge.

Once Nina realized that she was not defined by the trauma of her overly critical parents, she could be more objective about herself.  She was able to examine the part of her that felt unlovable so she could question and refute that identification.  

Using EMDR therapy, her therapist also helped her to work through her early unresolved trauma so she could let go of her trauma-related identity. As she worked through the trauma, Nina felt more empowered in her life and deserving of love.  This enabled Nina to be in a loving relationship and a satisfying career after college.

People who experienced early trauma often carry an unconscious identification based on the trauma.  This identification might be that they're unlovable (as in the scenario above) or that they're powerless, not good enough, and so on.  

Trauma therapy can help individuals to become aware of the identification they have taken on, question it and discover other healthier parts of themselves (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

This work in therapy isn't easy or quick, but most clients find it worthwhile because it eventually frees them from the unconscious, false trauma-related identification.

Getting Help in Therapy
Many clients who seek help in therapy come because they're aware they're dealing with a debilitating problem, but they might not understand the problem. They don't usually come in because they're aware of their trauma-related identification.

Working with a skilled trauma therapist, you can develop a greater awareness of yourself and learn to let go of false negative identifications.

By working through your unresolved trauma, you can free yourself from your traumatic history so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

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 or email me.

Split Loyalty: Traumatic Experiences For Children After Their Parents' Divorce

I've written prior articles about divorce focusing on how to talk to children about your divorce and also how to co-parent after the breakup (see my articles:  Talking to Your Child About Divorce and Co-Parenting After Divorce).  Aside from the issues I discussed in these articles, there's another common issue that comes up for young children as well as for adult children, which is the trauma of split loyalty.

The Trauma of Split Loyalty

When most people get married, they're not thinking about getting divorced.  In addition, most people want the best for their children.  They're not trying to intentionally hurt them.  But, although it's usually unintentional, many children get caught in the middle between their parents and this is a traumatic dilemma for them.

What is Split Loyalty?
Split loyalty is also called divided loyalty or loyalty conflict.  It means that children feel they have to choose between their two parents.  This often occurs when one or both parents don't know how to model a harmonious relationship with the other parent.  

This can easily occur in the heat of a divorce when people are angry and don't realize how they're behaving in front of their children.  Aside from divorce or a relationship breakup, it also occurs when spouses remain together but they have an ongoing conflictual relationship.

The situation is even worse when parents berate each other in front of the children or the children overhear parents saying negative things about the other parents.  This is more likely to happen when parents are emotionally overwhelmed or when they talk to their children as if the children are their confidants (see my article: Why Your Child Can't Be Your Friend).

Children already feel vulnerable enough when their parents are getting divorced because they know their family situation is going to change, but they have no control over the changes in their family.  If, on top of that, they feel that their parents aren't in control of their emotions, this is especially traumatizing (see my article: Staying Emotionally Grounded During Stressful Times).

One of the worst situations is when one or both parents engage in parental alienation.  This dynamic goes beyond just showing animosity without realizing it.

Parental alienation is a deliberate attempt to alienate the child from their other parent.  This usually occurs when a parent has lost sight of what is in the best interest of the child either due to the parents' own narcissistic traits or some other psychological reason.  

Here are some examples of parental alienation:
  • "Your father doesn't love you."  
  • "Your mother only cares about herself"
  • "Your father is so incompetent that he never does anything right."
  • "I should've never married your mother."
  • "Don't be like your father."
  • "It makes me angry that you look so much like your mother."
  • "Your father is crazy."
  • "Your mother didn't treat me well."
Split loyalty is damaging for children at any age, but it's especially damaging for young children.  Children's traumatic wounds often carry over into adulthood and impact them as adults with regard to trust and the ability to be in healthy relationship (see my article: How Past Psychological Trauma Lives on in the Present).

Tips For Avoiding Split Loyalty
  • Avoid confiding in your children about your anger and upset towards your ex because, if you do, you'll be setting them up to choose between you and your ex, which is very confusing for them and a no-win situation.
  • Be aware of who you confide in about your negative feelings about your ex because it could get back to your children through gossip or they might overhear you speaking.
  • Recognize that, unless your ex is dangerous, your children will need to continue to have a parental relationship with their other parent and it's best to do so without feeling guilty about being "disloyal" to you.
  • Be respectful towards your ex and model respectful behavior in front of your children. 
  • Recognize that your ex deserves the respect of your children.
  • Ask your children to tell you how they're feeling about the divorce and the breakup of the family.  If they know it's acceptable for them to talk to you about their feelings, they won't feel they have to bottle up their feelings or that it's unacceptable for them to talk to you about what's happening in the family.  
  • Recognize that young children and adolescents often act out because they don't have the vocabulary to express their feelings so they act it out with their behavior.  
  • Be aware that children often act out with the parent they have the closer relationship because they feel emotionally safer with that parent as compared to a parent who is unreliable and, hence, emotionally unsafe.  This is important to recognize so you don't feel confused about why your child is acting out with the responsible parent and not with the one who is irresponsible (i.e., not keeping promises, not showing up, behaving in an inconsistent way, etc).
  • Be aware that even if your children appear to be well and they continue to do well in school and with their peers, many children are very good at hiding their feelings.  Unlike the children who engage in acting out behavior where it's obvious there's a problem, these children internalize the trauma with little or no outward sign, so encourage your child to engage in an ongoing dialog with you about the changes in the family.  Or, if you don't have the wherewithal to do it on your own, seek help for yourself and your child.

Getting Help in Therapy
Ending a marriage or a long term relationship can be very challenging, especially when you have children.

If you feel overwhelmed, you're not alone.  Help is available to you.

Rather than struggling on your own, seek assistance from a licensed mental health professional who can help you to get through this stressful time.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

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 or email me.