Recovery from Devastation

Additional Information on Chapter 4, pages 51 to 53

A broader discussion of the nature of devastation was included in an earlier prescript in this chapter. The focus here is on recovery. In the previous discussion the ten steps to recovery from devastation are listed with the same brief discussion provided in The Compatibility Code.

We go through the same ten here, but provide more extensive discussion of each one.The ten are listed above and then more extended discussion follows

1. Closure

How many settings are there that require the closing of one door before another door can open? I had to leave my teaching job at Mark Keppel High School to enter graduate school at UCLA. I had to leave behind the single life style in order to get married. I had to depart from a former life style in order to become a Christian. I had to leave California in order to teach at Canadian University College. In each of these examples it would cause serious compromise to attempt to do the latter while retaining the former.

The most serious violation of this principle, and undoubtedly the most painful, is when someone attempts to cling to a former partner after the relationship has terminated. There are many forms of this absurdity:

  • People continuing to live together even though both know the relationship is over
  • One hoping frantically that the other will return and end a separation
  • Divorced people or former romantic partners occasionally getting together to have sex
  • Romantic partners breaking up, reconciling, breaking up, reconciling ad nauseam
  • Trying to be “just friends” following a painful break up.

I mention five, there are thousands of dialects related to the primary language of an unhealthy clinging to a former relationship.

What follows is a sequence of steps that is common when attempting to actually leave the relationship behind

  1. Emotional chaos
  2. Awareness that this is not a pleasant way to live
  3. A (hopefully) rational assessment of appropriate action
  4. Working up the courage to do what you gotta do
  5. Just do it.

Some might suggest the stupidity of the first four steps. Why not “just do it?” This suggestion is as impractical as the opposite fault of obsessing on any one of the steps too long. In the film My Fair Lady Henry Higgins is bemoaning Liza’s rejection, and, toward the end of the song I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face he says/sings:

I’m very grateful she’s a woman
And so easy to forget;
Rather like a habit
One can always break-
And yet,
I’ve grown accustomed to the trace
Of something in the air;
Accustomed to her face

No, relationships are not habits that can be easily broken. There is emotional entanglement that does not simply disappear.

So, don’t beat yourself up if you spend some time in phases 1 and 2. However, don’t wallow there. Move beyond to phases 3, 4, and 5 as soon as you are able to put aside the trauma.

Two bits of factual information:

  • There are instances of a broken relationship ending in healthy reconciliation
  • Until you put a former relationship aside and leave it behind, healing cannot begin.

Despite the contrasting nature of these two statements, both are quite valid. That is why we don’t complain too much about people stuck for awhile in the first two stages. If efforts toward reconciliation are appropriate, then get the best counsel available and go at it. This process may be painful, but is not self destructive or dysfunctional.

When we become aware that effort toward reconciliation is no longer appropriate then it is time to move on to steps: 3. determine appropriate action (break off all relationship at once), 4. Work up courage to implement the action and, 5. Do it.

The torture chamber that millions subject themselves to for months or years include those who are aware that the relationship is dead and should be left behind and yet continue to cling. This is indeed self destructive and dysfunctional. These are the people for whom healing cannot begin until their actions are consistent with their knowledge.

A comment on one of the five examples listed near the top of this prescript: Is it possible to back up to a friendship following the break of a romantic relationship? The answer is a simple “no!” As with all foundational principles of successful relationship, you may find a weird instance or two of violation where it worked, but lets emphasize the importance of acknowledging the 99.9%. Following the break of a romantic relationship all contact (other than achieving closure) should cease. You put your life on hold and guarantee extended torment by trying to cling. A few years later, after emotion has died, a friendship may be possible.

2. Externalize

We have spoken of the power of externalization in The Compatibility Code and in several other prescripts. The simple reality is that you will experience a rash of negative emotions that may go on for weeks, months, years following a relationship break. It is self destructive for those emotions to wreak internal havoc because there is no valid form of release.

Psychologist Paul Tournier in his book We Are Our Secrets illustrates the principle. His premise is that we become what we internalize. This principle works for good as well as for evil. When Hitler as a teen was traumatized when a Jewish Doctor was unsuccessful in treating his mother for breast cancer, he harbored a bitterness and hostility that grew over the years and eventually resulted in the holocaust. Mother Teresa labored with the poor of Calcutta many years before she became famous. Her many acts of compassion resulted in the emergence of a woman who eventually epitomized compassion.

Let us be a little more specific about the principle. A good person is one who is characterized by 1) when doing good does not publicize or brag, and 2) when doing evil she confesses or apologizes or in other ways externalizes. The basic principle is “that which is externalized loses power.” So the evil, through externalization, loses its power to infect; and the positive acts, because they are not externalized (by bragging about them) become the essence of the person. Mother Teresa perfectly illustrates on both counts: As a good Catholic she confessed regularly and for all the good deeds she did, she had no urge to brag about them. Even when she became famous, the focus of her speeches would be the needs of the poor rather than the exemplary acts she performed.

It is not difficult to imagine the opposite: A person who brags every time he does something good and attempts to hide his many indiscretions. The resulting person ranges anywhere from a tragic misfit to a monster, like Hitler.

So, how does this apply in the relational domain? The tidal waves of negative emotions following a breakup are personally destructive. The anger or outrage we feel against a former partner is not unlike the bitterness Hitler felt toward the Jewish doctor. If those emotions continue unchecked, you are left to imagine the horrifying result. Not that someone will turn into a Hitler. C.S. Lewis described it succinctly: “the same emotions that drove Hitler to the murder of millions will give another man indigestion.” However you look at it, internalization of evil results in destruction, either to self or to others.

The simple point is this: It is urgent that you externalize the negativity you feel. But, how does one do that? The answer provides both valid and invalid ways of externalization:

Invalid methods of externalization: A multitude of research projects demonstrate that the expression of anger, particularly in the presence of other angry people, simply inflames anger. Ever heard of a lynch mob? This means that if you speak with someone who harbors a similar anger toward your former partner that discussion will tend to make you angrier than you were already. Your latter state becomes worse than the former.

Remember that the function of externalization is to moderate emotions, not to enflame them.

Valid methods of externalization: The best method of externalization is to talk out your emotions with a wise, objective friend or counselor. Such a person will let you rant for awhile but will understand when to encourage you to begin to move beyond it. Such a person will not experience or express the same negative emotions you are feeling and expressing. It is important, (using an analogy) that the person who throws out a line to save you from drowning keeps his feet planted firmly on the shore. A therapist is trained to do this; a friend is typically not so skilled. The therapist, however, costs more.

If you speak with friends keep several things clearly in mind:

  • The eventual goal is for negative emotions to die a natural death
  • In order for that to happen the negative emotions need to be expressed
  • Do not over-burden one friend. That is too much negativity for one person to handle. Spread out your venting among several friends
  • If your friend is unskilled at when to turn from the “ranting” phase to a “moderating” phase you need to keep in mind that this must eventually happen and make the choice yourself.
  • Realize that if you make no progress (that is, you’re just as depressed every time, you’re just as upset every time, you complain that you are no better now than a month ago) you will drive your friends away. You’ll even drive away a paid therapist after awhile. You need to express appreciation for their listening, and, more importantly, you need to let them know that their efforts are resulting in benefit for you.
  • This externalizing needs to continue until you feel the negative emotions begin to fade. Yes, “feel” is the operative word. You cannot force emotions to shift.
  • There comes a time when you move into the mop-up phase. This is when emotions have diminished to the point that the intruding thoughts are not that frequent or that intense. At this time the rubber band (described on page 57 of The Compatibility Code) may prove useful.
  • If you do it right, you will not forget the negative events but you will erase all negative emotions about him, her, or the situation.

3. Appropriate Process

We speak here of the 5-step process that is employed to help you recover from any of the negative emotions. This process has been described in some detail in The Compatibility Code on pages 48-50 and expanded upon in the Anger prescripts in this chapter (Chapter 4). The previous prescript (Externalization) is one of the five steps. The five steps are:

  1. Admit it
  2. Vent it (externalization)
  3. Plan it
  4. Do it
  5. Forget it

In The book we apply the model to Anger. In the prescripts we adapt it to apply to recovery from the violation. The model works for trauma in general. Depending on the type of trauma the application of each step will vary.

Below we reproduce the five steps from The Compatibility Code as it relates to anger. Whatever negative emotions you are experiencing the chances are very good that you will be able to adapt this plan for your benefit.

1) Admit it: There are some who don’t like to admit they are angry. However, to begin resolution you need to be objectively aware of just how angry, outraged, incensed, furious, or irate you really are. When you acknowledge the severity of your emotions, then you can begin to do something about them.

2) Vent it: There are two types of venting: physical release, and cognitive/emotional release. Physical release (beat a punching bag, run twenty miles, scream at the top of your lungs) may assist in immediate reduction of emotions, but its benefit is only temporary. The cognitive and emotional form of venting is required. This type of venting is typically in the form of talking through your feelings with an objective other person. This allows you to externalize those feelings, and causes them to lose power. The person you speak with could be a therapist or counselor, or it could be several of your friends. Just don’t jeopardize a friendship by dumping too much negative emotion on one person.

3) Plan it: Once emotion has reduced to the point that you are thinking more rationally (this might take months if the emotions are extreme) then you begin to plan how to deal with feelings or to deal with the circumstances that have caused them. This is where a professional counselor can prove to be invaluable. They have access to a wide array of resources to assist you in dealing with anger. The planning may focus on control of your own emotions; pursuing healthy alternative activities; understanding the dynamics of what has happened; and other times eradicating irrational thought patterns.

4) Do It: Once planned, the next step is to discipline yourself to carry out the activities. Good intentions don’t work here; do what’s on the list. One interesting example (assuming that this has been planned) is to write a barnburner of a letter expressing your outrage at the jerk that inflicted this pain on you. Don’t hold back, this letter should skin the hide off of a billy goat! Then read it carefully to make sure you have included everything-add missing details. Read it again, several times if you like…and burn the letter. You have gotten it out. When externalized, emotions lose their power. There are hundreds more techniques that a therapist would help you fit to your situation, but it’s up to you to carry them out.

5) Forget it: Some find this a strange final step. The reality is that if you have completed the four steps listed above, forgetting will happen as a natural consequence. As you pursue other meaningful activities, the powerful emotions will eventually die a natural death. In some exceptionally difficult cases more effort is required and there are therapists who devote their entire practice to helping people forget painful events.

4. Activities

I remember the depression I felt when, during my divorce, the support group leader said something like, “You need to learn to be comfortable with yourself, to enjoy your own company; go out and treat yourself to a restaurant meal!” The reality was that I was not comfortable with (or by) myself, did not enjoy my own company, and restaurant meal by myself would be an exercise in self pity.

The leader was right but would have communicated better if she had deleted the word “enjoy”.

You need to get past the miserable phase you are in. When you do the activities do not make unrealistic demands that the activities provide any pleasure. What is helpful is to involve yourself in activities that so engage your mind that it helps transition through the dreadful stage you currently experience. Remember, the activity is the focus, not whether or not you enjoy the activity. Trust me; you won’t enjoy much in the early phases of a broken relationship.

I recall that when I was going through my divorce I did pretty well with the activities. I was teaching at Mountain View High School (El Monte, CA) at the time. I was coaching track and would stay three or four hours after school every evening assisting athletes. We had the best track team I have ever coached that year! I would also arrive at school one hour early and help the Algebra II students with their homework. Both activities were able to divert my mind from the personal disaster I felt I was going through.

Essentially what you want to avoid is long periods of time alone and stewing.

People activities are generally better than individual activities. For instance, going bowling with friends might prove to more therapeutic than seeing a movie by yourself. But know yourself well enough that you can make a sound judgment. If the movie is therapeutic, go ahead! Another direction to think, if you have most evenings free, is to take a class in some area of fascination-dancing, acting, singing, playing an instrument, rock climbing, canoeing, hiking. Any class that fascinates you is desirable; however, an activity class has the additional advantage of a physical as well as an intellectual release.

Make efforts that your activities are so fulfilling that you do not fall into the trap of what psychologists call “avoidant coping”. That is, escapist types of behavior such as getting drunk, drug abuse, unhealthy sexual involvement, skipping work and other activities that may have serious long term consequences. Work hard to be proactive here. Think of things you used to enjoy, then get involved and do those activities with enthusiasm even though your heart may be crying.

Remember the square root symbol? I reproduce it here from the discussion about violation:

There are four lines in this symbol:

  1. The short horizontal line
  2. The downward stroke
  3. The upward stroke
  4. The longer horizontal line

Each represents a different segment associated with response to crisis:

  1. The short horizontal line represents the initial level of functioning
  2. The downward stroke represents the chaos of crisis (a broken relationship in this case)
  3. The upward stroke represents the recovery phase from crisis
  4. The longer horizontal line represents a higher level of functioning

The critical phase is the third stroke. The first and second will happen. The altitude of the final line depends on the effectiveness of stroke 3

For those who practice self-destructive avoidant coping, a mutated version of the square root symbol emerges.

Each crisis leaves them at a lower level of functioning, and crisis after crisis they continue to spiral downward.

The enormously successful people of our world typically experience many failures and challenges. But when they learn from each failure (whether in the achievement or relational domain) the eventual result is the enormous success they so well deserve. The model looks like this:

So avoid activities that will cause the negative spiral and actively seek positive activities.

A final thought here, if you had patterns of activity prior to the break, then to the greatest extent possible, continue the pattern. If you have a pattern of an exercise routine, a certain type of breakfast, a favorite TV show, a weekly activity with friends; keep doing it! I know one woman who continued to prepare a full meal every evening even though it was only for herself.

5. Maintain Routine

This is in some ways related to the previous prescript (on activities), but whereas the previous prescript dealt primarily with finding new ways to keep yourself engaged to assist in transition, this section deals more with daily patterns of life that you may have had prior to the break.

So we speak here of former daily patterns of activities or new patterns necessitated by different circumstances. For instance, if I suffered a relationship break this prescript suggests that I should continue to

Get up at 4:30
Exercise
Practice trombone
Practice piano
Shave/shower/dress
Keep same breakfast routine
Teach my classes
Hold my office hours
Attend meetings
Continue with all the current music groups in which I am involved (perhaps even add one)
Continue church attendance

You get the idea. What the routine does is allow you to escape those horrifying moments of “what should I do now?” It keeps you clicking along and your mind will increasingly focus on the activity you are doing rather than the pain you are feeling.

As in the previous prescript, don’t expect these activities to bring much (any?) pleasure. Pleasure is not much of a force in your life right now. Initially, do the events mechanically. As you recover do each task well. Finally make the choice to do each task with enthusiasm. By acting enthusiastic your internal chemistry changes and you may actually become enthusiastic. The point is this: When you are doing things, there are many choices concerning excellence or enthusiasm that you have. When you’re not doing things, then excellence and enthusiasm both disappear as an option.

Finally, are there times to break a routine? Absolutely. If you maintain a routine or work a job that brings you into frequent contact with your X, it might be wise to make some changes so that such contact will not leave you crippled. Whether or not you break routine is a judgment you will typically make yourself. If you have difficulty knowing whether you should keep on keeping on or do something different, speak with objective friend or a counselor. It is usually possible to judge yourself whether maintaining a routine is helpful or destructive. If not, then the friend or counselor is available to assist.

6. Find a safe place

If maintaining routine is not working then you might consider the safe place option. If the place you live, pretty much everything you, and the people you interact with cause such internal turmoil that you are unable to grow out of your pain, then finding a safe place might be a reasonable option. If you find yourself on the horns of dilemma about whether you should or shouldn’t, a single session with a good counselor will allow an objective assessment of the correct choice.

When you are hurting, it is difficult to make any valid assessment about your situation. Let me provide a couple of contrasting examples:

Elizabeth and I counseled with a nearly-engaged young woman. She was very eager for the young man to “pop the question” but wanted to discuss with us certain concerns. After three sessions it was crystal clear that she and her boyfriend were badly matched and a few weeks later she (appropriately) broke of the relationship. With counseling she could see clearly that the relationship couldn’t work. Without counseling she could only vaguely sense there was problems and would surely have accepted if he had proposed. Another one example:

I coach track and cross country. When I coach there is set obligations for each athlete and for the coach. Each athlete is required to let me know how he or she is feeling and inform me of any concerns (up late last night, shin splints hurting) that might influence the upcoming workout. The coach’s job is to listen, assess, and then make decisions about what the athlete should do. The athlete’s job, then, is simply to do what the coach says. The reason is similar to the reason for seeing a counselor if you are unclear of the right course of action. Let’s say an athlete is doing a workout of 12 x 400s at 70 seconds each. The athlete gets through the first 8 averaging in the vicinity of 70 seconds each. On #9 he drops off to a 73. It is a cardinal rule that you do not want to slow down as you get tired-that’s not effective training for racing. So what do you do? Don’t do any more? Run the last one’s slower? To the athlete who is hurting, he has no perspective to make a wise choice. To the coach who is not hurting, valid judgment is much more likely. Having experienced this hundreds of times in coaching, based on keen observation and decades of experience, I may have the athlete quit for the day, skip an interval and make sure he is under 70 on the next one. Many options, but I make them with a clear brain and lucid insight.

Whether you are talking relationships or athletics the clear objective brain is a great asset for making decisions that may not be clear to you.

The next issue we deal with is, “What is a safe place?” This is an impossible question to answer in a general sense. You need an awareness of the answers to these questions:

  • How severe is your distress?
  • How binding are current obligations?
  • Will your finances allow a shift?
  • What places are available for escape?

If, for instance you are teaching, you have accumulated 3 weeks of paid vacation, and you have parents (who you get along with) a reasonable distance away, and your kid situation is negotiable; then a few weeks at your parents might be just the ticket.

Essentially you are going to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine the best course of action. If you have trouble with this alone (have I said this before?) see a counselor to assist with your assessment and final decision. You can also e-mail us in the “Ask the Expert” section of this website for input.

7. Avoid Painful Situations and Settings

This topic might be more appropriate in a “for Idiots” book because it is so self evident. Self evident or not, however, there are millions who needlessly place themselves in painful settings making their lives miserable and retarding their progress toward recovery.

There are three ways you may relate to painful situation and settings:

  1. You can actually escape some situations by choice and planning
  2. Some you must endure, but can determine ways to minimize the trauma
  3. Then there are painful situations not particularly amenable to change. In this case you need to learn to respond differently to those cues and minimize personal damage.

Let’s consider a few examples under each category.

1. You can actually escape some situations by choice and planning
Being at home in an empty house, particularly a house with many memories, can be quite devastating. Get out of the house stupid! Go somewhere else and do different activities. If you invite some people over, then your house isn’t empty anymore and may not provide the same personal challenges.

Another painful setting is going to bed before you are tired enough to drop off to sleep. Some jobs may provide limitations here, but when I was experiencing a divorce, I was in graduate school at UCLA. There were few time-specific restraints. If I wasn’t tired when bed time rolled around, I continued working until I was good and tired and then could fall asleep easily. If I woke in the middle of the night and was engaged in painful rumination, I would get up and work until I was tired enough to go to sleep. Keeping with routine I did attempt to maintain a reasonably consistent circadian rhythm, however, if I needed to break it, I did.

In general being alone is one of the most difficult settings following a broken relationship. Perhaps you could invite a roommate to come live with you. The interaction then could help divert you from the pain you feel from the broken relationship.

2. Some you must endure, but can determine ways to minimize the trauma
If you are forced to interact with your X when negotiating children, you can perhaps minimize the trauma by picking a neutral site for pick up and drop off, and/or you might have a friend with you to minimize the discomfort.

If there is required interaction with your former partner it might be easier to communicate in writing or through a third party rather than eyeball to eyeball negotiating.

When important dates associated with your relationship occur (anniversaries, date of engagement, birthdays) you may pre plan something that you can look forward to that is completely unrelated to the former relationship. Then when the day comes you can engage in a positive activity rather than bemoan the absence of something you used to have.

3. Learn to respond differently to events that cause trauma and that you cannot change.
A famous psychologist named Alfred Adler (1870-1937) had a theory about a technique in therapy called “early recollections”. He found that in a therapeutic setting which past events a client remembered gave excellent insight about how the client was doing in the present. Specifically, if a person remembered a string of negative events it was typically indicative of a person who was doing badly right now. By contrast, if a person remembered a series of positive events from their childhood it was indicative of a person doing well.

In my classes, prior to students being aware of Adler’s theory, I would ask several students to recount childhood events and then discuss how those events affect them today. This exercise has revealed a third alternative.

  • Positive memories: several students will recall positive events and describe a present life that has direction, purpose and brings them joy.
  • Negative memories: I recall one student who described a brother who bullied her and pushed her off a roof causing a broken leg. How’s she doing now? She says she is terrified of heights and thinks her brother is a “dickhead”.
  • The unexpected result was students who remembered a negative event, described how they overcame the negativity and are a better person today because of it. One person had experienced a life of painful poverty growing up and today is systematically working toward financial prosperity. Another grew up with alcoholic parents and today is married with children, doesn’t drink, and is creating a home that provides the love and stability for her husband and children.

The reality revealed by the third response is that painful events, past or present, can be viewed differently. After I have experienced illness or a painful medical procedure I find myself more compassionate of those who endure such events more severely and more frequently than I. A negative event has positive consequences-and I am aware of that even while going through the discomfort.

My broken first marriage has left me determined to help others make wise choices of a marriage partner and avoid the trauma I experienced. This has resulted in me and Elizabeth helping hundreds of couples (thousands and millions in the future, we hope) understand the dynamics of successful relationships. It not only assists others but brings me and Elizabeth great joy in the process.

If you are Christian, such a perspective is thoroughly Scriptural. Notice, for instance the first few verses of James 1:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

This ties into the item Activities in this prescript. Recall the use of the square root symbol. If you make the choices to place a positive interpretation on painful events that occur, you will grow from each negative experience, and, in the words of James, “You may become mature and complete, not lacking anything.

8. Rich Network of Friends

We should quickly modify the title to suggest a rich network of positive and encouragingfriends. There are friends who can build you up just as there are friends who can afflict you with more trauma and misery that you currently experience.

In a 1997 study that I conducted on factors that assist or detract from divorce recovery, the greatest single predictor of recovery was a rich network of friends. This ties in with additional research exploring whether or not “misery loves company”. Results found that misery doesn’t love any company but that misery loves miserable company. The clever use of words oversimplifies the reality. When you are miserable, you are most helped by a friend who can share their sorrow and experience your pain. They can also eventually help you move beyond your misery.

The apostle Paul came up with most brilliant 10 words on therapy that has ever been written:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep”

Essentially he has described the essence of friendship.

Let us explore this further: The title doesn’t say “have a good friend,” but speaks of having a rich network of friends. If you have only one close friend, the intensity of your misery will eventually overwhelm them and stifle their ability to help. One person cannot supply all you needs.

It is common that when two people pair off (either in an exclusive dating relationship or a marriage) that they ignore friends and place the entire burden of someone-to-relate-to on their partner. This is particularly true when you deal with two introverts. The pleasure of intimacy so thoroughly fulfills their emotional needs that they begin to think that their partner can fulfill all other needs as well.

This is a deadly mistake. No one person can completely fulfill the needs of another person. It places too great a burden on the relationship and the relationship typically becomes morbid, depressed, and cracks under the strain.

Here is how additional friends help to alleviate this problem:

  • You get together with the zany weirdo, laugh at his jokes, and marvel at someone who can live such an off-the-wall life, you escape refreshed and grateful you’re not like him.
  • You get together with the couple who is totally into music. If you’re lucky you pull out instruments and play some ensemble numbers together; if not, one plays the piano and you all sing at the top of your lungs, and if not that you plan to attend a concert in the big city that you anticipate eagerly and remember for years afterwards.
  • One or both of you gets together with the sports enthusiast. There are unlimited varieties of things that you might do: join with others in a game of volleyball or soft ball; take the whole family to whatever major league sport is available and do all the stuff that a group of people does in that setting; just you and a buddy go to the big game, enjoy hotdogs, peanuts and beer, and scream insults at the refs or umpires. The often unhealthy alternative is watch sports on TV by yourself. That is fine occasionally but provides no “rich network” experience.
  • You get together with a former student (possible for teachers, coaches or mentors) and meet their spouse (and kids if they have any). You all share a couple of hours of enthusiastic recounting of past events and excited plans for the future. You’ll not get much time to talk about yourself, and, if that disturbs you; try the next idea.
  • Go visit a former teacher or professor. Elizabeth and I did that last summer when we travelled to Southern California and visited Bernie Weiner, my major professor at UCLA. We had a wonderful time, and Bernie was far more interested in our story than his own.
  • Enjoy time with a couple who is deeply spiritual. Pray with them, read the Bible (or other spiritually uplifting material) with them, fellowship with them, talk about your own spiritual growth and ministry and listen as they share about theirs. Then, how about the occasional after-church luncheon?
  • Enjoy an evening with a couple (or family) who is a rock solid member of the community and just share stuff. Grill out, have a great meal, discuss old times, new times, future plans, joys and woes. Play a game of Hearts or Dutch Blitz (even if you are male and don’t have a chance of winning) or watch a movie together.
  • Get together with a business partner and debate and knock around ideas to make your business grow. Then enjoy some casual friendship time with them. This is a common event for Elizabeth and myself as we build our business associated with The Compatibility Code.
  • Go run, walk, swim, or bike with your exercise buddy. Encourage each other to maintain your routine and work toward vibrant health. If your energy expenditure is not too extreme enjoy talking with each other about anything you wish.
  • A big one: Get together with extended family. Experience their world, share their joys and woes. Any of the ideas listed above might take place within the context of family. Keep in contact, call them, text them, e-mail them. Show as much interest in their concerns as they do in yours. When we go to Alabama at Christmas to visit Elizabeth’s parents we haul our instruments down (trombone, French horn, 2 x trumpets) and play along with Christmas carols

We’ve listed ten different types of “rich network” activities. Do you begin to see how people involved in such an array of activities and such a wonderful variety of human contacts are going to be pulled out of their pain more quickly (and when recovered, experience a greater joy of living) than someone who sits, mopes and watches TV?

9. Nurturing Physical Closeness

We acknowledge the pain associated with the loss of intimacy. Physical touch is so important that infants die if they do not get enough. Adults may not physically die, but they suffer in a variety of ways. I refer again to the divorce study described in the previous section: While a rich network of friends was the greatest single predictor of recovery from divorce, nurturing (non-sexual) physical closeness ranked #2.

So we deal with the central problem. For most, the best source of nurturing physical closeness comes from the snuggling, cuddling, nuzzling, and sexual involvement with a romantic partner (assuming, of course, that the relationship is healthy). A second reality (presented in the next prescript) is that sexual involvement following the break of a romantic relationship usually spells disaster to the couples involved. So we pose the question, how do you achieve nurturing physical closeness without violating the sexual boundary?

In the study referred to in the first paragraph, participants would check to what extent they experienced nurturing physical contact from one of 10 different sources. The scale they used for each of the ten ranged from 1 (never or does not apply) to 7 (often):

  • Parents
  • Other relatives
  • Opposite sex friends
  • Same sex friends
  • Former spouse
  • Present spouse or romantic partner
  • Own children
  • Other children
  • Message therapist or hair dressers (or similar professionals)

Although we were attempting to assess non-sexual closeness at least two of the 10 (assuming heterosexual) may have involved sexual contact: closeness with opposite sex friends and present spouse or romantic partner-not to mention relationship with former spouse. So although we may not have a perfect measure it still provides insight into activities that might help supply our closeness needs.

First there are huge differences in the amount of physical contact that occurs in different cultures. A study explored how frequently do two people touch from the time they enter a restaurant to the time they finish their meal, pay the bill and leave. This study was conducted in three different countries, US, Great Britain, and Spain. In the US they touched an average of 3 times. In Great Britain they touched an average of zero times. This does not mean they never touched, it means that the average number of times they touched was less than ½. In Spain they touched an average of 106 times! So one idea is to move to a country in which physical touch is part of the culture.

But moving to Spain may not be practical, so let’s explore other options.

Square dancing, yes I said it, square dancing. I’m not an enthusiast, I haven’t square danced in 20 years (and even then I didn’t do it very well), but I remember well the atmosphere. Lots of people, equal gender balance, lots of learning in the early phases, lots of activity, and, yes, lots of physical contact. Most of the time you are in physical contact with someone and there are frequent calls of hug your partner (they had a cute code phrase for this activity but I can’t remember it). Square dancing itself is not the issue; it is simply a fun social activity that allows for a good deal of fun and nurturing physical contact. I am certain there are many other social activities that provide a similar need. Staying with the dance motif, there are a variety of different dance clubs for those who are not square dance enthusiasts.

Singles group. Many times singles groups are within the context of churches. The group is typically designed to meet the needs of singles and, in most instances, nurturing and affectionate touch is very much part of the group definition. The church setting allows you a bit safer context since often the group has conservative sexual values-something to be appreciated in the early phases of withdrawal from a broken relationship.

Pets. As mentioned earlier anecdotal experiences and now research psychology has documented and acknowledged the importance of pets to millions of people. Get yourself an affectionate dog, cat, ferret, whatever. The animals are non-judgmental, don’t care if you have movie star beauty, and are unaware of what a pathetic failure you may be. They simply love, if you choose the right one. And you can love them back, all you want.

The list from the research project provides additional possibilities: Within the context of family whether it be up-line (parents, grand parents), down-line (children, grand children) or horizontal (aunts uncles, nieces nephews, cousins), encourage affectionate contact. This can range from rough and tumble play (usually children), frequent affectionate embraces (with anyone); touching when you are talking with each other (link arms while on a walk, just touching when in a home setting), or massage (many family members enjoy both giving and receiving massage). If you come from a family that doesn’t touch much, this will of course be more difficult.

Women are typically more comfortable with same-sex contact and are greatly benefitted from that attitude. For instance, it is not uncommon in one of our Friday Night Groups (college students exploring relational success principles) that one young lady will sit in front of another and the one behind braids her hair, or just plays with her hair. I have yet to see two men doing it. It seems that most men are too homophobic to enjoy physical contact from each other. Most will endure the obligatory embrace from another man but are eager to escape it as soon as possible. If you don’t have that hang up, good for you!

The professional service community can also provide some limited pleasurable physical contact. If a weekly massage from a professional massage therapist is nurturing, then include a massage at regular intervals. No one seems to be able to come up with an explanation of why it feels so good when a hair dresser washes your hair, and it doesn’t feel special when you do it yourself. Some professions involve a lot of physical touch: nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, massage therapists, hair dressers. I’m not suggesting that you go out and break your leg so a physical therapist can care for you. But if you are young and considering a career and you really like touch, you might consider a career that involves a lot of it

10. Sexual Contact

We acknowledge the pain associated with loss of intimacy. And, the most intimate form of physical contact is sexual activity. In current society, sexual activity is considered to be a good thing that has both emotional and physiological benefit. Why are we suggesting, then, that sexual activity following the break of a romantic relationship is a bad thing?

  • First of all is simple research evidence. Whereas non-sexual physical contact rated the second most important factor in recovery from divorce, sexual activity ranks as the second most destructive factor in efforts to recover from divorce.
  • Following a divorce, we’re attempting to regain physical health and emotional stability. The composite psychologist, identifying how to recover from a past relation, states simply “get over the former relationship prior to entry into another relationship.” A successful marriage requires reasonable emotional health and an awareness and application of factors that facilitate healthy relations in the future. Sexual activity simply does not provide the setting where this is possible. Sexual activity blinds one to success principles, and entangles on in relationships that are sure to yield future disaster.
  • Third, the pleasure is short lived. Erich Fromm speaks of the emptiness and pointlessness of sexual intercourse outside the context of a healthy committed relationship. People meet and their need and pain are intense. They have sexual attraction to each other because of the need and pain. They embrace. They go home and have sex with each other. The wake up the next morning and find out that she is a Jew and he is a Nazi. Most people will have violated some set of boundaries in there somewhere and guilt and shame set in. In what way are you any better than you were before?
  • Fourth, it involves you in a relationship that may be completely wrong for you. Sexual arousal is unrelated to compatibility.

But the sexual need may be intense following a broken relationship. If we accept that sexual activity following a broken relationship is a destructive thing, how might we deal with our sexual urges in a healthy way?

The answer about what to do with intense sexual desire is deeply rooted in cognitions, emotions, physiology, and the values of the individuals involved. We first strip the issue of values and take a simple clinical look at what sexual desire is and how it is relieved. Sexual desire is an instinctual hunger that is stimulated by 1) external stimuli (such as the presence of a sexually attractive other), 2) internal emotions (emotional conditioning may heighten desire) and 3) internal physiological need (sexual tension demanding satisfaction). The removal of any or all of these factors tends to diminish or eliminate desire. If we have intense sexual desire and we feel that overt expression of that desire with another is not in our (or in their) best interests, then an understanding of each component might be helpful. Let’s look at each of the three briefly:

1) Issue: The presence of sexually attractive stimuli; Solution: Change the focus or the activities
The presence of a sexually attractive person (and what is sexually attractive differs from person to person and culture to culture) will heighten desire. This desire may be associated with real interaction with actual people, or in a vicarious form by reading romantic novels or viewing sexually provocative material in the myriads of available forms, so one avenue for reduction of sexual desire is to avoid such stimuli. We’re not dealing with values here, just avenues for reduction of sexual tension. Read A Reporter’s Life by Walter Cronkite rather than Lady Chaterly’s Lover; try Popular Mechanics rather than Playboy; WatchCasablanca rather than Basic Instinct; go to Alberta’s World-class skiing venues rather than Brazil’s nude beaches. Is this simplistic? Not really. Yes, there are some people with excessive sexual desire who need extensive therapy, but the suggestions listed above represent sublimation at its best. Develop a passion for something that has no sexual overtones-a simple choice of activities. Takes movies, for instance. X-rated films and R-rated films with significant nudity or sexual content make billions in our society. If you find yourself on a diet of such material, try some of the classic movies. Leonard Maltin, in his own personal list of the 100 greatest films of all time, finds 70 of them happening prior to 1960-when nudity or overt sexual content on film were essentially non-existent. Notice the lists of the greatest actors of all time: #1 Humphrey Bogart, #2 Katharine Hepburn, #3 Jimmy Stewart, #4 Cary Grant, #5 Clark Gable, #6 Bette Davis, #7 John Wayne, #8 Gary Cooper, #9 Gregory Peck, #10 Fred Astair, are all primarily from that pre-1960 era. They are not classed “the Incomparables” for nothing. In short, whether books, movies, personal contacts, or activities; sexual desire may be reduced by developing interests or passions for things non-sexual.

2) Issue: Emotional factors encourage sexual focus; Solution: Change the conditioning
Emotional factors associated with sexual desire have been developed in each individual by cognitions and activities during the course of their lifetime. There are also dramatic individual differences associated with the strength of the sexual drive. There may be two people brought up in identical environments in which one has an almost overwhelming urgency toward sexual activity and the other has very little. We deal with differences of physiological desire in the next paragraph, but one’s emotional involvement (for many, obsession) with sexuality is due to a lifetime of a choice of environment or choice of activities that has encouraged the emotional preoccupation. The answer is to change the conditioning. How do you change conditioning? A starting point is suggested in the previous paragraph. Start by developing interests in things not associated with sexuality. As you spend increasing amounts of time with fascinating non-sexual pursuits and diminishing amounts of time in sexually related activities, the conditioning will slowly change. The key word here is “slowly.” Don’t expect quick results. The shift will be gradual, typically taking a number of years. With the passage of time and this alternative focus you will find your thoughts naturally drifting toward hitting that double high F on the trombone, perfecting the Rachmaninov 3rd Piano concerto for your next performance, shaving 30 seconds off your 10K time, finding that rare coin or stamp, adding The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to your classic movie collection, building to wealth through multiple sources of income, raising successful children, hosting a successful guess-whose-coming-to-dinner event rather than . . . now what was it we were talking about?

3) Issue: Physiological Sexual Tension; Solution: Change of Physiology.
Physiological sexual tension is reduced by sexual activity. In a statement that has been chuckled at for 2000 years, the apostle Paul said “It is better to marry than to burn.” The text is not really that ridiculous-all commentators acknowledge that the Greek suggests that “burn” refers to burn with passion, not burn in Hell. Paul is simply stating that providing oneself with a valid sexual outlet is better than living in sexual frustration. The change of physiology comes typically by sexual orgasm. This can occur by having sex with another or by masturbation in its variety of forms. Here we move into the world of both morals and practicality. There are numerous reasons why sexual promiscuity is rarely a valid answer. First there’s the potential for STDs. Then, there are the emotional consequences. In a recent study dealing with recovery from divorce it was found that non-sexual physical closeness was one of the greatest predictors of recovery whereas sexual involvement was found to be one of the most destructive.

As to masturbation, the medical world simply identifies it as an acceptable and common form of sexual release when a sexual partner is not available. Statistics suggest that 95% of North American men have masturbated at one time or another and 89% of women. The psychological community says that the only negative consequences of masturbation are based on the whether it develops feelings of guilt or shame in the individual but now we invade the realm of moral and personal standards. For Christians who have been preached to that masturbation is wrong or evil, it is interesting to note that, although the Bible covers just about every activity imaginable, the topic of masturbation is never mentioned. A recent study found that married women who masturbated had more satisfying sex lives with their husbands than those who did not.12-5 The article suggested that such women are more aware of and sensitive to their own sexuality-a quality that translates well to heterosexual activity. There is no doubt that masturbation reduces sexual anxiety and helps to minimize the immediate discomfort associated with sexual tension. If you possess values that do not allow you to imagine, visualize, think sexual thoughts, or change your physiology, I don’t know of other options.

4) Set boundaries
The greatest torment in this area occurs when a person has no boundaries and seeks in a valueless, floating society to fulfill sexual need somehow. What boundaries are set is an individual matter and should in some way reflect your value system. The boundaries should probably reflect the three components associated with sexual arousal, that is, changing the programming (unless it is currently satisfactory), changing the conditioning, and changing the physiology.

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