Pokes, Prods and Provocations in Relationships

Looked at closely, relationships consist of complex interactive cycles, driven by needs and emotions, often repeated in highly patterned ways. All relationships have helpful, and harmful patterns. Some patterns are obvious (e.g. the same old fight about money). Others are more subtle. I had an illuminating conversation with a couple about an apparently minor negative interaction they had had just prior to their appointment with me. It went something like this:

Him: She called me at 2:56 when I said I would be home at 3 to get here on time. She wanted to check if I was on my way. As it happened I was right around the corner. So, then I thought, “screw you” [He smiles]. And I told her, “I’m still half an hour away”.

Her: [Smiling too] I can’t believe what he said. He knew what would happen.

Therapist: What happened? 

Her: I freaked out. Of course I did, I thought we were going to be late. I hate being late. 

Him: Come on, man! She was already freaking out when I picked up the phone. That’s what pissed me off. 

Therapist: This is so interesting! Let’s slow this down. So, there was something about her tone when you picked up the phone. Something familiar perhaps, and hearing it, you felt angry? What else? 

Him: Well, it annoys me that she doesn’t think I’ll be on time. I do so much in the family and I’m always on time. But when she gets like that I feel bad about myself, like, she doesn’t expect me to do anything right.

Therapist: That makes a lot of sense to me. So, to fend off that sense of badness, what did you do next? You sort of poked her, didn’t you? 

Him: I guess I did. I felt like, “you’re angry at me for nothing… which makes me feel bad about myself. So, go ahead, I’ll make you really angry”. [Pause] I guess that’s part of our pattern. 

Therapist: So, before we find out what was going on for your partner in that moment, what would it be like to tell her, right now, what you were actually feeling in that moment?

Such, pokes, prods, or provocations occur in many couples, and they can have a toxic effect. They can come in lots of different forms: an eye roll; coming home late; flirting with a friend; a sarcastic response; grabbing another glass of wine; ignoring a text message for a few hours etc. etc. Most often these pokes are ways of expressing anger or frustration in a passive way. The common denominator is this: instead of feeling the underlying emotion (anger, shame, disappointment), you unconsciously try to induce a negative emotional reaction in your partner. If the pattern is embedded, you might be casually aggravating your partner without even realizing you are doing it.

Remember, it’s normal to experience anger in your relationship, but ideally you would do something with that anger that brings you and your partner closer together. I’ll write more about anger and how to work with it in a different post. For now, practice the key relationship skill of accountability. Think, journal or even talk with your partner about your preferred methods of poking, prodding, and provoking. If the idea of a conversation seems daunting, remember that it’s much easier to unpick patterns like this with the support of a trained relationship therapist. Please call me so I can help you work through these patterns.

Interview with an Artist: Debbie Scheer

Living your best life takes many forms and requires many skills. One of the top ten skills is creativity. Creativity and mental health and their influence on each other is interesting to me personally and professionally. Sometimes the greatest art is born of pain and suffering. Sometimes pain and suffering rob us of creativity.  Because it's interesting to me, because I hope I can spark some thought and creativity in my clients and readers, and because I selfishly like picking the brains of creative people, I decided to do a series of interviews about creativity and mental health. This interview is with Denver funny lady, and my friend, Debbie Scheer. Hope you enjoy her wit and wisdom as much as I do!

1. You're an artist. What kind of art do you do? 

I am a comedian, emcee, professional speaker and auctioneer. Also, a single mom of two boys and if that isn’t a constant creative art form, then I don’t know what is. 

2. It's not uncommon for creative types to struggle with mental health issues. What do you see as the interplay between mental health and creativity? 

 For me, creativity is the key that unlocks the shackles of my anxiety. When I’m ‘in it’ I travel down the rabbit hole of anxiety pretty damn fast and sadly I stay there longer than relatives staying at your house over the holidays, it’s so very difficult for me to break free. In the past I would hop onto social media thinking I was just chilling out and buying time for the anxiety to pass but I realized that social media is a dangerous place for me when I’m in ‘it’. I would spiral out of control because my energy was focused on, LOOK HOW MUCH FUN EVERYONE IS HAVING WITHOUT ME, IT’S OBVIOUS NOBODY LIKES ME OR WANTS ME TO BE AROUND…instead of being focused on, what do I need to do in this very moment to release these damaging thoughts. Once I realized that this was causing more harm than good I decided to forcemyself to sit down and write or turn on the recorder on my phone and just start recording comedy or ideas for a new show. When I say I forced myself I mean I really had to FORCE myself to do it. It wasn’t easy, or natural or fluid and it certainly wasn’t fun, most likely due to the fact that it was forcing my brain to work like hell to get out of my anxious depressive state of being. But it worked and I found that if I set a timer for even just five minutes and forced myself to read, write, or speak, I legit started to feel better. So, for me showing up in a creative manner allows me to manage my mental health challenges. 

3. You can't possibly feel creative all the time. What do you do to foster creativity and practice your craft even when you're not feeling it? Any tricks you've picked up to help you get out of your own way? 

I get in my own way more than anybody else ever could. I feel tremendous guilt and shame when I am not practicing my craft, and I don’t practice it nearly as much as I should. The feelings of shame were in no way helpful as it didn’t push me to get off my ass and start writing but instead I would become paralyzed by those feelings and as a result do NOTHING! Well that’s not entirely true. I would sit on the couch and watch reruns of The Office or Arrested Development for hours and hours and hours and each passing moment caused me to feel more shame which caused me to feel more guilt which didn’t motivate me but instead caused me to feel worse. So now I try to allow myself the space and freedom and acceptance that it is not just ok, but necessary to take some time to do nothing. I still watch The Office but now I limit myself and then commit to either moving my body in order to get out of my own head or sit down and write or record. 

4. If you could suggest one thing for my readers to do to help them live their best life, what would that be? 

I feel like I’m living my best life if I can find my car after exiting a grocery store, parking garage or massive mall. I was at Park Meadows mall many months ago and used a semi trailer as a marker of where I parked my car. Well when I exited the mall the trailer was no longer there and I was completely and totally lost. It took a good 90 minutes of me crying and swearing and considering just abandoning the car and calling a Lyft to get home, before I found it. So, finding your car when you leave an establishment is a great place to start living your best life. On a more serious note, I think the key is to be 100% true to who you are and that means all of it. The beautiful parts and pieces as well as the shards of glass that can injure not only yourself but others. For me bringing my stories to the stage using heart and humor leaves me feeling like I am truly doing what I was meant to be doing and when I am in that space I do feel like I am living my best self. 

Based in Denver, Colorado, Debbie Scheer is a professional speaker, humorist, emcee and auctioneer whose mix of heart and humor brings an inviting energy to every event she is involved with. Debbie’s magnetic presence draws in audiences and makes a room come alive with purpose, connection, and laughter. Debbie believes in creating safe spaces where comedy and education join forces so that shame heads out the door and learning and laughter are all that remain. Much of Debbie’s work is in support of causes that are close to her heart so you will often find her speaking about adoption, GLBTQ issues, mental health, sexuality, parenting, and resiliency. When Debbie Scheer Speaks, clients feel reassured knowing they have an expert and advocate on their side.


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