Relationships — that is, loving partnerships — are gauzy, delicious things in early months, but then comes the hard work — a time when you should remember that the chaos, anger, blame, shame, on and on, are natural and you must not think you are mentally ill or in a horrible situation, but rather you have just entered a tough school where, essentially, you are being asked to finish growing up, something you thought you left off with at age 18 or so.
That’s the message of “Love Now: Untangling Relationships,” a new book by Ashland therapist Jan Harrell. Published by Ashland’s White Cloud Press, it premiers at a book signing-reading by Harrell at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 8, at Bloomsbury Books, 290 East Main St.
In our society, we have been brainwashed for many decades, she notes, that love is a simple matter of finding the right person, just like in Disney’s “Cinderella,” then you live happily ever after.
“That myth has been very destructive, the whole idea that partners can be problem-free” — and if we’re not, she says, we think we’ve failed or the other person is bad and wrong, so divorce should be considered. “After the first blush of love wears off, which it must, we are left with the reality of co-existence, creating a system or style that works for both people.”
To do this, each person needs to understand they are not crazy, powerless or victims of abuse but, in fact, we have “triggers” we encounter in adult relationships that developed before we left our natal families at 18.
“We all are capable of love but we don’t understand ourselves yet. Being an adult in a partnership is something that must be studied, like learning Chinese. You’ve never studied it. It’s not what you think. You have to learn it.”
The key is you realize both you and the other person may feel hurt, angry, helpless, but you are not the victim of the partner, she said in an interview. You become empowered by becoming aware of what triggers you, so you can be proactive — seeing it before and during the event — instead of just being adaptive and putting up with it over the years.
“If you don’t understand your unresolved triggers, you won’t know what’s going on inside the marriage and it’s going to implode.”
Ignorance of this necessary journey is near-universal. There are no role models for a healthy family with creative problem solving, she notes. The love songs and movies are only about finding the lover, then everything’s OK. But as soon as love fades, we are clueless.
“If you realize that entering a relationship is the beginning of a whole new project of learning and developing, then you realize the relationship may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. There is no good guy and bad guy. That’s not empowering.”
Harrell, who's earned a doctoral degree in psychology, wrote and finished the book in 2015 with her late husband, Al Robins. She is a native of Southern California and graduate of UCLA. They came to Ashland in 1985. She devised a syllabus for teaching the material, which she did at Crater High School with, she says, much success.
She is not wholly based in theory, but rather in her own life experience. She was a good listener and in her job with the YMCA in Los Angeles, found herself listening to people’s problems, but not knowing what to do with them — thus the degrees in psychology.
A light went on when, in her third long relationship, she was doing “the dance of the innocent victim,” not feeling valued, and relating as a “frightened, angry, attacking animal,” with him withdrawing and being “the fainting goat.”
They took their issues to a therapist and learned how to look with understanding and compassion on their triggers and reactive states, she says.
“We are animals and we have these instincts to attack, but instead, when you have that flash of irritation, it’s good to separate and look at your process, the past wounds of self and other, see our basic innocence and then communicate it together.”
It’s work, but it’s worth it. It takes time and devotion to the tasks, which are outlined in her book. You avoid defining yourself or the partner as mentally ill. In fact, Harrell says she doesn’t believe in mental illness anymore — but rather the need to educate yourself in basic life tasks and communication skills. Then you finish the maturing process you stopped when you left your family of origin.
“We learned it and lived it. We grew up together.”
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.