Swiss cheese effect

Have you ever been in a relationship that was missing something, or some things? Maybe your partner didn’t communicate well enough or maybe there weren’t enough times your partner made you feel special. Maybe your partner became complacent and you just didn’t feel wanted anymore. Maybe your partner was too self-absorbed to be a good listener. Maybe your partner’s physical appearance changed and you were not as attracted to them as you once were.

When these situations occur, it’s not uncommon for someone else to come along that meets those previously unmet needs. It’s easy in those situations to see that new person as a breath of fresh air, and to believe that perhaps they are just the perfect fit for you. So, you decide to leave your current partner to be with this new wonderful person who makes you finally feel the way you’ve wanted to feel in your current relationship. If the new person feels like such a perfect fit, why then do these new relationships almost always fail? The two main reasons are an inherent lack of trust, and what I call the Swiss cheese effect.

The trust issue is obvious: if you fall for someone while with someone, you have shown yourself to be capable of betraying your partner’s trust. Committed relationships come with an understood contract that you will have eyes, and feelings, only for your partner. How can your new partner trust you when they know you were lying to your former partner in order to develop your new relationship? The trust issues created by these situations are very difficult to overcome, and could alone be enough to sabotage the new relationship. But if not, rest assured that the Swiss cheese effect will do the job.

In order to understand the Swiss cheese effect, you must think of your current relationship as a slice of Swiss cheese. A slice of Swiss cheese is held together in a solid form but has holes in it just like many relationships. And when a new person comes along that fills the holes, it can feel as if that new person can provide all that is necessary for a whole relationship. However, once the Swiss cheese is gone, all you have left is the filled holes, and this presents a major problem. You will be left with only pieces of a relationship and not enough to hold the relationship together. Many who fall for the holes find themselves longing for the cheese they have left behind.

So, rather than leaving your current relationship because there are holes and someone comes along who seems to provide what you think you are missing, take a minute to evaluate your relationship as a complex combination of many factors. Decide whether the holes in your relationship are things that can be improved through communication, and whether this new person really offers all that you think they do. I’m not saying you should stay in a bad relationship, but I am saying watch out for the Swiss cheese effect! Seriously consider whether it’s worth leaving your current relationship for one that is doomed to fail.

Why so anxious?

Wouldn’t it be nice if describing the source of your anxiety were as easy as describing the show you watched last night or the book you just finished reading. Asking an anxious person to describe the source of their anxiety is asking for a rational explanation of an emotional experience. Anxiety is usually not rational and its sources aren’t always clear. It’s not as simple as I’m afraid of spiders or snakes so now I feel anxious. Anxiety is most often caused by a combination of thoughts that don’t always make sense even to the person experiencing the anxiety.

Anxiety is often rooted in deeper fears that are more challenging to identify, such as how a person fits into the world or one’s ability to continue to provide for his or her family. One thing that is almost always true of thoughts that produce anxiety is that they are projections into the future. If your thoughts are focused on the present moment and you are feeling anxiety, you better run!

For the most part, depression exists when our thoughts are focused on the past and anxiety exists when our thoughts are focused on the future. Peace exists in the present moment, and the more time we can spend there, the more insulated we are against negative or painful emotions. As responsible humans, we don’t have the luxury of completely disregarding the future, but we are able to take time each day to force ourselves to live in the present moment.

Piles of Poop

One strategy that many of us have used to remove or reduce the impact of traumatic experiences on our lives is to push them into the recesses of our minds and just not think about them. There is the belief that pretending something didn’t happen, or concealing it from our conscious mind reduces its impact on our decisions and experiences. This decision is usually made either because the traumatic experience seems too painful to think about or too hopeless to address. I often describe these experiences as piles of poop in the mind, and find them to be some of the most productive areas to explore in therapy. Let me explain…

If you have a dog, you have most likely walked into a room of your house at some point in your life and found that the dog has dropped a deuce on the floor. At this point, you have a few options of how to handle the situation. You can turn around and go to different part of the house and hope that someone else walks in, finds the mess, and cleans it up. This approach can work sometimes, but will lead to resentment from others who find themselves tasked with cleaning up messes that they know should have been your responsibility. Another potential problem with this approach is that life can become quite dysfunctional when no one comes behind you to clean up the mess and you end up living in a world of poop.

The next option involves the out of sight, out of mind principle. You can decide to push the poop into the corner so it is out of the way and put a newspaper over it so you don’t have to look at it. The problem here is that out of sight doesn’t mean out of smell. So now, even though you can’t see the poop, it still stinks. And that stink will not only affect your peace of mind, but will keep others from wanting to be around you as well. It’s hard to enjoy life while holding your breath or hiding your face in your shirt.

This leads us to the final option. You can directly address the problem, which involves acknowledging that the poop is there, picking it up, scrubbing away any mess left behind, disinfecting the floor and taking out the garbage. This approach is no fun! I’ve never met anyone who enjoys the sight or smell of dog poop, or the feeling of picking it up even through a bag. However, this is the only way to appropriately and adequately handle the situation. This is the approach that minimizes the impact that the poop will have on your life, and the lives of those who are close to you.

So, while you may be tempted to avoid your piles or to push them away to be dealt with on another day, my advice is to hit the nastiness head on. Think about the piles that exist in your mind and start cleaning them up one by one. Expect to be uncomfortable and don’t be surprised if your eyes water a bit, but know that your short term discomfort will minimize the long term negative impact of those experiences.

Dipping your toes in darkness: The role of negative fantasy

Have you ever imagined yourself doing something crazy? Maybe you briefly fantasized about executing a PIT maneuver against a car driving impossibly slow in front of you. Maybe during difficult financial times, you imagined robbing a bank. Maybe you’ve imagined yelling some obscenity in a crowded room just to see the shocked reactions on the faces of others. Or maybe these have been my negative fantasies and not yours. I would imagine though, at some point, you have found yourself fantasizing about doing something that in reality, you would never do. I have heard people describe all sorts of negative fantasies in therapy, and they are most often preceded by the statement, “I would NEVER do this, but…” So, why do our brains seem to need to occasionally engage in stomach turning, gut wrenching, self-shocking fantasies?

I believe the answer has to do with conformity. From the time we are itty-bitties, but are told we must conform to the values of our society. Don’t hit! No talking! Wait your turn! And most of these conformities go against our nature. We all go through a training process to get us to the point that we can get along well with others. So, as we get older, most of us learn to ignore or resist our negative impulses. We learn what is acceptable and we force ourselves to act in those ways. But sometimes, like a drop of water squeezing its way through a tiny crack in a dam, a little piece of those negative impulses slips out, and into our consciousness. Once seen in our mind’s eye, they often disappear again into the dark recesses of our subconscious, but those brief glimpses can be quite unsettling. However, I believe they are also a necessary part of living in a civilized world. I believe they release the pressure of living within the boundaries of rules and laws, both moral and legal. Let us not forget that we are still animals.