Monday, June 04, 2012

Choice, Anxiety, and Growth

Selected passages from the ``Passionate Marriage,'' by David Schnarch:
We have the fantasy that we have the choice between being anxious or not. Unfortunately, we don't. Our choice is between one anxiety or another. Do something scary----or face problems from not doing it. .... Face the anxiety of growing up----or the terror of facing life as a perpetual child. ...
These are examples of the two-choice dilemmas inherent in emotionally committed relationships. Such dilemmas arise from our human nature: we are fundamentally separate life forms who value both attachment and autonomy. ...

In my clinical work I use the term ``two-choice dilemma'' to highlight that (1) we often try to remain in our perplexing, awkward, and painful situations to keep everything in check, (b) a choice is often required to solve our situation, (c) we usually want two choices but we only get one, and (d) we try to avoid choosing (by remaining in difficult situations) to avoid losses inherent in giving up one option for another (i.e., a solution). ...

None of us wants to face our dilemma(s) and choose one option over the other. Manic attempts to ``do it all'' maintain our secret fantasy that we can have it all---and never have to face our anxiety. ... But decisions, commitments, friendship, and integrity only become meaningful in a world of finite options.

When we tell ourselves we have no choice in a situation, we act as if we can sit pa until we do. But ``no choice'' is a rationalization for the fuller truth: ``There is no choice I want!'' There is always a choice---but not often the one we want. ....
It makes sense that so many of us feel ``stuck''. Going forward means choosing. Maintaining the status quo offers the fantasy of never having to choose---or the illusion that if you stall enough, the choice you want may just appear.

Our problem is not the two-choice dilemma itself but our refusal to face it, our willingness to meet life on its own terms. Difficulty with two-choice dilemmas commonly takes several forms:
  • We can't remain calm in the face of our partner's agenda.
  • We are so reactive and poorly defined that we can't change our position even when it's in our best interest.
  • We refuse to see our partner as a separate person.
  • We are unwilling to tolerate the anxiety of personal growth.
You can use two-choice dilemmas or you can seek to avoid them. The latter is always an option but, as in any dilemma, there is a price: you can't avoid or minimize two-choice dilemmas without truncating your own and/or your partner's growth or happiness.  ...

The choice we finally make often reflects only which anxiety is the least tolerable and which options are the more expendable. We rarely accept we're choosing the anxiety we'll have to deal with. We want choices without prices and solutions without anxiety. ... Anxiety per se isn't the problem. Anxiety is inherent in growth (sexual and otherwise). It plays a productive and necessary role in sexual development and pleasure. Sexual novelty always involves anxiety and ambiguity. The real problem is our intolerance and fear of anxiety. The long-term solution (which doesn't kill us) involves coming more mature. ...

Going through the trauma of maturing---differentiating---opens up the possibility that we may yet become adults. Digesting and self-soothing marriage's restrictions ripens intimacy and eroticism. Choosing between gut-wrenching anxieties and options makes us more differentiated, more capable of truly loving.
In Chapter 10 I mentioned that the possibility of metabolizing aggression into something useful (fuel for fucking). That ``digestive'' capacity comes from going through two-choice dilemmas. These are bitter pills to swallow---but swallowing and self-soothing increase what you can ``digest'' without indigestion. ...  ---pp. 297-303, Passionate Marriage

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