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Context Setting for certain patterns & classes of relationship difficulties

Article Table of Contents

I’ve been “catching up” a lot in my life lately. Some of that catching up involves bringing up to speed various people I’ve not spoken too (or spoken too much, or openly, or recently, or ever, or some combination thereof).

I am strongly biased towards written/editable/consistent versions of “what’s going on”, because then:

  1. everyone has some confidence in at least some shared context
  2. Thinking how this reads for the various audiences has a useful clarifying effect on the writing.
  3. I believe in writing things when they’re being experienced, especially as a tool to capture insights, learnings, etc.
  4. the act of writing tends to have a great ordering effect on the meaning we assign to our own stories.
  5. I’ve historically written a lot, trying to “unblock the writing blockages”, so taking a stab at writing about “the most important things”, ordered DESC.
  6. I could imagine that some of what I might write could be helpful to someone else. There’s analogous writings that software developers perceive as very conventional for their craft. Incident reports, retrospectives, etc.

TL;DR Depression & Decline #

For several years, from an “overall health-and-wellbeing of Josh & Kristi Thompson”, things have been sliding, in different ways, downhill.

Sometimes the decline was fast, sometimes slow. Sometimes in terms of physical health, sometimes in terms of mental health. Sometimes both!

There’s been a tough mix of totally unavoidable, and totally avoidable, tragedy.

I historically would have self-assessed my marriage as in many real ways once as “quite good” and lately would self-assess as “quite bad”.1

Things are trending upwards again2, but there have been a lot of changes or deviations from what would have once been normal for us.

Contributing circumstances #

I believe “systems” and “dynamics” are closely related to “complex reactive systems”, and thus any discussion of failure or errors is best informed by approaching the issue with the 18 questions/statements of How Complex Systems Fail: Being a Short Treatise on the Nature of Failure; How Failure is Evaluated; How Failure is Attributed to Proximate Cause; and the Resulting New Understanding of Patient Safety.3

Every one of these has a huge story behind it, but I don’t have the time or desire to talk about them right now.

  • it’s hard to get pregnant. we had two miscarriages along the way.
  • I got a bad back injury. It was bad, and affected me for a long time in profound ways.
  • we bought an old house, moved into it.
  • Kristi’s dad unexpectedly passed away in January 2020
  • Covid blew holes in our normal group of relationships and friendships
  • I tried to do like three different hard things at the same time 4
  • I was also trying to do a few less-hard things

Throughout all of this, a theme of “emotional abandonment” kept surfacing. Tension and silence dominated my life, in a way that caused active, on-going pain.

Nature and nurture (genetics and environment) matter, for both of us.

Kristi’s family, and Kristi, have displayed depressive and avoidant tendencies, across generations. Kristi’s tended towards depressive states, especially as a reaction to increased stress and difficulty. For a long time, I was motivated to move in opposite directions as a reaction to stress and difficulty. This divide (which relates to substantial trauma we both experienced as children and more recently) eventually led to Kristi becoming systemically verbally and emotionally abusive towards me.

For many reasons it took a very long time for me to recognize this, and eventually start protecting myself and adjusting expectations to better care for myself. It was deeply damaging and felt like repeated, horrific betrayals, for a long time.

There’s plenty of environmental factors that contributed to this, but they’re not really that important.

I observed in myself a slow-but-persistent decline on so many levels. I kept having exchanges with Kristi where I’d be met with hostility, negativity, anger, frustration. There would be “relationship ruptures” but no “relationship repairs”. John Gottman writes extensively about some of the dynamics, like the four horseman of the marriage apocalypse.

Last year, I kept asking myself questions like:

why do I feel this incredible decrease in quality of my relationship with myself and others, mostly marked by a massive increase in feelings of alienation from others and self, and feelings of deep and pervasive shame, of a kind I’d not experienced in many, many years?

There were many factors that contributed to my own personal decline in wellbeing. The primary component of the abuse I’ve experienced is best summarized as “abusive anger”, coupled with a lack of attempts/willingness to repair.

I examined the changes I was seeing in my own personality. These were very unliked and unappreciated changes - I was conscious and resisting the change, even as I was watching the changes happen. The changes reminded me of ways I felt (but had dramatically less ability to vocalize) when I was a child and young adult.

Historically I’ve sought (and engaged in) relationships and friendships full of shared experiences, mutual support, some adventure, some appreciation of beauty, going new places and having new experiences, doing things worth doing, long-term and short-term goals, positive emotional energy, and more. I care a lot about my friendships. I prefer to spend energy and time in relationships where that energy is seen and appreciated.

So, I got walloped by a flood of unremitting negative energy, broken only by silence or tense withdrawal, never punctuated with periods of closeness, kindness, compassion, or empathy, but was generally blamed for all of it, even as I kept acting as someone who had good reason to expect future periods of closeness, kindness, compassion, empathy, mutuality, and co-creation in this relationship.

I was told (essentially) that me expecting and demanding change in these aspects was not necessarily appropriate, that I needed to be patient for weeks/months/years of incremental progress towards a future ideal state of treating me with slightly less meanness than yesterday, and even if this isn’t necessarily earned/justified by my behavior, it is at least not that wrong.

Plainly, this is abuse, and at minimum, can be traumatizing.5

This pattern of behavior is not a difference in personality or preference, or a cosmetic problem that can be managed, or a situation where one can ‘agree to disagree’. There are many ameliorative responses to harmful behavior, but denial and minimization is not within the range of those appropriate responses.

It was frustrating to me, in early, uncertain conversations with others, as I was trying to figure out why things felt so wrong, it felt like key areas of what I was trying to express were particularly difficult to express, and therefore I wasn’t making progress on the salient aspects of the pain.

I kept getting unexpected reactions when I brought my evidence and observations and experiences to very close friends, and I think a string of these fumbled conversations made things worse for everyone, not better.6

Incidentally, I don’t think people who’s behavior patterns best roll up as “verbally/emotionally abusive” are ‘bad people’, I believe it’s “simply” a trauma-induced series of perceived-problem:safety-seeking-response pairs. I am sure you’ve experienced bad things, done to you or those you love, and in some ways it affects you. The world is full of the kind of trauma that hearing about could break your heart ten different ways.7

Even assuming the sadness of tragedy and heartbreak and bad behavior and tragic circumstances, the world around us conforms to structure and power dynamics and certain patterns invite/dissuade certain classes of interactions.

I no longer want to participate in patterns of conflict and verbal abuse. I’ve not quite figured out how to step off the train, but am working on it.

Memetics #

Memetics describe how an idea spreads, not necessarily if it’s correct or incorrect, but how effective it is, relative to many different factors. The map is not the territory and all that, and neither does one framework/conceptual compression of a situation/problem cover all relevant details.

Ideas matter. Words matter. Ideas can be both good and bad, and effective or ineffective. To that end, below this section, I’ve got a a smattering of links that felt relevant. These might be the kinds of links I’d text a friend with a question like “what do you think?” or “this reminded me of that thing we were talking about”.

These ideas all approach the world from different perspectives, or frames. There’s this book, Worth The Candle, that is quite good. It smashes some interesting concepts together, in a bit of a fantasy universe, that lead to really thought-provoking ideas around ways we see the world around us. Different ways of seeing things can be

Frame control might be a topic for a larger conversation some day, but here’s a good overview: Frame Control, by @aella. I assert that abusive people engage in unfair aspects of ‘frame control’, and for many reasons, and in many ways, refuse to evaluate the situation from a different frame.

Part of the therapy we’ve been doing (together and individually) has made use of written notes, and I’ve always been an aggregator of ‘useful ideas’. It’s like a smattering of software development notes. They might help others, they certainly help me. (This document obviously reflects this approach to life.)

So, memes and frames matter. Reality is complex, we’re always compressing data-streams according to available heuristics.

I view my marriage (and all of the many relationships that of course spring up around a marriage) through a variety of perspectives and conceptual compressions. To that end, sometimes I see something that says/expresses a concept in a meaningful/illuminating way. To the degree a concept or idea is difficult to convey, approaching it from many different directions can help shed light on “the thing” we’re trying to talk about. Books. “Frameworks”. Poems. Thought provoking TikToks.

Books #

What follows is a list of some books, all of which I’d read earlier in my life than I actually did. I believe they shed light/signal on what’s been going on in my marriage.

My marriage has historically been a source/center for/inspiration of all the good things that tend to circulate people who enjoy each other’s company and way of being. I’ve grown more sophisticated in the last two years, in how I perceive relationships (my own and other people’s), so the version of me (and Kristi) at 24 years old is very different than me today, at 33, but I can effortlessly see threads of similarity and reasonable evolution in how we’d engaged in the world around us ten years and five years ago, and how we seem to be doing this now.

First, an explanation for the books you’re about to see listed: I’ve always been book-oriented. Even as a ten year old, I read, a lot. It was with a small sense of pride that I learned, when I was perhaps 13, that on at least the standardized tests I took as a homeschooler, I read at or above a college level.8 Since then, I’ve often used reading to reliably solve many classes of problems in my life.

The list below are some books that, as I’ve lived the last few years, have come to have particularly high explanatory power for the relationship between external events and internal experiences in my life.

I read at a high enough rate that it’s relatively painless (especially related to the potential reward) to ‘read the canon’9 in any given domain. I start with one book, and then branch out from there, either thematically or via citations/references. Of course I often digest related podcasts and topical digital content.

Here’s some of the books I’ve read lately. There’s a theme:

“At it’s simplest”: Attachment Styles #

The involved parties have had a variety of experiences, some of which roll up to verbal/emotional abuse & neglect, through formative years and life circumstances.

We’ve accumulated trauma.

We have nature/nurture proclivities towards anxious attachment styles (me) and avoidant (her). Things are trending towards ‘disorganized’.

There’s lots on the internet and in books about “Attachment Styles”, but for a good primer, scroll through @thesecurerelationship’s instagram. Great stuff there, about how to have a “secure attachment”. My definition probably butchers a ‘real’ definition, but here it is:

A ‘secure attachment’ means one is capable of trusting the self and others, in healthy ways, engaging in emotionally intimate relationships, and has an embodied confidence in the value of one’s own needs and preferences.

There’s this account on instagram, @thesecurerelationship, who is wonderful. Here’s some prototypical posts:

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by The Secure Relationship (@thesecurerelationship)

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by The Secure Relationship (@thesecurerelationship)

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by The Secure Relationship (@thesecurerelationship)

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by The Secure Relationship (@thesecurerelationship)

Tiktok is complicated to me. It’s undeniable that it has an affect on the world. Don’t know how I feel about it, but it’s deff good for “feeling seen” sometimes. To that end, here’s a smattering of videos I’ve felt some kinship with. I’ll explain each, eventually. For now, just consider skimming:

https://www.tiktok.com/@dancingfordesire/video/7114800097510182186?_t=8TdHsx8ZDOU&_r=1

https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTReJ65qj/?k=1

https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTReJLcnQ/?k=1

https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTReJDdGj/?k=1

https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTReJWVX3/?k=1

This story by the book author struck me as poignant and relevant:

https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTReNV2KA/?k=1

https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTReYJkWL/?k=1

This next one is on manipulation. I was raised in an environment full of manipulation, toxic masculinity, and more.

I did a lot of manipulation “to survive”, and learned it as a tool to solve the problems I was facing. I have few memories of my own childhood, but I clearly remember being unwillfully manipulated into things all the time. By people who then said they loved me.10

https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTReq9Eao/?k=1

https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTRe1xrex/?k=1

Quotes around power and abuse #

The more someone has spent time dealing with issues of individual/organizational misbehavior (like issues leading to, and stemming from, abuse and neglect), the more they seem to have intuitive mental models that fit the frames of the above books I’ve listed.

There’s two general polarities at play. Focusing on what is most wrong and focusing on what could be most right. It’s important to focus on what’s gone wrong, but I think in any situation of mistreatment (and systemic mistreatment that reads as abuse or neglect) the correct response invites and makes space for evaluating what could be best-case-scenario outcomes, not just reflecting on the past.

Power adheres and follows the structures of the way we move through the world.11 For example, check out https://www.liberatingstructures.com/. The tagline is increase relational coordination and trust. This concepts relates to that of a caucus score. People who have certain forms of power can mistreat people who might be deficient of power in related ways.12

Anyway, here’s some quotes:

There are two kinds of power. One kills the spirit. The other nourishes the spirit. The first is Power Over. The other is Personal Power.

Power Over shows up as control and dominance. Personal Power shows up as mutuality and co-creation.

Mutuality is a way of being with another person which promotes the growth and well-being of one’s self and the other person by means of clear communication and empathetic understanding.

Co-creation is a consciously shared participation in life which helps one reach one’s goals.

C.S. Lewis said:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Substacks and blogs #

So what? Now what? #

I’ve worked on this post off and on for a while. I’ve recognized an absolutely real difficulty in knowing how to ask for help. In some cases, I’m at least decent at asking for help, but on the whole, in ways that have mattered more than usual, I would not yet self-identify as one who’s skilled at making needs/requests visible in “normal/cool ways”. (These requests for help have gone poorly a high percentage of the times I’ve made them in the last few years)

So, knowing that this page summarizes my best understanding of the world. you can imagine how frustrated and beat down I feel. Generally, things that line up well with “caring for depressed people” works for me. I enjoy time with others, so email me, text me, call me, visit with me. Feel free to plainly discuss anything you’ve read on this website, or discuss it with others.

If you wanna help me with a random project I happen to be working on around the house, or hang out with me while I work on one, that’s always very bolstering to my spirits. Talk with me about things you’re enthusiastic about, or things I’m enthusiastic about. That’s generally the best balm and salve for my soul.

The hardest thing for me, around spending time with other people, has been feeling like this (the above context-setting) is something I couldn’t talk about without placing others in an uncomfortable place (I.E. shameful, which is a very difficult place to operate from).

I generally delight in and yearn for weighty conversations of meaningful things, and am happy to bear witness/hold space for whatever comes up, as needed, so it has been hard for me to endure not talking about how the most important thing in my life was withering and dying, the effects it was having on me, and how it impacted me to have a partner would pretend (to me and others) that “everything is fine”.

So, things are not fine. Even in that, I’m finding ways to be okay. I put a lot of eggs in one basket, with a certain expectation of how things would go, and I’ve been consistently, catastophically wrong in how things would go.

It’s been deeply difficult to wrap my mind around this. I’ve plumbed the depths of what ‘bad mental health’ looks like, and I would like to never do that again. I’m deeply aware of instances now of verbal abuse, or coercion, and on principle call it out when I see it. (For example, I now comment upon self deprecating humor. If a friend says something about him/herself that would be rude to say about someone else, I say something to the extent of: ‘I witness that criticism of yourself and do not accept it.’)

I’ve gotten dramatically more comfortable with the idea of divorce than I once was, and as things continue to go unresolved, I continue to move in that direction.

FAQ #

OMG you’re considering divorce why???

It’s complicated. Please see above.

OMG you’re still married why have you not gotten a divorce yet???

It’s complicated. I’m finding boundaries. I have extensive confidence in people’s abilities to learn and change. It’s a blessing and a curse.

Footnotes #

  1. I believe in general a third-party observer would agree with both assessments - and third parties have agreed. I’m generally leery of using third parties to bolster arguments, in the off chance it’s a rhetorical device instead something genuinely helpful to contribute, but there are situations where it could be construed as relevant. 

  2. I know, that’s nebulous. Feel free to circle around with an IRL conversation/email/WhatsApp voice message/whatever. As I’m getting a better handle on what’s going on (this write-up is a piece of that) I’m getting a better grasp on a peaceful disposition. And perhaps as I get more of a peaceful disposition, I get a better handle on what’s going on. 

  3. Here’s some of the bullet points from how complex systems fail but first, know that ‘marriages’ or ‘relationships’ share lots of commonalities with ‘complex systems’, so any of the principles for ‘more common complex systems’, like a factory or power generation facility are not completely dissimilar to a marriage/family unit. Here’s some quotes. As you read ‘systems’, in your mind, hear ‘relationships’:

    Complex systems contain changing mixtures of failures latent within them.

    Catastrophe is always just around the corner.

    Hindsight biases post-accident assessments of human performance.

    Human operators have dual roles: as producers & as defenders against failure.

    Actions at the sharp end resolve all ambiguity.

    Change introduces new forms of failure.

    People continuously create safety.

  4. Here’s the hard things:

    1. climbing (I finally had been making gains in pushing climbing grades (not unimportant to me)) 2: caring a lot about ‘the nighborhood’/Golden 3: starting a software consulting business.
    2. getting significantly injured: I kept saying “oh, it’s just back pain”, and then commenting “and that’s why I cannot walk without a big limp” or “I’ve not stood up straight in months!” and often was met with horror. I ran the Leadville Marathon in 2019. Even after months of rehab, I couldn’t “run” 10 steps without pain, and I wasn’t able to just… walk, indefinately, without discomfort. Everything started hurting. (Back, neck, knees). I was depressed, and couldn’t find the enthusiasm to work out. This was one of the ways I was asking Kristi for help, and felt more or less ‘emotionally abandoned’ in it. 5.

    , and it feels like we “adopted” Golden/Iowa St as ‘our’ neighborhood. I really wanted to see it thrive, and thought that with our efforts, we could build some real community. (We did! Threw a few parties, invited the neighborhood, and had many gatherings, large and small. These remain the high point of my time in this house.) 

  5. “Abuse” is the flip side of “neglect”, both of which can be harmful to those who experience it, and can induce aggregate emotional damage, which can be called “trauma”. Please note that I’m defining abuse expansively, and in this context, throughout this document, I define it exclusively in emotional and verbal domains. 

  6. I will absolutely write about “The church” and “institutionalized abusive behavior” soon. It’s bad. Shame is such a wide-spread tool for behavior control, isn’t it? I don’t mean this to imply “Josh was failed by the church in this specific situation” but “the people who comprise the church/it’s institutions/Christendom/ are so habituated to certain patterns that boil down to ‘verbal/emotional abuse’, that their ‘abuse radar’ that normally would be operating is weak/malfunctioning”. Shame is sometimes the appropriate response to an event/action, but if one starts using it as a tool on others for behavior control, all sorts of things go wrong with whatever it is one is trying to control. If you don’t have a mental model for ‘in certain ways, humans seem to often use shame for behavior control’ it makes it harder to debug problems that might be rooted in shaming people for behavior control. 🙊 

  7. There’s a variety of responses to experiencing trauma/bad things, and those responses are shaped by many factors. Not worth getting into here. 

  8. This didn’t lead to ego inflation, I believe, because I immediately thought much less of “college-level reading”; I wasn’t impressed (at all) with my own reading - I simply liked to read, and disappear into the worlds I encountered in books. I suppose I was better at reading than some peers, but I saw it as an interests divergence, no more, no less. The people I knew then and now, who were/are deeply impressive to me from an athletic perspective share a similar approach - they’re not necessarily impressed with themselves, even as they know they’re way better than most more casual participants of said sport. they simply happen to “enjoy” the kinds of things that make them good at said sport. All that to say, I’ve “historically read a lot”, many years approaching or exceeding 100 books read in that year. In hindsight that’s probably too many, but whatever. 

  9. I mean this in the sense of ‘literary/scene-setting canon’ and ‘accepted high-culture canon’, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon. It’s analogous to looking at an issue intentionally from several different frames. I’m competent at identifying some instances of internal (in)consistency within frames, and between frames. It might be obvious, but me reading a book (and referencing it) certainly ought not to be treated as an endorsement of the book or the ideas espoused within. I’ve watched “Birth of a Nation” and read Mein Kampf. I am down for reading/understanding propaganda and/or the views of very bad people. It’ll be up to you to infer from context if I’m recommending something, or holding it up as an example of a bad thing. 

  10. Like I’ve mentioned, this is about verbal and emotional abuse. I’m not saying nothing good ever happened, or that things were exclusively bad all the time. Consider reading Parenting from the Inside Out, and contrast it with various regimes of behavioral control. 

  11. Oh I cannot wait to expand on this thought. It’ll get its own blog post, and it’s implications extend far beyond the extent of my marriage, or marriage in general. My marriage is a “downstream effect” of the reality of power, and power structures. 

  12. Lots of people have expressed shock when I’ve alleged that I’ve found myself in an emotionally abusive relationship. They say something like “if it’s actually abusive, you should leave, full stop, but because I don’t think you have to leave, it must not be abusive.” They don’t say it exactly like that, but it’s something close. I can feel them pattern matching on verbal abuse being something that tends to be done by men towards women, and includes a variety of other power dynamics. It’s nice being a strong fit young white guy - I can physically defend myself, so even though I know that all physical abuse is proceeded by verbal abuse, and even though Kristi has made veiled threats of physical violence, I don’t fear physical violence. It’s the emotional and verbal component that’s been so devastating. It feels like this component is illegible to others.