CONTEXT: The Intolerables

Why is it that in some areas of our lives, no problem, we flow around obstacles like an cork on a river, and other areas, we're an iron anchor? Why do we get stuck? And why do we get stuck, where we get stuck?

In my work with couples, we talk about"The Intolerables," those places where we dig in our heals and refuse to budge. With one person, their Intolerable might be around their partner's messiness. Another, around not getting a certain amount of sex or intimacy. A third, not having enough time alone. The Intolerables are not just preferences, which are simply statements of desire; instead, they are conditions in the world (relationship, career, mood states, etc.) which must be met or else there is a severe defensive reaction.

What these reactions are will vary from person to person, but they are all defensive. One couple I worked with, when the husband pushed to hard for his opinion to be heard, his wife at some point fell over her level of tolerance and snapped shut emotionally, often withdrawing to her study for a whole day. In another couple, the man, when asked for emotional contact, would quickly begin threatening physical violence.

Preference implies a certain flexibility: I'd like to go to the museum, but there's other things we could do that would also be o.k. But intolerance implies a line in the sand: cross this mark and there are dire consequences. "I'll go this far and no farther," is the voice of intolerance.

So, if the Intolerables are demarcated by a (relatively) sudden drop into defensiveness...what then is being defended? Take a minute to check in around one of your Intolerables. What marks the edge of your tolerance, and what happens when you reach it? What are you feeling as you go over that edge? What are you thinking; or, what story are you telling yourself about the situation, such that you feel you need to go into a defensive posture? (And here, attack is seen as the more active form of defending.)

In my experience, the Intolerables boil down to those areas where we feel our self is being threatened in a big way. This isn't a sticks and stones situation; these "thou shalt nots" are about life and death.

The defenses of the self, the guards on the castle walls, react when the alarm bell rings, when the self seems under attack. The type of reaction--retreat, attack, pulling up the drawbridge, going invisible, any of the myriad ways of defending--is determined by a person's character and past history, as is the conditions under which the alarm goes off.

For instance, Sarah grew up with an alcoholic father who was normally withdrawn, but could fly into violent rages at unpredictable times. She could handle her husband's irritation OK, but when he ramped up to anger, it crossed a line for her and she would start stonewalling, withdrawing emotionally more and more until she'd threaten divorce. Even if he was owning his anger, and voicing it appropriately, for her it triggered memories (which means, her neurological system was being activated in a similar way to when she actually was faced with a rageful father--i.e., there's something very real being experienced) that made her feel profoundly threatened.

Or take Benjamin, whose mother was depressed and unavailable for most of his early years. With his wife, who had a tendency towards depression, he could take about a week of her gloomy moods. But after that, he would feel less and less tolerant and sympathetic, and quickly move towards despair and thoughts of how his wife didn't love or care about him. At two weeks, he would start entertaining ideas of leaving (this option of "radical separation" almost always goes along with one's Intolerables).

So what are the solutions?

There's two ways to go with the Intolerables: management, making the situation conform to these "requirements"; or, letting go of the "requirements."

Now, the first we're all pretty familiar with. You could probably do a full assessment of your successes and failures in these terms: what are my Intolerables, and how have I designed my life and relationships to conform to them? And there's a lot to be said for being able to get one's needs met in the world, no doubt about that. The problem with the Intolerables, though, comes from the rigidity of reaction to what is perceived as "not to be tolerated."

For most people, the "letting go" response to the Intolerables is much less familiar. But, to my mind, and it is what makes any system--whether a relationship to others, or to life in general, or to one's own moods of depression and anxiety--more flexible and resilient.

This is the harder, but ultimately more rewarding path. The Intolerables are markers of where we believe we cannot survive reality, and since reality always, in the end, wins, these places are sites of deep suffering. In fighting for the maintenance of our "selves," our self definitions, we are like brick walls in the surf. The ocean doesn't stop, and our rigidity in meeting the endless waves means we are pounded by the inevitable, over and over...and over...

To learn that we can actually survive what now feels intolerable is, ironically, to allow ourselves (actually, "our selves") to be broken. Meaning, to resist the urge to defend, to stay present to the reality (our wife's withdrawal, our husband's anger, our own depression), keeping engaged, and asking, "Have I been destroyed?"

The trick, though, is to ask the question without then jumping to trying to answer it. You toss it out there and then just look, staying in that questioning space. As if it were less a question and more of a prayer, open and without panic.

What you'll notice in doing this is that, because the question (if you stay with the openness long enough, not collapsing into defensiveness, contraction) of "Have I been destroyed" is seen as a simple, "No," then there's a fundamental change. "Intolerable" turns into "preference." You'd prefer you husband not be angry--it's annoying and takes energy to deal with--but you know deep down it's not a matter of life and death. And from that lack of panic you stay present, and are able to work skillfully with what's in front of you.