About Denis "Woodja" Flanigan

A Licensed Psychologist in private practice in Houston, he received his M.S. in Psychology and Ph. D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Florida. He has over 10 years experience in working with high school and college students and adults in counseling centers, community mental health settings, and private practice addressing a wide range of psychological issues. He is an expert on non-traditional relationships and accepting of non-traditional belief systems.

(Insert Prefix Here)-Dependent

We like to categorize our (and others’) relationships in terms of the dependency. We tend to use terms like “dependent,” “independent,” and “co-dependent”—often without really knowing what these terms mean. Of these common categories, independent is the one that we consider healthy and to which most of us strive. Okay, so what are all of these terms about?

Dependent is probably the easiest one to tackle. If someone is dependent in a relationship, it means that the person would lose some (or all?) functionality if the relationship were to terminate. Sometimes this dependency is financial, that is if the relationship were to come to an end the person would not have the financial resources to support themselves. Occasionally dependent can mean physically dependent. This occurs when someone does not have the mobility to physically take care of themselves on their own. These two forms of dependency tend to be the more palatable forms of relationships dependency, they frequently have some justifiability—a person is just starting out or is a student or the person is ill or disabled. However, they can be very difficult for the non-dependent person to exit because they may feel a sense of responsibility for the welfare of their (ex-)partner. Sometimes these versions of dependency can be power plays—for either the dependent or the non-dependent partner—as a way to keep the partner in an unhealthy relationship.

Emotional dependency is the version of a dependent relationship that really has the glow of unhealthiness. Emotional dependency is when a break-up would cause one’s partner to become so distraught or lost that they will fail to thrive. This often is the heaviest burden of the dependent relationships. This is the “you are my everything” style of relationship. These are the relationships we probably have the least sympathy for also. It assumes (rightly or not) that the dependent partner has a choice in their dependency. I wish it were that simple. While true that emotional dependence can be overcome, emotional dependency can emanate from a wide variety of traumatic experiences which are very difficult to overcome. If the non-dependent partner has a sense of responsibility for the dependent partner, then this can be the most difficult to get out of—while all the while feeling like the person has a choice about being emotionally dependent.

The non-dependent partner of the emotionally dependent partner is, in fact, frequently co-dependent. Co-dependent is probably our favorite term to use about other people or other people’s relationships. Co-dependency is the basically the need to enable someone in their dysfunction. Being needed becomes rewarding in its own right, more rewarding than the distress caused by their partner’s dysfunction. The co-dependent partner is really a version of an emotionally dependent partner—the emotional dependence is specifically to be needed. I can attest that “taking care” of someone feels very gratifying. I think therapists are particularly susceptible to this—we are prone to look for the potential in damaged people. I can admit I even have some of this in me. I think it can be advantageous in my professional life at times, and can be detrimental in my personal life at times as well.

The relationship designation that most aspire to is the “independent” relationship. Most people claim they want an independent person as a partner. But in truth, we want a partner who is only somewhat independent. All of us want to feel needed to a certain degree. This being needed by our partner(s) gives us a sense of security and worth within the relationship. We also want a partner for whom our desires and needs matter—for a truly independent person this would not be the case.

A truly independent person does not cater to our needs or even follow the rules, guidelines, or expectations of a relationship—unless they want to for their own reasons. What we really want is someone who could stand on their own if they needed to. We also want someone who can make some of the major decisions for the relationship—while considering us in that decision. We want someone who is not a carbon copy of ourselves, but will bring their own novelty and strengths into the relationship.

Sometimes a person wants someone who is what I call “selectively independent.” I use this term for when we want a partner to be independent when it is convenient for us for them to be independent—and not when we want things our way. This can frequently work well in Dominant-submissive relationships, but otherwise usually causes both partners frustration and can operate as a form of abuse.

To me, the ideal form of relationship –dependence is what I call “interdependence.” This is what I mean above as someone who could stand on their own, but opts not to. This is where each member of the relationship relinquishes to their partner their responsibility for something they can do, but that a partner does better or enjoys doing more. Each partner allows themselves to temporarily depend on the other for certain things, while also maintaining some independence. Both the partner’s dependence and independence are acts of consideration for their partner. The exchanged dependence facilitates that sense (and security) of being needed, while the independence can relieve us of some of our responsibilities.

I like to encourage my clients to imagine life without their partner. If the client can see themselves sad, struggling, but thriving, then I see that client as most likely interdependently in their relationship. Ideally, we won’t be so independent that it would be easy to imagine life without our partner, nor it feel life-ending without our partner. Challenge yourself occasionally to consider how well you could “go on” without your partner. Recognizing that if you can it reduces the pressure on your partner to be “your everything.”

Differences in Jealousy

I just read an interesting snippet in The Monitor on Psychology. It cited research that found that heterosexual males and females differed from each other in terms of jealousy, where as bisexual men and women and gay men and lesbians did not differ in their jealousy. The researchers looked jealousy being triggered either by (1) sexual infidelity without emotional attachment and (2) emotional attachment (emotional infidelity) without sexual activity. They found that heterosexual men became more jealous in response to sexual infidelity and heterosexual woman became more jealous in response to emotional infidelity.

The results differing heterosexuals was not surprising; the theory of evolutionary psychology predicts that behavior that assures that the offspring carry on the male’s genes–and are attending to through the female’s efforts–is important to the male. Additionally, the prediction for females would be that females are more concerned about the male assisting in supportive resources–more so than the male’s genes necessarily–which would be threatened by an outside attachment.

However, I have never seen anything in evolutionary psychology theory that would suggest that this orientation toward threat would not translate for non-heterosexuals. This suggests that the overall processing of relationships may be more directly linked to sexual orientation than it is directly related to gender. I am not sure what this tells us about the evolutionary role within the species for non-heterosexual behavior, but it raises an interesting question.

Emotional Blackmail

I am one of three local therapists with essays in this month’s issue of OutSmart magazine focused on relationship issues. I think they are worth checking out. Mine is the short one.

In mine I focus on some of the ways in which we (perhaps unintentionally) try to manipulate our partners by making them feel bad, which I call “emotional blackmail,” here is the link.

Why Rioting Makes Sense (Even though it Doesn’t)

Two psychological phenomena that might be useful to understand today: the frustration-aggression complex, and diffusion of responsibility-deindividuation.

The frustration-aggression complex simply says that one will act aggressively when one is frustrated. Frustration, in psychology, is defined as being hindered in pursuit of a goal. So, if your goal is justice and fair treatment under the law, then you might feel frustrated today. The more this concern about justice affects you directly, the greater the level of frustration you are likely to experience. How physically or emotionally close or how well we identify with the person(s) who experienced injustice, the more we will feel the concern for justice in ourselves. The more helpless we feel in being able to ameliorate our frustration, the more intense and irrational our aggressive response.

Diffusion of responsibility is the phenomenon of relinquishing a sense of responsibility when within a group. This includes both not taking action when we believe that others within the group will take or have taken action and our not taking full responsibility for actions when operating within a group in which most or all of the other members are doing the same or similar things. This is aided by the phenomenon of deindividuation, which is the loss of personal self-awareness within a group context—one identifies as a member of the group more than identifying as an autonomous individual.

These two phenomena combine to provide a psychological context for rioting. Rioting isn’t really about trying to accomplish anything, but as much as a collective statement about not being able to accomplish anything. Applying the standard cause-and-effect paradigm to rioting makes as little sense as the rioting itself. It serves its purpose as statement about feeling helpless.

Throw on top of this the notion that store owners symbolize “having,” whereas experiencing injustice—directly or indirectly—symbolizes “not having” and there is almost a mockery to “having” in the presence of feeling “not having.” Within this skewed mindset, looting feels justifiable—it won’t actually bring about any meaningful effect or change in one’s lie, but it is doing something other than simply swallowing one’s intense frustration (and letting the system of oppression win, as it does on a daily basis).

Rioting is, in a way, a natural behavior given the way the brain processes information to determine which behaviors in which to engage. Sure, it tends to make the situation worse, but that is something only those of us that sit outside of this intense feeling of frustration can truly appreciate.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome–All Just in Your Head?

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has been a controversial diagnosis since it was first introduced. They have been no clear tests for it and there are many other health disorders which can also look like it.

However, a recent study discovered that it just may be all in your head–particularly in the development of white matter in your brain.White matter is part of the nervous system which relays messages between parts of the nervous system–kind of like the highways and bypasses, compared to the array of city streets. The researchers found that there is less overall white matter in the brains of people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. they specifically found less white matter which connects the frontal lobe and the temporal lobe. We do not know the specific ways in which this decreased white matter might affect the experience of feeling fatigue, but it at least gives strong indication that the disorder is a biologically-based disorder, rather than made-up by people who are “lazy” or “just depressed.”

Depression Testing

There are a number of articles floating around the web these days about the possibility of genetic and blood tests for depression. They tend to address how these tests could improve the diagnosis of depression. This approach confuses me a little bit because diagnosis has traditionally been based on the person’s personal experience and symptoms. This approach of biologically testing for depression seems like it could exclude people who are experiencing depression symptoms from a Major Depressive Disorder diagnosis.

I have been an opponent of the traditional approach to diagnosis since I began my studies in psychology. One of the major objections against mental disorder diagnosis in its current form is that the line between who does meet sufficient criteria and who does not is somewhat arbitrary—as if depression is an either/or condition, versus occurring across a continuum.

I am truly hoping that with these emerging tests we can identify forms of depression that respond particularly well to particular medications. But I hope that we do discount or dismiss people who sincerely experience symptoms of depression because they do not have the right chemicals in their blood. Depression is as much a human experience (with probably a variety of causes) as it is a chemical condition. If “depression screening” becomes “depression testing” we risk leaving a lot of people out of treatment.

I Always Had a Roof Over My Head

I frequently investigate how well a client’s parents provided for their basic needs. I use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as my framework, working my way up. I start with physiological needs and sometimes I hear about clients having gone hungry or fend for themselves as children, but most of my clients report being fed. However, when I get to Shelter and Safety I frequently get an interesting response: I always had a roof over my head.

Now what makes this response interesting is that it requires so little to be true, but implies so much more. One of the first clients I did this investigation with reported that his father always provided a roof; however, when I asked how many times he moved by the time he was 18 years of age, he reported they had moved 17 times—each one an eviction. Another client recently used the same answer and in follow-up reported that she had moved 27 times (!) in the first 18 years of her life. Other clients report being shuttled between parents without a regular schedule or much warning sometimes. I think one of the sub-needs subsumed in “safety” are predictability and stability. For many of my clients who have always had a roof over their heads, they did not have the benefit of predictability and stability that is implied by the claim. Hierarchy of Needs Image

Another line of question in which I engage with clients who “have always had a roof over their heads” is were utilities turned off for lack of payment. Embedded in the idea of “shelter” is the idea of protection from the elements. Not having electricity or gas can lead to not being very well protected from the elements. Infestation of a home with insects or rodents also qualifies as having a roof, but does necessarily provide for the sense of safety that having a roof over one’s head implies. Sometimes clients report having a tarp over a hole in the roof for an extended length of time—but hey, they had at least a partial roof over their heads, I guess.

Safety and comfort within the dwelling with the roof is also a concern I explore with clients. Was there violence in the house—either directed at you or to which you were exposed? Witnessing violence is known to be damaging to young children—it undermines their own sense of safety.  How people shared the house? A crowded house can make one feel unsafe and certainly inhibits any sense of privacy, which is a human need as well. Witnessing the sexual activity of others is not inherently disturbing, but can be. And not being able to express one’s own sexuality (even through masturbation) can be disturbing as well. Alone time and having a sense of personal space is something that many of us take for granted but from which we would suffer if it were taken away.

Similarly, the sense of safety of the neighborhood in which the roof was can be an issue. Growing up in an environment in which there is a fear of violence or theft prevents the development of a sense of safety in the world. Being “home alone” can likewise undermine both a sense of safety and a sense of being cared for—despite the roof.

Many of the clients who “always had a roof over their heads” also report some form isolation because of their home life situation. They frequently either did not make friends because they moved around so much or limited their friendships because of shame about their home/family situation—unwilling to reciprocate have friends over causing them to withdraw after friends have them over. Maslow’s Hierarchy is somewhat additive, in that each level of needs builds the foundation for the next level. Essential to the development of Belongingness, kids need to develop relationships—belongingness is specifically an interpersonal need. It is through belongingness that we learn that we have value as people (thus the next level of Maslow’s Hierarchy, Esteem) and how to relate to others—including asking for help in solving problems, learning to trust (essential for loving someone and maintaining friendships), and basically interact with others (necessary for education and career advancement).

“I always had a roof over my head” is just one of the ways in which we dismiss the short comings of our childhoods. However, without acknowledging what having a roof actual meant relative to what it implies we fail to recognize the reality of our childhoods and therefore fail to understand how we perceive the world more generally. There are many people trapped in suffering, somewhat resulting from refusing to look at the stark realities of their childhood; sometimes we need to pull back the curtain and see that parts of our childhood really were shit before we can truly move on from those parts.

Quick and Easy Cocaine Addiction

A recent study has shown that a single use of cocaine appears to change the neuroanatomy of mice brains. I have had it frequently reported to me that the first experience of cocaine makes one want another cocaine-induced experience, but also that the subsequent experiences never match the initial experience. That the first experience changes the structure of neurons suggests this might be true.

This study was done on mice, which presumably may be more easily affected by the single dose than larger humans, but how much different (if at all)? The brain is remarkably plastic and, as the researchers point out, the ease with which cocaine changes the brain likewise suggest the opportunity to re-change the brain as well. However, there are no chemicals that will un-change the brain as effectively or quickly as chemicals can change it.

“I Love You” and “Sorry”

“I love you” and “sorry” are two phrases that mean substantially more when we put the “why” with them.

Think about what mean more to you…”I love you” vs. “I love how you always kiss me first thing in the morning.” When there is “why” behind the reason we love someone it feels more valid and demonstrates more thoughtfulness or consideration. “I love…” is thrown around so casually these days that as a stand alone phrase it carries less weight–we have become a little adapted to hearing it.

An apology that not only includes what you are sorry for, but why you are sorry carries more weight, again because it shows consideration. “I’m sorry” can sometimes feel like an attempt to get out of the doghouse or just an attempt to bring tension to an end. If you explain an understanding of why the thing for which you are apologizing was hurtful or offensive it demonstrates that you thought about your action–not just simply accepted that the person to whom you are apologizing did not like it. Consider “I am sorry that I hurt your feelings” vs. “I am sorry that I did not think about how my off-handed comment would make you feel.” There is more ownership in the second example and therefore it feels more genuine.

Demonstrate more thoughtfulness and your words will have more of an impact.

What Makes Relationships Bad for Sex

So on the heels of posting a study that derides casual sex, here is a post on how relationships can be bad for sex–and how infidelity might not be such a bad thing…

Here are excerpts from a book titled How to Think More About Sex. I have not read the book yet, but the excerpts are pretty interesting. This article touches on a lot of the realities of relationships and why they make sex difficult. We have known for a long time that commitment can be the destruction of passion, but this book appears to explore how that might happen.

I was just talking with a client about the appeal of “drama” in a relationship–it actually can make us feel more wanted. Commitment promotes reliability, but reliability also promotes taking for granted. Reliability feels awfully nice in a relationship, but a little instability in a relationship can make us feel wanted, even fought for. The risk is that the “drama” can manifest as disrespectful or destructive. Enthusiasm is another great (less risky) alternative to drama in making your partner feel wanted. The key, it would seem, is to offer reassurance that doesn’t lead to be taken for granted, which is tricky.