During my 25 years as a therapist, I found that couples spoke in code. Nicknames, for example, often radiated unspoken layers of intimacy. When couples referred to each other by nicknames, they were reaching out their hands, a code for reconnecting. At other times in the course of a treatment, couples used code phrases to highlight their struggles. For instance, some said “I’m listening,” or “I hear you,” or “I want to understand” — and then their eyes glazed with a subtle film of distance as they emotionally checked out. For those folks, their phrases were codes for “I’m dismissing you.”
Now I’m watching a parallel process with school shootings. Since our current president took office, a pattern has emerged. A terrible shooting takes place leaving people dead, wounded, traumatized. And what happens next? “Thoughts and prayers” — peppered through speeches, all over social media, . “Thoughts-and-prayers” has become a code phrase with the rough translation: “Let them pitch a fit, then they’ll lose their momentum, then we can go back to ignoring the issue.”
I’m actually a strong supporter of thoughts and prayers. The capacity to think is a human gift. Prayers reflect belief systems which guide folks through this baffling world. However, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become the opposite of genuine thoughts and prayers. Those words have devolved into a brush off. Every time students are murdered in school, every time a bomb explodes in a public place, every time a mosque or a church or a synagogue is attacked, every time black people are treated as though their lives don’t matter, every time racism is the underlying motivation for a violent crime, every time a person on the LGBTIQ spectrum is assaulted — all are followed by hailstorms of “thoughts and prayers” — which are then followed by nothing. “Thoughts-and-prayers” has emerged as our country’s newest code phrase for “I’m dismissing you.”
In my sessions as a therapist, I found that each couple had their own unique code. When we cracked their specific code, then our work reached a new level. Going forward, I called a time out when those dismissive phrases were used. As we continued, couples learned to recognize the signs of disconnecting, and they called their own time outs. As their therapy progressed, they developed a healthy intolerance for being brushed off, and their dismissive code phrases tapered. They worked together, as a team, to set up a healthier set of emotional constructs. They felt stronger and safer, committed to repeating their mistakes never again.
Now our country needs to do the same.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. The story follows Caroline Black and her friends through tenth grade, as her new high school opens her world. Tightwire, Amy’s second novel, continues to follow Caroline, this time as a rookie psych intern treating her first patient — a stormy, brilliant, troubled young man who ran away from the circus to find himself. Amy’s blog includes posts about a variety of subjects including the resistance, gender equality, LGBTQ+ ally support and racial equality. Amy collaborates with educators who include her books and essays in their classrooms.