Bright lights, big screen: Vancouver’s Pacific Cinematheque a safe haven for independent filmmakers

March 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Jim Sinclair has been bringing the best of Canadian art-house and independent cinema to the big screen for 20 years as the executive director of Vancouver's Pacific Cinematheque. (Photo courtesy of Pacific Cinematheque)

New technology has made it cheaper and simpler to make films, but with so many indie films floating around on the Internet, it’s hard to get noticed.

That’s where theatres such sa Vancouver’s Pacific Cinematheque come in.

Jim Sinclair, who has been the theatre’s executive director since 1991, said that Pacific Cinematheque’s mandate is to show innovative, artist-driven work.

They accept unsolicited submissions, which are then screened by Sinclair, who decides whether they are good enough to be screened and whether there will be an audience for them. As with films submitted to film festivals, those shown at the Cinematheque are not required to be rated by Consumer Protection B.C.

In the past, this meant that films screened at the Cinematheque were not subject to censorship, Sinclair says. Nowadays, because of the Internet and because ratings are less strict, that’s less of a concern.

But not needing to be rated is still a good thing for filmmakers. It’s not the filmmaker who pays to have their movie rated, it’s the distributor. If they don’t have a distributor, they have to absorb the costs themselves.

And getting your film rated isn’t cheap. According to the Consumer Production B.C. website, each copy of a film that is to be screened has to be rated. In B.C. it costs $12 for the first 10 minutes of the first copy, and then $1.20 for each subsequent minute. For a 90-minute movie, that’s $108. Each additional copy costs half of that ($54 dollars for a 90-minute movie).

But Sinclair says that it’s the culture of the Cinematheque that makes it such a great place for independent and non-mainstream film.

“There’s a whole world of cinema out there that if you relied entirely on what was playing at the multiplex, not only would you never see it, you’d never know it existed,” he said. “Our whole culture, our mandate here is geared toward providing access to the great achievements of Canadian and international cinema, and being a cultural organization that programs that work.”

Sinclair had some parting advice for filmmakers.

“Try hard. It’s work. If you have something that’s good, you need to get people to see it,” he said. “There’s nothing self-effacing about calling up people who curate film or program cinemas and letting them know that you have a film and getting into their hands so they can see it.”

Instant Theatre: a quick education in improv comedy

March 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Amanda Punshon and Brian Russell take a look at long-form improv comedy from the perspective of Instant Theatre, a improv team and school that has been around since 1994. The giggles, guffaws and great on-the-spot comedy that the group is known for are all here, including interviews with Instant Theatre’s artistic director Alistair Cook and one of the group’s performers, Brynn Peebles.

Slideshow: local filmmakers bring Dungeons & Dragons to life

February 17, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

Photos and audio from the filming of Standard Action episode four at the Fish House restaurant in Stanley Park, Vancouver on Jan. 31. The series, created by local actor Joanna Gaskell, takes place in the universe of a role-playing game similar to that of Dungeons & Dragons. Episodes one through three are online now.

The Giggle Guide: where to find improv and standup comedy nights in the GVRD

February 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

New York, Boston, Chicago and Montreal are all funny cities. Together, they have produced some of the biggest names in comedy — instantly recognizable people such as Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien, Bonnie Hunt and Caroline Rhea.

But what about Vancouver?

While it’s true that we are not as well-known for our comedy scene as Just For Laughs staples such as Montreal, Vancouver does have a pretty solid comedy scene. Colin Mochrie (Whose Line is it Anyway, This Hour Has 22 Minutes,) Ryan Stiles (the Drew Carey Show, Two and a Half Men,) and Seth Rogen (Freaks and Geeks, Superbad) are all from here, and local and international comedians play Vancouver’s comedy and nightclubs every week. Show tickets are usually cheaper than the latest 3-D Justin Beiber cinematic extravaganza, and most of the venues are licensed.

The only problem is that finding comedy nights in Vancouver isn’t easy. That’s why we’ve created the Giggle Guide. Simply pick the night you want to go out and click through the available options to see what’s happening. Clicking the map for a venue will take you to the Google Maps website, where you can get more detailed directions.

A caveat: Vancouver’s comedy scene is like a beach. New things are always washing up as the old drift away, making it impossible for this guide to be comprehensive. It’s always a good idea to phone the venues before heading out, just in case they’ve changed or cancelled their night. Most venues are 19+.

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*The Montemartre Cafe has comedy nights once a month; Zesty’s Restaurant occasionally hosts comedy events.

Infographic by Amanda Punshon and Sarah Casimong

Swapping the office for a more colourful picture

February 13, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

Mark Feenstra quit his office job to pursue a career in fashion photography. (Photo by Sarah Casimong)

At first blush, it seems like something out of a Hollywood movie. Just over a year ago, Mark Feenstra quit his day job as an inventory analyst for Mountain Equipment Co-op in Vancouver to pursue more creative endeavours. If it were a movie, his decision would have been a spur-of-the-moment, dramatic impulse that caused his doting girlfriend no end of financial and emotional distress.

“It really wasn’t a last-minute decision or impulsive thing. There was definitely some soul-searching that went into that,” said Sarah Pawliuk, Feenstra’s girlfriend of two years. “I wasn’t freaked out that it was going to be a big disaster because he’s a really responsible and almost overly-thinking person.”

Feenstra described his position at MEC was a “stepping-stone job,” the kind of job people take when they’re looking to move up in the company.

“One day, I realized that I didn’t want to be where I was going next,” he said. “I loved everything about the company except what I was actually doing when I was sitting at my desk.” So he started making plans to leave the company. He saved money for over two years before he actually quit.

“I knew I needed to make a change while I was still young enough to do that easily. You can do it an any age, but I don’t have kids, I don’t have a mortgage. Now is a pretty good time to take on a high-risk endeavour.”

Feenstra beside a picture he took in South America. (Photo by Sarah Casimong)

Feenstra said that he initially took time off to work on his writing. He went to Costa Rica for three months to surf and get himself into a “more creative headspace.”

When he came home, he realized that fiction writing wasn’t going to pay the bills. Even if he wrote the next great Canadian novel, found an agent and a publisher, it would still be at least two years before he earned any money.

“Rather than go back to work this year, like I had originally planned, I’ve decided to use that incredible, gripping fear of having to go back to an office to kind of push me into photography and trying to make a living at it,” he said.

Photography had been a passion of Feenstra’s for as long as he could remember. It was a hobby he shared with his mother, a cancer researcher-turned-biology teacher. He still has the nearly 30-year-old Nikon SLR camera he grew up using.

Feenstra is science-minded – another thing he inherited from his mother – and mechanics of operating a camera really appealed to him. “It’s kind of a way for me to approach more artistic endeavours but still have an element of control,” he said.

Another thing that appealed was the way photography forced Feenstra to step outside himself.

“I hate public speaking, I hate having to show up and meet strangers. Even just going to a party where I don’t know that many people, I get weird anxiety before I have to go. Yet I really want to shoot people. I like portraits, I want to do fashion photography, these are the things I want to do. And I’ve lately just been throwing myself into these scenarios where I don’t know anybody,” he said. “It always turns out to be these amazing experiences.”

Shyness isn’t the only thing Feenstra struggles with.

“One thing that still hasn’t gone away with writing or photography is just huge creative fear barriers. That kind of feeling that you’re not good enough, that you shouldn’t be doing this, that you don’t deserve it,” he said. “At the end of the day, the biggest challenge is just getting over my own inhibitions and just kind of feeling like I shouldn’t be doing this and doing it anyways. And getting through that every time has probably been the biggest challenge. Everything else, when it actually happens, is easy.”

(Photo by Sarah Casimong)

But he sees the challenges as being an important part of the creative process.

“If you’re not a little bit scared of not pulling something off, then you have to question how worth doing it is,” Feenstra said. “If you’re trying to be creative and you’re trying to do something interesting or something that other people can interact with, then you have to be going out into at least your own unknown a little bit. Because if it’s just too easy, then why should anybody else be interested?”

Feenstra wants to break into fashion photography, in part because there are some fairly lucrative career opportunities in the industry, but also because it allows photographers to be creative.

“You flip through magazines, some of the stuff is just garish and awful, and you don’t know how anybody would publish something just so hideous and weird. But it’s great that that’s what somebody got to do,” he said.

He hopes to have his own studio one day, but his dreams are both bigger, and smaller, than that.

“I’d love to be ‘that guy’ in Vancouver where, when celebrities come through town, it’s like, ‘Oh, can we get Mark Feenstra to come in and shoot for the day?’ And I think it’s important to always keep that in mind and believe — act — as though that’s where you’re headed. I think it’s really important to pick a completely and seemingly unobtainable goal, and everything you do should build a foundation to get you in that direction,” he said.

Feenstra said he sees himself as being on the road to his dream, but he’s not hung up on achieving it as soon as possible.

“There’s a certain level of general fashion photography and editorial work that I’d be very happy with for a very long time. I don’t have to get up there, but that’s the general direction. And still, the really important thing for me to do is not get lost in that, and doing everything just commercial work.

“[I want] to pursue some of those personal creative projects without monetizing them,” Feenstra said. “If I want to take a couple months off to go shoot tribes in Borneo without trying to make a lot of money and be worrying who to sell that to, that would be a great place to be.”

Feenstra is not one of those people that’s putting himself all over the Internet in hopes of making a little money. But he is confident that he will eventually turn his passion into a lucrative career.

“If you have a good product, people will find you,” he says.

If you’d like to see samples of Feenstra’s work, you can visit his profile site at

Getting started in film cheap, easy, says local filmmaker

February 6, 2011 by · 5 Comments 

Quentin Tarantino taught himself the history of film. Sir Ridley Scott worked on roughly 2,700 commercials before he made it big with Alien. Robert Rodriguez sold his body to science to fund his filmmaking.

These guys are incredibly passionate about film. It’s easy for them to make movies because they have lots of money. But they didn’t always, and if you want to make your own films, you don’t need to be rich either.

Rob Hunt is a local independent filmmaker. Like Tarantino, he didn’t go to film school. He says he would have if he’d had the money, but film programs are really expensive.

“I think that the problem with a film program is that you go and you spend all this money, and you don’t walk away with any equipment. So you really have to be aware of that. If you’re going to be in a film program, you have to be there 110%. You’ve got to be using the equipment, you’ve got to be making friends and contacts,” Hunt says.

And, of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a job once you graduate.

Hunt, who has a degree in computer science from the University of Victoria, has filmed two feature films and purchased all of his own equipment in approximately the same time as a film program would take.

He’s currently directing Standard Action, the Dungeons & Dragons-themed webseries he co-created with girlfriend Joanna Gaskell.

Hunt isn’t afraid of a little competition. In fact, he welcomes it.

“I wanna see cool stuff, and I don’t like what the big studios are doing,” he says. “You’ll see ideas come from independent film that studios are not willing to take a risk on.”


If you want to make your own film, Hunt says you only need a few simple things.

The first is a digital single-lens reflex camera that shoots HD video. Hunt shoots Standard Action on a Canon T2i, which costs around $800. The 7D is also a good option, Hunt says, but it’s a lot more expensive.

Buying a cheaper camera means less of a financial loss if the camera is broken or confiscated. It also means you can buy a second camera, which saves time because it allows you to shoot a scene from two angles at the same time.

Hunt quotes Stu Maschwitz, the man behind filmmaking blog Prolost, as recommending the T2i over the 7D because it has recently been hacked, which has unlocked (for free) a lot of features that would ordinarily come on cameras that cost thousands of dollars more. The hack is pretty recent, so he advises waiting a few months before using it on your camera to make sure it’s stable.

If you buy your camera in a kit it will come with a couple of lenses, but Hunt advises upgrading them. He says a fast 50mm lens, which costs around $100, will work well in low-light situations. It’s also a good idea to get a wide-angle lens, he says, and a “reasonable” tripod.

DSLR cameras shoot beautiful video but the audio quality isn’t very good, so you’ll have to buy an external recording device of some kind. Hunt uses the Zoom H4n (around $350) on Standard Action, but he says he’s seen sound guys using even simpler devices with good results.

Hunt says that, in addition to the recorder, you’ll need a microphone. “You need a basic boom mic and boom pole. A boom pole is like 50 bucks, and boom mic or shotgun microphone, those are like 200 dollars.”

And since you’ll be recording your audio and video separately, you’ll need a slate (also known as a clapboard) which is basically a piece of plastic or wood with two pieces that click when they’re brought together. It makes adding the separate audio track to the video easy during the editing process – you just line both up at the click.

“That’s kind of old school and it’s come back again as a real requirement,” Hunt says.

If you’d like to dabble a bit in lighting, Hunt recommends starting with a good bounce (also known as a reflector) to hold under actors’ faces for close-ups. “It just makes the face a little bit lighter, and more professionally-lit looking,” Hunt says.

A basic lighting kit can come in handy, too. They have just three small 300-watt lights, but DSLR cameras are so good in low-light that that’s all you need. Hunt just bought one for around $300. He’ll be using it during the production of Standard Action episode four.

There’s also a nifty little camera-mounted LED light that’s great for making actors’ faces pop when shooting close-ups. According to Hunt, it’s handy for filming in forests because it maintains the dark, spooky atmosphere, but lights the actors very well. And in daylight situations, it provides more control over the quality of the light. Hunt says he found his for around $40 on eBay.


“If you want to make film, you need a friend who is gullible enough to come out, hold the boom mic, and learn how to use whatever thing you’ve got to record sound,” Hunt says.

“You need a guy who knows how to make sure that he knows that he’s recording and not just listening to the sound, cuz there is that big difference. And to be able to not shake the boom mic around, cuz that’s important.”

Another handy person to have around is a set decorator. Hunt says that the addition of a set decorator has made Standard Action look that much more professional. And if you hire someone who can also do other things, like design costumes or operate your second camera, it will make your life that much easier and save you a lot of time.


Hunt found his set decorator on Craigslist. “I’ve seen some great miracles happen from the people I’ve pulled off of Craigslist. I’ve had some incredibly talented and enthusiastic people,” he says.

“Don’t be afraid to try to find other people, just be ready to have a little bit of friction or find people who don’t actually help.”

Hunt advises posting the “gigs” section, because you have a better chance of finding people who share your passion for filmmaking and will volunteer their time to help you out.

If you need to fundraise, Hunt says IndieGoGo is the way to go. Creators set up pages on the fan-funding site and then anyone, anywhere can donate as much money as they like to the project. Hunt says it allows filmmakers to approach people they normally wouldn’t for funding, and thanks to IndieGoGo, he is now looking at being able to afford a premiere for his movie, The Director’s Project.

“That website alone has changed the whole game in the last year, and i really look forward to how that’s going to expand. I think that’s just going to get a lot better for us,” Hunt says.

And for those interested in special effects, Hunt says Video Copilot is a great site to visit. It’s run by Andrew Kramer, who created the title sequences for Fringe and the Star Trek movie. The site offers free tutorials in Adobe After Effects, which allows filmmakers to “make someone’s leg or head blow off” without any danger.


Hunt speaks very highly of the DV Rebel’s Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap. He says “it’s like 80 bucks, but it’s like the Bible, or like a textbook. It’s not necessarily a storybook, but it’s everything you could need.”

He also highly recommends Robert Rodriguez’s memoir Rebel Without a Crew. “It’s the kind of book you read if you’re feeling down and you don’t want to make film any more. You read it, and then you want to do it again. ‘Cause, like, he sold his body to science to do it, and lived in an institution…it’s pretty epic.”

Hunt reads a lot. “Buy books on amazon and read them,” he says. “That’s how you really become a good filmmaker.”


DVD commentaries are also a great source of information. Again, Hunt recommends Robert Rodriguez’s movies, because his commentaries and extras are geared toward filmmakers.

And the Lord of the Rings, with its 12 hours of commentary, “is such a huge wealth of stuff.” In addition to directors and actors, there are commentaries by the set designers, costume-makers and art designers. Hunt says that the ideas in commentaries are a good way to learn about what does and doesn’t show up on-camera so that you can pull off professional-looking special effects and costumes without having to spend a lot of money.

Hunt also recommends the DVD boxed set of The Middleman. The show, which ran for a single season in 2008, was based on a comic book about a girl recruited by a guy who fixes weird problems for a living to be his replacement.


Kwantlen doesn’t offer any filmmaking classes, but Hunt says there are still some useful courses in the calendar.

The first, and most basic, is an introductory English course. Hunt says he once read a screenwriting book that advised writers to use the same essay-writing techniques he learned at university.

“Writing scripts for me…is very similar to writing a ten-page essay,” he says. “I’ll make notecards and I’ll lay them out on the ground, and it’s exactly the same as how i used to write long essays.”

Hunt doesn’t personally have a problem generating story ideas or writing fiction, but he says that if it’s a skill you need to work on, creative writing classes are a must. Kwantlen offers several that might interest filmmakers, including Introduction to Creative Writing I and II (CRWR 1100 and 1110), Drama, Fiction and Poetry I and II (CRWR 2300 and 2310) and Screenwriting I and II (CRWR 3120 and 3220.)

Jason Lieblang, who teaches German Culture through Film (CUST 3300,) thinks that his course would be beneficial for aspiring filmmakers too.

“You definitely don’t learn the practical skills necessary to make films in a class like mine, that is, editing and how to work a camera and those types of things,” Leiblang says. “You do learn about the history of cinema, about the great directors, about great sort of shifts in filmmaking that were crucial and important and affected the way that films were made after that.”

He also teaches students how to analyze films as texts, looking narrative and form so that students can understand film in a “a deeper, more profound way.”

On top of that, he teaches his students how to “communicate clearly, effectively and persuasively” by writing short argumentative essays.

And rather that writing a final paper, Leiblang says that students can do other kinds of projects, including making a film, if they can prove that they will satisfy the requirements of the assignment.

Kwantlen’s course calendar promises that Introduction to Film Studies (ARTH 1130) will teach students about the “history and development of world cinema” and about “film as a visual language and art-making practice,” and says that students “will learn methods for exploring aesthetic function and for considering the social, political, and technological contexts” of movies. This, like Lieblang’s German Culture Through Film class, will teach you some basic film terms and give you a good grounding in the interpretation of film.

If you’re interested in understanding film and having a lot of control over the way your films are interpreted, Eryne Donahue’s Introduction to Visual Culture (FINA 1167) course may be for you. Donahue says that her class will help students understand films from a variety of perspectives.

“[Filmmakers] could sort of get a sense of how that stuff is put together and then how it’s read by the public,” she says. “They could from there get a sense of what’s already out there and how they could maybe contribute to it.”

Donahue also teaches Photography I (FINA 1170) which is the closest thing Kwantlen offers to a filmmaking class. She says it would be very beneficial for anyone who wants to make movies because a lot of the the language and principles involved are the same.

“It gives a pretty good understanding of how film works. They’re based on the same sort of principles, right, technically. And if they’re taking the course it also sort of slows them down because we’re dealing with film-based cameras instead of digital to start. They really have to kind of focus and put a lot of emphasis on the choices they make and that would set them up really well for storyboarding and planning for film,” she says.

She has some advice for students who want to get into film, too.

“The student should be prepared to do a lot of work,” Donahue says. “There’s no sort of standard path, really, with film or any of the arts, so you have to have a strong vision in mind to know really where you want to go with it.”


For more of the Chronicle’s coverage of independent arts in Vancouver, click here.

To watch Standard Action click here

Click here for Rob Hunt’s website.

Stu Maschwitz’s blog is here.

Video Copilot, which offers free special effects tutorials for filmmakers, is here.

Check Kwantlen’s course calendar for useful courses.

Amazon, Craigslist and IndieGoGo are useful sites for filmmakers.

This is hardcore: Vancouver’s highly politicized DIY music scene through a founder’s eyes

January 17, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Vancouver's DOA, founding fathers of hardcore. (Photo by Diane Foy, courtesy of Sudden Death Records)

By Amanda Punshon and Meagan Gill

Hardcore music is “a bunch of people screaming their heads off, playing fast. Screaming their heads off, playing fast and playing loud,” according to Joe (“Joey Shithead”) Keithley, founding member of legendary Vancouver hardcore band DOA. Hardcore has been one of Vancouver’s most vibrant music scenes for 33 years, and DOA has been there in one form or another for all of them. In fact, the band’s second album, Hardcore ’81, which was released in April 1981, is responsible for the use of the term “hardcore” as a description of their type of punk music.

Despite being an offshoot of punk, hardcore was influenced as much by folk and metal as punk itself. Keithley counts Iggy Pop, Lead Belly, Arlo Guthrie, Jimmy Hendrix and Black Sabbath as some of the musicians that most affected DOA’s music.

Perhaps the biggest, most important reason for the spread of hardcore was the conservatism of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Politicians such as Ronald Reagan in the States, Margaret Thatcher in England, Helmut Kohl in Germany and Brian Mulroney here in Canada formed “a quartet of idiots,” in Keithley’s words, that people reacted to strongly.

The political climate may be different now, but British Columbians still take social activism seriously, which, Keithley says, is one of the reasons that Vancouver’s hardcore scene continues to thrive.

“Let’s put it this way, if you’re not politically aware, you’re probably not really a punk band,” he says. “Some of the bands are into it, and they’ll play at rallies and protests and stuff like that. Not all of them…but I mean, it’s a part of activism within the punk rock scene.”

In addition to its politics, Vancouver is known for its arts scene.

“Vancouver is a happening place, arts-wise. It’s not surprising that you’d get kids who want to do something in music, they’d move out here. They probably don’t realize how tough it is or how expensive it is but they get out here and somehow they keep working on it,” Keithley says.

And it is tough. According to Keithley, it’s incredibly hard to get a record deal because major record labels no longer have the money or the sense of adventure that they did in the 1960s and ‘70s. They’re much less likely to take a risk on a band that’s not a sure thing.

In addition to that, big record store chains are increasingly less willing to stock albums by little-known bands, Keithley says. So many hardcore bands — DOA included — start their own record labels. Others turn to the Internet to distribute their material, which, for Keithley, is a mixed blessing.

“It’s hard to be heard, or what I say, get above the ‘noise floor.’ It’s kind of hard to get noticed because the most outrageous things have been done, the most screaming’s been done,” he says. But at the same time, “it’s good, the access is there, you can make an album a lot cheaper [than in the past.]”

When DOA was starting out, hardcore bands would play alongside new wave, reggae and pop punk bands. They had to in order to fill a room. But today, Vancouver hardcore has enough of a following that the lineups for most shows are filled by other hardcore bands.

Keithley is not sure what the future has in store for hardcore music in Vancouver. “It’ll just keep growing and morphing like it always does,” he says. “There’s always going to be a new bunch of kids coming along that make their own scene. I can’t predict that.”

But one thing is certain – “people are so passionate about [Vancouver hardcore],” Keithley says. “There’s a lot of support for it…there’s love there for it, and [at the same time] the support’s not there because there’s not a lot of money. It’s coming from the heart, and that’s a good thing.”

For more Chronicle coverage of independent arts in Vancouver, click here.

New Dungeons & Dragons-inspired webseries Standard Action not just for geeks, says creator Joanna Gaskell

November 21, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Joanna Gaskell, left, as Edda and Edwin Perez, right, as Fernando in Standard Action episode 0. (Screenshot courtesy mightyjoanna productions and Phasefire films.)

[audio: webseries.mp3]

Joanna Gaskell, a Vancouver actor and self-professed geek, is the creator/writer/producer of the new webseries Standard Action, which takes place in a fantasy world not unlike that of Dungeons & Dragons. It centres around Edda, who is rather bloodthirsty; Fernando, a half-Halfling bard; Gwenevere, a vain sorcerer; and Martin, a cleanliness-obsessed Druid. All of the characters are outcasts, neither suited to their roles nor particularly powerful.

Gaskell has gathered a team of local independent film talent to create Standard Action. In this interview, she discusses her inspiration, her team and why she decided to create a series for the web.

Watch Standard Action episode 0 on YouTube here.

Warhammer: a game, a hobby, a lifestyle

November 15, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Photo by Miranda Gathercole

by Miranda Gathercole and Amanda Punshon

Warhammer, a table-based miniature war game, is “the coolest thing you’ve never heard of,” according to Doug Widdes, an employee at the Games Workshop in Metrotown mall. The game is part strategy, part art, and its players are all passion. In this 18-minute audio piece, we step inside the world of Warhammer for a few moments to get an overview of the game and meet some of the players.

[audio: 1WarhammerFinal.mp3]

Ending an obsessive relationship is all about finding balance

November 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Illustration by Amanda Punshon

by Meagan Gill and Amanda Punshon

Boundaries make everything better — especially when it comes to relationships. Obsessive relationships are characterized by a lack of respect for healthy boundaries in one or both partners’ lives, according to Robyn Rushford, a Kwantlen counsellor, and Rob Hadley, a hypnotherapist with Vancouver Hypnotherapy.

Rushford explains obsessive relationships as being “like an addiction. So when we think in terms of addiction language, does the addiction have control over you? Are you doing things in your life because of the addiction that you would not normally be doing? So one of the questions you would want to ask is, is the relationship good for you or bad for you?”

These relationships often fall into one of two categories: where only one of the partners is addicted, or where both partners are.

When one partner is addicted:

When we think of obsessive relationships, we often think of stereotypes from the movies: stalkers, controlling husbands or nerds who are convinced the most popular girl in school is in love with them.

According to Rushford, it’s true that addictive relationships aren’t always relationships in the conventional sense. Sometimes they are relationships that have ended, and sometimes they never even began. But it’s not unheard of for one partner in a functioning relationship to become obsessed, as in the case of the controlling husband.

Rob Hadley, a hypnotherapist with Vancouver Hypnotherapy, says that social media has made it even easier for people to feed their relationship addictions. “Someone who is very obsessed with a partner, or an ex-partner, they can suck up hours and hours of their time and we’ll be asked, ‘How do I get over this?’”

“Often people in your life will comment that they see things in the relationship that don’t seem to be healthy for a person,” Rushford says. “So that could be spending an awful lot of time fantasizing, thinking about the relationship, pursuing a person. And I think now, with social media, that we see that quite frequently. It could be using Facebook in a way, almost like stalking kind of behaviour. Of texting people persistently, calling people.”

Social media stalking can also be translated into the real world. Rushford says it’s not uncommon for addicted people to engage in behaviour such as “following people, of planning their life around somebody to the degree that could include maybe picking your courses because you know that person is going to be in the courses. Planning your route based on what that person’s schedule is going to be like. So that person becomes the focus of everything in your life.”

Being the target of an obsession, especially if you’re in a relationship with the person, can have negative effects. Hadley says that the loss of self-esteem is common in people who have been the subject of an obsession.

To combat that, Rushford says the most important thing you can do is establish clear boundaries: maintain your own circle of friends; do things on your own; emphasize the importance of your needs.

“I think that would be a really challenging relationship to have,” she says. “And I don’t know how well they work out.”

When both partners are addicted:

Sometimes it’s not just one partner who is addicted. At the beginning of a relationship, Rushford says, it’s natural for the couple to become infatuated with each other to the exclusion of the rest of the world. It’s all about the degree of the infatuation — how long has it lasted? are grades or jobs or family responsibilities suffering?

Usually, she says, the couple will rejoin the world eventually. But if they don’t, you’re left with two people who are okay with their relationship, even if it’s “not necessarily healthy. Not all relationships are healthy.”

If you’re not okay with the intensity of your relationship, Rushford says the first thing you should do is take time to re-evaluate your goals and your life. If school is your priority and you’re not able to focus on it, you might need to step back from the relationship.

On the other hand, if you have a friend or a family member who’s in a relationship like that, it’s important to give them space, she says. All you can do is “be there for your friend, to say, ‘Hey, I care about you.’ And to have your own boundaries as well…What’s okay with you? Is it okay that your friend disappears for four months and then knocks on your door one day? I don’t know what the answer to that is. It would be all about what works for you.”

“In an ideal world, I guess you’d hope to be able to maintain some kind of a relationship but respect that there’s a change that’s happened. You might not have as high a place in their life now but, ideally, too, if you can make time for your friends, you’re going to be better off.”

In either situation:

In both Hadley and Rushford’s view, becoming addicted to a relationship and being attracted to addictive personalities come from the same place.

For Hadley, people “learn our relationship behaviours often from our parents. If you look at someone who’s had a bit of trouble in relationships, when you look at how his or her parents manage their relationships, often what you will find is that they’ve had some trouble managing relationships as well.”

He views early childhood as the formative time in a person’s life. If something traumatic happened to a child, it will affect adult relationships.

Hadley also says that trust is paramount in relationships. “What it comes down to is how much one partner trusts the other to just do their own thing and to be where they say they’re gonna be,” he says. “So if you’re looking at early signs that it may not be going right, look at the levels of trust.”

Rushford takes a different view. She works from an attachment theory base, which means that she feels “that obsessiveness in relationships is often about the anxiety of being rejected or of being abandoned, and it becomes so rooted in your experience that you do everything to maintain this attachment.”

Both the addicted person and their partner may have this anxiety, and wounded people are often drawn to wounded people.

“It’s about filling a void that is in yourself, and I think at the end of the day, that’s probably what we need to focus on,” she says. “What is that void, that place you feel the relationship is going to fill in you? And often, I think it is an attachment wound, something that didn’t go well in your development with the attachment figures in your life. Abandonment, rejection, those kind of things.”

What to do:

If you find yourself in an addictive relationship, there are a few easy ways to break its grip on your life.

First, be willing to talk about it. Rushford says that “when you can bring something out in the open, when you can start to talk about it that’s the very beginning of something losing its power.”

Second, make your lifestyle as healthy as possible. Both Rushford and Hadley say that when your lifestyle is balanced and healthy, it makes it easier for you to cope with the stresses in your life. “We will get them exercising, improve their diet, get them sleeping better, give them some general anxiety tools, so they’re not weakened by the experience of the relationship. So they are in their best shape to deal with the post-relationship landscape,” says Hadley.

Vancouver Hypnotherapy uses a three-aspect approach to assess a person’s risk factors: how stable is their work/security situation? What do their home, family and relationships look like? How do they look after themselves emotionally and physically? If the relationship is healthy, all of those factors will be in balance, Hadley says.

Rushford uses different language, but she says basically the same thing: balance is important. When one part of your life falls out of orbit, it makes it harder to keep the rest on track. Also important, she says, is building a tolerance to the anxiety associated with your addiction. Saying no gets easier every time.

Third, seek help. Psychotherapy and hypnotherapy take different approaches to dealing with addictive relationships. It’s up to you to decide which best fits your situation.

The main difference between hypnotherapy and psychotherapy is that, in psychotherapy, a counsellor will discuss your issues with you, attempt to find their source and help you fix them. But they won’t push you in a specific direction. In hypnotherapy, on the other hand, the therapist will discuss your issues, but they will also tell you to end the relationship if it continues to be unhealthy. It’s important to note that in both approaches, the therapy will be conducted differently by each individual therapist.

Further reading:

Kwantlen Counselling has two leaflets that might be helpful. One’s called Addictive Relationships, the other Committed Relationships and School.

Also available in the counselling office or at your local library are these books:

  • Obsessive Love: When it hurts too much to let go by Susan Forward, PhD, and Craig Buck.
  • Boundaries and relationships: knowing, protecting and enjoying the self by Charles K. Whitfield, M.D.
  • Loving him without losing you: how to stop disappearing and start being yourself by Beverly Engel.

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