I get this question a lot. So I decided to write a blog post about it. Now, of course first you need to realize that you cannot control another person. Believe me, I have tried and tried hard. I like to say that I am just stubborn enough and strong-willed enough and persistent enough that if anyone COULD control another person it would be me. And I have always failed every time I tried.
So please realize that. You cannot force another person to do anything, least of all couples therapy. Not without firearms being involved (shotgun therapy?) which most therapists will strongly discourage.
That said you do have some options if you are a partner who wants to get into couples therapy and your person is not on board. First I would suggest trying to understand their position. This is best done when you are CALM. So not in the midst of a fight. Seriously. That's important.
So if you are calm, sit down with your person and ask them if this is a good time to talk about something that is important to you. This cues them to pay attention and reminds you not to try to have this conversation while you are driving to dinner, doing laundry together or generally distracted. These kinds of conversations need their own time and space. As a PACT therapist I also recommend that you sit in a way where you can face each other directly so that you can see each other's faces dead-on. This helps reduce the chance that you will mis-read each other's facial expressions or accidentally trigger a threat response and cause your partner to become instinctually defensive.
Now that the stage is properly set let your partner know that you have given this a lot of thought and that you would very much like them to go to couples therapy with you. I am pretty sure if you are in this situation you have asked them this before. So they may get a little activated and say "I already told you I don't want to do that!" or something equally contrary. STAY CALM AND CARRY ON! You could say something like "You are right", (people love it when you tell them they are right), "you did tell me that. And I wanted to know if we could talk about why you don't feel like couple's therapy is something you want to do. I want to understand more about how you feel about it." Generally people want to be understood so this is a pretty non-inflammatory statement. However look at your person and if the veins in their forehead or neck are starting to bulge make sure that you take a nice slow breath and settle yourself as best you can. Then just let them know you just want to talk about it for maybe 10 minutes. That way they know that they are not trapped there forever. You can also say "I'd like to talk about this for maybe 10 minutes to see if I can better understand how you feel about it, unless that's not OK with you." Phrasing it this way tends to help people who can be a little reflexively defiant to be more agreeable. Then set a timer on your smart phone and put it on the table so your partner knows you mean business. They are not trapped forever!
Once you have set the stage as well as you possibly can, and assuming they have not stormed off, I recommend starting with asking them why they feel couples therapy would not be helpful. DON'T COMMENT!! Just listen. No matter what they say don't interject. This will be hard, trust me. But to be effective at this point you must just listen until they stop talking. Then repeat back to them what you think they said and ask "did I get that right?". Yes, folks, this is that "active listening" that you probably practiced in that hokey "emotional intelligence" class in High School. But trust me, it's important.
Then if they agree that you heard them right you can start taking their concerns one at a time. For example if they say "it's too expensive" you can say "yes, it is expensive, but I would be willing to forgo my weekly pedicures, or poker nights with the guys, or my daily Starbucks, or whatever, to contribute to the cause. Try to show that you understand that whatever their concern is there is some legitimacy to it but you are willing to give ground to allay their concern. If they say "I don't have the time" you could offer to take some chores off their plate or in some other way help them to create the time. You want to show that you are willing to put skin in the game.
Sometimes your partner may question how couple therapy can help. You can explain that having the right skills to be good in a relationship is just like any other skill we learn, like tennis for example. You can try to teach yourself tennis by reading a book or watching other people play tennis and you may learn to hit the ball but you may also develop some bad habits like holding the racket incorrectly or using a backhand when a forehand would be more effective in that moment. So if you really want to learn tennis well it makes a LOT more sense to engage a tennis instructor for a few lessons. After that you will understand the proper form and be able to practice on your own much more effectively. Couples can try to learn how to get along well without professional help, and they may make some progress, but they may also fumble more and even develop patterns that are not super healthy. Better to hire a "relationship coach" to help learn how to get along and after a period of time (3-6 months) you may have all of the skills you need to go do it on your own.
Another helpful offer in trying to get ones partner engaged in couples work is to ask him or her to just go to ONE session to see how s/he feels about it. Often a partner will be willing to go once (to an actual session by the way, not the 30-minute consultation, since no therapist could do enough in 30 minutes to help anyone see the value). In my experience I have never met with a couple once and had them not see the potential value of couples work.
Since I practice a very specific type of couples therapy (PACT) if you are interested in that style of couples work you could also ask your partner to at least familiarize himself/herself with PACT by :
These resources may help your partner understand what PACT couples therapy would look like and what kind of relationship principles you are interested in applying to your situation. It may spark some helpful conversations with your partner and/or help to get your partner more engaged around the idea of couples work.
Or finally if none of these suggestions works and you REALLY feel like you do not want to stay in the relationship if s/he is not willing to go to therapy then you have what we call a "deal-breaker" situation. You sit down with your partner and CALMLY tell him/her that you are simply not willing to continue in the relationship without professional help. You need to make VERY specific requests at this point (not vague) such as telling your partner that you need him/her to consent to scheduling meetings on a weekly basis for at least 6 months (these are the terms I recommend) and if s/he can't commit to that and show up and try it then you want to end the relationship. The thing about this option is that you MUST be willing to follow through with ending the relationship if your partner says no. So this only works if you are really at the end of your rope and don't want to go on without therapy.
Relationship are tough. Intimate relationships, in my opinion, are the toughest. Plenty of folks who can earn 6 figures, run companies, paint masterpieces, compose symphonies, run 4 minute miles or solve quadratic equations in their heads while doing back flips fail at intimate relationships. There is no shame in that. But there is help! I hope that these tips are useful to you in trying to engage a reluctant partner in therapy.
Wishing you happiness and harmony in your intimate partnership,
PS Remember if you have found this blog to be helpful to "like" it on Facebook or "tweet" about it on Twitter to help others find it! And always feel free to leave a comment, I will respond as soon as I can.
With divorce rates in some social strata continuing to rise and many of us bemoaning the loss of true intimacy in an age of Snapchat and Facebook, Bruce Feiler has found an unlikely source of inspiration to help us navigate the modern waters of love-- the bible. Yes, folks, that ancient text with all of the "begat"s and such. Feiler writes quite convincingly that Adam and Eve may have had it right from the very beginning. Stay together, even when the proverbial applesauce hits the fan. Even when it might look like one of you has made an uber-big mistake and put both of you in jeopardy. Even when one of you outpaces the other in knowledge, life experience or situation. Even when you get evicted from the only home you have ever known. Even when one of your offspring kills the other. Stay together. Learn, grow and circle your wagons when necessary. Don't give up on each other. Don't turn on one another in times of strife. Forgive each other.
Feiler makes some startling points. He says that the message of the story is not "disobeying God", it's "about obeying the larger message [of God], which is making the relationship work". God made these two to be companions for life. God calls upon them to "succeed...Go forth and multiply" according to Feiler. He argues that the only way Adam and Eve can do that is to continue to turn towards each other in hardship and, unlike so many of us in our baser moments, not vilify one's partner. To forgive the shortcomings of one's partner and re-commit to the relationship. He states that love is "not a choice we make once; it's a choice we make multiple times." Eve chooses to return to Adam after eating the fruit and Adam chooses not to reject her. They chose to make a new life together. They chose to stay together even after one of their children kills the other. They even chose to recommit to the marriage by having another child-- a sure sign that each believes in the relationship.
Feiler calls love "an act of imagination, an act of commitment and ultimately an act of love to re-choose someone after a difficult time." He adds, "That choice is much harder than the first." I can't think of a more poetic way to describe what it takes to succeed in marriage. To continue to re-choose at every turn. To doggedly, even when one's own hope is waning, re-choose to be "all in." This is what we mean when we talk about putting one's partner first in PACT. Protecting the "couple bubble" and nurturing it.
Many years ago I met an older couple who had been married several decades. As is my practice I asked "what's the secret?". The man replied "my wife is not the same person that I married all those years ago. She has changed many times, and each time I fall in love with the new version of herself." He smiled as though he were the luckiest man alive-- to have been able to love different versions of the same woman for nearly half of his life. I think most of us would hope to be so lucky. He continued to choose her. That's love. Not the easy kind of love you see in Hollywood or that we grew up with in our princess and prince charming fantasies. The real kind where you double down and recommit, knowing that come what may you have each other.
Wishing you health, happiness and connection in all of your relationships,
I get this question a lot. Usually framed as "you can't do that, CAN you?" I hear a strong wish underneath the prohibition. "PLEASE tell me I am allowed to ask my partner to change!!" Many of us have absorbed the popular culture myth that we should not ask our partner to be different from who they are. Which sounds very loving, very accepting and very... unrealistic in my book. What if how are partner is acting is hurtful to us? What if it's damaging our relationship? How do you make the distinction between things you can ask to have changed and things that are supposed to be off limits? Is anything off limits?
PACT teaches that the real issue here is not changing your partner. It's changing how your partner is WITH YOU. How your partner treats you (and vice-versa). If my partner is a shy, introverted type, I am not going to change that. Introversion is one of the most stable personality traits researched. So even if I wanted to change that, even if my partner wanted to change that about him/herself, it's not likely to happen. But if part of how I get my emotional needs met is to have friends over every few weeks my introverted, shy partner may need to learn how to support that for me to some degree. This does not mean that s/he necessarily enjoys these social situations. But s/he does learn to support this need I have to connect with others by inviting them over every so often. Likewise if I am a strongly extroverted person my partner is not going to change that about me. But s/he can expect that I am going to not bowl him/her over with my need to have people at the house every day of the week. S/He can expect that I will allow him/her some "alone time" to recharge at the end of a day where s/he has had to talk to a lot of people. And that I won't take that personally or shame him/her about it.
In this scenario no one is actually changing. I am still an extrovert. He or she is still an introvert. But we respect each other's needs enough to BEHAVE in ways that take care of each other. And yes, you can "ask" for this. I would argue if you don't ask for it you may not get it. And if your partner is not acting in ways that support your deepest needs then they are not doing their job and you are not getting the benefit of being partnered. And over time, this lack of support for your deepest needs may begin to erode the positive feelings towards your partner. The relationship will no longer feel like a place where you can get important needs met.
Where many of us go wrong is in confusing how we want our partner to ACT and who they ARE. We feel disappointed that our partner is not a certain way and forget that we can ask for behaviors that feel good to us, and that our partner can behave in those ways even if it's not their personal default. Of course we need to learn to ask in ways that are respectful and kind and still honor our partner's own needs and wiring.
For an excellent in-depth explanation of how your partner is wired and what is likely to come naturally to them (or not!) see Dr. Stan Tatkin's audio program Your Brain on Love or his bookWired for Love. Or for those of you who are not yet partnered see Dr. Tatkin's book Wired for Dating. Learning how your partner's brain is set up will help you appreciate why they do what they do (and don't do), how to ask for what you want and need and how to take excellent care of them in return.
Wishing you health and happiness in all of your connections,
When the Past is Present
What do you see? A cute puppy with floppy ears? Or two cats with a hear hovering between them? Or both? And what might predict which image you see first? Growing up with dogs? Owning a cat? To me as a therapist one of the most useful things about optical illusions is to show us that we can't necessarily trust our perceptions. Remember the blue versus brown dress controversy? I would have sworn on my life that dress was a golden color and had not a hint of blue in it. The actual statistics on what people saw are that 1,401 people were asked what color they thought the dress was and 57 percent described the dress as blue/black, 30 percent described it as white/gold, 11 percent as blue/brown and 2 percent as something else. So who's right?
The reality is that no two human brains are identical. Just as we all see colors slightly (or sometimes vastly!) different, and just as one person loves spicy food and another shuns it, so too do we interpret the outside world quite differently. Most of the time this goes unnoticed as long as no one is feeling threatened emotionally or physically. But when a disagreement arises our differences in perception can become battering rams against the person we are engaged with. We cry out "you've got it wrong! I never said that!" or "you say you aren't mad but I can tell that you are!". Sometimes the disagreements are even more subtle. We walk into a room and see our partner sitting on the couch looking at a magazine. We think to ourselves "oh gosh, isn't she cute?" and our partner looks up and thinks "he's wondering why I haven't done the dishes yet. Why is he always on my case?"
What can account for these vastly different ideas? Part of it of course is just wiring. Our brains really are all unique in some aspects. But part of it is also our histories. If I grew up in a household where my value in the family was based on being helpful then I am likely to be prone to thinking that my partner is wondering why I haven't done my chores yet. If I grew up in a home where I "couldn't do anything right", I am prone to thinking that my partner is disappointed in me if their toast is a little too dark. Believe me, this kind of stuff can cause HUGE disruptions in your relationships. And everyone does it.
How do you know if what is going on in the present moment is being infected by the past? There is a pithy saying in the recovery community "If it's HYSTERICAL, it's HISTORICAL". Or, as we say in psychology, if the response (in the present moment) is out of proportion to the event, there is probably something in that person's history coming up.
What can you do about it? The #1 rule when you think your partner is coming from the past is DO NOT try to defend, argue, convince, counter-attack or analyze what the other person has said. While on some level this seems like the BEST thing to do (I mean, after all, this poor person has lost their grip on reality, right?) I can tell you with 100% assurance that the other person is going to get more entrenched, defended and frankly pissed-off. It is going to quickly widen the gap between the two of you and you will have even less of a chance coming to any kind of detente or mutual understanding.
So suck it up (yes, I know, this is going to be HARD!) and do this instead:
Yep. I know, it sounds crazy. It's like telling the person who thinks the FBI has implanted a micro-chip in their nose that they are right. Seems like a bad idea. But in this case you validate the feelings, not the details of the particular accusation. So it looks something like this:
Person A SAYS: "I can't believe that you were late again! You know how much I hate waiting on you! You are completely unreliable!"
Person B THINKS: "Oh my gosh you have got to be kidding me! I was 5 minutes late! How can 5 minutes matter? Plus I told you there was a roll-over accident on the freeway? How can I control that?!!!"
Person B SAYS: "Wow I am so sorry. I can see how upset you are. I know it is frustrating to have to wait on someone and I know that you in particular really hate that. I also know that it would feel really crappy to feel like you can't depend on someone who is important to you. I mean, if you can't depend on me (your best friend/partner/whatever) then it must feel like the whole world is full of unreliable people. That would be terrible. I am so sorry that my being late lead to all of those painful feelings. I will try harder in the future to be on time."
Yes. No kidding. That is what you say. Now, if you are like me, you have an inner 2-year old screaming THIS IS NOT FAIR!! I DID NOTHING WRONG!! S/HE IS A CRAZY PERSON!!!
However, I 100% guarantee you (I literally do this, I tell clients if they try this and it doesn't work I will give them a free session, and in 20 years I have never had to do it!) that this approach will work. Let's see what is likely to happen:
Person A FEELS: "Phew. Finally someone who understands me! Sometimes it does feel like the whole world is full of unreliable jerks who just don't care about upsetting me. Thank goodness this person is so thoughtful and kind. I am so glad that they are in my life."
Person A SAYS: "Thanks. It means a lot to me. I know that maybe 5 minutes is not a lot to you but for some reason it just really throws me off. Maybe next time if you are running late you can text me and I can go grab a coffee or something. I am not trying to be unreasonable but it really does bother me. So thanks for seeing that."
So what is "really" going on here? Person A probably has a history of being disappointed, let down or otherwise hurt by parents or other significant people in their childhood who were not attuned to their needs and feelings. They may have also been left waiting on caregivers who were busy taking care of themselves rather than attuning to the child. Your partner is responding from this history and assuming you are going to be the same way. That is coloring their interpretation of the Present because of input from the Past. We all do this. We all try to anticipate what is going to happen moment to moment based on past experience. We have to because otherwise we could not "automate" things and we would never be able to get out of the house. If I don't have an idea of what will happen when I step on the gas in my car and have to re-learn that every time I get behind the wheel I am not going to be very fluid in getting to work every day. I base my anticipated present experience of pressing on the gas against my past experiences with this. Which allows me to automate a certain percentage of that, which frees up my brain to think about other things like whether or not I should take the expressway this morning because I heard there was a wreck on the central artery. We all do this. I repeat, we all do this. Our brains are set up to. But just like screaming at the top of your lungs at your 16 year old while they are behind the wheel in heavy traffic is probably going to cause an accident (they will be so startled and freaked out by you yelling at them to slam on the breaks they may lose control of the car), you will also freak out and amp-up your partner if you try to disagree with them when they are bringing the past into the present.
Your best shot is to remain calm, not take it personally (did I mention that we all do this?) and de-escalate the person by attuning to their feelings and validating them. Once they have re-oriented themselves to reality (whatever that is, because really we construct it moment-to-moment and all have a different experience of it) we can have a discussion about what both of us experienced in that moment.
If you find yourself feeling resentful about the thought of doing this ("it's not fair!") I would encourage you to think about whether or not in your own history your parents or other significant caregivers showed you that your feelings mattered or made you cater to their needs an unreasonable amount. If not then you may have some work to do in order to feel ready to extend that to others.
Wishing you happiness and growth in your connections to others,
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I recently published a blog on the "Care and Feeding of your Island/Avoidant Partner". Since one of the main principles of successful relationships is that they are fair and equal it only makes sense to talk about how to take great care of wave-ish partners too. So here goes...
Wave-ish folks, like the rest of us, are subject to becoming more extreme versions of themselves once married. This has to do with breaching that final level of commitment to where our partners are now also family. We all carry around inside of us memories of how we were treated in childhood, and how we observed our family members treating each other. These templates are more flexible and less evident in our relationships with our friends and co-workers. Once someone enters into the realm of true family these templates are often re-activated in powerful ways and they tend to amplify our natural tendencies learned as children.
So as with Islands, once Waves are truly committed you may see the following tendencies emerge more strongly:
Fear abandonment, even in ways that seem more minor. Wave-ish folks experienced inconsistent parenting, such that they were sometimes coddled and given lots of attention but then sometimes unexpectedly rebuffed or pushed away and even shamed for being "too needy" or "too much". They intuitively expect the other shoe to drop and expect to be rejected. This gets worse with commitment for the reasons mentioned above. Your wave-ish partner may start reacting to you leaving, even if you are just running some errands, causing you to feel bewildered and frustrated. Know that departures can be triggering for them and leave with an extra dose of love. Let them know that you are going but will be thinking of them while you are gone and look forward to seeing them when you get back. Give them a hug before you leave. Send them a text (doesn't have to be fancy, a heart or smiley face will do) while you are out. Think of them as a kid who gets nervous when their mom or dad are suddenly unavailable. They need reassurance around both departures and reunions.
Can get prickly when you reunite after being apart. Again this can be VERY confusing for their partners, who have no idea that the separation was stressful. They come home from running some errands to a wave-ish partner picking a fight. Crazy, I know. But remember that they fear you leaving and when you do they may feel a surge of anger at being left. Since they tend to have trouble letting go of the past they may think about this the whole time you are gone. Then when you get back, wham! they let you have it. THEY DON"T DO THIS CONSCIOUSLY OR ON PURPOSE. Please, please, keep this in mind. It is no picnic for them either. No one likes to feel upset, so if your wave-ish partner is being cranky or downright mad remember that what is underneath that is emotional pain. They are hurting. One of the most fool-proof ways to soothe a wave-ish person is to hold them. They usually melt under touch. They also tend to love eye-contact. So hold them, gaze lovingly into their eyes and tell them that they can depend on you to never abandon them.
Can ramp up their emotional intensity, especially if you are island-ish. Remember the opposite styles amplify each other. So if you are island-ish, after marriage or deep commitment you will tend to move away a bit. This is likely to bring about protest behavior from your wave. It may be more clinging or it may be more frustration and accusations about how aloof you are. Or both. Try to remember that a wave-ish person is like a fussy baby. They make a lot of noise and you may be inclined to simply leave rather than deal with the fuss. But just like a crying baby they need your help, love and soothing. They tend to calm down MUCH faster than their partners think. So moving in, using touch, soothing words and eye contact can usually get a wave-ish person to get some emotional equilibrium pretty quickly. Even if you are not an island your wave-ish partner may get extra emotional after the deep commitment. Be prepared for this and don't blame them or tell them they are crazy. They are expressing their fear that you are not going to connect to them. Waves need a lot of connection and get more dramatic and emotionally messy when they don't get sufficient connection. Sadly they often unconsciously drive people away with their "fussiness", depriving themselves of the connection they need to get calm again. So know this and help them. It will pay you back tenfold in that you will not only have a more calm partner but you will have a partner who is eternally grateful to you for knowing what they need and giving it to them. Like islands, waves are often misunderstood. Your job is to not fall into that trap, to know them and take care of them.
May "spoil" things you try to do for them. This one is bound to make you feel crazy but remember they are not doing it intentionally. They want to be happy, just like any person does. However, since they have a childhood history of having the other shoe constantly dropped they anticipate being disappointed. So if you do something nice for them they may just turn around and "spoil" it somehow. If you take them out to dinner they may complain about the restaurant. If you buy them a gift they may tell you it's not their style, or the wrong color, or whatever. While the natural reaction to this would be to tell them to take a hike, you need to remember that they are acting from childhood pains. Tell them how much you love them and that you know they have been disappointed in the past. Tell them you don't want to disappoint them and you are open to hearing what they need from you. Don't take it personally when they try to spoil a gift or kindness. I know it's a tall order but you will be healing a deep and very painful wound from their childhood. Which is really, in my opinion, what marriage is all about. And that's a two-way street, so when you heal your wave's painful childhood issues they will do the same in return. And once wounds are healed you will see a lot less of this behavior, so it pays dividends forward.
Tend to respond with a negative a lot of the time. So if you propose a vacation to the beach they are likely to tell you the five reasons that's a bad idea. Don't bite. Just let them know that you know that they tend to find "what's wrong with the picture" before being willing to see what might be right. Tell them you are going to overlook their first response and give them another chance. If your partner is good with humor, you can say something like "OK my beautiful nattering naybob of negativity, now that you have gotten all the no's out of your system, can we revisit the idea?". Then flash them a loving smile. When used with love and kindness humor can be a great way to re-boot an activated wave.
May get really preoccupied with being "too much" or "too needy". Remember that wave-ish folks had childhoods where people alternately showered them with attention and told them they were too much and rebuffed them. So they are naturally afraid of overwhelming people. Paradoxically this leads to a lot of anxiety, which can make them more emotional, more clingy and more negative. Which has the unintended consequence of making their parter get exasperated with them! Be on the lookout for your wave-ish partner feeling judged as too needy or overwhelmig. A wave-ish partner may misinterpret signals like you looking away during a conversation or sighing when they tell you something they need. Be careful to let your wave-ish person know they are NOT too much for you and that you have no intention of leaving them. Help them feel safe and secure and you will find their wave-ishness will actually diminish!
May have trouble ending an argument or letting it go afterwards. Wave-ish folks have trouble with endings, even arguments! They may keep it going because closing up something feels in a way like loss. They may also hold on to hurts from the past to act as a bulkhead against being vulnerable towards you in the future, which they fear will be rewarded with more hurt! Help your wave let go in an argument by reminding them that while there may be a part of them that tends to hang on, their body and mind deserve relief. Hold them tight at the end of a rough conversation and reassure them that if they let go they are not going to be setting themselves up for additional injury.
May not look out well for their partner in social situations. If you go to a party or event your wave-ish partner may wander off to socialize and "drop" you. This is because their parents dropped them (emotionally) as kids. Don't take this personally and remind them before you go out to social events that you would like for them to keep track of you and circle back at predetermined intervals to keep you feeling connected.
Waves are not any more difficult than islands. And like islands they do not do these things "on purpose" or with the intent of making their partner crazy. Learn to love your wave and help them to manage their emotional reactivity. They will greatly appreciate your help in containing some of their intensity and you will feel calmer knowing you are not about to be plowed under by a tsnumami!
Wishing you happiness and health,
Contrary to what many of us thought growing up expressing anger is not the same as yelling, breaking things or slamming doors. In fact if the person you are interacting with is doing things that trigger your fight or flight system (make you sweat, shake, want to retreat, raise your blood pressure and/or heart beat, etc.) then you are not witnessing someone's anger, you are in the presence of abuse. Yep, that's right! And the normal human response to being abused is to want to hurt the other person back. So we yell, stomp our feet, throw things or say mean hurtful stuff. Now WE are being abusive as well.
I think this is a very important distinction to make. Anger is actually NOT a damaging emotion. Abuse is damaging treatment. I repeat, anger and abuse are NOT the same. I can sit down calmly and tell you that I am angry because you borrowed my car and ran it out of gas. If you feel embarrassed, guilty, sad or contrite but NOT fearful, nervous, threatened or like you need to yell at me then I have NOT been abusive. I have just been angry. Anger is an indication that our boundaries have been violated. I don't like it when people do not show appropriate respect for my things and so if you use my car and don't put gas in it I am going to be angry. But that's OK. My conveying that I am upset shows you that you have crossed a boundary and so you will try not to do that in the future.
Many of us who grew up in dysfunctional homes confuse anger and abuse. We think that if someone is red-faced, yelling, shaking mad, throwing things or hurling awful accusations at us they are "angry". I would argue it is much more useful to see this as abuse. That way both people can see how unhelpful and inappropriate this behavior is. Abuse never leads to anything good. Anger, when expressed without turning in to abuse, should ALWAYS lead to something good. It is a communication about what you need to feel respected, cared for and even loved. It is essential for you to communicate this so that you are taking care of yourself and protecting the bond you have with that person. It is important for them to hear this message clearly and take corrective action. That is the purpose of anger. The purpose of abuse is to discharge physical energy and to hurt the other person. That is not anger. The expression of anger is about trying to identify and solve a problem. Venting, which many people mistake for the expression of anger, is about hurting the other person in an effort to make yourself feel better without any regard for the other.
In thinking about positive expressions of anger that are clearly not abuse think about the sit-ins of the civil rights movement in the US. There was plenty of anger on the parts of the protestors who saw the racial oppression and abuses going on. However the play-book of those sit-ins was literally that "not a hair on the head of a white man would be disturbed". The protestors wanted to convey their anger appropriately and NOT allow it to turn into abuse, which would have spurred an abusive reaction on the part of the authorities. Abuse begets abuse. Anger, if expressed appropriately and without abuse, should beget positive results and heightened mutual understanding.
Anger can teach us things about ourselves and reveal things about our partners or other loved ones. If the anger seems out of proportion to the event (you bring my car back with no gas and I calmly tell you we can no longer be friends) then there is likely some "unfinished business" being triggered from the past. In this example perhaps I had parents who used my property, resources or accomplishments for their own selfish purposes and I felt used and mistreated. I am, therefore, naturally sensitive to feeling that others don't care how they treat me and are going to take advantage of me. So my anger in this situation, if I can see that it is out of proportion, will direct me to look at areas of my past where maybe I have some unresolved wounds. That in turn provides an opportunity for healing.
Understanding the purpose of anger can help us to not suppress or deny it. Understanding the difference between anger and abuse can help us learn to express anger in an appropriate way that can lead to increased knowledge, understanding and harmony for ourselves and in our relationships.
If you find yourself confused about or uncomfortable with anger I encourage you to think about tackling that problem. Anger turned inward/suppressed can lead to depression, loss of motivation, difficulties in achievement, addictions, poor self-care and even self-attack or self-abuse. Anger expressed as abuse can lead to shame, loss of relationships and/or jobs and even legal problems. Therapy can be an excellent tool for learning more about anger and how to comfortably express as well as witness it, as can the 12-step group Adult Children Anonymous (which focuses on people from any type of dysfunctional childhood) or books such as The Dance of Anger. Regular exercise and/or mindfulness mediation can help stabilize the nervous system so that when you feel angry you are better able to prevent it from veering into abuse. Classes on anger management can help you learn the physiological signs of anger and how to manage the feeling when it arises and stay grounded when you see it in others. There are many options for working on this problem and I hope you consider trying some of them.
Wishing you health and happiness,
While no one gets married with the expectation of divorce, many studies suggest that about half of us will end up that way. So what will become of those folks? Many will re-marry or chose to be in committed partnerships of one sort or another. Is that wise? Will that work? Are they naive? I certainly hope not. As an attachment-based therapist I truly believe that it is in our DNA to form deep and abiding bonds with others. I think we simply cannot avoid the drive to do so. And romantic bonds, for many of us, fulfills that need. So I expect that even though a person may have been through one or even two divorces they may at some point want to "try, try again".
Sadly research does tell us that they may have a tough row to hoe. I think it's important to look at the data and try to learn what we can about how to help folks who are attempting to build another significant relationship after perhaps not being so successful the first time. Studies show us that divorce amongst first marriages are 40-50%. Women most often leave and there has been a trend for the past 20 years for less divorce amongst higher socio-economic households compared to lower ones. Divorce amongst second marriages rises to somewhere between 60-67% and in third marriages is a depressing 70-73%.
What can be made of these statistics? The increase in divorce rates as we move from one relationship to another is thought by many researchers to be due in large part to children. In first marriages the children are usually a product of that union. Therefore they can exert a stabilizing influence in the couple as both parents try to "stay together for the kids". Extended family may also exert this influence, giving messages that they want the family to stay together. In second and third unions children and extended families exert completely different effects. Children in these households are often not the product of the marriage. They are instead part of a blended-family, one in which parents may have stronger ties to their own children than to the children they inherit with the marriage. This can lead to skewed alliances in which each partner chooses their own children over their spouse. Additionally there may be less felt pressure to keep this union together for the sake of the children since the children are not of that union. And finally there are now often ex-spouses involved, along with their families of origin, who can be most unwelcoming to the new partner.
So what can be done about these grim statistics? I have a few recommendations based on my years of working with couples.
Wishing you health and happiness in your connections to others,
Have you ever wondered how a text stands up to a phone call? Or a phone call to an in-person meeting? What about emails? How have all of these modern developments affected our human relationships?
There is new research coming out now that these forms of electronic communication are NOT equivalent to the old-fashioned face-to-face talking/interacting. Which makes sense when you consider that the human brain would have a lot of trouble evolving at a pace to keep up with the latest iPhone app or emoticon. Our brains were wired for in-person interactions in which we can use data from the visual stream, and vocal tone, volume and pitch. We intuitively know what a frown means even when no words accompany it, and we also know that even if said with a smile certain words uttered in a snarly tone mean a fight is brewing. These kinds of nuances cannot be parsed out by the human brain when the message is communicated via text or email and may only be partially correctly decoded in a phone-call or audio message. Furthermore not only is it likely that the message can be mis-interpreted but our poor brains also can't derive the type of support that they need from these relationship proxies.
In one study done with girls who were put into a stressful situation it was shown that being able to either talk to a comforting person (their moms) over the phone or meeting up with this person after the stressor reduced physical signs of stress (levels of cortisol) compared to texting, which did nothing for stress. Additionally being able to talk on the phone or in person with the support-person caused a release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps us bond and mitigates the effects of stress. Again this effect was not seen with texting.
In another study done on adults over 50 researchers found that the probability of having depression increased as the frequency of in-person contact with other people decreased. Meaning that the less real-live contact that these people had with other humans increased the likelihood that they would suffer depression. Humans need other humans and we need to be with each other in ways that are not purely viritual.
So keep those you love close-- close enough to see, touch and hear without the interloping of wires and circuitry. And reach out to them frequently for contact and connection. Save the less personal forms of communication for business and less significant relationships if you want to be happy and healthy. At least until Mother Nature comes out with thehumanbrain2.0. But I'm not holding my breath.
Yours in health,
In an age where half of all marriages end in divorce it's no wonder that many of us are confused about what it takes to stay together and be happy. Many of us who are currently married were raised in homes where our own parents divorced. We may have actually never seen a functional or happy marriage "up close and personal".
One of the unconscious byproducts of being raised in a dysfunctional family, whether that dysfunction is divorce, addiction or other dynamics, is the idea that one must look out for oneself. This idea of not relying on anyone else and not trusting another person to truly "have our back" can subtly infiltrate an otherwise happy union. This dynamic can be viewed as "pro-self" versus "pro-relationship" behaviors.
A "pro-self" behavior behavior is essentially what it sounds like. At it's core, it's designed to serve oneself and protect one's own self-interest. We make these all of the time, and when they are not made in the context of a committed relationship, or when they are infrequent, they are not necessarily destructive. For example, choosing to work out an hour before work may be a great choice for you. It can allow you to take care of your body with exercise and reduce stress. But if going to the gym before work means that you leave your partner to manage the task of getting your four kids off to school, and you know from previous conversations that s/he feels very stressed and overwhelmed by this and has asked for your help, then this "pro-self" choice is now working against the health and happiness of your committed relationship.
"Pro-relationship" choices are also just like they sound. These are the choices we make that are best for the relationship. Deciding to go to the gym on your lunch hour because your partner needs help in the morning, is a "pro-relationship" choice. It may mean that you get a shorter work-out, or on some days, it may even mean not going to the gym at all. This may feel unfair, and of course we can't expect ourselves to be happy about it in the moment. But in the long run it is what is needed in order to make the relationship successful. Likewise, your partner needs to also be making more "pro-relationship" choices as opposed to "pro-self" choices. In that same couple one spouse may need to give up watching his/her favorite TV show at night in order to spend time with his/her spouse, who feels lonely because their partner tunes out with the TV instead of talking to him/her.
No one can make pro-relationship choices all of the time. We are human and as such we are prone to intermittent moments of selfishness, or egocentrism, or just plan forgetting to consider the other. We will, of course, sometimes make pro-self choices. But the more pro-relationship choices we can make, and feel good about making, the more healthy our relationship is going to be.
I can hear some of you thinking "wow, this is really naive!" What if your partner doesn't reciprocate? Well, that would need to change. This system (and a healthy, long-lasting and happy relationship) will only work if BOTH partners adhere to this rule. Both partners must be committed to making more pro-relationship choices than pro-self choices. If you and your current partner find this difficult then you may come from backgrounds in which your own parents did not prioritize their relationship above their own needs. You may have had a father who hid out in the garage all night working on projects while your mom felt lonely. Or you may have had a mom who bought things and hid the purchases from your father because she knew he would not approve. In these instances the parent is taking care of themselves over the relationship. If this is your history you may feel that making pro-relationship choices is naive or just plan stupid. You may feel that if you don't look out for yourself no one will, including your partner. If these feelings come up you may want to explore them in therapy with your partner. Through couples therapy you can learn what keeps you from making more pro-relationship choices and work to change those patterns. Just as we learned maladaptive patterns in childhood we can learn more healthy patterns as adults.
Pro-self versus pro-relationship behaviors is just one aspect of keeping a relationship healthy and happy. Stay tuned for more suggestions on how to evaluate your relationship patterns and improve on them.
Wishing you well in your connection to others,
David Richo's book How To Be An Adult In Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving is a very worthwhile read. The main hypothesis for this book is based on what he calls “The Five A’s”. These are:
· being Allowed the freedom to live “in accordance with our deepest needs and wishes”
According to Richo these are the basic ingredients needed to grow healthy self-esteem. I agree that these are all very valuable things and that without them we are likely not to feel loved or cared for. And I absolutely believe that humans have an innate need to feel connected to others, preferably in a way that feels loving and positive. Although if that is not available we will make due with connection through negativity rather than none at all.
According to Richo, we come into the world needing the 5 A's from our parents. And, he argues, in adulthood we need these same “5 A’s” from our romantic partners. More profoundly he states that these are also the things we seek to have in our spiritual practice/relationship with our higher power. He feels that through a spiritual practice one can cultivate the 5 A’s in a way that brings these essential elements into our lives through a spiritual plane.
Whether or not you are spiritual I do think these 5 A’s are worth thinking about. According to Richo, “our work is not to renounce our childhood needs but to take them into account, work on them, and enlist our partner to help us do this, if s/he is willing…to unite with a partner who can join us in our work.” I wholeheartedly agree with this. These deep, basic childhood needs never go away. We crave our lover’s attention, their acceptance, their appreciation and their affection. And we thrive when they allow us to “live in accordance with our deepest needs and wishes.” A partner who can help us heal any wounding in these areas is a most precious and prized gift. They deserve our deepest loyalty, respect, care and cherishing. Treating them in this way is also a natural outflowing of having these childhood needs nourished. This is true, mature and lasting love.
According to Richo there are also 5 “mindsets” that tend to interfere with providing the Five A’s to our partners. These are:
Richo believes that these mindsets interfere with our authentic experience of the present moment. He states that “Each is a minimization that imposes our personal dramas upon reality and makes fair witnessing impossible.” Or in other words, these are states of mind that will keep you from being able to see your partner clearly and convey a sense of understanding to them such that they feel truly connected to you. They become the interference in the radio signal such that a beautiful melody sounds like a cacophony of static and notes.
As you have probably already surmised, Richo’s book covers a lot of ground. He explains how the Five A’s manifest differently in relationships with introverts versus extroverts. He talks about how to handle complex emotions like fear, grief and anger. He has an excellent chapter on whether or not committed partnerships are actually “for you”. He contrasts romance and addiction. He gives numerous suggestions on how to work through un-grieved losses and become one's own parent. All this in little more than 250 pages!
In addition to all of these topics we might expect given the title of his book, Richo touches on a very bizarre phenomenon common to human relationships. He notes that if we have some wounding or deficits in these 5 A’s we are likely to be very sensitive to that area in our romantic relationships. That makes sense. But where things get tricky is when we seek to re-enact the deficits, wounds and deprivations of our childhood with our current partners. You may be familiar with the idea that a child of an alcoholic is likely to (unconsciously) marry an alcoholic (or someone otherwise addicted—sex, drugs, work, food, etc.). From the outside this seems “crazy”. Why would you set yourself up for this type of familiar pain? Richo states that we unconsciously try to revive our earliest unmet needs in an effort to see if our partner can help us heal them. So if I was emotionally abused as a child I may gravitate towards that dynamic in my adult relationships in an attempt to “revive my earliest unmet needs”. In some way I am hoping that my partner can save me from the dynamic that I have co-created with him/her. Or, as a former supervisor of mine used to say, “we either marry our parents or we marry someone who is not like our parents but we unconsciously coach them to act like our parents. Or we marry someone who is not like our parents and stubbornly resists being coached to act like them, so we project our parents onto them, believing they are like our parents despite evidence to the contrary.” While this is not a very flattering portrayal of human nature, I have to say that in 20 years as a therapist I have seen this pattern played out numerous times in astoundingly creative ways.
Ultimately we want to be healed. We often don’t really know the ways we have been hurt, having grown in in the only environment we knew. As the expression goes, the fish does not notice the water. But as an adult we can take stock and look back to evaluate “what was missing?” Which of these 5 A’s do we need to work on in our adult life? And how can we do that? Richo would seem to answer that we can do that through a spiritual practice as well as our love relationships. Being a psychotherapist I try not to advise on spiritual matters! But I can absolutely endorse the idea that not only can your primary relationship heal these wounds but you will TRY to set things up to work them out whether you realize it or not. I would argue it behooves all of us to figure out our wounds and/or areas of neglect so that we can look for how we are re-creating them in our current romantic partnerships.
All in all I think that Richo has some great wisdom in his book. I would encourage anyone interested in creating more healthy patterns in their love lives to take a look at it. While it is clear that he is devoted to mindfulness as a discipline and drinks deeply from that well, his ideas are useful even if you don’t ascribe to the eastern-philosophy threads that run throughout.
As always wishing you health and happiness in your connection to others--
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
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