Relationship Therapy for Couples & Individuals

Tony Davis, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

THE QUESTION THAT COULD SAVE YOUR RELATIONSHIPS

Could just one question really save your relationships? It could, depending on the state of things. But the time to “save” your relationships is not when the ship has already sunk. The question I want to share with you is about saving them from sinking in the first place, which means that it works best when you are still above water.

Even so, this question is useful in nearly all circumstances, since it will give you just a moment to review what you are up to with your communication. Sometimes that “pause” can be the difference between making it or breaking it!

So let’s find out what I am talking about…

THE QUESTION: As a therapist who focuses on relationship issues, I notice that many clients want to know the “why” of another’s behavior. “Why did they do this? Why did they do that?” While these are understandable questions, I am always looking for whether a question will lead one on a journey of discovery or to a dead end. “Why” questions may get you a reason, but what do you do with that information? You might feel better knowing another’s intention IF they actually share it with you, but I notice that these answers rarely lead to greater understanding. Besides, questions starting with “why” can often come across as critical.

The questions I suggest is actually not about the other, it is about you! Without further ado, here it is:

“What is the purpose of what I am about to say or do?”

WHY THIS QUESTION WORKS: Remember how I mentioned the “pause” earlier? Well, this question requires a pause, because we have to think about the answer. When we are feeling upset, our left brain is often “off-line” and we are motivated by our feelings. This can backfire if we then say something meant to create distance rather than closeness.

When we ask what the purpose is, we trick our brains into bringing the left brain back online so that we can think of an answer! This alone can be enough to prevent us from saying something regrettable later on. Additionally, it causes us to review exactly what we are up to at the moment. If you truly want to hurt someone, then you will go ahead and unleash your fury. But if your want someone to know that you are hurting or upset, then you will express yourself differently and talk about what is going on with you.

HOW DOES THIS CHANGE WHAT WE SAY/DO?: Most people I know don’t want to push those they love away. But we do this if we feel that we won’t be responded to in a caring way. If getting a caring response is your goal, then clarifying that purpose will influence your actions. Instead of criticizing or withdrawing, you might say something like, “I am so angry at you right now, and I really want you to hear me out so that I don’t get angrier!”, or, “I would like to talk with you about something that is bugging me before it becomes a big issue.”

Statements like these have a better chance of being responded to positively than critical statements. If your purpose is to be heard, have someone understand you better, diffuse resentment or anger, re-connect, clarify a boundary, then you will be best served knowing that and acting/speaking accordingly. All it takes (with practice!), is taking a pause to ask yourself, “What is the purpose of what I am about to say or do?” This question focuses on your actions, not what the other is doing, and can change your communication from being distancing to being connective. It will also give you a good shot at getting what you really want from another. In other words, it works!

THE ESSENTIAL COMMUNICATION SKILLS!

It would not be an exaggeration to say that nearly every couple who comes to see me talks about wanting to “communicate better”. When I ask them what they mean by this, I often hear, “We want to stop fighting and understand each other better.” Okay!

Why is this so hard for people to do? If it were easy, they would not need to come see me! It is easy if you know what to do and what not to do, but unfortunately we are not taught these things. I suspect that this is because there is a myth that if someone loves you, they should know what you need and want. This can happen, but certainly not all the time! What do you do the rest of the time?

Here is a quick primer of how to increase the chances that when you need to communicate, it will be received and understood by the listener:

REDUCE OR ELIMINATE CRITICISM: The most important task in communicating more effectively is to eliminate criticism. Criticism only succeeds at pushing the other away from you, or inciting criticism back toward you. It NEVER works if your goal is to connect and build trust!

If you hope to reduce criticism, you have to learn to recognize it either in yourself or in the other. Walter Brakelmanns defines criticism as including a judgement and a demand. So if you say, “I am angry because you left the towels on the floor”, this is not a criticism! It is simply an emotion connected to a person and an event. In order to be a criticism if would have to include a judgement and a demand, for example: “I am angry at you for leaving the towels on the floor! You are a slob for doing this–knock it off!” The italicized part is the judgement and demand.

The best way to reduce this from happening is to notice when you are getting overly agitated, and stop engaging. Research has shown it takes about 30 minutes to regulate back to normal, so let your partner know that you are too upset and you want to revisit the issue in half an hour or more after you have calmed down. If you notice your partner getting upset, you can be the one to suggest a break.

DON’T BE DEFENSIVE. INSTEAD, DO THIS: There is a way to respond to criticism that is key to avoiding a fight, and it takes some practice because it goes against our natural urge to defend when attacked. Defensiveness, like criticism, does not work if you want to resolve anything. But there is an alternative to staying silent.

If you are criticized, try to find out what the other is feeling underneath the criticism. Remember that criticisms signal that someone is hurt or upset, and as a result they often want others to hurt as well. Not fun! Instead, get interested in what the hurt is about. The challenge with doing this is to put aside your own desire to attack back or defend. This takes practice!! I always suggest to my clients that they practice this around smaller issues and not wait until a big problem happens.

Using the previous example, it does not really matter if you left the towels on the floor (unless you are problem solving, but that is another article!), so practice “taking it on”, and then get curious. Instead of arguing that you didn’t leave the towels, you could say, “When I did this, what happened to you?” If you stick with finding out what the other is feeling inside, you will be surprised how quickly they stop talking about the towels.

REQUEST INSTEAD OF DEMAND: Our “go-to” when we are frustrated is to tell someone what to do. Problem is, it rarely works! Requests have a much better chance of being met with cooperation! I notice that people resort to demands because they have sat on a need for a while, and now that need bursts forth as an angry demand: “Stop doing that!” Since demands are a part of criticism, you can imagine the results.

Requests succeed because they “invite” the other to accommodate, or make a change. Lasting change only happens if one wants to change, not because they are told to. But remember that the nature of a request is that it may not be granted! If it is not, then you have a chance to either accept that, or talk further about how you feel.

The benefit of learning and practicing these three skills is that they can turn conflict into a constructive event, rather than a deconstructive one! ALL relationships have conflict, but it is how you have that conflict that determines whether you get closer or further from the one you are engaged with. In my practice I work with couples and individuals to help them master these skills, and stop what doesn’t work! Try these out for yourself and watch your communications skills grow!

WHY IS IT SO HARD TO SAY “HELLO”?

“You had me at hello.”

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? We come home and see our loved one, thinking that it will be a reprieve from the stress of our day. Why then do so many couples struggle with greeting one another? I have noticed that rather than feeling relieved, some feel the pressure of meeting needs or getting needs met. Many couples report feeling as though it is a “competition”.

Things are not as simple as the old days (see picture above), when men worked and wives stayed home. While not a fan of that template (it had its own problems!), I suspect that the rigid structure made it simpler to attend to each other at times, or at least simpler for men to get their needs met! Men brought home the bacon, and women fried it up in a pan. (Again, not a fan!)

Nowadays most households have both partners working, and often with opposing schedules, so who attends to whom? If both are bringing home the bacon, who does the frying? Does it have to be a tug-of-war? Is it possible to greet one another in a way that reconnects and refreshes rather than it feeling like a task? Yes it is! And it has to do more with your intention than your actions.

IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE A COMPETITION: I often hear how tired people are–the demands of work, family, and relationship can contribute to all three feeling like tasks, rather than the first serving the latter two. If you have a job where you are meeting needs for others all day long, it is reasonable to want your needs met when you get home! But is that what your partner is for? What about their needs, their tiredness? Does it have to be YOU vs. THEM?

If viewed as a competition, the choices made will serve the individual. There is nothing wrong with getting individual needs met, but many couples favor this and neglect the needs of the other and the relationship. Conflict can happen if one relies on the other for ALL their needs, seeing the relationship as a vehicle for getting some of the things that they could and should be providing for themselves! If both partners are doing this, it can cause a sense of competition to get what is wanted, with the relationship and connectedness suffering as a result.

Needing another is NOT co-dependence! We have evolved to prosper from healthy inter-dependence, which means that as I attend to you, I attend to myself. “Need competition” can only exist in relationship when a couple is disconnected, because in this state the main concern is protecting the self–there is no “relationship” to fight for. When you are connected, the relationship is as much a concern as individual needs, so attending to the other and the relationship means you both win!

WORDS CAN GET IN THE WAY: Granted, modern living can make it difficult to do this, especially if our individual needs have been neglected all day long. What can make this easier?

If you are in a relationship, how do you greet your partner(s) when you get home? Is it a kiss on the cheek and an inquiry into how their day was? Do you launch into your day, with the expectation that they will be interested and engaged in listening to you? Do the words you say often end up looking like a demand or a criticism? Are you interested in each other?

Words can get in the way of connecting meaningfully. I notice that the things many couples talk about are about everything except what would connect them: their boss, the traffic, the kids, the plans for tomorrow. All of that can wait until you actually spend some time finding out who the other is in this moment and what is going on with them, while letting them know the same about you. How is this done? Without words, sometimes! I regularly assign my couples clients the exercise of GAZING, a simple and effective way to connect to the other without talking. You simply spend a few minutes looking into their emotional world. (Click HERE for a link on how to do this exercise.)

If you want to use words, I suggest getting curious about the other who you are seeing “anew”. Some questions you could ask include: What did you find out about yourself today? What have you been waiting to share about your day? Did you talk to anyone interesting today? Where are you at right now? You can even use the time-worn “How are you?”, if you are willing to really hear their answer! Let your interest guide you as you consider what you really want to know about this person who you haven’t seen all day. Think about the effect it would have if you set aside the thought that there were exactly the same as when you last saw them.

ATTENDING TO SELF AND RELATIONSHIP: They say that how we think about reality defines our experience of reality. If you see your relationship as a place where all your needs must be met, then it is likely that you will spend a lot of time being resentful and disappointed. If, however, you see your relationship as an entity with needs of its own, apart from individual needs, then your approach will be relationship-serving as well as self-serving. The relationship will refresh you.

The result is to keep it feeling new, to stay away from the thought that there is nothing more to learn about your partner and nothing new to offer them. I see the greeting as a way to ask one another, “Who are you now?” If you ask this with genuine interest, you might be pleasantly surprised by the answer, and find yourself looking forward to reconnecting!

NOTE: Connection doesn’t always happen simultaneously. It helps to be curious about what the other needs before diving back into the relationship. How these needs are communicated is key, however. If you are one of those people who needs to “unwind” for 30 minutes before you listen to your partner, then let them know that, with the added information that you will be available in 30 minutes. Don’t leave them hanging! This is a way to take care of yourself AND take care of them!

 

STICKING TO YOUR RESOLUTIONS

When I work with couples, I will often hear about it if “nothing is changing” in their relationship. I then ask what have they been doing in between sessions–if they have been doing the tasks I suggest to support the work we do in the office. The couples who do these tasks see change, and see it faster! The relevance of this to the topic of “sticking to resolutions” is that change requires work. There is no other way to put it!

Articles are written about change every new year, and it can be hard to sift out what is helpful! If you are hoping to successfully change habits this year, then let’s at least admit to the fact that change is difficult. However it is possible when you accept what you are up against going into it, and are prepared with useful tools. This month’s article offers three key points to assist. Let’s take a look…

DECIDE WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU AND WHY: The first step of anything usually involves a plan. Having a plan does not mean excluding spontaneity–just that you go into the task with intention. Intention is formed out of what is important to you, and by knowing why that is important you have a chance of sustaining both the intention and the plan. 

Want to get in better shape? Great! If that is the “what”, then figure out what has been more important up to this point, and decide if you are okay with that continuing! You can want to eat donuts everyday andhave six pack abs, but you’d be better served decidingwhich one is more important to you because you can’t have both!

Eating donuts is certainly easier than getting a six pack (and tastier!), so this is where the why comes in. If you are going to change habits from an “easy” one to one that takes more work, I suggest that you know why you are doing that, and that your reason comes from inside, not outside. If you feel pressured by others to get in shape, it will be harder to stick to your goals than if you are motivated by wanting to feel good, or be alive to enjoy your grandchildren. WIthout a strong, personal why, resolutions weaken at the first sign of difficulty.The why is the carrot that will lead you to persevere.So what is important to you, and why?

PRACTICE CHANGE DAILY, AND “RELAPSE” IS OKAY: Most gyms report that members who sign up in January generally do not continue coming regularly after that month. In many cases, these new signups have never worked out at a gym before. Change is not something that we can just embrace on impulse–the status quo wants to maintain itself, even when uncomfortable! This is why I recommend practicing change daily, in both large and small ways. How are you going to commit to that gym membership is you can’t resist that donut? Small exercises in change can have a big impact on how we think and behave, and any rewards we experience as a result can serve to reinforce our efforts at bigger change.

Remember, though, that the status quo wants to maintain itself, so don’t be surprised if that donut wins out once in awhile! Relapse is going to happen, so why not think about it in a way that does not make you feel guilty or shameful? You might even work relapse into your plan–this is what people call “cheat days”. This goes back to the point in the opening paragraph about knowing what you are up against if you are hoping for success!

JOIN WITH OTHERS/ENLIST WITNESSES: One of the strongest tools to help maintain resolutions is support. When 12-step programs succeed with people, it is not because of any technique, but because of the community that holds members accountable and offers compassionate support. If your resolution is something that can be done with another, then try that as a way to hold each other accountable while having fun! It is a lot harder to hit the snooze button on the alarm if your buddy is arriving in five minutes to go running with you. 

This also ties into the final tip: enlisting witnesses. Before I took my licensing exam, I posted a Facebook message saying that it was “time to go pass a test!” Some friends said they would never do that, because what if they did not pass? But I did it to have others witness my goal. It did not feel like pressure to go into the exam this way, it felt powerful–I had made a declaration in front of the world, and I carried that intention and support into the exam room with me. By the way, I passed!

Witnesses do not need to be the whole world, even one trusted ally can prove effective. By enlisting witnesses, we are essentially closing down an “escape hatch” of anonymity regarding our resolution. It is a trick that has a positive effect on the mind by reinforcing our intention and sense of support. 

There you have it! Now go forth with resolve!

WHY VOLUNTEER: THE BENEFITS WE DON’T SEE

You know what I used to hear in the Navy? They would say that “NAVY” stands for “Never Again Volunteer Yourself”. Well, while that may be good advice in the military, I find that the opposite is true in civilian life.

Why I am writing about volunteering? For several years I have volunteered as a crew member in the AIDS LifeCycle ride, which travels every June from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise funds for AIDS health services in the two cities. So volunteering is on my mind!

Many people will ask me why I choose to spend my “vacation” time lugging bags and tents on and off the trucks, waking up at 4am, sleeping on a truck bed, and being away from the comforts of home. I tell them that I am no martyr–I do this because for two reasons: it helps change the world a little bit; and it helps change me a lot. The latter reason is what I want to talk about–so please keep reading.

Why Volunteer?
Every choice we make in our lives affects who we will be in the next moment. With consistent choices, those moments add up to become a “version” of us. For instance, if a person regularly chooses to “jump the line” instead of waiting their turn, they are most likely to become someone who lacks patience. For me, I have a strong vision of who I hope to be as I get older, and so the choices I make every day either move me closer or further from that vision.

If you think about it, volunteering is just another word for the idea of “community”, where all members contribute to the well-being of all. That is how humans survived for thousands of years before the advent of agriculture set us on a course of overriding self-interest. We call it volunteering today because it is not a “part” of our general agreement to live among others–but it should be! Let’s look at the benefits–volunteering can work on many levels:

  • If you want something, give it away: This may sound like a bumper sticker, but it really has to do with energy. Volunteering takes you out of yourself and into the world beyond your own difficulties. You will not feel so alone with your own stuff, and you may find your mood adjusted in a positive way so that you are in a mind-set to take on your challenges. Sometimes the most powerful tool against problems is a positive mind-set!
    Volunteering changes your focus: In our society, bad behavior is instantly broadcast on the internet for all to see and comment on. It can be hard to find the gold among all the rocks, but I notice that a focus on volunteering requires attention on positive resources. There is less time to pay attention to gossip and negative news. It is not about pretending that bad stuff isn’t happening, but about deciding what you are going to focus on: positive or negative action?
    It is a great way to be social: When you show up to a volunteer event, there are bound to be others there who don’t know anybody either. This is a great way to “be a part” of something without knowing many people at first. As you volunteer more, you will find yourself gravitating towards those who appeal to you, just like anywhere else, and you will find your social circle growing. Volunteering can lead to other social opportunities!

You can devote as much or as little time as you wish volunteering, and fortunately there are many worthy places to check out in Los Angeles. You may find, as I do, that the return is tenfold the investment!

WHAT IS “SMART THERAPY”?

Heart inside brain

WHAT IS “SMART THERAPY”?

It seems that people who seek out therapy are usually fairly intelligent. After all, it takes some mental effort to examine one’s life! I like to think of myself in this way as well, yet to this day I am regularly asked why I go to therapy (implying that I should be able to “figure it out” myself!) While that is often the case, there are instances when it is difficult to even know what is in the way of change! We can’t always “see” everything, because some of the obstacles in our lives put themselves in the way without even being noticed, and then continue to “hide” behind expectations, cultural trends, and family tradition. 

This dilemma fascinates me, and has led me to make it the  direction of my practice. How can we become “smarter” in our life and relationships? Read on…

The Brain
Intelligence is a double-edged sword, don’t you think? On one hand, it makes available a way of thinking that can include greater skills of critical thinking, reasoning, and insight. However, it can also lead to frustration when we have difficulty “thinking” our way out of a problem. Not all solutions in life are found in books!

Our brain does not always work in our favor. Because it has evolved over time from initially one to now three main parts, it can be thought of as a computer that uses both new AND old operating systems. What this means for us in the world is that our intuitive nature and our reason don’t always line up on the same side. For instance, we might find ourselves drawn to an ex who we know is not good for us, or we might be confused at why we stay at a job where we are treated badly. In my youth, I regularly beat myself up for choosing people and places that were not good for me! Often, I see clients who place the blame on themselves when this type of thing happens, as if they “should have known better”. Well what exactly does “knowing better” mean, and is that possible?

Smart Lives 
Shame and embarrassment tend to stop the process of reflection and insight cold. Who wants to think about change when the thinking about it makes one feel worse about themselves? In my work, I get curious about why we should know better–who would have told us the information? I notice that most people do the best they can with the limited and mostly misleading facts we are given regarding human nature, relationships, and the brain. If you are going to start making smarter decisions (intuition and reasoning line up), then you need to know what you are dealing with and how to interpret what your head is telling you. You need to know what you are doing that and whether or not that is getting you where you would like to go.

Smart Relationships 
Smart relationships come from smart choices! This means knowing what your intuition is telling you about someone (attach, attach!), and not putting meaning into that feeling that does not belong there (I’m in love!). It means paying attention to what your reasoning says (don’t get involved with an unavailable person!) and recognizing that that may go against the feeling of attraction. Smart choices come from considering all of that information, and then carefully weighing it out, over time, as you add more information to the mix. You do not need to make a decision right away, in fact, you can’t make a “smart” decision until you have more information! Along the way, you can “enjoy” the excitement of attraction while not letting that influence your decision about compatibility too heavily, too soon. Smart means recognizing that attraction is only one component of compatibility, and giving appropriate meaning to respective experiences with that person. Falling in lovemay be a romantic ideal, but it does not always lead to a smart relationship! If you are intent on running that race, I suggest you educate yourself about the sport!

Smart Therapy
My focus on Smart Therapy is a way for me to incorporate all my favorite approaches in the room: compassion for a client’s self-judgement; psycho-education and referrals for further exploration; and vigorous discussions that examine and deconstruct the stories that influence relationship decisions, with the opportunity to then choose smartly with awareness! Wouldn’t it be nice to find out that you can break painful patterns and increase the odds of reaching your goals? My focus is a way to help decrease the confusion, anger, frustration, and regret around your relationship choices. While no approach is a guarantee of a particular outcome, you can greatly increase your chances for having smarter relationships!

WHAT IS THERAPY AND WHAT IS IT NOT?

Therapist Furniture

All too often I hear from people that they don’t “need” to be in therapy because they already do yoga/exercise/journaling/meditation/etc., and these activities are “therapy” for them. While I support the positive impact of these activities in their life, I gently assert that while they may be therapeutic, they are not therapy. Why would I say this?

These days, I am pleased to notice that in Los Angeles we are, as a whole, taking better care of ourselves: eating healthy, exercising, moderate drinking, less smoking, keeping our weight down. I am in the camp that promotes these ideas and activities as contributing to a more peaceful and joyful life. As a psychotherapist, I am committed to not only the mental and emotional well-being of my clients, but also to overall well-being, and that is why I am happy to provide referrals regarding an interest in nutrition, exercise, yoga, community, and the like. I practice what I preach, striving to keep a balance on my own self-care, since I am well aware of the impact of general health on our mental and emotional states. I also engage in my own personal psychotherapy, for it provides me a service and experience that is not duplicated among any of the other self-care activities I engage in.

Then what is the difference between all these activities and therapy? I see psychotherapy as less an activity and more of a relationship. It is through the relationship between the therapist and the client that healing and change can occur. This relationship is specific and intentionally limited in scope; it differentiates itself from “friendship” by being less of a two-way street, and more centered on the client. Regardless of the modality of the therapy, the key to the work is in the empathy and compassion displayed by the therapist toward the client, and the client’s experience of being heard in a non-judging manner. I remember how one time I visited my therapist and I was sharing with her how disappointed I was at myself for being so angry that day. When I confessed my anger to loved ones in the world, I was usually met by either a story of their own (sometimes helpful) or an admonishment that I should know better (not helpful). But on this day my therapist said something to me that had never been said to me before. After I told her how angry I was and at how upset I was at myself, she replied, “How could you NOT be angry, given what happened to you?”

Nobody had ever said that to me before. Nobody. THAT was therapy.

Her question “made room” for my authentic feelings, whether they were appropriate or not. Before I could explore what was going on with me, I had to be able to see it without shame, and it was helpful to have her as a collaborative witness to my exploration, discovery, and ultimate decision of how to respond differently. I felt seen and heard in a way I had never felt seen and heard before. I felt that I was given permission to be angry, even if I DID know better! I felt like it was okay  for me to have this very human emotion, and that I had a right to be upset about some of the things that had happened to me. I had a right to be angry, sad, upset, and hurt. Within the therapeutic relationship, there was space for me to feel all of these things, fully. That is where healing occurs. This is not the only way to heal or change, but it is specific to psychotherapy. This is a different benefit than one gained from yoga, meditation, exercise, friendship, or dancing. Those are therapeutic, but they are not therapy.

When I initially speak with a client, it is important for me to understand what they are seeking, and what they hope to gain from that effort. It is important to find out if therapy, and specifically therapy with me, is going to be the right approach for them. This is why I like to clarify what therapy is, and what it is not. It is not friendship, it is not advice, it is not me telling someone what to do, and it is not coaching. It is a unique collaboration where change and healing can occur. It is a place where creativity and insight can bloom. It is a place where the unspeakable can be spoken, and where shame can be exposed and weakened. It is where caring comes from compassion rather than agenda, and where it is perfectly, perfectly okay for you to talk all about yourself! It is two sets of eyes when one set is unable to see clearly, it is two beating hearts when one is breaking. It is two minds working against the problem; it is two imaginations writing a new story.

That is what therapy is.

WHAT IS TRUST?

TRUST

TRUST is a word that comes up often in couples work.  In fact, it usually comes up the first time I speak to prospective clients on the phone.  Why is this such a loaded word? Well, perhaps that is because so much weight is put on trust in relationships.  But what is trust?  Everyone has their definition, but my favorite is that trust is a belief.  It is the belief that your partner is on your side, they have your back, they are going to be honest with you and hold the relationship as lovingly as you do.  But how do we arrive at this trust? And what validates it?  Why is it so often weakened?

Initially, it seems that trust is established by whatever first attracted one to another: physical attraction, shared interests, common friends, shared profession, shared experiences, etc.  Early on, we “decide” that we are safe in this person’s company, and we often come to that decision without having very much information at all.  We base our decision on a “feeling” about this person, and that feeling can be based on simple attraction but often includes one’s behavior and response-ability.  We “trust” that this person wants to be with us as much as we want to be with them, is attracted to us as much as we are to them.  We want to believe this, sometimes we need to believe this. But what happens after the initial infatuation has passed and we find ourselves with someone who may, in reality, have a little tarnish on their armor?  Conflict can set in. Vulnerability gets withdrawn, Lies can develop and the relationship “team” can split.

With gay couples, there is often the added factor of competition that can have an effect on two men or two women acting together as a team.  And with gay men, you cannot discount the continuing influence of a freer sexual environment and its effect on a couples’ desire to be monogamous.  If the couple is not monogamous, by choice, then trust has a whole new list of potential obstacles.

All of these factors, and more, must be taken into consideration in any work involving gay couples and trust.  On an encouraging note, I have found that gay couples are often more forgiving around trust violations than heterosexual couples, and they also better recognize the fluidity of sex, relationship, and love. With this in mind, I like to look for ways in which the couple is already successfully challenging cultural obstacles, and then we can explore if those same strategies could work with inter-personal struggles.  Trust is sometimes easier to re-establish with gay couples because the framework around it is looser–though this does not lessen its importance.

I like to approach trust from a teamwork perspective.  It can be thought of this way:  if two people are on a rowboat, they can either both row in the same direction, or they can row against each other.  Discussions around the issue of trust often result in two people rowing in the same direction again, recognizing that they both would like to arrive at the same destination.  Trust is the belief that this destination is in the best interests of both the relationship and the individuals involved in the relationship. Without it, you are worse off than if you had no paddle at all.  With it, you can often get anywhere you want to go.

THE LAW OF ATTRACTION: SOMETIMES IT’S CHEMISTRY

Chemistry of Love

There are some laws that require a closer evaluation from time to time, because laws in general are not irrefutable and often have to be adjusted. However, there is one law that we rarely examine, despite so many instances of misuse, and this would be the Law of Attraction. I often get the sense that this is a law that is frequently applied yet seldom understood, and as anyone can tell you, if you don’t read the signs before parking, you are asking for trouble!

I am not sure how you would define it for yourself, but I tend to split the law into two areas: physical attraction; and emotional compatibility. This makes it easier for me to point out where we “break the law” so often, and why we should not be surprised at ourselves when this happens. Everyone understands physical attraction because there are bodily sensations that usually go along with it: heart rate increases, skin flushes, stomach butterflies, etc.  And perhaps it is also easy to understand emotional compatibility for its benchmarks: shared values, common interests, mutual respect, attunement, feeling safe.  Where we get into trouble is when we lump the two areas together and allow a “Yes” vote in one area to influence or even override the voting procedure in the other.  For example, it is very easy to assume emotional compatibility because we find ourselves attracted physically to someone.  Some of it may just be wishful thinking, but it can really get us into trouble if we stop the evaluation process right there.

We all know people who drink Diet Coke, and then think that this action alone will help them lose weight without changing any of their other habits.  This is similar to the way most people approach finding a mate, thinking that physical attraction is enough to bring about a resulting “good” relationship. And yet we all know that in addition to drinking low calorie drinks, losing weight also requires healthy eating and exercise.  Comparatively, when looking for a partner, you don’t have to throw out physical attraction—instead just add to the process.  Maybe this is why it is referred to as “chemistry”, since it is a process of combined elements!

Like many people, I have made the “mistake” of deciding on someone’s compatibility without a more thorough evaluation period.  I suspect that the necessity of an “evaluation period” is one of the main reasons we lean more on physical attraction—it takes less time!  Determining emotional compatibility requires repeated exposure to the other to allow attunement to build, trust to develop, and vulnerability to rise.  All of these ingredients are important keys to compatibility, and though some might argue that something like “trust” is a decision, I would contribute that it is a decision we make based on supportive evidence.  We decide we can trust someone because we have a history of trusting experiences with them; we allow ourselves to be vulnerable because we have a history of feeling safe around them; and attunement builds through prolonged closeness and intimacy.  The common denominator in all of these?  Time.  This is quite different from physical attraction, which can often show itself in a matter of seconds—sometimes the actual person does not even need to be present!

To sum up, it helps to think of the whole process like a recipe.  There are certain ingredients that are required, and the others can be altered or replaced.  Unlike baking, which is often extremely precise, your dating recipe can change with the mood—add a little more fun activities here, a little less making out in the car there.  Throw in a dash of trying something new together, stir, and bake.  We all know what happens when we leave out key ingredients in our recipe—the result exposes shortcuts that were taken, and we are suddenly not so hungry anymore!  Resist taking shortcuts with the processes involved in determining emotional compatibility and you have a better chance of ending up with a result you can enjoy.  As everyone always says about a great dish: “It was worth all the time that went into it”!

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