ULTIMATUMS DON’T WORK–DO THIS INSTEAD

You’ll know you are doing it right if you get a smile!

As a general rule, we don’t like uncertainties–they challenge our sense of security. But uncertainties are a part of life, so the more we try to avoid them, the less prepared we are for when they inevitably show up. In the martial arts, practice is done with the hope that the skills will never have to be used; it is the knowledge that you have the skills and are prepared to use them that help you to face the world and its various threats with confidence instead of fear.

What this means regarding relationships is that it is more effective to concentrate on our response to people than to focus on changing them–the former is within your power while the latter is not. And if you have the skills for responding well to others, then you might just see any potential threat as less of one.

One of these skills is knowing what to do instead of giving ultimatums, because ultimatums never work! At least they never do if you want to get closer to the person you are giving them to–in fact they result in the opposite of closeness. Yet I notice that people love giving them, and they still expect them to work. Why is this? Why do we love ultimatums? And if they don’t work, what should we do instead?

WHAT IS AN ULTIMATUM, REALLY? Let’s look at what an ultimatum is. I define ultimatums using what I have learned and read combined with my experience, and what it comes down to is this: an ultimatum is a demand for behavioral change. If you have been reading my posts regularly or are a client of mine, you will remember that demands never work! They don’t work because they are forcing someone to do something against their will–so while you might get compliance in the short term, you will get rebellion and resentment in the long term.

Examples of ultimatums are:

  1. Don’t EVER do that again!
  2. You better stop doing that!
  3. I will leave you if you do that to me again!

If you have ever said anything similar to the above examples, or heard them from your partner, it can be an indication of a lack of differentiation, or a lack of self-defining in the relationship, according to Dr. Ellyn Bader, co-founder of The Couples Institute. While this sounds serious, it is fairly common in that our needs as individuals are often not attended to during key developmental stages. Many times clients will not even be able to tell me what they want! When this happens, how can we even access our needs to communicate them? This often causes ultimatums to become the default response when we feel distressed in our relationship.

WHY DON’T THEY WORK? Ultimatums are a shortcut to getting what you need, without actually asking for what you need. This is why they don’t work–the receiver doesn’t know what you really want, they just know what behavior you want them to stop without knowing why. This information alone is rarely enough motivation to change our behavior. The best motivation to change behavior is having an empathic connection to the person who is upset–an emotional understanding of what gets triggered in them when you behave that way or say those words.

It isn’t the behavior that is necessarily wrong, in fact most of the time it is not done with bad intentions, it is just what the person is doing. The problem happens when their partner feels triggered by that behavior–but this is only a problem if neither partner knows what to do in this situation. The natural reaction is to protect oneself–but that results in disconnection. What works is counter-intuitive, but it results in connection, understanding, and closeness.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: If ultimatums don’t work, what does? It is important to remember that we cannot actually change anyone, but we can influence them! So talking about how you feel followed by what you need works because it has the best chance of influencing the listener by engaging their empathy for your distress.

Let’s use the previous three examples and change them from ultimatums to empathy-generating statements:

  1. Don’t EVER do that again! becomes: When you do that, I no longer feel safe in this relationship and that makes me feel sad and also angry at you.
  2. You better stop doing that! becomes: I cannot live with this behavior because of how triggered I get. Will you please to stop doing that? (This example includes a request–a tool that also works when in conflict)
  3. I will leave you if you do that to me again! becomes: If this happens again, I will have to re-think being in this relationship because it is makes me feel badly about both you and me.

The third example shows what a boundary looks like. A boundary is different than an ultimatum in that a boundary is about you, whereas an ultimatum is about the other. Letting someone know what you can and cannot live with is important information for them to know (and for you to know as well!). A boundary draws a line and then lets the chips fall where they may–leaving the other the willful choice to adjust their behavior or not–this is also information you need to know in order to make decisions about the relationship!

So what works instead of ultimatums is to:

  • Notice what feeling or threat the others’ behavior is triggering in us
  • Letting the other know this information without being critical of their behavior
  • Making a request for them to stop the threatening behavior after clarifying why it feels threatening.

***
The reason we give ultimatums is often because we don’t trust that others care enough for us to adjust their behavior. This distrust can be rooted in past betrayals and abandonments, but it surfaces in our current relationships, even when the triggering behavior is the opposite of betrayal or abandonment! This is why it is critical to know your trigger points–these can be identified and explored in individual work. With this knowledge, you have a better chance to regulate yourself down when you get triggered and communicate what you need–recognizing that what you are feeling is more about you than about what the other is doing.

The takeaways on this topic can be summarized in the statements below. Feel free to put them on an index card or in your phone to refer to when needed:

  1. Our partners do not cause feelings in us, they can only trigger them.
  2. We cannot change our partners, but we can influence them.
  3. It is always better to respond than it is to react. (Response requires both the right AND left brains, while reactions come primarily from the right brain.)

In my practice I help couples practice these new skills, because they are the opposite of what we want to do and have learned to do. Many good relationships are ended unnecessarily because the partners don’t have these skills to use during conflict. If you have trouble implementing them yourself, a trained couples therapist can help you out.

WHEN IS ANGER OKAY?

We turn away to protect ourselves

It’s not a surprise that many of the couples I see in my practice come in angry with each other. I am always glad they they came in, because anger, if not properly expressed, can ruin a relationship. My job is to reach the feelings underneath the anger, and help each partner be vulnerable enough to share these with the other, giving them an opportunity to respond in a way that connects them.

This is not easy. However, it is the best way I know to avoid ending a relationship that does not need to end–a relationship that may have several wonderful things going for it!

Let’s face it–we all get angry at times. Anger is not the enemy, but the reality I see is that few people actually feel genuine anger and express it at the time they are feeling it. Instead, they find themselves acting out of aggression or rage, both of which are behaviors and not feelings, according to Anita Avedian, LMFT, author of Anger Management Essentials. These behaviors are also, unfortunately, destructive and sometimes deadly.

So what do we do? Well, the first step is recognizing what anger is, and what it isn’t, and looking at which you are doing in your relationship(s). The next step is learning and practicing expressing healthy anger, while acting to stop aggression and rage before they ever get going. This can take weeks of work, but I am happy to share the basics with you in this article. So when is anger okay?

THIS IS NOT ANGER: Anger is an emotion that is not valued properly. Healthy anger is basically about letting someone know that something is not right, because you are feeling upset with them. For the receiver, this is good to know! But what often happens is that we equate anger with aggression, which is not a feeling at all, as I mentioned above, but instead a behavior.

Avedian writes that aggression is “an abusive was of behaving verbally, emotionally or physically”. Sound familiar? I see this in the world and in relationships everyday. The reason this is not anger is because anger’s intention is to let someone know important information about your boundaries and triggers. Aggression, however, has no intention of letting anyone know anything–the goal of aggression is to hurt the other person.

Rage is another behavior that can, according to Avedian, result even in death. “Rage”, she writes, “is a response to a threat to pride, status, or dignity.” Its intention is to “control or silence the other”. When you read about a murder/suicide, it is most likely the result of rage. Both aggression and rage occur because we are too often discouraged from feeling anger, as though the feeling itself is the problem instead of what triggered it.

THIS IS ANGER: So how do we feel and express anger in way that is healthy to both us and the receiver? First of all, we have to even know that it is there–we need to be tuned in to our emotional world enough to know when we are feeling upset about something. Our bodies help us to do this. When I get upset, I notice my heart rate increasing, my face getting flushed, my attention sharpening. Noticing what happens in your body will help you to recognize anger before it turns into aggression or rage. As Avedian says, anger is “a signal, or alarm, that something is not right, that we don’t feel okay about what we’re observing.”

When you notice feeling upset about something that someone is doing, the best way to express this upset is to use an emotion tied to a person and an event. It might look like this: “I am hurt that you didn’t return my phone call for two days.” Why is this okay? Because there is no judgement in the statement about what the other person was thinking or doing–the statement just includes what happened (the call was not returned for two days). While this approach won’t guarantee that the receiver won’t get defensive, it has the best chance of being responded to in a caring way. That is healthy anger, and when expressed well it can lead to positive change.

***

We get angry at people we love–it is part of being human and in relationship. In my experience working with couples and individuals, I observe that most anger comes from feeling not understood, disrespected, or not cared about. Anger in these cases is a notice to the other that something is lacking, NOT a notice that they are necessarily doing anything wrong. Most couples never intend to hurt their partners, but sometimes we do. If the hurt is expressed in a healthy way, we can respond to it in a way that increases connection, safety, and trust. This is why anger is not a bad thing.

If you want to practice this in your relationships, use these tips:

  1. Start paying attention to the messages your body sends you when you get upset.
  2. Address the anger as soon as possible instead of letting it smolder.
  3. Talk about what you are feeling, not what you think the other is feeling.
  4. Turn any statement you have about the other into a question for them to answer.
  5. Show curiosity about their intentions instead of assuming that you know what they are.

If you are mindful to practice the above steps, you may see a shift in how you feel about both conflict and your loved ones. You will learn that at times, anger is okay!

HOW TO KEEP SEX GREAT

It starts before you get into bed.

I admit I may be “biting off more than I can chew” with a short article on this topic, but I feel that it needs to be addressed because it comes up so often in my practice. Everyone loves “great sex”, and everyone wants to have it (well, almost everyone)! Nothing wrong with that, but it is important to first explore what makes sex “great” for each individual–you may find out that it is different for others than it is for you!

Great sex is whatever YOU and your partner(s) want it to be. For some, that does not always equal “feeling good”–sometimes it equals “pain” (with consent, of course!)–but no matter how we experience pleasure, most want their sexual activity to bring them closer their partner, most want to feel cared about, most want to feel better about themselves as a result. Does this happen automatically? Not necessarily. Some effort is required to keep sex delivering the rewards we enjoy and desire.

Notice I said “effort” and not “work”. Few people like to think of “work” and “sex” in the same context, and yet for many that is exactly what it feels like more often than not. Some clients tell me that sex feels like a job to them. That is fine if you love your job, but if not, something needs to change! In this article I intend to give you some ideas of where to direct that change, so that you don’t end up where you started.

BE INTERESTED IN YOURSELF: What does it mean to be interested in yourself? Isn’t that being “self-involved”? Yes and no. There is a difference between grandiosity and curiosity when it comes to the self. Rather than thinking you know everything about yourself, I suggest being curious about yourself as a sexual being and a sexual body, because believe it or not, you change over time. What pleases you? What excites you? What scares you (just a little bit)? What turns you on now? What no longer turns you on?

One of the easiest ways to explore your sexuality is with self-pleasure. This in itself can inform many things just in the way we think about it–do we see it as harmless fun, a weakness, or a “sin”? Do we feel shameful or celebratory about it? Do we feel that it is something that should be “controlled” so that we don’t do it too often? Are there fantasies that we feel we should not be thinking about when self-pleasuring? Are there parts of your body that you don’t like to explore for pleasure?

It can be very useful to take some time discovering your own body and mind, allowing yourself to freely notice what feels good, without judging it. When we know our own bodies, we can approach sex with more confidence, guiding our lovers to things that please us. Additionally, getting interested in your own pleasure can inform how you please others, since we all have biological similarities.

Who are you now? What makes you feel vulnerable/powerful/sexy/loving? Do you like to laugh during sex or cry? Do you want to be looked at, or do the looking? What are your fantasies? Is sex a release or an exercise in control for you? We are always changing throughout our lives–being curious about who you are now can reflect in others being interested in you as well. If you feel you are genuinely interesting (meaning: interested), that is how you will likely be seen.

Speaking of which…

BE INTERESTED IN YOUR PARTNER: Sex today has become, sadly, like commodity trading. We look for what we want, and offer what we are willing to give. If there is a match, a good time can be had, in that our needs get met, but what is missing? Discovery and connection.

Treating sex as a trade-off isn’t bad, per say, but it diminishes it somewhat from what it can be, which is a way to connect, build trust, transform, and express love. There is no way we “should” have sex, but why diminish it unnecessarily? I see this happening mostly because some people are afraid of closeness and vulnerability–it is too risky. I get that, but if you are reading this article, then I suspect that is not you, or if it is you, that you want to change.

So if you want to connect with your partner(s), get interested in them. Sex is a great opportunity to get interested in them, but you don’t have to wait until the big moment. Our partners are sharing information with us all the time, and if we pay attention, we will learn a lot about what they like and don’t like. But showing interest means going further than just paying attention–it means asking questions–questions that come from your curiosity about how they are unique and different from you.

You like your neck to be kissed? Maybe they don’t! It helps to ask about that–but you don’t have to ask a yes or no question (Do you like your neck kissed?), you can instead ask open-ended questions: “Where do you like to be kissed?”, or “Do you like it when I touch you there?” Remember that questions, and answers, can be communicated nonverbally, and they can be presented both in and out of the bedroom. Who is your partner now? Finding out can be erotic for both of you.

In my work with couples, I often assign what is known as sensate focus exercises. These exercises allow a couple to take orgasm and penetration off the table to make room for exploration and discovery of each other’s bodies apart from the genitals. It can be a wonderful and fun way to get interested in not only what arouses your partner, but what arouses you to do to them! Ideally, getting interested in your partner is also going to give you information about yourself that you may not have been aware of.

MAKE SPACE: Sex takes time. The average sex act lasts anywhere from four to nine minutes, but even so there is time needed to get ready, make sure the kids are sleeping, shower, etc. Couples with small children have an especially challenging time fitting sex into their marriages/relationships, but I notice that even single folks struggle with scheduling free time.

In my practice, I tell couples that in a marriage with kids, the marriage “comes first”, but in a divorce, the children do. This does not mean that you leave the kids on the back porch while you do it in the bedroom, it just means that a healthy and satisfying marriage benefits the children–who often pick up on any anger and tension in the household and internalize it. Children also benefit from seeing appropriate and healthy expressions of physical affection between their parents. You don’t have to delay affectionate foreplay until you are behind closed doors!

Good sex does not take hours, but it does often require mutual intention and planning. Couples will tell me that they want sex to be “hot and spontaneous” like when they were dating, and I then ask them how long they spent “getting ready” for those dates? An hour? Were they not consciously or unconsciously getting ready for the possibility of sex? What made it feel exciting was the anticipation and the sense of risk–elements that Esther Perel has famously talked about as two of the key components in passionate sex. These made fade a bit as time together goes on, but they don’t have to disappear, and this is one way to make sure that you are not only making time for sex, but wanting to.

It is up to you to decide if making space for sex in your relationship or marriage is important, but if it is, being intentional about it is critical–just as you make time to eat, shower, or sleep. It might require that you lessen the time you spend on your devices by fifteen minutes, but when you weight the benefits, you might find it worth it, as NO device satisfies our need to connect and bond with another person quite like sex does. Scheduling sex can be sexy if you want it to be, especially when it results in you have more sex!

***

It used to be that sex was a leisure/pleasure activity, but in today’s fast world, it seems to be just another pressure-associated task to complete or avoid. You can bring it back to its roots with a little bit of mutual intention and effort, and perhaps some healthy boundary-setting with children in the house. It IS okay to close or lock the bedroom door (depending on the age of the children and if they need to be looked after) while you connect with your partner in sensual and erotic ways.

Just remember that in order to be interested in anything, you have to find it interesting! Our long-term partners are no exception. If you pay attention to each other and get curious, you may find that they are just as mysterious and exciting as when you first were dating them. The added bonus is that if you have spent time building trust and security, this can be a great place from which to take risks with each other. If you don’t have that secure base, couples therapy can help you build and strengthen it together.

Sex in long-term relationships can continue to be great in ways that are far more satisfying than consensual hookups, but you have a role if making it great. That is good news, as long as you are willing to get interested in each other and in yourself. So what are you waiting for?

WHEN YOU CAN’T TALK TO EACH OTHER

There are alternatives to the stalemate.

In many couples, during conflict there is one who wants to settle things right away and one who needs time to “cool down”. Who gets their way? Well, in my work it is never about “who wins”, but instead what is best for the relationship of two people. That often requires both sides giving up a bit of what they want for the good of the whole. Easier said that done when emotions, and defenses, are high.

Traditionally, women are the pursuers in relationships and men are the withdrawers. Women often want to talk about how they feel, men prefer to solve problems. The difficulty with this is that those are two different conversations with completely opposite sets of rules, so no wonder problems get swept under the rug until the next blowup. (Hint: There is no such things as reality when you are talking about feelings. We feel what we feel despite what is or is not going on in the outside world.)

In this article I will share an alternative to the stalemate, a way around the impasse that is actually more–it is an approach that can bring couples closer even when in conflict. Because let’s face it–there are times when you should NOT talk to each other! Let’s talk a look at what is behind one person needing to talk, and the other not wanting to…

WHAT IT MEANS WHEN ONE NEEDS TO TALK NOW: Generally when we talk it is because we have something we need to communicate to another. At times this need to communicate is more urgent, especially if we are communicating our response to a real or perceived threat. What is the purpose of communication under these circumstances? Mostly, when we need to talk urgently in response to a threat it is for the purpose of letting someone know that someone is not right. This is how we express healthy anger–we let someone know we are upset.

The problem is that most people don’t do this–what they do instead is attack the other or defend against them. Attack often includes criticism: a statement that includes a judgement and often a demand. This does work if your purpose is to push the other away or threaten them in return–but it does not work if we want them to care about why we are upset and respond to our concerns.

The latter requires that we refrain from attack and instead share our upsettalk about what is going on with us in the moment. Needing to talk right away signals that something is wrong to us and we need to let the other know what that is and how it makes us feel. But in order to do that successfully we have to trust that our vulnerability will be received with caring and curiosity–elements often in short supply even in loving relationships. We will explore what that looks like in the third section of this article, but let’s first examine when someone does not want to talk.

WHAT IT MEANS WHEN ONE DOES NOT WANT TO TALK UNTIL LATER: You might be with a partner who “shuts down” when there is conflict between you. I notice in my practice that in many relationships there is one who wants to talk immediately and one who wants to wait until they have a chance to “process” their feelings. Who is right?

Both are! Every individual has their own way of responding to conflict, and this usually includes not just forming a response but also how to protect ourselves if we feel attacked. For those who need to talk about it immediately, this is their way to feel safe–they have to resolve it right away! For them, waiting is often torture and more painful than the original conflict. It triggers feelings of unimportance and insecurity.

For those who want to wait before talking, the goal is the same–to feel safe, but they do this by creating some distance from the conflict and the attack. For them, the conflict itself is the most painful event, often because it triggers feeling out of control, judged, and criticized–another way of feeling in danger. Time and space give these partners a chance to regulate their agitation and form their response without feeling as though they have a knife at their throats.

As an example, I used to suffer from hypo-arousal during conflict, and the result was that my physical body literally shut down–I couldn’t talk and would feel like I was in a state of partial paralysis. Whoever I was with didn’t know how to respond to this because it appeared as though I had just decided to leave my body. They were right! To continue the conversation would have required me to remain in a disregulated state–and that was too dangerous for me. A greater understanding of this state made a huge difference in my responses.

It is important to understand that just because someone does not want to talk right away, this does not mean that they don’t care about you!

HOW TO MEET IN THE MIDDLE SO BOTH BENEFIT: There is no true meeting in the middle, but there is a place where you hold onto what is important to you while leaning into what is important to your partner. Whether it is in the middle or not is irrelevant, that it happens is more important, because this is an example of what the Gottmans call “leaning into the relationship“, and it results in connection, trust, and security.

Since most couples consist of a partner who wants to talk right away and a partner who wants to process first, how do you lean into each other during conflict? Well, as I said earlier, you may have to wait no matter how badly you want to talk, because if one of you is dis-regulated then talking will likely not go well. However, this does not mean that the one who wants to talk has to suffer and wait. Here are some steps of what to do:

  1. If either of you are disregulated (either hyper or hypo-aroused, left brain shut down) then wait–the experts suggest 20-30 minutes to allow for regulation.
  2. Even in a state of dis-regulation, we have the ability to be respectful and give our partner a time when we will be available to talk or listen. Don’t leave the other hanging! Let them know when you can talk: “It sounds like you really want to talk about what happened. Please give me 20 minutes and then we can check in about discussing it.” You are allowed to revise your timeline, but a timeline must be given as it is respectful and caring for the one who is waiting (and respectful to the relationship!).
  3. When you come together to talk, decide who will be the talker and who will be the listener so that you aren’t competing for roles. You can switch later, but it is important that whoever is talking be given the opportunity to fully express themself. (Hint: The talker is usually the one who was upset in the first place.)
  4. Don’t reality test! This is one sure way to derail a productive talk since in the “land of feelings” there is no reality. We feel what we feel, whether it is what the other feels or not, and if we don’t get the “details” correct, well, that is not as important as hearing about the feelings that go with what happened. You don’t have to agree with what the other feels, but you do have to accept it as their perceptual truth! If you are the listener, focus on what the other is feeling and less so on the accuracy of any details. It is never about the details, and always about what they feel.
  5. Agree ahead of time to act as a team. Make an agreement that you both will stop if things are getting “out of hand”, and make sure that the agreement includes talking about it at a later time when you are both calmer. If you act as a team, you will treat the problem as the problem rather than your partner as the problem! Additionally, as individuals, it is crucial to practice self-regulation so that we don’t make our partner responsible for what we are feeling.

The main take-away it that sometimes in order to resolve conflict, we need to acknowledge the differences between us and our partner. Forcing them to do it “our way” will only increase the disconnection and push-away. Remember, it is not about winning, it is about caring, and the greatest form of caring is interest in your partner. In conflict, that sometimes means accepting that they cannot talk right now. But they will. And evidence of that over time will reduce the urgency to talk before both are ready, and make the conversations you eventually have more connective!

HOW TO ALIGN GOALS

Seeing eye to eye can be tough at times!

Falling in love can be like a dream, in that we often feel as though we have found our “other half” or “lost self” because it seems as though we share every single goal with our new partner. I remember when I was in my twenties I would meet someone and not be able to imagine ever having a conflict because the pairing felt so well matched. Of course, in time conflict did occur, and when this happens it can feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under us!

I often tell the couples I work with that when things like this happen, it is only bad news if you don’t know what to do with it. In other words, conflict and differences do not have to be deal-breakers, they can in fact bring you closer together if you talk about them respectfully and with curiosity. The truth is that there is nobody who is exactly like us in every way–there are always going to be differences.

But what happens when goals aren’t aligned? Not sharing a like of action movies is very different from not sharing a like of children! What if one of you wants to move out of the city? Or change careers? How about when one person becomes religious or leaves the religion you shared when you got together? These issues are not just “preferences”, they are often linked to what is most important to us. How do you navigate these shifts in core values?

It can be challenging, but it is not impossible, and it all depends on knowing how to talk to one another. Guess what, we usually don’t know how. I often will work with couples for weeks or months to help them discuss divergent goals and values, but here are a few key points that can help you right out of the gate. 

BE CURIOUS RATHER THAN JUDGEMENTAL: Curiosity is your best friend in a relationship, especially when it comes to discussing differences! Our brain is wired to feel threatened by differences, so successful conversations require making conscious choices about how we listen to one another. If one of you wants to travel the world and the other prefers to focus on building a home together in one place, it helps to dig a little beneath the conflict. Curiosity pushes judgement aside because it goes beneath the surface difference to the shared humanity underneath. Willing compromises and solutions to problems are possible from a place of shared perspective and understanding.

We are meaning-assigning creatures, and in today’s world where our roles in society are increasingly up to us to decide, it can be difficult to build an identity or know where we stand in relation to others. Some people set goals as a way to ease that process, and it can work, but it can get messy when our identity and values are linked to what we do. Differences in goals can feel like a personal attack on what we value, but they rarely are–they are just differences that have yet to be explored and understood. 

How couples talk about this is critical, as it can divide them or connect them, depending on how they do it. What should they be curious about in these conversations? 

FIND COMMON AREAS AND OVERLAPS: Underneath every goal is a desire for a certain experience or feeling, and exploring these can help to reveal areas of commonality and overlap. This is important because commonality and overlap can connect you to one another and weaken the fear that your differences are deal-breakers. 

In my experience with couples, there is always commonality, because we are all human! Goals, no matter how different, tend to work toward similar meanings and feelings: feeling valued, purposeful, creative, stimulated, etc. If couples can see past the surface look of the goal, they will often discover shared meaning. (If they don’t, then that is also useful information to have as you make decisions about the future of the relationship!)

This is why constructive conversations about goals look for areas of overlap rather than areas of difference. In order to have these conversations, it helps to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and to hold the idea that they are with you, and not against you. The way we approach conversations if influenced by how we think about conversations!

WORK TOWARD COMPROMISE AND DECIDE WHAT YOU CAN GIVE UP: I want to address the concept of compromise briefly, as it comes up in so many discussions with couples. Most people have half the concept of compromise down: you give up something you want in order to get something. But there is another half that is necessary if you want the compromise to result in connection instead of resentment, and that is that the compromise must be willing.

A willing compromise does not mean that you have to agree with the other or even like the compromise, it just means that you do it willingly. This is the key to avoiding resentment and contempt down the line–and the good news is that it is not that hard to do because we do it all the time! Have you ever gone to work on a day when you wanted to stay in bed? If you have, you probably thought you were just “sucking it up”, but in fact you were making a willing compromise with your work. On the other hand, if you spent the day at work bitter and fuming, there is a good chance that you went to work unwillingly!

Willing compromises are a key ingredient to successful relationships and problem-solving. Without them a couple will tend to see the other as a competitor and a threat, resulting in disconnection and resentment.

REGULAR CHECK-INS: Finally, I want to mention the value of doing regular check-ins with your partner. I have trouble understanding why couples expect a relationship to move along smoothly without checking in with each other from time to time–can you imagine running a successful business that way? We regularly meet with our business partners, our doctors, even our friends to discuss “how things are going” and to review goals and progress, and yet when we think of doing this with our partner we are resistant because it can feel “unromantic”.

Romance and passion are often the end results of efforts made along the way–they are usually spontaneous only during the courtship phase. You can make your check-in into a ritual you both look forward to, and a way to practice healthy communication and mutual understanding. I usually recommend doing check-ins once a week, on the same day and at the same time if possible so that it becomes tradition, and they don’t have to last more than fifteen minutes. Here are some things to discuss during check-ins:

  1. Review progress on ongoing goals and projects.
  2. Review the upcoming week of each partner and ask if there is anything each needs to be aware of in the others week.
  3. Ask if the other needs support in any way during the upcoming week, and make a request for support if you need it.
  4. Talk about sex: what is working and what is not–any new ideas or questions–is everyone happy with the sexual relationship?
  5. Finally, find out if the other is bothered by anything recent and needs to talk about it, or let them know if you need to talk and be listened to. It is good to finish this off by sharing what you appreciate about each other or by commenting on something they did well or that made you feel loved.

Remember that check-ins are not about “being right” or arguing–they are a tool that can strengthen your relationship and connect you to each other. A small investment that can lead to a big reward!

***

I hope for the day when we are less threatened by one another’s differences and instead more curious about them. I also hope for the day when we recognize our many shared values–when it comes down to it most of us want the same thing: to feel loved and safe. How we get there may be by different roads, but by knowing how to talk about goals, we may find that our roads are more parellel than we thought. You don’t have to be on the same road to be moving in the same direction with your relationship!

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN TO GO?

They say that most couples remain in a relationship for six years after the problems start before breaking up or seeking therapy. I have had couples in my practice who have waited longer than that before coming in! When they do come in, part of my job is to assess if there is still an emotional connection–it is sad when there isn’t anymore–and I often need to share this observation with them (and then let them decide what to do). The absense of emotional connection does not mean they have to split–it just lets them know realistically where they are. No matter what they decide, I work to create movement–because the only sign of failure in couples therapy is when nothing changes.

Why do people stay together when they are not happy with each other? This is perhaps harder to understand than why couples break up–but don’t assume that this is because breaking up is easy. It rarely is. Other than a few clear-cut markers, it is difficult to know when to goStaying, on the other hand, can be due to multiple factors: biological, financial, environmental, even political. Marriages and relationships are not just about “being happy” for most people, though it does seem that “relationship happiness” is becoming more important than it was in the past.

So when do you know when to go? In this article I will address this by looking at the clear-cut reasons for leaving, the less than clear-cut reasons, and when the problems instead signal that the relationship would benefit from some work. Let’s get into it…

IT IS TIME TO GO:  Sometimes when it is clear-cut that we need to go, we still don’t. This is because the brain needs time accepting what it does not want to accept, especially when it is trying to accept unpleasant conclusions about our partner. There are a few situations that are definite red flags when assessing the chances for relationship improvement, because these situations rarely correct themselves. They include: alcohol or drug abuse and/or dependence (and yes, this includes chronic marijuana use); violent behavior toward one another; mental disorders; severe PTSD in an individual or shared trauma; or an ongoing sexual or emotional affair.

If any of these situations are happening, leaving the relationship certainly should be on the list of options. But even when it seems clearcut, the course of action can be complicated. Anyone could decide to live with any of the above issues, but accepting something and tolerating it are two different approaches. Often the most difficult aspect is when partners still love each other, despite the issues. Accepting that things may not ever change is not only letting go of our loved one, but also letting go of a part of ourselves. We lose a bit of our identity when we break up, whether we want to or not.

The bottom line: if any of the above issues are happening in your relationship, you will need help to sort it out.

IT MAY BE TIME TO GO, BUT MAYBE NOT:  A good reason for staying if any of the above issues show up is when the one with the behavior issue shows a desire to change, and then acts on it. Perhaps they join AA, or go into a treatment program. Perhaps they enter an anger management program, or start going to individual therapy. Perhaps they get prescribed medication by a doctor or psychiatrist that helps with mental issues, perhaps they finally end the affair. Perhaps they agree to begin couples therapy. Any of these actions are an indication that it does not need to end, but the change has to continue, and it has to stick, or the relationship is back to square one.

Other issues that can cause trouble but do not have to be deal breakers include: lack of sex or desire; performance anxiety; a one-time act of betrayal; breaking a promise; lack of agreement; changing values and changing goals. However, these issues can be difficult to discuss–these are conversations that could be aided by a skilled couples therapist. Dr. Walter Brakelmanns, my mentor at UCLA, once said that couples never get together by mistake, but they often break up by mistake. This is because difficult issues feel like dead ends–but they don’t have to be! They could be opportunities to become closer and build a stronger connection, while allowing you to appreciate how your partner is different than you and an individual in their own right. You may not have to go!

IT IS TIME TO DO THE WORK:  Most of the couples who come to see me in my practice complain of “communication issues”. What this means to me is that they don’t know how to talk to each other when they are upset. Well guess what–not many of us do! Conflict is one of the best things for relationships, because during conflict, vulnerabilities can be presented and responded to–if the couples knows how to do that. This is why, when a couples comes in complaining about communication as the main issue, it is time to do the work.

This work includes not only learning how to talk and listen differently, but also education about how the brain works when it senses a threat. Sometimes the couples work is helped along by individual therapy for each partner–as long as the individual therapist does not “villanize” the absent partner. It includes reinforcing what already works well, and increasing the amount of small things that you do for each other (strengthening the foundation). It means practicing the new skills that are learned, not just when there is conflict, but when you are both calm and able to explore upsets that have not been talked about.

***

The options explored above are less of a rigid template and more of a loose guide to help move couples in a direction that makes sense, given their circumstances. There is a lot of grey area between being madly in love and hating one another, and since a good relationship is hard to find and harder to build, why throw in the towel when you don’t need to? On the other hand, you have to know when it is time to go.

We all want to believe that love is enough to make things work, but it is not enough–it is just the start of the race. The fuel that keeps a relationship going is interest in each other and a level of caring that accepts that you are both individuals, together. They may not sing about this in the love songs, but they should, because if we prioritized these qualities above physical attraction and romance, chances are we would be staying more often than going!

IS LOVE A FEELING OR A CHOICE?

I recently read an opinion piece that explored what led to a more successful relationship: feeling love for, or choosing to love, a partner. This got me thinking about the two, and whether they were in fact different approaches at all. The debate is often based on data showing that arranged marriages, those in which the partners meet only briefly before commiting to a life together, tend to be just as happy as love-based marriages (suggesting that choosing to love someone works as well as feeling it “naturally”).

What is going on here? If we can be just as happy in an arranged marriage as a love-based one, then why go through all the trouble and expense of dating? If dating does not guarantee a better match than one set up by your parents, what is the point? I started thinking of all the time that could be saved! And yet there is not just one right way to start a relationship. The concern for me as a couples therapist is whether the approach my clients take to relationship is working for them.

Love is often misunderstood, and that can get us into trouble. It is like thinking that if you have courage, you have no fear–when courage is a response to fear, not the lack of it! If you take love as a stand-alone concept, you might be missing the point. Rather, think of love as the heading for a whole list of influences–love is a category, not an item. So when we ask if love is a feeling or a choice, the answer is…yes! Let’s look at why that is…

THE BIOLOGY OF FEELINGS: When we meet someone and feel a connection, we may think that it is “love at first sight”. Let me assure you that it never is love! What it is is the limbic system (a series of structures in the brain that release hormones and are involved in emotion and motivation) wanting desperately to bond with the other, and if it finds someone who it attunes to emotionally, physically, and intellectually, well, that need to bond can feel overpowering–like love. But it’s not. More likely it is your limbic system releasing dopamine and  norepinephrine, making you feel really great when you are with this new person!

This is why it is a good idea to hold off on starting a sexual relationship with someone new–giving the rational brain a chance to catch up with the limbic system. This is not a moral stand, but a practical one. The lymbic system does not evaluate whether a partner is a good match–it just wants what it wants. This is why feelings can mislead us into thinking that something is a good idea. Ideally we use both parts of the brain when making emotional decisions. If we take our time, we give our brains a chance to bond based on time spent with a person, resulting in the eventual release of oxytocin and vasopressin, the bonding hormones. Love, or care and concern for the other, begins to build. True love is not about us!

DO WE CHOOSE OUR FEELINGS? The short answer is: sometimes. Since the brain and the body are part of a system, they work interactively and they affect each other. Sometimes we have a feeling that causes us to think a certain way about what is happening, and sometimes we have a thought that result in a feeling. I suspect that in arranged marriages where love develops, it is a result of both processes happening.

I often tell couples that if you want to be in love with your partner, “act” like you are in love with them. This is a cognitive exercise that uses thought to trigger feeling.  Have you ever gone to a movie that you want very badly to love? Your thought about wanting to love it will influence how you feel about it, regardless of the merits of the film! You can’t completely separate the brain’s rational thought processes from its feelings center, so why not use it to your advantage? Go with the “feelings” initiated in the limbic system, and then use your rational brain to either support or suspend that process.

LOVE AS A CONSCIOUS CHOICE: It is time to do away with the harmful, foolish, and frankly crazy notion of “falling in love” as an actual state of being. Let’s replace it with a combination of both the great feelings that occur during attraction and a rational exploration, over time, of whether the other is responsible for his or her own stuff, and responsive to yours. This approach uses the best of both feeling and choice, and can lead to healthier results!

Choice is best done with an awareness of what the options are, and therapy can help to uncover these and make them conscious! I like to think that this type of work on the self helps one to respond to the world rather than react to it–leading to a more preferred experience and outcome. What could be wrong about that?

We all love falling in love because it feels great and makes our “regular” world extraordinary for a while. I am here to say that by inviting the rational mind into the process, that extraordinariness can be extended into something real and lasting: secure attachment with another and feeling cared for. Relationships are hard enough even when they are good, so why make them more difficult by relying only on your feelings? When you make love a choice, the odds are that you will feel even better about it in the long run!

WHAT, EXACTLY, IS CHEATING?

Of all the issues that bring couples into therapy, cheating seems to be in the top five. Despite the frequency with which it happens, it seems that relationships are not prepared to respond when it does. Contributing to this lack of preparedness is the widely held belief that “It could not happen to us.” What is going on here? Is this a case of simple denial that we have the tendency to stray, or is there an element of human sexuality and relationship that we don’t know enough about?

No one will argue that cheating destroys trust. Less subject to agreement is what exactly constitutes cheating. Defining it is not so simple, because to do so requires taking into account culture, generational trends, gender, value systems, and more. Cheating is not just the act of having sex with someone outside your relationship; the parameters change all the time, so the definition is fluid. But despite evolving mores and influences, there are consistent qualities running underneath all the definitions that can help us to make choices about what works for our relationships.

Let’s take a look at what those consistencies are, whether cheating can be prevented, and if a relationship can be repaired once cheating occurs. But first I want to explore why there is so much confusion around cheating, and how to lessen that.

DO YOU HAVE AGREEMENTS?  When a couple comes in to my office because of an infidelity, I always ask what their agreements are concerning sexual/emotional needs being met inside and outside the relationship. You know what I usually hear? They have none! If they do have an agreement, it is usually not of their making–instead it is the “implicit” rule of marriage/commitment that states that you will only have sex with your partner for the duration of your time together. In other words, instead of agreements, they have assumptions.

These assumptions would be just fine–if they worked. Sadly, they rarely do, or else everyone pretends that they do. Now there are couples who successfully remain sexually monogamous to each other, but often they are supported in this commitment by their religion or culture. This does not mean that they don’t struggle privately with the commitment, but often their private doubts are overruled and pushed aside by their public beliefs. But with so many younger couples moving away from their religion and culture, where is the support for their relationship commitments?

Support needs to come primarily from within the relationship in the form of agreements. Agreements can change over time (and will!), but I find them absolutely necessary and helpful in making sure that partners walk a parellel path together. What issues might they benefit from discussing in order to form agreements around sexual fidelity?

  • Whether sex outside the relationship is allowed (and what constitues “sex”)
  • If masturbation is okay at home, either with or without the partner
  • Flirting/Having crushes on others–is that okay?
  • The role of porn either alone or together
  • Online activity: chatting with others randomly vs. having a regular communication with someone
  • Needs that are not being met by the other, sexually and emotionally; needs that we want the other to meet
  • Frequency of sex together/making time for it/satisfaction levels
  • Fantasies, new interests and curiosities

As you can see, there a lots of things to talk about that often are never talked about until they cause trouble. Why wait until then? Now let’s look at what cheating actually is.

WHAT IS CHEATING?  If you ask the average person on the street what cheating is, they might answer that it is having sex with someone other than your partner. This is true if sex with others is not part of the agreements, but that does not mean that that is all there is to cheating. But since this is the most common betrayal, let’s explore what makes sex with others cheating? It depends on how you define it. I define cheating as any action of intentionally breaking the relationship agreements in a deceptive or secretive way.

The key words in this definition are: intentionally, deceptive, and secretive, and to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this article, they are the consistent qualities behind every act of cheating. This definition, you may notice, does not specify an action–so cheating could be sex with others, and it could also be chatting online or watching porn alone–it all depends on what the agreements specify. This is why having them in place is so important!

Intentionality holds so much weight because any actions that come from it are either for or against the relationship. The Gottmans like to say that we are always leaning in or leaning out of the relationship. Intentional actions that lean out of the relationship aren’t necessarily cheating, but cheating is always leaning out of the relationship. Similarly, deception and secrecy are actions that lean out, not in. If you have ever been with someone who deceived you, you will need no convincing of this!

Deception and secrecy, when they are intentional and meant to hide the fact that an agreement has been broken, are betrayals that are difficult to repair, but it can be done with the help of a skilled couples therapist.  Let’s explore what the repair might look like.

CAN IT BE REPAIRED?  Repair is not all I do for relationships where betrayal is present, rather it is just one approach. Often, repair is not possible, and the couple has to explore starting from scratch. This is work, but it can also be more invigorating than it sounds! Many times, relationships have long ceased to be “alive”, and starting fresh can literally feel as though you are in a new relationship. Whether you want to repair or restart, willingness on both sides is essential. If one partner is not at least willing, the process will be a bumpy road that leads to a dead end.

Regardless of whether the intention is to repair or restart the relationship, it is important to first address the “betrayal” itself, and the effect that it has had on the one who was betrayed. Couples therapy cannot progress until this is attended to, because the hurt feelings will sabotage the work. Apologies are not the answer here–what is needed is an empathic understanding of how the betrayed feels. This can be difficult and painful work, but without it the wound will fester and infect the entire relationship. An apology cannot be issued until there is full understanding by the betrayer of how the betrayal affected their partner. Any attempts to apologize before that will come up empty and only increase resentments.

Once this step is accomplished, the couple can talk to each other to understand how the problem appeared (a shared description), and how it worked to push them away from each other and into betrayal. These conversations are best done with the guidance of a skilled therapist so that defensiveness and criticism don’t derail attempts to understand each other. With perserverance and intent, a couple can emerge on the other side of cheating into a more respectful and loving version of relationship. Couples who stick with this work report having better marriages–more honest and caring, with less taking each other for granted.

CAN IT BE PREVENTED?  Ideally, cheating will never happen, but there are no guarantees in any relationship. Nevertheless, there are ways to prevent cheating for the most part, and the good news is that these actions are fun and will bring you closer together. What can you do to keep cheating out of your marriage?

  • Don’t just have sex–TALK about sex. Discuss satisfaction levels by focusing on what is working well and making requests for what might make it work better. Instead of telling your partner what you don’t like, guide them toward what you do like–help them to get to know your sexual body and your erotic self. Remember, anything goes behind closed doors–as long as there is shared consent.
  • Have discussions about what your agreements are, and check in to see how they are working. Be frank–let your partner know if you are bothered by anything from porn viewing to phone use–but talk about how it bothers you rather than criticizing or judging the person doing it. Ask questions if you need to understand what you don’t understand or are not familiar with. That leads us to the next tip…
  • Be curious! The moment you assume that you know everything about each other is the moment the relationship stalls–make space for new interests and fantasies to be introduced, and accept that your partner is going to change, just like you are. Replace judgement with curiousity and you will improve your marriage immediately.
  • Admit that you will each be attracted to others, and that you may even want to have sex with others. This does not mean that you have to act on these feelings, if your agreement is that you don’t but pretending that it won’t happen is a surefire way to “tempt the devil”, as they say! Just because you find another attractive does not mean that you no longer find your partner attractive–it just means that you are alive!
  • Don’t get bored with yourself. Cheating is often a quick fix for feeling dull, unattractive, and bored–if you don’t work to feel good about yourself, how do you expect your partner to feel good about you? This is not just about working out at the gym, but also about trying new things, exploring your interests, challenging yourself, making a game out of “routines”.
  • Be loving to each other every day. The Gottmans are known for emphasizing the importance of positive interactions, especially during conflict–they say they are essential to having a strong healthy relationship. Loving actions can be small or large, it doesn’t matter, but the key is that they come from love–you want your partner to feel cared for by you. It does not take much, but the payoff is tremendous. Loving actions and words pave your relationship road with trust and closeness so that you can have those challenging discussions more easily.
  • Be respectful! This last tip could be the headline for all the others, since respect ensures that you remain interested and don’t run the risk of “missing” one another. Respect will motivate you to cherish who your partner is, who they are becoming, and who they have been, and respect will have you cherish these same qualities in yourself. Respect will discourage you from judging how you are different, recognizing that “being right” is one way to lean out of the marriage. Loving another person is not easy–honor the one who chooses to love you, and you won’t need to cheat. What you will do instead is talk and listen to each other, and adjust your agreements to better suit who you currently are both together and individually. This is respect, and in my opinion it is more important to keeping a relationship together than love.

Remember that cheating is not just about sex–that it is a betrayal of shared agreements and an act of disrespect toward your partner and yourself. And it doesn’t “just happen”. If cheating happens, you can use it as a sign that something is not being attended to between you–or you can make the other the villian and give up. Cheating is not the ultimate betrayal, it is just one form of betrayal, and it could be seen as a symptom of a shared problem. This does not let the cheater off the hook, it just keeps them from being strung up on the hook for life–a mature marriage will process the hurt and betrayal, and work together to unearth the problematic shared dynamic.

It is sad to see an otherwise good relationship end because of one instance of infidelity. It is time to reconsider how we think about love, sex, and marraige, and I am not the only one saying this. Love is not enough to keep someone from cheating on you. Love is just one element in the complex mix that makes up a relationship.  By attending to all the elements, you stand a better chance of being in a living, secure partnership–one where the love is earned and cherished and not just based on fantasy. Trust me, the effort is worth it!

TRAVELING WITHIN YOUR RELATIONSHIP

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Europe visiting ancient sites and eating wonderful food. This trip was special, as I don’t usually travel outside of California, so I really got a chance to see and do things that I don’t normally do. Since it is summer, you might have had a similar experience with your own travel adventures lately–and you may have even chosen your destination with “doing something different” as the goal.

My trip got me thinking about travel, both without and within, and as a couples therapist I could not help but wonder how the idea of “travel” might apply to the work I do. Many couples go on vacation together, but I know just as many who purposely go on separate vacations without their partners (including myself)! This used to puzzle me–but I get it now–we need to nurture the individual. I also started to think more about how we can move around without actually going anywhere–traveling within the relationship. And I thought I would share my thoughts about this as we enjoy the summer vacation season.

What does it mean to travel within the relationship, and what is the purpose of doing so?

TRAVELING TO GET AWAY: Most people think of traveling as a chance to “get away” from our lives for a spell–away from work, home, and the daily routine. I like to think of it as a chance to get away from ourselves, at least as much as that is possible. Wanting to get away from oneself does not mean that we don’t like who we are–I am referring to it in the context of wanting a different experience of ourselves than the usual.

Is it okay to want a different experience of ourselves in our relationships? Of course it is! Part of my work is helping couples talk to each other about how they are developing independent of the other: changing, growing, and learning. This is often an uncomfortable conversation, as people are worried they will be judged or rejected by their partners if they change. I help with the understanding and acceptance of this, because if there is one thing we can all count on, it is that change is inevitable!

Traveling to get away within a relationship is not something to be afraid of, as long as it benefits both the individual and the relationship. For example, let’s say that one partner decides to take a dance class on their own in order to explore something that has always interested them. This example of “traveling away” can be great for a couple if the goal is to a) create some healthy distance in the relationship; b) get excited about yourself in a new way; and c) bring the excitement of a new experience back home. You might find that if you support your partner’s individual explorations, you will never get “bored” with who they are. Besides, spending time away from each other gives you space to miss and appreciate each other!

TRAVELING TO GET PERSPECTIVE: Esther Perel has written a lot about how healthy distance elevates passion and interest in relationships. I would like to add that it also gives perspective. Perspective is valuable because it can change how we feel. When couples spend too much time together or share every activity, it can result in staleness. Some couples can be together a lot and thrive, but that is usually because they are extremely well-differentiated, so they retain their one-ness despite living in the two-ness!

Getting a new perspective applies both to how we see our partners and how we see ourselves. There is an exercise for couples where one of them goes to a bar alone and interacts with others, and then the partner comes in later and watches the interactions from a distance before joining the “game”. For extra fun, I will have the joining partner compete with others for their partner’s attention! I will often hear that excitement levels were high, and the joining partner “forgot” how attractive their partner is until they saw others interacting with them. This experiment incorporates the concepts of “risk and the forbidden“, which are two of the key elements of passion. Of course, I am talking about taking a risk, not being reckless!

TRAVELING WITHIN: We can get bored with ourselves at times, too! Daily life can feel like a routine with little change, and many of the tasks we do we are only “half-conscious” for, because they don’t require our full attention. I like the “Zen” way of thinking that says if we can’t be see value in the process, how can we see value in the reward?

Traveling within a relationship is a way to “refresh” yourself, to bring new energy and attention to days that seems just like the ones that have come before. This “traveling” is often done internally–through meditation, journaling, quiet contemplation, therapy, time in nature–where we can be in communication with ourselves and our intentions. I teach partners how to help each other travel within by asking questions about their inner emotional world. Being curious about the other can stimulate curiosity about ourselves, leading to discoveries we were not previously aware of. In a way, we are constantly traveling within, we are just not aware of it!

***

At the end of my recent travels, I was ready to come home, and excited to get back into “my life” here. I don’t travel to “get away” from my life, so I always look forward to coming back, but I do enjoy having a new experience and a new perspective. I find that these experiences resonate within me long after the vacation is over.

I encourage you to try out some travel this summer, whether it is around the world, around the block, or within. You might find that it creates changes in small but wonderful ways. We all need a break, even from what and who we love! See what traveling within relationship can do for you–you really don’t have to go too far at all.

GET INTERESTED IN EACH OTHER!

What does it mean to be interested in someone? Well, it depends on who you are asking and when you are asking, but for this article I would like to focus on “interest” as it shows up in romantic relationships. While you might wonder why this topic needs to be addressed, I can assure you that interest, as we know it, is often not the type that builds safety and security between two (or more) people.

Remember falling in love? Remember how interested you were in the other person? How you found their every word and action utterly fascinating? If you have ever had that experience, then perhaps you also experienced the interest fading over time–perhaps you started to feel that the things you were most interested in at the beginning are now annoying!

What happened?

In order to understand what happened, it is best to understand what interest in another is, and what it is not.

WHAT IT IS NOT: That obsessive interest we have in another during the infatuation stage is not really interest in them, it is interest in how great we feel when we are with them. How could it be true interest in them? Many times, we know very little about the other during those first days and weeks. What we do know is that our bodies are charged and our focus intensified when we are with our new love–and that we don’t want it to end.

Another way of saying it is that during this time, we become re-interested in ourselves! New romance makes us feel attractive, desirable, smart, energized, and yes, interesting. Our time at the beginning is usually spent trying to maintain that way of feeling, and we reinforce it by showing curiosity about how the other is just like us. Rarely do we investigate our differences, and if they come up, our brains tend to “disregard” them as it has one goal in mind: to bond with the other.

WHAT IT IS: I want to state that there is nothing wrong with the process described above, as long as you know that this is what is going on! So what is interest then, and why is it essential to relationship health?

Interest is the highest form of caring, in my book. What does that mean? It means that the elements we usually associate with caring: love, sex, patience, compromise, etc., are actually frosting to the “Interest Cake”. In my work, interest is defined as being curious about who the other is and what goes on in their inner emotional world. In question form that would look like this: “Who are you?” “What are you feeling about what happened/what I did?”

Many people associate this type of interest with therapy, but I always say to my clients that the work I do is not a different language, just a way of talking that we don’t do with one another anymore, for some reason. Our culture over the years has become increasingly self-involved, resulting in less actual conversation and more reports being traded back and forth. People often come into therapy simply because they don’t feel cared for by others in their lives–a sad state indeed!

WHAT TO DO: The good news is that you can learn how to do this with people in your life, and they can learn to do it with you. The benefit of showing interest in the other is that it diffuses defensiveness and criticism, and creates connection rather than disconnection. Interest is the cornerstone of healthy conflict! What is healthy conflict? It is when someone is upset, expresses vulnerability by talking about what they are feeling about what happened, and then is responded to by the other with curiosity, interest, and caring. That creates empathetic connection, the base of a safe and secure relationship.

This can be hard to do. We have not been taught to have this level of interest in another, so this is why I teach couples to practice it in the room and at home. As I said, this is not doing therapy, it is showing interest and care (which, by the way, is what therapists do!). When practiced regularly, it can change the dynamic in your relationships, and also prevent the staleness that can happen in a long term coupling.

The truth is that we are always changing, both individually and relationally. Being curious about those changes in someone you care about can go a long way toward ensuring that your love continues to live and grow. All it takes is a little interest!