THE VALUE OF REJECTION

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán

No! This is one word that most of us hate hearing (and sometimes have a hard time saying!). But why is that? What is threatening about being denied what we want, ask for, or need? And what makes it difficult to say “no” to others at times?

Clients often tell me they don’t like rejection, making me curious to know what they mean by “rejection”. A quick Google search defines rejection as the dismissing or refusing of a proposal, idea, etc. When put that way, it doesn’t sound so bad, does it? I don’t think this is the type of rejection that most people avoid, however, instead it is the type that feels like a dismissal of them, not just their proposal or idea.

I explored this with a client recently, where a rejection of physical affection from his spouse left him feeling like she found him disgusting and revolting. This was not the case, actually. In reality, he was feeling insecurities he had carried for a long time. They were triggered by her rejection. How does this happen? Should partners never reject requests from one another, and avoid being rejected by the same? Is it really better to live in a world of “yeses”? Can rejection have benefits for a relationship? Is there such as thing a “healthy rejection”?

THERE NEEDS TO BE ROOM FOR “NO”: Our culture has gone through enough shifts in the past several decades that one could get whiplash trying to keep up with the changes! We have gone from celebrating individuality to nesting relationships to insisting that all children have an equal experience in life to marginalizing kids who are gender non-conforming. What are we going for here? Well, it depends on who is in charge, or who is hoping to be in charge, it would seem.

Relationships are not immune from the cultural shifts, and this is why I work with couples to ensure they are making mindful, conscious choices about what does and does not work for the relationship. One of these key choices is whether or not there is room for “no”, or rejection, between them. Why is this important to decide?

It is important simply because rejection is an unavoidable part of life, whether you are single or with a partner. Even if you live alone in the woods, there are times when nature will tell you “NO!”. This is not a problem for those who have been raised securely with a sense of healthy interdependence, boundaries, and a focus on resilience. But for those who missed out on one or more of these elements, a no can feel like abandonment or parental rejection.

This is why parents are strongly encouraged to not give their children everything they ask for when they ask for it, in order to not protect them from all disappointment or sadness. This is not cruel, it is parenting, which is not just keeping your children alive, but also preparing them to be healthy adults.

ENCOURAGES HEALTHY BOUNDARIES: Why is there so much importance placed on boundaries? Are they good or bad for us? Our confusion over this can be seen not just in relationships, but also in our national immigration policies!  This is because what is good for one may not be good for another.

So what then is a healthy boundary? It is setting a limit or a line that benefits both the individual and the relationship, not just the person setting the boundary. Boundaries give us information about what someone can and cannot live with, so it is essential that partners are capable of accepting that some of their behaviors will be rejected by the other. 

Parents have the job of setting boundaries that protect their children and teach them that there are limits and agreements that go along with living with, and around, others. Not yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater is a sort of boundary that most of us accept without thinking too much about it, because we know that we all benefit from respecting this boundary.

A boundary is a form of rejection simply because it tells someone “no” regarding certain behavior or words. A healthy boundary is a respectful way to say “no”! We could not function very well in relationship without information about the other’s limits! Healthy boundaries protect and support the relationship, banning actions that could weaken a couples’ connection or trust. When used this way, rejection and acceptance go hand in hand to serve and strengthen relationships.

EXPOSES NEEDS THAT WON’T BE MET: Boundaries take care of the individual, but they can also serve to take care of the relationship, as I have discussed in other articles. They do this by identifying, and protecting, needs that are not necessarily going to be noticed or attended to.  Rejection is the process through which one lets another know what boundaries they cannot, or will not agree to.  Rejection can be seen as a boundary response to a boundary.

What your partner can and cannot agree to is vital information to know! While it can feel as though rejection is not loving, another way of looking at it is that, when done respectfully (discussed more below), it can be one of the most loving things we can do! This is because it encourages 1) practicing honesty with each other, and 2) trusting that your partner can hear and handle a “no” response.

Without any room for rejection, partners in a relationship will never really know what needs are not going to be met, because most likely these needs won’t even be expressed! Without that knowledge, how can we make decisions about whether we should get the needs met elsewhere?

I once read a useful approach to relationship needs, which said that we place too many of them on our partners, when many of these needs could be met either by ourselves or by an outside person. The book, The All Or Nothing Marriage, breaks relationship needs into three categories:

  • Needs we can only meet through our partner
  • Needs that we can meet through partner or other
  • Needs that we can meet through partner, other, or ourselves

It is healthy to diversify our needs, because this keeps the relationship from carrying all the weight, helps us to not be completely reliant and learn how to take care of ourselves, and also encourages outside engagements. Rejection, along with acceptance, are the tools we need to do this.

HOW TO DO IT WELL: Fortunately, there is a very easy way to express rejection. You simply have to do it respectfully. This means that rejection cannot be a judgement of the other person or their interests, merely a rejection of them. An example would be:

  • Wrong Way: “No, I don’t want to go to that movie with you–you have terrible taste in films!”
  • Better Way: “No thank you, I would rather not go because I am not really interested in seeing this film. Let me know if it is any good!”

A respectful rejection succeeds because it does not discourage others from making suggestions. A judgmental rejection will cause someone to think twice about making a request in order to avoid feeling badly about themselves. Respectful rejections are easier to give for those who have worked on having compassion, gratitude, humility, patience, and empathy, since these are elements that foster curiosity of others instead of fear.

Conversely, receiving rejection can take a bit more work to get better at. If you are triggered into feeling badly about yourself every time someone tells you “no”, it is important to work with a good therapist to look for any negative beliefs you may have. Any rejection, even a respectful one, can trigger a person’s negative belief about themselves, such as “I am not interesting”, or “Nobody likes me.” If these are not dealt with, you will do anything to avoid rejection, including becoming a people-pleaser. Your relationship will not thrive.

Ultimately, the ability to respectfully give and receive rejection is a matter of emotional maturity and development. A relationship that allows for acceptance and rejection will be more authentic and free of resentment and secrecy. Rejection is your way of simply saying “no”: setting a boundary around what you can or cannot accept. If you truly value honesty in your relationship, make sure you can say “no” to each other. You will come to see that rejection, rather than being an unpleasant thing, is really just the other side of acceptance–and that you can’t have one without the other!

WHAT CAN YOU COUNT ON?

It feels as though there is less and less we can count on these days, doesn’t it? I don’t know if that is true or not, but I do notice that everyone seems to be looking for solid ground anywhere they can find it (including me!). We look for it in our jobs, our families, our homes, our religion (or lack of), and our relationships. And yet sometimes it feels like no matter what we grab onto, our fingers soon slip off and we find ourselves untethered yet again.

The good news is that this is often only our perception–and it is certainly not the whole story. Perception pretty much makes up our realities, doesn’t it? A great deal of my work with clients is talking about what exactly “solid ground” is, and what it isn’t. And what we usually find out, together, is that not only is solid ground never perfectly solid, but that it doesn’t even have to be to hold us up. 

With that in mind, this article looks at three examples of solid ground–things you can count on, and how to access and utilize them to help you though the constant change and uncertainties that surround us. 

TRUST: I start with Trust because it comes up in nearly all the work I do as a psychotherapist. Everybody wants to feel it, but it seems slippery, elusive. It’s as if you can’t even trust trust! But I say that the problem with trust is not trust itself, but what people expect from it–they are often asking for something that trust cannot provide: guarantees

Trust cannot deliver guarantees because it is not based solely on facts--there are elements of belief and faith in it. Beliefs are decisions we make, about how to think and feel about things, that do not have to be based on fact. We often make them for the simple reason  that they help us feel safe and secure. Here are some examples of beliefs:

  • I believe that I will wake up tomorrow morning.
  • I believe that the Earth will keep turning.
  • I believe in Santa Claus, or God, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster

So why would I bring up trust as something that you can count on? Because you can count on it if it is applied in a way that honors it not as something based in truth, but instead based on an agreement

Stan Tatkin, who I often reference in my articles, offers a great example of how to best build and utilize trust in a relationship. He says that it while most of us trust that our partner(s) will put our own needs before theirs, this is a misuse of trust, because how can we believe that someone, even someone who loves us, would always set their needs aside to meet ours? While you can’t count on the other putting your needs first at all times, you can count on them always putting the relationship needs first.

This type of trust makes sense, because when someone puts relationship needs first, ideally they are also getting their needs met as an individual. (A relationship can thrive only if the individuals also thrive.)

For example, if a couple decide that the relationship needs them to be sexually exclusive with one another, that could benefit the individual by keeping them safe from outside emotional entanglements, surprise pregnancies, and even STDs. This example can also help each individual to become more curious about their own, and their partner’s, evolving erotic and sexual needs, leading to a varied and rich sexual experience rather than easy, familiar pleasure with an outside lover. 

To summarize, when all individuals in a relationship agree to put the relationship needs first, they are building a trust that they can count on because, when applied, it benefits everyone in the relationship.

I have used this approach with couples coming in about an infidelity. What they are doing to solve the problem usually does not work because it is one person trying to get the other to agree to something they are not invested in as an individual.  Trusting that your partner won’t cheat on you only works if that is an agreement you are both willing to commit to 100%, as Stan suggests. Otherwise one is relying on trust to do something they need to be doing for themselves: being a partner who is not cheated on!

YOURSELF: I am a big fan of Immanuel Kant and his philosophy of life. Mark Manson wrote a fun article about this philosophy that explains why it is important, but if you want my understanding of it, here is it:

Relying on something outside of yourself for moral guidance will let you down–the most reliable gauge you have is yourself. You consistently commit to, and act on, a moral code not because someone tells you how you should live your life, but because you have concluded for yourself that this is best way for you to live your life. 

That conclusion is based on what is important to you–your values, and that importance will keep you driving in your self-painted lane. Another way of putting it is that you figure out, through observation and trial and error, what works for you. And what works for you depends on where you are going, what direction you are headed, what you are up to in life. 

I bring this into this article because you always have yourself–even when outside supports fail you. If you foster your inner wisdom, your intuitive knowing, it will be a resource that you can count on no matter what happens

I bring this up with clients who come in struggling with unresolved resentments towards others. It is not always advisable to confront those who have hurt us in the past, but the good news is that we don’t need to confront them, we can heal within ourselves by applying compassion. Compassion will never let you down, unlike some of the people in our lives. 

In your relationship, you can apply this reliance on yourself in a way that benefits you as an individual, AND the relationship. When you do so, when you stay committed to you your values , and you don’t have to get the response you want from your partner in order to stay on your moral course. This can have a very powerful and positive effect on your life, your partner, and on the relationship!

SELF-REGULATION: What is best for you is not always best for your partner, and that is okay sometimes. This means that at times you will be upset with them and they won’t be able to soothe that upset. You will be well prepared for these inevitable disappointments if you have the ability to self-regulate

What is self-regulation? What it is not is being in a state of perfect calm when you find yourself in an upsetting position. As human beings, it is acceptable and appropriate to have feelings and get upset; self-regulation just means that you are able to feel your feelings and still talk about them. This requires that both your left (rational) brain and your right (feeling) brain remain online and available to you.

When we become dysregulated, we lose access to our left thinking brain and just react from our needs and feelings. This process serves to protect us, but in our relationship conflicts it usually is not helpful! We are in “fight or flight” and our number one priority is protecting ourselves. We see our partner as our enemy, not as a loved one, and disconnection from one another is imminent. 

Self-regulation is one of the core elements of emotional maturity, and requires that we have the ability to stop our brain from going into fight or flight. We might use our breath, we might take a “time-out” to go for a walk or get a glass of water, or any number of ways to get our left brain working for us again. You might work with a qualified trauma therapist to resolve past negative experiences. Working on your capacity to self-regulate will keep you from relying on your partner to do this for you.

When you know that you can take care of yourself when necessary, and that you can depend on yourself when you can’t depend on others, you may notice that it is easier to be in the world. This can lessen feelings of resentment toward a partner who is not currently available to comfort or soothe you, giving you a better chance of resolving conflict and reconnecting.

Self-regulation is a skill that can turn a reactive person into a response-able adult. And we can develop this skill on our own if we did not get it growing up, so the questions is: “How badly do you want to show up as a wise, functioning adult?”

(Read more about self-regulation: Three Tips to Regulate Your Emotions)

***

I hear all the time that “the world is getting scarier”. While that may be hard to verify factually, we do “feel what we feel”, and I notice that the current fears have to do with a sense of powerlessness and lack of control, among other things. 

Given that, it is easy to understand why we want something we can count on! It can be too easy to lean on empty structures or quick fixes simply because they look like they will support us, but for long-term emotional well being, it is essential that we find strategies that we can trust. 

The strategies I offer in this article are all based in you, which is what makes them more reliable and accessible than outside support systems. Outside support is great, but rather than having it be the primary support, let it be supplementary. That way, as long as you have you, you will never be without! And this approach will make you a better partner, friend, and family member, since you will be more likely to give, than take, in your relaitonships. 

All you are doing is giving yourself a gift that should have been given to you. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for it any longer! 

IS PORN OKAY?

We all have ways to “get through the day”, don’t we? But I notice that some coping behaviors are more acceptable in relationships than others. One that seems to cause problems on a regular basis is the use of pornography.

I chose to write about porn, finally, because the topic comes up almost universally at some point in couples work. Why is it such a divisive issue? Why is it often seen as a form of betrayal, or a sign that one’s attraction for their spouse has decreased or disappeared, when other individual interests don’t trigger these reactions?

Porn, like many things tied to human sexuality, can be misunderstood and simplified, but it is my opinion that the use of it represents a lot more than just “a way to get off”. Not that there is anything wrong with that! I just think that it is more likely that porn, like many coping mechanisms, is often a salve for unmet emotional needs by being an outlet for our fantasy lives.  The fantasy is just the vehicle, though, not the final destination. In other words, porn is a means, not an end in itself. 

This should be reassuring to those who see porn as a threat to their relationship’s sex life, since it suggests that porn is not actually a substitute for sex!

What needs, then, might porn be helping the viewer attend to? And why is sexual fantasy an effective way to do this? How can the threat of porn be dismantled in relationships and instead embraced and accepted as an individual or joint exercise toward relational satisfaction and individual development? How can we embrace porn viewing as a healthy means to an end? 

WHERE IT CAME FROM AND WHY: Sexual imagery has always existed, from the earliest time that humans were able to create drawings or write words. One definition of the word pornography suggests that it originally depicted, through words and drawings, the life of prostitutes. Since the many definitions are not consistent with one other, there is not just one story of its history. But most will agree that in order to be considered pornographic, the words and/or images have to be illegal or illicit, as opposed to any culturally accepted erotic material. This can get confusing, of course–as in the recent disagreement over whether the Statue of David is art or pornography. 

Some form of sexual imagery has been around forever, though the functions of such imagery have changed over time. It is for this reason that I want to focus on the purpose(s) it serves today, in modern sexuality and relationships, and what happens when it is the cause of conflict between relationship partners. 

GOOD OR BAD? RIGHT OR WRONG? IT DEPENDS: In my work with couples, I avoid using the words good, bad, right, or wrong. I do this so that I am not imposing any moral judgements on the actions of my clients. What I personally think about their actions is none of their business, unless they are a danger to themselves or another. But what they think about themselves is definitely my business, since this is often the internal conflict bringing them into my office!

In order to create a non-judgmental space where we can explore problematic behaviors and move towards understanding, compassion, and a plan for change, I focus simply on whether the behaviors are working or not working for the client. How do I do this? Well, I let them tell me! What I have found is that this determination depends on clients’ values: what is important to them and what gives their lives meaning.

There is a therapeutic saying that goes like this: “It’s not a problem unless it’s a problem.” If we apply this approach to porn, then the following question will come up when it is presented as a problem: Does your porn usage have a negative impact on your health, work, finances, or relationships? A “yes” answer in any of these areas of impact lets me know that, in that area or areas, porn is not working for them, and we have to take a deeper look. 

The bottom line is that in order to do my work, I have to set aside any moral judgement and find out what matters to the clients, and what is getting in the way of them moving towards that. But if you want my personal opinion, here it is. Porn is not bad or wrong, it is instead a way to feel connected–to our sexuality, to our aliveness, to our eroticism, to sex, to ourselves, to another. It is a way to connect to the moment when our head is spinning from the workday. It is a way to connect to a fantasy world where we are not old or sick or tired. It is a way to connect to our imagination. It is all these things, and more.

***

For clients who report that it does not work for them in their relationships, I have to first find out what meaning each partner assigns to it so I know what the real conflict is (porn as the vehicle, not the destination). For example, a user might be watching porn in order to connect to their own erotic life. This can happen after an illness or surgery, after giving birth, or during a period of grief or depression. They might also be using it to find out more about their sexuality or sex in general–we are often not even sure what turns us on! 

Next, I look for areas where the couple is actually fighting for the same thingshared values obscured by conflict. This is not as hard as it sounds. Who doesn’t want to feel any one of the connections I listed two paragraphs up? Where there is conflict about porn usage, the work is about helping the couple to talk about, and understand, differences,  so they don’t feel threatened by what is not familiar to them or not what they like. 

Finally, I help them to find a compromise that involves the relationship winning rather than one individual or the other. Any successful compromise will ask that each partner be willing to give up some of what they want so that they both win. This is why I have previously written about the importance of putting the relationship first–if you don’t, then you will fight to win rather than to connect. 

A compromise like this will increase closeness because it requires that couples talk to one another to increase mutual understanding of differences, which often reveals that they are not that different after all. Though porn may not be a familiar vehicle for some, some of the needs it meets are universal to all of us. A recognition of this commonality can turn fear, judgement, and resentment into compassion, understanding, and closeness. 

HOW TO NURTURE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH OR WITHOUT PORN: If porn is a way to feel alive, sexy, desirable, and vibrant, then it is good to know that it is not the only way! In a society where sex and self-pleasure are often associated with shame and guilt, it is my opinion that porn provides a safe way to avoid the finger-pointing of others–this is why it is usually viewed in private. Porn does not have to be a private enterprise–but the use of it is not usually celebrated publicly. It may be seen as a weakness, or a guilty secret. 

But if you don’t want to be shamed for something, it helps to not engage with it shamefully! This is why I encourage couples to bring the topics of sex, sexuality, sensuality, turn-ons, and turn-offs into their discussions together. One of the great benefits of creating a relationship together is that it is an opportunity to create your own personal culture, and if you grew up in a sex-shaming community, you don’t have to carry that legacy into your own home. The irony is that when couples are willing to talk to each other about their needs, it strengthens what many call “traditional family values”: commitment, fidelity, and trust! 

So whether you use porn or not, my recommendation is that you learn how to talk to your partner about your inner erotic world. Sharing porn preferences with one another is only one way to express turn-ons, but not the only way. A skilled couples and sex therapist can help you to navigate these conversations, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying to your partner: “I want to be able to talk to you about sex and desire, but I don’t know how and I feel shame even brining it up.”

Sometimes the best first step is admitting, and expressing, what is going on with you in the moment. Remember that sharing vulnerability invites shared vulnerability. This is how a relationship is nurtured. 

***

I am encouraged seeing the reduction of the stigma attached to porn, due primarily to its increased availability online–no longer do magazines have to be hidden under the bed and in closets! I have hope that this accessibility motivates couples to more openly discuss topics that used to be considered private. The reason for doing so is this gives our partners valuable information about the activities, fantasies, words, and thoughts that take us out of our heads and into our bodies and pleasure centers. While our private inner world will always be a place to enjoy oneself in acts of self-pleasure, there are valid and enticing reasons today for inviting a loved one inside to join you: heightened pleasure, trust, connection, and discovery. 

Ethically produced porn itself is neither good nor bad–it depends on the meaning assigned to it. If porn is a problem for you in your relationship, start by questioning the purpose it serves you or your partner, and asking if that purpose fulfills not only the user’s needs, but also the needs of the relationship. If the answer to the latter question is “yes”, then by all means, press “PLAY”! 

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

I was recently blown away while watching the limited HULU series Fleishman Is In Trouble. Beyond the terrific script and fantastic acting, the premise of the show appealed to me because it explored marriage. The marriages depicted in the series were not what one would call “good marriages”, though they had their positive points. They were instead quite problematic, not because the spouses were ill-matched, but because they lost track of their intention for getting married in the first place.

All of the main characters have a moment in the series where they ask themselves: “How did I get here?”, as though some unseen force has had control over the path their lives have taken. Truth is, that is how life can feel sometimes, right? We can easily be pulled into the busy-ness of our daily routines: working, raising a family, running a home; and marriages can suffer as they drop down our list of priorities.

The good news is that this is not how it has to go. But in order to avoid this outcome, each individual in a relationship has to take some action to make sure they are not going down an unintended road. In this article, I look at a few ways that can be useful in charting a course in your marriage or relationship so that you don’t one day find yourself asking, “How did I get here?”

MAKE A PLAN: If you have ever owned or run a business, it is hard to imagine doing so successfully without some sort of “mission statement”. A mission statement gives a company direction, so that they can regularly check if they are headed where they want to go–if they are up to what they want to be up to. There are many elements that can make up mission statements, but I want to focus on three that are key to not just businesses, but also interpersonal relationships: purpose, vision, and values.  

If all you did was discuss these three elements with your partner, you would still be ahead of many couples who get married only for the reason that they “are in love”. Being in love has an end date–it is designed that way because it’s purpose is to bond two people together–it is not sustainable as a long-term state of being. (For those of you who disagree with me and feel that you are still “in love” in your long-term relationship–great! I am speaking specifically about the “symbiosis” or early bonding stage.)

(For more on why the being in love stage cannot last, you can read THIS)

Shared purpose ensures that you have an intention for being together that will motivate you to put in effort; shared vision gives you a future to aspire to both as a couple and as individuals; and shared values keep you connected when struggling with differences that threaten the relationship. While these elements may not feel important in the early stages, that is precisely the time when they are essential to building a solid foundation between the two of you–a foundation that can withstand some shaking!

The Gottman Institute has a concept they call the Sound Relationship Housethat suggests that the “getting to know one another” stage is where couples lay the support for difficult times. But getting to know each other has to include understanding each other’s inner worlds more than their outer interests–because this information will let you know where their triggers and sensitivities lie. Without this knowledge, couples tend to react to one another in conflict rather than respond, causing disconnection, distrust, and resentments. So build your foundation!

CHECK IN AND ADJUST AS NEEDED: Continuing with our building metaphor, nobody questions homeowners who do regular maintenance in order to keep their house standing strong. Relationships can greatly benefit from similar levels of routine assessment–just check in! Walls in a home can “settle” over time, and in a relationship, the walls that hold it together can also settle or get weak. Agreements made ten years ago don’t necessarily apply to who you are today–successful relationships make adjustments over time to better accommodate the both individuals and the relationship.

But how can couples today, who have to check in on so many things, keep their relationships the top priority? The answer is simple: be mindful. Pay attention to yourself and to each other and you stand a chance of noticing when cracks in the walls appear. Mindfulness is not just for individual well-being, it also promotes relationship well-being by using attention, gratitude, and curiosity to maintain vitality in your shared life. Time goes slower, in a good way, when we are paying attention to what is happening in the moment.  Though we can’t do this 24/7, we can have the intention to return to the moment whenever we notice that we have left it. 

For couples who work with me, I like to offer practical and realistic ways to embrace these ideas so they can turn into action. A simple way to do this, though it may take discipline to put into rotation, is to have a regularly scheduled “state of the union” talk with each other where the phones are off and you are both showing up for each other, willingly and by agreement. What do you talk about in these check-ins? Here are some suggestions:

  • start with appreciations for the “little things” you may have noticed
  • talk about current “turn-ons” and “turn-offs”, not just sexually but also life in general
  • discuss any unresolved conflicts that need to be revisited
  • share your dreams with each other
  • make a plan regarding new and upcoming stressors so they don’t throw you off track
  • share new self-discoveries with each other, both those about yourself and those you have noticed about your partner
  • review agreements that are not working well and adjust if needed
  • end with appreciation for taking this time together

I guarantee that if you regularly have these talks in your relationship, which can be done in 15-20 minutes when you got it down, you will be less likely to find yourself one day asking the question: “How did we get here?”

USE “THE GAUGE”: When you are doing routine maintenance on your car, you may notice that it “runs smoothly”, and you don’t have to feel anxious every time you drive it. While car warning systems help us out when it comes to letting us know about problems, relationships don’t come with indicator lights that tell us something needs attention. So what can we use as a gauge to make sure that our relationships run smoothly?

Painful experiences don’t always mean that something is wrong, so we need a more accurate measure of relationship health than whether we are happy or sad. I have found one gauge that works every time, as long as it is co-created and maintained by both individuals, and that is your relationship vision.

Your relationship vision is the answer to the question: “Why are you together?” Couples who exist based only on the fact that were attracted to each other may find their foundation struggling to withstand the shaking of a conflict. A vision of your life together, your purpose for marrying (if you are married), is the “mission statement” that motivates couples to work through differences and hurt feelings. So when you find yourself “not feeling yourself” in your relationship, you can ask, “Am I still moving towards our vision?”

When you regularly check in with each other, amidst the busy-ness of life and family and work, imagine you are “checking the map” on your journey  to make sure you are headed in the direction you both want to go. It’s the couples who get caught up in other things at the cost of each other who may one day find themselves asking “How did we get here?”

***

A couple’s shared vision does not have to be grandiose or earth-shifting, in fact it works better if it is not, and is instead reachable, meaningful, and personal. Here are some examples of how elegant and simple a shared vision can be:

  • to raise a family
  • to make a home together
  • to become a part of a community (religious, cultural, etc.)
  • to build a stable, secure life
  • to share a creative journey

And my personal favorite:

  • to become the best versions of ourselves

People don’t end relationships because they fall out of love with one another, they end them because they don’t like who they have become–definitely not a better version of themselves! By using your shared vision as a gauge, you will  keep yourselves on track, even if that includes minor detours or side trips along the way (not every journey needs to be a straight line!).

The good news is that a shared vision can change over time, as a couple’s values change and grow. The vision is an extension of your values, which are an expression of what is most important to you–what matters.

I suggest that you do brief check-ins at least a couple times a month, and you can ask any or all of these questions:

  • How are we doing?
  • How are you doing?
  • How do we feel about our relationship?
  • Is there anything getting in our way right now?”

By committing to this act of mindfulness, you will be on the road to a life that nourishes you both and helps keep you going despite the occasional (and inevitable) potholes, so that one day you can look at each other and declare: “We know exactly how we got here!”

ROMANCE AFTER 10+ YEARS

I’m gonna just say it–romance is not just for young lovers and new relationships! Romance, like chocolate, is something that can be enjoyed throughout the entire adult lifespan, if one continues to get enjoyment from it. But I will also say this–it is harder to feel romance for someone you see everyday over a long period of time in, well, less than romantic situations. 

This is why it can be helpful to know that it is perfectly natural for romance, something that may have come easily and spontaneously in the beginning, to require a bit of effort in a long-term relationship. There is no shame in admitting this! I am amazed at how we can accept that many things in life will take some work to maintain, but when it comes to love, romance, and sex, we are misled into thinking that they will maintain themselves. If this is the case for your relationship, then great! But if you are like most of us, you could use a few tips on how to re-light the fire, whether it is for Valentine’s Day, an anniversary, or an occasional Date Night. 

ROMANCE IS NOT BASED ON PASSION: Couples regularly come to my therapy office seeking ways to feel the passion they had for one another when they first started dating. This is understandable, because those feelings are wonderful to feel! The start of a relationship can make us feel alive, sexy, cared about, wanted, and interesting–all good things. The only problem with this stage is that it usually only lasts for 6-12 months. After that, things can start to become a bit “calmer” as we begin to navigate the intricacies of relationship development. 

The biology around this, in a nutshell, is that the early stage of excitement between two people, what we often call “passion”, is actually a process of “bonding”, where our brains release chemicals that encourage us to focus on one individual over a period of time in order to build safety and trust. You can imagine how this would be useful for the process of creating a family, which is what our biology wants us to do, but for the average person on a date, the immediate goal is often just sex. 

(If you want to geek out on the science of love, attachment, and bonding, you can read more HERE.)

Romance, on the other hand, is not based in biology, it is based in the cultural history of courtship and how we view self-fulfillment, but is continues to strongly influence our desire for a sexual partner. The trick is to separate the wheat from the chaff, as they used to say, or, in other words, knowing what is helpful and what is not. 

When I say that romance is not based on passion, I am making a distinction between how we are biologically wired to behave regarding sex and how we learn to think about it. Recognizing this difference allows partners who want more romance in their relationship to “hack the system” more effectively, using both their biology (hormones), and their perspective of each other (thinking). 

ROMANCE MAY OR MAY NOT LEAD TO SEX: Centuries ago, romance didn’t lead to sex, necessarily–it was more of a tool for increasing social status! In the 1900’s, it didn’t necessarily lead to sex either, at least not until after marriage! As societal stigma toward pre-marital sex weakened in the last half of that century, it seems that people would use romance to get sex; when I was growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, romance was associated just as much with sex as it was with marriage.

What I notice today is that romance is nearly dead as a pathway toward sex. Today, sex is often simply the result of either a transactional agreement between partners (what can you do for me?), or the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Not very sexy, if you ask me. But many younger people don’t share my view–they see this approach as liberating–sex is given and taken freely(ideally) and with mutual consent, with pleasure as the one goal so nobody gets hurt. No muss, no fuss!

So why do couples, both new and long-term, place so much weight on the role of romance in relationship and sex when holidays like Valentine’s Day or an anniversary come around? My hunch is that these couples are wanting to feel something in their relationships that they think is missing and important to feelromance! But romance is just the packaging, the feelings underneath are excitement and anticipation–that sense that you are important and have something to look forward to. 

If you agree with my perspective, then there is good news! Romance, rather than being an essential element of passion and attraction, is instead a label as well as a byproduct of couples who actively choose to be more present and curious with each other! As a label, you can place it on any feeling or activity you choose–romance sets a story into motion that can bring couples closer. And when couples intentionally show curiosity towards one another in a mindful way, romance is generated from the connection they feel.

What these couples do with romance is completely up to them! They can utilize it to have passionate sex together, or a cuddle-fest under a blanket in front of the fireplace, and everything in-between. Romance, when authentically created from your interest in who your partner is in the moment, is something that does not need to be forced or staged–it doesn’t require a setting or an expensive dinner. It just requires that you and your partner show up for each other. That, not romance, is what leads to loving sensual, loving sex–if you want it!

ALL THE BENEFITS, NONE OF THE DOWNFALLS! Many of us think back to the beginnings of relationships with wistful fondness, wishing we could feel that excitement yet again with our partner. But you know what else we often felt along with that excitement? Anxiety, fear, doubt, insecurity, impatience, and frustration. Yes, the beginning of a relationship can be a heady time, full of romance and sexual energy and hope, but the headiness is just not sustainable because of the elevated state it requires one’s body and mind to be in. 

That elevated state does serve a purpose in that it encourages bonding, which is an important stage in relationship building, but it is only the first stage. It eventually shifts into something calmer, more secure (hopefully). But this does not mean that you have to give up romance, especially if you both value it and the role it plays in your dynamic . It just means you may have to put a bit of effort into feeling it.

This is good news. It means that you have some control, and choice, in what your relationship feels like over time. But wait! There is more good news! When you succeed in generating romance, you may be pleasantly surprised to find it missing the negative elements listed above, because the calm, secure energy is maintained. You get all of the benefits, with none of the downfalls! And this is when couples can truly thrive together, in a state of safe risk, calm excitement, and playful creativity. 

And it doesn’t ever have to end if you are both committed to it.

So if you want to choose it with your partner, then be willing to take some risks with them–because that vulnerability is very sexy (it’s what we fall in love with!) Bring back favorite activities or explore new ones–it is the shared experience that you are going for–romance comes from a place of discovery. You don’t have to feel it immediately, just trust the process and be present, and let the connection come from that. Romance is created out of the way we think about our partner, which then affects how we feel about them. There is nothing wrong with needing a nice setting and good lighting to change our perspective! 

***

What I find exciting about being a couples therapist today is that relationship, marriage, and sex are being pulled apart and re-imagined in ways that better serve all partners, both as individual and as community members. By making relationships something you choose rather than an obligation, you invite choice to be a key player throughout your time together. Romance can be expressed in as many ways as one can imagine, both in words and in actions–I leave it up to you and your preferences to come up with juicy possibilities. So if you value the energy that romance brings to the table, then I say choose it!–together, and show the young lovers what they have to look forward to. 

REBOOT YOUR RELATIONSHIP DURING THE HOLIDAYS

The Fall and Winter holidays mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some, the celebrations overtake the entire latter part of the year, while for others the seasons are little more than a nuisance to avoid.  Then there those who fall everywhere in between! Whichever category you identify with, these are times of the year when all the holiday noise can make it easier to nudge aside things that are important to us the rest of the year: healthy eating habits, exercise, spending budgets, alcohol consumption limits, work obligations.

Mind you, these things are often set aside to make room for wonderful alternatives: time with friends and family, delicious meals, seasonal activities, and shopping for loved ones. But all this diverted focus can take a toll not only on our health and finances, but also on our relationships–not intentionally, of course–but as a side effect of having our limited attention and energy given elsewhere.

While I am not going to address health or finances in this article, I do want to explore how there does not have to be a toll on your relationship–as long as you agree to attend to a few things that give you a better chance of staying connected and coming out of the season stronger and closer as a couple. Let’s take a look at what these are.

HARNESSING GRATITUDE: It can be cliché and simplistic to list gratitude as a tool for re-booting relationships, because the experts tend to shout the value of it from the rooftops. But there is a reason they do so–expressions of gratitude return just as much, if not more, to the giver as the receiver. What exactly does gratitude do for a relationship?

We all want to feel acknowledged for the things we do for people we care about, and studies have shown that acknowledgement reinforces the behavior it is celebrating. Conversely, lack of acknowledgement often leads to the eventual extinguishing of a behavior–nobody likes to continue doing something that does not get noticed.

I list the harnessing of gratitude first in this article because it is the easiest action to reboot! All it requires is a shift in focus from what is not working in your relationship to what is working. This shift must be intentional and conscious, since our brains have a natural bias for suspicion and are wired to scan the environment more for threats than non-threats.  But when done well and often, gratitude can build closeness and soften upsets when they happen. It lets the receiver know that they are appreciated, important, and noticed. And for the giver, it not only feels good and wires your brain to see your partner as an ally instead of an enemy, it can improve your health and well-being!

If you can harness gratitude and direct it toward your partner(s), your relationship will feel refreshed and more fulfilling, and the holidays are a perfect time to practice this since the season can be stressful for couples.

INTENTIONAL WISHES: Have you ever gotten in the car and started driving without knowing where you are going? Or worse, gotten into the car with your partner and start driving only to realize that you have completely different destinations in mind? If the latter sounds ridiculous, you may be surprised to know that this is exactly how many couples start off a relationship or marriage. They get in the relationship car together not even knowing it they are going in the same direction.

Very often, the only example of a couple being intentional with one another is when they agree to be “exclusive” sexually, start a relationship together, or recite wedding vows. But this is not enough to last a lifetime.

When a couple first comes in to see me for help with their relationship, I will ask up front what is the purpose of them being together? The answer I usually get is “We love each other”, to which I respond, “Great, but that is not enough.” Can you imagine setting up a business without choosing a mission statement? The mission statement, once decided upon, reminds the owners of what they are up to financially, ethically, and relationally. They can use it to keep on track and guide their decisions. Why not do the same as a couple?

Having intentional wishes with your partner gives a couple a better chance to work together as a team, not only when the sailing is smooth, but most importantly when it is not. During conflict, it is essential to recognize that “the problem” has disconnected you from each other, and it is your intentional shared wishes (remembering your Mission Statement)  that will guide your words and actions in the moment towards re-connection. How can you expect to get back on track if you don’t know where you were headed?

The main points to remember are that intentional wishes are decided upon between both of you, they are stated outright, and that they are shared. This does not mean that they cannot change in the future, in the same way that we sometimes change direction in our car when our destination changes. Here are some examples of shared intentional wishes:

  • we want to have a family together
  • we want to buy a home
  • we want to have a satisfying and regular sex life together
  • we want the relationship to be a shared refuge from outside stressors
  • we are committed to supporting each other being their best selves
  • we want our relationship to be a place where we can be honest and open with one another

The list is only as limited as the imagination!

Love will get you through the good times, but without having and intentional wish for your relationship, it is likely that you will lose your direction during conflict.

REMEMBER WHAT WORKS, AND DO MORE OF IT: It is easy to forget what you are doing that works when struggling with conflict. Saying that, if a couple is still together, it is likely that more of the relationship works than doesn’t work. This is why it is so important to lean on those positive interactions and behaviors because they can “cushion the blow” of the current conflict.

These positive interactions can go unnoticed–they are what the Gottmans call Small Things Often, because they are frequently quiet expressions of affection, gratitude, acknowledgement, or support. They don’t have to be grand gestures. They are the day-to-day responses that let the other know that they are heard and cared about–they are the reminders that we want to be in the relationship.

(Go HERE to read some examples of Small Things Often.)

Beyond that, I encourage couples to remember things that worked for them at the beginning of their relationship–things that get left in the dust of growing careers, children, bills, and taking one another for granted. Did you used to kiss each other good morning every day? Start doing it again! Get up at different times of the morning? Commit to sending each other a “kiss” emoji instead. Be creative about it, and it is okay to make it playful and fun (not a chore or obligation!).

The benefit of finding a way to commit to and strengthen these actions is that they become part of a purposeful plan to protect the relationship. Couples who put the relationship first will view a problem as something that is between them, trying to break them apart, as opposed to an issue isolated within one or the other individual that needs to be fixed or changed.

It just makes sense when you think about it. If you were in trouble in an unfamiliar location, the first thing you would do is gather up what you “have at hand” that could be used to get you back to safety. I advise you to do the same in your relationship, with the exception that you don’t wait until you are in trouble to identify and use your resources. Using them regularly and consistently will keep the engine of your relationship running smoothly so it can take you both where you need to go, together, when the going gets tough.

You know, like during the holidays!

WHY YOU SHOULD EXPECT YOUR PARTNER TO BETRAY YOU

The longer I do therapy with couples, the more I am shocked at the many myths we are told about how relationship and marriage works. The shock comes from my realization that most of what we were told is not true and merely sets up unrealistic expectations that lead to disappointment and disillusionment. 

While this may come across as bad news, I assure you that it is not! Realizing that we have received misinformation allows us to start anew and seek out more reliable sources. It also invites us to become creators of our own rules and agreements, respecting the fact that every relationship is unique in its own way, and there cannot be just one set of agreements for everyone. 

In this article, I will focus on one bit of information that can be hard to swallow for most couples–the reality that your partner will betray you. But before you throw in the towel and stop reading, allow me to explain why this is not necessarily a terrible thing.

WHAT IS BETRAYAL? It is important to define terms if we are going to explore betrayal as a behavior to expect. Although there are many definitions, when betrayal happens in a relationship I describe it as “words or behaviors that break the shared relationship agreements”. These agreements should be stated explicitly and reviewed regularly, but sadly, most agreements in relationship are assumed or implied, and that is one of the problems that can lead to a betrayal. 

Most people are familiar with the “big” betrayals that can happen between two people, such as infidelity (which I will talk about later), but less so with smaller, everyday betrayals that happen right under our noses. What are some examples of these small betrayals? 

  • looking at your phone when your partner is talking to/with you
  • telling a close friend something negative about your partner that you would not tell them to their face
  • intentionally lying to your partner to avoid taking responsibility for something
  • not doing what you have promised your partner you would do

What are not examples of betrayal?

  • fantasizing about a favorite movie star while having sex with your partner
  • wanting to do something by yourself sometimes rather than a shared activity
  • talking to a therapist about doubts, fears, and resentments that you have in your relationship
  • wanting to have sex with someone else (but not doing it)

If you recognized any of the examples in the top list, I want to assure you that this does not make you a bad partner, it simply makes you a human one. 

***

Way back in the 1990’s I attended a seminar where the speaker said to the audience: “We are all cheaters, liars, and thieves.” After a dramatic pause to allow the statement to sink in, she then clarified with an example: “Who here among us has never stolen a moment of someone’s time?”

The point she was making is similar to the point I want to make about betrayal–we all do it! John Gottman tells us that at any given time, we are either leaning into the relationship or out of it. But just because we momentarily turn away from the shared agreements of the relationship, this does not automatically mean we value the relationship less–instead it suggests that something in the moment is pulling us more than the relationship. In other words, everything is information! And the information you might be getting by your behavior could mean that:

  • you may be lagging in attending to your individual needs, OR you are just attending to your individual needs (which is normal!)
  • some of the shared agreements between you and your partner are overdue for a review, as they many not serve who you both are now
  • you have underlying negative beliefs about yourself and/or others that become roadblocks to your best intentions
  • nothing is wrong, you are simply being human!

How do we know if our “little betrayal” is good or bad? I suggest asking yourself what the purpose of your actions is–this will reveal your motivation. Ask: “What is the purpose of saying or doing this?”

WHAT ABOUT INFIDELITY? The most common betrayal I see in my couples clients is the “big one”: infidelity. While infidelity is often thought of as cheating, it is not always cheating! Cheating, in my book, has to include the intention to deceive, as I wrote previously in this article. The bottom line is that cheating and infidelity are not always the same thing.

While an infidelity (whether it is one time only or an ongoing affair) can certainly be a betrayal, I have noticed that it is more a betrayal of one’s own value system, rather than of their partner. As painful as this may feel, it can be unnecessary and unwise to end the relationship over it. Most of the time the betrayer has not stopped loving  or wanting sex from their partner, but they may have stopped loving themselves in the relationship. Having sex with a new person can reset our own experience of ourselves very quickly in a positive way, at least until we are found out. 

Couples therapy is strongly suggested in these instances so that the couple does not make rash decisions they may regret later. Esther Perel has observed in her work that the couples who do the work to move past an infidelity will report having a closer, better relationship, because they are now talking about things they were not talking about. I would add that when as a couple recovers from infidelity, they can increase the healthy differentiation between them, as ruptures of this magnitude often shake up our romantic illusions about love and allow us to move closer into Real Love

Real Love is a state that allows for two people to become “one” while at the same time remaining “two”.  

The statement above describes moving in and out of the states of closeness without rupture of fear of abandonment or envelopment. The relationship needs come before all, and both individuals thrive as long as they regularly review the needs and agreements of both the relationship and themselves as individuals. 

(Read my previous article on “Putting Relationship Needs First”)

Infidelity, in the form of actual sex outside of a couple’s agreements, is best seen as an alarm bell rather than an evacuation order. By heeding that alarm, two people can often become closer as a couple and more developed as individuals. While this does not suggest a relationship needs infidelity to move onto higher ground, it does let couples know that bad news can become good news if the emotional connection is still alive and the relationship is valued. One infidelity does not automatically mean that you don’t value the relationship! 

WHAT DO VALUES HAVE TO DO WITH IT? Speaking of values, it is becoming more and more clear to me that if you don’t know what drives you in life, you probably won’t get anywhere. Values are the drivers because they give us direction in life, and having direction is one way that we can regularly check if we are “betraying” our partners as well as ourselves. Dr. Nikki Rubin explains, in this article about ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), that:

“Most times when we are experiencing pain or discomfort, we believe that we must rid ourselves of it before we begin to build the life we want for ourselves. Sadly, we then end up spending our time trying to fix our pain without attending to what gives us meaning, fulfillment, or contentment.”

Part of this acceptance requires the patient to identify their values. Then they can “learn to take steps to engage in behaviors that are aligned with our values—even when we are experiencing pain or discomfort.”

In this sense, betrayal is another word for moving in the opposite direction of your values, which is one way that we attempt to rid ourselves or pain or discomfort. Words and actions, if they go against your relationship values, are most often exactly this: a way to avoid the pain and discomfort of addressing changes in relationship and issues with one’s partner. 

If you notice a betrayal in your relationship, it may be a sign that agreements and/or shared values decided upon in the past may not be working for one or both of you now. Those who choose to end a relationship because of one betrayal may be avoiding an opportunity to grow closer together, build a more realistic sense of trust, experience more appreciation for their time together, and have enriched individual lives. 

While there are betrayals so severe that they are in essence “deal-breakers”, that is not usually the case. Most couples don’t need to break up. A regular discussion about individual and shared values in your relationship can go a long way toward preventing betrayal ruptures that are irreparable. 

***

It can be hard to re-wire the way our brains think about love, sex, and relationship, especially if what we were taught about them made them seem easy to succeed in. But one can either hang on to ways of thinking that are familiar but no longer work, or they can “widen” their thinking so that it is helpful to who they currently are in life and relationship.

Maybe relationships are not as black or white as we were led to believe–maybe they thrive when a couple sits in the grey, the areas in-between, where real life resides. A place where betrayal is both more and less than we think it is. Is your relationship worth this exploration? 

 

 

 

PUTTING RELATIONSHIP NEEDS FIRST

As a couples therapist, I tend to think a lot about why relationships have problems. Why do we struggle so with the one person we love the most? It doesn’t help that the very way we, as a culture, participate in relationships changes over time. Relationships do not serve the exact same purpose that they served in 1950. Or 1960 or 1980. And yet people often go into relationship as if nothing has changed.

What is the outcome of this? From what I have observed, relationships suffer. And when relationships suffer, so do the individuals who are in the relationships.

There must be a way out of this! Fortunately, there is, though it can be difficult to act on. Before we get into the way out, let’s first look at what has changed, and why these changes are not necessarily bad news.

CONFLICT IS INEVITABLE, AND THAT IS NOT A BAD THING: They say that “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. What? Isn’t a relationship supposed to take you away from pain and suffering and give you peace and happiness “until death do we part”? Well, it all depends on what stories you were told about relationships and marriage, but if you are like most of us, very few of the stories we are told actually do us any good when it comes to actually being in a relationship. Where do we get these stories from?

Up until the late 60’s or so, the purpose of marriage was fairly clear-cut in society: to settle down and raise a family with someone you love. However, this was a change from what came before it. Earlier versions of marriage prioritized the protection of property or the strengthening of a family name over settling down or falling in love. Couples raised families to pass on the family name and property, if there was any, and they often married because that was the best way to survive life. Couples had kids so there were extra working hands, even if there was no property to hand down.

Today, though those templates continue to exist in the world, they have been largely superseded by the needs of “modern” couples. Those needs are a combination of needs from the past, as well as current expectations, which can vary from couple to couple. To put it bluntly, marriage and relationship has changed more than most of us want to admit, and they continue to evolve as I write this.

So what are the needs of modern couples? And why should they come before the needs of the individuals? Who gets to decide what these relationship needs are, and how they will be met? And what happens when they are neglected or de-prioritized?

Well, what happens is these couples often end up in my office , wondering how to get their relationship “back on track”. But before we can even start doing that, I have to first find out what their track even looks like. You know what? They often don’t know themselves.

WHY SHOULD YOU PUT THE RELATIONSHIP NEEDS FIRST? When couples get together, they often imagine a relationship based on either what is familiar from their own family, or from what they have seen in the outside world or in the media. While there is nothing wrong with this frame of reference, it is often not “thick enough” to hold all the complexities that show up in the actual relationship.

When the relationship we have no longer matches the relationship we imagined, it becomes less of a safe place and more of a threat. What we know about the brain when it senses a threat is that it focuses attention on how to protect the homeland–in other words, we care more about our own well-being than another’s. We take care of our individual needs and abandon the needs of our partner and the relationship. We do this to survive.

While this strategy works fine if we are facing an actual threat, it works against us when the “threat” is our partner being upset about something we did or said. Abandoning the relationship to focus on our needs gives our partner the message that we will not be there for them when the going gets tough, which in turn reinforces the relationship not being a safe place.  Just think about it–if the captain of the ship abandons the ship, not only is the ship doomed, but so are all the passengers!

So what to do? I suggest leaning into the relationship. This is not the same thing as agreeing with your partner’s accusations of allowing yourself to be abused. Instead it means that you remember that when one of you is in trouble, both of you are in trouble, and both of you are required to return the relationship to safety.

This is not my idea. I heard about it from Stan Tatkin, the renowned author and couples therapist up in Agoura Hills, CA. I took a workshop where he talked about how the needs of the relationship must always come first, before the needs of the individual. By making this commitment and choice, a couple can more successfully navigate disagreements and conflicts, because they will recognize that when the relationship (both of them) does well, each of them (as individuals) also do well.

There is a saying that when the relationship wins, both partners win, but when one individual wins and the other loses, everybody loses. This is because when you go for the individual need over the relationship need, it is the same as cutting off your nose to spite your face! You are one half of the relationship, so why would you abandon part of yourself? If one part of you is hurting, don’t you attend to it?

Couples who prioritize the relationship needs over individual needs experience more connection and safety in their relationships. So let’s explore how to actually do this in your relationship when push comes to shove.

HOW TO DO THIS SUCCESSFULLY: First and foremost, don’t wait until push comes to shove! Although it is possible for a couple to come back from a severe breach in trust or connection, it can be more difficult for those who do not have a strong shared foundation in their relationship. What does this foundation look like?

John Gottman’s work over the last several decades has highlighted the importance for couples to act as a team. This does not mean giving up your individuality–on the contrary–being part of a secure team often helps one to thrive in their individual lives. Gottman calls the process of creating a relationship team the Sound Relationship House, where the first floor is about getting to know your partner’s inner world.

When a couple has a strong first floor of their Relationship House, they can move up floors in order to create shared meaning and explore each others’ dreams.

But individual dreams are not the only dreams that need to be attended to. Successful couples work to build shared dreams and shared purpose. Dr. Stan Tatkin writes and talks about this in his work, as I wrote earlier. In order to do this, couples need to actually come up with shared dreams and purpose, because they don’t create themselves, unless you part of a community that gives them to you!

In my therapy office, when couples tell me that they want to build a stronger relationship, I will sometimes reply provocatively by asking, “Why?” The goal of that question is to find out what is the “purpose” of them being together.  Couples get together mostly because of mutual attraction initially, but beyond sex, what is the reason for creating a relationship with this person?

Shared dreams and purpose come from a couples shared values–what is important to you? Some of these things are non-negotiable, and some are negotiable, but when committed to together, they create a shared dream that is worth fighting for. This dream is what will influence couples to resist the pull to criticize, withdraw, shutdown, or attack when conflict arises. This dream will be the motivation to strengthen your connection to one another.

A shared dream comes with needs to keep it alive, and when these needs come first, there is a better chance that in any conflict, the relationship will win rather than one individual or the  other.

***

Sometimes it can feel like being in a relationship involves too much to keep track of. But the good news is that when you make a habit of keeping track of it, it becomes the air you breathe. The effort you put in is a conscious choice, but it begins to feel natural and vital, especially when you reap the benefits of these efforts.

Putting the needs of the relationship first ensures that you have a partner working with you to protect and nurture the relationship–you are not a lone ranger. As you both work to support and prioritize the relationship, you may find that the relationship in turn supports you in your individual development. Having something bigger than you–the two of you–gives you something to defend without turning against your partner. When you put the relationship needs first, you will both be fighting for the relationship, yourself, and each other. It is a win-win!

THREE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES WITH COUPLES THERAPY

Premium Photo | Choosing a path. the junction, three forest roads converge  into one.

My last article was about how relationships are the hardest thing you will ever do, and I outlined some of the main reasons for this. In this article I want to present the ways couples therapy can help with these difficulties by discussing three possible outcomes of the work. I hope this exploration will demystify some of the “mystery”, helping readers to understand that the success of couples therapy has more to do with the couple seeking it than the therapist administering it. This is not an attempt to make a couple responsible for any failure of couples therapy, but rather to emphasize their role in its success–to up their skin in game, so to speak. 

There was a time when couples therapy was seen as the last resort for a broken marriage. Today, there continues to be more of a stigma toward couples work than individual work. Fortunately, that perception is changing over time, with many couples now seeking assistance at the beginning of their relationships, as a way to avoid issues down the road. 

However, there continue to be misconceptions about what couples therapy can actually do. What it can’t do is: 

  • “fix” your relationship
  • decide for you if you should stay together or break up (though it may help you to make a decision about this)
  • improve the sex (or re-start it) in your relationship if neither partner is willing to make some changes

Simply put, the work of a couples therapist is to help couples have difficult conversations. The main difficult conversations that couples struggle to have often concern sex, money, parenting, and respect. These conversations can be difficult to have because having them requires that we set aside defensiveness and criticism, and examine what we are willing to “give up” so that the relationship, not the individual, can “win”. This can be very challenging if a couple have opposing values in these areas, but it is not impossible! 

So let’s look at what can happen when a couple comes into therapy for help with their difficult conversations. What are the possible outcomes?

NOTHING CHANGES: Let’s start with the bad news. Simply put, change requires an action, not just an intention. Many couples truly want their relationships to improve, but then find themselves running into obstacles when they try to change their behavior. Those obstacles can come from inside or outside the individuals in a relationship, and can be so discouraging that the process is stopped before it even gets going. 

However, not all is lost when obstacles show up. They can be a sign that something is moving. Obstacles are often negative beliefs that individuals have carried for years, which they have brought into the relationship with them. Negative beliefs are shameful ways of thinking about ourselves that are either handed to us by others, institutions, or culture, or conclusions that we make about ourselves based on how the world responds to us. We are not always aware of them until they show up in relationships or when we are trying to embrace change. 

Regardless of why we resist action, without it nothing will change. This is why I want to be sure that a couple is willing to take action before working with them in therapy, because without that willingness, they will be disappointed by the lack of results and take that as a sign the relationship is hopeless and should end. 

BREAK-UP OR DIVORCE: While this is an option that many choose without coming into couple therapy, it is still an option even while working together with a therapist on your relationship. However, couples who choose to break-up or divorce after a course of couples therapy are more likely to be doing so for the right reasons, whereas most other couples end their relationships by mistake

There are two primary reasons that a couple will break-up in the course of doing couples therapy:

  1. They realize that they no longer (or perhaps never did) have shared values/goals/relationship dreams, making them a poor fit who would be better served moving on from one another.
  2. They find out that there is no longer any relationship to save.

As their therapist, I never make this decision for them–but I may ask questions about what I observe in the room. It is up to the couple do decide whether they want to stay together or not. One thing I always tell them is a phrase I got from my mentor, Dr. Walter Brakelmanns, who would tell couples “I will fight for your relationship until you give me a good reason not to.” 

Many couples break-up because of “incompatibility”. I am here to tell you that this concept is a myth! Incompatibility suggests that differences in interests divide couples, and yet the reality is that many couples have long and happy marriages while having wildly dissimilar interests. Rather, it is a wide difference in values that can signal a mismatch. 

Values signify what is important to us, and some examples are: having a family, living near parents, honesty, mutual respect, spirituality, loyalty, trustworthiness. We usually have 3-5 non-flexible values, but even those are subject to change over time, so finding someone whose values match yours is no guarantee for the long run, but it can’t hurt! Values conversations are just one more way of showing interest in your partner’s inner world, and how it may change over time. 

Though relationships work best when they share key values, it is not an automatic deal-breaker with they don’t. It all comes down to respect–and the willingness to be curious about each other rather than judgmental or critical. Values can change over time, but that does not mean that a relationship has to end–it can change too. 

***

The second reason that couples might break-up in couples therapy is because they come to realize that the relationship is already dead. What lets us know this? Lack of interest. 

When I notice that one partner is sharing a painful emotion or event, and I see a lack of empathic response from the other partner, I start to worry about the relationship. Lack of response can show up for many reasons, but if it is happening because the person no longer cares about how their partner is suffering, then the relationship has lost its emotional connection. There is no relationship for me to save. This happens not because one partner is a cold, uncaring person, but because they no longer care about their partner’s inner life. This can happen for a number of reasons, and often happens over a period of time. 

This will present as a couple who come in because the relationship is still alive for one, but not for the other. This can be very painful, but it is even more painful to stay in with someone who no longer has interest in you. I think it is easier to survive a break-up than a bad marriage. These couples can still do work in couples therapy, but the focus shifts from connecting them to problem-solving–what do they need to figure out in order to move on from one another?

What makes a relationship lose its connection? Well, the main causes I see are unresolved resentments that have turned into contempt, breaches of trust that are seen as “unforgivable”, lack of mutual respect and understanding, and certainly undiagnosed mental illness, domestic violence, or substance abuse. The loss can occur over a long period of time or in response to a specific breach, but it is up to each individual to choose to work toward reconnection, otherwise the relationship will start to disconnect and die. 

Couples therapy can help couples to set aside blame and reflect on the role they each had in their relationship getting to this place, while also helping to create new understanding about each other’s actions, leading to greater understanding. This understanding it the beginning of empathy, rebuilt trust, and reconnection. 

DO THE WORK: To round out our exploration of the three outcomes of couples therapy, let’s look at the optimal outcome–doing the work! The reality is that this option is really the only thing that brings about change in a couples relationship. It does not matter how brilliant or skilled the therapist is, if the couple does not take the work home and into their interactions, nothing will change. 

So what is the work? Well, in my office I first get the couples’ agreement that I can do my job–which is to guide them to having more successful difficult conversations. Sometimes that means that I need to interrupt what they are trying to say–and that can be a challenge for some. The work in this instant is for the client to regulate themselves and “set aside” whatever feelings are coming up for them in the moment. This is harder than it sounds! But without this willingness, the conversation will be derailed and nothing will change. 

Secondly, the couple has to change what they are doing at home. This can entail a whole list of things, or perhaps just a couple adjustments, but without some action towards practicing the skills at home, again, nothing will change. Couples don’t have to turn the  whole house upside down–John Gottman says that it is more important that we do “small things often” as a way to keep the engine of relationship connection running on idle, rather than having to restart it each time we need to communicate. 

Another action that can help a great deal is when the individuals pursue their own work with an individual therapist. As we reveal the vulnerabilities that each partner brought into the relationship, it is up to each partner to attend to these rather than holding the other responsible for “fixing” them. Individual therapy can be a great adjunct to couples work so that in the couples session, the focus can be on the relationship instead of the individual. 

I get some pushback from couples when I tell them that there is work involved in having a healthy relationship. I can understand why. We are raised to believe that love does not take work–that it is some sort of magic glue that sustains itself, and that is absolutely not true unless you are speaking of the love a parent has for a child. Real love take effort to sustain, because it is effort that indicates caring and interest in another, not passivity. Real love is a verb, not a noun! It is caring in action. And when couples embrace that framing of effort, they see it as a romantic gesture rather than an obligation or duty. 

The bottom line is that it works. So do the work!

***

Anytime a person wants to improve or change their life, some action and effort is required, even if that action or effort is to do less. And for those who do not know what actions to take, it is considered wise to seek out an expert for guidance and support. This is what a couples therapist can offer, but a good therapist will also assess whether or not a couple is ready and willing to do the work, in the same way a personal trainer will evaluate your commitment to an exercise program. 

Therapists can guide your progress, but the couple has to start the engine, and this is why I present these three choices to every couple that comes into my office–I want to invite them to work as hard as I will to improve their relationship. 

Which choice will you choose? 

WHY RELATIONSHIPS ARE THE HARDEST THING YOU WILL EVER DO (AND WHY THEY’RE WORTH IT!)

Have you ever spoken with someone who has just given birth? Often, you will hear them swear that they will never get pregnant again. But the reality is that most do repeat the experience–more than just once! Perhaps one reason for this is that the pain and suffering of giving birth and having an infant are temporary, with rewards that may increase as time goes on. We don’t mind a little suffering if there is a reward for it down the line!

So what is the story regarding relationships? 

Well, on paper they look amazing. We are drawn to them because they offer safety, security, acceptance, love, sex, family, community, meaning, and more. Like babies, we love them when we see them out in the world, but the reality of having one in your home 24/7 is a whole different story

And yet we keep seeking them out, and getting into them, only to find out that once we move through the limerence phase, they get difficult. Why do they become so difficult? Why can’t they continue to feel like floating on clouds? The answer to this is complex and differs somewhat from person to person, but I hope in this article to give you an understanding of the process that can cause distress but, when handled well, also lead to “real love”. 

WHAT WE DO WHEN THREATENED IS NATURAL, BUT IT ALSO CAUSES DISCONNECTION: Our brains are wired to scan the environment for threats–that is how we have survived over the years. As mammals, we have very few ways to protect ourselves from threats–no claws, no fangs, and soft bellies that are exposed dues to our upright stance. We are not even very fast or strong! So we evolved to have large brains to help us outwit predators and avoid dangerous situations. 

It worked pretty well until we got into “modern” relationships, where our “safe person” can also be our greatest threat at times. When this happens, our hunter-gatherer brains can’t tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat, and reacts by shutting down rational thought and activating our fight, flight, or freeze response

While this response protected us in the past, in modern relationships it creates a separation from our partner(s), due to the fact that when we are in this dysregulated state, we cannot learn or listen, and our primary goal is self-protection. The result is disconnection. Closeness, the feeling of being understood and cared for, is out of reach, and this is why our natural responses to threats generally do not work in relationship. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, since closeness is often reached by having difficult conversations or healthy conflict. 

VULNERABILITIES AND TRAUMA ARE TRIGGERED: Why does our defense system get triggered so strongly by our partners? Why does something that protects us from harm also create disconnection? This is not some cosmic joke on people who are in relationships. It is instead just an unexpected outcome of being in a modern form of relationship. Let’s look at what happens.

In our hunter-gatherer past, we were in relationship with many people, and our needs were spread among the group. Our safety, security, and sense of belonging was not reliant on just one person, but instead tied to many. Because of this, a conflict with one individual was likely less threatening–we did not feel as though we were in great danger. 

Today, the majority of our needs and wants, our requirements for safety and security, and our sense of belonging, are all tied to one primary partner. (To read more about this idea, please check out Esther Perel’s excellent article: Why Modern Love is So Damn Hard). A relational breach, even a small one, can present an enormous sense of threat to our stability and well-being. We can feel as though the conflict will leave us untethered to our anchor, to drift alone and unprotected.

What exactly is the source of this feeling of unsafety? Our vulnerabilities are exposed. Regardless of whether we are attacked, or doing the attacking ourselves, we become hyperaware of our vulnerabilities in the moment and move to protect them. This is one process that makes relationship so hard; in order to have healthy conflict that results in greater closeness, it is required that we talk about the vulnerability that has been triggered by another, so that other can then respond to us.

What we usually do instead of talking about what is coming up for us is criticize the other, which only pushes them away. And when we are criticized or attacked, instead of probing to find out what is underneath the anger, we often get defensive, essentially walling off our compassionate selves from our partner.  

This is compounded when there are negative memories in the past that we experienced as traumatic, because our instinct to attack and defend are heightened, and the trigger-wires for each is much shorter. Trauma also takes us out of the moment and back to the past event, making us unable to respond with interest, caring, and empathy. If we are unaware that trauma is even being triggered, guilt and shame can be added to the mix of negative emotions, further pulling us out of the conversation and away from our partner. 

***

The takeaway from this section is that when our vulnerabilities and traumas are triggered in relationship, if we don’t know how to talk about what we are feeling in the moment, any conversation with our partner, if we have one, is going to be much more difficult. 

YOU ARE DIFFERENT FROM YOUR PARTNER: The final aspect of relationship to be considered in this article is how our differences make being with someone harder. Why do differences create difficulty? Mostly because they do not show themselves in the beginning stage of a relationship! And if they do show up, our brain has a tendency to minimize them since its one goal is to bond with the other. 

The reality is that every partner you have will be different from you in both big and small ways. The challenge comes with deciding, once the differences show up, how to respond to them. There are three main ways of responding that I want to highlight in this article:

  1. Criticizing the difference by judging it.
  2. Saying nothing about how it bothers you and building up silent resentments.
  3. Showing curiosity about the difference, then deciding if that is something you can live with (accept). 

Only one of the above actually works to bring couples closer–can you guess which one? If you guessed #3, then you are correct! And yet this is the response that rarely gets practiced, and this is why differences, despite their inevitability, make relationships hard. 

Why are differences in our partners threatening to us? Our brains are wired to detect potential threats or dangers in the environment, and back in the hunter-gatherer days, someone who was “different” could be an enemy from another tribe or group. Noticing differences allowed us to assess our level of safety, letting us proceed with caution and keeping us from giving our trust to another prematurely. 

Our brain wiring has not changed as much as our culture and our way of being in relationship, so it is important to find a way to “bypass” our natural defenses at times when they are activated.  Otherwise we will seek to distance ourselves at the very moment when we need connection and closeness. Relationships are hard because our brains often tell us to do something that damages the connection. 

Understanding this is critical to making a choice against your natural instincts, and towards your relationship. 

***

So is there good news? Yes! The good news is that even though our brains work against our relationship goals sometimes, they also give us the ability to choose a healthier option. This takes practice and teamwork, and is dependent on the couples’ commitment to a mutually shared relationship vision. But it is doable. And in my opinion, the work is worth it. 

Relationships may be the hardest thing you will ever do, but the rewards, when you do the work together, are life-changing, liberating, and empowering.