Relationship Therapy for Couples & Individuals

Tony Davis, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Author: Tony Davis (Page 1 of 2)

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.

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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!

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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!

HOW TO APOLOGIZE SO IT WORKS

 

“I’m sorry!” Who has not heard this a million times. And yet I wonder how many of you have felt that these two words are enough to make you feel better, let go of the hurt, and forgive another. I notice that usually the one uttering the phrase is actually more interested in getting off the hook than attending to hurt that may have been caused either intentionally or unintentionally. It is as if the “I’m sorry” really means “I didn’t expect for you to feel the way you feel, and I am sorry that you feel that way.” This is not the same as expressing remorse for our behavior–it actually makes the hurt person feel guilty about hurting!

So what is so hard about apologizing? Well, unlike the Elton John song, love does mean saying you’re sorry from time to time, but the mistake that most people make is that they forget the first step, which is not about apologizing. So what is this step?

WHY “I’M SORRY” DOES NOT WORK BY ITSELF: When we are hurt by something our loved one does or says, our natural reaction is to pull away from them and protect ourselves. The thinking that often goes along with this reaction is that we can’t trust the other to care for us in the way we like to be cared for in the moment. This may or may not be true, but what is important to know is that our thinking can work against us letting the other know about our hurt. Because of this, the other person has to “guess” at why we are upset, and since this is a dicey undertaking, they will usually just default to saying “I’m sorry” without any idea of why we are actually hurting! In these instances, the apology is received as an empty gesture, one that has no intention of actually repairing anything. This can then lead to frustration for the apologizer, creating even more distance between the two people. No fun!

WHEN TO USE “I’M SORRY”: You can’t put the cart before the horse, as they say, and that applies to apologizing before we even know what we are apologizing for. “I’m sorry” can only come after there has been some interest in how your actions or words affected the other person–not how you think they affected the other, but how they actually did. This requires sitting with them and asking what it felt like when you did or said the hurtful thing, and then listening without defending or justifying.

This is hard to do, because we are wired to protect ourselves. And yet what works in the outside world often backfires in close interpersonal relationships because in the latter the goal is to get more connected, not less! The good news is that if you are successful in exploring the feelings of the other, it won’t be long before they are no longer talking about the offending behavior, and instead they are talking freely about their inner world–what happens to them when they feel attacked or criticized. Only after we hear this information and reflect back our empathetic understanding can we then successfully offer an apology that lands. Only then will our apology address the hurt and be received. Only then is the apology an act of relational responsibility and not a way to get us off the hook.

APOLOGIES EQUAL ACCOUNTABILITY: Mark Manson writes a lot about responsiblity and accountability in his essays, and he makes a valuable point about how to clean up a relational mess. In his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ckhe writes about how important it is to be able to say to someone, “I am selfish. I care about myself [sometimes] more than the relationship.” (p. 185) Admitting that is the first step in being responsible for your behavior toward others, and accountable for the effect it has on them.

Note that this is different than being responsible for the effect–you are not responsible for what they feel, but you have accountability, which means that it is up to you to clean up the mess (respond)! But here is the good news–it works! Not only will you find that your apologies are accepted more often, but you will have less actions held over your head for all time. In addition, you will find yourself being more in control of your experience in the world, since you will be focusing on what you have control of (you!), and not on what you don’t (how others feel!).

To sum up, remember that the apology is what comes after a deeper understanding of how your actions/words affected someone. The apology works best if it is a indication of empathetic understanding, and it can lead to feeling connected and cared for. The best way to approach this is to get interested in the other and what they are feeling, without feeling responsible for those feelings. You are the trigger, not the cause. Your role is to care, not to fix. If you learn how to properly offer an apology, you might just find that you are needing to offer them less often!

 

HOW TO KEEP TEXTING FROM RUINING YOUR RELATIONSHIP

I have written previously about how to grow your communication skills. In this post I want to key you in on what can interfere with the implementation of these skills. In order to succeed at anything, you have to know what the obstacles might be!

Have you noticed–some thing just never change! Despite the advances in technology, humans are still, well, human animals, with newer and older operating systems running our brains. One area where we have advanced technologically at a rate not met by our physiological and developmental advancement is communication. Technology is not ideal for all purposes–sometimes the best method is old-school!

In this article I briefly look at “texting” as something that, if used ineffectively, can cause serious damage to relationship communication. While I have no issue with the use of texting per se, I do think that certain communications still need to be done face to face.

So let’s take a look at the guidelines…

USE TEXTING FOR THIS: There was a joke a while back that pretended that texting was not the only way to communicate–that there was this new wonderful thing called “talking”! As silly as that is, if you think about it, it could make sense. Texting in itself is a weak way to communicate because it keeps us from getting vital information that is relayed by tone of voice, facial expression, body language, etc. It would seem as though talking to one another, even on the phone, would be an advancement. So then why don’t people do it much anymore? I think that the answer is convenience.

Texting is a great way to do information exchange. Things such as where to meet, when to meet, changes to plans, or requests for information are easily communicated using texting. But that is about it! The reason why texting works for these things is because they consist of information, or content, and not emotion, or process, and also the communication is interactional. If you check into why emojis were created, you will find out that they were an attempt to insert emotion into text. They do accomplish this, but in a very limited way. One person’s smiley face is not necessarily another’s. Texting works best for simple exchanges of information.

DON’T USE TEXTING FOR THIS: Relationships get into trouble when they extend texting outside the boundary of information exchange. Granted, there are benefits to sending a partner sweet nothings, such as “I love you”, or “Thinking about you”, but trouble happens when upset or anger is communicated using texts. The reason for this, based on what I have heard in my office, is that there are so many chances for misinterpretation. Also, any conversation about feelings is doomed if it is interactional–this is why they are best done face to face where a talker can be a talker and a listener a listener.

When we listen in person to someone who is upset, we hear not only the anger, but often also the pain. This experience of their pain can serve to kickstart empathy in us; we can avoid defending ourselves and respond to what is being said. In texting, we usually just see the anger, and couples have reported responding in the expected ways: with counter-attack or defensiveness. It doesn’t work if your goal is to resolve conflict and build intimacy, trust, and closeness! This is why I suggest that once you feel yourself getting upset at what you are reading (OR sending), STOP TEXTING, and instead either call the person or arrange to continue the discussion when you can meet in person.

Avoid using text when discussing a conflict or disagreement, or when you are agitated, angry, or very upset. The best thing to do in these cases is to let another know that you would like to talk by phone or face to face as soon as possible.

HOW TO RESPOND IF SOMEONE BREAKS THESE RULES: I always remind my couples clients that there will be times when they do not make the best choices in their relationships. I even remind them that I don’t always adhere to what I know works well! As my teachers have told me, it is not so important what happens, but what you do about it afterwards that makes all the difference.

If you find that you and another have had a bad text exchange with insults and misunderstandings, wait a bit until you cool down. Then reach out to this person and ask if you can meet or talk on the phone to discuss what happened. Use the skills I shared about communication to talk about how you feel and be curious about how this affected the other. Apologies only work if the one offering has a felt sense of how hurt the other feels.

THE QUESTION THAT COULD SAVE YOUR RELATIONSHIPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ESSENTIAL COMMUNICATION SKILLS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY IS IT SO HARD TO SAY “HELLO”?

“You had me at hello.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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