THE BEST GIFTS YOU CAN GIVE

During the holidays, it is typical to give gifts to people we love. This can include partners in an intimate relationship or marriage, of course. Many times I have heard clients say to me, “I don’t know what to give my wife/husband/partner!” This statement always makes me sad, because I wonder why we don’t know what gift(s) our partner would love to get! How can we not know what makes one another feel joy?

This being said, I also understand the amount of pressure that many feel to “get it right” when it comes to gifts. Rather than being an expression of generosity and love, gifts sometimes are a testing ground for the level of commitment one has in the relationship. Good grief! No wonder anxiety, for many people, spikes during the holidays!

This is why I wanted to write about gifts that rarely disappoint–gifts that offer what is universally desired and wanted, regardless of culture, age, or race. They are gifts that can ensure that all other presents are received with gratitude and appreciation, because the act of gift-giving will no longer be a litmus test for how well one is loved or known.

What are these gifts? Read on…

THE GIFTS THAT NEED NO WRAPPING PAPER: Despite our technological advancement, we are still mammals who require caring in order to thrive. Unfortunately, we live in an economy that convinces us we only need products. If that were true, why is anxiety at such high levels, given that many of us can get any product we want at any time?

What I notice is that many people use products to counteract isolation, loneliness, insecurity, and stress. This works in the short run, but rarely has a lasting effect. But I can understand the appeal when person-to-person caring is either not available or not offered, even when one is in a relationship.

If genuine caring is what we really need to thrive, then what are the key elements? Let’s look at four that are important in any loving relationship.

NURTURING: Nurturing is easier than most of us think. It requires more that we simply show up and less that we try to do something.  If you think that nurturing means “making someone feel better”, then allow me to suggest an alternative meaning. When we are upset, it is often very hard to feel better, and thinking that we should feel better can make it even worse. Nurturing is not about making someone feel better. Rather, it can be thought of as a way of being present with someone in pain. Not doing anything, just being there. And when someone is in pain, usually the most helpful way to be there is to say, “I am here with you.” 

This five-word phrase is what we most want and need to hear when we are hurting and feeling all alone and misunderstood, because it does not require that we be or do anything in return. It does not force us to justify our pain or take care of someone who is caring for us; instead it just lets us know that we are not alone in our pain, and that can be very comforting. It is a way to show your trust in another’s emotional intelligence, while showing them that they can trust you to handle what they are feeling. Nurturing is comfort, in the form of presence. “I am here.” 

EMPATHY/UNDERSTANDING: Empathy is related to nurturing, but it is not the same thing. It is part of the process though, in that it is what can come from being with someone in their pain–empathy is the experience of feeling, on some level, what the other is feeling. Not just understanding it, but actually feeling it, and holding it. It is the process of seeing the problem from the others’ perspective so that we can understand why they are in pain. This understanding gives us the best chance of responding in a way that actually does relieve pain.

I have seen countless couples upset with one another because well-meaning efforts to comfort their partner and respond to their pain land with a thud. This is not because they don’t love their partner, but because they don’t fully understand what the pain is about–in order to relieve hurting we have to know how and why someone is hurting! The how is found out through an empathetic connection, and the why is uncovered by the understanding that comes from empathy. To be on the receiving end of this is nothing short of the greatest experience of being loved.

INTEREST: The type of interest I am talking about is not the kind you get from your bank, where you get a return on your investment. It is instead the opposite kind of interest–it is a way to invest in your relationship in order to get a return. What is that return? It can be boundless regarding what you get from your partner and what they get from you. The power of interest is that it is the action-based expression of love. It is well and good to tell someone that you love them, but it is an entirely different thing to show it in such a way that they feel loved. 

Many couples talk about their “love languages“, and certainly these are good to know about in yourself and in each other.  But the truth is that we don’t always express or respond to just one love language, so even if you know them you can miss the mark with your partner–this is where interest fills in the gaps! Interest is fueled by your genuine and caring curiosity about your partner: what makes them tick? What brings joy to their lives? What upsets them? What is their favorite and worst part of themselves? What are their vulnerabilities?

Interest is the means to this end: making sure that your partner feels truly loved by you, not just for what you like or what you see, but for who they are. (To read my previous full post about Interest, please click HERE.)

RESPECT: I saved this one for last, because it is possibly the most important element in caring–you could say that it is the tent-pole element under which all other elements fall–if you respect your partner and their inner world, then nurturing, empathy, understanding,  and interest will more naturally follow.

What is respect? In the simplest terms, it is act of honoring another’s differences as valid. Respect does not require that we agree with or even like another’s differences, but it does require that we recognize and appreciate them as part of our beloved. Why would we do this? Because this is what real love is–caring about another’s well-being not because they are exactly like us or because they make us feel good or sexy, but because their well-being is important to us! This process is ignited by the initial bonding process, but it is cemented into being over time, as the bonding becomes attune-ment.

Respect leads you to real love.. It is not co-dependent to feel joy when you make your partner truly happy, and sometimes this requires catering to differences we don’t easily understand. Interest can help foster respect for the ways you and your partner diverge. We often find that the differences are not so different at all–that they are tied to shared needs and values. Certainly there are real and perceived threats that work against this understanding, but if partners allow their interactions, responses, and agreements to be guided by respect, then those threats will not present any real challenge to the relationship.

Respect, in action, will discourage sarcasm, needling, taking things personally, and misunderstanding, and will mutually encourage and strengthen all the elements of caring.

***

The elements described above need to be intentional choices, because our brain is wired to be biased toward suspicion and threats (even if they are not real), and this is where couples often need help in choosing. As a couples therapist, I help couples (and individuals) understand the benefits of taking a stand against threats. It can be very hard to set aside our self-protection in relationship, but by regularly making this choice, and having a partner who can then respond accordingly, we can choose nurturing, empathy/understanding, interest, and respect more often. It becomes easier, the threats feel less threatening, the connection becomes stronger, and the rewards become greater!

These are the best expressions of love we can give to one another during the holidays, and all throughout the year, and they don’t require any wrapping. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that couples therapy is the wrapping paper for these gifts. This is the best gift you can give to one another–it is a way to say this relationship matters to me, it matters enough to work on, and I want to work on it with you.

Who wouldn’t want to receive that gift?

 

ULTIMATUMS DON’T WORK–DO THIS INSTEAD

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of ultimatums are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what works instead of ultimatums is to:

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

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

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

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

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

WHEN YOU CAN’T TALK TO EACH OTHER

There are alternatives to the stalemate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW TO ALIGN GOALS

Seeing eye to eye can be tough at times!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN TO GO?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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!