THREE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES WITH COUPLES THERAPY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which choice will you choose? 

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

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

So what is the story regarding relationships? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCHEDULING SEX

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Do you remember when you first found out that Santa Claus is not real? I do, and it is not a pleasant memory! I remember how it was announced to me casually by my parents, but it felt like a hole was blown in my stomach and I was expected to act as though it were only a bruise. It was just one moment in time when my admittedly narrow child’s worldview would be abruptly expanded, challenged, or shifted by reality. Moments like these are about more than just giving up beliefs, they sometimes require a whole identity adjustment. 

And yet once I knew that Santa Claus was fictional, I could not go back to “believing” in him. Granted, it is fun to continue “pretending” that he is coming, but harmless play like that never overrides a less-exciting reality, it just makes it more bearable! We accept new truths, an expanded worldview, and move on with our lives from this broader perspective of self and world. 

Why then do so many refuse to let go of the mythology surrounding romance? 

The mythology I am specifically referring to is the belief that sex in a relationship should retain the spontaneity of the courting stage–that it should happen “organically”, or else partners have lost interest in each other. Attached to this mythology is the belief that scheduling sex is unnatural, shameful, and unsexy

The reality that I help my couples clients to experience is that the above is not true, and that scheduling sex can become something that you look forward to and enjoy! 

PASSION FADES: If we are in good physical shape when we start a relationship and want to stay that way, we don’t assume that, now that we are coupled, we no longer have to exercise. In fact, we would expect to lose muscle mass or gain weight if we stopped exercising. For many people, keeping themselves fit in a relationship or marriage is respectful to themselves and their partners, and sexy to boot! We continue to exercise if we want to stay in shape because we know that there is no other way to remain fit.

When it comes to romance, passion, and sex, we often throw the above logic out the window. A relationship that starts out with hot sex is often expected to continue along the same path, because if we love someone then surely we will keep wanting to have sex with them. If only this were the case, but it often is not. Sexual attraction, from a biological standpoint, was always intended for the short-term to foster pair bonding and procreation. 

You might be shocked to know that sex was never meant to keep a relationship together long-term, and that when our eyes wander to others, that may be a biological message telling us to bond and procreate with another (This is not a justification for infidelity, just a scientific way to understand it). There are so many more obstacles that “get in the way” of sex in the long run, with increased intimacy being one of them, since intimacy and passion are fueled by opposing elements. 

This is why it is important in a long-term relationship to be intentional about sex

(For a great read on why passion fades and how to get it back, please check out Esther Perel’s excellent book, Mating In Captivity.) 

We have been fed a myth about sex–that it should happen spontaneously and organically if we love someone. This does sometimes happen, especially in the courtship stage, but as time goes on, desire can fade for a variety of reasons. In the same way that we need to exercise to stay in shape, we need to take action if we want to maintain an active sex life with our partner. 

One of the best courses of action to take is setting aside time for sex.

SCHEDULING SEX IS SEXY: When we make a reservation to go out to dinner, we don’t expect to sit down at the restaurant and have our food immediately appear for our consumption. Usually, we take time to read the menu, noticing what looks good in the moment–what we might like to try. Then we often order appetizers and/or drinks to start, knowing that we will enjoy our meal much more once our appetite is whetted and we feel relaxed. 

Couples can use a similar approach when it comes to ensuring that they have regular sex. If you think about the dinner scenario I mention above, what is it that makes one look forward to dining at a restaurant? Knowing that we will be served, that we won’t be rushed, and that we can “set aside” current concerns in order to enjoly the meal. Sex can provide similar anticipation, but not if we treat it like a task that needs to be checked off of a list. 

What if you and your partner(s) chose to look at having sex as a respite rather than a requirement? What if you saw it as a reward to be enjoyed together rather than something to do for the other person? Remember what made sex so exciting when you were first getting to know one another: discovery, risk, mystery, interest, curiosity, exploration. Believe it or not, these elements can continue to drive sex with a regular partner even after many years–IF we are willing to see them as a changing, complex, and influential individual. 

What is sexy about scheduling sex is looking at the scheduling as a strength of your relationship rather than a weakness–you are doing something to ensure you are physically intimate with the one you most love. It is a sexy intention because it is saying to one another: “This means something to me, I love doing it with you, and I want to make sure it happens.” Scheduling intimate time together can be sexy in the same way that we love when our partner plans a romantic anniversary getaway, or decides to take up a training program to get in better shape. Scheduling sex is a form of leaning in to the relationship, saying to each other that this is too important to leave to chance. 

HOW TO START/SET ASIDE TIME TO CONNECT: The biggest challenges I hear about for couples scheduling sex are the following:

  • Anxiety about being in the mood when the time comes.
  • When one partner is struggling with not feeling desirable, sexy, or attracted to their partner.
  • Feeling tired, stressed, anxious, or depressed.
  • When sex is painful.
  • Not feeling connected to the partner.
  • Unrealistic expectations. 

Fortunately, the way around any of these issues is conversation. The exception is when sex is painful. In this case, sex must not proceed, and a doctor or urologist’s assistance needs to be sought out. Sometimes painful sex can be resolved through simple education, as when a post-menopausal woman is not aware that lubricant is needed, but I always want to rule out a medical condition first. 

For the rest of the issues, my job is to help partners talk about them. These conversations can actually lessen the problem, because when done well, they foster trust, safety, understanding, and connection–all of which are vital to a healthy sex life! A well-trained couples therapist can be essential in helping a couple have these talks. 

For the purposes of this article, however, I want to focus on the best approach to scheduling sex: Don’t schedule sex! Instead, schedule uninterrupted time together. When you schedule sex, anxiety can ramp up because there is an expectation for performance and desire. Strong performance and natural desire are most likely to show up when partners are relaxed, not stressed or anxious, so by removing the expectation for sex, you keep the nervous system calm and allow the body to respond to stimulation. 

Here is how it can look:

  1. Set aside an uninterrupted block of time–no kids, no phones, no emails, no television.
  2. Establish consent to be with each other, as well as the right to reject what another is doing. (True consent is not only about saying “yes”, but also being able to say “no”.)
  3. Spend some time connecting either through casual conversation, eye-gazing, light touch or massage, sensate focus touch, sharing a bath or shower, spooning one another, dancing, or feeding each other fresh strawberries–your imagination can come up with what works for the two of you. 
  4. Take intercourse or penetration off the table as a desired outcome–instead shoot for the connection, and trust what comes out of that. Note: it may not be intercourse, and that’s okay! 
  5. Be willing to be influenced by your partner–by their body, their touch, their playfulness–join with them as a teammate to play the game of arousal. (A great way to prepare for this beforehand is to have a conversation about “What turns you on?” and “What turns you off?”)
  6. TRUST THE PROCESS. I have said this before, and it allows couples to be more present in the moment with each other instead of in a hoped-for or dreaded future outcome (anxiety), and it also lets the right brain (the feeling brain) take the wheel, which is essential for erotic connection. You may move toward intercourse or penetration, or you may not–trusting the process lets you find the sweet spot for that particular time period. Intercourse ideally comes not from clenched jaw determination, but from moving up the levels of arousal together through exploration, discovery, and play. 

(Read how to use Sensate Focus Touching to kindle sexual arousal in one another.) 

It used to be that men wanted sex all the time and women needed to be aroused before wanting it. But this is not the case anymore, because general anxiety is higher for both sexes, and that can drastically impair sex drive–resulting in neither partner initiating. So the way “into sex” is not through sex drive, but through arousal, for both partners. Arousal comes from a state of relaxation and connection. Mind you, that connection does not have to start with your partner–it can be a connection to your own eroticism via porn or fantasy. But if you want to have regular sex (whatever that is for you), then you are going to need to allow time to relax together and connect first. 

In order to allow that time for your relationship, set aside time together, allow yourself to breathe, be present, move your body and touch each other in a way that fits the moment. You will discover that scheduling sex is not really about sex at all–it is about so much more, and one of the best actions you can do for long-term relationship satisfaction. 

DON’T BE A THERAPIST WITH ME!

Working with couples, it is not uncommon to hear similar complaints from different clients. This is not unusual, because the unifying issue for ALL couples who come to me is that they are disconnected. This does not mean that they don’t love one another, instead it means that they have run into any number of differences that are making things, including loving one another, difficult and causing them to turn away from each other.

What is disconnection? In simplest terms, it refers to when you no longer see your partner as your teammate–instead you see them as a threat, an enemy, someone you can’t trust, someone who is not on your side. This happens to everyone at times, not just those who have negative experiences in their past. Our brains are wired to push back when presented with something we don’t understand, that seems too unfamiliar, or that suggests a betrayal. Our goal is to protect ourselves. We do this by disconnecting: pushing the other away or shutting them out of our emotional life.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t work! At least not if you want a relationship that can handle the inevitable difficult conversations as well as the individual growth and changes each partner experiences. So what do I tell these couples who are wanting to reconnect but don’t trust one another? I tell them to start acting like a therapist with one another, though I may not use those exact words. Let’s look at what I mean…

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BAD AND GOOD THERAPISTS: As students, we are told in graduate school that clients don’t benefit from one therapeutic theory/approach more than another. What actually creates change in the room is the relationship between the client and the therapist. This relationship is professional, but it is also a kind of friendship with boundaries. And the important elements of this relationship include empathy, curiosity, and caring from the therapist toward the client.

You might say that these elements make good therapy. What then makes a good therapist? Is it simply the application of empathy, curiosity, and caring? Well, yes, but it has to be genuine.

I will freely admit that there are days when I wish I could go on a bike ride rather than see my next client, but when that client shows up, it is my responsibility to him/her/them to show up authentically–to do so otherwise would betray the trust they have in me. Fortunately, the work always pulls me in, regardless of what I was feeling before the session, because “caring” is a form of mindfulness: bringing oneself into the moment. When I am truly in the moment, caring, there is no place I would rather be, even if it is a good day for a bike ride!

The difference between a good therapist and a bad therapist is that a bad therapist will fake it in the moment. Showing up for someone does not always mean that you want to be there, it simply means that you truly show up, and people can tell when this is happening. We do this for others because, hopefully, we know that others will do it for us. And I remind you that showing up for someone, being needed, is what lends meaning to our lives.

THE BENEFIT OF BEING LIKE A “GOOD THERAPIST” IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP: When a therapist is able to shift into the moment and offer genuine caring, both the client and the therapist benefit! When two people are in the moment with each other, that connection is where healing can occur. The good news is that this healing connection is not only available in the therapist office–you can get it in your personal relationships as well. But sometimes partners need to learn how to do this with each other.

When I talk to couples about the benefits of learning how to truly listen to one another, I can see the doubt in their eyes, because most would rather problem-solve than listen. I then tell them that listening well, when your partner is in pain, is much easier than trying to solve the problem, and it actually works! Easier for the listener, more helpful for the talker. I have nothing against problem-solving, but couples rarely come to me because they are struggling with that–mostly they don’t know what to do if problem-solving is not called for.

Listening to someone we care about when they are in pain or upset with us can be difficult, but the best way out of that difficulty is to turn on your caring and your curiosity. This approach will not only lower the upset in the talker, but will also lessen the feeling you have of being powerless, criticized or attacked. It works because the highest form of caring is interest, not fixing.

This can require some re-wiring of our brains, as many of us are conditioned to fix when we can. We all grow up hearing the phrase: “Don’t just sit there, DO something!”, but in relationships the opposite (Don’t just do something, sit there!) is what is most helpful when feelings are being discussed. Pain is eased when we are supported, listened to, empathized with, and not judged. All of this can be accomplished by simply sitting with someone, perhaps asking what they need from you, and then doing exactly that.

The benefit is that you end up strengthening connection, trust, safety, caring, and understanding. 

APPLYING THIS TO YOUR RELATIONSHIP: So why don’t couples do this with one another? The simplest answer is because it is not natural for us to respond this way when we feel threatened or are upset–this is the reason we rely on our therapists! Therapists have an easier time responding with caring and curiosity because of their training and also the professional boundaries that help the therapist to lean into the caring without taking any behavior by the client personally.

(Additionally couples don’t do this because they have not built a safe and secure foundation of trust through consistent small acts of caring, but that is a topic for another essay.)

The reason for learning how to act like a good therapist with your partner is two-fold: it is good for the relationship, and it save you from having to spend money anytime on therapy anytime you have a conflict that you cannot resolve easily.

Why are partners hesitant to accept this approach from their partners? Well, the reason I notice most often is because so many people don’t trust caring. They grew up not being cared about, or at least their emotional world was not cared about, or worse yet, they were betrayed by the one responsible for caring about them. This type of experience can wire the brain to be suspicious when someone is curious about your feelings–but with a therapist you might feel like you are on equal footing because you are paying for the service (you have the control).

In a relationship, you might not feel in control when your partner starts to inquire about what’s going on with you, IF they inquire at all! And often the inquiry can feel disingenuous or condescending to us, even when genuine, and we suspect that there are ulterior motives for the questions. This is the time to take a deep breath with a slow exhale, and see if you can access your feelings and express them.

Answering questions about out inner life requires that we take the risk of being vulnerable and trusting in front of the person doing the asking, and that can be hard if we are upset with them in the moment. But it CAN be done! Like any skill that is not natural (a new language, playing a musical instrument, baking sourdough bread), it takes practice, patience, and humility, three qualities that are in short supply these days. But just because there is a disease in society does not mean that you have to bring it into your home.

The next time you feel like your partner is “being a therapist” with you, pause for a moment and ask yourself if they may be trying hard to care about you by showing interest. Help them out–if they are pursuing a dead end let them know, and tell them what road you are on, even if you are “lost”. These are the conversations that bring couples closer, build trust and safety, and heal past wounds, and you don’t need to be in a therapist’s office in order to have them!

DOES YOUR RELATIONSHIP MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON?

Do you like who you are in your relationship?

I ask this question because, despite what many think, relationships rarely end because we fall out of love with the person we are with–more often breakups happen because we don’t love who we are in the relationship. What makes us fall out of love with ourselves at times in our lives? For our purposes I want to focus on the words, thoughts, and actions that can work against our values. 

When we engage in behaviors that don’t align with how we prefer to be in the world, we become unsettled, and the easiest way out is to look for someone to blame for this unpleasantness. Guess who usually gets the blame? When something happens in the world that keeps us close to our partners for long periods of time, unsettled feelings can get triggered and magnetized. What do we do with them? How do we talk to our partners about what we are feeling without projecting blame? When do we know if talking will help, or if we should just break up?

Believe it or not, the most helpful approach to answering these questions begins with looking at yourself, not your partner. This is because our responses and reactions tell us a lot about how we experience the world, and if we are not satisfied with the results of that perspective, then we have an opportunity to change it. There is a greater chance for success with changing the self than there is with changing someone else! The challenge is that changing the self is hard and sometimes more painful than trying to get someone else to change, but it is the only way I know that works for the long run. So let’s look at how we determine where the change needs to happen: in us or in the state of our relationship…

FOR BETTER OR WORSE: As I wrote above, we often break up because we no longer love who we are in our relationship, meaning that we don’t like how we are responding to what we don’t like in the other. When we say that we promise to stay together “for better or worse”, we are actually talking about the future state of the other, the relationship, and ourselves.

In the courtship phase it is easy to imagine sticking with someone for the long run because the version of that person in the moment is quite enjoyable. This makes it easy for us to show up as caring and kind to the other–we are our best self. We love our relationship most when we feel like a better version of ourselves in it–not so much when we feel like a worse version! 

What factors into these opposing experiences of the self? It is not difficult to be a better version of ourselves when the relationship is humming along nicely. Not so easy when going through a rough patch. Why is this? Often it is because rough patches trigger our fears, vulnerabilities, and in worst case scenarios, our negative beliefs about ourselves. When this happens, our better self, the one who acts lovingly toward our partner, disappears, and our priority shifts to protecting ourselves at any cost. We stop loving and instead attack, defend, or retreat, intent on survival. 

How do you have access to your better self regardless of what is going on in your relationship?

THE FUNERAL EXERCISE: The ability to have consistent access to our better self is dependent on these key steps:

    • a strong and appealing vision of our better self and how our relationship would benefit from us showing up as that
    • awareness of the cost of leaving our better self, both to us and to our partner
    • ability to self-regulate ourselves and/or be co-regulated by our partner
    • ideally, a partner who is willing and enthusiastic about teaming up with you to support you being your better self

You might be wondering how you even figure out what your better self looks like. Let me tell you a story…

Many years ago I participated in a series of workshops that could be categorized as “self-actualization” workshops. It was the 90’s! I remember that one night the group of participants were gathered, and we embarked on an exercise that is sometimes called “The Funeral Exercise”. Over the course of the evening, we all had the opportunity to lay on the floor of the room and pretend that we were dead and buried. We were then instructed to imagine that our loved ones were above us, attending our funeral, and we were told to think about what they might be saying about us and the life we lived. 

This exercise changed my life, because at the time the conversations I imagined happening above my buried body were not flattering! There was a lot of “He was so closed off” and “He lived so carefully”, and I remember imagining that my mother was there, crying because I had kept her at arm’s distance. In other words, I realized that I was not living my best life, I was not being my better self. I was letting fear influence me to protect myself from being hurt, which resulted in me keeping out love along the way. 

Today, I no longer prefer protecting myself to feeling alive and in relationship to others. 

After the workshop, things did not turn around immediately in my life, but they did begin to shift. And what helps to bring my better self to relationships more consistently today is the desire to live a life that is a celebration while I am living it, and celebrated after it is over. The motivation to do this is simple: I want to feel more love and less pain. I realized that by avoiding pain at all cost, I was also avoiding love, which then reinforced the pain. A very vicious cycle.

TURNING PAIN INTO MOVEMENT: What is the turning point for most people–that time when they decide to make changes in how they are living live and relating to others? In the popular play A Christmas Carol, the change happens overnight for the main character, but we can’t all have the benefit of a set of ghostly visits to spark us into action! I have observed that turning points often come when the pain becomes unbearable–when the balance between what we gain and what we lose is tipped toward loss. 

This is the time that most people seek out therapy. How can therapy help? Ideally, it does not give you the answers, it instead leads to better questions. These questions hopefully influence your relationship to yourself, others, and your values. This process can also increase awareness in one’s own choices, bringing recognition that we are making choices more often than we think! 

Mindfulness, as this awareness if often called, invites us to live intentionally rather than reactional. Intentional living has a greater chance of leading you to your better self, since you can not only accept or reject painful choices, you can also adjust your response to pain by being aware of how you are thinking about it. This is what is known as taking accountability not for what life is, but for how you experience it–becoming the author of your own life. 

(Read more about becoming the author of your life HERE.)

Our better selves don’t just fall into our laps–we realize them by first identifying what that will look and feel like, and then surrounding ourselves with those who support our movement in that direction. This is why it is critical to choose a partner who supports your vision of your better self–a partner who even inspires that vision. 

Peter Pearson, Ph.D. of the Couples Institute says that we have been measuring success in relationships all wrong. He says that rather than defining success by the amount of positive change in our partners, we should define it by the amount of positive change in ourselves. Meaning: Are you a better person today in your relationship than you were yesterday? 

This is a powerful question, because it requires that you accept accountability for your life, and that you take responsibility for whether you are enjoying it or not. It does not mean that you can’t seek change in others, just that you realize the path to that change is through influence, not demands. We influence our partner to be better by being better ourselves. If this does not happen, then there may be other issues at play, but at least we won’t blame the other for how our life is turning out. It is more likely that at our funeral our loved ones will celebrate who we have been instead of mourning who we could have been. 

***

Philosophers have been exploring what makes a good life for centuries now, and fortunately we have the benefit of their musings, but it takes more than reading a book to have a good life. We have to live it. The motivation to do so comes from imagining what it would feel like to live a good life–we are driven by our emotions, not our thoughts–thoughts may spark feelings but they rarely motivate on their own (try “thinking” your way to exercise!). 

The reason to live a good life, your better life, is pretty simple: it feels good! A better life is not about being “good”, it is about being better, and you get to decide what that looks like for you. Rather than figuring this out on your own, you can use your relationships as a guide–noticing what works and what doesn’t with others and exploring how each of those feel to you. (For example, we may not hold “honesty” as an element of our better self until we are lied to and we experience the pain of that.)

And every evening before you go to sleep, you can ask yourself, “Was I better today than I was yesterday?” If not, you can adjust course tomorrow, ensuring that your focus is on changing what you actually have control over. When you are a better version of yourself, you will naturally become a better partner, which will aid them in being a better person, and so it goes. Now that is a cycle I can get behind!

ROMANCE IS THE ICING, NOT THE CAKE!

 

Valentine’s Day is a celebration associated with romance, but it is often fraught with anxiety. Why is that? Why is a day that celebrates love sometimes problematic? As a narrative couples therapist, I look to the discourses and stories in the culture that contribute to how things are thought about and defined. When it comes to the discourses about love, I could be unpacking these all day and not even scratch the surface!

The odd thing is that even though love is complicated, it is not nearly as complicated as we make it. The problem is that, culturally, we have taken the icing and made it the cake. What I mean by this is that we have decided that romance, a prominent feature of infatuation (what we call falling “in love”), is the lead actor in the play, rather than an important, but only supporting, character. 

So how do we correct this particular troublesome narrative? We don’t want to get rid of the icing–I like icing! The value of deconstructing a discourse is in concluding that not all of it needs to go. The component parts can be examined and an evaluation made regarding their current value toward living a better life. 

So that’s what I want to do in this essay–examine our current story about romance, its relationship to love, and sift through what is troublesome and what is not. 

ROMANCE IS NOT LOVE: When I was a young man, I lived, like many others, for the thrill of romance. I looked around every corner for this feeling, knowing that an encounter with it would lift my day from the ordinary to the extraordinary. What I did not realize at the time was that I needed romance in order to feel good about myself–that without it I felt more or less flawed and unlovable. 

This was not true of me, of course, any more than it is true for any other person, but this is one of the ways that romance has turned into a “drug” of sorts–making the trip down a difficult path so much easier. The problem is that romance doesn’t really move us down the path. It creates the illusion of movement, but eventually we wake up at the same starting point. 

“Real love” is what gets us down the path of personal development, not romance. Romance is just one of the many doorways into real love. So why do we linger in the doorway instead of going all the way in? Well, because moving toward real love is not always fun–it can require hard work and a degree of vulnerability that feels unfamiliar. The main reason for the strong emphasis on romance in the narrative of love is because it feels so good.

But it is not love. Romance, clinically speaking, is more accurately described as bonding, an important and powerful part of the process of two people coming together, and it often leads to, and is strengthened by, sex. When we meet someone we are attracted to, our brains work overtime to build a connection with them because we are hard-wired to do so. As mammals, we thrive as social creatures who seek the company of others for safety and security, and pair-bonds are one way to not only achieve that, but also a way to build families. Romance is not the only draw toward this goal, but in modern times it has emerged as the dominant motivator. 

(Watch “Your Brain Wants You To Have Sex. Here’s How That Works”)

REAL LOVE IS ABOUT THE PERSON, NOT AN IDEAL: Let’s talk more about real love, shall we? Why should we work hard to achieve it when romance is such a great “quick fix”? Well, as great as romance is, it does not and cannot last. Our bodies could not handle eternal infatuation, because when we are in it our brain is in somewhat of a psychotic state! The chemicals that are required to feel infatuation are not sustainable in the body, in the same way that we would rapidly break down physically if we were angry all the time–the chemical process is meant for short bursts, not long term! 

Additionally, though romance is not love itself, it can be an effect of love. Without love, romance is about the person feeling it, not the person triggering it. Real love, by contrast, is about the person receiving it, and this is why it takes time to develop–we have to know about another’s inner emotional life before we can truly care about them. Real love grows out of empathy for another’s vulnerabilities–that is what connects us to them emotionally, not just physically. This ability to empathize also helps real love last over time, because it can override surface changes in a person that we might not like or agree with.

(Read “Marriage Isn’t For You”.)

Real love is a smooth calm feeling, not anxious or urgent. It is the feeling of caring for someone’s welfare and well-being–we feel sad when they are sad because there is an empathetic connection, not just sexual attraction. Real love takes time because it is sparked by vulnerability and pain–human elements, not ideals, that are not usually shown in the beginning of a dating experience (we only want to show our strengths!). 

REAL LOVE CAN INCLUDE ROMANCE: There is a myth about long-term relationships that romance and sex “die” over time; the day-to-day familiarity of being around each other stamps out the mystery and excitement that are the basis of romantic feelings. While this certainly can happen, it is not a given! Familiarity can interfere with seeing your partner romantically or sexually, but we can choose actions that re-introduce mystery and excitement if that is important to us. 

The problem is that most couples don’t know that it requires choosing these actions. We have been led to believe that “love is enough” and that romance should happen organically and spontaneously, and that if effort is required then it is not longer romantic. I push back against this way of thinking. I often tell couples that what they considered to be spontaneous romance during courtship was in fact the result of hours of preparation!

Anything worth maintaining requires some effort to do so, whether it is your physical fitness, your home, your career, or your friendships. The effort to maintain the things that are important to us is not always “fun”, but it is also not necessarily painful. It is just effort. Sometimes it is as simple as “setting the stage” for romance: dimming the lights, clearing the calendar, putting on soft music, making sure the kids are asleep. Sometimes it means doing little things for each other throughout the day, every day. If scheduling romantic or sexual time feels unnatural to you, then just schedule “time together” and see what happens once you set the stage. That is the organic part, and the preparation makes it possible for “spontaneous” romance to happen within a scheduled time period. 

(Watch “The Secret To Desire In A Long-Term Relationship”, by Esther Perel) 

When romance is a part of real love, it has a different quality to it than early infatuation. It is both more secure and more liberating, because there is trust established–something that is still forming in the beginning of a relationship. It can also be more playful and more erotic, because you know enough about each other’s boundaries and triggers that you can experiment with confidence. Most of all, it can feel joyful, more complete, and more creative, because it allows room for both or all partners compared to the individual self-focus of the infatuation stage.  

***

Most of us love the excitement of romance–our bodies and brains feel like they are firing all cylinders. In today’s challenging world, who can blame someone for wanting that feeling? My goal in the work I do with individuals and couples is to make sure that the feeling of romance, or the desire to have it, does not end in malnourishment–that an understanding of how romance operates in the brain will open up a more mindful enjoyment of the experience, recognizing that it is the icing, not the cake. 

It can be liberating to know that there are many different ways to “do” a long-term relationship, and that you can both take advantage of the science that is available concerning love, and allow yourself to make it up as you go along. There is much to be said for developing romance without the usual anxiety, so if that is something that you strive for in your relationship, learn what it is, and what it is not. Then go in the kitchen and bake your cake!

CALM DOWN! THE IMPORTANCE OF REGULATION

My previous article talked about the “problems” that show up in relationships and how there is a difference between solvable and unsolvable problems. In both cases, the solution to finding out if the problem is a deal-breaker is to talk through it, with the goal being greater understanding. 

Understanding must come before solutions, because without understanding, problem-solving can miss the mark–addressing only the symptoms but not the cause. This can leave partners feeling resentful toward one another. Successful discussions about problems can eliminate resentments and bring couples closer. Additionally, they make it easier to accept, or learn to live with, differences. 

Why then is it so hard for couples to have these helpful conversations? Why do they more often resort to arguments and fights rather than healthy conflict? In this part two of my articles on problems I want to address what gets in the way of successfully talking through it. 

What I notice is that it is not lack of caring or desire that keep us from wanting to understand each other, instead it is our brain’s natural defenses. When our partner is upset with us, the brain senses a threat and reacts by limiting blood flow to the rational brain, or left brain; the result can be amygdala hijacking. We become less able to listen, learn, or care–focused instead on protecting ourselves from harm.  

This is on major reason why it is hard to have conversations around greater understanding. But all is not lost–the trick is to learn how to hijack the hijacking! Below I lay out what happens when our brains sense a threat from our partners, and how to reverse the process so that we can lean in and listen. 

TWO TYPES OF DYSREGULATION: What is dysregulation? Basically it is when your left brain, or rational brain, is deprived of oxygen and shut down, leaving your right brain, or emotional brain, to react and run the show. Dysregulation can go one of two directions–either up or down. When our response escalates quickly into agitation it is called hyper-arousal, and when it shuts down into numbness it is called hypo-arousal. You can think of it as your brain either stepping on the gas, or stepping on the brake, respectively.

It is not necessary to memorize these emotional states, but it is important to be able to recognize when they are happening in you or in your partner. This is because in either state, talking and listening cannot happen! When the left brain is shut down, we cannot listen, learn, or care about another–our main objective is to care about how we are being treated in the moment

Why do we become dysregulated? Though it can cause problems today, we would not have survived without this process. Dysregulation happens when our brain senses a threat, either real or imagined. Our left brain is “slower” than our right, and that is why we evolved to shut it down, because historically when facing danger, we had to act fast! Commonly known as our “freeze, fight, or flee” response, our amygdala evaluates the threat and decides in a split second which course of action is best for our survival. 

So how do we control this process in our relationships?

SELF-REGULATION: Although many of our brain processes are automatic, we do have some ability to control and influence them. The whole Mindfulness movement is one approach to doing this–and even Buddhist philosophy (from which Mindfulness emerged) talks about how we cannot control what happens, only our response to it

Modern life works against mindfulness by offering endless distractions to what is happening in the moment with us and in our environment. No wonder we feel more reactive than responsive! Responsiveness only happens when we are present in our bodies and in the moment–a skill that takes practice and intention. Responsiveness is the act of choosing what our brain does with what is happening, not just reacting to it. 

Responsiveness in relationships is practiced through regular self-regulation–being aware of what your brain is sensing and using your left brain to influence that interpretation to match reality. Self-regulation is difficult, but not impossible. It involves a few key steps:

  • recognizing when we are either up-regulating or down-regulating by noticing what happens in our bodies (increased heart rate, hot face, shaking, numbness)
  • using our mindfulness tools to interrupt the process and keep our left brain “online”: taking deep, slow breaths; grounding ourselves, drinking some water or chewing something, doing something with our hands
  • using the left brain to make a choice about how we are thinking about what is happening (responsiveness rather than reactivity)

Trauma can interfere with self-regulation because it can result in stuck painful memories that keep us in a heightened state of arousal, even when there is no current threat. If you suffer from trauma, there are several approaches that can help to process it so that painful events remain in your past and not in your present. 

Fortunately, we do not have to always self-regulate ourselves completely–we can ask for help. 

CO-REGULATION: You are 100% responsible for your actions and your reactions. This can be a difficult idea to accept, because it suggests that others have no responsibility for upsetting us, but the truth is that they don’t! They do, however, trigger us and our vulnerabilities, so they are not off the hook for their behavior, just our for our reaction. We are the ones who choose our response, based on how we think about what has happened. In other words, while the pain is inevitable, our suffering is optional because suffering is based on our interpretations, perceptions, and how we make meaning of things. 

Co-regulation is when another person helps you bring your left brain back online so that you can talk or be comforted. The challenge for many is that one of the best candidates for co-regulating us is the person who upset us in the first place. This is because co-regulating actions can be reparative, and also a “corrective experience” that is different from what we have received before. As a therapist, I often use co-regulation in the room to give clients an experience of caring that is new to them. This can be very healing!

Co-regulation is also an example of accountability–acknowledging that you played a role in what the other person is feeling. Remember that even though you didn’t cause it, you did trigger it! Often the triggering is unintentional–it is just partners being themselves. This is why it is so important to be curious about the other’s past hurts, soft spots, and vulnerabilities, because with this information you are less likely to trip on those trigger wires. Co-regulation lets someone know that you care about them and how they are affected by you. 

GOAL: THE WINDOW OF TOLERANCE: I mention above that regulation involves bringing the left brain back online. What does that mean? Our left brain (pre-frontal cortex) is the seat of rational thought, while our right brain (limbic system) is the source of our emotions. The left brain is “slower” than the right because it deals with interpretations while the right brain focuses on reactions, so when we get upset, our left brain is deprived of oxygen so that we can respond quickly and protect ourselves. 

This is great if we are facing a tiger in the woods, but not so great if we are facing an upset partner who needs to be responded to! In order to have healthy conflict we have to be able to keep both our right and left brains online so that they can work together. This does not mean that we have to be calm as a cucumber, instead we need to be able to feel what we feel and still talk about it. This is called the Window of Tolerance, and the size of the window is based on our past experiences. Trauma can shrink it and make it harder to stay regulated, but a caring response can enlarge the window

When we are able to talk to, and respond to, each other from within our respective windows of tolerance, then conflict can bring us closer by making the relationship safe for vulnerability.

HOW TO GET THERE AND STAY THERE: Getting to regulation takes work, but what kind of work? Ultimately if you want to get somewhere new you first have to first know where you are. This is where mindfulness comes in–it is the ability to have awareness of our emotional life so that we can be in relationship with it and exert influence when needed. 

Remember that dysregulation is the brain/body responding to a real or imagined threat, so it is up to our rational brain to distinguish between the two. The left brain can be thought of as the “navigator” of our emotions–the right brain chooses a course and the left brain decides if that is a good course to pursue. But we can’t access the aid of the left brain if the blood supply is cut off from it! Mindfulness of what we are feeling in our body can help us to notice if we are moving toward dysregulation–and then interrupt it if we don’t really need that level of response.

Many experts recommend meditation as a way to increase mindfulness, but we can also work on it by minimizing distractions, slowing down our conversations, using breathwork, and “unplugging” at the end of the day.  In relationships, we can ask our partner to help us out, by allowing them to comment when they notice us getting dysregulated. This can be as simple as agreeing on a “code word” or hand gesture, so that the comment itself does not trigger greater upset. 

Once you have experienced choosing your response, and the connection it fosters, it is hard to go back to reactivity! Fortunately, doing this work regularly also lessens the need to become dysregulated during conflict–we are strengthening the safety of our relationship, and our brain recognizes this. A safe and trusting relationship gives your brain the message that it does not need to “panic” when there is conflict.

Maintaining our emotional regulation requires good self-care and supportive relationships. But you also have to want it. If you feel that your life and relationship(s) would benefit from a calmer response, if you think that by being present you could make choices that lead you to the life you want to live, then set your goal on regulation as a step in that direction. Living your life means feeling it, not letting it drag you around. Being regulated shows that you are ready to do that as a functional, responsive adult!

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

 

What is it about problems in relationships? And why do they tend to show up after we have already become attached and committed to the other? Is the universe out to get us after all? Is there any way around them? What can we do about them? When do we know if they are “deal-breakers”?

These are just some of the questions that come up, not only in my office, but also among my friends. After all, it does seem like a cruel joke at times–we meet someone who seems perfect, until they aren’t. Sadly, I see people making inaccurate and painful conclusions about themselves when this happens, such as “I always choose poorly”, or worse, “I am such a loser”.

Negative conclusions like these are inaccurate because they don’t describe what is really going on when two people have been together for a while.  While it’s true that sometimes we choose partners poorly, it is not because we are broken in the choosing department. Additionally, these conclusions about ourselves often keep us from staying in a relationship where we can actually heal interpersonal wounds; we end up breaking up when we don’t need to.

So what do we do about problems when they show up? How do we know when to walk, and when to stay and work on them? To answer this, we need to first understand what they are and what they are not…

WHAT THEY ARE–DIFFERENCES: John and Julie Gottman’s extensive research on couples has shown that, shockingly, 67% of problems in relationships are perpetual, or “unsolvable”. And yet despite this, many relationships do just fine! So what is an unsolvable problem? In the simplest terms, unsolvable problems are differences between two people that most likely will not change. For example, when one likes to sleep in until noon while the other rises at the crack of dawn.

Just because a problem is unsolvable does not mean that couples can’t find a way to live with it. Acceptance is the marker of real love, where two people are able to be both members of a couple and individuals while remaining connected. Acceptance is also a signal that you have healthy boundaries, where you are not expecting the other to be responsible for how you feel about their differences.

Accepting another’s differences does not mean we agree with them or even like it, just that we acknowledge that they are there because our partner is a separate person from us. They are not us! This can be a difficult transition to move into if you started your relationship in a strong state of symbiosis, or infatuation, since during this time our partner seems perfect to us. But it is also a necessary part of moving toward real love, the kind of love that sustains good times and gets you through bad times.

A problem that arises from “differences” is not the same as a problem that results from unloving, dismissive, or disrespectful behavior. The latter cannot be chalked up to differences because they are behavioral choices.  Those are “solvable problems” because they can be eliminated if the couple is able to talk about them constructively. They only become “unsolvable” if partners refuse to change, and are unwilling to accept things as they are.

The challenge is telling the difference between these two types of problems because each needs to be responded to differently. Too many couples lump differences in with bad behavior, and this is why there are unnecessary breakups. Curiosity in each other is the tool that helps you to tell the difference between what is solvable and what is unsolvable.

WHAT THEY ARE NOT–DEAL BREAKERS:  I have written about deal-breakers before, and when you know that you need to leave a relationship. The good news is that most problems, both solvable and unsolvable, are not deal-breakers! As mentioned in the previous section, they only become deal breakers if you are not able to talk about them or come to understand differences so that you can accept it and live with it.

Living with a difference does not mean lowering one’s standards, rather it means deciding to see someone as a separate individual, different than you, in a realistic light. It is bringing the standard down to a realistic level, instead of expecting that our partner meet our every need and never disappoint us. Just because I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore doesn’t mean that I don’t thoroughly enjoy Christmas! In the same way, accepting differences can allow you to enjoy your relationship in a more adult manner while also practicing self-care that is your responsibility.

When I hear about marriages breaking up over “irreconcilable differences”, it makes me sad, because the divorce is likely unnecessary. I often suspect that the couple just didn’t know how to talk about differences.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM: You will notice this article focusing on differences, and you may be asking yourself, “Wasn’t he going to write about problems?” Yes, I was, and yes, I am. The point I hope to make is that too many couples try to change unsolvable problems while ignoring solvable problems. This makes sense because it is easier to imagine changing a difference than talking about a real problem. Talking about problems works, but it is not easy, as it requires trust, safety, and vulnerability. Differences usually just trigger misunderstanding and fear, while a real problem brings up more difficult emotions: feelings of sadness, abandonment, betrayal, and disrespect.

If you want the simple blueprint on how to improve your experience with your partner, I suggest the following:

  • Decide what is solvable and what is unsolvable.
  • Get curious about the unsolvable so that you can better understand the difference and respond more mindfully and intentionally.
  • Talk about the solvable problems by telling your partner how you feel when the problem happens–don’t criticize! You can also show some curiosity as to the purpose of their behavior. Make a request of your partner if you need to.
  • Explore healthy compromise around unsolvable problems, where you work as a team to find a middle ground that both of you can live with and accept.

The above guidelines may require the help of a qualified couples therapist, but if done well, you will get the information you need to make decisions about the future of the relationship. You will either stay together because you are a good match, or you will break up because you have identified something that you just cannot live with. Either way, your decision will be an informed one.

THE MAGIC PILL: ACTION

When I think of how to describe the times we are currently living in, I let my clients guide me. And what I am hearing these days is that, when looking around, it is like looking through a clear pane of glass: you see “everyone else”, but you also see yourself reflected. This description resonates with me because the key distinction in whether or not one is able to create change in their life is whether or not they are willing to see the world through a pane of glass, or more specifically, how they look in the world.

12-Step meetings have long had attendees recite the following after every meeting:

Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Why is this mantra repeated time and time again by those who seek change in their own lives? Because in those few lines are the exact instructions of how to change! They also let us know what does not create change, and moving from one state to the other is the point of this article.

How do we change the world? How do we change our world, our relationships, ourselves? Does change require that everyone change? What if I am the only one who changes?

Let’s dive in…

WHAT YOU CAN’T CONTROL: Without exception, couples come into my office pointing the finger at one another, inviting me to side with them and agree that the other is the problem. “If only my partner would change, things would be better!” In order to connect the couple, I first need to see if they are willing to be a team, working against the problem instead of each other.

I start with this task because I have learned that we cannot make anyone change, we can only influence them to change. The other side of that is coin is allowing ourselves to be influenced to change by our partners. Both of these ideas help us with the first part of the serenity mantra: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”.

This is easier said than done! But it is doable, and is the only way I know of to move your life and relationships from where they is to where you want them to be.

Why are we so committed to trying to change what we cannot control? Because it feels easier than taking a good hard look at ourselves, and our contribution to the problem(s). I remember years ago when I wanted to move out of Los Angeles because I thought that everyone here was horrible, and my best friend had the courage to ask me, “What if it is you?” I was furious with him at the time, but soon realized that while it was not only me, it was certainly partly me that was making my time here so difficult. Over time I succeeded in changing the way I respond to and think about the city (both under my control), and my outward experience of it changed for the better. I focused on what I had the power to control.

WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL: What we can control is a lot, truthfully, but it does take work. You know this if you have ever fallen for an easy weight loss system–the ones that promise that you can “eat like normal” on their program and still lose weight. While you may lose some pounds, they rarely stay off after stopping the program because what has not changed is how you eat and why you eat, which are key determinants of our weight.

It is much harder to look at the underlying negative thoughts that fuel our need to comfort ourselves with food, because this may mean facing problematic and painful relationships from our past. However, doing this work with a caring witness (such as a therapist), can result in lasting change and freedom from negative thinking. These things are under our control.

In short, we have control over our responses. This aligns with the second part of the serenity mantra: “the courage to change the things I can”. It does take courage to do this, because it can be painful and frightening, but the reward can be worth it. Taking control over our responses includes changing the way we interpret and think about things, which in turn affects how we feel about things. In other words, our response to what is happening. And when we change our response, we then have the power to influence others to change.

This is the magic pill. 

THE MAGIC PILL: The third part of the serenity mantra asks for “the wisdom to know the difference”, and that is no small ask! Knowing the difference between what we can and can’t control is not only the magic pill for change, but also the key to avoiding suffering. Focusing on what we can control can interrupt complaining and give us the power to take action, and action is what brings about change. This change does not always happen to everyone involved. I tell my couples clients that if you change as an individual in relationship, one of two things will happen: either your partner will adjust to the change or they will leave you. Either way, movement has occurred, which is often better than remaining stuck in a painful rut!

The bad news about action is that it difficult to do something different, and there are no guarantees that the outcome will match your preferences. The good news is that we can still choose to take it, even if it is hard, and be open to the result, knowing that we can always choose again. Sometimes, we might need a little extra support with this, either from others or even from medication, especially if we are strongly affected by either depression or anxiety (both can lead to inaction).

Action can take two forms: external or internal, and both are valid. External action is when we make adjustments to our behavior or response, or when we stop accepting invitations to fights or dysfunctional patterns. Internal action is when we change how we think about what is going on, often allowing us to move from victim to survivor (responsive rather than reactive). Victor Frankel writes about this in his important book, Man’s Search For Meaning, where changing his mind, or internal action, literally saved his life.

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A body in motion wants to stay in motion, while a body at rest wants to stay at rest. In other words, taking action from a state of inaction is difficult–but it is not impossible–it just takes a force to get it going. As a culture, many have become very comfortable, which is not a bad thing, but it has deterred us at times from taking necessary risks or making uncomfortable choices. Just because action is a magic pill does not mean it is easy to swallow. What helps it go down is support from others, and having a clear idea of who we would rather be in relationship to the ourselves and others.

With individuals, therapy can help to identify and confront ways of thinking that contribute to unhealthy choices. Changing the way you think can positively shift the way you experience what is going on around you. With couples, I encourage them to support each other by sharing the changes they are embracing themselves while acknowledging and appreciating the changes we see in the other. This is what working as a team looks like, and it can change your relationship into a refuge rather than a battleground. I know of no other way that gets you closer to a life of peace and love.

HOW TO STOP BLAME

I wish that blame worked–I really do. It would be so nice to just point the finger at another person and make them responsible for all our problems and woes, wouldn’t it? I find it interesting that blame is the basic premise of many religions and most politics, and yet if you look into it carefully you will find that it does not really accomplish anything, other than making people feel badly about themselves. Blaming another is like pushing the dirt around the house–it moves the problem around but does not get rid of it.

So why do so many couples continue to use blame when difficulties come up in a relationship? Why do we continue to rely on something that so clearly does not work? 

In order to answer these questions we need to look to the brain and understand how it works to keep us safe in the world. If we can understand more about why we engage in behaviors that do not work, then we have a chance of stopping them and making new choices. But first we have to explore why we blame in the first place…

WHY WE BLAME: We often feel threatened when our partner is upset with us. Their upset sends a message to our brain that something is wrong and that we need to protect ourselves. But do we? The reality is that in any relationship partners will get upset with one another. The helpful response when this happens, which I often have to teach couples, is to show interest in what is bothering the other, curiosity at what role, if any, we have played in generating the upset, and empathy towards their feelings. 

What we usually do instead is defend against what they are telling us, or counter-attack to negate their right to be upset at us. Naturally, neither of those responses work, and yet couples do them all the time! They do them because they do work in one way: they create distance between us and the person who is upset with us. 

This is what couples need to know about the brain–it seeks to protect itself from threats. When it detects them, it often activates the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain within the temporal lobe, that among other tasks is in charge of deciding what to do when we are threatened. The amygdala has three responses to choose from: fight, flee, or freeze, and you don’t need me to tell you how these don’t work during conflict!

Blaming the other for our upset, or as a response to one’s upset, is a way to protect ourselves. This is why we do it. 

WHY BLAME DOES NOT WORK: The problem is that blaming the other does not work. And the reason it does not work is because it creates distance from our partner, when closeness is what is needed when we are upset. (Conflict is one of the most important elements in healthy relationships, because when done well it results in greater closeness.) Closeness heals emotional wounds, while distance just covers them up. 

Blame does more than just create distance, however. It can also cause the internalization of shame. When we blame someone for something, we are making them the cause of it, not just the trigger. And when someone feels as though they caused harm to a loved one, they naturally feel bad–but when blamed they feel badly about themselves rather than the behavior.

When blamed, we internalize the shame of behaving poorly and this gets in the way of repairing the damage–in fact the opposite usually happens where we avoid repair. Our goal at this time is to distance ourselves in any way from the bad feelings we have for ourselves. 

Additionally this pattern of blame creates and strengthens unhealthy boundaries in the relationship, where we either make the other responsible for what we feel, or take responsibility for another’s feelings. Either version leads to resentment and guilt. 

DO THIS INSTEAD–BE ACCOUNTABLE: What’s the difference between blame and accountability? Sometimes small adjustments in our way of thinking about things can result in big changes in how we live. Fortunately, the distinction between blame and accountability is in how we think about responsibility in our minds. Let’s look at the difference.

Accountability inspires action, blame inspires denial and shame. This is because accountability is about one’s behavior, while blame is about one’s character. Accountability works with what you can control (what you do or say), while blame assumes that you cannot change who you are. Accountability is looking for a description of how things came to be, while blame is looking for a cause of why things happened. 

When the focus is on description, we have a chance of understanding the underlying factors in our behavior and choices, whereas when we are made the cause, the exploration hits a dead end. If you are labeled “bad”, there is little that can be done–this is why blame is useless if your goal is change. We all behave badly at times, but that does not make us a bad person any more than good behavior makes us “good”. We are complex beings who behave in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons, and if we want to have some choice in how we behave then it helps to look deeper, even if that is painful. 

Accountability works in relationship because it keeps the focus on our own behavior (what we can control) rather than our partner’s (what we can’t control). It allows us the chance to regularly check in with our values and see if our behavior is aligned with them. And finally, since accountability avoids shame, we stand a better chance at repairing the situation with the person who was hurt by our behavior. When you feel badly about yourself you avoid repair. When you feel badly about your behavior you seek it out.

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There is an old saying that whenever you find yourself pointing your finger at another person, turn it back around toward yourself. There is good intention in that saying, but it is misguided in that you want to avoid blaming yourself as much as others. Instead, when you point the finger at yourself, think of it as turning blame around. Ask yourself, “What was my contribution to the problem?”, and “What was the effect of my actions?”

Questions like these will go a long way toward changing the way we think about behavior that hurts another, and a long way toward how we think about repair. And as your way of thinking and your behavior changes, you might just start to notice that conflicts with a loved one result in both a better feeling about yourself, and feeling closer to each other. Instead of you both losing when blame is assigned, accountability offers you both a win-win.