WHY YOU SHOULD EXPECT YOUR PARTNER TO BETRAY YOU

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are not examples of betrayal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

PUTTING RELATIONSHIP NEEDS FIRST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES WITH COUPLES THERAPY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

***

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

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

Which choice will you choose? 

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

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

So what is the story regarding relationships? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. 

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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!

WHEN THE OUTSIDE WORLD AFFECTS YOUR RELATIONSHIP

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2020 was some year, wasn’t it? We dealt with (and continue to deal with) COVID-19, political turmoil, a damaged economy, and the effects of climate change. Add to that all the issues that were happening even before COVID took over, and some people still might not want to come out from under the covers. Happy 2021 indeed!

I noticed last year that I got more calls from couples seeking help than ever before, and it made me wonder about the connection between what goes on in the world and relationship satisfaction. Couples reported struggling more, since COVID, with isolation, feeling cooped up, boredom, finances, increased arguing and decreased sex.

It seems the environment’s effect doesn’t stop when you get home, no matter how tall your hedges are.

This is nothing new, of course, it just feels more intense. It is hard to attend to your partner when you come home after a bad day at work, but what happens when you have that bad day at work just four feet from where they are also working? What about if your bad day is because you have been laid off for months from your job? What if our bad day is because of how often they interrupt us? How do we keep from taking out our fears and frustrations on the one person we see the most? How do we minimize the affect the world has on us and our relationship?

These are big questions, but fortunately the answers are within reach. And the good news is that couples can use skills they have already developed to create positive change at home. First, we have to be able to recognize what is invading our home, where it is coming from, and where we do and don’t have control over it. Second, we have to have a clear vision for what we want our relationship to look like not only during this time, but after, because that is the motivation to do the work. So let’s dive right in, shall we?

EXTERNAL/INTERNAL INFLUENCES: We are products of our environment as much as we are products of our genetic line. The old tug-of-war between nature and nurture has mostly settled on a draw–both assert influence on our development. We don’t have much control over either influence initially, but as we become adults we can at least make choices other than our default reactions, and change our environment if we wish to. Still, some external influences are far-reaching and hard to escape, and they end up seeping into our relationships.

The “biggies” that affect the couples I work with are, of course, racism, culture, homophobia, and sexism, and the effect they have on relationships can depend on one’s race, family of origin, sex, gender, and sexual orientation, but they are not limited to those boundaries. Racism, for example, can affect us all, just in very different ways.

Some of these external influences become internalized as well, making it easier for them to come, with us, into our homes. They affect our relationship when we find ourselves acting out these attitudes and ideas with or toward our partner, sometimes without even being aware that we are doing so (the fish is not aware of the water). In some cases, the person who is oppressed in the world will become an oppressor in the home.

External–COVID-19: Who knew, in 2019, that we would be entering into a pandemic? Nobody had it on their 2020 calendar, that’s for sure! And yet, the pandemic came into the world, and into our homes. As mentioned above, its affect on relationships spans the gamut from finances to sex and even decisions about getting married or having children.

In some cases, couples are isolating together 24-7, and in others, they are isolating from one another, and what I see quite often is a disagreement on safety protocols regarding COVID. Choices we make on how to interact on the outside now affect our partners in ways that they never did before. And it doesn’t help when the information changes as the science progresses.

The good news is that external influences don’t generally create new problems with couples, they instead amplify what is already happening (good or bad) or reveal what has not been acknowledged. For these reasons, this is an ideal time to finally address the issues that have been pushed aside–couples can come out of the pandemic better than how they entered it! Fortunately, couples who were doing well pre-pandemic are doing as well or better now, since their strengths have been activated and amplified.

External–Culture and “isms”: In this article I will only briefly talk about the many “isms” that can affect couples from the outside, because even though the sources may differ, the effect is often similar. External “isms”, whether it is racism, sexism, or homophobia, can invade the home in damaging ways. Men who are sexist rarely leave their sexist tendencies at the doorstep. Racism can show up in couples in the form of colorism or classism, either as a strain economically due to marginalization, as internalized prejudice acted-out on each another, or as depression and anxiety.

(Read: “The Difference Between Racism and Colorism”)

Another population where internalized prejudices can show up is in LGBTQ relationships, simply because all marginalized populations grow up learning the same prejudices that non-marginalized people do. Gay men in particular struggle with internalized homophobia expressed directly or indirectly toward themselves or their partners, since biases against gay men are historically stronger than those toward lesbians.

The effect of these external cultural “isms” is that hidden resentments, fears, and biases may contribute to lack of connection and trust between couples. One way to address this is to talk openly about what is explicit and implicit, and a couples therapist can help to identify the issues and guide the conversation so the result is greater understanding, empathy, and connection.

Internal–Trauma: Trauma is defined as the response, not the event. This is why some people are traumatized by things others are not fazed by, and vice versa. It depends on our individual histories and sensitivities. Unprocessed trauma usually rears its head in relationships, because our partners inadvertently trigger it! Trauma can also be triggered by external events–either local or global, and the result is disconnection–when we are triggered we want to create distance between ourselves and the trigger.

Internal–The Four Taboos: I teach couples that there are four taboos during times of conflict: criticism, defensiveness, demands, and dysregulation. This comes from the Inter-Analytic Couples Therapy approach, and it is similar to the Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in that they always result in disconnection. These stressors show up in the relationship even though they are learned externally and stored internally. In other words, they are adaptive, meaning that we learn them in order to protect ourselves.

And these taboos work. At least if your goal is to distance yourself from the threat. They are also reinforced by  many of the popular movies and songs we consume and love, because they create great drama and high emotion, at least if they are happening to someone else. But the reality is that when they affect our relationships, they are no fun at all, nor are they in the least bit romantic. When they are used during conflict, they can strengthen resentments and lack of understanding, and result in anger and sadness. Right when we need our relationships to be a “port in the storm”, the ship starts to sink.

HOW TO WEATHER THE AFFECTS:

I wish there were a magic button we could use to eliminate negative effects on our relationships, but there is no such button. That does not mean that we don’t try to find one! Substances, shopping, sex, affairs, media, and food are all used to minimize or ignore what is going on in the outside world. The problem is that these “fixes” are only temporary, and they can cause new negative effects on their own when used to excess.

Tool #1: Fortunately, there are ways we can minimize the effects of the world on our relationships without working too hard. The tool I talk about the most (and I am not the only one!) is mindfulnessthe ability to pay attention in the here and now without judgement. Mindfulness is our best tool because, when practiced, it gives us the chance to make mindful choices about what we think, what we say, and what we do.

The difference between a mindless choice and a mindful one is that the former is a reaction while the latter is a response. We have more control over our responses than we do over our reactions, and when we respond to what is going on we have an opportunity to get the outcome we prefer.

How to we practice mindfulness? Well, there are many ways, some more disciplined than others, but I often recommend meditation, yoga, sitting in silence, or simply paying more attention to the task we are engaged in at the time. I remind clients that our brains are not wired to remain in the present moment, but we can train our minds to spend more time there before darting back to the past or the future. And when we are focused in the present moment, we are more likely to stay regulated (right brain and left brain engaged), meaning we can make choices influenced by who we are now rather than who we were in the past.

Mindfulness does not change what is happening out in the world at the moment, but it can change how it effects us and our relationships. It is preferable to ignoring the world or distracting ourselves, because it builds resilience and compassion, two elements of a good life.

(Read: “How To Practice Mindfulness”)

Tool #2: In my training to be a couples therapist, I learned that there are three actions that strengthen relationships by building closeness and trust. These are called the “Three T’s”, and are Talking and Listening (The Dialogue of Intimacy), Time Together (quality not quantity), and Touch (affectionate and sexual).

When attention is paid to all three T’s, relationships find they can weather the effects of the outside world as a team, and though we can handle things on our own of course, research has shown that pain is lessened when we are holding the hand of our loved one. I let couples decide how to divvy up the three T’s because this depends on their relationship priorities (for non-sexual relationships touch can be non-sexual), but when one of the T’s is forgotten, the relationship will feel off balance, and we become more vulnerable to outside negativity.

Each of the three T’s attends to a different aspect of right-brain connection:

    • Talking and Listening: increases understanding, empathy, and connection
    • (Quality) Time Together: increases safety, trust, creativity, and intimacy
    • Touch: increases passion, imagination, vulnerability, risk-taking, and closeness

Note that intimacy and passion are different sides of the connection coin, and both need to be attended to if you value having both in your relationship.

Tool #3: Finally, there is a question that I ask all of my clients who come in to discuss the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives and relationship. That questions is: “Who do you want to be after this is over?” Here is the thing–pain is just pain, hardship is just hardship, until we assign meaning to it. Without meaning, we lose purpose for putting up with something, since assigning meaning gives purpose to what is happening.

Ever hear that statement “Everything happens for a reason?”. Well, I don’t agree with that at all! I don’t think things happen for any particular reason whatsoever, but we can decide if there is a reason for us to endure what is happening. That decision can make the difference between us just suffering, or learning and growing from an experience.

The pandemic is no exception. Who do you want to be once the threat is diminished and the world opens back up again? How do you want your relationship to look afterward? Do you want to be the same as you were when it all started, or do you want to be someone who is a bit more compassionate, more patient, more mindful, healthier, simpler, and closer to those you love? The difference between being the same (or worse) or better is intentionchoosing to improve yourself as a response to what is happening that is out of your control.

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It is my intention to help my clients and my readers “weather the storm” in a way that moves them closer to being the person they want to be in the world, and in the relationships they want to be in. There is so much that happens that is completely out of our control, but I am always impressed by those who spend zero time complaining and most of their time responding.

Without exception, I notice that those who respond with care and compassion towards themselves and others tend to be more at peace with the world, rather than at war with it. Their relationships serve as that essential port in the storm, where resilience perpetuates more resilience. We can’t outrun the world, but we can make mindful choices about how much it affects our relationships; as a result we become more accepting of whatever happens, knowing that we get to decide what it means!

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.