ROMANCE IS THE ICING, NOT THE CAKE!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read “Marriage Isn’t For You”.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CALM DOWN! THE IMPORTANCE OF REGULATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we control this process in our relationships?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAKING MONOGAMY WORK

When the holiday bustle ends, there can be a feeling of “letdown” that follows as we return to our “regular lives”. This is not the only option for us, however. We can look at the beginning of the year as a time to “clean house” in our lives and relationships–we can toss out what does not serve us anymore and dust off what does.

One issue that can gather quite a bit of dust is the topic of monogamy. It is possibly no coincidence that it sounds so much like the word “monotony”–because for many couples, that is exactly what monogamy feels like! I like to invite couples who are invested in monogamy to thicken it, so to speak. Most of us are raised with a “thin” story of monogamy: we will be attracted to and have sex with one chosen partner for the rest of our lives, AMEN! That is like tofu–sounds good in theory, but not very appealing in reality unless you “spice it up”.

In order to make monogamy work, it can be helpful to adjust our approach to it as well as our perspective. Instead of feeling like a jail cell, it can feel like a protective fence around your relationship. But how? In order to make modern monogamy work, I had to look back about 250 years for inspiration…

KANT’S PHILOSOPHY: The appeal of philosophy for me is that it is not simple–it deals with the complex reality of human behavior and thinking in a way that modern self-help books do not. The former is concerned with understanding as a way to live better, the latter more often concerned with easy fixes that neglect underlying conflicts. Philosophy can help me to understand modern issues in relationship because we still have the same core needs.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a philosopher who was interested in an approach to “goodness” that did not rely on religious stories–he was interested in a way of living that was motivated from within because he suspected that such a morality would be unflappable. He came up with something called the Categorical Imperative.

Regarding monogamy, I want to refer to the second section of his philosophy, which is called the Formula of Humanity, and it simply states:

“Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”

What this means to me is that it is best to go into relationships with others using “respect” as your behavioral guide, something I wrote about in my last post. When you respect someone, you won’t try to “use” them to get something (unless they agree to this). You won’t see them as a means. Why is it disrespectful to see someone as a means? Well, because it is treating another person in a way that you would not treat yourself, in essence placing their value as less than yours.

APPLYING KANT TO MONOGAMY: If you are wondering how this applies to modern monogamy, bear with me! Monogamy today is treated as an end rather than a means, and this is, in my observation, one big reason why it so often fails. Monogamy, rather than being a chosen active approach to a couple’s sexual relationship, is being used to symbolize commitment. It is dead in the water. You want to know what I notice? The majority of people who cheat on their partners love them very much–commitment is not the issue!

When monogamy is used as an end rather than a means, then our partners are reduced to being a measure of our virtue and sex becomes a proving ground. Not fun! We have used monogamy as a gauge for virtuous commitment: to ourselves, our partners, and in the eyes of others. This in turn makes our partners a tool for our own reward. Another way of putting it is that we have turned our partners into a means for us to feel good about monogamy.

What if we instead used monogamy (means) to feel good about our sex life with the partner we are committed to (end)?

When we treat monogamy as a means to something positive in our relationship, it can open up all kinds of delicious fun in bed! This is because when monogamy is a means, it changes from being a descriptor of commitment into being an instrument for commitment–one that is used willingly and joyfully. It is acting on this premise:

“I choose to have sex only with you, because that is respectful to me, to you, and to our current relationship agreements, and it strengthens our commitment to remain interested in each other over time.”

Chosen monogamy (means) is very different than imposed monogamy (end). Chosen monogamy requires mindfulness, because if you decide that you want to be with just one person sexually for any reason (and there are some good reasons to do so!), then you will benefit by making it interesting. Monogamy does not equal monotony if you choose it mindfully.

So how do we do that?

THICKEN IT! Mindful relationships are the goal of couples therapy. A mindful relationship means that two people see each other as not only a partner, but also as an individual with differences. Do you think you can meet every need that your partner has? Good luck! But you might find that you can meet many more needs than you thought possible, merely by:

    • finding out what they are
    • deciding if that is a need you want to fulfill
    • being willing to move outside your comfort zone at times

With sex, we often fall into a very thin understanding of our partner’s needs based on “what worked” at the beginning of the relationship. When this limited repertoire becomes boring, that is usually the time when eyes wander to others. What if, instead, we could see our commitment to monogamy as a means, with our and our partner’s sustained sexual interest as the end? How might that influence how we approach each other? How might it influence how much we reveal to each other or ask? How might it influence our own sexual development, and our interest in our partner’s sexual development? How might it influence how much effort we put into keeping things interesting and fresh?

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One downside of living in an advanced society is that we sometimes think that everything should be “easy”. This can work against us. Some things require effort, regardless of how advanced our technology is! Having a satisfying, long term, monogamous relationship requires effort no matter how much you love each other, but effort that is applied in the right areas can pay off handsomely.

By treating monogamy as a means, rather than an end, I am suggesting that you put effort into defining monogamy for yourself and for each other–thickening it so that it fits your relationship rather than your parents’, and allowing you to see a rich sex life with your partner as a wonderful end goal rather than a way for you to feel good about values that may never have been  yours in the first place!

You want monogamy to work in your relationship? Put in the effort to bring it alive, and clearly define where you hope it will lead you. Treat it as a means to the preferred end!

 

THE BEST GIFTS YOU CAN GIVE

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

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

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

What are these gifts? Read on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Who wouldn’t want to receive that gift?

 

WHEN YOU CAN’T TALK TO EACH OTHER

There are alternatives to the stalemate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW TO KEEP TEXTING FROM RUINING YOUR RELATIONSHIP

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

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

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

So let’s take a look at the guidelines…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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