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. 

***

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. 

***

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. 

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

This article is an overview of what I have noticed works and does not work in relationships. It is not meant to be an exhaustive review, but instead a summary of what I see are the most important things to pay attentions to if you want to have a healthy, connected relationship. 

I feel that, as a couples therapist, my training and education never end. This is because so much theory behind couples therapy is influenced by current science of the human brain in relationship. This is good news! But it also reminds me that the choices I help couples make during conflict sometimes go against their natural responses. 

Bonding with others is hard-wired into our brain and evolved from our need to be inter-dependent in order to survive and propagate.  Therefore, much of what we do with our partners feels natural and easy–this is not what couples come to therapy for help with. The part that does not feel natural and easy usually centers around conflict, or difficult conversations, that every couple runs into in the course of being together.

What I have learned from the experts is that couples need to attend to not only how to have healthy conflict that results in understanding and connection, but also how to keep doing the things that are easy and natural. Attending to the latter makes it easier to attend to the former.

So let’s look at a round-up of the best tips I have learned from the experts in couples therapy, and why you need to know them if you want to be successful in relationship.

For this article, I pull from the following experts in couples therapy. I encourage you to subscribe to their newsletters if available as a way to get regular reminders of what works:

THE BREAKUP PREDICTORS: Couples will regularly act as though their relationship path is out of their control, asking, “”How did we get here?” The truth is that they got there together, by making conscious and non-conscious choices, but they may not have had their eyes open while driving, so to speak. Terry Real says that his first step with couples is to find out “Who’s doing what?” I use this question with my couples as a way to bring awareness to each individual’s contribution to the couple dynamic. If you don’t know what you are doing, how can you change it?

So what is most important to look out for? According to the Gottmans, who have 40 years of research on couples to draw from, contempt is the number-one predictor of divorce when it shows up between couples. What is contempt? In The Marriage Clinic, contempt is defined as: “Any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts oneself on a higher plane than one’s partner.”

Contempt is looking down at your partner, judging them as less than, specifically less than you. It can show up as disgust, disrespect, disregard, insults, eye-rolling, and ignoring, just to list a few. John Gottman calls it “psychological abuse” and that is exactly what it feels like. It makes the other feel as though there is something wrong with them, that they are not on the same plane as you–not as smart, not as young, not as attractive, not from as good a family, etc.

Contempt is so damaging because it is difficult if not impossible to repair, unlike other forms of conflict or differences. Contempt sticks and is hard to forget or excuse. There is a big difference between someone saying: “Since you have gained weight I find it harder to become sexually aroused with you”, and “You’re so fat you disgust me and I don’t even want to touch you half the time”.  The first one hurts, but can lead to a deeper conversation, while the second one damages trust, safety, and connection, pretty much ensuring that a deeper conversation will not happen.

***

Another main predictor of breakup or divorce? Again, the Gottmans have a corner on this, sharing that the stories we have of one another are critical in shaping our responses in conflict. And negative stories of our partners over time lead to less successful conflict, less trust and connection, and often the end of the relationship. In The Marriage Clinic John Gottman calls these negative stories negative sentiment override, meaning the [negative] “affect around which the problems do not get solved”.

In layman’s terms, if you begin most difficult conversations not giving your partner the benefit of the doubt, you are likely to have gridlock, or higher levels of aggression. If you think about it, when you head into conversations with your partner with suspicion or negativity, your relationship will feel like you are living with a threat that is always trying to sabotage your well-being!

When this happens, I often look for experiences in one’s history that have negatively colored how they experience others in the world. Individual therapy can greatly help to deconstruct and dismantle some of these responses and make the person more adaptive to what is really going on with their partner.

WHAT DOES NOT WORK: Nearly all couples enter into couples therapy telling me that the biggest problem is their “communication”, but that is usually not the actual issue. Couples are communicating just fine, all the time, even when that communication is via the “silent treatment”. What the issue usually is is their difficulty in having difficult conversations. Conflict can fall into this category, to be sure, but other difficult conversations could involve changing values, problem-solving, or expressing needs.

The truth is that difficult conversations may remain difficult, but that does not mean they can’t be successful. What is success in a difficult conversation? Understanding and Connection. This is because the root of the difficulty in these talks stems from one person’s vulnerabilities being hurt. A successful difficult conversation is when one person expresses that hurt in a way that is not critical of the other, and the other then responds in a caring and empathic manner, avoiding problem-solving.

Since this is easier said than done, here are a couple of tips from the experts on what to avoid in these conversations and what to do to make them easier:

The Four Taboos: Dr. Walter Brackelmanns developed the idea of the Four Taboos during his many years working with couples, and he incorporated them into his own modality, Inter-Analytic Couples Therapy, which is what I practice. These actions became taboo primarily because they will completely derail a conversation two people are having about feelings, and they will also turn healthy conflict into a fight.

The Four Taboos are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Demands
  4. Dysregulation, either up or down

The reason he identified these as dangerous is because when they are used, they result in disconnection, not connection. They are protective or aggressive responses to the others upset. In a nutshell, they don’t work! 

Criticism is when one makes judgements or interpretations about the other rather than talking about how they feel (“I feel you are a jerk” is not a feeling, it is a criticism.). Defensiveness is difficult to avoid, because that is a natural brain response to feeling attacked, but it does not work because it is a justification for the triggering behavior. Demands are when you tell the other what to do or not do rather than making a request. And dysregulation happens when our rational brain gets shut down and we are running on emotions that respond to a real or perceived threat by either ramping up to attack, or shutting down to protect.

Avoiding the four taboos during conflict requires making conscious choices in the moment, as well as having a commitment to building trust and safety in the relationship during non-conflict times. Additionally, one must be able to regulate oneself, and/or be co-regulated by the other, so that they have access to conscious choice. Regulation does not mean that you are perfectly calm, it just means that you can have your feelings and still talk about them–that your right and left brain are both still online. (In dysregulation, our left brains go offline!)

These four taboos may remind you of the Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and that is because they are very similar. However, the similarities between them does not invalidate either, rather it reinforces the notion that in order to connect during conflict, you better avoid dis-connective actions.

Turning Against Bids: John Gottman has identified three possible responses to what he calls “bids”, which are simply attempts to connect with another. Bids can be direct or indirect, they can be a question or a comment, they can be verbal or non-verbal, but in all cases the health of a relationship can be measured by the most common response of the other.

For this article, I am highlighting turning against, because this is the most damaging of the responses and clearly belongs in the “What Does Not Work” category. Turning against a partner’s bid is not a passive act–it is often hostile or aggressive.

(To read a brief article about all three responses to bids, click HERE.)

It is usually not the intent of the responder to come across this way–perhaps this is how they learned to be in their family of origin or from previous relationships. Nevertheless, as described in The Relationship Cure by Gottman and DeClaire, it is received as contemptuous and critical, setting a pattern of rejection and hurt feelings and ultimately, disconnection.  A relationship has little chance of succeeding if this is the go-to response to bids, so I recommend avoiding it!

It is important to note that turning against happens even in healthy, stable relationships. We all have bad days, lose our patience, get frustrated, and feel interrupted at times. That is when it is vital that we stay regulated so that we can express what is going on with us rather than punish our partner. If you say to your partner, “I just can’t think about that right now because my brain is fried, can we talk about it in the morning?”, you are assured a more compassionate reaction than if you turn against their bid for connection.

WHAT WORKS BEST: So what does work, according to the experts? Happily, there are many things we can do that require minimum effort and deliver big rewards. This is because our needs in relationship are relatively simple. Everybody wants to feel respected, loved, important, and desired. Though there are deeper needs that can be met, I have found that attending to these four sets a couple up for smoother sailing.

Below I have listed just a few of the most effective actions that partners can do for one another, but they all have a similar positive affect on relationships in that they reinforce positive stories about the other–they lead us to give one another the benefit of the doubt rather than jumping to a negative conclusion.

Having Shared Dreams/Celebrating Each Other’s Wins: Why be in a relationship? The reasons for committing to another person have changed somewhat over the years. During hunter-gatherer times, relationships offered safety and security, as well as companionship and someone who could help with work and children. We are “hard-wired” to gather with others since that is how we have stayed alive, being ill-equipped to survive on our own.

Things have changed, and I notice that in Los Angeles it can feel safer to be alone and away from others than in the middle of a group. If a person could do fine interacting with others only online and living alone, why bother with the messiness of living with someone who is not you?

Many of the experts, including the Gottmans and Stan Tatkin, talk about the necessity of having shared dreams, meaning, or purpose. If a couple is going to take on the challenging work of navigating differences and building a life together, then they are best served agreeing on what that life will look like. That is the shared dream–and it can serve as the motivation to do the difficult parts of relationship maintenance.

(Click HERE to access the Gottman’s Shared Meaning Questionnaire.)

Without a shared dream, purpose, meaning, or vision, a couple is essentially two individuals moving in different directions. This can undercut any efforts to join them or create a “team” mentality from which to solve problems, because they are both operating from individual agendas.

Shared dreams are critical to relationships much as they are to businesses–you can’t imagine a business where each employee has a different goal or path to success–this is why so many successful businesses have Mission Statements. They are written declarations of where they want to go.

Relationships will also benefit by agreeing on where they want to go.

Turning Toward Bids: One of my favorite Gottman concepts is the idea that we are always making or responding to bids in relationships. Bids made in relationships are specifically invitations to connect, and they can be verbal or non-verbal, direct or inferred, specific or general.

A bid can be anything from a comment about the weather to a specific question or request. In all cases they are attempts to connect with the other in some way. Connection is important to human beings because it reminds us that we are not alone, that we are safe, that we are important and have value. It also feels good!

I wrote earlier about how turning against creates disconnection and ultimately resentment, so you can think of turning towards as the opposite of that. But what does it look like? In simplest terms, the act of turning towards is any response that is shows that you are paying attention to the other. That could be a nod, a grunt, a question, an acknowledgement, or any number of responses at our disposal. This simple act can have a powerful positive affect on your partner and your relationship, and create a “cushion” for the more challenging and difficult interactions.

I have included turning towards in this article because I am a big fan of using skills that prevent disconnection while making conflict more productive.

(Click HERE for a short article detailing the different ways we can turn towards.)

The Dialogue of Intimacy: I have left this skill for last, mostly because it it the tool I use with couples in the therapy room and the tool I give them to take home and practice. It is also the tool that I have found creates the most change for the least amount of effort, if done consistently and with intention.

As I was taught, a Dialogue of Intimacy is a conversation that connects two people through empathy. Everything else is a dialogue of distance! It works because it moves beyond the surface issue of a conflict to reveal the underlying feelings of hurt, sadness, rejection, betrayal, and more. Unless these feelings are expressed, the Listener will likely miss the target with their response, aiming instead for the problem rather than the effects of the problem.

There are two roles in a Dialogue of Intimacy: a Talker and a Listener. The Talker is the one initiating the dialogue, bringing up something they are bothered by. Ideally, the Talker uses the formula “an emotion tied to a person and an event” to express what is bothering them, avoiding criticism in the process. The Talker should learn how speak about what is going on in their inner world from a subjective perspective–feeling the feelings and not just talking about them. Vulnerability is essential for the Talker in this task–because vulnerability is what draws in the listener.

The Listener has the harder job of the two, because they have to “set aside” what they may be feeling at the moment. The Listener is in charge of the process, leading the Talker down the road into their inner world, asking questions that illuminate why this issue was so triggering to the Talker. Without this information the Listener has to guess at what is going on, increasing the chances that their response will not work.

The Listener uses open-ended questions based on what their curiosity wants them to know more about. I always encourage listeners to look in the eyes of the Talker–this is where your questions will come from!

There is but one reason to have a Dialogue of Intimacy–to gain greater understanding. You are not trying to solve the problem here–understanding must precede problem-solving! This understanding comes from empathy–the experience of feeling and seeing the others’ perspective, which then leads to connection. This is why conflict, when done well, is not something to be avoided.

A couple of tips: both partners must be able to self-regulate and co-regulate or else the process will go off the rails; and you must stay in the role you have chosen until a full understanding is achieved. The good news is that this understanding often take much less time than most couples conversations–you just have to know where you are headed and how to get there!

(For therapists who want to study the Dialogue of Intimacy in a formal setting, click HERE for information on the trainings.) 

WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THIS INFORMATION: In this article I have shared just a snippet of offerings from the experts in couples therapy, with the hope that you will seek out more information yourself. The benefits of learning new skills are boundless, and those benefits improve the one thing that most of us value more than anything else–our relationships with loved ones.

The goal of learning these skills, and the goal of the experts who do this work, is not to create problem-free or conflict-free relationships because there is no such thing! Rather, the goal is to make difficult conversations easier by having couples connect during conflict instead of protect against one another.

Conflict and difficult conversations are inevitable due to the simple fact that we are different from one another. Learning how to talk about these differences is a powerful step toward greater closeness. Who couldn’t use a bit more of that these days?

SCHEDULING SEX

Image

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!

ROMANCE IS THE ICING, NOT THE CAKE!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read “Marriage Isn’t For You”.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

CALM DOWN! THE IMPORTANCE OF REGULATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we control this process in our relationships?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MAGIC PILL: ACTION

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s dive in…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the magic pill. 

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

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

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

***

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.

ROMANCE THAT WORKS

February is a month that one either dreads or dreads more, from what I hear–and yet it does not have to be so! I notice that the dread affects both those who are in relationships and those who are not–with just slight differences:

    • dread for those in relationship can include anxiety
    • dread for those who are single can include depression

The source of this dread just one day in the month–you guessed it–February 14th, Valentine’s Day. What is currently an opportunity to celebrate love and romance has turned into a day where love is often tested and romance is bought.

But it does not have to be this way.

The power we have as humans is the ability to make choices that align with our values–regardless of what others are doing! This includes our choices about love, sex, dating, and romance.

In this Special February Issue, we will take a look specifically at romance, and how to make choices about it that work–meaning less dread, anxiety, and depression–leaving you to experience more fun and love.

THE BITTER TRUTH ABOUT ROMANCE: Here is what needs to be understood about romance: it was never intended to be mixed up with love. There are many theories of where romantic love began. In Medieval times, for example, it was something of a social ritual that bolstered the public status of those involved–who most often were not in an actual relationship with each other! Romantic love was more of an ideal to pursue for personal and social gain, not something to actually achieve–it was a motivational tool of sorts!

Over time, as marriage became an act of choice for many, “dating” began and romance became the primary fuel for relationship building. This would have been fine except for one problematic influence from previous times: people equated feelings of romance with actual love. Rather than differentiating passion, or sexual chemistry, from real love, modern dating culture fused them, resulting in a misunderstanding of what we feel towards our object(s) of desire.

THE BIGGEST MISTAKE: Have you ever eaten a slice of chocolate cake? If you have, and you liked it, then you will remember how you were able to enjoy it even while knowing that it had nearly zero nutritional value. And yet despite this ability to reason intelligently about what we enjoy, we regularly abandon reason to experience infatuation with someone, thinking we are “in love”. Just as chocolate cake is not broccoli, infatuation is not love!

The distinction between initial passion and time-developed love does not have to be bad news. Just as you can enjoy chocolate cake while recognizing it has zero nutritional value, you can enjoy infatuation (and the romantic feelings that come with it) without thinking that it is love (yet). In fact, if you do so, you may enjoy it more because there will be less anxiety about it.

So why isn’t romance love? Because it is based on an ideal rather than a reality. Romance is about the one feeling it–how it makes them feel interesting, sexy, young, and alive. It is about perfection and fantasy. It is not about the other person–the other is just the catalyst for feelings that make us feel better about ourselves.

On the other hand, real love is about the other person, not about you! Romance during infatuation is about bonding and attachment–real processes that brings people together–but they are not love. Love takes time to form because it cannot happen until there is an empathetic and caring understanding of the other person and an interest in their inner emotional world.

The biggest mistake one can make when seeking love is to assume that if you feel romantic toward someone, you are “in” love. This assumption will actually prevent you from moving toward real love, because romance has you see the other as you want them to be, instead of as they are. Preferably, romance is an ingredient of loving relationships, not the container. So how do you make it work well?

HOW TO MAKE ROMANCE WORK: Let’s go back to the chocolate cake for a minute. Remember that there is nothing wrong with enjoying cake, as long as you don’t kid yourself into thinking you are eating broccoli. This is how you make romance work for your relationships. You enjoy it for what it is, and not for what it isn’t. 

Many people think that romance is something you either feel or don’t feel–but actually it is something that we can (and often do) choose to feel toward another. Just because you choose to feel it does not mean that it is not authentic. And in relationships of a year or more, choosing romance is a smart decision because the closer you get intimately, the less romantic you may feel towards each other–the elements that fuel intimacy and romance are oppositional.

So you make romance work by choosing it and then allowing the brain and body to follow your intention. Why do so many suggestions for building romance include soft lighting, sexy music, and candles? Because that helps put us in a romantic mood–you are setting the stage for romance! This seemed to be the idea behind Valentine’s Day at one time, but somewhere along the way romance became an expectation of love rather than a desired and chosen effect of it.  Romance is an element of love, not the proof of love.

***

Just as you would never dream of eating only chocolate cake (or would you?), you would not want a relationship to only be romance–that won’t get you very far. At some point, all our partners will “let us down”–they’ll get sick or have a blemish, they get impatient with us or become depressed. This is all part of life, and it is not very romantic. But as a team you can both choose romance whenever you want to experience it together, in the same way you can choose to have a slice of cake when you desire something sweet.

It’s great when romance comes “naturally”, but when it doesn’t, chosen romance is still romantic. Why not take advantage of both options?