HOW TO STOP BLAME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAKING MONOGAMY WORK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we do that?

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

 

HOW TO ALIGN GOALS

Seeing eye to eye can be tough at times!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN TO GO?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IS LOVE A FEELING OR A CHOICE?

I recently read an opinion piece that explored what led to a more successful relationship: feeling love for, or choosing to love, a partner. This got me thinking about the two, and whether they were in fact different approaches at all. The debate is often based on data showing that arranged marriages, those in which the partners meet only briefly before commiting to a life together, tend to be just as happy as love-based marriages (suggesting that choosing to love someone works as well as feeling it “naturally”).

What is going on here? If we can be just as happy in an arranged marriage as a love-based one, then why go through all the trouble and expense of dating? If dating does not guarantee a better match than one set up by your parents, what is the point? I started thinking of all the time that could be saved! And yet there is not just one right way to start a relationship. The concern for me as a couples therapist is whether the approach my clients take to relationship is working for them.

Love is often misunderstood, and that can get us into trouble. It is like thinking that if you have courage, you have no fear–when courage is a response to fear, not the lack of it! If you take love as a stand-alone concept, you might be missing the point. Rather, think of love as the heading for a whole list of influences–love is a category, not an item. So when we ask if love is a feeling or a choice, the answer is…yes! Let’s look at why that is…

THE BIOLOGY OF FEELINGS: When we meet someone and feel a connection, we may think that it is “love at first sight”. Let me assure you that it never is love! What it is is the limbic system (a series of structures in the brain that release hormones and are involved in emotion and motivation) wanting desperately to bond with the other, and if it finds someone who it attunes to emotionally, physically, and intellectually, well, that need to bond can feel overpowering–like love. But it’s not. More likely it is your limbic system releasing dopamine and  norepinephrine, making you feel really great when you are with this new person!

This is why it is a good idea to hold off on starting a sexual relationship with someone new–giving the rational brain a chance to catch up with the limbic system. This is not a moral stand, but a practical one. The lymbic system does not evaluate whether a partner is a good match–it just wants what it wants. This is why feelings can mislead us into thinking that something is a good idea. Ideally we use both parts of the brain when making emotional decisions. If we take our time, we give our brains a chance to bond based on time spent with a person, resulting in the eventual release of oxytocin and vasopressin, the bonding hormones. Love, or care and concern for the other, begins to build. True love is not about us!

DO WE CHOOSE OUR FEELINGS? The short answer is: sometimes. Since the brain and the body are part of a system, they work interactively and they affect each other. Sometimes we have a feeling that causes us to think a certain way about what is happening, and sometimes we have a thought that result in a feeling. I suspect that in arranged marriages where love develops, it is a result of both processes happening.

I often tell couples that if you want to be in love with your partner, “act” like you are in love with them. This is a cognitive exercise that uses thought to trigger feeling.  Have you ever gone to a movie that you want very badly to love? Your thought about wanting to love it will influence how you feel about it, regardless of the merits of the film! You can’t completely separate the brain’s rational thought processes from its feelings center, so why not use it to your advantage? Go with the “feelings” initiated in the limbic system, and then use your rational brain to either support or suspend that process.

LOVE AS A CONSCIOUS CHOICE: It is time to do away with the harmful, foolish, and frankly crazy notion of “falling in love” as an actual state of being. Let’s replace it with a combination of both the great feelings that occur during attraction and a rational exploration, over time, of whether the other is responsible for his or her own stuff, and responsive to yours. This approach uses the best of both feeling and choice, and can lead to healthier results!

Choice is best done with an awareness of what the options are, and therapy can help to uncover these and make them conscious! I like to think that this type of work on the self helps one to respond to the world rather than react to it–leading to a more preferred experience and outcome. What could be wrong about that?

We all love falling in love because it feels great and makes our “regular” world extraordinary for a while. I am here to say that by inviting the rational mind into the process, that extraordinariness can be extended into something real and lasting: secure attachment with another and feeling cared for. Relationships are hard enough even when they are good, so why make them more difficult by relying only on your feelings? When you make love a choice, the odds are that you will feel even better about it in the long run!

WHAT, EXACTLY, IS CHEATING?

Of all the issues that bring couples into therapy, cheating seems to be in the top five. Despite the frequency with which it happens, it seems that relationships are not prepared to respond when it does. Contributing to this lack of preparedness is the widely held belief that “It could not happen to us.” What is going on here? Is this a case of simple denial that we have the tendency to stray, or is there an element of human sexuality and relationship that we don’t know enough about?

No one will argue that cheating destroys trust. Less subject to agreement is what exactly constitutes cheating. Defining it is not so simple, because to do so requires taking into account culture, generational trends, gender, value systems, and more. Cheating is not just the act of having sex with someone outside your relationship; the parameters change all the time, so the definition is fluid. But despite evolving mores and influences, there are consistent qualities running underneath all the definitions that can help us to make choices about what works for our relationships.

Let’s take a look at what those consistencies are, whether cheating can be prevented, and if a relationship can be repaired once cheating occurs. But first I want to explore why there is so much confusion around cheating, and how to lessen that.

DO YOU HAVE AGREEMENTS?  When a couple comes in to my office because of an infidelity, I always ask what their agreements are concerning sexual/emotional needs being met inside and outside the relationship. You know what I usually hear? They have none! If they do have an agreement, it is usually not of their making–instead it is the “implicit” rule of marriage/commitment that states that you will only have sex with your partner for the duration of your time together. In other words, instead of agreements, they have assumptions.

These assumptions would be just fine–if they worked. Sadly, they rarely do, or else everyone pretends that they do. Now there are couples who successfully remain sexually monogamous to each other, but often they are supported in this commitment by their religion or culture. This does not mean that they don’t struggle privately with the commitment, but often their private doubts are overruled and pushed aside by their public beliefs. But with so many younger couples moving away from their religion and culture, where is the support for their relationship commitments?

Support needs to come primarily from within the relationship in the form of agreements. Agreements can change over time (and will!), but I find them absolutely necessary and helpful in making sure that partners walk a parellel path together. What issues might they benefit from discussing in order to form agreements around sexual fidelity?

  • Whether sex outside the relationship is allowed (and what constitues “sex”)
  • If masturbation is okay at home, either with or without the partner
  • Flirting/Having crushes on others–is that okay?
  • The role of porn either alone or together
  • Online activity: chatting with others randomly vs. having a regular communication with someone
  • Needs that are not being met by the other, sexually and emotionally; needs that we want the other to meet
  • Frequency of sex together/making time for it/satisfaction levels
  • Fantasies, new interests and curiosities

As you can see, there a lots of things to talk about that often are never talked about until they cause trouble. Why wait until then? Now let’s look at what cheating actually is.

WHAT IS CHEATING?  If you ask the average person on the street what cheating is, they might answer that it is having sex with someone other than your partner. This is true if sex with others is not part of the agreements, but that does not mean that that is all there is to cheating. But since this is the most common betrayal, let’s explore what makes sex with others cheating? It depends on how you define it. I define cheating as any action of intentionally breaking the relationship agreements in a deceptive or secretive way.

The key words in this definition are: intentionally, deceptive, and secretive, and to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this article, they are the consistent qualities behind every act of cheating. This definition, you may notice, does not specify an action–so cheating could be sex with others, and it could also be chatting online or watching porn alone–it all depends on what the agreements specify. This is why having them in place is so important!

Intentionality holds so much weight because any actions that come from it are either for or against the relationship. The Gottmans like to say that we are always leaning in or leaning out of the relationship. Intentional actions that lean out of the relationship aren’t necessarily cheating, but cheating is always leaning out of the relationship. Similarly, deception and secrecy are actions that lean out, not in. If you have ever been with someone who deceived you, you will need no convincing of this!

Deception and secrecy, when they are intentional and meant to hide the fact that an agreement has been broken, are betrayals that are difficult to repair, but it can be done with the help of a skilled couples therapist.  Let’s explore what the repair might look like.

CAN IT BE REPAIRED?  Repair is not all I do for relationships where betrayal is present, rather it is just one approach. Often, repair is not possible, and the couple has to explore starting from scratch. This is work, but it can also be more invigorating than it sounds! Many times, relationships have long ceased to be “alive”, and starting fresh can literally feel as though you are in a new relationship. Whether you want to repair or restart, willingness on both sides is essential. If one partner is not at least willing, the process will be a bumpy road that leads to a dead end.

Regardless of whether the intention is to repair or restart the relationship, it is important to first address the “betrayal” itself, and the effect that it has had on the one who was betrayed. Couples therapy cannot progress until this is attended to, because the hurt feelings will sabotage the work. Apologies are not the answer here–what is needed is an empathic understanding of how the betrayed feels. This can be difficult and painful work, but without it the wound will fester and infect the entire relationship. An apology cannot be issued until there is full understanding by the betrayer of how the betrayal affected their partner. Any attempts to apologize before that will come up empty and only increase resentments.

Once this step is accomplished, the couple can talk to each other to understand how the problem appeared (a shared description), and how it worked to push them away from each other and into betrayal. These conversations are best done with the guidance of a skilled therapist so that defensiveness and criticism don’t derail attempts to understand each other. With perserverance and intent, a couple can emerge on the other side of cheating into a more respectful and loving version of relationship. Couples who stick with this work report having better marriages–more honest and caring, with less taking each other for granted.

CAN IT BE PREVENTED?  Ideally, cheating will never happen, but there are no guarantees in any relationship. Nevertheless, there are ways to prevent cheating for the most part, and the good news is that these actions are fun and will bring you closer together. What can you do to keep cheating out of your marriage?

  • Don’t just have sex–TALK about sex. Discuss satisfaction levels by focusing on what is working well and making requests for what might make it work better. Instead of telling your partner what you don’t like, guide them toward what you do like–help them to get to know your sexual body and your erotic self. Remember, anything goes behind closed doors–as long as there is shared consent.
  • Have discussions about what your agreements are, and check in to see how they are working. Be frank–let your partner know if you are bothered by anything from porn viewing to phone use–but talk about how it bothers you rather than criticizing or judging the person doing it. Ask questions if you need to understand what you don’t understand or are not familiar with. That leads us to the next tip…
  • Be curious! The moment you assume that you know everything about each other is the moment the relationship stalls–make space for new interests and fantasies to be introduced, and accept that your partner is going to change, just like you are. Replace judgement with curiousity and you will improve your marriage immediately.
  • Admit that you will each be attracted to others, and that you may even want to have sex with others. This does not mean that you have to act on these feelings, if your agreement is that you don’t but pretending that it won’t happen is a surefire way to “tempt the devil”, as they say! Just because you find another attractive does not mean that you no longer find your partner attractive–it just means that you are alive!
  • Don’t get bored with yourself. Cheating is often a quick fix for feeling dull, unattractive, and bored–if you don’t work to feel good about yourself, how do you expect your partner to feel good about you? This is not just about working out at the gym, but also about trying new things, exploring your interests, challenging yourself, making a game out of “routines”.
  • Be loving to each other every day. The Gottmans are known for emphasizing the importance of positive interactions, especially during conflict–they say they are essential to having a strong healthy relationship. Loving actions can be small or large, it doesn’t matter, but the key is that they come from love–you want your partner to feel cared for by you. It does not take much, but the payoff is tremendous. Loving actions and words pave your relationship road with trust and closeness so that you can have those challenging discussions more easily.
  • Be respectful! This last tip could be the headline for all the others, since respect ensures that you remain interested and don’t run the risk of “missing” one another. Respect will motivate you to cherish who your partner is, who they are becoming, and who they have been, and respect will have you cherish these same qualities in yourself. Respect will discourage you from judging how you are different, recognizing that “being right” is one way to lean out of the marriage. Loving another person is not easy–honor the one who chooses to love you, and you won’t need to cheat. What you will do instead is talk and listen to each other, and adjust your agreements to better suit who you currently are both together and individually. This is respect, and in my opinion it is more important to keeping a relationship together than love.

Remember that cheating is not just about sex–that it is a betrayal of shared agreements and an act of disrespect toward your partner and yourself. And it doesn’t “just happen”. If cheating happens, you can use it as a sign that something is not being attended to between you–or you can make the other the villian and give up. Cheating is not the ultimate betrayal, it is just one form of betrayal, and it could be seen as a symptom of a shared problem. This does not let the cheater off the hook, it just keeps them from being strung up on the hook for life–a mature marriage will process the hurt and betrayal, and work together to unearth the problematic shared dynamic.

It is sad to see an otherwise good relationship end because of one instance of infidelity. It is time to reconsider how we think about love, sex, and marraige, and I am not the only one saying this. Love is not enough to keep someone from cheating on you. Love is just one element in the complex mix that makes up a relationship.  By attending to all the elements, you stand a better chance of being in a living, secure partnership–one where the love is earned and cherished and not just based on fantasy. Trust me, the effort is worth it!

TRAVELING WITHIN YOUR RELATIONSHIP

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Europe visiting ancient sites and eating wonderful food. This trip was special, as I don’t usually travel outside of California, so I really got a chance to see and do things that I don’t normally do. Since it is summer, you might have had a similar experience with your own travel adventures lately–and you may have even chosen your destination with “doing something different” as the goal.

My trip got me thinking about travel, both without and within, and as a couples therapist I could not help but wonder how the idea of “travel” might apply to the work I do. Many couples go on vacation together, but I know just as many who purposely go on separate vacations without their partners (including myself)! This used to puzzle me–but I get it now–we need to nurture the individual. I also started to think more about how we can move around without actually going anywhere–traveling within the relationship. And I thought I would share my thoughts about this as we enjoy the summer vacation season.

What does it mean to travel within the relationship, and what is the purpose of doing so?

TRAVELING TO GET AWAY: Most people think of traveling as a chance to “get away” from our lives for a spell–away from work, home, and the daily routine. I like to think of it as a chance to get away from ourselves, at least as much as that is possible. Wanting to get away from oneself does not mean that we don’t like who we are–I am referring to it in the context of wanting a different experience of ourselves than the usual.

Is it okay to want a different experience of ourselves in our relationships? Of course it is! Part of my work is helping couples talk to each other about how they are developing independent of the other: changing, growing, and learning. This is often an uncomfortable conversation, as people are worried they will be judged or rejected by their partners if they change. I help with the understanding and acceptance of this, because if there is one thing we can all count on, it is that change is inevitable!

Traveling to get away within a relationship is not something to be afraid of, as long as it benefits both the individual and the relationship. For example, let’s say that one partner decides to take a dance class on their own in order to explore something that has always interested them. This example of “traveling away” can be great for a couple if the goal is to a) create some healthy distance in the relationship; b) get excited about yourself in a new way; and c) bring the excitement of a new experience back home. You might find that if you support your partner’s individual explorations, you will never get “bored” with who they are. Besides, spending time away from each other gives you space to miss and appreciate each other!

TRAVELING TO GET PERSPECTIVE: Esther Perel has written a lot about how healthy distance elevates passion and interest in relationships. I would like to add that it also gives perspective. Perspective is valuable because it can change how we feel. When couples spend too much time together or share every activity, it can result in staleness. Some couples can be together a lot and thrive, but that is usually because they are extremely well-differentiated, so they retain their one-ness despite living in the two-ness!

Getting a new perspective applies both to how we see our partners and how we see ourselves. There is an exercise for couples where one of them goes to a bar alone and interacts with others, and then the partner comes in later and watches the interactions from a distance before joining the “game”. For extra fun, I will have the joining partner compete with others for their partner’s attention! I will often hear that excitement levels were high, and the joining partner “forgot” how attractive their partner is until they saw others interacting with them. This experiment incorporates the concepts of “risk and the forbidden“, which are two of the key elements of passion. Of course, I am talking about taking a risk, not being reckless!

TRAVELING WITHIN: We can get bored with ourselves at times, too! Daily life can feel like a routine with little change, and many of the tasks we do we are only “half-conscious” for, because they don’t require our full attention. I like the “Zen” way of thinking that says if we can’t be see value in the process, how can we see value in the reward?

Traveling within a relationship is a way to “refresh” yourself, to bring new energy and attention to days that seems just like the ones that have come before. This “traveling” is often done internally–through meditation, journaling, quiet contemplation, therapy, time in nature–where we can be in communication with ourselves and our intentions. I teach partners how to help each other travel within by asking questions about their inner emotional world. Being curious about the other can stimulate curiosity about ourselves, leading to discoveries we were not previously aware of. In a way, we are constantly traveling within, we are just not aware of it!

***

At the end of my recent travels, I was ready to come home, and excited to get back into “my life” here. I don’t travel to “get away” from my life, so I always look forward to coming back, but I do enjoy having a new experience and a new perspective. I find that these experiences resonate within me long after the vacation is over.

I encourage you to try out some travel this summer, whether it is around the world, around the block, or within. You might find that it creates changes in small but wonderful ways. We all need a break, even from what and who we love! See what traveling within relationship can do for you–you really don’t have to go too far at all.

GET INTERESTED IN EACH OTHER!

What does it mean to be interested in someone? Well, it depends on who you are asking and when you are asking, but for this article I would like to focus on “interest” as it shows up in romantic relationships. While you might wonder why this topic needs to be addressed, I can assure you that interest, as we know it, is often not the type that builds safety and security between two (or more) people.

Remember falling in love? Remember how interested you were in the other person? How you found their every word and action utterly fascinating? If you have ever had that experience, then perhaps you also experienced the interest fading over time–perhaps you started to feel that the things you were most interested in at the beginning are now annoying!

What happened?

In order to understand what happened, it is best to understand what interest in another is, and what it is not.

WHAT IT IS NOT: That obsessive interest we have in another during the infatuation stage is not really interest in them, it is interest in how great we feel when we are with them. How could it be true interest in them? Many times, we know very little about the other during those first days and weeks. What we do know is that our bodies are charged and our focus intensified when we are with our new love–and that we don’t want it to end.

Another way of saying it is that during this time, we become re-interested in ourselves! New romance makes us feel attractive, desirable, smart, energized, and yes, interesting. Our time at the beginning is usually spent trying to maintain that way of feeling, and we reinforce it by showing curiosity about how the other is just like us. Rarely do we investigate our differences, and if they come up, our brains tend to “disregard” them as it has one goal in mind: to bond with the other.

WHAT IT IS: I want to state that there is nothing wrong with the process described above, as long as you know that this is what is going on! So what is interest then, and why is it essential to relationship health?

Interest is the highest form of caring, in my book. What does that mean? It means that the elements we usually associate with caring: love, sex, patience, compromise, etc., are actually frosting to the “Interest Cake”. In my work, interest is defined as being curious about who the other is and what goes on in their inner emotional world. In question form that would look like this: “Who are you?” “What are you feeling about what happened/what I did?”

Many people associate this type of interest with therapy, but I always say to my clients that the work I do is not a different language, just a way of talking that we don’t do with one another anymore, for some reason. Our culture over the years has become increasingly self-involved, resulting in less actual conversation and more reports being traded back and forth. People often come into therapy simply because they don’t feel cared for by others in their lives–a sad state indeed!

WHAT TO DO: The good news is that you can learn how to do this with people in your life, and they can learn to do it with you. The benefit of showing interest in the other is that it diffuses defensiveness and criticism, and creates connection rather than disconnection. Interest is the cornerstone of healthy conflict! What is healthy conflict? It is when someone is upset, expresses vulnerability by talking about what they are feeling about what happened, and then is responded to by the other with curiosity, interest, and caring. That creates empathetic connection, the base of a safe and secure relationship.

This can be hard to do. We have not been taught to have this level of interest in another, so this is why I teach couples to practice it in the room and at home. As I said, this is not doing therapy, it is showing interest and care (which, by the way, is what therapists do!). When practiced regularly, it can change the dynamic in your relationships, and also prevent the staleness that can happen in a long term coupling.

The truth is that we are always changing, both individually and relationally. Being curious about those changes in someone you care about can go a long way toward ensuring that your love continues to live and grow. All it takes is a little interest!

WHY IS IT SO HARD TO SAY “HELLO”?

“You had me at hello.”

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? We come home and see our loved one, thinking that it will be a reprieve from the stress of our day. Why then do so many couples struggle with greeting one another? I have noticed that rather than feeling relieved, some feel the pressure of meeting needs or getting needs met. Many couples report feeling as though it is a “competition”.

Things are not as simple as the old days (see picture above), when men worked and wives stayed home. While not a fan of that template (it had its own problems!), I suspect that the rigid structure made it simpler to attend to each other at times, or at least simpler for men to get their needs met! Men brought home the bacon, and women fried it up in a pan. (Again, not a fan!)

Nowadays most households have both partners working, and often with opposing schedules, so who attends to whom? If both are bringing home the bacon, who does the frying? Does it have to be a tug-of-war? Is it possible to greet one another in a way that reconnects and refreshes rather than it feeling like a task? Yes it is! And it has to do more with your intention than your actions.

IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE A COMPETITION: I often hear how tired people are–the demands of work, family, and relationship can contribute to all three feeling like tasks, rather than the first serving the latter two. If you have a job where you are meeting needs for others all day long, it is reasonable to want your needs met when you get home! But is that what your partner is for? What about their needs, their tiredness? Does it have to be YOU vs. THEM?

If viewed as a competition, the choices made will serve the individual. There is nothing wrong with getting individual needs met, but many couples favor this and neglect the needs of the other and the relationship. Conflict can happen if one relies on the other for ALL their needs, seeing the relationship as a vehicle for getting some of the things that they could and should be providing for themselves! If both partners are doing this, it can cause a sense of competition to get what is wanted, with the relationship and connectedness suffering as a result.

Needing another is NOT co-dependence! We have evolved to prosper from healthy inter-dependence, which means that as I attend to you, I attend to myself. “Need competition” can only exist in relationship when a couple is disconnected, because in this state the main concern is protecting the self–there is no “relationship” to fight for. When you are connected, the relationship is as much a concern as individual needs, so attending to the other and the relationship means you both win!

WORDS CAN GET IN THE WAY: Granted, modern living can make it difficult to do this, especially if our individual needs have been neglected all day long. What can make this easier?

If you are in a relationship, how do you greet your partner(s) when you get home? Is it a kiss on the cheek and an inquiry into how their day was? Do you launch into your day, with the expectation that they will be interested and engaged in listening to you? Do the words you say often end up looking like a demand or a criticism? Are you interested in each other?

Words can get in the way of connecting meaningfully. I notice that the things many couples talk about are about everything except what would connect them: their boss, the traffic, the kids, the plans for tomorrow. All of that can wait until you actually spend some time finding out who the other is in this moment and what is going on with them, while letting them know the same about you. How is this done? Without words, sometimes! I regularly assign my couples clients the exercise of GAZING, a simple and effective way to connect to the other without talking. You simply spend a few minutes looking into their emotional world. (Click HERE for a link on how to do this exercise.)

If you want to use words, I suggest getting curious about the other who you are seeing “anew”. Some questions you could ask include: What did you find out about yourself today? What have you been waiting to share about your day? Did you talk to anyone interesting today? Where are you at right now? You can even use the time-worn “How are you?”, if you are willing to really hear their answer! Let your interest guide you as you consider what you really want to know about this person who you haven’t seen all day. Think about the effect it would have if you set aside the thought that there were exactly the same as when you last saw them.

ATTENDING TO SELF AND RELATIONSHIP: They say that how we think about reality defines our experience of reality. If you see your relationship as a place where all your needs must be met, then it is likely that you will spend a lot of time being resentful and disappointed. If, however, you see your relationship as an entity with needs of its own, apart from individual needs, then your approach will be relationship-serving as well as self-serving. The relationship will refresh you.

The result is to keep it feeling new, to stay away from the thought that there is nothing more to learn about your partner and nothing new to offer them. I see the greeting as a way to ask one another, “Who are you now?” If you ask this with genuine interest, you might be pleasantly surprised by the answer, and find yourself looking forward to reconnecting!

NOTE: Connection doesn’t always happen simultaneously. It helps to be curious about what the other needs before diving back into the relationship. How these needs are communicated is key, however. If you are one of those people who needs to “unwind” for 30 minutes before you listen to your partner, then let them know that, with the added information that you will be available in 30 minutes. Don’t leave them hanging! This is a way to take care of yourself AND take care of them!