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!

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!

 

WHAT IS “SMART THERAPY”?

Heart inside brain

WHAT IS “SMART THERAPY”?

It seems that people who seek out therapy are usually fairly intelligent. After all, it takes some mental effort to examine one’s life! I like to think of myself in this way as well, yet to this day I am regularly asked why I go to therapy (implying that I should be able to “figure it out” myself!) While that is often the case, there are instances when it is difficult to even know what is in the way of change! We can’t always “see” everything, because some of the obstacles in our lives put themselves in the way without even being noticed, and then continue to “hide” behind expectations, cultural trends, and family tradition. 

This dilemma fascinates me, and has led me to make it the  direction of my practice. How can we become “smarter” in our life and relationships? Read on…

The Brain
Intelligence is a double-edged sword, don’t you think? On one hand, it makes available a way of thinking that can include greater skills of critical thinking, reasoning, and insight. However, it can also lead to frustration when we have difficulty “thinking” our way out of a problem. Not all solutions in life are found in books!

Our brain does not always work in our favor. Because it has evolved over time from initially one to now three main parts, it can be thought of as a computer that uses both new AND old operating systems. What this means for us in the world is that our intuitive nature and our reason don’t always line up on the same side. For instance, we might find ourselves drawn to an ex who we know is not good for us, or we might be confused at why we stay at a job where we are treated badly. In my youth, I regularly beat myself up for choosing people and places that were not good for me! Often, I see clients who place the blame on themselves when this type of thing happens, as if they “should have known better”. Well what exactly does “knowing better” mean, and is that possible?

Smart Lives 
Shame and embarrassment tend to stop the process of reflection and insight cold. Who wants to think about change when the thinking about it makes one feel worse about themselves? In my work, I get curious about why we should know better–who would have told us the information? I notice that most people do the best they can with the limited and mostly misleading facts we are given regarding human nature, relationships, and the brain. If you are going to start making smarter decisions (intuition and reasoning line up), then you need to know what you are dealing with and how to interpret what your head is telling you. You need to know what you are doing that and whether or not that is getting you where you would like to go.

Smart Relationships 
Smart relationships come from smart choices! This means knowing what your intuition is telling you about someone (attach, attach!), and not putting meaning into that feeling that does not belong there (I’m in love!). It means paying attention to what your reasoning says (don’t get involved with an unavailable person!) and recognizing that that may go against the feeling of attraction. Smart choices come from considering all of that information, and then carefully weighing it out, over time, as you add more information to the mix. You do not need to make a decision right away, in fact, you can’t make a “smart” decision until you have more information! Along the way, you can “enjoy” the excitement of attraction while not letting that influence your decision about compatibility too heavily, too soon. Smart means recognizing that attraction is only one component of compatibility, and giving appropriate meaning to respective experiences with that person. Falling in lovemay be a romantic ideal, but it does not always lead to a smart relationship! If you are intent on running that race, I suggest you educate yourself about the sport!

Smart Therapy
My focus on Smart Therapy is a way for me to incorporate all my favorite approaches in the room: compassion for a client’s self-judgement; psycho-education and referrals for further exploration; and vigorous discussions that examine and deconstruct the stories that influence relationship decisions, with the opportunity to then choose smartly with awareness! Wouldn’t it be nice to find out that you can break painful patterns and increase the odds of reaching your goals? My focus is a way to help decrease the confusion, anger, frustration, and regret around your relationship choices. While no approach is a guarantee of a particular outcome, you can greatly increase your chances for having smarter relationships!

WHAT IS THERAPY AND WHAT IS IT NOT?

Therapist Furniture

All too often I hear from people that they don’t “need” to be in therapy because they already do yoga/exercise/journaling/meditation/etc., and these activities are “therapy” for them. While I support the positive impact of these activities in their life, I gently assert that while they may be therapeutic, they are not therapy. Why would I say this?

These days, I am pleased to notice that in Los Angeles we are, as a whole, taking better care of ourselves: eating healthy, exercising, moderate drinking, less smoking, keeping our weight down. I am in the camp that promotes these ideas and activities as contributing to a more peaceful and joyful life. As a psychotherapist, I am committed to not only the mental and emotional well-being of my clients, but also to overall well-being, and that is why I am happy to provide referrals regarding an interest in nutrition, exercise, yoga, community, and the like. I practice what I preach, striving to keep a balance on my own self-care, since I am well aware of the impact of general health on our mental and emotional states. I also engage in my own personal psychotherapy, for it provides me a service and experience that is not duplicated among any of the other self-care activities I engage in.

Then what is the difference between all these activities and therapy? I see psychotherapy as less an activity and more of a relationship. It is through the relationship between the therapist and the client that healing and change can occur. This relationship is specific and intentionally limited in scope; it differentiates itself from “friendship” by being less of a two-way street, and more centered on the client. Regardless of the modality of the therapy, the key to the work is in the empathy and compassion displayed by the therapist toward the client, and the client’s experience of being heard in a non-judging manner. I remember how one time I visited my therapist and I was sharing with her how disappointed I was at myself for being so angry that day. When I confessed my anger to loved ones in the world, I was usually met by either a story of their own (sometimes helpful) or an admonishment that I should know better (not helpful). But on this day my therapist said something to me that had never been said to me before. After I told her how angry I was and at how upset I was at myself, she replied, “How could you NOT be angry, given what happened to you?”

Nobody had ever said that to me before. Nobody. THAT was therapy.

Her question “made room” for my authentic feelings, whether they were appropriate or not. Before I could explore what was going on with me, I had to be able to see it without shame, and it was helpful to have her as a collaborative witness to my exploration, discovery, and ultimate decision of how to respond differently. I felt seen and heard in a way I had never felt seen and heard before. I felt that I was given permission to be angry, even if I DID know better! I felt like it was okay  for me to have this very human emotion, and that I had a right to be upset about some of the things that had happened to me. I had a right to be angry, sad, upset, and hurt. Within the therapeutic relationship, there was space for me to feel all of these things, fully. That is where healing occurs. This is not the only way to heal or change, but it is specific to psychotherapy. This is a different benefit than one gained from yoga, meditation, exercise, friendship, or dancing. Those are therapeutic, but they are not therapy.

When I initially speak with a client, it is important for me to understand what they are seeking, and what they hope to gain from that effort. It is important to find out if therapy, and specifically therapy with me, is going to be the right approach for them. This is why I like to clarify what therapy is, and what it is not. It is not friendship, it is not advice, it is not me telling someone what to do, and it is not coaching. It is a unique collaboration where change and healing can occur. It is a place where creativity and insight can bloom. It is a place where the unspeakable can be spoken, and where shame can be exposed and weakened. It is where caring comes from compassion rather than agenda, and where it is perfectly, perfectly okay for you to talk all about yourself! It is two sets of eyes when one set is unable to see clearly, it is two beating hearts when one is breaking. It is two minds working against the problem; it is two imaginations writing a new story.

That is what therapy is.