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.

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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

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Do you remember when you first found out that Santa Claus is not real? I do, and it is not a pleasant memory! I remember how it was announced to me casually by my parents, but it felt like a hole was blown in my stomach and I was expected to act as though it were only a bruise. It was just one moment in time when my admittedly narrow child’s worldview would be abruptly expanded, challenged, or shifted by reality. Moments like these are about more than just giving up beliefs, they sometimes require a whole identity adjustment. 

And yet once I knew that Santa Claus was fictional, I could not go back to “believing” in him. Granted, it is fun to continue “pretending” that he is coming, but harmless play like that never overrides a less-exciting reality, it just makes it more bearable! We accept new truths, an expanded worldview, and move on with our lives from this broader perspective of self and world. 

Why then do so many refuse to let go of the mythology surrounding romance? 

The mythology I am specifically referring to is the belief that sex in a relationship should retain the spontaneity of the courting stage–that it should happen “organically”, or else partners have lost interest in each other. Attached to this mythology is the belief that scheduling sex is unnatural, shameful, and unsexy

The reality that I help my couples clients to experience is that the above is not true, and that scheduling sex can become something that you look forward to and enjoy! 

PASSION FADES: If we are in good physical shape when we start a relationship and want to stay that way, we don’t assume that, now that we are coupled, we no longer have to exercise. In fact, we would expect to lose muscle mass or gain weight if we stopped exercising. For many people, keeping themselves fit in a relationship or marriage is respectful to themselves and their partners, and sexy to boot! We continue to exercise if we want to stay in shape because we know that there is no other way to remain fit.

When it comes to romance, passion, and sex, we often throw the above logic out the window. A relationship that starts out with hot sex is often expected to continue along the same path, because if we love someone then surely we will keep wanting to have sex with them. If only this were the case, but it often is not. Sexual attraction, from a biological standpoint, was always intended for the short-term to foster pair bonding and procreation. 

You might be shocked to know that sex was never meant to keep a relationship together long-term, and that when our eyes wander to others, that may be a biological message telling us to bond and procreate with another (This is not a justification for infidelity, just a scientific way to understand it). There are so many more obstacles that “get in the way” of sex in the long run, with increased intimacy being one of them, since intimacy and passion are fueled by opposing elements. 

This is why it is important in a long-term relationship to be intentional about sex

(For a great read on why passion fades and how to get it back, please check out Esther Perel’s excellent book, Mating In Captivity.) 

We have been fed a myth about sex–that it should happen spontaneously and organically if we love someone. This does sometimes happen, especially in the courtship stage, but as time goes on, desire can fade for a variety of reasons. In the same way that we need to exercise to stay in shape, we need to take action if we want to maintain an active sex life with our partner. 

One of the best courses of action to take is setting aside time for sex.

SCHEDULING SEX IS SEXY: When we make a reservation to go out to dinner, we don’t expect to sit down at the restaurant and have our food immediately appear for our consumption. Usually, we take time to read the menu, noticing what looks good in the moment–what we might like to try. Then we often order appetizers and/or drinks to start, knowing that we will enjoy our meal much more once our appetite is whetted and we feel relaxed. 

Couples can use a similar approach when it comes to ensuring that they have regular sex. If you think about the dinner scenario I mention above, what is it that makes one look forward to dining at a restaurant? Knowing that we will be served, that we won’t be rushed, and that we can “set aside” current concerns in order to enjoly the meal. Sex can provide similar anticipation, but not if we treat it like a task that needs to be checked off of a list. 

What if you and your partner(s) chose to look at having sex as a respite rather than a requirement? What if you saw it as a reward to be enjoyed together rather than something to do for the other person? Remember what made sex so exciting when you were first getting to know one another: discovery, risk, mystery, interest, curiosity, exploration. Believe it or not, these elements can continue to drive sex with a regular partner even after many years–IF we are willing to see them as a changing, complex, and influential individual. 

What is sexy about scheduling sex is looking at the scheduling as a strength of your relationship rather than a weakness–you are doing something to ensure you are physically intimate with the one you most love. It is a sexy intention because it is saying to one another: “This means something to me, I love doing it with you, and I want to make sure it happens.” Scheduling intimate time together can be sexy in the same way that we love when our partner plans a romantic anniversary getaway, or decides to take up a training program to get in better shape. Scheduling sex is a form of leaning in to the relationship, saying to each other that this is too important to leave to chance. 

HOW TO START/SET ASIDE TIME TO CONNECT: The biggest challenges I hear about for couples scheduling sex are the following:

  • Anxiety about being in the mood when the time comes.
  • When one partner is struggling with not feeling desirable, sexy, or attracted to their partner.
  • Feeling tired, stressed, anxious, or depressed.
  • When sex is painful.
  • Not feeling connected to the partner.
  • Unrealistic expectations. 

Fortunately, the way around any of these issues is conversation. The exception is when sex is painful. In this case, sex must not proceed, and a doctor or urologist’s assistance needs to be sought out. Sometimes painful sex can be resolved through simple education, as when a post-menopausal woman is not aware that lubricant is needed, but I always want to rule out a medical condition first. 

For the rest of the issues, my job is to help partners talk about them. These conversations can actually lessen the problem, because when done well, they foster trust, safety, understanding, and connection–all of which are vital to a healthy sex life! A well-trained couples therapist can be essential in helping a couple have these talks. 

For the purposes of this article, however, I want to focus on the best approach to scheduling sex: Don’t schedule sex! Instead, schedule uninterrupted time together. When you schedule sex, anxiety can ramp up because there is an expectation for performance and desire. Strong performance and natural desire are most likely to show up when partners are relaxed, not stressed or anxious, so by removing the expectation for sex, you keep the nervous system calm and allow the body to respond to stimulation. 

Here is how it can look:

  1. Set aside an uninterrupted block of time–no kids, no phones, no emails, no television.
  2. Establish consent to be with each other, as well as the right to reject what another is doing. (True consent is not only about saying “yes”, but also being able to say “no”.)
  3. Spend some time connecting either through casual conversation, eye-gazing, light touch or massage, sensate focus touch, sharing a bath or shower, spooning one another, dancing, or feeding each other fresh strawberries–your imagination can come up with what works for the two of you. 
  4. Take intercourse or penetration off the table as a desired outcome–instead shoot for the connection, and trust what comes out of that. Note: it may not be intercourse, and that’s okay! 
  5. Be willing to be influenced by your partner–by their body, their touch, their playfulness–join with them as a teammate to play the game of arousal. (A great way to prepare for this beforehand is to have a conversation about “What turns you on?” and “What turns you off?”)
  6. TRUST THE PROCESS. I have said this before, and it allows couples to be more present in the moment with each other instead of in a hoped-for or dreaded future outcome (anxiety), and it also lets the right brain (the feeling brain) take the wheel, which is essential for erotic connection. You may move toward intercourse or penetration, or you may not–trusting the process lets you find the sweet spot for that particular time period. Intercourse ideally comes not from clenched jaw determination, but from moving up the levels of arousal together through exploration, discovery, and play. 

(Read how to use Sensate Focus Touching to kindle sexual arousal in one another.) 

It used to be that men wanted sex all the time and women needed to be aroused before wanting it. But this is not the case anymore, because general anxiety is higher for both sexes, and that can drastically impair sex drive–resulting in neither partner initiating. So the way “into sex” is not through sex drive, but through arousal, for both partners. Arousal comes from a state of relaxation and connection. Mind you, that connection does not have to start with your partner–it can be a connection to your own eroticism via porn or fantasy. But if you want to have regular sex (whatever that is for you), then you are going to need to allow time to relax together and connect first. 

In order to allow that time for your relationship, set aside time together, allow yourself to breathe, be present, move your body and touch each other in a way that fits the moment. You will discover that scheduling sex is not really about sex at all–it is about so much more, and one of the best actions you can do for long-term relationship satisfaction. 

DON’T BE A THERAPIST WITH ME!

Working with couples, it is not uncommon to hear similar complaints from different clients. This is not unusual, because the unifying issue for ALL couples who come to me is that they are disconnected. This does not mean that they don’t love one another, instead it means that they have run into any number of differences that are making things, including loving one another, difficult and causing them to turn away from each other.

What is disconnection? In simplest terms, it refers to when you no longer see your partner as your teammate–instead you see them as a threat, an enemy, someone you can’t trust, someone who is not on your side. This happens to everyone at times, not just those who have negative experiences in their past. Our brains are wired to push back when presented with something we don’t understand, that seems too unfamiliar, or that suggests a betrayal. Our goal is to protect ourselves. We do this by disconnecting: pushing the other away or shutting them out of our emotional life.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t work! At least not if you want a relationship that can handle the inevitable difficult conversations as well as the individual growth and changes each partner experiences. So what do I tell these couples who are wanting to reconnect but don’t trust one another? I tell them to start acting like a therapist with one another, though I may not use those exact words. Let’s look at what I mean…

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BAD AND GOOD THERAPISTS: As students, we are told in graduate school that clients don’t benefit from one therapeutic theory/approach more than another. What actually creates change in the room is the relationship between the client and the therapist. This relationship is professional, but it is also a kind of friendship with boundaries. And the important elements of this relationship include empathy, curiosity, and caring from the therapist toward the client.

You might say that these elements make good therapy. What then makes a good therapist? Is it simply the application of empathy, curiosity, and caring? Well, yes, but it has to be genuine.

I will freely admit that there are days when I wish I could go on a bike ride rather than see my next client, but when that client shows up, it is my responsibility to him/her/them to show up authentically–to do so otherwise would betray the trust they have in me. Fortunately, the work always pulls me in, regardless of what I was feeling before the session, because “caring” is a form of mindfulness: bringing oneself into the moment. When I am truly in the moment, caring, there is no place I would rather be, even if it is a good day for a bike ride!

The difference between a good therapist and a bad therapist is that a bad therapist will fake it in the moment. Showing up for someone does not always mean that you want to be there, it simply means that you truly show up, and people can tell when this is happening. We do this for others because, hopefully, we know that others will do it for us. And I remind you that showing up for someone, being needed, is what lends meaning to our lives.

THE BENEFIT OF BEING LIKE A “GOOD THERAPIST” IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP: When a therapist is able to shift into the moment and offer genuine caring, both the client and the therapist benefit! When two people are in the moment with each other, that connection is where healing can occur. The good news is that this healing connection is not only available in the therapist office–you can get it in your personal relationships as well. But sometimes partners need to learn how to do this with each other.

When I talk to couples about the benefits of learning how to truly listen to one another, I can see the doubt in their eyes, because most would rather problem-solve than listen. I then tell them that listening well, when your partner is in pain, is much easier than trying to solve the problem, and it actually works! Easier for the listener, more helpful for the talker. I have nothing against problem-solving, but couples rarely come to me because they are struggling with that–mostly they don’t know what to do if problem-solving is not called for.

Listening to someone we care about when they are in pain or upset with us can be difficult, but the best way out of that difficulty is to turn on your caring and your curiosity. This approach will not only lower the upset in the talker, but will also lessen the feeling you have of being powerless, criticized or attacked. It works because the highest form of caring is interest, not fixing.

This can require some re-wiring of our brains, as many of us are conditioned to fix when we can. We all grow up hearing the phrase: “Don’t just sit there, DO something!”, but in relationships the opposite (Don’t just do something, sit there!) is what is most helpful when feelings are being discussed. Pain is eased when we are supported, listened to, empathized with, and not judged. All of this can be accomplished by simply sitting with someone, perhaps asking what they need from you, and then doing exactly that.

The benefit is that you end up strengthening connection, trust, safety, caring, and understanding. 

APPLYING THIS TO YOUR RELATIONSHIP: So why don’t couples do this with one another? The simplest answer is because it is not natural for us to respond this way when we feel threatened or are upset–this is the reason we rely on our therapists! Therapists have an easier time responding with caring and curiosity because of their training and also the professional boundaries that help the therapist to lean into the caring without taking any behavior by the client personally.

(Additionally couples don’t do this because they have not built a safe and secure foundation of trust through consistent small acts of caring, but that is a topic for another essay.)

The reason for learning how to act like a good therapist with your partner is two-fold: it is good for the relationship, and it save you from having to spend money anytime on therapy anytime you have a conflict that you cannot resolve easily.

Why are partners hesitant to accept this approach from their partners? Well, the reason I notice most often is because so many people don’t trust caring. They grew up not being cared about, or at least their emotional world was not cared about, or worse yet, they were betrayed by the one responsible for caring about them. This type of experience can wire the brain to be suspicious when someone is curious about your feelings–but with a therapist you might feel like you are on equal footing because you are paying for the service (you have the control).

In a relationship, you might not feel in control when your partner starts to inquire about what’s going on with you, IF they inquire at all! And often the inquiry can feel disingenuous or condescending to us, even when genuine, and we suspect that there are ulterior motives for the questions. This is the time to take a deep breath with a slow exhale, and see if you can access your feelings and express them.

Answering questions about out inner life requires that we take the risk of being vulnerable and trusting in front of the person doing the asking, and that can be hard if we are upset with them in the moment. But it CAN be done! Like any skill that is not natural (a new language, playing a musical instrument, baking sourdough bread), it takes practice, patience, and humility, three qualities that are in short supply these days. But just because there is a disease in society does not mean that you have to bring it into your home.

The next time you feel like your partner is “being a therapist” with you, pause for a moment and ask yourself if they may be trying hard to care about you by showing interest. Help them out–if they are pursuing a dead end let them know, and tell them what road you are on, even if you are “lost”. These are the conversations that bring couples closer, build trust and safety, and heal past wounds, and you don’t need to be in a therapist’s office in order to have them!

WHEN THE OUTSIDE WORLD AFFECTS YOUR RELATIONSHIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW TO WEATHER THE AFFECTS:

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

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

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

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

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

(Read: “How To Practice Mindfulness”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BEST GIFTS YOU CAN GIVE

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

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

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

What are these gifts? Read on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Who wouldn’t want to receive that gift?

 

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.

***

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!