I highly recommend this article by my colleague, Joyce Smith. I think it will help people understand why it’s so hard to stop looping and feeling overwhelmed after discovering an affair…
27 Sep 2012 3 Comments
24 Jul 2012 1 Comment
Fights are never what they seem to be. She may be saying she’s angry because you never help with the laundry. She may BELIEVE she’s angry because you never help with the laundry. But the laundry is a placeholder. It could really be anything. What she really wants is to be taken care of. It’s what we all want.
Over and over, couples come to therapy because one person feels alone, neglected, or unwanted. The person that feels this pain picks a fight, hoping to get through to their partner. The belief, often unconscious, goes something like this. “If I can make him/her feel as bad as I do, he/she will understand and do better.”
Instead, the original pain is lost to a chain reaction. The partner who is supposed to learn from being punished instead gets defensive. “Oh yeah, well you never help with the dishes!” (or bills, or diapers or whatever). And when the fight takes over, no one wins. Over time, these interactions erode trust, love and security.
If your partner is complaining or punishing you, it can really help to take a step back and ask yourself, what security need is not being met? There are only three to choose from, safety, soothing, and specialness.
Safety: Does my partner feel I’ve put them down, dismissed their needs, punished them or left them to fend for themselves? Can my partner talk to me about difficult things. Do I hear his/her emotional distress and respond with kindness?
Soothing: Has my partner had a rough day? Is he/she stressed? Is he/she not feeling well? Am I listening with my full attention. Am I being affectionate? Am I reassuring him/her that no matter what happens, I will always be here, I will always love him/her?
Specialness: Does my partner feel like he/she is special to me? Have I been spending time with him/her? Have I told him/her how important he/she is to me? Have I done anything recently to show him/her that he/she is the only one who makes me feel this good?
These may be the last things on your mind when your partner seems to be attacking you. Which is why I’m writing this. It might not feel natural to behave in a loving way with someone who is angry. The key is to see that the anger is a defensive way of communicating distress. If your partner could, he/she would tell you, “Honey, I’ve had the hardest day, and I really need you to hold me and tell me everything will be okay.”
You may be thinking, well that’s his/her responsibility, isn’t it? Why should I have to interpret what’s going on under the defenses? The answer is this. YOUR happiness and security depends on it. Would you rather spend the rest of the evening fighting or getting the silent treatment? OR would you like to have the power to defuse your partner’s anger and create more kindness and love?
Imagine what it would be like if you always knew the right thing to say to bring any argument to an end and feel loving and close. Isn’t that a win? And if it’s not a win, what defenses or demons in you are stopping you from being a secure base for your partner? Does gentleness or tenderness mean you’re a wimp? Does it feel shameful to feel or see someone else feeling vulnerable?
In my next post, we’ll look at the other side of this partnership – what you might do to increase the security of a partner who withdraws.
18 Jun 2012 4 Comments
You’re picking up his socks, fuming, muttering epithets under your breath.
You’re listening to another one of her tirades, nothing you do is ever good enough.
At a party, he jokes about your closet, or hobbies, or (gulp) weight.
Her girlfriends stop talking when you come into the room.
These are just a few of the many scenarios that leave couples saying, “why am I doing this?”
It would be great if they taught relationship skills in High School. We’d use them daily, unlike, say, algebra. But they don’t. And unless you come from parents who had amazing relationship skills (and taught them to you), then you’re winging it. Most couples wait too long to get help. It may be that therapy seems scary – what if the therapist takes the other person’s side or makes you do things you don’t want to do.
But counseling really helps when couples make it in early enough. In fact, pre-marital counseling is usually the most successful. In the early stages of relationship, there is a big emotional reserve of love and kindness that helps couples withstand conflict about money, in-laws, parenting, and how to load the dishwasher correctly.
Regardless of what stage of relationship you’re in, you can make positive changes, even if your partner doesn’t want to change! The key lies in understanding some basic concepts and committing to changing YOURSELF (not the other person).
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- No one wants to be mean or hurtful, when we hurt others, it’s because we are hurting inside and feeling vulnerable.
- When we feel hurt or emotionally threatened, our fight/flight reflexes take over. This is automatic and requires time, soothing and emotional safety to recover and return to a loving place.
- Relationship problems are never what they seem. Everything from arguments about cleaning to infidelity are symptoms of attachment or bonding wounds, often from very early childhood.
So, if all of this is automatic and started in childhood, how do we change?
The first step is to realize that the PRIMARY function of your couple relationship is to provide a safe place for each person to be themselves.
The second step is to begin learning what makes your partner feel safe and what makes him/her feel unsafe emotionally. As you learn this, your job is to shift your behavior so he/she feels safer more of the time.
REMEMBER this step will backfire if you focus on changing the other person so you feel safe. Often your own safety will come naturally as your partner feels safer and softens toward you. If this doesn’t occur naturally within a month or two, then counseling may be needed.
The third step is to recognize that neither of you will ever be perfect. The good news is, you don’t have to be. Learning how to mend when one of you gets hurt is really what works. Take time to learn what makes your partner feel safe again and re-connected to you. For some people it’s a sincere and genuine apology. For others, actions speak louder than words. And for others still, it’s a combination that reflects you understand how your actions caused pain and your ongoing commitment to changing so you don’t cause more pain
18 Mar 2011 3 Comments
Have you ever found yourself in the middle of an argument and wondered, “how did I get here?” Have you ever wondered, “How do I get out of here?”
Couples that fight are invariably couples that are locked in a shame cycle. One of both of you learned that having needs meant you were weak, needy or somehow not okay. This may have been explicit or implicit. So instead of asking for help, support or understanding directly, you say or do something indirect. Instead of saying, I’m tired and I need help with the dishes, you leave them in the sink or say something like, “why is it always my job to do the dishes?” which puts your partner on the defensive.
When I coach couples to speak from a more direct place, they often squirm. Saying, “Honey, I don’t feel like doing dishes, would you do them?” in a soft and gentle voice feels like a huge risk.
“He’s just going to say no, or tell me I’m being ridiculous.” I hear.
“Let’s try it,” I say, “and if his response is mean or defensive, maybe we can help him out.
“It doesn’t matter what I say. I’ve tried it every which way, and she always ends up pissed at me.” He says.
This is a very discouraged, tired and lonely couple, and their feelings are contagious. I can feel myself wanting to tell them both to just shut the f up and do what I say. Not particularly therapeutic. But I know that the feelings I’m having are not mine. I know that I am resonating with their experience, feeling what they are feeling.
“I wonder if either of you is wishing the other person would just shut up and listen to you?”
“Yes!” They both say in unison. And we finally have some common ground!
“So each of you is feeling the same thing!?” I ask, though it’s more observation than question.
“I guess,” one or the other offers tentatively.
“Where do you feel this wish in your body?” I ask the one who guesses.
“In my arms,” he says, pushing the air in front of him.
“And you?” I ask the other.
“Same,” she says, pushing the air too.
“Wow, so you are both feeling the same thing and your bodies are holding it in the same way. There is so much resonance between you!” They don’t respond. They are not ready to feel what they share.
“What are you pushing away?” I ask him.
If it stops there, she is left feeling like the bad guy. But I know he doesn’t want to push her away. They’ve been fighting like this for 15 years. If either wanted it to end, it would have ended by now.
“Yes, and what aspect of her are you pushing away.”
“Her not hearing me.”
“Yes, and what else?”
“Her not caring about me.”
“Yes, and what else?”
“Her not seeing that I’m a good guy.”
His voice has a little tremor, a little emotion in it. I look at her, and she is not seeing the vulnerability. She is lost in feeling criticized. I stay with him, but keep an eye on her.
“Stay with this experience, pushing away her not hearing, not caring, not seeing you. Where else have you felt this in your life?” I encourage.
“My father.” He says.
“Tell me about your father.”
“He always assumed the worst about me. When there was a mess in the house, he always came to me first and made me clean it up – even if it wasn’t my mess.”
“What did he look like when he made you clean up?”
“Mean, angry, fed up with me.”
“What did you want him to feel about you?”
“I wanted him to love me, to know that I loved him. I wanted his approval more than anything. I wanted him to be proud of me.” He is tearing up. His wife’s expression has softened.
“What are you seeing in her eyes now?” I ask, nudging him to look up at her.
His face stays downcast and he says, “She doesn’t care.” And in this moment, he could easily drive away the compassion she is feeling for him.
“That’s not what I’m seeing.” I say to him, but hoping that my words will help keep her from hardening again. “What I see is more like tenderness, (her face softens again) and I think it might be important for you to see that.”
He looks up, searching. She has heard me, and stays soft to him. “She looks… like she cares?” He says, surprised.
“Do you?” I ask her.
“Yes I care! I never saw him like this before. I mean, I knew his dad could be an ass, but he always seemed like he just rolled with it.”
“Like he was tough?” I ask.
“Yeah. He’s very tough.”
“How did you learn to be tough?” I ask him.
“I figured out pretty young that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted from him, so I just stopped caring.”
“What about you?” I turn to her, “How did you learn to be tough?” since she is too.
“For me, it was growing up with brothers. If I didn’t act tough, they would call me baby, tease me, pinch me, that kind of thing.”
“Toughness really protected both of you,” I say. And they both nod. “But now, you’re paying a price for that protection.” I continue, and they nod some more, each still looking in the other one’s eyes. “What do you really want to experience together?” I ask.
“Tenderness,” he says.
“Yeah. That would be good,” she says.
“And if you felt tenderness when you didn’t want to do the dishes, what would that sound like?” I ask.
“Babe, I’m wiped, could you do the dishes?” she says, looking tenderly at him.
“I’m wiped too. Maybe we could do them together?” he offers.
“How does this feel?” I ask.
“Better,” he says.
“Much better,” she agrees.
There are so many tiny moments when an argument can either spiral downward or upward. When we grow up shamed, we tend to look away right at the moment when our partner is offering a look of care or concern. Or we see the care and dismiss it, focusing on what feels more familiar – criticism, anger, detachment. If you fight a lot, I have a challenge for you. Can you find a moment of care or tenderness in your partner? If it’s hard to find there, can you offer a moment of care or tenderness and stay with it until he/she is able to see it and take it in? While it’s not easy (maybe not even possible) during a fight, could each of you commit to looking for these moments as often as possible when you’re not fighting? If you try this, I would love to hear your comments and find out what happens.
03 Jan 2011 1 Comment
Everyone tells new parents how hard it’s going to be. But you can’t really know till you’re there yourself, sleep deprived, wanting to do your best at this very important job, and always feeling overwhelmed by the demands. This is an especially hard time for couples.
A lot of people who had great relationships before baby find themselves arguing more, feeling resentful of each other, feeling rejected or abandoned by their partner. If you’re coming into parenthood in your thirties or later, it may also be difficult to adjust to the changes in scheduling. One of you may have stopped working, and you’re feeling the financial pressure. You may not have the support of family or trusted friends and feel like you have to do it all yourself. If you both go back to work, then you may feel worried about childcare or guilty that you’re not with your child enough. And, while tending to the needs of this vulnerable, little person, it’s all too easy to neglect each other, not to mention yourselves.
It’s helpful to recognize that this transition comes with a lot of unexpected stresses. Often there are elements you could never have predicted. You or your spouse may have post-partum depression or anxiety. The baby may have difficulty feeding, sleeping, or some other distress you couldn’t anticipate. You may not have realized how childbirth and parenting would impact your sex life. You may feel resentful of the changes – but also guilty for feeling bad.
A lot of new parents have an idea that they have to pretend that everything is fine, even to themselves. Complaining may seem like you don’t love your child, or that you’re somehow not up to the task of parenthood. Sometimes couples don’t even talk to each other about these feelings, and neither one knows the other is going through the same thing. They end up feeling isolated. Or they fight about cleaning or money, not realizing that what they’re really feeling is lonely and overwhelmed.
If your relationship has suffered since the baby was born, it’s essential that you make some changes right away. When couples ignore problems, they tend to grow rather than to resolve. Talk to your partner gently about how you’re feeling. Don’t attack or criticize. Instead share how hard it is, how different from what you expected. Tell your partner that even though you seem angry or distant, really what you’re feeling is exhausted or overwhelmed. Tell him/her that even though you love your child, you miss the time you used to take for granted, time together and time for yourselves.
Sometimes these conversations are difficult to have on your own. It can feel scary or risky to open up and let yourself be so vulnerable. It may be hard to find the time without distractions to really listen to each other. Your partner may be too defensive to hear you. Or you might not know how to phrase things – so they come out wrong. It may just feel like there’s too much water under the bridge.
If you need assistance getting your relationship back on track, you might want to meet with a counselor who specializes in couples therapy – someone who has a lot of experience working with new parents. Therapy can help you clarify what each of you is feeling, wanting and needing. It’s a place where you can learn effective communication skills. In the process, many couples find a new sense of peace and equilibrium. They find it easier to turn to each other when the demands of parenting get overwhelming. They have more empathy and understanding for each other. They recognize that even though there are times when they can’t give each other what’s needed in the moment, there is still a deep bond of love, concern and friendship.
Couples who take care of their relationships live longer, happier lives and have happier, more secure kids. So don’t hesitate to get the help you need to strengthen your marriage.
26 Oct 2010 1 Comment
Steps to Healing Jealousy
If jealousy isn’t addressed with love, understanding and restoration of positive feelings, it will return over and over again. You already know from experience that jealousy can’t be fixed with arguments or avoidance.
- To heal jealousy, you both need to know that it may have deep roots in a very painful past experience of being abandoned, rejected to made to feel less-than or not-good-enough.
- Being ashamed of feeling jealous gets in the way of healing. So identify and let go of shame.
- If the jealous partner could calm themselves down, they would. They need help to do so. If your partner is jealous, make a commitment to helping them feel safe with you. This may mean spending special time together daily. It may mean sharing phone records openly. It may mean reassuring them using affection, tenderness and finding the right words – words that really make them feel safe and loved.
If it’s hard to heal jealousy on your own, it may be time to get outside help. Really understanding the roots of jealousy, overcoming shame, shifting negative beliefs, and changing defensive reactions is a big task. But it is a do-able task, and one that can make your relationship strong, safe, secure and deeply loving.
28 Sep 2010 1 Comment
When Your Partner Gets Jealous
When your partner feels jealous, you may get triggered too. Their intense feelings may trigger a painful counter-reaction in you. Often the feeling or belief is, “She/he thinks I’m a bad person, a liar, a cheater.” Then YOU feel threatened. Your sense of self – of being a good, kind and loving person is threatened.
When we’re “under siege” – having an experience like the one above, we lose the ability to think clearly and empathize with our loved one. If your partner’s jealousy make you feel angry or hurt, your primary aim and focus will naturally be restoring your own feelings of worth and goodness.
You may argue, trying to convince him/her that he/she is wrong. Or you may withdraw, protecting yourself from the negative words and feelings. But these reactions don’t work. Your partner can’t be convinced, no matter what you say. And if you withdraw, he/she gets even more upset – in his/her fear of losing you, he/she has in fact “lost” you – even if its only for a few hours.