The Journey of Improving A Relationship

The Journey of Improving A Relationship

How does having a significant illness relate to being in a relationship that doesn’t work? How do we take that understanding and apply it to improve our relationships?

In 2016, when I was struggling with Lyme disease, in desperation, I went to an alternative treatment center. The treatments included shots, IV’s and fevers which could get out of control, body temperatures moving to unsafe levels. The needles pushing through tender skin, hurting despite the icing of the area previously. The weight of the IV needle in the vein hindering easy movement. There was no way to escape the discomfort of the treatments that went on from morning into the night for several months or the exhaustion from both the illness and the remedy. I found the treatment to be stressful, traumatic and at times painful. But I knew I needed to get better and I was willing to suffer to find my health again.

You might ask how this situation relates to being in a relationship that isn’t as good as it could be, or where a couple is struggling. These two journeys are somewhat different, but parallels exist. In both cases, we are in a state of dis-ease and we are looking for healing or wholeness.

When I was at that clinic, I created a mantra, which I used to focus my intentions and attitudes.

Please help me find health.

Please help me be safe.

Please help me have courage.

Please help me hear the guidance of my higher self.

I silently repeated this mantra over and over. When I was getting a painful shot or sitting in a bathtub full of ice and ice water in an attempt to keep my fever from getting dangerously high, I would say this mantra to myself. I used it to ground myself. I used it to keep my focus clear. I used it to reassure and soothe myself.

A person in a failing relationship can easily get overwhelmed with distress, with feeling unsafe emotionally, with not knowing if they can get through the difficulties, with lacking clarity and not knowing which way to turn or how to navigate through the disruptions between themselves and their partner. Like my Lyme journey, a relational journey also requires courage, reassurance, guidance, safety and the desire for the relationship to return to health or wholeness.

I was lucky to have mostly kind staff and nurses, and the patients were silly and playful with each other. We created the support we needed amongst ourselves. Connection is another part of what gets us through difficult times. In a relationship that works, we have connection that supports us through life’s challenges. But in a relationship that doesn’t work, often we do not have that safe connection with our partner.

It is painful when we fight, when we don’t know if our relationship will survive. It is painful to feel confused and not know which way to turn, or how to get an argument to turn into a more productive conversation.

Yet our desires for a better relationship are achievable. We can learn how to create healthy emotional and relational selves. We can create safety in our relationship. We can find our courage if we have guidance. And we can learn to ‘hear’ the right way to go.

But without new information coming into our ‘system’ we often don’t know how to proceed.

WeConcile is a do-it-yourself online relationship course designed to teach you how to change your relationship, how to make it safe and healthy. You can find your courage and become a full team with your partner. You will learn new ways of being that will open up new connections in your relationship. And unlike dealing with a major illness, you can enjoy the process of gaining more contact with, and understanding of your partner.

Recovering from Lyme disease is a long journey. Some of the people I went to that clinic with have passed. They were not able to defeat the disease. Others are still struggling. Some, like myself, are more or less, better. I never gave up. I sought to recover, to find new knowledge, new tools. It took many treatments, a clear focus on what I wanted, and continued courage and persistence. I was one of the lucky ones who found what I needed.

You are on your own journey. But a journey is just that – moving through terrain, from one location to another. Your journey can lead you to a place where you have the love you have always desired. Don’t give up on your dreams. It is completely doable to create a nourishing and peaceful relationship and the process of doing so is no longer a mystery. A science of love exists with the tools you need. You only need to choose to begin the journey of healing your relationship.

Announcing WeConcile™

Architecting Your Own Intimacy – Repairing, Rebuilding & Creating Love

I have been deep in writing a new web-based and interactive program to help couples (or any two people) connect more fully and resolve conflicts, bringing harmony and peace to their relationship. This is something that I have been working on for nearly two years (and with some months to go before it is complete).

How I make my own life meaningful, and what inspires me, is the process of focusing on and stepping into the dark parts of myself, my relationships and my world in order to bring light, peace, beauty and love into those areas that are un-enlightened, fearful, suffering or in pain. As I look at the trauma and darkness in the world around me, this feels especially pertinent at this time. For me, life is a metaphor of bringing light into our own darkness, whether it is external in the outer world, or internal, in my own self and process. Consequently, bringing harmony, peace and love into our lives and relationships is a process that I am deeply involved in.

Because I grew up in an environment with emotional trauma, conflict and disconnection, and have spent years not only undoing the damage caused by that, transforming my own negative parts, and expanding and developing myself, this mission is close to my heart.  I believe that we can all learn to engage in the ‘underground’ processes of healing, and collaborate and support each other in this endeavor.

Over the years of working both as a therapist and a couples’ therapist I have come to believe that something more is needed to help all of us with our relationships.  Many of us just don’t have the skills we need. Therapy has limitations due to its cost, and many therapists, though effective with individuals, don’t have the specialized training needed to be effective when working with couples. The time constraints of people’s busy lives, and the stigma that therapy has for some also inhibit people seeking help.  Additionally, I have wanted to expand out of working one-to-one to a place where I could do more writing and impact a larger group.

I began to think about a low cost way to ‘teach’ people while overcoming these obstacles. I began to wonder if I could make experiential relationship help available to the many who cannot afford couples counseling – a place where they could learn, while collaborating and supporting each other. I found the idea exciting, although scary. Am I wasting my time? Can this actually be done and can I do it?  Couples therapy is hard enough with a therapist in the room. How could it possibly work on the web?

One day, a web programmer friend was visiting.  As he talked about his web-based product, a light bulb went off.  ‘This can be done,’ I thought.  At the time, I was continuing in advanced training in couple’s therapy.  So along with my knowledge of self-growth and healing and my ability to write, all the pieces were there.  Thus began the birth of WeConcile™.

Let me present some broad ideas about what needs to happen in any ‘self growth’ endeavor by starting with some observations and analogies.

I was watching TV the other night and a dancer/choreographer whose name I don’t remember was talking on a panel. The other 4 people on the panel were not dancers.  I was very aware of how evolved this man’s body and being appeared, how he moved his arms and gestured when he talked, how he carried himself, how his body and self seemed much more alive than the others.  It was clear that as a dancer, he had developed a relationship to his body, lets call it his mind/body, extensively, and in a way the others had not.  In comparison, they appeared almost unintelligent.

In contrast to those who are highly developed, are those of us who are ‘regular,’ with more typical levels of skill and ability.

And then there are those of us who have been deprived, neglected or even abused in some way while we were developing.  Our development has actually been suppressed, leaving us with gaps in our skill set, or perhaps having to adapt, almost the way a tree that is growing under a large object has to bend and twist and turn to find its way to the sun, or how one that is growing in bad soil or a harsh environment may end up smaller.

This is the spectrum, ranging from the full development of one’s capacity, even beyond what most people do, through the realm of normal, all the way to a place where there are scars or underdevelopment caused by abuse or limitations.

Lets apply these ideas to relationships.  Successful relationships often require all three things:

  • The correcting of places where our development had been hindered (which we are often unaware of, but our partners will be feeling the consequence of.)
  • The healing of actual emotional wounds that cause reactivity and pain.
  • The further development of our potential in ways that surpass the current norm, as the ‘normal’ level of relationship skills alone often isn’t sufficient to have a truly satisfying relationship at this time in history.

In overcoming a deficit or injury, we may actually have to overcompensate and develop capacities that are generally greater than what the ‘regular’ person has.

Given that relationships often bring up anything that is undeveloped or unhealed in ourselves, how do you get a relationship that is more peaceful, harmonious and loving?  Lets switch contexts for just a moment and look at a similar but different question.

How do you get a healthier body? You have to look at what you are feeding the body, how you are using it and taking care of it. We can put it in a list:

  • Learn and apply over time the guidelines of nutrition
  • Learn and apply over time appropriate exercise
  • Learn and apply over time the reduction of stress
  • Attend to and heal any injuries
  • Build up and support any areas of weakness
  • Utilize a community of people who continue to develop these ideas and/or     provide support.

That was easy.  We all know how to create a healthier body, whether we have the support to do it or not.  But we don’t all know how to create healthier relationships.  In fact, creating a healthier relationship can be incredibly difficult – just look at the divorce statistics.  But the same principles apply.  Lets look at what it will take:

  • Education – feeding your body new guidelines of ‘relational nutrition.’
  • Exercise – experiential exercises to help you ‘rewire’ and develop aspects of your brain to improve your ‘relation-ability.’
  • Communication exercises, tools and guidelines to help you and your partner learn to communicate in a different and more supportive way.
  • Questions and exercises to identify and attend to old wounds.
  • Questions and exercises to identify and attend to areas needing development.
  • A community of others who are involved in the same process and willing to talk about it and support each other.

So like changing your body, changing yourself or your relationship requires education and knowledge over time. It requires the application of that education and knowledge allowing for new habits to build, and support, whether from a therapist, a friend, or a community of like-minded others.

The first question I ask a couple or family unit who is coming to see me is, “What do you want?”  Or “What do the two of you want?”  Generally the answer I get is: “We want to get along, we want to stop fighting, we want a peaceful, harmonious and loving relationship.”

This is what WeConcile™ will help you do.  It should be out by the end of the 2013.

Emotions and Emotional Release

Emotions are intense.  They rock us.  We have to deal with them. Someone says something the wrong way, or we are in a difficult situation and all of a sudden we might find ourselves in a fury, or in deep grief, or perhaps an awful sense of embarrassment and shame as if we are ‘bad’.  When we are in these feeling places we usually don’t have any perspective, or not much.  It is like we got dropped off and lost in some horrible bad place and we cannot get ourselves out.  We have no control.  We don’t know what happened to us.  And on top of that, we often judge ourselves for having these lapses of control, or even worse, deny they ever happened. (This last one is sure to wreck havoc on your relationships.)   And it is scary.  What if our out of control feelings cause someone to judge us or reject us?

One way around this is to prevent ourselves from having feelings.  When I run into this in my practice, I generally refer to the ‘basement’ with all the feelings that are locked in and can’t get out.  You have to disconnect from yourself to do this.  You may feel more in control, but it is a disastrous state for a human being who has to know his or herself and relate to others.  We end up depressed, or detached and shut down, or having reactions way out of proportion to events that jump out and ambush whoever is unlucky enough to trigger us.

Recently for me, I had some very large feelings come up. They just pushed their way through and I let myself experience them. Meanwhile I felt confused, ashamed, and small, wondering what was wrong with me.  Pretty interesting as I’m somebody who is extremely good at unearthing and processing the hard stuff.  It made me realize how primal these feelings were and how hard it is for all of us as emotional beings to let the emotions take over and just experience them without judgment and without control.

The fear I think, is that either we are crazy, or that these feelings will pummel us for the rest of our lives and we won’t be able to live with ourselves, be adult, logical, and rational.  And yes, this can be part of the process of somebody with a major mood disorder, but that means they don’t have the other piece of solid ground they can hold onto and use as an anchor.  Instead it is a place they live in.  But this isn’t true for most of us.

I realized something else too.  The only way I was going to transcend what I was struggling with was by allowing the feelings to come through.  So, lying on my yoga mat during savasana, I just let the tears come up and I let myself completely feel the shame and grief that was moving though me.  Then it got clearer.  I could see a piece of my past differently than ever before.  I could see a very specific negative message I had gotten and how it had hindered me.  And I could see that by allowing myself to feel, I was processing and letting go of this belief.  I couldn’t change the belief until I experienced and released all the feelings that were connected to it. I couldn’t transcend the old me until I let myself go and really experienced what these feelings were.  This type of change is not a mental decision, but an emotional process.

This is the part of therapy that people who haven’t had therapy don’t understand. Yes, we talk about things and make sense of them, but often, for many of us, there is a very emotional piece that must occur.  It is like a tidal wave coming through, taking whatever is not solid with it, so that after it retracts the landscape is different.  Who we are has been changed permanently.

Yes, it is scary to descend into the depths of our feelings where the logical rational world isn’t present.  But it is also a very important aspect of healing.   We do survive these lapses.  And we have to tell ourselves, “these are just feelings”. “I am not crazy.”  Experiencing feelings in this way is important. They are telling us something we need to know, something about how our reality has been constructed. This is the releasing process that occurs when we are making big changes in who we are.  It is part of what must happen when we have core beliefs that need to shift.

Experiencing feelings is part of being human.  It is also part of the process of healing.  Reacting out of our feelings is very different than feeling these feelings.  For instance, snapping at somebody and blaming him or her for something is very different than experiencing the grief of being disappointed and hurt.  Once you allow yourself to descend into the disappointment and hurt, you can find the part of you that wasn’t valued at another point in your life.  You can explore and come to understand how that has impacted you.  You can get to know that grief and then you can heal from it.

How do you deal with your feelings?

Do you recognize them as a valuable part of living?

Do you try to avoid them?

Do they jump out at inopportune moments and sabotage you?

Do you allow yourself to have them and process them?

Do you get stuck in them, or can you understand their message and release them?

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Relationships: The New Challenge in Self Mastery

One of the things I enjoy doing is reading a book with new perspectives and then applying those ideas to my own field.  I just finished reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  It’s one of those books that allow us to see the world differently.  Of the many ideas it describes, one is that as humans, we are creative and seek autonomy, mastery and purpose among other things.  We don’t need to be controlled, managed or manipulated. The use of the carrot and the stick as motivators actually reduce our productivity.  If we have our basic requirements met (food, shelter, adequate money) we will seek to fulfill ourselves through meaning making activities.  The old model of motivation, that we need to be managed, works with simple logical tasks, but our world is changing and these repetitive tasks are being outsourced or taken over by computers. This model doesn’t work with the duties of our current day, which tend to be the more creative and right-brained, rather than the more routine and left brained.  Another striking idea is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. To be intrinsically motivated is to care about mastery, agency and purpose.  A focus on external success actual hinders motivation and ultimately success because you get caught up in the goal (making money, becoming famous etc), rather than the process of developing mastery, giving back to the world, or having a purpose.  People who tend to be external focused (Type X) can learn to become more intrinsically focused (Type I). This is all very good news. Not only is our understanding of our world and ourselves changing, but our world itself and we as part of it are also evolving and developing.

Can these ideas be applied to self-growth?  Can they be applied to relationships? You bet! The last thing a therapist wants is to work with someone who isn’t self-motivated or interested in exploring who they are and creating purpose for themselves. Or someone who thinks the world (and their self and life) is static and that it cannot, or isn’t going to change. That would be akin to dragging a bag of rocks up a hill.  There are people (mostly not on the west coast, thankfully) who find therapy shameful or stupid.  This has always bothered me.  How can you possibly understand yourself, develop new parts of yourself and work towards mastery of your life, if you aren’t willing to look at yourself?  What is going on in our culture that this occurs? Somehow feelings have gotten a bad rap, both experiencing them and developing our ability to “language” them and be aware of them. But, back to the task at hand: as someone interested in helping people in this process of self-understanding and the development of self-mastery, these ideas are exciting. They mean that we want to grow, gain autonomy and mastery and that given half a chance, we will.  And yet we have many “failures” in the creation of our lives: trauma, depression, anxiety, broken relationships.  How can we use these ideas to create more success in our lives?  How do we apply these ideas to therapy, both the practice of and also the client’s ability to metabolize it?

First, I think it is important to recognize that the human race is not static but growing and evolving.  Our relationships are one of those things that are bearing the brunt of this evolution, for we have not yet caught up to who we are becoming. As we evolve, we need to develop new capacities.  As we develop new capacities, we need to learn to give them significance. One of these capacities is in the area of relating.  Relating involves many things including accessing and sharing feelings, understanding needs, and gaining control of destructive behaviors. Lets look at couple therapy, which is a pretty complex process.  As a client in couples therapy, we must learn enough about ourselves (among other things) that we can untangle a bunch of behavior that simply does not get us what we want: an accessible and responsive relationship. We supply the courage and tenacity on the road to mastery of this challenge, but we need more than motivation, creativity and desire for this purpose. We also need a map. This is new and for us, uncharted territory. We will need assistance in this undertaking as well as an understanding how a specific and possibly uncomfortable challenge relates to this goal.

Our symptoms (relationship dysfunction) are like the tip of an iceberg.  It is the part we see. In the cold icy water below this symptom we have a number of tasks, which include:

1               Understand the intricacies of the negative cycle

2               Experience (not just understand) the deeper (not surface) feelings that feed our ‘cycle’.

3               Become aware of the needs that fuel the feelings and how

4               Understand the interrelationship between all of this

This could translate to:  I have to experience some pretty painful feelings that I am not usually in contact with so that I can access parts of myself that I don’t really know and expand who I am to a more feeling based being, as well as understand how these parts are influencing my behavior, what it is that I really need, and (eventually) use that to be vulnerable and connect.

Here’s a short sample story of a couple fabricated from a number of people:

When you get mad, I feel unsafe, I feel as if I am completely alone, caught in a trap, whatever I do will be wrong and I am scared. I hate that feeling and I will do anything not to experience it, including not tell you the whole truth, cut off parts of myself, blame you, push you away, try to control you…. And I get mad at you for being mad and seeming mean…. It reminds me of when I was little and my neighbor was a bully. I decided then that being mean wasn’t okay, so now I take care of other people’s feelings and it embarrasses me when you don’t.  I get confused. I love you, but you have this side of you that is so hard and I cannot stand it and I am afraid of it and so we end up in a fight over how I behave… and because you feel like I don’t respect your feelings and don’t support you and underneath you feel abandoned too…. Because you never had anybody put you first or stand up for you…. I want you to not be mean so that you are somebody I can love all the time and so that you feel safe to me…. You want me to stop standing up for other people; because it that means that I can’t stand up for you or myself…. I need to feel like you are safe and responsive and loving to me and when you act ‘hard’ you don’t feel safe to me …and then you need to feel like I am safe and responsive and loving for you, but when this cycle occurs you don’t feel as if I am there for you either.  So we get stuck and we don’t have a good way to talk about it, because we don’t even see this yet. It’s all underneath and it just happens and takes over our relationship. Our relationship is held hostage to this pattern and this is an area where it cannot breath.

This is how we get trapped in the cycle. What’s the solution?  The only way out is to understand ourselves: emotions, needs, behavior, the way a surgeon understand how the muscles and bones and ligaments and blood vessels interconnect and populate a section of the body.  We must have that level of self-understanding.  And we have to be able to experience our feelings the way a poet experiences the world expressed through language. Our curiosity about ourselves has to come to the forefront, as well as our ability to tolerate pain, to step deep into our feelings, to make our own development and growth, our own attainment of mastery paramount. As we continue to evolve and to develop ways to support our evolution, we find new ways to think, experience and be in our lives and relationships. As we do this, who we are changes in ways we cannot even imagine.

Innovations in Couples Therapy

A while back I spent a week at a training workshop for therapists on Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. While I have been working with couples for years, there is always more to learn; I believe that this is the best couples methodology available today. Currently there are new frontiers opening in brain research, child development, and the need for safe secure connections in our primary relationships. These new areas of knowledge impact the practice of psychotherapy, especially around the areas of intimate relationships as well as how we have the power to alter our feelings, perceptions and responses.

What makes a relationship work? It is one of the questions I have been asking and answering in my own life. Because of my own history, developing the ability to have healthy nourishing relationships, to be present, direct and also be vulnerable has been a long and ongoing process. I remember once watching a romantic movie over and over again, gripped with the impending connection, the hope for absolute and complete harmony, for the feeling of truly loving and being loved.

Think about your relationship or what you imagine your relationship will be like. What do you long for? What do you dream about? What are the feelings you are looking for? Connection? Love? Safety?

As babies, we are held, fed, and attended to, and we grow in this context of connection. We continue to need connection throughout our adult lives. We long to be understood, to be cared for and to be loved. We long to know that we are important; that how we feel matters. We long to flow effortlessly between connection and autonomy. But our relationships are not so easy. Distressed couples are so because they do not feel safe connecting. As situations occur that frustrate that need for safe connection, disharmonies arise between us, as do both FEELINGS and behaviors. We develop strategies to not feel our grief, anger, shame and fear. We may cut off our own longing and not feel our need for connection. We may get angry and bitter to keep from feeling the grief that is underneath. These strategies that protect us, also limit our relationships.

As a therapist, I watch how couples interact. I notice how they talk to each other, who moves forward and how, who holds back. How we respond to each other creates a pattern. Noticing the pattern is important, because the pattern itself must be addressed.
This dance we do with each other stirs deep feelings that we act out causing painful cycles of interaction that repeat and repeat.

The other important piece is the feelings themselves. In therapy, we unpack feelings that are below the surface, below the mirage of the laundry that is never put away, or the frustration of a partner who wants to stay home instead of go out. Because we get stuck in the “above ground” issues, we don’t understand what is underneath; that we don’t feel cared for, loved, respected or understood. Most of us don’t fully understand our historical relational wounds and how they impact us. We often don’t face our partners and tell them about our hurts and what we need. When we do, they sometimes cannot hear us.

While straightening this out, both the therapist and the partners sometimes get caught in compromise. “If you do this, I will do that,” etc. Compromise doesn’t deal with the deeper longings for safe connection. It is like rearranging the furniture in a room that is falling down. Changing our relationships involves learning new ways of being, reorganizing our emotions and experience, and understanding ourselves differently EXPERIENTIALLY. As we interact with ourselves and partner differently, we are actually architecting a different brain. It also means that both parties will be emotionally uncomfortable for a while. And that is a big deal. I don’t know anybody who says, “Great, I want to be emotionally uncomfortable. I want to feel vulnerable, scared, or in pain.” It is inherently uncomfortable to connect with our primary feelings and communicate our vulnerabilities, yet it is an essential part of change. While the old pattern keeps us stuck, emotional responsiveness allows our love to grow. Are you willing to be uncomfortable?

Very briefly, here’s what has to happen:
We identify the relationship pattern.
We take responsibility for our part.
We get in touch with our deeper feelings including old wounds affecting our perceptions and needs.
We take responsibility for how our part of the pattern affects our partner’s feelings.
We listen to our partner talk about his or her feelings.
We share our own feelings.
We support each other in this process.

Lets suppose we have a couple where one of the partners is closed down and the other is more volatile (this is very common). The closed down person (let’s say he) often doesn’t really know his feelings. He got away from them a long time ago, as they weren’t fun. Maybe as a child, he was criticized or his feelings weren’t supported. He suppressed those feeling; packed them away. He tends to be cerebral and logical. He doesn’t know how to open up and be vulnerable, and the idea of it is frankly, scary. The volatile partner is more connected to her emotions, but often it is anger that is expressed, not her longing for connection, or her feelings of not wanting to be abandoned, or wanting to be considered more. That partner has learned how to try to assertively get what she wants rather than be open and vulnerable as well as feel and then communicate her pain. What happens when these two get together? When they run into a conflict, he will withdraw, and she will attempt to get what she needs by moving forward, often with some anger. He hides more and she pushes more. They get caught in a cycle. Neither realizes that the cycle is caused by both of them. Both feel like it is the other person’s fault. Neither knows how to change the cycle. Neither person feels safe.

The mission of the EFT therapist is to enable both partners to experience their primary feelings and longings, explore, organize, and ultimately communicate them to their partner. This requires the partner who doesn’t have good access to his feelings to DEVELOP access to his feelings. It requires the angry partner to stop blaming and see the vulnerability of the more withdrawn partner, and later to also show her own vulnerability and need. When a couple begins to do this, they are responding to, and caring for each other rather than reacting, closing down, blaming or pushing the other away. As each develops in their ability to feel, understand feelings that they were not aware of, and open to the other, they become a stronger couple. They feel safer and more secure. They both change into people who are capable of a nourishing relationship.