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.

Navigating Dreams of Love

I watched Alice in Wonderland recently.  As Alice was questioning the social customs and values of her time, she was advised to “follow the path,” to which she replied, “I make the path.” Alice spoke to the importance of knowing ourselves, of holding onto our dreams and fighting our demons in the process.

Dreams are important for they guide us, and we have all kinds of dreams; who we are going to be “when we grow up,” dreams of saving the planet, rescuing the underprivileged, meeting our prince and raising our children, etc. But sometimes we embark upon the path of our dream and lose our way. We do not necessarily have to tools to make our dreams manifest.

What happens when we have a dream, but fail at it?  We become failed heroes, initiates who do not pass the test.  Culturally, marriage is one of those precarious paths that many embark upon, but not so many navigate successfully. And yet relationships and the experience of love are so important.

I attended a “Hold Me Tight” couples workshop run by Sue Johnson recently.  Sue talked of research that had been done around POW’s who got through their difficult circumstances psychologically intact, versus those who did not.  Those who survived had done so by holding onto an image of a beloved.  They had pulled into their experience, memories of people and times of love.  As they focused on those memories over and over, they used those memories to sustain them.  They brought the experience of being loved into their present and often horrific circumstances and it allowed them to survive.

Our fairytales and stories present the dream of the happily ever after relationship.  Yet the tools we have are about as adequate as taking a 5-day hike with no food or water.  We follow our dreams blindly, with inadequate resources to make the journey successfully.  Recently, I saw a TV personality, “The Bachelor” being interviewed with his fiancée, except he was yelling, “Stop interrupting me!” and she crying bitterly, stood up and raced away.  Their blissful union fell apart so quickly.  What were they thinking? They believed the dream with no understanding of what it would take to make it work.

We need different maps with different tools for different journeys.  The journey of a successful relationship requires more than just a dream; it requires a multitude of abilities and skills, as well as an understanding of what will sabotage us.  Do you have the map you need to successfully navigate a relationship?  I recommend, “Hold Me Tight,” by Sue Johnson, to start with, although there are also other good books and workshops available.

Here are some questions to ask yourself: When I was young, how did I sooth myself when I was upset?  Did I go to anybody to talk?  Did I fight for what I wanted?  Did I retreat?  How does that tendency still occur? What did my partner do when he or she was young? Now look at those two tendencies.  How do they interact?  What pattern emerges out of them?  Can you and your partner talk about the pattern, or do you get stuck in blaming each other?  If you can’t talk about the pattern that you both get caught in, you will need to learn to do this, whether by seeing a therapist, attending a workshop or reading a book. Good relationships don’t just happen: they are made.  We live in a world filled with endless information. Educate yourself wherever you wish to have mastery.  There is no reason anybody should not achieve his or her dreams.

How to talk about what we can’t talk about, but need to talk about

Sometimes our wounds collide in such a way that we hit a roadblock.  One of us has an intense need to talk about something.The other can’t bear hearing about it.  For example:  Jane was worried about how her partner took care of everyone in the world except himself, including his health.  He seemed weak to her in this area and it bothered her. She felt a burning desire to talk to him about this. She couldn’t stand being silent.  One night she brought it up, but Steve only heard what was wrong with him, how he wasn’t good enough.  He felt ashamed, upset, angry, abandoned and sad.  “Get me out of here,” his brain screamed. Jane realized it was going all-wrong and she felt frantic and bad. This isn’t what she wanted.She wanted him to understand what she was saying, to see what was wrong and change.  Instead, he left saying he needed to be by himself to think.  “Oh God,” she thought, “What did I do? How do I deal with this?”

Jane and Steve have hit a roadblock.  In this case, one of the party feels that they MUST express their feelings and what they see, and the other party feels that they MUST get away because they feel so hurt or trapped as a result. There is no space to talk. Both parties are caught in intense feelings and fears.  Neither can move in any direction without a reaction, without bumping into a ghost from their past, or their partner’s.When a couple finds themselves in this dynamic, stuffing feelings doesn’t work and isn’t the answer, nor does pushing the agenda.There is only one way out that works. The answer is this:

Jane says to Steve (or vice versa), “We are really struggling talking about this.  Lets talk about why this discussion is so hard for us and what it is bringing up for us.”  Jane and Steve are no longer talking about the issue itself.  Now they are talking about the minefield within which the issue resides.  Jane says further, “I grew up watching my parents behave in ways that was really painful for me.  My mom never confronted my dad on how he ignored me. She babied him instead. She took care of him instead of me. I couldn’t stand it.  There was nothing I could do.  I felt helpless and it hurt. So when I watch you behave in certain ways, taking care of others instead of yourself (and therefore us), I am terrified. I feel turned off.  I don’t know what to do.  I am afraid you aren’t taking care of your health and I will lose you eventually. Then when I can’t talk to you about what I see, I feel stuck. It also scares me because I want to be with you, but what if I get trapped?  Trapped the way I felt as a kid with my parents. I don’t know how to talk to you and get you to understand me in a way that feels safe to you and I really want to.  I don’t know how to be there for you and myself at the same time in this area.”  Steve thinks about this for a minute. He replies, “I need to know that you are not trying to change me, that you care about me the way I am.  I have plenty of history around not being accepted, being put down, and being controlled so when we get into this area, I feel so hurt that I just want to run away.  I feel unloved. I feel not good enough for you, or even for myself.  It is such an awful feeling.  How can I talk when it feels like you are criticizing me and I feel so horrible about myself?”

Steve and Jane are not talking about the issue of “You don’t take care of yourself.”  Instead, they are talking about the issue of, “It is really hard to talk to you when I love you, but what I have to say will hurt you. I am scared of you reacting and being hurt and leaving.” And they are talking about, “It’s really hard to talk when I love you and am scared of losing you but I feel criticized,  not good enough, and think I am disgusting to you.”  Steve and Jane need to talk about how difficult it is to talk about this, rather than the issue itself of Steve’s caretaking of others.  That is how they will eventually get to that issue.

The conversation continues.  Jane says, “When I try to talk about this with you, you get hurt and I get really scared.  I don’t want to hurt you. I want you to know how much I care about you and how much I want us to be able to talk.”  Steve says, “When you try to talk about this with me, I feel hurt and want to leave and I don’t want to leave you.” They talk more about their fear of both losing each other and of being trapped in something that is not good for them.  They talk about how this issue is so “hot” for both of them that they cannot talk about it. They talk about their histories and where these intense feelings are coming from. As Steve and Jane talk, they are opening up space around their wounds and fears.  They are bringing in some fresh air and getting to know and understand each other better.  They are learning new things about each other and themselves.  Steve doesn’t take care of himself because he doesn’t fully value himself.  He’s learned to value his ability to give to others instead.  Jane pushes to be seen, because she was so unseen as a child.

Steve and Jane discover that they have a way to talk that they did not use to have. They both understand why they are reacting so strongly to the other.  They understand what they are afraid of.  This is what they need to talk about first, before they can ever get to the actual “issue,” because the issue is embedded in their wounds. Both come to understand and have empathy for the other.  Both become more able to see themselves and talk about who they are and how they impact each other.

When Wounds Collide

When wounds collide, we suffer and we don’t feel safe. Our partner becomes somebody we no longer trust. It is one of the most painful aspects of a relationship. When we are scared, we act in ways that do not help our relationships. When we feel safe, our relationships can blossom.

Do you remember O’Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi”? In that story, Della cut off her most valued asset, her hair, to buy a watch chain for her husband Jim. Jim’s most valuable possession was his watch. He sold his beautiful watch, to buy a barrette for his wife’s gorgeous hair. It is a story of two people willing to sacrifice what is most valuable to them to express their love. The following story is about the opposite. It is a story of two people terrified to lose what they need most – a picture of what happens when our wounds collide.

Jason had picked up his wife Mattie and they were driving to an event together. Mattie asked Jason if he had put the cats in for the night. Jason replied, “Well I got Fluffy in but not Whisper.” Mattie froze. “Did you shut the cat door?” she asked. “Yes, of course,” Jason said, not seeing what was coming. Mattie started to tear up. “What do you mean? Are you kidding?” she said. “No,” Jason said, feeling confused. “You locked Whisper out?” she asked again, incredulous. “I called and called and he didn’t come home.” Jason explained. “But there are coyotes,” she said. “What if he is chased and runs to the door and it is shut and he gets caught and eaten?” “That won’t happen,” Jason replied. “I’ve never seen a coyote around here and he is a smart cat. He can get on the roof or climb a tree.”

Mattie is sitting stiffly. She feels alone and trapped. She knows he could be right, but she also knows that if something happened, she wouldn’t be able to live with herself. She is imagining Whisper running for the door and feeling terrified as a coyote runs after him.

“Do you want me to turn around and ruin this evening?” Jason asked, his voice cutting through the air angrily. “No,” Mattie mumbled. She is silent and upset. She doesn’t know what to say. Jason also feels confused. He starts sinking into an overwhelming feeling of despair and hopelessness. “Why she is being so irrational? What just happened? How could my perfectly sane woman lose her mind?”

When they came home later that night, Whisper was at the front door waiting for them. Later they talked. Mattie said maybe it would have been better to have asked to turn around and have him be mad rather than to be unable to forgive herself if something had happened to Whisper. Jason said that if she had insisted that they turn around, he wouldn’t just be mad. He would be struggling with a lot of doubt about being in a relationship with someone who was irrational. He said that not turning around was a big deal for him. It had given him hope that she wasn’t crazy like all the others. Although they could talk about the incident, they were at an impasse.

What is going on here?

Mattie had grown up on a farm. She had many pets as a child, and these pets were very important to her. There were many tragedies over the years; pet ducklings brutally decapitated by a raccoon in the middle of the night, shrieks filling the air, a pheasant chick that was accidentally stepped on and died in front of her, the family dog shot by a hunter. With each of these tragedies and many more, Mattie had wished she had been able to foresee and prevent it. Instead, whenever one of her pets died, she felt responsible, scared and alone. For her, the idea of her beloved Whisper being locked out and perhaps unsafe, was intolerable. And the thought that Jason would get angry instead of have empathy and understand her, brought her right back to some of the feelings and events of her childhood.

Jason had grown up in with a violently alcoholic father who would taunt him and his siblings. He watched this wildly illogical man harm his family, watched as he beat them, and tormented them. He had watched his mother’s helplessness, the pain on his mother’s face and her early death due to stress. He had no tolerance for anything illogical. For him it was also a matter of life and death. Mattie’s seeming illogical thinking made him feel completely unsafe and scared him to death.

As Mattie and Jason continued to talk, they came to see that their wounds were very much alive for them. They realized that they both had a lot of fear around these areas that needed to be attended to. They also realized that they could be friends and talk despite the feelings that were being triggered in each of them.

“When Wounds Collide,” is a common dynamic and painful aspect in many relationships. For this scenario to resolve, both parties have to look at how fear is coloring their perceptions and gain some perspective.

Mattie needs to bring in some sense of reason. Yes, it could happen, a coyote could eat Whisper, but it wasn’t likely. Jason needs to realize that 1% craziness in somebody is not the same as 100% as in his father. Both parties need to understand and communicate their wounds. They need to see how their wounds keep them limited and that their wounds are calling to be tended to, healed, and transcended. Each needs to see that the other is not their mortal enemy, but another injured person. Each needs to develop empathy for the other, and be able to step out of his or her own perspective. As we share our wounds, affirm both ours and our partner’s, we are starting a healing process. We are no longer completely alone with our fear.

Is there a place in your relationship where this dynamic occurs, where your wounds collide?

Describe this dynamic in your relationship and the wounds that get activated.

Can you describe your wound?

Can you describe your partner’s wounds?

Are you willing to and able to talk about your wounds with your partner?

Are you exploring how to heal this wound?

Coming to understand and have compassion for each other’s wounds is necessary work in a relationship.

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.

How Past Trauma Impacts Current Relationships

“The more quickly either person goes from disappointment or hurt to anger, defensiveness, or emotional withdrawal and remains stuck there, the less that person is capable of having a relationship and the more the other person will have to walk on eggshells.” – Mark Goulston

Why do some people have relationships that work and others don’t? One reason is past trauma is affecting the emotional safety of the relationship. Most of us don’t know what a “traumatized state of mind” is, but we do know when our world gets dark. We know when we feel as if we’ve been attacked or not considered by another. We know when we are so hurt we can’t talk, or we can only scream or react.

There are two things to consider here: one is actual trauma caused by another, such as being raped, hit, yelled at, picked on, etc., and the other is a “traumatized state of mind,” which is when one is experiencing intense disconnect or anger out of proportion to what is actually occurring. In this article, we are looking at the traumatized state of mind, not actual abuse. If you are in an abusive relationship, get help or get out.

Without going into what actually occurs in the mind/body during trauma, there are degrees of trauma, all of which causes disconnection. In moments of trauma, we don’t have external support. We are thrown back on ourselves. We are alone, no longer part of a matrix of connection and love. Later in life, various events can trigger that experience and those feelings. Whether it is a voice inside saying, “How could you treat me like that?” to a rage or withdrawal that you can’t get yourself out of, we find ourselves alone again. What we do with that experience varies. Some of us fight to be seen, to make it right, while others pull back and hide, or abuse substances. But while doing so we are not making a choice. We are reacting. Whatever the scenario, there has just been a disruption in our relationship.

When we move into and experience a traumatized state of mind, we lose perspective. Complexity collapses. The world becomes black and white, good and bad. We can no longer communicate rationally because we are no longer rational. Our world has fractured. From where we are, it appears that the other person has betrayed us. We are hurt and not thinking clearly. It is from this place that damage is done to our relationships. We are no longer capable of communicating rationally, and maybe not even treating the other person fairly. We are no longer in command of ourselves.

Changing this dynamic in a relationship requires:

* Understanding our past wounds so we can heal them.

* Seeing and taking responsibility for our own behavior and the damage we’ve caused our relationship.

* Learning to deal with hurts and disappointments differently.

* Seeing our relationship as a place to build a bridge between differences, not as a place with rights and wrongs.

* Sharing our wounds with our partner, our wounds are part of the relationship.

* Learning to reach forward with vulnerability and support each other when we are traumatized.

It’s up to us to master ourselves. We can change ourselves if we choose to, but to do so, we need to become aware of how we lose ourselves “under the influence” of our past emotional trauma. Only then we can be fully present for the other and be in a truly functioning relationship.

When Love Stops Working – Getting It Going Again

Almost everyone wants love in his or her life. It is a vital ingredient of our humanness. We are born through the bodies of our mothers, most likely have nursed on her breasts, were held, touched and attended to. We develop in connection to others. Our survival depends on our relationships. We are not designed to be without relationship. We cannot exist without them.

When relationships stop working, there is often a wound that needs to be attended to. Many of us grew up in homes with various kinds of disconnection occurring. Whether our caretakers were preoccupied, angry, needy or impatient, we may at times have felt uncared about. We may have lost someone we loved, or have been completely disregarded or abused. As children, we had to survive this pain. We may have learned to push our feelings out of our awareness. Ultimately, we developed ways to tolerate and survive these disconnects. These are the survival techniques that we have brought into our current relationships. And they often don’t work.

Connection and safety are intricately bound. Our relationships trigger primal survival needs and feelings, and when threatened, the primal fears of an infant emerge. Survival is at the root of our relationships. It is difficult to play or be vulnerable when you do not feel safe. When our relationships are threatened or we are insecure, we become afraid of abandonment or of being overwhelmed or trapped. Those feelings emerge as rage, fear, longing and grief, and cause us to react rather than respond reasonably. We often do not see where these feelings are coming from. We have no way to link them to an actual past events. All we know is that something feels awful and we are in a struggle to be seen, heard, and understood. The emotional dance that emerges is not logical, but born of deep longings for safety and connection. Feeling safe, asking for what we need and being responsive to the other is paramount to our health and happiness. Safety must exist for both intimacy and play to be present in a committed relationship. While we do not necessarily have to delve into the past to change things, it usually helps. And we do have to start looking at and improving our current relational skills.

Do you accept too little in a relationship ? – If you accept too little, it is time to decide that you deserve more and figure out what is stopping you.

Are you too demanding? – If it always has to be your way, you will need to trust you can get enough of what you need without misusing your power. The cost of powering your way through a relationship is too high.

Can you ask for what you need? – Do you believe that you have impact, that you are worth listening to and being responded to? Why not?

What are the ways that you disconnect? – Are you willing to re-engage?

Do you feel safe and loved in your relationship, safe enough to both be vulnerable and to play? – What do you need to help you feel safer and more connected?

Are you responsive to your partner? – This will help your partner feel safe with you.

 

We are imperfect beings, who love and are loved by other imperfect beings. While disagreements and differences are part of life and growth, conflict can make us feel vulnerable and react to these differences. Deep down, we are afraid of losing or not getting what we need, of not being loved. Are you secure enough to have your feelings, yet also listen to your partner’s feelings, without making them wrong? Sustaining a connected relationship (with the right person) requires a number of skills. Mostly, we have to be solid enough to tolerate differences and still stay in responsive and loving contact even when we are uncomfortable.

Originally published here, also published on GoodTherapy.org

How To Stop Those Repetitive Fights

George had been very upset about the actions of an ex friend. Susan could feel his pain and asked him if there was anything that she could do to make him feel better. George replied, “I could think of something”. Susan retorted, “I wasn’t talking about sex”. George responded, “So what’s new?” Susan feeling criticized, said, “you don’t care about me, all you care about is sex”. George responded back, “well you asked, next time don’t ask if you don’t care”. “Don’t worry, I won’t, Susan snarled. She walked away and they didn’t talk till the next day.

The interaction that Susan and George had was a familiar and repetitive one. They had started out okay, but somehow both misunderstood the other and ended up in a fight.

Lets replay this, except George and Susan are more conscious about their wounds. Instead of fighting, they are going to get closer and build more trust between them.

George had been very upset about the actions of an ex friend. Susan could feel his pain and asked him if there was anything that she could do to make him feel better. George replied, “I could think of something,” He was thinking about sex. Susan immediately thought to herself of “He’s upset and angry, I don’t want to have sex with somebody who is angry”. She was silent for a minute, trying to figure out what to do. A few minutes later, George said, “that would have been the perfect opportunity for you to have initiated sex, which you never do. ” He was frustrated and disappointed. Susan could feel his anger. She felt hurt and she felt like he was taking the anger that he was feeling about his ex-friends and dumping it on her. They were looking at each other, as it was clear something serious was occurring between them. Susan mustered up her courage and responded, “I just initiated last night”. George got still for a moment and realized that she had. He responded by saying, “yes you are right, you did. They continued to talk.
Susan “remembered” and recounted that she had grown up in a family where she had to take care of other’s needs at her own expense. “Nobody was really interested in what I needed,” she said. ,”And when you wanted to make me to make you feel without considering how I felt, I got hurt. I am afraid to be vulnerable when somebody is angry and for me, having sex is being vulnerable. George responded, “when you didn’t move forward and make it all okay, my disappointment about always being let down came up. So many times in my childhood and other relationships, I’ve been let down. I just wanted you to make me feel better and it felt like you were failing me too.

Both George and Susan had been feeling unloved and not understood. But as they talked, they began to piece together the old stories feeding their reactions. They were able to talk it out and avoided a fight. They helped the other heal by listening and empathizing. And they both became more conscious of who they were and were gaining the ability to not allow the past to haunt them.

But how do we do this?

When we get reactive or triggered, it means we’ve opened an old can of worms. Think of each worm as an old story that is a wound around which we have unhappy feelings. These feelings lurk below the surface, ready to come up under the right circumstances. Rather than being in touch with our present reality, we relive old stories. Some of those stories make us angry, some make us sad. These stories can be like gasoline on a fire. They are lenses through which we view our lives and they distort our perceptions. We disproportionately and quickly escalate our emotional responses to what appear to be very inconsequential events. These stories need to be recognized as old wounds and told, both to each other and to ourselves, if we are going to be able to stop these repetitive patterns.

There are several tools to help us remember that we are caught up in a wound and repair it:

* The 90/10 rule. If we are upset, often it is 10% about the present situation and 90% about the past.

* Telling our story to our partner is building a relational bridge. Reacting as if we are right is blowing up the relational bridge. Remember, your partner is your friend. Treat him or her as if he or she is, and talk, don’t react or accuse.

* Find the sadness, loss or grief that is under the anger. It is hard to build a bridge when you are yelling and screaming, or withdrawing.

* To have a successful relationship, you have to be a person who can have a successful relationship. Become a person who is communicative and open. This is more important than trying to get your partner to change. If they don’t change, the relationship may end, but your power lies in you, not them.

* Accept that what is happening in the present moment demands your love and attention. The present moment is your friend. It is an opportunity to discover your emotional wounds and the wounds of your partner. It is an opportunity to start unraveling the old stories and stepping out of being driven by old wounds.

* Remember, we all have wounds. A relationship is an opportunity to repair these wounds. A relationship is a journey that allows us to create “home” both within ourselves and with another.

Intimacy (Into-Me-See): Invite Your Partner For A Visit Into Your World

Most of us want to feel connected, loved and safe in a relationship, but building a relationship that works requires a number of abilities. Building a relationship requires building trust. It requires an attitude of kindness and curiosity towards our partner. It requires looking at our relationship as an adventure, rather than a problem or chore. And it requires being vulnerable – sharing who we are with our partner.

We often want to be listened to by our partners, but can we also listen to them? One thing that makes therapy beneficial is that the therapist is professionally trained not only in psychology, but also in listening. As we are listened to, and validated, we feel affirmed and understood. For example, if my partner says to me, “it really hurt me when you made plans without asking me how I felt about them.” If I respond by arguing and saying, “I thought you were busy,” etc., it could escalate into an argument. What if instead I said, “It really hurt your feelings when I made plans without considering what you might want. Do you want to tell me more?”

In relationships, each person lives in a different world. We will never live in the same world; never have the same past, the exact same experience or way of understanding our lives. We have different wounds and different sensitivities. When we are listened to, we feel less alone. We crave to be listened to without argument or interruption, to simply be heard. One of the things that make a relationship work is when we can listen to our partner, and conversely, know our partner will listen to us.

When we cross the bridge into our partner’s world, we leave our own opinions and self-protection behind. Instead, we bring in curiosity and caring. As we do this, we increase safety in the relationship. The other becomes safe to expose themselves to us. But to do this requires maturity. Listening and understanding without putting in our own two cents is a skill. It is not always easy to listen to the other. With every word they say, we may want to respond, to defend, or to disagree. Crossing the bridge into the world of our partner is problematic if we are reactive. It is hard to listen to another and hold back our disagreements if we are afraid we will be overpowered or lose ourselves by not speaking. It is important to trust that we don’t have to share our own opinions and counter every thing we do not agree with. It is also important to know that our partner will listen to us without argument.

Listening does not mean we agree. It does not mean we give up our own desires and needs. It just means that we listen and validate that we understand. It means we want to understand our partner’s world, even if it is not our world, even if it may cause us pain, even if we want them to change.

What is too hard for you to listen to? Why? Places we cannot listen indicate areas of deep pain. It might be that your partner has a need that makes you feel unimportant or abandoned. Can you listen anyway? What is your partner unable to hear about you? How would you feel if your partner could listen? Is there an imbalance? Does one partner always listen and the other always explain? If so, these roles will need to be switched.

I encourage you to open up the space to listen to each other in your relationship. If you find that either you or your partner is not able to fully listen without countering or arguing, get help. A relationship cannot truly have intimacy if each partner does not feel safe to share his or her feelings. Imago workshops teach people in relationships to build intimacy by listening. Therapy can also teach people to listen to each other.

Making Love Last

Making love last is a concern for anybody with a relationship history that has included disappointment, pain and loss. How do we do it differently the next time around?

What starts for so many as a blissful connected loving state often turns into sadness riddled with problematic behavior and seemingly un-resolvable conflicts. How can we learn to have lasting, productive and satisfying relationships? While innate chemistry and compatibility are important, creating fulfilling relationships that last, is far more complex than that. Is it possible to learn to create connections in which love can flourish? Not only is it possible, it is necessary.

It is necessary to look at successful relationships as a developmental milestone and life skill. Just as other tasks in life require knowledge and practice, learning to create the context for a successful relationship also requires the development of specific abilities, awarenesses and skills. (Assuming that you have a committed partner you can work with.)

How we know somebody else is related to how we know ourselves; how we construct our own reality. We live in stories; we carry our unconscious stories as roadmaps that most of us are not fully aware of. We live not just in current “reality” but also through acts of imagination and meaning making. When we experience the unweaving and understanding of our own stories and how we identify ourselves, we become capable of re-envisioning ourselves and allowing for new stories to emerge. For example, if someone were always attracted to “sad” women, because he was re-enacting (unaware) the story that his “sad” mother needed his help, as he becomes aware (often through therapy) of that story and its impact on his romantic choices, he can change his story to one that serves him better. The importance of self-reflection becomes clear. It allows us to understand our role in repetitive self-defeating choice patterns in our romantic relationships.

Relationship patterns also are influenced by our fears around connection and safety. We live in bodily and emotional connection to others. We are born through wombs and are nourished at breasts as infants. We experience love through emotional connection and touch. When our attachment needs are threatened, we move into fear and behaviors which attempt to help us to maintain safety and connection. Many of these behaviors however, sabotage the very connection we seek.

Instead of responding out of fear, we can look at our actions. Are we building bridges, or burning them? Are we caught in loops of behavior that we cannot control? Love cannot flourish when we behave in ways that break connection. Being disappointed with our partner is not the problem; it is the dialogue we have, both with our partner and ourselves that matters. The choices of behaving and thinking that we learn to make in the context of our pain and disappointment can allow us to create a satisfying love.

Making love last also requires curiosity, both about our own reactions and the reactions of our partner. Love cannot flourish if we blame, criticize, or do not take responsibility for our own responses. Love cannot flourish when we do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable or behave in a way that the other cannot be vulnerable with us. Because of this, habitual patterns of behavior that create safety and routine, but reduce risk and openness, while necessary for aspects of our lives and our relationships, can diminish connection.

A relationship is a living breathing entity created by two individuals. Creating a relationship is a commitment to the process of that relationship, thus it must continually be nourished. Nourishing a relationship requires the courage to take risks, to be vulnerable and curious rather than defensive. It includes the ability to tolerate and share uncomfortable feelings and experience ambiguity. Making love last includes a willingness to witness oneself and one’s partner with both compassion and openness.