The real relationship happened last night. I had been struggling,
feeling stuck, pushing myself in ways that were leaving me frustrated, angry,
and sad. My husband was mad at me for this. He pulled away and let me struggle.
Finally, I said, “Why aren’t you helping me? Why have you left me alone in
“I cannot help you with the project you are working on,” he said. “I
don’t mean that,” I said. “Why aren’t you helping me emotionally — don’t you
see I am stuck? I am confused. I don’t know how to get out of this state of
being.” We talked. We argued. We hashed it out. He said, “You remind me of my
mother when she was stuck, and it hurts too much. I feel helpless and upset,
and I don’t know how to help you. So, I get angry and pull away.”
Why couldn’t you have just said that? I think to myself. But I know the
doesn’t know how. He doesn’t even know what he is feeling until we talk it out.
I get caught in my struggle — fighting myself, fighting my life,
instead of knowing how to be, how to let go, how to flow. He sees me, and he
gets caught in his battle of what to do with someone who is momentarily lost.
“I need support,” I insist. “I need someone to help me break through my panic,
my frustration, confusion — my craziness. I need you to help me.” “Okay,” he
says. “Okay. I didn’t know.”
We have connected again. We feel close again.
I don’t feel abandoned, and my husband doesn’t feel helpless. But
there is no way to learn to reach towards each other, without the ‘fall’ from
grace into the hell of conflict and hurt feelings, followed by the hashing it
out and then the move back into connection. That is the only way. Learning
to reconnect is iterative. We do it over and over again. This
process is part of building a connected relationship.
The real relationship isn’t necessarily happening when we are on cruise
control, but when the events of our lives force us to tackle something. It
happens when we struggle; when we are forced to look at ourselves and the
emotional issues that we need to address to bridge the gap between us.
This process is how we learn about ourselves and each other and how to
be there for each other. This is how we repair old wounds, heal, and grow.
One more knot has been smoothed in each of us, and between us. This is how it is. This is how we learn to love. Working it out is the real relationship.
This story is about love. It comes out of my realizing
how I am changing. It comes out of my desire for a new world. It is about my
belief that we are all beings of love and healing includes a journey into the
darker parts of ourselves to exhume, tend and ultimately to heal and transform
How did your family of origin
influence your ability to love?
In my family, love was hidden
under other agendas. It just wasn’t the focus. My father was obsessed with his
artistic vision. He struggled with depression and rage. My mother was
emotionally cut off. Her focus was on the practical. Had we cleaned our rooms?
Were our chores completed? Affirmation was rare. Although my father could be
playful, both parents were often stressed and were critical of others. Between
these two people, there were four children. I was one of those children, and my
childhood impacted my ability to love.
Learning how to truly love
(both self and others) has been a life path for me. I survived my childhood
because I found love with the animals that surrounded me. They accepted me.
They had time for me. I felt safe with them. They expressed love towards me and
I towards them. I also knew there were realities other than the one I felt
trapped in because I read. I read voraciously. I read to escape my life and be
in another place. I read to find comfort. I read to find a place in which I
Over the years, living from the
guidelines my parents indoctrinated in me, I learned that my focus on
productivity often shortchanged my ability to love, to be loving, to honor my
partner. Luckily, life created some relational disasters for me and caused me
to begin to look at myself, to start the task of sorting through the aspects of
myself that simply did not work for all of me.
Untangling as a growth choice
I have been on a growth path
for many years, I am slowly correcting my deficits and growing my positive
qualities. Real love is one of the true joys of this world. If we do not learn
to create it, we shall have robbed ourselves and those we are blessed to share
our lives with. Each moment is precious. In each moment there is always a
choice. The choice is usually between what is life-affirming and what is not.
Sometimes we choose the less life-affirming path. That is important because we
get to experience what does not work, what does not fill us with joy. And in
the next moment, we again have another choice. At any point, our choices may
change. What and how we choose becomes our path. Sometimes we are caught. We
don’t know which way to go, what to choose, or even how to choose. That is when
working on ‘untangling’ becomes the most productive choice. This has been my
destiny and my path, and doing so has become a massive force in my life.
I want a world of beauty, where
people are not afraid of their emotions, or of connecting. Where we don’t have
to put others down to feel okay about ourselves. Where we don’t have to deny
others because we only feel okay if we have more or because we are scared that
there isn’t enough. Because of the kind of world that I want, I must look at
every part of myself that is not that. For those parts need support and love if
they are to transform.
We innately resonate with that which is beautiful
by Jennifer Lehr
I believe that we are more than the material realm, more
than matter. We are more than the horrors we see on the news and in our lives.
We are more than the greed that impacts us every day. We resonate with
qualities that are beautiful. We resonate with the experience of truth and
love. We resonate with peace and appreciation.
I once worked with a young teenager
who came from a family of gang members and was part of that gang culture
himself. As a child, he had seen his father murder a member of another gang.
His brother was in jail. That was what he knew. But one day walking to the
therapy office with me, he stopped in front of a poster of trees. He said that
he liked how it made him feel. He said he wished he could be there, in those
trees, in that sense of peace.
Looking more deeply
I believe that we are all part
of the divine, on a journey to allow that which is divine to fully manifest,
for ourselves and for all others with whom we relate — and if we are all free and
honored, with whom we can dance. Our journey into the light is equally a
journey down into the depths. If you position yourself as a being of love,
meaning a part of the divine spark of life, then you have to look at the
components of yourself that are not about love. This cannot be done by pushing
away the dark parts of yourself.
I refuse to allow myself to not
be a part of the flow of consciousness that is about increasing love and
decreasing suffering on this planet. I refuse to accept that suffering that is
created by ignorance or heartlessness is okay.
For me, the journey starts
inside myself. It starts with learning how to honor myself and others. And it
includes trusting that I can work with what I have been given and make it
meaningful and purposeful.
As we open into painful
feelings, we begin a process of remembering ourselves. It is as if we live out
of one part of ourselves, and have put the others, the parts that hold
complicated feelings, away. These aspects sometimes jump out unbidden, but we
do not really know them. We live out of a fragment of ourselves instead of a
cohesive whole. We are a segregated being. And as the microcosm, so is the
macrocosm. We contribute to a world where certain things are not accepted or
are pushed away, whether it is a feeling or somebody else’s rights.
I have an advantage here. I am
naturally a digger and a burrower. I instinctively root out and explore the
dark parts of myself. I cannot imagine doing otherwise. I am grateful for this
ability. I am thankful for the gifts this talent has given me. For those of you
who avoid stepping into and looking at your more tormented parts, you may find
this idea uncomfortable. And yet, if you can stick with it, you will learn that
these feelings are temporary and transformable.
How does one do this without
overwhelm? Or being repulsed and pushing away? I think of a couple who I had
worked with. As the male partner began to allow himself more vulnerability
(which was necessary), the female partner began to feel disgusted. Although she
wanted him more attuned to her, to feelings, to connection, she could not
tolerate the very ingredient that would get him there. Her work would be to
look at her fear of a ‘soft’ man. She would need to unpack many experiences she
had around her father and around her ideas of being protected by the masculine
element and let down by softness. Deep issues will not heal on their own. But
beginning the journey of looking more deeply at ourselves can be overwhelming
and confusing. We often don’t know where to start.
Help is available
The task of looking at and
sorting through our profound and often overwhelming issues can be helped by
looking at the myth of Psyche and Eros and Psyche’s interactions with
Aphrodite. Psyche was a beautiful woman. The Goddess Aphrodite was jealous of
Psyche and gave her many impossible tasks. The first was for Psyche to sort
through a vast granary filled with many different kinds of seeds. Psyche was
instructed to sort through them by sundown. Psyche was beside herself, crying
and completely overwhelmed. As she cries, an army of ants arrives, and they
began to sort the seeds. By nightfall, the task was complete. Psyche was not
able to sort the seeds herself. She needed assistance, and because she had a
clear intention with integrity, help arrived.
There is help for relationships and personal development. One only need to pick a path to follow or several. Some include:
12-step programs Therapy A relational, educational process like WeConcile® Workshops Youtubes by various teachers, gurus, and healers
As we become more integrated and step more fully into the process of reclaiming our whole selves, we begin to be lighter. We begin to be more whole. What is dead comes to life and has an opportunity to engage consciously. A dialogue ensues. We become happier. We begin to love all of ourselves. The quality of our connections become filled with more love. Our life and life itself becomes fuller.
Sometimes, from deep inside us, it emerges, almost
unexpected – NO. No, I will not do that. No, what you are doing is not okay.
No, I will not participate. No, I will stop myself from behaving that way.
When we find our ‘No,’ claim it and own it without anger,
we are well on the way to being able to take care of ourselves emotionally
I remember years ago being someone who could not say no. As I
learned to be able to say no, I had to have a reason. No, I cannot go with you
tonight because I have plans. No, I cannot help you because I am already
But saying “No, I am not interested in doing that, but
thanks for asking,” was not yet in my vocabulary.
For some of us, saying no is easy. And for others, it is
something that needs to be developed. Part of being in a functional relationship
means that we can honor our own needs and wishes. If we cannot hold our own, we may end up
feeling resentful, which can poison a relationship.
Perhaps the other person will get angry? Yes, that is possible, and that will undoubtedly have to be worked out. But ultimately, kindly saying no, is one of our rights and a necessary component of being able to work out a relationship. We are all different. We don’t always see things eye to eye. We have to be able to stand on our own two feet while also relating to another.
How are you with saying no? Can you say no without feeling angry or guilty? Can your partner (or family member or friend) hear your no?
What kind of support or relationship help do you need to be able to honor your own wishes? WeConcile Level 18 specifically focuses on boundaries.
I’m writing and will be presenting a Continuing Education course for therapists called Clinician Use of WeConcile® to Facilitate Couples Work. (You can find the course here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/clinician-use-weconcile-facilitate-couples-work-web-conference.html). Doing this work is making me think about what it takes to make a change in a relationship, and about the couples who choose to stay stuck instead of tackling this significant part of their lives. And it is making me again look at what actually happens in a person to allow the kind of change that transforms a relationship to something amazing. Yet, so many people are scared of this.
Precisely what is scary for them? I think it is simply having to experience
painful feelings and begin to sort through them. An example of a problematic
feeling could be feeling awkward or gross in front of someone else hence
feeling a sense of shame. Of course, we have difficult feelings, regardless,
but we aren’t consciously choosing to look at them. They just leap out and grab
us when we get triggered. We react, and then those feelings subside, or we put
them away. We create an outside reason – she made me mad. We aren’t looking
deep at why we were triggered. How what she said made us feel unseen or less
than. How what she said, triggered an echo of our feelings about how our father
made us feel.
This is a quote from Sue Johnson, founder of
EFT for couples. “Awareness of emotion is central to healthy functioning ….
Since emotional responses orient the individual to his or her own needs and
longings and prime the struggle to get those needs met.”
So, for example, suppose Joe had a very
successful father, and nothing Joe does makes him feel as if he can match what
his father did. So, underneath Joe is going to have some feelings of not being
worthy, or not being good enough. Joe’s deep longing is to feel worthy. What
does Joe do about this feeling? He pushes it away. He doesn’t feel it. He’s not
even aware of this feeling. Instead, he puts his wife down. He takes his yucky
feelings and gives them to her – and he’s not even aware of it. She is too
controlling, too annoying, too this or that. And she, of course, has her own
dynamics that interlock with his. So, they bicker a lot. Sure, they love each
other, but they are both in their individual defensive places much of the time.
Neither Joe nor his wife has that sense of leaning back into the soft cushion of
their relationship because emotionally, they don’t feel fully safe. Who knows
when a harsh word will come, or one will criticize the other.
And yet, the process of changing this dynamic
is known. Opening up each partner’s inner emotional experience, with a focus on
emotional engagement and corrective experiences will allow new ways of relating
and new self-structure to emerge. We
just don’t know how to do this. That is why therapy, workshops, and
experiential educational systems can help.
What if Joe became able to realize and talk
about how being raised by his very successful father impacted his feelings
about himself. What if he realized that he was continually reacting to issues
that triggered a deep shame he had around feeling as if he was not good enough.
What if, as he talked about these feelings, his wife began to understand him
better, and he began to understand himself better. What if she began to see how
what she did triggered him, and she developed more empathy for him. What if he
also came to see how he triggered her and what if in this process of
exploration and reconnection Joe began to see her value, and he began to want
to connect, rather than push her away. And what if in this process, he found
his own worth. And because of all of these shifts, he no longer put his wife
down. Because they are now connecting on a deeper level.
Each person has the enormous opportunity to
expand and reorganize their inner experience, transforming their relationship.
This quote from Brene Brown encapsulates the way to change, “I believe that you have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage, therefore . . . embrace the suck. I try to be grateful every day, and my motto right now is ‘Courage over comfort.’”
Courage over comfort. That is the key. The primary vehicle for change in a relationship really is developing a better relationship with our own feelings and unpacking why we feel what we feel when we are having that feeling.
(The material in this article comes from understanding gained by training in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples)
Working with couples effectively means you understand the three dimensions of our relationships: Attachment, emotions and cycles. Learn about what needs to be focused on to do effective couples work, or to work on your own relationship.
1) The dimension of attachment: attachment is a framework that underlies all intimate connection even if we are not aware of it. Most of us aren’t. It is a term more used by psychologists, therapists and people working with infants than the general public and many people don’t know anything about it. Attachment means that we look at important connections through a lens that asks questions like, “Am I important to you?” or “Do you really care about me?” or “Am I enough for you?” etc. It is hard wired into us. As babies, connection means life. Disconnection is death. Attachment is about relationship and it brings with it questions about safety, belonging and meaning. It asks, “What do I mean to you?” “Am I safe with you?” “Do I belong?” It is through an attachment lens that we interpret the actions of our partner. Events that are upsetting to us bring up attachment related questions. We are often not aware of these attachment related questions, and when they get activated by a lack of connection or another attachment threat, they get translated into negative thoughts like, “You don’t care about me” or “You never put me first” and actions like yelling or withdrawing. We react because we are afraid that we are losing our connection or being overwhelmed by it. Our fears that we are not enough, or not important or valued enough emerge. What we aren’t aware of is that our partner is responding to his or her own attachment fears and isn’t yet conscious or, or doesn’t know how to sort through this. The screaming partner is screaming for closeness. The withdrawing partner is withdrawing because the distance is how he or she maintains the relationship when he or she feels criticized, not understood, or not good enough. When we learn this lens and practice seeing through it, we will be able to re-interpret what is going on and understand it in a new and much more constructive way. Without this lens, it is very difficult to develop empathy for our partners when they are behaving in hurtful ways. But once we see that they are struggling with their own attachment issues, it is possible to feel less threatened and have more empathy. This is important because we want to change our stance so we can reconnect more easily.
2) The dimension of emotions: when we feel emotion, we feel it in our bodies. It is visceral – we shake, cry, ‘see red’, hunch over, look away etc. The dimension of our emotions is about feeling. Exploring our feelings helps us understand more about ourselves, about our reactions, about old feelings that we are still trying to avoid. Many people are uncomfortable with their feelings. Some people don’t have a very good vocabulary developed to describe their feelings, or their feelings have been compressed, pushed down and aren’t an active part of their reality. This can change. We can and need to get to know our feelings better if we want to expand our ability to relate. The dimension of emotions can be experienced more deeply, navigated more easily and articulated more clearly. When our attachment questions get activated our feelings also get activated. And when our feelings get triggered, so do our attachment questions. But as we understand our feelings more and experience them more fully, we can learn to witness them and talk about them rather than react from them. This helps calm down the dimension of cycles.
3) The dimension of cycles: cycles occur in all relationships. If we are struggling in our relationship, our cycle will be contributing to our difficulties. Our cycle is what occurs between us over and over again. I feel disappointed and cry, you get frustrated and yell or withdraw. I cry harder. You withdraw more. The dimension of feelings and the dimension of attachment both interrelate with the dimension of cycles. If I experience my relationship as unsafe because of a disconnect, I might feel sad and cry, while thinking, “nobody loves me” and as I do this, you withdraw because you think that you can never make me happy and this feels bad, shameful, scary to you. I feel abandoned and sad. You feel alone and inadequate. We both want to be close. We cope by crying or withdrawing. Gaining control over our cycle is important. First, we must develop a conceptual picture of what our cycle looks like, of what actually occurs. As we understand our cycle, and see how it relates to attachment issues and feelings, we aren’t so threatened by it and our reactivity goes down. We understand how it gets fueled, and that it doesn’t need to go on forever. As we gain control of our cycle and understand that we can influence it, we start to feel even safer.
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.
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.