“So you go to therapy too huh?”
“Nah. I used to. I’m just waiting for my friend. What brings you here?”
“Well, I’m closed off to them. I don’t think I’m good enough so I don’t even put my self out there. I’m 38 and I get lonely, you know? I want someone to share my life with, go to the movies with, cuddle with on a rainy night like this…instead I’m here talking to a complete stranger about how I can’t connect to another human being. It’s sad really.”
‘But you want to.”
“What to connect? Boy do I!! I’m just not sure I can anymore. It’s like someone has broken in and stolen my human connection device, leaving me robbed and helpless. You ever feel that way?”
“Not really. I am a master in connection, I open up like a flower in bloom. I attach like glue, I’m like a magnet when I find someone I like, I go where they go, whether they feel me or not, whether they notice me or not, even at a distance, they move I move. It’s sick…Or used to be. I’m not like that anymore.”
“I’m not sure. But I think I finally found someone who actually gives a shit about me. Which means no more chasing, adjusting, adapting, pretending to be someone I’m not, sacrificing, hiding. You know, there were others before, who claimed to care but I know they didn’t. They either didn’t have a clue about who I really was or they were too busy focusing on themselves and their selfish needs to really give a fuck about me. It’s a sad realization to think I have wasted the past 8 years invested in people who were at the least invested in me. Funny thing is, now that I’m with someone who really cares, I’m not quite sure what to do with it. I find myself wanting to break it off, sabotage, you know? But I don’t have the heart to do it. I know this is my last chance at not ending up alone. I hope for my sake I don’t blow it.”
“What’s wrong with being alone? I have for the past 2 years and it’s been great. I can do whatever I want, sleep with whomever I choose, not have to respond to anyone or take their wishes into consideration. It’s just me and my needs. It’s great!”
“Yeah, so great you ended up in therapy!”
“It’s OK. You know what I think? I think you should find someone who is OK with your independence, who doesn’t bug you 24/7 or pressure you to be someone you are not. Someone who understands that you are your own person, with a free will and a free spirit. Those are rare, you know women who don’t take shit personally? But they are out there, if you are OK with them being as independent as you are.”
“I’m not jealous at all. I swear sometimes I wish I was. It’s like that’s the standard for caring, if you’re not jealous then you don’t care. Which makes people pissed off at you. And I hate when someone is pissed off at me. I find it my duty to fix it for them. I’m rarely successful.”
“I’ts called boundaries. You are NOT responsible for other people’s feelings. Only for yourself. You can’t fix others. Nor can you make them understand. You just have to focus on you and be the happiest, best person you can be. And hope one day someone will come along who really appreciates all your hard work. Someone who really gives a shit. Just hope you are wise enough by then to take it all in and not screw it up with your bitterness and cynicism.”
“I do have hope. And even though I’m bitter I try not to show it. What can I say, I am a work in progress.”
“Aren’t we all?”
No one teaches you about these skills when you are young. You are just supposed to meet someone, like them, be attracted to them, even fall in love with them. The rest is supposed to work itself out. Until it doesn’t. Often you don’t learn about these skills until it’s too late. But once you learn how important they are, you just want to share.
1. Empathy. Empathy means you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what it must feel like to be there. Especially when you disagree or when you can’t relate to them. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Familiarize yourself with their world. Ask questions, be curious, leave your judgement and Ego aside and embark on a journey even knowing sometimes that what you might find is painful or unpleasant. Empathy is essential to creating a safe relationship. It may not be a happy one but you can’t get to happy without going through safety first. Empathy is definitely a skill you and your partner can learn. You don’t have to date a therapist to get empathy from your partner, but it helps if he/she is not self-involved, egocentric, incapable or unwilling to extend themselves in a compassionate, attentive way.
2. Listen. Develop listening skills. Don’t interrupt. Be patient. Listening means shutting up. Let your partner talk without feeling pressured or ignored. Be involved. Listening is active not passive. It involves paying attention, remembering, organizing thoughts and being open-minded all at the same time.
3. Be positive. It’s a harsh world out there. We get criticism from our bosses, parents, co-workers and even friends. Most importantly we get criticism from ourselves. We don’t need to bring more criticism home. We can choose to focus on what’s working, on what our partner is good at, what they can do well, what they excel in. We can choose to point out their best attributes, their wisdom, their strength, their greatness, their awesomeness. It’s there if you choose to focus on it and make it known to them and the world. Make it known you are proud to be on his/her side, thank them for existing, for being them and for all the little acts of kindness towards you and others. Praise them for their successes and turn their failures in a positive opportunity for learning and growth. Be their cheerleader. Lift them up. Be grateful for them.
4. Don’t take it personally. When he chooses to watch the game with his buddies instead of hanging out with you, when she says she’s too tired to have sex, when he is too distracted or stressed by work, when he forgets about something you planned or when she doesn’t like to hold your hand in public. Even when your partner cheats on you, it’s not personal. Shit happens. We are only human, we make mistakes. It’s not a reflection on you. It may not be about you at all. Our partners are individual human beings with an independent will and identity and they make mistakes. Learn to hold on to yourself and be unruffled in your self-confidence and trust of yourself and others. This can be a difficult concept to grasp or practice but not impossible.
5. Turn toward. When your partner shares something that is important to them, pay attention. Turn toward them physically, mentally, emotionally. Pay. Attention. This doesn’t mean you agree with them or even understand why it is important. Still, you turn toward them. If you don’t, if you turn away from what’s important to them, the opportunity may never present itself again. Next time they think about sharing with you, they will remember what it felt like to be ignored or shunned or criticized or even mocked for it and they will shut down and shut you out. When you realize you have turned away unintentionally, correct as soon as possible. Apologize and then turn toward them. Pay attention to what’s important to your partner even if you consider it to be minor, irrelevant, stupid, non-nonsensical. Know that when your partner bids for your attention (as Gottman puts it), they are looking for validation, approval, acceptance, love.
6. Team work. When your partner bitches about his/her boss, co-worker, friends, parents, the whole world, be prepared to take their side. Show them you are on their team. Show them you are loyal to them and stand by them even if you disagree with their actions, thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Be on their side because if they are in the wrong, deep down they know it. They don’t need you to point it out. Even if they don’t know they are wrong they will only get to that realization if they know you support them. There is nothing worse than feeling alone in a relationship. We want to be with a significant other because we don’t want to face the world alone. Don’t turn against him/her. Your partner does not need a mother or a father. He/she already has one in their own head. And that’s more than enough. Take his/her side and treat them with respect, dignity, trust and confidence that they can handle their shit.
7. Radical Acceptance. As much as it may feel that way sometimes, your partner is not an extension of you. Let go of your need to control. Letting go is a very important skill for peace, sanity and joy. What is needed is called radical acceptance: fully accepting the things you can’t control. Get honest with yourself about who your partner is and be prepared to fully accept them for who they are. They may learn new skills and even change significantly because you came into their life. But some things will never change. Accept it.
8. Ask for what you need/want. Don’t assume your partner knows what you want or need. They can’t read you mind. Learn to figure out what it is exactly you need or want and be able to articulate that assertively. Don’t expect them to know and then get pissed when they don’t give you what you expect. Take responsibility for your avoidance and lack of communication.
9. Diversify. This will sound weird but your partner is not enough. You can not meet all your needs through one relationship. You can not put all the weight of your happiness on one relationship and then expect not to be frustrated or disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should have affairs. But lets be honest, most emotional affairs start because someone is unhappy and someone needs a friend. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well I say it takes a village to maintain a happy relationship. You need friends, co-workers, family, neighbors, community, meaningful and fulfilling work, hobbies, etc etc.
10. Patience. At one point or another you’re going to get frustrated with your significant other. It will feel like they are moving waaaayyyy slower than you would want them to and you don’t understand why they can’t do what you need them to do. You are going to wonder if they really care about you and even question whether you should continue to be in this relationship. What you need is patience and lots of it. Everyone goes through their own process of change and growing up. You can’t rush things. And you can’t place a timeline on someone’s growth.
“I love her very much, we have a lot of fun. But the sex is gone”
“I’m not attracted to him anymore.”
“It’s like the more someone rejects me, the more I want them. This guy likes me very much and he’s very sweet but the desire is just not there because I know he would never reject me.”
“We want what we can’t have I guess. When she told me she was leaving me, all of a sudden I wanted her more. We had the best sex we had had in years.”
“This happens to me every time. I’m fine for the first year or so and then the desire just dies. Am I choosing the wrong people for me?”
We’ve all heard the story. At first you can’t get enough of each other. At first, you can’t wait to have hot, steamy sex over and over again. All the time. But then your need for security, routine and intimacy kicks in and you want to get closer and closer. As the intimacy increases, the sex slowly dies. A sexless relationship is more common than you think, just not talked about. More often than not, “the relationship is not about sex anymore, it’s grown into a more mature, seasoned, meaningful commitment.” And you tell yourself this is what is supposed to happen. You may even tell yourself it’s a good thing. Until you become bored and unhappy.
Recently, I have had time to ponder on my current relationship and past ones trying to figure out what went wrong and what is working. One thing is for sure, independence and separateness definitely fuels my desire. Smothering and total enmeshment on the other hand are great for a safe attachment but they kill the fire. Quickly. It turns out, I’m not the only one. I have talked about independence and separateness in relationships here before in two different posts. Spending time alone when you are in a relationship seems counter intuitive. Why should you? Isn’t companionship what we crave the most?
I’ve been reading Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity. She suggests that “our ability to tolerate our separateness-and the fundamental insecurity it engenders-is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship.” Couples who love each other very much may find themselves in a sexless relationship. This happens because the relationship is too intimate. “Love enjoys knowing everything about you, desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it.” The ways she puts it, the relationship has become a flannel nightgown – it’s cozy, warm, comfortable. You want to cuddle or sleep in it but it doesn’t inspire much eroticism. In fact, the more someone loves you the more they become asexual to you. The more someone needs for you to take care of them the less attractive they become.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t get close, have intimacy or rely on each other. We just need to make sure there is a healthy balance between that and cultivating separateness or nurturing a sense of selfhood – The quality that constitutes one’s individuality; the state of having an individual identity. Just like we need to nurture a relationship, we need to nurture ourselves, our hobbies, our friendships, our need for lonesome excitement, adventure and new experiences. We need to nurture our beliefs, values, lifestyle choices, self-care habits, weird quirks, passions, dreams, etc and hope they don’t clash with our partner’s.
Independence is sexy. Confidence is sexy.
Nurture your selfhood. Hold on to yourself. Be comfortable doing things alone, spending time alone. Your relationship will be much better off for it.
So, why does good sex so often fade, even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever? And why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex, contrary to popular belief? Or, the next question would be, can we want what we already have? That’s the million-dollar question, right? And why is the forbidden so erotic? What is it about transgression that makes desire so potent? And why does sex make babies, and babies spell erotic disaster in couples? It’s kind of the fatal erotic blow, isn’t it? And when you love, how does it feel? And when you desire, how is it different?
My client went away for three days to visit family. On her flight back, she fantasied about her boyfriend surprising her by showing up at the airport with flowers and a limo. Instead she had to take a cab home all by her lonesome only to find he wasn’t even home. No phone call, no texts, no “welcome home honey”. She was angry and upset. She felt unloved. My client knows very well her fantasy is completely unrealistic for who her boyfriend is. Yet, that didn’t stop her from developing an expectation. And then get upset when, the completely fantastical expectation, was not met.
If you are a woman, by now you are convinced my client’s boyfriend is a jerk. What if I told you, he wasn’t home because he was relaxing with his buddy after a long day of putting together her Christmas present? A chicken coop. Yes, yes, you don’t really see this in Hollywood romantic movies. Nor do you fantasize about this as a little girl, being a princess, your prince charming getting you a chicken coop for Christmas AND not be home to welcome you after a long three days of being away (said with slight sarcasm). But this is reality. And this is love.
We all have ideals of what a relationship should look like. Most of the time they are force fed to us by our parents, family, girlfriends, other couples, Hollywood, fairy tales. Many times these ideals turn into life positions or life scripts. Many times these ideals inform the games we play in relationships. Don’t get me wrong. Some relationships resemble a Hollywood fairy tale. But not all do. And to expect that every relationship should fit the way society and popular culture defines love is simply a quick way to set you and your partner up to fail. If you are thinking that the Hollywood fairy tale is really, truly what you want for your marriage that’s great. And if you do have a fairy tale marriage I’m happy for you. But if you don’t, maybe you need to adjust your expectations and observe the choices YOU make when it comes to partners.
Love has many different shapes and forms. It changes and it remains the same. It’s messy and exhilarating and heartbreaking all at the same time. Love lives in different places, wears different faces and speaks different languages. If you don’t believe me, find out for yourself. We tend to express love in the love language we naturally speak. Which makes no sense. It would be like me insisting on speaking Albanian here in the US, to English speakers, and expecting to be understood. Most likely, what I would encounter is confusion, miscommunication, disconnection, even loneliness which leads to anger, resentments and hopelessness (if for some bizarre reason I would expect people to understand Albanian if they truly loved me).
What I’m saying is, for a relationship to work you have to speak your partner’s love language, not yours. And they have to do the same for you. So find out what yours is (Touch, Words of Affirmation, Gifts, Acts of Service, Spending Time Together).
For instance, my love language is touch. I don’t care for gifts or acts of service. Although they are nice, I equate touch with love. Period. If I love you I will try to touch you. All the time. OK. That sounded weird, but you know what I mean. For some people, that’s uncomfortable. In the same way gifts are for me. If I want to show love to someone who’s not big on touch but equates love with acts of services I would cook them breakfast or something. It’s easy to figure out what your partner’s love language is. Because we are self-centered beings, we will try to show love in our own language. Unless instructed otherwise. Once you speak the language you will understand when love is being communicated. And you will adjust your expectations accordingly, which will eliminate all confusion, disconnect, anger, resentment, hurt. All that remains is love.
And on that note, cheers to love in 2013!
Happy New Year!
There is a lot of talk around self-control especially in the field of addictions and emotion regulation (those go together for some reason).
The story sounds a little like this.
“I know this is a bad decision, I logically know this will crash and burn but I can’t help myself. I’m on a freight train and can’t get off”.
This applies to drugs, bad relationships, stupidity, impulsivity, anger, bad decisions, doing something without considering the consequences, selfishness, indulging, etc. The underlying belief is lack of self-control.
I have to disagree. There is significant irrational belief at play here, including false hope, unreasonable optimism and, most importantly the arrogance that comes with making a choice because you want to and not because you have no self-control. Namely, stubbornness. Or needing to learn the hard way.
Don’t get on that train.
Imagine you are standing tall with your feet firmly grounded on the platform watching the trains come and go. There is the sadness train. The alcohol train. The guy who rejected you train. The affair train. The sex train…fill in the blank. Once you get on it, you know exactly where it will take you and you will ride it all the way to the final station only to realize you have just wasted time and lost something along the way.
Loss is always present.
Trains come and go. Don’t get on that train. There is another one coming. I promise.