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.
I have found that a lot of marital problems revolve around sex and immaturity in sexual development. Last week, I had the privilege of going through a training on The Sexual Experience and Behavior Inventory (SEABI) with Dr. Lisa Terrell at the Sensovi Institute here in Charlotte. She has been doing some amazing work in this field, you can learn more about it at sensovi.com. Since I was introduced to her work and tried to incorporate it in my work with individuals and couples, I have realized that part of the problem with immature marriages is that no one talks about sex.
Husband comes to therapy because wife just found out he has had an account on ashleymadison.com for over 2 years. Wife is furious and sends husband to me so I can “fix” him. Husband is already defensive and treats the therapy like he treats his wife: with defensiveness. Husband slowly starts to understand that part of therapy if exploring the purpose of his behavior, as Dr. Lisa calls it “the payoff”. Slowly husband begin to realize what has created and maintained his behavior all along: his sexual template, his erotic catalyst. Wife also goes to her own therapy. Therapist instructs her she needs to leave this marriage because husband is basically a jerk and she needs to not allow such behavior to continue. Another failed marriage, another statistic. Sometimes this is what needs to happen. Sometimes this could be prevented if people can just stay together long enough to talk about the difficult topics revolving sex, intimacy and what turns them on.
I see a lot of men who go to great lengths to build and maintain a secret life around their sexual preferences. They like anonymous sex or fantasy sex or they like to watch or seduction is what they are after. That’s what turns them on. Despite being in a committed relationship, they seek out secret, fantastical encounters. There is a running joke between my friend and I. We say men want to have their cake AND their candy. If you like fantasy then you will love building a whole new secret persona/life. I’m not in the business of deciding whether that’s right or wrong. But I CAN tell you that this is probably an indication of sexual/relationship immaturity more than it is an addiction problem. A lot of these men (and sometimes women) have trouble with intimacy. They want a marriage but they don’t know what it takes to be truly emotionally and mentally intimate. Also, I have found that there is a history of rejection of some sort in their development (parents, early crush/girlfriend/competition with same sex, etc). They will do and risk almost anything to feel wanted sexually. That’s the hook. A single partner is rarely enough to satisfy this developmental need. But they can help (or hurt) the issue.
I am interested in exploring how what turns you on has become such a big secret. How far back does the secret go? What were the high school years like? What happened when you went to college or entered adulthood? How is it that you don’t know what your sexual template looks like? Or if you do, you go to great lengths to hide it from the person you have decided to spend the rest of your life with? I also find it interesting that you can not tell me what turns your wife on. But you can count all the ways in which she is being “frigid” with you. EVERYONE gets turned on by something. As Gina Ogden puts it, there is no such thing as low desire, there is only low desire for the KIND of sex you and your partner have been having.
Let’s talk about it.
What turns you on? What turns you off? Talk to your partner about it. Yes, they may judge you. But that’s a communication, respect and partnership problem. It reveals how mature each individual is AND whether or not they are willing to grow. Marital growth can not exist without sexual growth. Before you try to get your wife to attempt different positions or put on a sexy outfit, you have to find the courage to talk. Ask the tough questions without judgement and start negotiating the rules and boundaries of your relationship all over again (or maybe for the very first time).
I’m always amazed at how immature people are in their beliefs and expectations about relationships and marriage. As my client called it once “an underdeveloped” idea of marriage, could be the reason why so many marriages suffer and/or end up in divorce. Here are some of the misconceptions about relationships that eventually lead to distress.
1. Take me as I am.
A lot of people put way too much effort in the beginning of a relationship and not nearly enough effort later in it. Typically after a year or so of dating, you have an idea where the relationship is going. And typically, if you feel secure that this is something serious and it will end up in marriage and/or some serious commitment, you stop trying. When you first start dating, you care about your body, how you look, how you dress, how you speak, etc. You try not to disclose too much about yourself, just enough to keep the curiosity/interest alive. You try not to chew while talking, not burp, fart or even acknowledge that you engage in such gross activities. You lie about interests, habits and that porn collection in your computer. You lie about previous relationships and your responsibility in their failure. You want to make a good impression so you talk politics or philosophy or claim to be a MUCH better cook than you really are. Then with time you stop because it’s too hard to keep this up. You just want and need to be yourself. And one thing is for sure my friends, your true self WILL eventually shine through. And when that happens you say “if you can’t take me for who I am than this isn’t going to work.” The problem with this is the fact that your bad habits are NOT who you really are. As David Schnarch puts it, marriage is not an excuse to get fat, lazy or stop being an interesting person. Just because someone has committed to being with you, does not mean that you now have to stop trying to grow and mature. Having said that, I think a relationship is only conducive to growth if there is some basic acceptance, respect and unconditional love for who someone really is. A person can only grow and mature in a safe relationship. Change is only possible through relationships. If you have the balls to do the hard work.
2. Relationships are about performance.
Men worry and obsess about how their penis is performing. Little do they know, women obsess about how their vaginas look and perform too. We have strong beliefs and expectations about performance in almost every area of the relationship. Think about the mental checklist you run through to evaluate how your relationship is going. How many of those items are one way or another linked to you or your partner doing something well or poorly? Listen up folks, your relationship is not meant to be a test.
Is he good with giving gifts? Check
Is she a good housekeeper? Check
Is he/she good in bed? Check
Can she cook? Check
Is he good at telling I have had a bad day and need a massage? Check
Is he/she a good listener? Check
Is he a good provider? Double check
Now before you start saying that you don’t really do this because all you care about is that you are loved, cared for and understood, go back and check the list you use to evaluate those things. Love and understanding have nothing to do with performance. They exist even when someone is “bad” at showing you because “bad” is relative to YOUR performance standards. Performance gets effected by stress, mood, general life satisfaction, motivation, skills and anxiety. And the more you stress about yours or your partner’s the less you/they will perform. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask for what you need or get what you need. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have expectations. But generally speaking, it’s not what your relationship can do for you but what YOU can do for the relationship. As Hedy Schleifer puts it, your relationship does not exist in you or in your partner, it exists in the space between you two. She calls it a sacred space. Stop polluting the space between you and the love of your life with your judgment and selfishness.
3. Relationships should make you happy.
Yes. But before they do that they should make you miserable. Which they are guaranteed to do. So might as well accept it and change your attitude about it. Even the happiest couples have at one point or another wondered if they married the wrong person for them. George Clooney’s character in The Descendents said to his dying wife by her hospital bed “Goodbye, Elizabeth. Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my joy. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye”.
Relationships are about joy AND pain. Conflict is a good thing. If you are getting along just fine that means someone is not saying something. Conflict and pain is a golden opportunity for growth. Maybe the only real one you’ll have as an adult. You can say “I don’t like this, I have married the wrong person, I need to leave them and move on.” Or you can say “This is causing me pain but it’s growing pains. How can I grow?” Of course, the latter is harder and we don’t like hard things. It’s easier to leave then to face yourself. It’s easier to blame someone else than to take responsibility for yourself and your own personal growth.
I never said people like what I say. In fact I’m quite unpopular.