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 read a blog today on PsychCentral.com on a book titled “The Happiness Choice: The Five Decisions that Take You From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be” by Marilyn Tam. It states:
“There are five decisions we make every day to bring us either more happiness: what we choose to do with, and how we treat our:
- Spiritual life
It got me thinking.
I haven’t written in a while. Partly because I have felt uninspired. Not sure why, couldn’t put my finger on it. Until today. The truth is, I love what I do but I have been acutely aware of my limitations lately. You see, we (meaning therapists) like to believe that everything is up to the individual. “You can accomplish anything you put your mind to it” we say and many of us believe it. Generally I would agree.
But what happens when your body, money, relationships, community, etc are largely out of your control? When we talk about individual decisions, are we assuming that problems in each area automatically mean there is something wrong with the individual? Are we carelessly insinuating that unhappy people are inherently broken?
What is the payoff AND cost of such individualistic, narrow-minded, pathologizing point of view?
The pay off is easy to see. It allows us to avoid the heavy burden of thinking about and addressing individual issues systemically. It’s too overwhelming to think about community as everyone’s responsibility. I have met so many perfectly normal, well-adjusted young people who are severely isolated because of the state of our individualistic, extrovert-focused, technology-driven culture. And they all think they are broken.
What happens when your body aches, is malnourished, stagnant, or just simply ignored? Sometimes we do it to ourselves. And we have no one else to blame. But often, the body is simply a powerless victim of our food culture, ignorance, inadequate healthcare, accidents, sedentary work/life environments, etc.
Sometimes seemingly wise money decisions conflict with relationship decisions, or decisions about community and spirituality. What is the impact of financial issues on relationships?
Is it easier to define addiction as an individual problem and avoid the context in which it develops? Is it really surprising that we are largely addicted to prescription pain pills? Our doctors are legal drug dealers who have no consequences for their decisions. Is sex addiction really just an individual issue? Separate from the technological advances it feeds on and the current state of the marriage institution?
And don’t even get me started on the issue of spirituality!
The cost of blaming individuals for system failures is high. It makes people feel broken. And that is a horrible way to feel.
I’m not saying you are powerless and you can’t make decisions about your body, relationships, money, spirituality and community. You can and you should. In fact, given the right support and guidance you can make incredible changes and dramatically improve your life. I am a witness to this everyday. But I strongly believe that things don’t happen in vacuum. I believe that everything effects everything and we are all connected.
You are not more broken than the system is. Sometimes you can’t change the context in which your problem developed. Sometimes you can. And when you can, you should. I recently found myself coming to the conclusion that advocating for introverts is as important as trying to teach them “social skills”. Making sense of your reality in all its complexity is sometimes the most important step to change. Acceptance is easiest to achieve when you have knowledge, understanding and empathy.
Sometimes therapy can’t change your reality but it will help you come to a gentle acceptance. You have all the wisdom and the strength you need. But it helps to not be alone.
The most interesting question I have ever asked in couples therapy is “How is your sex life?” Even if the couple never mentioned problems with their intimacy, the responses I get almost always make me say “Hmm. Let’s talk about this.”
We don’t talk about sex. Not freely anyway. We were taught as kids that sex is taboo, prohibited, sometimes dirty and bad. “Good” girls are often not supposed to enjoy sex. If they do they are “bad” girls. Men identify with their penises, their size, performance, endurance, and so on. The penis is not just a penis . It’s one’s manhood. Vaginas often propel men to a pathetic, ridiculous, adolescent state of silliness. Have you ever seen a man beg for sex? Sex is very powerful yet we don’t talk about it. But sex is the worst kept secret. Couples know this better than I do.
Maybe if we talked about sex the same way we go about talking about current events, we would realize that sex is as normal as thirst. Enjoying sex is as normal as enjoying a great meal (illegal sexual behaviors like rape or pedophilia excluded). The fact that meals come with less guilt, more communication, collaboration and sharing is purely a moral issue. For instance, when we are young we learn women have vaginas and men have penises but no one talks about women’s sexual epicenter, the clitoris. The clitoris is invisible. How many women have been acquainted with their own clitoris? All men can pick themselves out of a line up, no question. But how many women know what their clitoris and vagina looks like?
Why is talking about sex uncomfortable? We all have sex, we just don’t talk about it. And how does not talking about it affect a relationship? Which brings me to what I really want to talk about. Sex addiction.This phrase is thrown around the internet a lot but what does it really mean? I don’t believe sex addiction exists. Maybe we can talk about compulsive sexual behaviors but even then how much say masturbating is too much? Who decides that? How many partners make you a slut? When men can’t seem to stop cheating, why do we say they have an addiction problem and send them to rehab? Who diagnosed Tiger Woods as sex addict? It must have been the media given that an official sex addiction diagnosis does not exist. Don’t get me wrong. I think often people feel out of control when it comes to their sexual choices. Clients will tell me that engaging in sexual relations with other women via internet, sex chat, phone sex or in person has had devastating consequences for their relationships, finances, self-esteem, etc. But problematic behavior is not necessarily addiction. The reason why it’s important to focus on the behavior and avoid labeling is that “sex addict” more often than not means pervert. And when we label people we move away from their complexity. When we label people as sex addicts we inherently pathologise a very normal, healthy and important aspect of human experience: sex.
If sex addition is a a pathology, a problem, then what does recovery entail? With drug addiction, abstinence from drugs is the first step and also the ultimate goal. If we employ the same principals, does recovery from sex addiction means abstinence from sex? I don’t know about you, but I have a problem with that. I suggest that instead of getting caught up in labels, we have to explore problematic behavior for what it is. A behavior. That can be changed. Sex is not to be taken lightly. Sex is emotional and psychological. It’s complex and spills over many areas of one’s life and relationships. Lets talk about it. Let’s explore how to have healthier, happier sex. Let’s have the difficult conversations about intimacy, pleasing each other and ourselves, communication, fantasy. Let’s talk about what cheating does to trust, emotional safety and self-esteem. Cheating is not an individual problem. It is a relationship problem. Compulsive sexual behaviors are often not an addiction problem. They are a life problem. They are a way to deal with life, relationship problems, mental illness, even childhood wounding. They are expressions of a selfish Ego that wants what it wants and gives itself permission to go against the rules. Or have none.
Culturally, American women take cheating personally. When cheated on an American woman asks “What did I do wrong?”. A European woman asks instead “Are we OK?” Your upbringing, religion, family background will also define how you perceive cheating or other sexual behaviors. How does this fit in today’s sex addiction treatment? The problem is, it doesn’t. And that’s not helping anyone.
I’m back in therapy. After 4 years of doing relatively well, I felt I had come to a point where I needed to explore some patterns that keep creeping up in my life. Patterns are telling. Pay attention to them. They are desperately trying to tell you something about yourself.
My therapist gave me an assignment. I can’t believe I have never done this before. A list of non-negotiable and negotiable characteristics I would like to see in a partner. This was to be completely separate from actual relationships, past or present. Purely focused on me. Relationships are a very important aspect of one’s life. So why is it that we typically do not go about them in a systematic way? The same way we go about finding a job or buying a house or grocery shopping? We often base relationships on how they FEEL in the beginning, and go with the flow without thinking about things too much.
I have to confess. I have a tendency to be impulsive. I have done things in the past purely based on how they feel. I also thought I wasn’t very clear about what I wanted since I change my mind a lot but as I set down for this assignment things were clearer to me than they have ever been. Truthfully, these thoughts have been dominating my wants and needs historically. I just never wrote them down. Of course, they are subject to change. We are subject to change. Relationships also change with time. But I had to focus on the here-and-now.
Here’s my list.
Emotionally independent/not needy
Safe (emotionally – I can be myself)
Good sense of humor
A good sense of style
Into movies/music/art/photography (similar interests)
I don’t think my list is unreasonable. Also because I am able to offer pretty much everything I’m asking for.
So whether you’re in a relationship or not, what’s your list?
I’m pro-marriage, I believe couples can work through the worst and come out better people and in a better relationship. Maybe I’m naïve.
On the other hand…
Religion aside, divorce sometimes IS the way to go. Sad but true. I would like to save you some money and time in therapy by giving you a few instances where working on the marriage is just not worth the pain. Don’t stay together for the kids either. Stop perpetuating the cycle of dysfunction and make the right decision.
- You are in a heterosexual relationship but one of you is gay.
Hmmm…actually that’s it.
Feel free to add to the list. What do you perceive as “un-workable” in a relationship?
From Eric Berne’s Games People Play
If it Weren’t For You. This is a typical marital game. Mrs. White complained that her husband severely restricted her social activities so that she had never learned to dance. At some point the husband became less sure of himself and more indulgent. Mrs. White at that point is free to enlarge the scope of her activities. She signs up for dancing classes but then discovers to her despair that she had a morbid fear of dance floors and ends up abandoning the project. This unfortunate adventure, along with similar ones, exposed some important aspect of the structure of her marriage. Out of many suitors she had picked a domineering man for her husband. She was then in a position to complain that she could do all sorts of things ‘if it weren’t for you”. Many of her women friends also had domineering husbands and would often get together for a game of “if it wasn’t for him”. As it turns out, however, her husband is performing a very real service for her by forbidding her to do something she is deeply afraid of and by preventing her from becoming aware of her fears. But to the woman, marriage has proven one thing “all men are mean and tyrannical”
As long as the husband is prohibitive the game can proceed. If instead of saying “Don’t you dare!” he says “Go ahead!” the underlying phobias are unmasked and the wife can no longer turn on him. In other words, game over.
Harried. This is a typical housewife game. Her life requires her to be ten or twelve different things, often at once: mistress, mother, housemaid, nurse, etc. Now if the wife is able to find satisfaction in this while doing her best, she may be able to enjoy her 25 years and see her youngest child go off to college with a pang of loneliness. But if, on the other hand, she is driven by her inner Parent (the part of our Ego that represents our parents) and called to account by a critical husband, she may grow more and more unhappy. What to do? Let’s play Harried. In this game the wife takes on everything that comes and even asks for more. She agrees with her husband’s criticism and accepts all her children’s demands. If she has to entertain at dinner, she not only feels she must function impeccably as conversationalist, interior decorator, caterer, glamour girl, virgin queen and diplomat, she will also volunteer that morning to bake a cake a take the children to the dentist. Then in the middle of the afternoon she justifiably collapses and nothing gets done. Her self-reproaches adds to her misery. After this happens two or three times, her marriage is in jeopardy, the children are confused, she loses weight, her hair is untidy, her face is drawn and her shoes are scuffed.
How not to play the game: ask for help and be able to accept it. If the wife is playing Harried, it will be hard for her to stick to this principal. It is important to mention here, that the culprit is more likely the wife’s parent and not the husband. Harried, can quicly progress to divorce.
Look how hard I’ve tried. This is a game played with three characters, husband wife and the therapist. The couple is having trouble in their marriage and have come to therapy. The husband (usually) is bucking for a divorce while the wife genuinely wants to work things out. The husband comes to therapy under protest and talks just enough to demonstrates to the wife that he’s cooperating; usually he plays a mild game of Courtroom. As times passes he exhibits either resentful pseudo-compliance or belligerent argumentativeness towards the therapist. After 5 or 6 visits, he refuses to come any longer and goes hunting or fishing instead. The wife is then “forced” to file for divorce. The husband is now blameless since the wife has taken the initiative. He is in a good position to say to any attorney, judge or friend: Look how hard I’ve tried”
Once the therapist realizes the husband is playing this game, the wife should be seen alone, on the valid ground that the husband is not ready for therapy. He can still get a divorce but only at the expense of abandoning his position that he’s really trying.
In everyday form this is observed in children as a two-handed game with one parent. It is played from two positions: “I’m helpless”-child tries but is unsuccessful so the parent has to do it for him. “I’m blameless”-the parent has no reasonable ground for punishing him.
Sweetheart. Mr. White makes a subtly derogatory remark about Mrs. White, disguised as an anecdote, and ends: “Isn’t that right, sweetheart?” Mrs. White tends to agree for two reasons: a) because the anecdote itself, in the main, is accurately reported and b) because it would seem rude to disagree with a man who calls her sweetheart in public. The psychological reason for her agreement however is her depression position: Mr. White would expose her flaws thus saving her from having to do it herself. Her parents may have “accommodated” her in the same way perhaps.
The anti-sweetheart, or refusal to play would sound like this: “you can tell derogatory anecdotes about me, but please don’t call me sweetheart”. A more sophisticated and less dangerous antithesis is to reply “yes honey”. In another form, the wife instead of agreeing, responds with a similar sweetheart type anecdote about the husband “you have an ugly face too, dear”. Sometimes, the endearments are not actually pronounced but a careful listener can hear them. This is the “Sweetheart” silent type.