"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up."
~ Anne Lamott
"Hope contains within it the powerful notion of potential. Although we cannot yet see the towering majesty of the oak tree, we see in the acorn our hope for it. Just so with relationships: We intuit a connection and begin to imagine the future we've always hoped for. But how can we nurture our hope amid a sea of doubt, cynicism and pessimism?" This question, posed on Dr. Katehakis's site centerforhealthysex.com, brought to mind something said to me in graduate school. That the job of a therapist is to hold the hope for a client when they have not yet been able to have it. But some people are fearful of hope. Those with histories of trauma can feel that hope has been cruel. That time and time again as children they may have dared to hope that things would improve, only to have them worsen. Some people need to be shown how to not dash hope, how to not kick it right in the teeth when it starts to show up.
I have a not so flattering story about crushing hope when it arrives. Years ago when I was still young in my marriage I came home one day to see my beloved planting rose bushes in our front yard. He smiled proudly and announced that he decided that instead of giving me roses for Valentine's Day ( a few days away) that he would plant me rose bushes instead! He waxed on about how he knew how much I loved flowers but of course cut flowers die, and how he planted the bushes along our front walk so that every day as I walked out the door I would see the evidence of his love and every day as I came home I would see it again. And completely uncharacteristic of my discrete, shy, introverted partner, he even went so far as to say that he wanted all of our neighbors to know how much he loved me and so he planted them in the front yard! Any normal person would have jumped for joy, accosted him with kisses and praise and swooned from the overflowing romance and sentiment. Not yours truly. Being one of those people who, as Dr. Stan Tatkin says, is "allergic to hope", I stood there silent. After a tense minute I said, I kid you not, "do they smell? Because I really only like roses that smell." I watched the blood drain out of his face. And yet I pressed on, driven by deeply embedded memories of being disappointed as a small child. "I mean, a lot of roses these days, they don't smell. They breed the smell right out of them, which I really don't understand because that is what a rose is supposed to do! Smell!" I had a classically exasperated look on my face, standing hand on hip. Every time I recount this story I assure you I cringe. But back then I simply had no idea that I was a hope assassin. Highly trained in the art of killing any small green shoots of hope that might dare to peak out from the desert of my soul. My husband, in his final rally, tried again regain his ground. "I, I..I researched them to make sure that they were drought tolerant (we live in Texas) and disease resistant and all of that". I stood silent, unmoved by his pleas. Like any real person, he snapped. "Nevermind!" he said. He grabbed the remaining plants and threw them in the back of his truck. "I'll pull the rest out tomorrow! You are impossible!"
I tell this story not to make myself look bad (although undoubtedly it will have that effect), but to show how it can look when someone has become so afraid of hope, so afraid of being truly loved, that they will literally fight against it. That they will crush the hope offered to them and grind it into the ground, all the while bemoaning how no one cares about them. I see this when clients tell me "I know you say you care, but you are paid to care." They need to find a way to reject what is being offered, which is compassion, connection and genuine affection. My pithy reply is that you can pay me to keep this seat warm for an hour but you cannot pay me to actually care. The caring is not for sale. Which is true.
Dr. Katehakis noted that "According to the Ancient Greeks, the gods punished humankind by stowing all evils in a box for curious Pandora to open, as they knew she would, and thereby unleash those miseries upon the world. After the evils took wing, all that remained in the box was hope. But how can mere hope defeat everything that boiled over from that unholy box?" Indeed. How can hope undo all that we have experienced?
We test. I often tell my new clients in their first weeks of therapy "you will spend the next year testing me because relationships have, in the past, been unsafe. And that is OK. We need to allow the most deeply hurt parts of yourself to look for the cracks in the foundation of this new relationship. Since I know that you and I are not perfect there will be cracks. But we will assess them together and acknowledge them together and I will hold the hope for you that this relationship will be different. You will not need to ignore the cracks, walking around them pretending you don't see them. You don't need to worry that if you point out the cracks I will fly into a rage or shame you for showing them to me. We will notice the cracks together and acknowledge the difficulty of creating relationships between two human beings. We will work together to decide what to do about those cracks. And you will begin to have hope that relationships can support you and that you can truly be yourself in them.
Many clients test me, just as I tested my poor husband many years ago (and by the way he stuck it out, thank goodness, and is still here putting up with me. And I hope I have learned to be more gracious about his shows of love!) My hope is that through a process of them testing me, and seeing that they are not being rejected, they can begin to nurture that small flicker of hope. And over time that it can grow stronger and stronger.
As Dr. Katehakis describes, "relationships require the tremendous resilience born of hope. When we stay unconditionally willing to remain teachable despite prior trauma, we're using hope as a healthy tool to sow the seeds of happiness... When we stop fearing change and instead embrace it, we grow mentally, physically, spiritually...just as we had hoped".
Indeed. Not a journey that is easily taken, and certainly not a journey that is devoid of fear. But in my experience of nearly a quarter of a century, a journey that ends with more riches than people ever dreamed possible.
Wishing you hope in all that you strive for,
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Ever wish when you were staring down a big decision that you could consult with thousands of people who have successfully navigated those waters before? Well one smart fellow did just that when preparing to pledge himself to another person for the rest of his life. Mark Manson has a website and used it to crowd source his very own guide to a happy marriage. He solicited people who had been happily married for at least 10 years to give their best perspective on what made their marriages work so well. Below are some of the things people said. You can view the full list at MarkManson.net.
"By itself, love is never enough to sustain a relationship." I tell this to my clients ALL THE TIME. And believe me, as a hopeless romantic, I am not crazy about having to admit it. But it's true. Love is not enough. There must also be trust, respect, compassion, compromise, humility, tenacity and sometimes a bit of insanity to just keep trying even when things are looking pretty bleak. I will admit that I don't recommend marriage (or a long-term committed partnership) without love, but I hope you have a lot more than that going for you when you take the plunge.
Mr. Manson's readers also agreed that it was important to "Have realistic expectations about relationships and romance." This follows love not being enough in my opinion. A reader named Paula went on to say that " You are absolutely not going to be absolutely gaga over each other every single day for the rest of your lives, and all this 'happily ever after' [stuff] is just setting people up for failure. They go into relationship with these unrealistic expectations. Then, the instant they realize they aren’t 'gaga' anymore, they think the relationship is broken and over, and they need to get out. No! There will be days, or weeks, or maybe even longer, when you aren’t all mushy-gushy in-love. You’re even going to wake up some morning and think, 'Ugh, you’re still here….' That’s normal! And more importantly, sticking it out is totally worth it, because that, too, will change. In a day, or a week, or maybe even longer, you’ll look at that person and a giant wave of love will inundate you, and you’ll love them so much you think your heart can’t possibly hold it all and is going to burst. Because a love that’s alive is also constantly evolving. It expands and contracts and mellows and deepens. It’s not going to be the way it used to be, or the way it will be, and it shouldn’t be. I think if more couples understood that, they’d be less inclined to panic and rush to break up or divorce."
Paula's comments remind me of a friend in graduate school whose mom told her "there will be days...weeks...months....well, sometimes years....where you really don't like the person that you married. But then it gets better!". I recall hearing this and not knowing whether to feel relieved since marriage sounded so much more do-able given this caveat or whether I should go join a convent and just give up. Now that I have been married for 19 years (and counting) I think it is very sage advice. Setting the expectation that you may not really enjoy the person you are with all of the time and that in and of itself is not a problem leaves you free to continue to enjoy the rest of your life (your work, your friends, your kids, your hobbies) while you wait things and and eventually start liking your spouse again. This is NOT a reason to be mean to your spouse or give up on the marriage. Just to realize that sometimes our partners go through things that we don't fully understand and that sometimes this requires us to give them a wide berth. I am thankful that in my own marriage I have never gone more than weeks not enjoying my husband's company, but I am prepared for longer stints if necessary.
Manson echoed the work of Helen Fisher in saying that "Love is [like a drug, it]... makes us highly irrational... It’s nature’s way of tricking us into doing insane and irrational things to procreate with another person—probably because if we stopped to think about the repercussions of having kids, and being with the same person forever and ever, no one would ever do it...Romantic love is a trap designed to get two people to overlook each other’s faults long enough to get some babymaking done. It generally only lasts for a few years at most. That dizzying high you get staring into your lover’s eyes as if they are the stars that make up the heavens—yeah, that mostly goes away. It does for everybody. So, once it’s gone, you need to know that you’ve buckled yourself down with a human being you genuinely respect and enjoy being with, otherwise things are going to get rocky. True love—that is, deep, abiding love that is impervious to emotional whims or fancy—is a choice. It’s a constant commitment to a person regardless of the present circumstances. It’s a commitment to a person who you understand isn’t going to always make you happy—nor should they!—and a person who will need to rely on you at times, just as you will rely on them."
Manson elaborates "That form of love is much harder. Primarily because it often doesn’t feel very good. It’s unglamorous. It’s lots of early morning doctor’s visits. It’s cleaning up bodily fluids you’d rather not be cleaning up. It’s dealing with another person’s insecurities and fears and ideas, even when you don’t want to.But this form of love is also far more satisfying and meaningful. And, at the end of the day, it brings true happiness, not just another series of highs."
His reader Tara writes "Happily Ever After doesn’t exist. Every day you wake up and decide to love your partner and your life—the good, the bad and the ugly. Some days it’s a struggle and some days you feel like the luckiest person in the world."
Another thing that Manson's readers agreed upon was that "The most important factor in a relationship is not communication, but respect." His reader Laurie said "What I can tell you is the #1 thing, most important above all else is respect. It’s not sexual attraction, looks, shared goals, religion or lack of, nor is it love. There are times when you won’t feel love for your partner. That is the truth. But you never want to lose respect for your partner. Once you lose respect you will never get it back."
Now, as a couples therapist I can say that I don't believe that it's always as black-and-white as Laurie reports. I have seen couples lose respect for each other, such as during the throws of an addiction or affair. And I have seen those same couples rebuild respect. I think what makes the difference is if the respect was there in the first place and how hard the partner who has lost the respect is willing to work to get it back.
Manson noticed another interesting trend. He said that "People who had been through divorces and/or had only been with their partners for 10-15 years almost always talked about communication being the most important part of making things work. Talk frequently. Talk openly. Talk about everything, even if it hurts...But..people with marriages going on 20, 30, or even 40 years talked... most [about]respect." He goes on to say that he feels that these long-termers "through sheer quantity of experience, have learned that communication, no matter how open, transparent and disciplined, will always break down at some point. Conflicts are ultimately unavoidable, and feelings will always be hurt." I could not agree more. Research has shown us that all couples, happy and unhappy, fight. And that the amount of fighting is not predictive of marital satisfaction or divorce. The ability to recover from a fight is predictive. Another astonishing thing is that about 2/3 of your conflicts will have no permanent resolution. My husband hates that I clutter up the house with piles of stuff-- work papers, laundry that has not been folded yet, magazines I plan to read. He is a neat freak. He has lived, begrudgingly on some level I am sure, with my piles for 19 years. I have tried to reform myself (really I have!) but I am just as messy now as I was as a teenager. This is not going to be resolved unless we agree to live in separate houses (which neither of us are interested in). Does this mean we can't be happy? I certainly hope not.
Manson's readers went on to tell him that "the only thing that can save you and your partner, that can cushion you both to the hard landing of human fallibility, is an unerring respect for one another, the fact that you hold each other in high esteem, believe in one another—often more than you each believe in yourselves—and trust that your partner is doing his/her best with what they’ve got. Without that bedrock of respect underneath you, you will doubt each other’s intentions. You will judge their choices and encroach on their independence. You will feel the need to hide things from one another for fear of criticism. And this is when the cracks in the edifice begin to appear."
His reader Nicole offered "My husband and I have been together 15 years this winter. I’ve thought a lot about what seems to be keeping us together, while marriages around us crumble (seriously, it’s everywhere… we seem to be at that age). The one word that I keep coming back to is 'respect.' Of course, this means showing respect, but that is too superficial. Just showing it isn’t enough. You have to feel it deep within you. I deeply and genuinely respect him for his work ethic, his patience, his creativity, his intelligence, and his core values. From this respect comes everything else—trust, patience, perseverance (because sometimes life is really hard and you both just have to persevere). I want to hear what he has to say (even if I don’t agree with him) because I respect his opinion. I want to enable him to have some free time within our insanely busy lives because I respect his choices of how he spends his time and who he spends time with. And, really, what this mutual respect means is that we feel safe sharing our deepest, most intimate selves with each other."
Manson also offered that "Respect for your partner and respect for yourself are intertwined." One of his readers, Olov, stated, “Respect yourself and your [partner]. Never talk badly to or about [him/] her. If you don’t respect your [partner], you don’t respect yourself. You chose [him/] her—live up to that choice.” This sounds a lot like what Stan Tatkin teaches about having your partner's back and never throwing them under the bus, in public or in private. Manson says " NEVER talk [badly] about your partner or complain about them to your friends. If you have a problem with your partner, you should be having that conversation with them, not with your friends. Talking bad about them will erode your respect for them and make you feel worse about being with them, not better. Respect that they have different hobbies, interests, and perspectives from you. Just because you would spend your time and energy differently, doesn’t mean it’s better/worse. Respect that they have an equal say in the relationship, that you are a team, and if one person on the team is not happy, then the team is not succeeding."
Echoing the work of Stan Tatkin again Manson also cautions "No secrets. If you’re really in this together and you respect one another, everything should be fair game. Have a crush on someone else? Discuss it. Laugh about it. Had a weird sexual fantasy that sounds ridiculous? Be open about it. Nothing should be off-limits." Partners need to tell each other everything and be the go-to people for each other.
Manson elaborates "Respect goes hand-in-hand with trust. And trust is the lifeblood of any relationship (romantic or otherwise). Without trust, there can be no sense of intimacy or comfort. Without trust, your partner will become a liability in your mind, something to be avoided and analyzed, not a protective homebase for your heart and your mind." Your relationship, I tell my couples, should be where you go home and "plug-in" at the end of your day to get charged up and refueled. Where you heal the wounds from slaying dragons all day. If you can't trust your partner, and feel the need to keep things from them, then how can you let down you guard and really fall into their arms for comfort?
Of course this will require that, as Manson's readers advise, you "Talk openly about everything, especially the stuff that hurts." One of his readers Ronnie says that he and his beloved "always talk about what’s bothering us with each other, not anyone else! We have so many friends who are in marriages that are not working well and they tell me all about what is wrong. I can’t help them, they need to be talking to their spouse about this, that’s the only person who can help them figure it out. If you can figure out a way to be able to always talk with your spouse about what’s bugging you then you can work on the issue.
Manson says that he has always advised his readers that "If something bothers you in the relationship, you must be willing to say it. Saying it builds trust and trust builds intimacy. It may hurt, but you still need to do it. No one else can fix your relationship for you. Nor should anyone else. Just as causing pain to your muscles allows them to grow back stronger, often introducing some pain into your relationship through vulnerability is the only way to make the relationship stronger."
Manson points out that trust in the context of a decades long relationship can get into some very deep and possibly life-or-death places. "If you ended up with cancer tomorrow, would you trust your partner to stick with you and take care of you? Would you trust your partner to care for your child for a week by themselves? Do you trust them to handle your money or make sound decisions under pressure? Do you trust them to not turn on you or blame you when you make mistakes?" He makes a great point that "Trust at the beginning of a relationship is easy." We don't know the other person yet and so don't have much to lose. We haven't invested years of our life, created children with this person, come to rely on them when we are sick or infirm.
He says that "the deeper the commitment, the more intertwined your lives become, and the more you will have to trust your partner to act in your interest in your absence."
Manson's readers told him that "The key to fostering and maintaining trust in the relationship is for both partners to be completely transparent and vulnerable: If something is bothering you, say something. This is important not only for addressing issues as they arise, but it proves to your partner that you have nothing to hide. Those icky, insecure things you hate sharing with people? Share them with your partner. Not only is it healing, but you and your partner need to have a good understanding of each other’s insecurities and the way you each choose to compensate for them. Make promises and then stick to them. The only way to truly rebuild trust after it’s been broken is through a proven track record over time. You cannot build that track record until you own up to previous mistakes and set about correcting them."
Another great point offered by Manson's readers was that the person you marry is not going to be the same person you are with 20, 30, 50 years from now. Humans have an interesting habit of changing and evolving. One of his readers "commented that at her wedding, an elderly family member told her, 'One day many years from now, you will wake up and your spouse will be a different person, make sure you fall in love with that person too.'" That reminds me of a friend whose father told him "Your mother has changed many times over the course of our marriage and I have fallen in love with each new version of her". What a lovely way to go through life, having numerous love affairs with numerous versions of the same person you committed yourself to all those years ago.
A man named Michael wrote to Manson " When you commit to someone, you don’t actually know who you’re committing to. You know who they are today, but you have no idea who this person is going to be in five years, ten years, and so on. You have to be prepared for the unexpected, and truly ask yourself if you admire this person regardless of the superficial (or not-so-superficial) details, because I promise almost all of them at some point are going to either change or go away."
Another one of his readers, Kevin, offered "Two years ago, I suddenly began resenting my wife for any number of reasons. I felt as if we were floating along, doing a great job of co-existing and co-parenting, but not sustaining a real connection. It deteriorated to the point that I considered separating from her; however, whenever I gave the matter intense thought, I could not pinpoint a single issue that was a deal breaker. I knew her to be an amazing person, mother, and friend. I bit my tongue a lot and held out hope that the malaise would pass as suddenly as it had arrived. Fortunately, it did and I love her more than ever. So the final bit of wisdom is to afford your spouse the benefit of the doubt. If you have been happy for such a long period, that is the case for good reason. Be patient and focus on the many aspects of her that still exist that caused you to fall in love in the first place." So again, even if our partner does not change we may go through periods where our feelings do. Don't jump to conclusions and call the divorce attorney. Ride it out and assume that they are still lovable you are just having a hard time finding the connection.
Manson's readers also agreed on the idea of fighting productively and fairly. As Ryan Saplan stated "The relationship is a living, breathing thing. Much like the body and muscles, it cannot get stronger without stress and challenge. You have to fight. You have to hash things out. Obstacles make the marriage." Personally I would love to do without the arguments but in my opinion they are just inevitable. You have two totally separate brains, nervous systems, histories, preferences, triggers, personalities, temperaments and all of that. How on earth would you never disagree, even passionately so? So whether you feel like the arguments increase the depth and strength of the marriage or you regard them as an unavoidable part of being human you still have to figure out how to get through them as gracefully as possible.
Manson goes on to talk about some of John Gottman's research. He summarizes that Gottman "spent over 30 years analyzing married couples and looking for keys to why they stick together and why they break up....Successful couples, like unsuccessful couples, he found, fight consistently. And some of them fight furiously. [Gottman] has been able to narrow down four characteristics of a couple that tend to lead to divorces (or breakups). He called these “the four horsemen” of the relationship apocalypse in his books. They are
Manson said that many of the 1500 respondents to his invitation to opine on marriage agreed with Gottman that these 4 habits were very destructive to relationships. They cautioned "Never insult or name-call your partner. Put another way: hate the sin, love the sinner." Manson went on to make the point that" Gottman’s research found that 'contempt'—belittling and demeaning your partner—is the number one predictor of divorce." He added "Do not bring previous fights/arguments into current ones. This solves nothing and just makes the fight twice as bad as it was before. Yeah, you forgot to pick up groceries on the way home, but what does him being rude to your mother last Thanksgiving have to do with anything?" I assure you this both harder and more important than it sounds. I work very hard with couples to learn to fight clean, resolve fully and then leave the past in the past. Too often, however, fights are done dirty and not fully resolved, and then the past cannot help but to intrude in a very ugly way into the current conversation.
Manson suggested that "If things get too heated, take a breather. Remove yourself from the situation and come back once emotions have cooled off a bit." This is a big one for me personally—sometimes when things get intense with my wife, I get overwhelmed and just leave for a while. I usually walk around the block two or three times and let myself seethe for about 15 minutes. Then I come back and we’re both a bit calmer and we can resume the discussion with a much more conciliatory tone." I agree but would also add that if you are going to walk away from your partner in the midst of a fight you still need to let them know that 1) you still love them and 2) that you are going to go calm down and come back in ___ minutes (and make sure you keep track of time and come back when you said you would). This helps to reduce feelings of abandonment in case your partner is sensitive to that.
Manson also offers to "Remember that being 'right' is not as important as both people feeling respected and heard. You may be right, but if you are right in such a way that makes your partner feel unloved, then there’s no real winner." Or as some people say, it's better to be close than to be right.
Of course if you are being honest, telling each other everything and not avoiding fights, then there will be some forgiving that might have to happen. Manson's readers covered this as well. A fellow named Brian wrote that "When you end up being right about something—shut up. You can be right and be quiet at the same time. Your partner will already know you’re right and will feel loved knowing that you didn’t wield it like a battle sword." That one is going up on my refrigerator. Seriously. And then there was Bill, who concisely reminded us that " In marriage, there’s no such thing as winning an argument." Agreed.
Manson opined "When an argument is over, it’s over... When you’re done fighting, it doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, it doesn’t matter if someone was mean and someone was nice. It’s over. It’s in the past. And you both agree to leave it there, not bring it up every month for the next three years. There’s no scoreboard...When your partner screws up, you separate the intentions from the behavior. You recognize the things you love and admire in your partner and understand that he/she was simply doing the best that they could, yet messed up out of ignorance. Not because they’re a bad person. Not because they secretly hate you and want to divorce you. Not because there’s somebody else in the background pulling them away from you. They are a good person. That’s why you are with them. If you ever lose your faith in that, then you will begin to erode your faith in yourself."
A reader named Fred wrote that he has "Been happily married 40+ years. One piece of advice that comes to mind: choose your battles. Some things matter, worth getting upset about. Most do not. Argue over the little things and you’ll find yourself arguing endlessly; little things pop up all day long, it takes a toll over time. Like Chinese water torture: minor in the short term, corrosive over time. Consider: is this a little thing or a big thing? Is it worth the cost of arguing?" I often ask my couples-- in 10 years, will this matter? What about in 20?
Readers also wrote that it is important to stay connected through every day things. Brian advised that partners "meet for lunch, go for a walk or go out to dinner and a movie with some regularity....Staying connected through life’s ups and downs is critical. Eventually your kids grow up, your...parents will die. When that happens, guess who’s left?...You don’t want to wake up 20 years later and be staring at a stranger because life broke the bonds you formed before the [drama] started. You and your partner need to be the eye of the hurricane.
Mason added that "This seems to become particularly important once kids enter the picture. The big message I heard hundreds of times about kids: put the marriage first." One of his readers, Susan, said that "Children are worshipped in our culture these days. Parents are expected to sacrifice everything for them. But the best way to raise healthy and happy kids is to maintain a healthy and happy marriage. Good kids don’t make a good marriage. A good marriage makes good kids. So keep your marriage the top priority." Dr. Stan Tatkin teaches the same. Dr. Tatkin advises that partners keep each other in a "couple bubble" and that all other entities, whether they are kids, careers, hobbies, parents, etc., be lower status than the relationship with your spouse. I have seen this advice save many marriages that were strained nearly beyond repair by kids, step-kids, ex-spouses, ailing parents and demanding careers. Keeping each other as the first priority is essential to a happy partnership.
Manson's readers also agreed that "Sex matters… a LOT". Readers said that when the relationship was ailing the sex lagged. And that it was important to make time for it, even if there are kids, jobs, chores and whatnot imposing on your time. His readers echoed what Helen Fisher cites in her research, that sex bonds people. "That when things are a bit frigid between them or that they have some problems going on, a lot of stress, or other issues (i.e., kids), they even go so far as to schedule sexy time for themselves. They say it’s important. And it’s worth it.
A few people even said that when things start to feel stale in the relationship, they agree to have sex every day for a week. Then, as if by magic, by the next week, they feel great again."
And again Manson and Stan Tatkin agree that creating rules or agreements in the relationship is essential. One of Manson's readers, Liz, stated that "There is no 50/50 in housecleaning, child rearing, vacation planning, dishwasher emptying, gift buying, dinner making, money making, etc. The sooner everyone accepts that, the happier everyone is. We all have things we like to do and hate to do; we all have things we are good at and not so good at. TALK to your partner about those things when it comes to dividing and conquering all the [stuff] that has to get done in life."
Manson talks about "The fact is relationships are imperfect, messy affairs. And it’s for the simple reason that they’re comprised of imperfect, messy people—people who want different things at different times in different ways...The common theme of the advice here was “Be pragmatic.” If the wife is a lawyer and spends 50 hours at the office every week, and the husband is an artist and can work from home most days, it makes more sense for him to handle most of the day-to-day parenting duties. If the wife’s standard of cleanliness looks like a Home & Garden catalog, and the husband has gone six months without even noticing the light fixture hanging from the ceiling, then it makes sense that the wife handles more of the home cleaning duties. It’s economics 101: division of labor makes everyone better off. Figure out what you are each good at, what you each love/hate doing, and then arrange accordingly. My wife loves cleaning (no, seriously), but she hates smelly stuff. So guess who gets dishes and garbage duty? Me. Because I don’t [care]. I’ll eat off the same plate seven times in a row. I couldn’t smell a dead rat even if it was sleeping under my pillow. I’ll toss garbage around all day. Here honey, let me get that for you." I often tell couples that their differences are a net strength for the relationship. One person is great with finances, the other can work a crowd and schmooze the new neighbors. Together they can benefit from the things the other person is better at.
And finally Mason offered the advice of a sage reader named Margo "You can work through anything as long as you are not destroying yourself or each other. That means emotionally, physically, financially, or spiritually. Make nothing off limits to discuss. Never shame or mock each other for the things you do that make you happy. Write down why you fell in love and read it every year on your anniversary (or more often). Write love letters to each other often. Make each other first. When kids arrive, it will be easy to fall into a frenzy of making them the only focus of your life…do not forget the love that produced them. You must keep that love alive and strong to feed them love. Spouse comes first. Each of you will continue to grow. Bring the other one with you. Be the one that welcomes that growth. Don’t think that the other one will hold the relationship together. Both of you should assume it’s up to you so that you are both working on it. Be passionate about cleaning house, preparing meals, and taking care of your home. This is required of everyone daily, make it fun and happy and do it together. Do not complain about your partner to anyone. Love them for who they are. Make love even when you are not in the mood. Trust each other. Give each other the benefit of the doubt always. Be transparent. Have nothing to hide. Be proud of each other. Have a life outside of each other, but share it through conversation. Pamper and adore each other. Go to counseling now before you need it so that you are both open to working on the relationship together. Disagree with respect to each other’s feelings. Be open to change and accepting of differences. Print this and refer to it daily."
Thanks, Margo, I think I will. Because even couple's therapists need reminders from time to time.
Wishing you health and happiness in your connections to others,
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One of the first things I try to establish with people who have been deeply hurt is that there is no "right" answer to forgiveness. Each person and each situation is different and no one can know what ultimately is going to be right for you. There are different types of forgiveness and sometimes it can help to learn the distinctions. What follows is a summary of a wonderful 3-minute video on the topic, along with some of my own ideas.
In this video by UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Marmer delineates 3 different types of forgiveness. These are:
1) Exoneration-- what we typically think of as forgiveness. Wiping the slate clean as though the hurt never happened. This restores the relationship to the state of innocence that existed prior to the injury. This is appropriate in the following instances:
Dr. Marmer goes so far as to say that in these situations if you are not able to offer forgiveness it may suggest that there is more wrong with you than the person who harmed you. I tend to be a more "case by case basis" person rather than make such a sweeping proclamation. But I can see his point. If your 5 year old accidentally breaks your favorite vase and falls into tears and apologizes there might be something very wrong with you if you cannot forgive him or her.
2) Forbearance-- this is when the offender:
Dr. Marmer goes on to say that even if you have no responsibility in how you were harmed you should practice forbearance if the relationship really matters. He goes on to say that you should
(I would say you "may want to consider", I am not a fan of the word "SHOULD"):
Dr. Marmer states that forbearance allows us to maintain ties to people that are important to us but are far from perfect. I would argue that many of our families of origin may fit into this category. In this case establishing healthy boundaries that can keep us from being further injured while still maintaining some connection can be a good compromise. He goes on to state, and I agree, that after a sufficient period of "good behavior" forbearance can rise to exoneration. I would say that this is probably a reasonable idea to try the first few times someone is not able to offer a sincere apology. But if the trend continues, or if the injury is simply too grievous, you may not ever want to drop your guard with this sort of person. Again, it's probably best dealt with on a case by case basis.
But what do you do if the person who has harmed you never acknowledges that they have done anything wrong or gives an obviously insincere apology making no effort towards reparations whatsoever? Dr. Marmer gives examples of adult survivors of child abuse, business people who have been cheated by their partners or family members who have betrayed one another.
This is where Dr. Marmer offers an third option:
3) Release -- this does NOT exonerate the offender, nor does it require forbearance. It also does not demand that you continue the relationship. He suggests that what is required for release is to stop defining yourself by the hurts that have been done to you and release bad feelings and preoccupations with the negative things that have happened to you. He contests that if you do not release the pain and anger from old hurts and betrayals you will, in effect, allow the people who hurt you to continue to influence you on a daily basis. He asserts that you are allowing these people to "live rent free in your mind" while you suffer from their occupancy.
What Dr. Marmer implies but does not talk about is something that I refer to as a "trauma bond". The original use of this term was for Stockholm Syndrome, or feeling positively towards one's captors. I use it a little differently. To me a trauma bond does not have to feel positive. You don't need to idolize your abusive partner or join the militia that captured you and held you prisoner. To me it can represent the broader idea of a tie to a person with whom you share emotional pain. Many times the trauma bond is from a victim to a perpetrator, or from the "harmer" to the "harmee". I think broadening the construct to include any tie, positive or negative, to a person you have been in pain over, is perhaps more applicable to most people's lives. Most of us have never been prisoners of war or help captive by a psychopath. More commonly we have histories of being emotionally neglected or abused in childhood by our own parents. Even if we have decided not to ever talk to them again and have completely cut them out of our lives, that bond remains unless certain steps are taken to "release" it. This release is NOT done to repair the relationship or restore it in any way. It is done to cut the psychic tethers that keep us anchored to that person and that old pain. Releasing a trauma bond is for the person who has been hurt. It is a gift one gives oneself. It is not an absolution of the wrongness of the act or actions. It is not an absolving of the person who has done it. It comes closest to how I once heard Maya Angelou describe forgiveness. She said forgiveness to her was saying to herself "I am done with you" and moving on with her life. Breaking the trauma bond. Releasing ones own self from the pain of the past. There does not need to be any regard for what happens to the person(s) that hurt you. They may thrive or perish. It does not matter. The release is for you alone.
Recently I listened to a wonderful audio book by Harriet Lerner, Why Won't You Apologize? This is the woman who wrote a series of "The Dance of..." books starting in the 1980's. The most well-known of which is probably The Dance of Anger. This is one of the most well-read self-help books about anger and I find it entirely refreshing that the author of this book is NOT promoting forgiveness across the board. In fact she says that it is inappropriate and not at all helpful to think about forgiving someone who has NOT APOLOGIZED. As a therapist who often works with people who are from dysfunctional families in which the abusive, neglectful or inept parents still don't realize that they injured their now adult children I think this message is vital. Most of my clients actually never get apologies from their parents and often choose to not even talk to their parents about the hurts they sustained in childhood. And some of my clients decide not to work on forgiveness of those parents. And that does not impede their emotional progress one bit in my estimation. Our culture seems to be obsessed with forgiveness as if it is the only legitimate route to personal growth. I disagree. For those who want to forgive, for those who are reaching for it, I think it can be an amazing journey. However it is not the only way to grow as a person and I hardly think it is necessary. In my opinion there are things that, put simply, cannot be forgiven. However, I DO think that breaking a trauma bond and releasing oneself from the ties that have bound us to a person who has hurt us can be a very important experience and can free up emotional resources for other endeavors.
If you find yourself challenged with the prospect of forgiveness and are not sure how to move forward I encourage you to realize that there are many different options. Dr. Marmer has outlined the 3 options he finds useful. Dr. Lerner's book offers additional approaches. Maya Angelou has her method. Deepak Chopra has a process that he outlines here. Whatever route you take I hope you find a way to break any trauma bonds that you have and liberate yourself to focus on building the life you deserve.
Wishing you peace and release from past hurts,
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For anyone who has wondered how Dr. Tatkin came to develop his theories this is an old interview on Shrinkrap Radio from 2008 in which he talks at some length about his early training experiences. As always Dr. Tatkin is clear, coherent and incredibly articulate. He explains his circuitous route to becoming a relationship expert, starting as a professional musician (drummer!) and weaving through inpatient psychiatric hospitals with John Bradshaw where he learned Gestalt therapy and psychodrama, to working in addiction treatment, on to studying American Object Relations with Dr. James Masterson, to training in the Adult Attachment Interview with Drs. Mary Main and Erik Hesse and finally to studying infant brain development with Dr. Alan Schore. Once in private practice Dr. Tatkin realized a strong interest in working with some of the more severe personality disorders such as narcissism which lead to his epiphany that prevention was where he wanted to put his focus. This lead him into looking at infant attachment and eventually to adult attachment in romantic relationships. In working with couples we not only help the adult dyad we also increase the security of the system in which any children are reared. This pays forward in building more relational security in the children as well.
For anyone wanting a brief and very understandable explanation of the Avoidant attachment style he does so right around minute 40. And of course if you want to get the major download of all of Dr. Tatkin's wisdom I recommend Your Brain on Love, his audio program in which he explains to lay people how his theories explain why relationships go awry in the short and long term.
In this interview Dr. Tatkin also references a film about infant attachment called When the Bow Breaks which drew him in to the field of infant attachment and lead him to the work of Dr. Allan Schore. He also mentions several of Dr. Schore's books, including Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self if you want to get deeper into some of his "source" material. All in all it's a great 50-minute interview with someone who I feel is at the leading edge of relationship science.
Wishing you the best in your relationships and connections,
PS If you have enjoyed this blog/link to Dr.Tatkin's interview please consider "liking" it on fb and/or tweeting this post. That helps other people find my blog and connect to these topics. Thanks!
How do we find ourselves? If you have ever watched a "good" mother and baby pair, where you get that warm feeling in your chest as you watch them volley back and forth with expressions dancing across their faces, you have seen the formation of the authentic self. As babies we simply "are". We cry when upset, coo when happy, sleep when tired. And if our caregivers respond with love, admiration, attention and acceptance we thrive. We learn that we have a self inside of us and that it is valued. Later as toddlers we also learn that there are aspects of that self that come into conflict with our world, like the self that wants to use mom's lipstick to paint flowers on the wall or the self that wants cake for breakfast. If we are lucky and have adequate parents they set loving limits with us while also helping us feel accepted as a whole person even when individual behaviors are problematic.
However if you have ever witnessed a parent shaming a child by saying things like "you can do better than that" or "why aren't you more like _____?" or "girls (or boys) don't do that", etc., then you have also witnessed the destruction of the authentic self. Once the authentic self is under regular attack from parents who are unwilling to accept the child for who they naturally are a false self begins to form. It starts with the realization that they are not meeting their parent's standards and feelings of inadequacy and shame begin to spawn.
Over time children internalize the shame of feeling that they are a disappointment to these parents and create a "false self" that is more in line with what they think their parents want. However this self is not authentic and does not represent the true inner world of the child. The child has betrayed itself in order to maintain the attachment relationship, which sadly is the only option a child has in this situation due to their complete dependence on their caregivers.
As they grow up, however, these kids are plagued by feeling inauthentic and consequently don't establish relationships that contain true intimacy. They may also harbor deep feelings of rage at being asked to abandon themselves in order to please the other, even if in the current relationship this is not being asked of them. It's as if they have decided that this is the price of admission to relationships and they do it reflexively. Living life as a false-self also predisposes one to depression since you cannot experience true vitality and aliveness if you are not being authentic. This pain of being estranged from one's authentic self can often lead to acting out behaviors designed to "force" the self to feel something. Years ago a patient told me that she could only feel something when she was doing dangerous things. The rest of the time she felt deadened. She had sacrificed her authentic self as a young child to please overly perfectionistic parents who demanded straight A's and perfect manners. She became, as one could predict, an alternatingly depressed and angry adolescent who rebelled with drugs and high risk behaviors as a way to not only punish her parents for rejecting her authentic self but also as a means to feel alive.
Living as a false self can also lead one to make decisions that are ultimately not fulfilling, from choosing the wrong major in college to getting into the wrong relationship or taking the wrong job. One's true self is a compass and should steer you towards things that nourish your deepest soul. People living from the false self have no such compass and often drift, feeling confused, depressed and empty. They move through life "doing" things but find no fulfillment in them. I often see these folks in therapy and their refrain is "I have everything but I feel depressed/lonely/empty-- what's wrong with me?"
Thankfully therapy is a great place to discover one's authentic self. Through therapy a person can begin to explore what really matters, how one really feels and how one is essentially "wired". Therapists, because they are not invested in you turning out any particular way, can offer encouragement for the process of re-discovering your nascent true self and bringing it into your daily life.
There are several authors who have written quite poingnantly over the years about issues of the false self and the therapeutic process of repairing this type of damage, such as Alice Miller's
Prisoners of Childhood: The Drama of The Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self, Karen Horney's theory of personality, D.W. Winnicott's concept of "true" and "false" selves, or Tian Dayton's article in Huffington Post. All agree on the fact that personal happiness and well-being is only achievable through a re-claiming of the true/authentic self when a false self has come to be dominant.
If you have been struggling with issues that you suspect may be related to developing a false self consider seeking therapy. It's never too late to be the person you were meant to be.
Wishing you health and happiness,
First a note on semantics. The "Island" under consideration is a romantic partner who has what would, in research, be called an "avoidant" attachment style. Attachment research goes back many years (to the 1940's) and involves classifying people into different categories based on how they relate to their primary caregiver in early childhood. For more information on attachment see my earlier blog on the subject.
As some of you know when I work with couples I use the PACT model of therapy (the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy). The PACT model has re-labelled the attachment styles as follows: Islands (avoidant), Waves (resistant) and Anchors (secures). It would be too complicated to explain the model here but see earlier posts of mine on the classification system and how our attachment styles impact our romantic relationships. Dr. Stan Tatkin's audio program, "Your Brain on Love", provides a wonderful explanation of the theory and how to apply it to your relationship.
OK, now on to those islands. For those of you who love someone who is often island-ish it can be confusing to understand them if you are not one yourself. Now of course to be fair, island-ish people often don't understand non-island-ish people either!
However, human behavior is often predictable if you know what to look for. So if you know that your partner is "island-ish" then you can predict what is going to bug them and what will really make them purr. I am summarizing here points made by Dr. Stan Tatkin in his wonderful audio program Your Brain on Love. If you haven't listened to it I strongly suggest you give it a try! While I have provided a link via Amazon above you can also buy it on iTunes, Audible and soundstrue.com.
Now before proceeding I need to make something REALLY clear. What I am about to say may make you think "sheesh, why would I want to commit to an island if it will turn out this way?". So PLEASE understand something-- everyone, regardless of their style (Island, Wave or even Anchors) will get harder to handle after commitment. Dr. Tatkin refers to this as the "marriage monster". It's the unstoppable dynamic that gets activated when we pledge ourself to someone for all eternity. This just naturally turns up the heat and starts to show the cracks in our structure. So if you are wave-ish please realize that commitment also makes you more wave-ish and therefore harder to handle. It's not that island-ish people are worse than you. There is enough bad behavior to go around ;-)
OK so as long as you proceed without judgement, here are a few things that are predictable about people who are island-ish (or avoidantly attached):
Remember that all of the above is NOT personal, NOT conscious and NOT immediately under their control. Like any human being island-ish partners can learn about themselves and can learn new behaviors. But this often takes time and some professional coaching.
And one final tip on not triggering your island-ish partner--
I hope these tips have been helpful. Look for my upcoming blog on "The Care and Feeding of Your Wave". Remember, about half of us have "insecure" attachment styles (meaning we are not "anchors" or "secures"). So if you find yourself relating to the Island or Wave types don't feel bad. There are plenty of folks in your company. And if your partner is willing to learn your style they can take great care of you (and vice-versa!).
Dr. Stan Tatkin on Co-Dependency Versus Inter-Dependency (as well as other aspects of relationships)
What exactly is the difference between co-dependency and interdependency?
This is a question that comes up a lot for folks who are familiar with the idea of co-dependency. Many of us have an idea that we are supposed to "love ourselves before we can love others" and "be the source of our own happiness." We may feel that if this is not happening that we are being "dysfunctional" or "co-dependent." One of the interesting things to me about the re-focus on attachment research in the past decade of psychology has been the re-realization that humans are inherently dependent on others. We are born some of the most vulnerable babies of all species, requiring a full decade if not more of intensive parental involvement. Our brains do not actually finish maturing until halfway through our second decade of life. We have always, and continue to, live in groups or "packs". We use solitary confinement as the worst punishment for the worst humans. So how many of us got this idea that depending on others was bad or pathological seems curious indeed.
I recently encountered a podcast with Dr. Stan Tatkin, a prominent couples therapist and author who utilizes attachment theory as a foundation of his work. Among other things in this interview Dr. Tatkin shows how his model is representative of healthy interdependency versus the pathological idea of co-dependency. It would take several pages for me to summarize his theory on this point and he does a perfectly fine job on his own. So for those reasons rather than try to explain his viewpoint to you I suggest that you listen yourself:
He gets to the topic of codependency around 20 minutes in to the podcast. While you are there you may want to check out other topics in this podcast which specializes on relationships. The podcaster has many excellent guests on his shows and seems to cover a lot of important ground.
And if you are interested in learning more about healthy relationships, as always I also recommend Dr. Tatkin's audio program, Your Brain On Love, as well as his books, Wired For Love and Wired For Dating.
Wishing you happiness in your connections,
A thought occurred to me the other day in the midst of counseling a couple. One of them had recently adopted a dog from the animal shelter. She was talking about the history of the dog and why it had certain habits and fears. To all of us in the room it went without saying that since the dog had been mistreated by it's previous owners it came with "issues". I think many of us have had those experiences, like raising your hand to pet a dog and watching it flinch or cower. Our first thought in that situation is "oh dear, I bet this dog has been abused!". We generally don't get mad at the dog for misunderstanding us. Nor do we expect the dog to know that we are not the same person who previously hurt them. We are generally concerned and patient and understand it will take the dog time to trust us. We also would not be surprised if a dog trainer told us that there were some things we could do on our part to not create fear in the dog.
So while all of this is usually pretty obvious to humans in regards to dogs, the corollary to understanding our relationship partners is sadly not all that intuitive. We are often upset to find that our partners, who had previous "owners" (parents/caregivers) have baggage and a host of unconscious expectations that cause them to misunderstand us and sometimes act in ways that don't make sense. By the way, they are seeing the same behaviors in us! It's as if one dog from the pound (with their own history of having been neglected or hurt in the past) adopts another dog from the pound (with their own history also). You can imagine the problems that ensue.
If you have read my blog posts or website you may know that I practice a particular style of couples therapy-- PACT. In that style of therapy we find it useful to look for certain patterns of behavior that arise from particular histories of interactions with our early caregivers. These patterns are called "attachment styles". There are two basic styles that represent the majority of us who end up having relationship problems-- "Avoidant" (which Dr. Stan Tatkin calls "Islands") and "Resistant" (which Dr. Tatkin calls "Waves"). These two predominant patterns can be described in terms of types of dogs you may encounter at your local pound.
The "Avoidant" or "Island" type of partner is like the dog at the pound who, when you approach the cage smiling and holding out a treat, backs up and hopes you will go away. You may feel hurt or rejected, even annoyed. You may think to yourself "hey, I'm the good guy here!", "c'mon buddy, give me a chance!" If you are patient and give the dog a little space in time he or she will likely relax and may even show some interest. If you open the cage and again give the dog space it will, in it's own time, come out. But don't expect this type of dog to jump into your arms in the first few minutes! He or she will need to move past you and walk around a bit, making sure that you do not represent any danger or infringement on their free will. Once the dog has established that you are OK letting it walk about freely it will likely approach you, in it's own time, and perhaps make a gesture of interest. If you move too quickly or with too much enthusiasm this type of dog will back away and then you are back to square one for a bit.
If you try to imagine what kind of history this dog has it's not hard to conjure: This dog was neglected. It had the kind of owner who put out food and water but did not show the dog much affection. The dog is not used to being engaged or approached much. When this owner did approach the dog it was likely for the dog to do something for the owner rather than the owner doing something for the dog. Perhaps it was an older dog who was too tired to run much, but the only time the owner came to it was to drag it out for a run because that's what the owner wanted to do. The owner missed the cues from the poor dog that this was only fun for the human! The owner simply threw a leash on the dog and dragged it around the block, perhaps even chastising the dog for going to slow. Then upon returning home the dog is put back into it's corner and ignored again. This dog will come to see his owner as a task-master who is only really interested in him or herself. The dog will be mistrustful of approach because it only means that the dog is now expected to do something that the dog may have no interest in. The dog has learned that the owner is not sensitive to it's needs or wants and most of the time leaves it alone. So the dog learns to entertain itself and gets pretty good at this. It can stare out the window and watch birds or run around alone in the back yard chasing squirrels. But the dog does not expect the owner to partake of these activities or show any interest in what the dog is doing. In fact, the dog comes to prefer not being noticed by the owner because the owner is only interested in their own needs and the dog finds that unpleasant and unfair.
Notice that this dog is not necessarily abused. It's just emotionally neglected. Therefore when you show a lot of enthusiasm and rush forward to give it a big hug at the pound this dog is not comfortable with that. It will try to avoid that kind of effusive contact and get more space from you. In time, if you are patient, it may become more comfortable with you and the dog may even come to enjoy a certain amount of attention. But it may also never be the kind of dog that you can scoop up and hug and smooch all over. The dog has baggage.
Now compare that to a different kind of pound pooch. This dog has been intermittently abused and praised by its owner. Confusing, right? This owner was a bit moody and wrapped up in their own dramas. On a good day they would lavish the dog with treats and hugs and then on bad days might yell at the dog or even give it a kick. The dog was not able to know from day to day what was coming. So the dog also learns to be guarded. Only when you approach this dog at the pound they don't necessarily want you to go away. Part of them is thinking "well, this could be good...you may have a treat for me". But the other part of the poor dog is thinking "yeah, but this could be bad!". So the dog may approach but with ears back and a slightly open jaw, ready to bite if things turn ugly. When you see the dog approaching you in this way you might think "geez! Here I am trying to be nice and it looks as if you may bite me!" This type of dog may even approach you and growl, only to then lick your outstretched hand. Their behavior is likely to be a confusing mix of pleasure at your attention and fear and even anger at what they perceive is potential backlash. Even more confusing is that this dog, right after growling at you, will likely follow you into the next room. The dog does not seem to want to be alone, even though half the time when you try to engage it the dog may snarl or bark at you! And even more frustrating this dog may tear up your furniture in protest if you leave it alone for too long. This dog is certainly a confusing fellow! But, if treated with love and patience, this dog will eventually growl less and lick more. However it may always be quick to curl it's lip and look like it's about to bite. It's up to you to know how to help the dog feel safe and loved and to not take it too personally when the dog seems scared or testy. This dog would, if it were human, correspond to the attachment type of "Resistant" or in Tatkin's terms, a "Wave." This dog too has baggage.
When we meet our life partners they are not newly birthed puppies. They are middle-aged dogs with histories of having been, much of the time, mistreated in some way or another by someone in their formative years. It may not have been out and out abuse (although that is certainly possible), it may have been mild emotional neglect or moderate mis-attunement or confusion behaviors from distressed or overwhelmed parents. Whatever the case, they have baggage (as do we!). We need to come to expect this and not take it personally. We need to try to learn about our partner's histories and figure out how we can offer corrective experiences that will, over time and with patience, reduce their problematic behaviors. And we need to be reasonable about our expectations, knowing that while you can teach old dogs new tricks, you may have to use some pretty persuasive treats and even engage your friendly (PACT certified!) "dog trainer".
Wishing you the best in your loving connections (both human canine),
David Richo's book How To Be An Adult In Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving is a very worthwhile read. The main hypothesis for this book is based on what he calls “The Five A’s”. These are:
· being Allowed the freedom to live “in accordance with our deepest needs and wishes”
According to Richo these are the basic ingredients needed to grow healthy self-esteem. I agree that these are all very valuable things and that without them we are likely not to feel loved or cared for. And I absolutely believe that humans have an innate need to feel connected to others, preferably in a way that feels loving and positive. Although if that is not available we will make due with connection through negativity rather than none at all.
According to Richo, we come into the world needing the 5 A's from our parents. And, he argues, in adulthood we need these same “5 A’s” from our romantic partners. More profoundly he states that these are also the things we seek to have in our spiritual practice/relationship with our higher power. He feels that through a spiritual practice one can cultivate the 5 A’s in a way that brings these essential elements into our lives through a spiritual plane.
Whether or not you are spiritual I do think these 5 A’s are worth thinking about. According to Richo, “our work is not to renounce our childhood needs but to take them into account, work on them, and enlist our partner to help us do this, if s/he is willing…to unite with a partner who can join us in our work.” I wholeheartedly agree with this. These deep, basic childhood needs never go away. We crave our lover’s attention, their acceptance, their appreciation and their affection. And we thrive when they allow us to “live in accordance with our deepest needs and wishes.” A partner who can help us heal any wounding in these areas is a most precious and prized gift. They deserve our deepest loyalty, respect, care and cherishing. Treating them in this way is also a natural outflowing of having these childhood needs nourished. This is true, mature and lasting love.
According to Richo there are also 5 “mindsets” that tend to interfere with providing the Five A’s to our partners. These are:
Richo believes that these mindsets interfere with our authentic experience of the present moment. He states that “Each is a minimization that imposes our personal dramas upon reality and makes fair witnessing impossible.” Or in other words, these are states of mind that will keep you from being able to see your partner clearly and convey a sense of understanding to them such that they feel truly connected to you. They become the interference in the radio signal such that a beautiful melody sounds like a cacophony of static and notes.
As you have probably already surmised, Richo’s book covers a lot of ground. He explains how the Five A’s manifest differently in relationships with introverts versus extroverts. He talks about how to handle complex emotions like fear, grief and anger. He has an excellent chapter on whether or not committed partnerships are actually “for you”. He contrasts romance and addiction. He gives numerous suggestions on how to work through un-grieved losses and become one's own parent. All this in little more than 250 pages!
In addition to all of these topics we might expect given the title of his book, Richo touches on a very bizarre phenomenon common to human relationships. He notes that if we have some wounding or deficits in these 5 A’s we are likely to be very sensitive to that area in our romantic relationships. That makes sense. But where things get tricky is when we seek to re-enact the deficits, wounds and deprivations of our childhood with our current partners. You may be familiar with the idea that a child of an alcoholic is likely to (unconsciously) marry an alcoholic (or someone otherwise addicted—sex, drugs, work, food, etc.). From the outside this seems “crazy”. Why would you set yourself up for this type of familiar pain? Richo states that we unconsciously try to revive our earliest unmet needs in an effort to see if our partner can help us heal them. So if I was emotionally abused as a child I may gravitate towards that dynamic in my adult relationships in an attempt to “revive my earliest unmet needs”. In some way I am hoping that my partner can save me from the dynamic that I have co-created with him/her. Or, as a former supervisor of mine used to say, “we either marry our parents or we marry someone who is not like our parents but we unconsciously coach them to act like our parents. Or we marry someone who is not like our parents and stubbornly resists being coached to act like them, so we project our parents onto them, believing they are like our parents despite evidence to the contrary.” While this is not a very flattering portrayal of human nature, I have to say that in 20 years as a therapist I have seen this pattern played out numerous times in astoundingly creative ways.
Ultimately we want to be healed. We often don’t really know the ways we have been hurt, having grown in in the only environment we knew. As the expression goes, the fish does not notice the water. But as an adult we can take stock and look back to evaluate “what was missing?” Which of these 5 A’s do we need to work on in our adult life? And how can we do that? Richo would seem to answer that we can do that through a spiritual practice as well as our love relationships. Being a psychotherapist I try not to advise on spiritual matters! But I can absolutely endorse the idea that not only can your primary relationship heal these wounds but you will TRY to set things up to work them out whether you realize it or not. I would argue it behooves all of us to figure out our wounds and/or areas of neglect so that we can look for how we are re-creating them in our current romantic partnerships.
All in all I think that Richo has some great wisdom in his book. I would encourage anyone interested in creating more healthy patterns in their love lives to take a look at it. While it is clear that he is devoted to mindfulness as a discipline and drinks deeply from that well, his ideas are useful even if you don’t ascribe to the eastern-philosophy threads that run throughout.
As always wishing you health and happiness in your connection to others--
By now many of us have heard about the idea of attachment in infancy. There is a strong movement for attachment-informed parenting which promotes consideration of attachment research in child-rearing practices. Since we now know that attachment style in infancy has long-reaching implications most psychologists advocate that parents familiarize themselves with this information as they shape their own parenting behaviors and family culture. And there is good reason to consider attachment! Securely attached infants are observed to be more resilient, tolerate stress better, explore their environment more, settle more easily and derive more comfort from their caregivers.
As they mature they tend to be preferred by peers and into adulthood suffer less psychological problems such as depression, substance abuse and even divorce. We now know that secure attachment in childhood provides a significant advantage in one's adult life. According to work by Feeney, Noller, & Callan (1994), securely attached adults are more satisfied in their relationships than insecurely attached folks. Their relationships have more trust, last longer, involve more mutual and satisfying interdependence, show more commitment and even involve using their partners more as companions in their exploration of the world (Fraley & Davis, 1997). Think of that lovely older couple who retires and travels the world together, exploring new and exciting cultures and growing together rather than apart.
Not only are securely attached adults more likely to get support from their partners when distressed, they are more likely to give support to their distressed partners (Simpson et al, 1992). Their relationships are truly reciprocal, fair and interdependent. And as if that's not enough reason to promote secure attachment for relationship health, these secure partners even view and interpret the behavior of their partners during and after conflict in ways that reduce negative feelings. For example, if my partner and I are arguing about where we will spend Christmas this year, when he brings up how uncomfortable he is around my chaotic family I would be more likely to hear this as a gentle reminder of previous years where we both were frustrated with my family dynamic rather than hearing "I hate your family and how insensitive you are to make suffer by forcing me to see them". Thus it's not only the behaviors that secure partners emit that make the relationship so secure, it's how the secure partner does not project negativity into their partner's statements even when the conversation gets heated. One can see how this generous style of interpreting communication, where the best rather than the worst is assumed, can smooth over many potentially combustible situations.
So what are our chances of reaching adulthood with secure attachment? Most research puts secure attachment rates at about 50% in infants/toddlers. Attachment systems are thought to be somewhat malleable until the age of 13 and can even change after that if a large enough stressor is applied (abuse/neglect, severe trauma, etc). Fortunately for those of us who did not achieve secure attachment in childhood there is still hope! The concept of earned security has been investigated over the past few decades and results indicate that even people who had insecure attachment in childhood can learn secure patterns by adulthood. According to Dan Siegel, MD, this "Earned secure/autonomous status is most often achieved through supportive personal or therapeutic relationships (for example, marriage or psychotherapy). The implication of these findings is that even with difficult past childhood experiences, the mind is capable of achieving an integrated perspective – one that is coherent and that permits parenting" (and I would argue partnering) "behavior to be sensitive and empathic. If integration is achieved, the trend toward transmission of insecure forms of attachment to the next generation can be prevented. Achieving coherence of mind thus becomes a central goal for creating emotional well-being in both oneself", one's marriage and "one’s offspring."
If you or your spouse had a difficult childhood or find it hard to maintain satisfying intimate relationships you may have an insecure attachment style. Therapy can help you to learn the skills necessary to model secure behaviors, thus allowing you to reap the benefits of security mentioned in the research above.
Thanks to our amazing brains we can overcome where we have come from. The rewards are tremendous and I encourage you to consider taking the journey.
And now that you know what a healthy relationship looks like, you can evaluate for yourself how well these people are doing: http://valentine.thisamericanlife.org. This is a collection of short personal stories about love and heartbreak, things we can all relate to.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.