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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Recently a therapist friend of mine forwarded me a link to Brene Brown's talk on The Anatomy of Trust. I would love to say that I was basking in the warm glow of pride as I reflected on how great I am at providing trust in my important relationships. However my reaction to this incredible talk was more like a gut punch. Hearing Dr. Brown describe what she feels trust is really about made me realize that I still have some room to grow in that department.
Probably one reason I like Dr. Brown is that she loves definitions. So do I. I am actually a person who asked for, and got, a 900 page dictionary for her 30th birthday. That was back before Google. Don't ask if you don't know what I am talking about. Dr. Brown scoured the literature and found a great definition of trust by author Charles Feltman. He defines trust as "choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else." Take the picture above. I am pretty sure that the kid in the air values his physical safety. Broken bones are no fun. And he is putting that physical safety in the hands of the dad and making his safety vulnerable to the ability of the dad to catch him. I cannot think of a more concrete illustration of what she is talking about. But of course when we are 20 or 40 or 60 it's not so much about people catching us flying through the air as sharing a hope or dream with someone and not having them discount it or tell us all of the reasons it won't work out. Or marrying someone and trusting that they will not go off and steal all of your retirement, buy a sports car and run off with the nanny/manny, crushing your dreams of a happy family life. Charles Feltman also defined distrust, which is "when something I have shared with you that is important to me is not safe with you." Ouch. I think we can all conjure up examples of that.
Dr. Brown then broke down the idea of trust into an acronym: BRAVING. She went on to elaborate that B stands for Boundaries-- we need to feel that another person knows what they are capable of and can stick to that as well as respecting what we are comfortable with and capable of as well. For example if I routinely can't say no to anyone and get overcommitted I am not going to appear very trustworthy to anyone who needs some of my time (I personally don't know anything about this.... Um, OK, actually-- note to self to work on that one). The R stands for Reliability-- that people know we will do what we say and do that repeatedly/consistently. Being there for someone once is great but doing it over and over is where trust is built. Accountability (A) is about being able to own our mistakes, apologize and make amends for them. The V is for Vault-- as in, if someone confides in us we won't betray that confidence. Interestingly Dr. Brown expanded this and pointed out that even if we are keeping one person's confidence, if that person hears us spilling secrets other people have told us we can still end up not looking very trustworthy! She went on to talk about Integrity (I), which she defined as "choosing courage over comfort, what's right over what's fast, fun or easy, and practicing, not just professing our values." Again she expanded this to say that not only does a trustworthy person act with their own integrity but they encourage others to act with it as well. Non-judgment (N) made her list, apropos of my previous blog on Acceptance. Dr. Brown elaborated that non-judgement means that I can fall apart and ask for help without being judged by you and vice-versa. She also said that it has to be a level playing field, meaning if I am OK with you asking me for help but I don't like to ask you when I need it then I am not going to be perceived as trustworthy. Those of us who tend to gravitate towards the helper role (again, not that I know anything about that!) often don't like to ask for help ourselves. At the core of this, however, is an implied power differential where we see the helper as being more empowered and the person asking for help, let's be honest here, as somehow "less than". This is NOT going to promote a feeling of trust. Finally Dr. Brown brought up Generosity (G) and as usual she had a very interesting take on that. She said that generosity in terms of trust means always giving me the benefit of the doubt. If I have screwed up, forgotten something, said something hurtful or generally been a schmuck you will assume that I did not have bad intentions. Furthermore, and this is great, you will CHECK IT OUT WITH ME rather than just avoid me and think the worst of me. Imagine how many relationships could be helped by just this one construct! As a person who is prone to nurse hurts (I know, I am working on it!) I really appreciated her reminder to assume that the person you are dealing with is a good, decent person who probably just screwed up by accident. So go ask them what's up and don't go in with guns loaded for heaven's sake!
All in all I really loved this talk. Brenee Brown, if you have never heard her, is funny, smart, relate-able and just a great speaker. She has a number of great books out there also on topics like shame, vulnerability and learning to go a little easier on yourself. I hope you have found this review of her trust talk helpful.
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Wishing you trust in all of your deepest connections, including with yourself.
I heard once that "acceptance is the answer to all of your problems". The part of me that loves to solve problems immediately thought "bah! that's too simple!". But the more I have thought about this statement the more true it seems. Not always, obviously. If you are in an abusive relationship I would not recommend acceptance. If your boss is sexually harassing you, acceptance is not the answer. But if you find yourself plagued with envy of your best friend's six pack abs, or new car, or you feel frustrated by your shyness or freckles, or your partner's annoying habit of leaving wet towels on the floor, then maybe acceptance IS the answer to all of your problems.
More and more I feel like life is moving at an unrealistic pace. We all have full inboxes, full voicemail systems, endless to-do lists and FOMO on a nonstop basis. Life is not slowing down for us. Which means for many of us (me for sure!) we are getting farther and farther behind on some things. We are, I would argue, having to come to grips with the fact that keeping up on all of our goals may prove to be impossible.
So how do you square yourself to feelings of personal failure? When you feel that you are not measuring up? I recently found a wonderful video that talks about just that. Kristen Neff's Youtube talk on Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem was really on point about how we treat ourselves in the face of adversity and disappointment. She is a researcher right here in Austin, Texas who started off looking at self-esteem. What she quickly realized was that self-esteem was impacted by self-compassion. So she started looking at that. I love that she shared personal experiences (divorce, being a mom of an Autistic-spectrum kid) that caused her to want to figure out how to feel OK about herself when she felt that life was throwing her curve balls.
Dr. Neff points out something that I found particularly helpful-- that when we attack ourselves, criticize ourselves and entertain negative thoughts about ourselves we are actually triggering the fight or flight response/stress response in our bodies. This causes the release of large amounts of cortisol, which is very damaging to our bodies. In fact, prolonged/repeated exposure to cortisol can cause depression. So now on top of feeling disappointed in yourself and judging yourself harshly you are debilitated by depression and not in any position to make any positive changes!
Dr. Neff explains different ways that we can be self-compassionate which avoids this pitfall of depression. Below are two graphics that I found that cover her main points. In general you can think of self-compassion as treating yourself the same way you would treat a good friend in the same situation. If you are berating yourself for being late to deliver a work project think about what you would tell a good friend in the same situation. If there is a difference in how you would talk to your friend versus how you talk to yourself then you may need to work on self-compassion!
One of the most interesting tips she gives on self-compassion is that we can actually soothe ourselves chemically by stimulating our own oxytocin release. Oxytocin is the chemical that mothers release when nursing babies, or birthing babies, and when any of us receive loving touch. It's the hormone that is meant to bond us and calm us. It helps promote a state of relaxation and even sleep. Dr. Neff explains that you can release your own oxytocin by touching yourself in a caring manner. Like giving yourself a hug and rubbing your arms. Corny, I know. And super awkward if anyone were to see you! However, science is science. If you can touch yourself lovingly (in your car in the parking lot? in the bathroom stall at work?) you can actually calm yourself down by administering your own oxytocin. Dr. Neff also recommends talking to yourself in a soothing voice (again here I recommend privacy!). Humans are also wired to respond to what is called "vocal prosody" or that sing-songy voice we use with babies and cute little animals. So saying something to yourself like "I know I'm feeling really crummy right now but this will pass" in a soothing voice can actually cause your nervous system to settle down and help you feel better. Again contrast this to the way many of us tend to speak to ourselves which goes something like "Geez I can't believe how stupid I was! What a screw-up!". As they say in the computer world, "garbage in, garbage out". If you talk to yourself in a negative manner you are going to cause negative chemical reactions in your brain and nervous system. If you talk to yourself lovingly you will release chemicals that will calm and sooth you and help you access the more complex (and capable!) parts of your brain.
Dr. Neff has a website where you can take an online quiz to check yourself on six different aspects of self compassion: self-kindness, self-judgement, common humanity, isolation mindfulness and over-identification with your feelings. I found this to be very useful in identifying which areas I may need to work on to become more self-compassionate.
If you are the sort of person that tends to be hard on yourself, has low self-esteem or sets potentially unrealistic standards for yourself you may benefit from looking into self-compassion. The research is quite strong that increasing self-compassion can help with self-esteem as well as depression and happiness.
As always if you find this post useful please "like" it below or "tweet" about it to help others find these resources. And if you are unfamiliar with mindfulness you may want to look for some resources (online or locally where you are) to help you learn this incredibly powerful tool for being in the present moment, even if that moment is cruddy. While it sounds weird being fully present in an uncomfortable moment actually turns out better in the long run.
Wishing you self-compassion, self-esteem and a fulfilling sense of connectedness to all people,
Recently a lovely friend of mine, Margaret Martin, gave me this book as a gift. Margaret knows that I am an advocate of many 12-step programs and thought I might like Richard Rohr's take on it. Like any good friend she knows me well and I really loved this book!
First of all Mr. Rohr is a wonderful writer. His prose is beautiful and captivating. He weaves religious writings into his own thoughts in reference to each of the original 12 steps of Alcoholic's Anonymous. For those of you who are not familiar with 12-step programs, most other 12-step groups take their "steps" from AA so this book also applies to other "fellowships" such as Al-Anon, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Adult Children Anonymous, Over-eaters Anonymous and so on. While the spiritual aspect of 12-step is sometimes a thorny issue for people Rorh has a wonderful way of not preaching or evangelizing but rather speaking as a religious scholar familiar with many religious texts and traditions. He opens the 12-steps up in a way that I found to be very rich and thought provoking.
Let me take a moment to clarify that while I enjoy reading religious texts from various traditions (Jewish, Christian and Islamic to name a few... as well as Buddhist, but that's not really a religion...) I am not dogmatic about religion with clients. Research does suggest that spirituality is helpful to folks and as a psychologist I often encourage people to consider that fact. However I am not of the mindset that a psychologist should be pointing people in any particular spiritual or religious direction.
That said I do think that if you are not adverse to religious writings and furthermore if you are open to the 12-step approach to things you may enjoy this book. One of the first things that Rohr points out is that, to him, one of Jesus's central messages was to become enlightened in such a way that one can enjoy the wonders of this life while still in it. In Rohr's opinion, sometimes that message gets changed to putting off the joy until the life hereafter. Rohr equates this with the recovering alcoholic who focuses simply on not drinking (abstinence) while failing to fully "live a life of recovery". In this sense, truly living "in recovery" opens one to the daily joys and miracles of life without blunting oneself to the pains of life through addictive behaviors or thought patterns. In AA language this is the difference between a "dry drunk" (i.e. abstinent) and someone practicing recovery.
While Freud once said that the goal of psychotherapy was to turn neurotic sufferings into ordinary sufferings, I also feel that the goal of therapy can be to open us up to the daily miracles and even ecstasies of the human existence. I have seen many people find this through the 12- steps and also through spiritual practices such as prayer, mindfulness, loving kindness (metta) meditations, yoga and psychotherapy. In my opinion as a mental health provider, however you get there it is a great gift to give oneself. To be fully present in the moments of life and to fully participate in the joy (and yes, the grief and pain as well) is to live life to the fullest. Which calls to mind the quote by Shaw:
Another profound comparison that Rohr makes between the teachings of Jesus and the 12 steps is the idea that only once a person has "hit bottom" spiritually, emotionally or physically (or all of the above!) can they experience true transformation. He references a conversation Jesus had with one of his disciples in which he talks about needing to be "ground like wheat" and then recovered before one can be useful to another human being to help in his or her healing. Rohr goes on to say that "Those who have passed over [had a profound and transformative experience] eventually find a much bigger world of endurance, meaning, hope, self-esteem, deeper and true desire, but most especially, a bottomless pool of love both within and without." (p. 124-5).
I am a person who loves contrast, who loves unexpected parallels between seemingly unrelated things. So for me this book was a treasure trove of similarities between two traditions that, on the surface, don't seem to have much in common. While spirituality has always been an important part of the 12-step programs, I have not seen direct comparisons of the 12-steps to the words of Jesus as written in the bible. So I enjoyed seeing Rohr sew these two traditions together along the points where they truly do seem to be saying the same thing.
If you have had painful or distressing experiences with organized religion, or find it a concept that is simply not useful to you I completely respect that. Each person's life is their own journey. But I do think that looking for the deeper meaning in things, whether that is along traditional religious lines or more spiritual or metaphysical lines, can provide a source of inspiration, empowerment, hope and peace in those times where life breaks you open.
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Wishing you peace, health and happiness in all of your relationships, including the one with yourself!
I have written about shame before but wanted to expand on my earlier blog with some new information on how exactly we learn to be shame prone.
James Harper has written about this subject and explains that families that promote shame lack certain fundamental qualities that protect against shame. These qualities are accountability, intimacy and dependency. If these qualities are present in sufficient amounts in a family system children can grown up without undue amounts of shame. To break these
Again if these qualities are not present enough kids will end up feeling toxic amounts of shame. When kids experience shame a lot they naturally begin to internalize it. That emotional state gains preference in the nervous system and is more easily accessed. I compare this to driving down a dirt road every day for several week. Over time you will notice grooves getting established in the dirt so that it gets harder to deviate from the path you have been taking each time. This is similar to the way our brains respond-- the more we feel something (or think something, or do something) the more that pathway is reinforced and becomes easier for the brain to find the next time. So numerous experiences with shame as a child make is "shame prone" in adulthood.
“Children are especially vulnerable to shame." commented Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW in this article in Huffington Post. "Self-centered and dependent, young humans will easily translate, “You did something bad,” into, “You ARE bad.” We need to be aware and careful about the messages we send.
One potent quote I heard about shame was this --
Shame is a lie someone told you about yourself
(that you believed).
Whether it is intentional or not we need to be careful about the messages that we transmit to kids. That they are frustrating, that they are "too much", too needy, too demanding, incompetent, embarrassing or not measuring up to our standards. They may believe these falsities many, many years into the future.
Perhaps one of the reasons that shame is such a persisting emotion and so hard to "un-learn" is that it is tied to our very survival. Shame is centered in the autonomic nervous system. Unfortunately the human brain, in some ways, is pretty dumb. It cannot distinguish between physical threat and emotional threat, just like on a brain level it does not distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain (see my earlier blog on this). When the brain perceives any kind of threat it responds by booting up "crisis mode"-- the autonomic nervous system. This is the response of the brain to shame, probably because shame implies a threat to important relationships. Especially in childhood our relationships with caregivers are life and death matters. If we are being shamed by our caregivers we respond as if our survival has been threatened-- because it has. Just like being attacked by a bear we have the urge to hide or flee. If that does not work we resort to attack. Shame is hard-wired in to these deep areas of the brain (the ANS) that are designed to protect us from actual annihilation. So once these areas have been reprogrammed to feel shame it can be very hard to root out.
Shame proneness in kids is sadly predictive of numerous problems in adulthood, including alcohol abuse, high risk sexual behavior, legal problems, suicide attempts and social isolation. Shame proneness, while not associated with age or socioeconomic level, is also associated with low self-esteem and PTSD as well as the problems mentioned above (Ashby et al. 2006, Crossley & Rockett 2005, Feiring & Taska 2005, Stuewig & McCloskey 2005). Shame-proneness assessed in the fifth grade predicted later risky driving behavior, earlier initiation of drug and alcohol use, and a lower likelihood of practicing safe sex (Tangney & Dearing 2002). Similarly, proneness to problematic feelings of shame has been positively linked to substance use and abuse in adulthood (Dearing et al. 2005, Meehan et al. 1996, O’Connor et al. 1994, Tangney et al. 2006). For people who are HIV positive, having persistent feelings of shame predicted t-cell decline, showing compromised immune function (Weitzman et al. 2004).
Shame-prone people also engage in aggressive acts more than those who are not shame-prone. For example they tend to verbally attack, blame and externalize as well as the more passive-aggressive option of simply talking badly about someone behind their back. Shame-prone folks are also more aggressive physically, either interpersonally or by attacking objects/possessions important to the person they are angry at (think keying someone's car). Sadly the shame-prone person may also harm themselves or simply ruminate in their unexpressed anger. Interestingly these individuals admit that their anger gets them into trouble and is destructive of relationships but they seem to have trouble not being triggered into these negative behaviors.
Brene Brown has written and talked extensively about shame and how to become less shame-prone. She suggests the following steps to help recover from a shame-prone upbringing:
For more help with shame I recommend Brene Brown's Ted Talk or her book on shame. She also has other resources available on her website.
Therapy can also be a wonderful tool to work on deep feelings of shame or surviving a shaming childhood. People can heal from toxic shame and learn to more fully love themselves and live the lives they truly deserve.
Wishing you happiness and peace,
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This is, by far, the most accurate account of marriage I have ever read. Alain de Botton's most recent novel is not for those who want to maintain a fairy-tale version of marriage. It is certainly not for anyone who wants to cling to the idea of a soul mate, someone born to understand your every wish without you even uttering it. It is for those of us who seek to understand why so many marriages fail. Who seek to understand what marriage is really, truly about. (I say here marriage but really I am talking about any kind of long-term coupling). It is not a sad story by any means. It is a realistic story of two flawed people who build a life together. That life includes romance, but also children, mess, affairs, work and heartache. But in the end they continue to "choose each other" as Bruce Feiler would say in his recent book.
The book follows two characters as they meet and fall in love and continues on through their lives for the first few decades of their union. During this time they struggle, sometimes together and sometimes privately, with just what to expect of marriage. In the end they come to understand that with all its flaws marriage offers us something unique and valuable-- the opportunity to truly put another's needs first, over and over, which can only be done by growing as a person.
Of course like the rest of us the characters in de Botton's book had no idea what marriage was at first. The soon to be husband reflects on his desire to propose and concludes that "He hopes through the act of marring to make an ecstatic sensation [falling in love] perpetual." (p. 40) Not to be cynical here, I have been happily married for nearly two decades, but to think that by marrying as an act itself you can seal in that feeling of falling in love would be quite misguided. One has to work at continuing to fall in love like one has to work at staying in shape. Sadly if not properly guided many of us will eat too much cake, go to the gym too infrequently and then not recognize that person in the pictures from our 20 year high school reunion. Marriage is much the same. Many of us come to the institution poorly trained and somehow expect that following our instincts will lead us to the habits that build and sustain this marvelous partnership. Years or decades later when the union is on its last breath we wonder what happened.
The main characters also find that being coupled sheds light into areas of our lives that previously we had happily been spared. As de Botton puts it "The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy...[our] tendency to tidy obsessively when ...feel[ing] chaotic inside, [the] habit of using work to ward off...anxieties, the difficulty...in articulating what's on [our] mind when...worried, [the] flurry when [we] can't find a favorite T-shirt---these eccentricities are all neatly obscured so long as there is no one else around to see [them]." (p. 42) How beautifully this captures our own self-serving bias-- that how we are, what we think, what we feel, what we prefer, how we operate, is normal. Forgetting all the while that we are just as weird, conflicted, inconsistent, hypocritical, defensive or even downright crazy as the next person. This self-serving bias leads us to the problem that "Without witnesses, [we] can operate under the benign illusion that [we] may just, with the right person, prove no particular challenge to be around." (p. 42) Ah, the illusion that we are right and our partner SO wrong! That if only they would come to their senses and agree with us! Be like us!
De Botton also touches on the potentially tragic tendency of humans to move towards familiarity. We think we are searching for that perfect person who will complete us, who will overlook our bad habit of leaving the milk out or staying up until 3am on Facebook only to be obscenely grumpy the next day. But alas what we are actually searching for is a relationship "that it will be reassuringly familiar in its pattern of frustration." (p. 44) He muses that when we do, accidentally, run into a person who is healthy and not inclined to replicate our painful childhood wounds we find ourselves "rejecting [them] not because they are wrong but because they are a little too right-- in the sense of seeming somehow excessively balanced, mature, understanding and reliable-- given that, in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign and unearnt." (p. 44)
This is where in working with couples I think it is important to point out the opportunities of what might seem like an unfortunate union. For when we partner with this person who is inclined to hurt us in ways that are similar to our original caregivers we also open up the possibility that these new attachment figures (our partners) can HEAL those old wounds. This is the type of work promoted by Dr. Stan Tatkin in PACT. Dr. Tatkin explains why relationships are so "hard" in his brief Ted Talk and helps us to understand how the things we bring to our relationships-- our childhood wounds, our attachment styles, our nervous systems, can undermine our hopes for a perfect union. In working with couples using the PACT style I try to help partners heal each other's wounds from childhood, which has the nifty benefit of not only freeing up more resources in the now-healed-person but also creates immense gratitude, love and appreciation for the partner-who-healed. It's a beautiful gift that pays forward.
The characters of de Botton's book also experience the sad phenomenon pithily described as "if it's hysterical it's historical". Meaning, when you partner reacts hysterically (i.e. going WAY overboard) they are probably "triggered" into some childhood feeling being brought up by the present situation. This has the misfortune of causing a person to react like a lunatic given the current circumstances. When triggered by our spouse, de Botton says "we lose the ability to give people and things the benefit of the doubt; we swiftly and anxiously move towards the worst conclusions that the past once mandated." (p. 84) The spouse that is 20 minutes late is confused with the father who abandoned us; the wife who circles the room chatting with everyone while her husband is left at the punch bowl becomes the mother who never had time for him. And on and on. These are the circumstances that, if misunderstood, can tank a marriage. But often it takes a professional to help the two lost souls embroiled in these patterns to see what is really going on.
And much to my surprise in reading de Botton's book, his couple actually finds themselves in the office of an attachment-based couples therapist! I swear de Botton did not consult with me on this. Although if he had it's certainly what I would have recommended. And as has been my experience for the past decade of using PACT, de Botton's couple is able to heal what had previously been fodder for battles enumerable. They learn to see the wounded child inside of each other and minister to it. And their love grows immeasurably. It would sound like a fairy tale if I did not see this exact narrative play out so many times in my own practice. His couple learns that "Everyone is always impossible. We are a demented species." (p. 182) De Botton goes on to show us how "The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding the 'right' person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and peculiar. There cannot be lasting congruence. The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the 'right' person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn't be its pre-condition. " (p. 216).
It's a beautiful book with a real and honest look at marriage, warts and all. Some people ask me how you know if you are ready for marriage. My usual response is that no one can be ready for marriage because it calls you to be someone you are not yet ready to be. Your fullest, highest, most evolved self. But perhaps from now on I will recommend as an alternate answer that you are ready for marriage if you can read this book and still believe in love. If you can see it not as a tragedy but as a testament to the power of two people's desire to overcome who they were and become better people within the bonds of a partnership that will push their every button. If you can see that as love, then maybe you are ready.
Wishing you health and happiness in all of your connections,
Occasionally I get requests from writers to post on my blog. I find this flattering of course and am pleased to share a platform with anyone who is trying to help others. A while back Noah Smith reached out to me asking to share his writing on helping children with anxiety. As a mom of a son with OCD and social anxiety this issue is particularly close to my heart. I appreciate Noah taking time to write about it and am pleased to share his words here:
With the world in the state it’s in, it’s no wonder that children and teens are having a hard time coping with anxiety. Violent incidents captured on camera and shared on television and social media, cyber bullying, and the pressures (including peer pressure to use popular drugs) that come with school and relationships are just a few of the things kids deal with these days. No matter how hard you try as a parent to give your child a loving environment to grow in, sometimes there are things that are simply out of your control when it comes to their wellbeing.
For this reason, it’s important to help your child learn ways to work around feelings of anxiety and focus on positive thinking. This can help both of you when those feelings surface. Here are some of the best ways to help your child cope with anxiety and the stress that comes with it.
Don’t avoid situations
It might seem like the best idea is to have your child avoid situations that trigger his anxiety, but that might actually make things worse. Facing his fears is often the best way to learn how to cope with them, and the best way to do this is to be prepared. Help him picture the scenario that’s giving him worry and ask him to think of two ways he can handle it. For instance, if he’s anxious about being separated from you in a public place or missing the bus at school, have him come up with solutions so that if those things ever did happen, he’d have a plan.
No parent wants their child to worry or stress, but it’s important to validate your child’s feelings rather than simply telling him not to worry or be afraid. Let him know that it’s okay to have those worries sometimes and that no matter what happens, everything will be okay. It may also help to talk to your child about what you were afraid of when you were his age.
It might be helpful to do some research on anxiety and stress together. Talk about how being anxious makes your child feel and whether it affects him physically, as it can sometimes do. Feeling jittery, nauseous, or distracted are symptoms of anxiety but might not always be associated with it, and these things can affect your child’s performance at school or his ability to be social.
Learn coping techniques
There’s no one right way to deal with anxiety or negative thoughts, so it’s important to work through a few different techniques to see what works for your child. These can be anything from positive visualization to breathing exercises; if it helps your loved one get through those tough moments, encourage it. Remind him that those thoughts will come and go…”go” being the operative word.
If your child is having difficulty with eating or sleeping because of anxiety, help him find ways to relax. This might include taking a hot bath before bed, or finding different ways to eat meals rather than sticking to a routine. For instance, you might have a fun “carpet picnic” for dinner one night. Lay out a tablecloth or blanket in the living room and have a movie night, eat pizza or finger foods, and create a low-key atmosphere for the family.
Remember that anxiety is simply a feeling that can affect how we feel mentally and physically; it is not who we are. Help your child learn the best ways to cope with his own feelings of anxiety by keeping in mind that he is in control.
Author: Noah Smith
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-- Dr. Jordan
With divorce rates in some social strata continuing to rise and many of us bemoaning the loss of true intimacy in an age of Snapchat and Facebook, Bruce Feiler has found an unlikely source of inspiration to help us navigate the modern waters of love-- the bible. Yes, folks, that ancient text with all of the "begat"s and such. Feiler writes quite convincingly that Adam and Eve may have had it right from the very beginning. Stay together, even when the proverbial applesauce hits the fan. Even when it might look like one of you has made an uber-big mistake and put both of you in jeopardy. Even when one of you outpaces the other in knowledge, life experience or situation. Even when you get evicted from the only home you have ever known. Even when one of your offspring kills the other. Stay together. Learn, grow and circle your wagons when necessary. Don't give up on each other. Don't turn on one another in times of strife. Forgive each other.
Feiler makes some startling points. He says that the message of the story is not "disobeying God", it's "about obeying the larger message [of God], which is making the relationship work". God made these two to be companions for life. God calls upon them to "succeed...Go forth and multiply" according to Feiler. He argues that the only way Adam and Eve can do that is to continue to turn towards each other in hardship and, unlike so many of us in our baser moments, not vilify one's partner. To forgive the shortcomings of one's partner and re-commit to the relationship. He states that love is "not a choice we make once; it's a choice we make multiple times." Eve chooses to return to Adam after eating the fruit and Adam chooses not to reject her. They chose to make a new life together. They chose to stay together even after one of their children kills the other. They even chose to recommit to the marriage by having another child-- a sure sign that each believes in the relationship.
Feiler calls love "an act of imagination, an act of commitment and ultimately an act of love to re-choose someone after a difficult time." He adds, "That choice is much harder than the first." I can't think of a more poetic way to describe what it takes to succeed in marriage. To continue to re-choose at every turn. To doggedly, even when one's own hope is waning, re-choose to be "all in." This is what we mean when we talk about putting one's partner first in PACT. Protecting the "couple bubble" and nurturing it.
Many years ago I met an older couple who had been married several decades. As is my practice I asked "what's the secret?". The man replied "my wife is not the same person that I married all those years ago. She has changed many times, and each time I fall in love with the new version of herself." He smiled as though he were the luckiest man alive-- to have been able to love different versions of the same woman for nearly half of his life. I think most of us would hope to be so lucky. He continued to choose her. That's love. Not the easy kind of love you see in Hollywood or that we grew up with in our princess and prince charming fantasies. The real kind where you double down and recommit, knowing that come what may you have each other.
Wishing you health, happiness and connection in all of your relationships,
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,
PS If you have found this blog or the resources embedded in it helpful PLEASE consider sharing it with someone! You can "like" it on fb or "tweet" it or just forward the blog link to a friend. Also feel free to leave a comment and I will be happy to respond. Or you can email me via this website if you prefer a private conversation. Thanks for your support!
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!
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.