Malcolm is a Pleasing Child. He has been pleasing since he was 4. He is now 42 going on 5. He has a lifestyle which appears to be dedicated to the pleasing of others. Beneath this facade there lies a darker reality. As a Pleaser, Malcolm doubts his worth as a person. He deems himself unworthy of being pleased. He sacrifices self-pleasing in favor of pleasing others who are worthier than himself. The Pleaser’s Lifestyle is one long good intention for others. He means well, but he doesn’t do well. He does not do what reality requires, he does what he requires in order to overcompensate for his self-contempt.
We say to ourselves, “He’s just doing that to get approval.” We content ourselves with this surface explanation, and we fail to ask the next obvious question: “Why does he need so much approval in the first place? Why isn’t he cured of this need when he gets it?” The answer is that the Pleaser is trying to solve a problem within himself that he doesn’t know how to solve. His solution cannot work. It does not relieve the pain of his self-contempt. Pleasing is the only trick he knows. He has to keep doing it.
As with most good intentions, pleasing behavior seems positive, but it is not. The Pleaser’s true goal is not to make people happy, it is to keep from displeasing them so that they will not beat him up after school. His sense of himself is so thin that a mere look of disdain is enough to unravel his fragile composure. A “dissatisfied customer” constitutes a threat to his existence. To displease is to court annihilation and that is unacceptable. His true purpose, then, is not positive, it is negative; it is the prevention of the bad things that happen to those who fail to be sufficiently pleasing. He doesn’t care about you, he cares about himself!
The Pleaser deceives himself into thinking that he is only being considerate of his fellow human beings by bringing a ray of sunshine into their lives. He has good intentions for others, without realizing that his good intentions are self-indulgent, counter-productive and ultimately self-destructive.
The Pleaser lacks the adult judgment that it takes to discriminate between appropriate pleasing and over-compensatory, inappropriate pleasing. He solves the problem by being pleasing all the time. It is hard work, but for him it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The Pleasing Lifestyle is a carryover of a childhood role into adulthood where it is inappropriate and counter-productive. Pleasers are afraid to give up this role because they do not know what will take its place. To them, this negative, paper thin role is better than no role at all. They do not realize that there is a more gratifying way to go through life than living to please others.
As a consequence of this ungratifying lifestyle, Pleasers are susceptible to feeling impotent, out of control, alienated, insecure, naive, trapped, immature, anxious, and depressed. These are all facets of self-contempt. The harder they try to relieve their distress in counter-productive ways, the worse they feel.
The Pleaser often plays the role of the Clown, the Entertainer. He makes himself the butt of his own jokes to show he “can take it.” People may wonder why he is “on” all the time. They think he’s having a swell time. He doesn’t really have any choice. He feels compelled to behave in accordance with his definition of himself as the Pleaser and his attitudes towards himself, other people and life. He is acting out a role in a script that nobody wrote.
As we have seen, Pleasers are not motivated by a genuine concern for the happiness of others. They have an ulterior motive, a hidden agenda of which they are only dimly aware. Their negative purpose in pleasing is to avoid being hurt by others. They prophesy victimization and disaster, and they feel that they can avert these disasters by placating those who have the power to hurt them. It’s the only hope they have. Unfortunately, these counter-productive attempts at pleasing often result in the fulfillment of their prophesies of abuse, rejection, abandonment and other forms of disaster. In the end, they stop trying. They “melt down,” they “burn out.” They have become discouraged.
Some Pleasers think that they can regain their vitality by going to the other extreme. Their motto becomes, “No More Mister Nice Guy.” The irony is that they weren’t a nice guy to begin with. The second wrong is that this phony role won’t work either.
Pleasing as Self-Indulgent Mischief: The Pleaser is convinced that his activities are other-directed and self-less. He is completely unaware of the self-indulgent, over-compensatory nature of his “pleasing” behavior.
The self-serving nature of the Pleaser’s activities becomes apparent when he is prevented from pleasing people his way. When the intended Pleased expresses a preference of his own, the would-be Pleaser experiences unpleasant, sometimes incapacitating conflicts On the one hand, he wants to please in order to avoid the unacceptable consequences of displeasing. On the other hand, he has his own notions as to how the Pleaser should be pleased; and his way is the right way! Thirdly, he dares not express his reservations openly for fear of displeasing his customer, and ruining the whole effect.
He must suppress his anger for fear of rejection or abandonment, which would invalidate his own worth as a person still further. He “solves” his dilemma by complying with the Pleasee’s request, but under silent protest. He does not perceive himself as “giving,” or as cooperating with his fellow human being. To the self-centered Pleaser, this accommodation is perceived as “submission’ to the “unreasonable” whims of his partner.
Mike is a Pleaser, too. He feels that he “knows” how people should be pleased; in fact, he knows how to please them even better than they know themselves! He knows what’s best for them. Since he does not experience himself as valid in his own right, he cannot appreciate the validity of his wife’s legitimate preferences. He discounts Marge’s preferences as “wrongheaded.” His preferences are right, and they are worthy to prevail.
Mike cannot stand to be wrong. He has to be right, even perfectly right. His agenda has nothing to do with his wife’s preferences in the real world. His agenda is to be right and not wrong. In his experience, wrongness is punished, and he has been avoiding wrongness all his life. When he says, “It’s the principle of the thing” to justify his nonsensical insistence, we say that he is just being stubborn. But why is he stubborn? What difference does it make whether they go to his movie pick or hers? The difference is that her pick is the “wrong” one because it isn’t his. His worth as a person is now at stake. If he is wrong, he will take it very personally, as if it were a reflection on his taste in movies. He would lose his shaky self-respect. His stubbornness is his way of maintaining his hidden agenda, which is preventing the invalidation of his worth as a person.
Antidotes To Pleasingness
A. His wife can try saying to him in a firm tone, “Mike, it would make me so happy to go see a movie. Won’t you do it for me?” This ploy distracts him from the phony issue of comparative film judgment. He may see an advantage to himself in making his wife happy for one evening.
B. Or, Mike’s wife might say, “It makes me angry when we always have to do things your way, whether it makes any sense or not. Now, you can go to your movie and I’ll go to mine and I’ll meet you at Barneys for a hot dog afterward.” This approach uses the wife’s legitimate anger to shock Mike out of his childish striving for superiority at her expense. It dispenses with the issue of which movie is “righter” than the other. Often, when Mike comes out of his shock, he goes to the movie with his wife because that wasn’t the issue anyway.
Gilda is a professional Pleaser. She wants to win both ways. She wants to relieve her own distress, and she wants a pat on the back from us for doing it. But because her misguided efforts are usually inappropriate and unrealistic, she very often fails to receive the recognition and approval that she requires to validate her shaky personhood. Instead, she often finds herself excluded from get-togethers, scorned by the very people she tries so hard to please.
She spends much of her life despising the ungrateful wretches upon whom she has had the misfortune to expend her energies and efforts. She finds her relationships to be a succession of such ungrateful wretches, one after the other. She has contempt for them and for the whole human race. But this contempt does not deter her from starting all over again when a new Pleasee moves into the building.
Not only is Gilda angry at the failure of her beneficiaries to recognize and appreciate her “goodness,” she is angry at herself. She is the “stupid” one for doing it over and over. She should “know better” by now. But she doesn’t. Since everything is her responsibility, her unhappiness must be “her fault” in the end. Since her goodness was unappreciated, she feels that it was all for nothing too. She feels worthless, angry at herself, and this anger turns into depression. Instead of relieving the pain of her self-contempt, her counter-productive, self-indulgent pleasing has only made it worse.
While driving down the highway in the fast lane, the person in front of you appears to have no idea what the fast lane means. After running all over town with the kids, you arrive home. They know they have rooms yet insist that the entire house is their closet and drop things wherever they please. It’s your birthday and your best friend gets you just what you needed, nothing. It seems that in these instances, the first reaction is to take things personally. As if what was done was intentional, a personal attack.
As odd as it sounds, we often think that there are many forces against us and we are innocent bystanders. I don’t agree. While there are some truly random events, much of what happens is our own doing. How we feel and react to the things going on around us will largely determine what happens to us. In the preceding examples, what makes us think that the things that happen to us are directed at us? Instead of reacting with a “How dare you!” we often react with a “How dare you do this to me!” The truth of the matter is that each person is really more concerned about themselves than they are others. It’s survival of the fittest. The person driving slow in front of me in traffic is more concerned about having a wide open lane ahead of them than they are with me getting past.
A lot of our life is spent worrying about what others may think or feel about us. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, we wouldn’t worry near as much about what others thought about us if we knew how seldom they did. When we are emotionally reactive to things in life, we give up our power to choose. If we take things personally, whether intended personally or not, our reaction intensifies. All of the sudden we have to defend ourselves, though many times a response is not warranted. Instead it would be better if we could learn the art of self-soothing. To be able to calm ourselves in the midst of emotional reactions opens a whole new range of responses.
We all have this ability. We are born with it. Just the other day, my 2 year old was climbing up on a toy in the house for the first time. As I watched her, she had a moment of pause just before she stood up tall and proud. In that moment of pause, she gathered herself and found the internal courage to stand. We do the same thing just before we honestly speak our mind, or address an issue with our spouse or kids. Self-soothing can be enhanced and used in all situations. And doing so gives you much more power over life’s circumstances.
To put this another way; you teach people how to treat you. If you feel that many people treat you wrong or take advantage of you, it only happens because you let them. Learning how to self-sooth, then stand up will produce a different outcome. This in turn will change the way others treat you. If you demand respect, trust, love, honor, comfort, or whatever, accept nothing less. Whenever you receive less than you expect, rather than taking it personally and reacting as such, calm yourself and address the issue. Either put yourself in their shoes and see it from their perspective or stand up and be honest, or both. If this honesty comes from both your mind and heart, it carries much more weight than just emotional reactivity.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Now I know you have been in this situation. You are involved in your daily tasks with your family or significant other and they say something in passing to you. While whatever they said was innocuous, your interpretation was anything but. So you storm out of the room or react with a verbal unleashing that would give any baseball coach in an argument with an umpire a run for his money. If the preceding hasn’t happened, maybe the following has. You are so deeply involved in your routine of life and work that when you come home after a long day, you simply co-exist with your spouse. You don’t even talk anymore. You’ve drifted apart and are living lives together under the same roof but miles apart.
A common belief regarding the cause of these examples is usually that the people involved are having trouble communicating. They would benefit from some communication training. Learning how to be assertive and use “I” messages properly. Nothing against these types of approaches, they are each good concepts to learn and incorporate within the right contexts. It is however my belief that within a committed relationship is not one of these contexts. Let me explain. As a foundation for this article, keep in mind that you cannot not communicate (pardon the double negative).
Everything we say; spoken and otherwise speaks volumes. Everything we don’t say speaks loudly as well. Research continues to confirm that around 93% of our communication resides in our body language and tone. How we say what we say speaks louder than what we say. The reverse is also true, how we say what we don’t say speaks louder than what we don’t say. I think I just confused myself. Maybe an example will bring about a little clarity. My wife comes in while I am watching a show on TV and begins a conversation (sorry if this is stereotypical). I now have a choice. I can turn off the show (or more likely hit pause on the Tivo) and respond to her invitation for a conversation. I can continue watching without saying a word. Or I can leave the show on and respond with the distraction of the show still in the background. She will react to whichever path I choose since she will read whatever I am saying by my reaction to her reaction and so forth. No wonder there are times when it seems communication is difficult.
The fact of the matter is, more often than not, communication problems are not the result of trouble understanding each other; it’s that we understand each other too well. In other words, the problem lies in me not liking what the other person is saying, and then reacting. When we react to the spike of emotion we get while interacting with another human, we often do so in an attempt to sooth ourselves.
Back to the previous example. If I do not pause the TV show and respond, or at the very least ask to have the conversation later, that can be interpreted as a threat to the status of our relationship. The message could be the show is more important than the conversation, and then the relationship, and then the family, and then the marriage, and ultimately then my wife. She may as well pack her bags and move out. I realize that is a bit overboard but it often starts that simply.
A majority of communication within a committed relationship in my opinion is covert. We are afraid to say what we really mean because we are afraid to take the “hit.” So we say it in code. We also interpret what we hear and see on our own without asking for clarity. Mainly because we may not want to know what the answer really is. We treat our significant other with kid gloves so as not to damage them. Incidentally, when exactly did I marry a person who is fragile? Why do I treat them as though they can’t handle what I truly think?
Conflict is not all bad. It is only through some conflict that value and rewards are increased. I hate to break it to you, but living a life that is more alive requires some work on your relationships, unless this life you envision is alone.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Have you ever wondered why there are times in life when it seems that you are simply coasting along? Throughout life, there are many tasks that must be undertaken in order to experience a life or relationship that is more alive. Granted there will be times when each of us may be bogged down with a particular event or stage in life (I have a 2 year old and a 3 month old in my house, needless to say, life right now is about them). Life has its natural ebbs and flows of emotion. But if you find yourself asking the preceding title question frequently, let me offer you some hope.
First, you are not alone. There are many, many people that have chosen to settle into their schedule driven life and have begun to believe that this is all there is for them and their loved ones. For many people, a routine life full of kid’s activities, homework, one week of family vacation per year, grocery lists, church meetings, carpool, etc. is enough for right now. What about later? When the kids are grown and out of the house (hopefully not boomeranging back). Have you planned that far in advance? Incidentally, did you know that the second most frequent period of relationships experiencing divorce is after the kids are out of the house? When you are forced to spend time with your spouse whom you may have avoided by “diving” into your kid’s life for all those years. You don’t have to wait that long (to change something, not get divorced).
Second, something can be done now that can begin the process of experiencing a life that is more fully alive. Experience a life full of passion, energy, love, adventure, and fun. It begins by asking yourself a series of simple questions: Would you want to be married to you? Would you want you as your father/mother? Would you want to work for you? Be friends with you? When we can honestly answer these questions, we have entered the beginnings of a life transforming process.
Far too often we want or expect those around us to change and accommodate us. We also may fall victim to the stagnating process of waiting for the other person to change before we respond. Let me explain by personalizing this. There have been times in my marriage when I have grown tired of the routine we have established of interacting, but I wait for my wife to do something different before I do. And to compound the issue, while I am waiting for her to read my mind, I get frustrated that she doesn’t respond fast enough or adequately to my unspoken expectations. Now I know how you may be responding to this; if she truly loved me and understood my needs, she should just know. If you are thinking this, you have fallen victim to the Hollywoodization of relationships. Just because you are in a marriage/committed relationship/close friendship/family does not mean that you cease to exist as an autonomous being. One with your own hopes and dreams and fantasies.
Having a life that is more fully alive, starts with you. By answering these questions honestly, you can begin to grow yourself into a better human. However, this does not come easily. This honest assessment of self and life is often accompanied by a spike in our levels of anxiety and discomfort. This is why we settle into the routine of life and don’t rock the boat. What I am proposing is that you have the willingness to stand up and address the things in your own life that get in the way of the life you want and in turn, take charge of your life and become more fully alive.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
There are aspects of men’s experiences that are particular to being male. In working with men, it is important for a counselor to understand the differences in men’s experiences, what men need, and how to best help them achieve their goals. For men, psychotherapy can promote success in careers and relationships by teaching better communication, interpersonal, and leadership skills. Therapy can improve men’s relationships in general, at home and at work, by fostering greater self-awareness, self-confidence, and empowerment.. Therapy can also help men with issues of mid-life crisis, affairs, anger management, fear of entrapment in relationships, sex addiction, performance anxiety, social anxiety, and difficulties in relationships with women, e.g., understanding what women want from them.
Men often experience common dilemmas in their relationships with women. In relationships, men frequently overestimate their ability to sacrifice themselves for their partner, often trying very hard to please their women and accommodate them to make them happy and to keep the peace. These efforts may seem to go unrecognized or unappreciated, and they may experience confusing complaints from their partner in spite of their efforts. This pattern typically leads to a build-up of resentment and hurt, which the man may not even be aware of, except through his partner’s persistent accusations, of which he may feel innocent. These feelings may take a disguised form, for example, forgetting, being late or unreliable, not following through on his word, tuning out, working late, becoming impotent or losing sexual desire, having an affair. Men can be helped with this issue in a number of ways. Through psychotherapy men can learn to better recognize and identify what they need and feel, which may be foreign to them since boys usually grow up in this society trained to suppress or be ashamed of most feelings (other than anger). Once they become more self-aware, they can learn ways to be more direct, but non-combative, in expressing their opinions, even opposing ones. As men learn to express themselves more directly with words, versus actions, passive-aggressive expression of anger or resentment through actions, is no longer necessary. This change often leads men to feel stronger and more effective. Also, therapy can teach men how to decipher the language of women, so that they can more easily understand why they get upset and how to more easily satisfy them without sacrificing themselves.
Another issue particular to men, and often misunderstood by women, is the importance of sex. For a man, sex is often at the core of how he feels loved, and loved as a man. Though women may need to feel close or loved in order to have sex, men experience the reverse: they need to have sex in order to feel loved. This difference can create conflict and misunderstanding in relationships especially during times of conflict when their partners do not want sex. At these times whatever conflict already exists now becomes compounded by the man feeling more rejected, unloved, and angry, even suspect that his partner is using sex (or the withholding of it) as a weapon. When these patterns develop, men often retreat in hurt and anger or escape the relationship by acting out. Therapy can help by increasing self-awareness, developing more effective ways to communicate, and providing an experience of being understood.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Have you ever found yourself in the middle of an argument and wondered, “how did I get here?” Have you ever wondered, “How do I get out of here?”
Couples that fight are invariably couples that are locked in a shame cycle. One of both of you learned that having needs meant you were weak, needy or somehow not okay. This may have been explicit or implicit. So instead of asking for help, support or understanding directly, you say or do something indirect. Instead of saying, I’m tired and I need help with the dishes, you leave them in the sink or say something like, “why is it always my job to do the dishes?” which puts your partner on the defensive.
When I counsel couples to speak from a more direct place, they often squirm. Saying, “Honey, I don’t feel like doing dishes, would you do them?” in a soft and gentle voice feels like a huge risk.
“He’s just going to say no, or tell me I’m being ridiculous.” I hear.
“Let’s try it,” I say, “and if his response is mean or defensive, maybe we can help him out.
“It doesn’t matter what I say. I’ve tried it every which way, and she always ends up pissed at me.” He says.
This is a very discouraged, tired and lonely couple, and their feelings are contagious. I can feel myself wanting to tell them both to just shut the f up and do what I say. Not particularly therapeutic. But I know that the feelings I’m having are not mine. I know that I am resonating with their experience, feeling what they are feeling.
“I wonder if either of you is wishing the other person would just shut up and listen to you?”
“Yes!” They both say in unison. And we finally have some common ground!
“So each of you is feeling the same thing!?” I ask, though it’s more observation than question.
“I guess,” one or the other offers tentatively.
“Where do you feel this wish in your body?” I ask the one who guesses.
“In my arms,” he says, pushing the air in front of him.
“And you?” I ask the other.
“Same,” she says, pushing the air too.
“Wow, so you are both feeling the same thing and your bodies are holding it in the same way. There is so much resonance between you!” They don’t respond. They are not ready to feel what they share.
“What are you pushing away?” I ask him.
If it stops there, she is left feeling like the bad guy. But I know he doesn’t want to push her away. They’ve been fighting like this for 15 years. If either wanted it to end, it would have ended by now.
“Yes, and what aspect of her are you pushing away.”
“Her not hearing me.”
“Yes, and what else?”
“Her not caring about me.”
“Yes, and what else?”
“Her not seeing that I’m a good guy.”
His voice has a little tremor, a little emotion in it. I look at her, and she is not seeing the vulnerability. She is lost in feeling criticized. I stay with him, but keep an eye on her.
“Stay with this experience, pushing away her not hearing, not caring, not seeing you. Where else have you felt this in your life?” I encourage.
“My father.” He says.
“Tell me about your father.”
“He always assumed the worst about me. When there was a mess in the house, he always came to me first and made me clean it up – even if it wasn’t my mess.”
“What did he look like when he made you clean up?”
“Mean, angry, fed up with me.”
“What did you want him to feel about you?”
“I wanted him to love me, to know that I loved him. I wanted his approval more than anything. I wanted him to be proud of me.” He is tearing up. His wife’s expression has softened.
“What are you seeing in her eyes now?” I ask, nudging him to look up at her.
His face stays downcast and he says, “She doesn’t care.” And in this moment, he could easily drive away the compassion she is feeling for him.
“That’s not what I’m seeing.” I say to him, but hoping that my words will help keep her from hardening again. “What I see is more like tenderness, (her face softens again) and I think it might be important for you to see that.”
He looks up, searching. She has heard me, and stays soft to him. “She looks… like she cares?” He says, surprised.
“Do you?” I ask her.
“Yes I care! I never saw him like this before. I mean, I knew his dad could be an ass, but he always seemed like he just rolled with it.”
“Like he was tough?” I ask.
“Yeah. He’s very tough.”
“How did you learn to be tough?” I ask him.
“I figured out pretty young that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted from him, so I just stopped caring.”
“What about you?” I turn to her, “How did you learn to be tough?” since she is too.
“For me, it was growing up with brothers. If I didn’t act tough, they would call me baby, tease me, pinch me, that kind of thing.”
“Toughness really protected both of you,” I say. And they both nod. “But now, you’re paying a price for that protection.” I continue, and they nod some more, each still looking in the other one’s eyes. “What do you really want to experience together?” I ask.
“Tenderness,” he says.
“Yeah. That would be good,” she says.
“And if you felt tenderness when you didn’t want to do the dishes, what would that sound like?” I ask.
“Babe, I’m wiped, could you do the dishes?” she says, looking tenderly at him.
“I’m wiped too. Maybe we could do them together?” he offers.
“How does this feel?” I ask.
“Better,” he says.
“Much better,” she agrees.
There are so many tiny moments when an argument can either spiral downward or upward. When we grow up shamed, we tend to look away right at the moment when our partner is offering a look of care or concern. Or we see the care and dismiss it, focusing on what feels more familiar – criticism, anger, detachment. If you fight a lot, I have a challenge for you. Can you find a moment of care or tenderness in your partner? If it’s hard to find there, can you offer a moment of care or tenderness and stay with it until he/she is able to see it and take it in? While it’s not easy (maybe not even possible) during a fight, could each of you commit to looking for these moments as often as possible when you’re not fighting? IfRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Everyone tells new parents how hard it’s going to be. But you can’t really know till you’re there yourself, sleep deprived, wanting to do your best at this very important job, and always feeling overwhelmed by the demands. This is an especially hard time for couples.
A lot of people who had great relationships before baby find themselves arguing more, feeling resentful of each other, feeling rejected or abandoned by their partner. If you’re coming into parenthood in your thirties or later, it may also be difficult to adjust to the changes in scheduling. One of you may have stopped working, and you’re feeling the financial pressure. You may not have the support of family or trusted friends and feel like you have to do it all yourself. If you both go back to work, then you may feel worried about childcare or guilty that you’re not with your child enough. And, while tending to the needs of this vulnerable, little person, it’s all too easy to neglect each other, not to mention yourselves.
It’s helpful to recognize that this transition comes with a lot of unexpected stresses. Often there are elements you could never have predicted. You or your spouse may have post-partum depression or anxiety. The baby may have difficulty feeding, sleeping, or some other distress you couldn’t anticipate. You may not have realized how childbirth and parenting would impact your sex life. You may feel resentful of the changes – but also guilty for feeling bad.
A lot of new parents have an idea that they have to pretend that everything is fine, even to themselves. Complaining may seem like you don’t love your child, or that you’re somehow not up to the task of parenthood. Sometimes couples don’t even talk to each other about these feelings, and neither one knows the other is going through the same thing. They end up feeling isolated. Or they fight about cleaning or money, not realizing that what they’re really feeling is lonely and overwhelmed.
If your relationship has suffered since the baby was born, it’s essential that you make some changes right away. When couples ignore problems, they tend to grow rather than to resolve. Talk to your partner gently about how you’re feeling. Don’t attack or criticize. Instead share how hard it is, how different from what you expected. Tell your partner that even though you seem angry or distant, really what you’re feeling is exhausted or overwhelmed. Tell him/her that even though you love your child, you miss the time you used to take for granted, time together and time for yourselves.
Sometimes these conversations are difficult to have on your own. It can feel scary or risky to open up and let yourself be so vulnerable. It may be hard to find the time without distractions to really listen to each other. Your partner may be too defensive to hear you. Or you might not know how to phrase things – so they come out wrong. It may just feel like there’s too much water under the bridge.
If you need assistance getting your relationship back on track, you might want to meet with a counselor who specializes in couples therapy – someone who has a lot of experience working with new parents. Therapy can help you clarify what each of you is feeling, wanting and needing. It’s a place where you can learn effective communication skills. In the process, many couples find a new sense of peace and equilibrium. They find it easier to turn to each other when the demands of parenting get overwhelming. They have more empathy and understanding for each other. They recognize that even though there are times when they can’t give each other what’s needed in the moment, there is still a deep bond of love, concern and friendship.
Couples who take care of their relationships live longer, happier lives and have happier, more secure kids. So don’t hesitate to get the help you need to strengthen your marriage.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Yesterday I sat with a couple who were so angry with each other and so hurt, they could barely speak. I know them well enough to know that they love each other deeply – so seeing them in this much pain was hard. Sitting with them, I felt my own heart tightening in my chest in response to the stuckness they each felt. When we are hurt, we naturally want to retreat or retaliate – it’s just a normal part of being human. But in our couple relationships, neither of these strategies leads to resolution. What we really need, is to soften, to find more understanding and compassion for ourselves and each other. But often, that’s the last thing we want to do.
I also know that they come from families where the adults had all the power and control. Their parents used anger and shame to intimidate them into “behaving.” When we grow up in families where there is anger – especially scary anger – and shame was used to control our behavior, we are more likely to dig in to the retreat/retaliate strategy. It’s what lets us feels safe. Revealing the hurt under the anger feels too vulnerable, weak or helpless. We feel like we are in a power struggle, and if we show softness, we will lose.
Yet, at the same time, digging in doesn’t feel good. It’s safer, yes. But it’s lonely. We don’t like feeling disconnected from our partner – our primary source of love, nurturing and care. When this happens we’re in a terrible bind. We can’t get the closeness we want, because it doesn’t feel safe. That’s where my clients were when they came to see me yesterday. Ouch.
So the goal of therapy, in my mind was to begin building little bridges between safety and closeness. I know that safety has to come first. So I started with the partner who seemed to be the least triggered/traumatized, in this case, the husband. We spent a long time just exploring the feelings and sensations he was noticing in his body, while his partner watched and listened.
He identified tension in his shoulders and neck, tightness in his jaw. These are the places where we naturally feel our anger. Our jaw muscles tense, at the ready to growl and bite. Our shoulders store energy in case we need to hit or punch. It’s our biology. I asked him to stay with the process of noticing. He became aware that his stomach was tight, usually a sign of anxiety/fear. He also felt a heaviness in his chest, a sign of sadness/hurt/longing.
As his awareness moved from the sensations of anger/protection to the more vulnerable sensations of fear and sadness, I checked in with his wife. “What are you noticing in your body, as you listen to him?” I asked. “All the same things,” she answered, describing similar sensations in her own body.
I knew this was a bridge, and I pointed it out to them. “Wow. So you guys have so much resonance with each other, even when you’re upset, you are feeling each other.” They agreed, making eye contact for the first time in the session (maybe the first time in days).
Each of their faces softened just a little. In their eyes was more of the hope and longing, and a little less of the stony coldness they had at the start of the session. I pointed that out too. “What are you seeing in his face now?” I asked.
“He looks a little sad, a little… less angry.”
“What is that like?” I asked, “to see him less angry?”
“It makes me less angry.”
I turned to him. “What is that like – to know that when you soften, she softens too?”
And so we began to move into an upward spiral. As they expressed more of their vulnerable feelings, what they saw was that they didn’t “lose” as they would have in childhood. When one partner saw the sadness, pain and fear in the other, he or she was moved to compassion. At the end of the session, they were holding each other and passing the tissues back and forth.
“But we won’t be able to do this at home!” They both shared, near the end of our time.
“That’s okay. I said.” Some little part of you knows that you have this in you, even if it’s not accessible right away. You’re building muscle. No one expects you to get it on the first try, or even the tenth try. Be patient with yourselves. Know that in the heat of the moment, you won’t be thinking straight. But after a fight, when you’ve calmed down a little, you may feel an urge to say to each other, I was feeling really hurt (or misunderstood, or criticized…) when we were fighting, and I didn’t know how to tell you. It’s always okay to repair the rift later on. In time, you’ll get better at doing repair sooner and sooner.”
Couples therapy isn’t just a place to air grievances and get advice. It can also be a sandbox where you get to try new things, notice more about yourself and your partner, and develop new ways of thinking and being with each other. If you get locked into anger with your partner, and you don’t know how to get out, if fights fizzle out but don’t lead to resolution and more understanding, if each fight erodes more and more trust and love, then it may feel really good to try therapy – especially with a therapist who understands the biology of attachment and the fundamental foundation of safety in relationships.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
It doesn’t matter how bright or well spoken you are, in the middle of an argument, your brain just doesn’t work that well. It’s how we’re built. Most couples don’t know how to argue, how to fight fair, how to express their frustration in a way that works – to get their needs met and feel relief and connection again.
Where we go wrong:
“You always… You never… You said… You should have… Why didn’t you…”
These all come across as accusations or criticism. They will automatically put your partner on the defensive, and instead of finding resolution, you’ll end up fighting about the last 10 things that pissed each of you off.
How to do it more effectively:
“I’m feeling really… (put an emotion here like sad, scared, frustrated, overwhelmed, stressed), and I need your help. I’d prefer (list something specific and do-able here like bring home a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs on your way home).”
DON’T fall into the trap of saying things like “I feel like you’re always… never… ” This is just a variation on the language that creates more problems. Similarly, DON’T follow up with, “and I need you to stop being so selfish… thoughtless… needy…” etc.
Practicing new ways of communicating is hard at first. These are old, ingrained patterns. There are usually underlying fears or old hurts that fuel chronic fights or cold silences. Don’t give up. Keep practicing new ways of communicating your needs in ways that are non-critical, non-shaming, non-accusing. It may take your partner a while to really hear you and come around. Don’t hesitate to get the help or support of a qualified therapist.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
It’s a common complaint, and not just among women. You have the most amazing time together. You make each other laugh. There’s passion – really great chemistry. But as soon as things turn serious, he/she acts all weird, goes to Vegas with friends and doesn’t call or return your calls. Or maybe he/she started talking commitment first – wondering what it would be like to move in together, offering you your own drawer or key or toothbrush-holder. But as you warmed up to the idea of getting serious, he/she backed off. Maybe this is a pattern you guys repeat together – hot and cold, up and down.
In my experience, when one person in a relationship has a fear of commitment, the other one does too – even if they’re not fully aware of the fear. It’s common to fear the thing we long for most. And in relationships, it’s not unusual for one person to play out the side that want’s closeness, while the other person plays out the side that’s afraid of it. Since you may have your own fears of commitment too, your partner’s distance keeps you safe too. Otherwise you would probably have ended the relationship and moved on.
Even if your partner doesn’t want to look at the deeper issues, you can. As you learn more about your internal conflict – wanting closeness, but not always feeling safe or comfortable having that closeness – you can begin to heal any past hurts that have made it hard to be vulnerable and open to someone. As those old hurts heal, you may find that your partner becomes more trusting too. Or you may discover that you are ready to let go of this relationship and be with someone who is able to make the commitment you long for.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
« Previous Entries