Dr. Keith Sanford, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor in Baylor’s department of psychology and neuroscience, College of Arts and Sciences, and his research team studied 105 college students in romantic relationships as they communicated through different arguments over an eight-week period. Sanford focused on how emotion changed within each person across episodes of relationship conflict. They found demonstrated links between different types of emotion, different types of underlying concern, and different types of perceived partner emotion.
Sanford distinguished between two types of negative emotion as “hard” and “soft.” “Hard” emotion is associated with asserting power, whereas “soft” emotion is associated with expressing vulnerability. Sanford’s research also identified a type of underlying concern as “perceived threat,” which involves a perception that one’s partner is being hostile, critical, blaming or controlling. Another type of concern is called “perceived neglect,” which involves a perception that one’s partner is failing to make a desired contribution or failing to demonstrate an ideal level of commitment or investment in the relationship.
Sanford said the results show that people perceive a threat to their control, power and status in the relationship when they observe an increase in partner hard emotion and they perceive partner neglect when they observe an increase in partner flat emotion or a decrease in partner soft emotion. Both perceived threat and perceived neglect, in turn, are associated with increases in one’s own hard and soft emotions, with the effects for perceived neglect being stronger than the effects for perceived threat.
“In other words, what you perceive your partner to be feeling influences different types of thoughts, feelings and reactions in yourself, whether what you perceive is actually correct,” Sanford said. “In a lot of ways, this study confirms scientifically what we would have expected. Previously, we did not actually know that these specific linkages existed, but they are clearly theoretically expected. If a person perceives the other as angry, they will perceive a threat so they will respond with a hard emotion like anger or blame. Likewise, if a person is perceived to be sad or vulnerable, they will perceive a neglect and will respond either flat or soft.”
The study appeared in the journal Personal Relationships.
Sanford said some of the most interesting results in the study pertain to a complex pattern of associations observed for soft emotion. As expected, partner soft emotion was associated with decreased concerns over neglect, whereas self soft emotion was associated with increased concerns over neglect. Sanford said this is consistent with the idea that soft emotion is a socially focused emotion, often triggered by attachment-related concerns, and that expressions of soft emotion signal one’s own desire and willingness to invest in a relationship.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
On a humid evening last September, Susan and James burst into my office looking like two high schoolers in the grip of a classroom giggle fit. Usually serious and reserved, James, 36, explained between chuckles that he had been telling Susan a story about his boss’s gaffe at a meeting earlier that day. Still giggling as she landed on the office sofa, 27-year-old Susan ran her fingers through her cropped, blond hair and tried to compose herself, then eyed her gleeful husband and began hooting all over again. After a bit more banter, I steered the conversation to the main order of business– the state of their six-year marriage. Susan began to recount an incident that had occurred a few days before, when James had volunteered Susan to drive his daughter to a birthday party so that his ex-wife wouldn’t be inconvenienced. “I felt used,” Susan said bluntly. So far, so good, I thought — she is simply stating her feelings. Then looking directly at her husband, she continued: “But what upset me even more was your reaction when you saw that I was unhappy. You started defending her!”
With these words, Susan’s voice began to shake and she ducked her head, starting at the flowered pattern of the Kleenex in her fist. When she looked up her eyes were narrowed and her face flushed a deep, mottled crimson. “You are so full of crap!” she spit out. “You’re too weak to stand up to her then you look at me as if I’m the one with the problem. God, what a sucker I am to stay with you!” James rolled his eyes and let out an exaggerated sigh. “You see what I have to deal with here?” he asked beseechingly. It was as though he had lit a match and was flicking it at his wife who was holding on to a gas can. “Oh, that’s good James!” sneered Susan. “Blame me again! This is classic. You’re such a fucking wimp!” James didn’t respond. In fact, I wasn’t even sure he had heard her. His whole body seemed to tense as he turned toward the window and stared with his mouth clenched. Though he sat very still, I could hear the strained sounds of his breathing. The relaxed, affable husband who had entered my office 10 minutes earlier had simply vanished.
I have often been struck by how swiftly and dramatically the moods of intimate partners can change in the midst of an interaction, as though some internal switch gets flipped that compels each partner to react in a particular, almost automatic way. In a previous session, James had jokingly called Susan “Sibyl,” noting that whenever she became deeply emotional, she “changed.” Like the incredible hulk she would transform from a loving and thoughtful woman to a raging beast, reacting with white-hot wrath. At times, that rage turned physical: during one particularly savage fight, she pushed James down causing him to hit his head on the coffee table.
In the past, they had gone to therapy and were taught new habits of thinking and behaving that they could call into play whenever conflict arose. They were coached to listen to each other attentively and give each other the benefit of the doubt. But over the years, their progress, like many couples, tended to be disturbingly short lived. Most couples therapy today concentrates on teaching partners to consciously think and act differently toward each other. This assumes that telling others how to make changes in their thinking and behavioral would short-circuit their emotions, promoting renewed intimacy and trust. But this assumes that your thinking, conscious brain is in charge of your emotions.
After all you may have been taught that what distinguishes homo sapiens from so-called “lower” animals, is the capacity to consciously reason before reacting. But what if the human brain isn’t actually wired that way? What if your neural circuitry programs are so fast and strong that you rage, cower and collapse in grief in a nanosecond, before you ever get a chance to fashion an “I” statement or otherwise think things through? With the help of modern technology, brain-imaging techniques can generate precise portraits of the brain in action. As a result, scientists have found that your brain actually favors intense emotions, not sweet reason. Thinking still counts, but not nearly as much as you’ve always assumed. So dogma shattering is this mounting evidence for the supremacy of the “emotion brain,” or more formally, the limbic brain, that some have called it a genuine “neuroscience revolution.” Your good at thinking, you learned logical cause and effect reasoning when you took math and science. But like Susan and James you have come are less skilled in emotional matters.
You, like most humans values rational thinking, cause and effect principles and logical conclusions to understand the events in your life. For centuries emotion has been looked down on as primitive and reason has been held as superior. Plato said, “We are prisoners of our feelings and that we should therefore hold fast to the sacred cord of reason lest we be lost.” Euripides declared, “Folly occurs only when desire conflicts with reason.” Aristotle argued, “Emotions have a logic of their own and must be understood on their own terms.” He asserted, “Emotions are not simply animal passions unleashed, but they are a complex part of our thinking.” Yet, research maintains the counter-intuitive position that feelings are crucial for rational decisions. Emotions point you in the proper direction, shining a spotlight on where logic can then be of best use. And in recent years, there has been an explosion of research, which indicates that, rational and emotional processes, rather than being natural adversaries function together.
One reason why reason is placed above emotions that is scientists have divided in to three layers. The bottom layer is called the reptilian or instinct brain, the middle layer is limbic or feeling brain, and the top layer is the neocortex or thinking brain. The bottom layer, the reptilian or instinctual brain, is in charge of your most basic functions such as digestion, breathing, and blood circulation. This area of the brain is source of the “fight or flight” responses to stress, and it is highly concerned with the survival instinct. The second layer, the limbic system or feeling brain, is the primary place for your emotions. This part of the brain also involves your appetite, sex, and senses. The neocortex is the top layer and is known as the thinking brain. This is where your logical thought occurs. Logic is what makes language and writing possible. This top layer allows you to see ahead and plan the future, which is something that no other animal can do.
The conventional view of how the brain processes information is highly appealing. People love to fantasize that the ability to plan gives them control over the world around them. America was founded on self-reliance, manifest destiny, personal freedom, and independence. These values reinforce the comforting theory that you are in charge of your decisions. This misguided approaches assumes information about the world is transmitted via your eyes, ears and other sensory organs to the thalamus, the brain’s central relay station. In turn, the information is shiped directly to the neocortex (thinking brain). There, the incoming signals are efficiently recognized, sorted and assigned meaning. Finally the information is ferried downstream to the limbic system (emotional brain) and triggers the appropriate visceral response. In this tidy, reassuring scenario, emotion is the dutiful servant of the rational brain. Thought proposes, emotion disposes. Thinking comes first and emotion goes last.
This 3 layer model was enormously helpful in showing that tissue below the thinking brain was not just filler to be neglected. However, most people came away from this model of a 3 layered brain with a hierarchal notion, which made the thinking brain the boss. It had been thought that each layer of the brain operates independently, one at a time. This outdated model implied that the feeling (limbic) brain, being the second layer, man purpose was to connect the thinking brain (neocortex) to the instinct (reptilian) brain. It is this hierarchical view, with the thinking brain on top, that explains why we emphasize the role of of reason and analysis. However, researchers have found that whether a brain structure is on the top or bottom, is visible on the surface or tucked out of sight, has no bearing on how the brain functions. The long held belief that the large cotrex of the human brain is what distinguished humans from other species, implies that your thinking brain (neocortex) is more evolved and the emotional brain, (limibic system) is equal to a lower, more animal instinct (reptilian). This is wrong. Researchers have found that the emotional and logical brain co-evolved and developed together. This is important because by developing together, the neocortex (thinking brain) and limibic systems (emotional brain) are connected, so one system has influenced the other.
You need emotions. You cannot simply turn off your emotions and live as a logical cyborg-like being. You could not exist solely with your rational mind. You would not know how to make decisions about food or music or movies, you would know what events are dangerous or even what to say without emotions. The brain centers involved in emotions are directly connected to the learning system. When they are activated, they automatically start the teaching circuits (chains of nerve cells). This happens when you gain knowledge of something seen as valuable because it carries some emotional weight that is personally relevant. This is why emotional events—your first day of school, the birth of child, a parent’s death—become so engraved in your memories. The brain’s ability to determine value and relevance creates a more flexible and intelligent human, whose behavior is unpredictable and creative.
Neurologists no longer accept that brain functions are isolated and operate individually, where one area is only responsible for one function. The idea of separating thinking and feeling into discrete work stations in the brain, which moves information along a conveyor belt, piecing it together one aspect at a time, has given way to the concept of simultaneous systems. To say the brain has simultaneous systems means that it can process information and emotions from many locations, all at once. Researchers have begun to understand that mental connections are distributed over several areas in the brain. The brain’s use of common structures for different functions is not an accident.
For example, think about how vision works. As soon as you look at any given object, your brain shatters it and simultaneously processes that neat image on your eye, to pick apart the different aspects of what is being seen. This visual information is interpreted in a variety of ways, using a diverse array of mental activity, all working at lightening speed to provide analysis. Each area examines a different facet of your visual experience. The job of analyzing color goes in one direction. The angles and parts that constitute shape go to another area of the brain. The space and distance of the object are processed in a third area. And so on.
So while the neocortex will remember what your ex-partner looks like, the jerk that dumped you for a new lover, the amygdala is responsible for the surge of fury that floods your body when you see someone who looks even vaguely like your former mate. And “vaguely” is the operative word here. For when the amygdala tries to judge whether a current situation is hazardous, it compares that situation with your collection of past emotionally charged events. If any key elements are even vaguely similar–the sound of a voice, the expression on a face–your emotional brain instantaneously lets loose its warning sirens and an accompanying emotional explosion.
The discovery of interconnected brain functions means you think and feel all at once. It had been assumed that thoughts and feelings were processed one at a time, all moving in one direction, like car moving in the same direction, going down a one way street. Yet it is now known that your emotion and logic are inter-connected, operating simultaneously. Like traffic going down a two way street, these messengers are being sent in two directions at the same time. In addition, it was once thought that the speed at which these messengers traveled was always constant. Yet, it is now known that you thoughts and feelings can move at different speeds, from very fast to very slow. Again like cars on the expressway, they travel in 2 directions and depending on the amount of traffic traveling, they can move quickly or slowly.
Neuroscientists have discovered that there is a supersonic express route to the brain’s emotional centers. This back alley in your mind appears to be reserved for emotional emergencies and bypasses the neocortex (thinking brain) entirely. This mean that information is routed from the thalamus or the ‘relay station’ directly to the amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped structure in the limbic system that has recently been identified as the brain’s emotional alarm center. The amygdala scans the information for potential danger: Is this bad? Could it hurt me? If the information registers as dangerous, the amygdala (emotional brain) broadcasts a distress signal to the entire brain, which in turn, triggers a cascade of physiological responses–from a rapid heart rate to jacked-up blood pressure to tense muscles to the release of the “fight or flight” hormones, like adrenaline. Within milliseconds, you explode with rage or freeze in fear, well before your thinking brain can even grasp what is happening, much less persuade you to take a few deep breaths and maintain your cool.
The impact of your emotional brain’s hair-trigger response is that during a highly toxic argument the body can become flooded by a virtual tidal wave of hormones. These hormones create physical changes, including a quickened heart rate stepped-up sweat production, and tensed-up muscles. The split-second nature of these changes indicates a cranial coup d-etat originating in the emotional brain (amygdala). And like most coups, this one can wreak ugly consequences. For researchers found that these classic bodily signs of intense emotions were highly correlated with specific kinds of behaviors (antagonism, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stone-walling).
This cranial takeover can occur because your neocortex (thinking brain) is simply out-matched by the competition from your amygdala (emotional brain). This race is not even close because emotion-laden paths are faster the logical signals. So your amygdala causes impulses to zoom down your neurological express route, what has been called the “fast track”, at the same time as the same data is being transported via the customary, well-trodden “local roads”, stopping at the neocortex (thinking brain) and limbic system (emotional brain). But because the shorter emotional pathway in your brain transmits signals twice as fast as the more roundabout route involving the neocortex, the thinking brain simply can’t intervene in time. So, by the time you are analyzing a situation, the damage has been done, you have already called your belated dinner partner an inconsiderate jerk, shrieked at your smart-mouthed child, snapped at your critical coworker or you simply shut down and are left shaking inside. To make matters worse, the emotional information will flood the neocortex (thinking brain), overwhelming your logic and judgment. As a result, your emotion-filled thoughts about the situation feel entirely accurate and justifiable. Whaddya mean, I’m overreacting?
What is going on? Well when emotions are involved in your decision making process there is such a great deal of certainty the brain automatically triggers your fight or flight response. This false alarm happens because the instinctual and feeling brains cannot distinguish what is real from what is imagined. And since the goal is to survive, there is an advantage to react first and think later. That is to say emotions are fast and efficient and logic is slower. Emotions provide you with a mechanism to work around the limitation of reasoning. The conclusion you come up with may not be the best, but they are often better than no conclusion. However since your emotions are often derived from your experiences, they tend to be often more accurate than not.
When a situation is perceived as an emotional emergency, the emotional brain (amygdala) lights up the entire body and the neocortex is suddenly seized. Many clinicians, including myself, have spent countless sessions trying to get fuming couples to engage in some kind of well-established communication techniques, such as “active listening,” only to watch the whole thing fly apart. For example, one partner says something seemingly reasonable like, “I feel that the kids don’t get enough of your attention”, which is perceived by the other as a poison arrow to the heart. “Screw that!” the listener shrieks, whereupon the partner flings back with “This is just so typical, isn’t it, you’re too narcissistic to even listen to me, always have been, what’s the damn use?” And in those moments, when the room is vibrating with fury and I feel more like a rookie referee at a mud-wrestling match than an insightful, educated professional, because my techniques are useless.
Perhaps counselors have hesitated to seriously confront the core tenets of this new, affective neuroscience because if they did, they might find out that they are heading down a hazardous road. For if your very brain circuits are primed to favor your most volatile emotions over reason, counselors may need to call into question the tilt toward models that rely on rational thought to engender change. As economic pressures spur clients to move increasingly toward ever briefer, more cognitive-oriented models, counselors may unwittingly be investing enormous energy in approaches that are, to a large extent, at odds with the brain’s most fundamental functions.
So where does the bad-news tale of emotional mayhem leave you? The trajectory of divorce originates with frequent, nasty arguments that eventually cause both partners to develop a hypersensitivity to each other. In this state, you react to your spouse automatically, like an animal conditioned to fear a shock whenever it sees the color red. This helps to explain those moments in my office, like when Susan and James were honestly struggling to think and behave differently, but simply can’t make the shift. I watched James trying to listen empathetically to his wife, but when Susan let him know that she is sick and tired of his behavior, bam! Before you can say “reframe that thought,” the emotional brain (amygdala) is sounding its sirens and suddenly he’s yelling that she’s the slob, not him, in fact, she’s let herself go big-time and is goddam fat! And as he’s shouting all this, his face is turning the color of boiled lobster, his heart is practically leaping out of his chest and he is sweating gallons.
In my experience, a sense of safety is the linchpin of change. For only when an individual no longer feels threatened by his or her partner, subjected to the terrifying prospect of abandonment–will the emotional brain (amygdala) shut off it internal alarm system. So, unlike therapeutic models that zero in immediately on changing thinking or behavior I don’t ask clients to change how they think about, or behave until they feel safe enough to interact in an honest way.
This is not to suggest that cognitive and behavioral strategies are insignificant in effective therapy. In my clinical work, the thinking brain (cortex) is an absolutely central player. The key difference between my approach and other models is that rather than using the thinking brain to try to dominate the emotional brain, I put it to work, helping the ancient amygdala to gradually relax its defense. To do anything less is to paddle against the instinctive stream.
As I sat with James and Susan in my office, I well knew that “helping the emotional brain to relax” was the last thing they had in mind. What was clear, however, was that each partner was far too stuck in his or her respective emotional path, Susan in rage, James in fear. Before any change could occur, each partner would need to honestly explore the feelings that had so violently seized them. Therefore, I responded, as I customarily do when couples encounter extremely “hot” emotional states, by calling a temporary time out. This allowed me to conduct some one-on-one emotional exploration.
Leaving Susan, I asked James to join me in a room down the hall. There, I suggested that if he was willing to explore his emotional experience a bit, he might be able to learn to respond to Susan in a way that helped her to treat him with understanding and support in return. He agreed to try, warning me, however, that emotions aren’t his “thing.” Like many men I work with, James had done a good job of numbing his body to the telltale, physiological signs of an emotional hijacking–the knotted muscles, the racing heart, the queasy stomach–and consequently, during his fights with Susan, he often had trouble knowing what he felt at all. His lifelong stance, he admitted, was to keep a “stiff upper lip” in the face of trouble. He saw no other options.
“Who taught you that?” I inquired. After a few moments of silence, he began to talk of his junior high football coach, whom he remembered as single-minded on forcing him and his teammates to perform endless calisthenics until their bodies screamed for relief. The coach would then march up to the player with the most tortured expression and get right in his face and shout: “What do you feel?” On cue, the player would yell back: “Nothing, sir!” to the loud cheers of his teammates. On one broiling afternoon on the football field, James heard those rousing cheers for himself, and he recalled how curiously proud he felt of his stoic denial for his own body’s inner turmoil. Shaking his head, he admitted: “I guess I learned the lesson well.” I assured him that it would be possible and necessary, to recognize his feelings.
I explained that the body was the voice of emotions, eloquently communicating critical information about your current emotional state. Tightened muscles and a sick sensation in the gut, for example, typically accompany fear, while rage is characterized by an increased heartbeat and body temperature. Learning to readily identify the “emergency” signals sent by the emotional brain via your bodily state is the first, crucial step. Studies suggest that the moment you become aware of your internal state, you activate the thinking brain (neocortex), which in turn, can begin to restrain your emotional response. I suggested to James that the next time he and Susan begin arguing, he simply try to notice any changes happening in his body.
At the next session, Susan and James came or rather sulked into my office. Susan was furious at James for forgetting to buy her flowers for their anniversary. James, already withdrawn, slumped sullenly into the corner of the sofa. As soon as I got the gist of their current conflict, James and I took off again for a private one on one. Before I had even closed the door, James reported that he was feeling an uncomfortable tightness both in his stomach and lower jaw, sensations he had noticed several times over the past week whenever Susan had become angry with him. At my suggestion, he checked his pulse rate and was stunned to find it had soared to 85 beats per minute, in contrast to his usual, resting rate of 68 beats per minute. In fact, this is to be expected. The dramatic jump in your heart rate during an intense emotion, closely mirrors that of animals in the “freeze” state after they sense danger from a predator in the wild and their fear systems have been stimulated.
James clenched-jaw, stone-walling response to Susan’s fury, had a distinctly frozen quality, which was not unlike a full-fledged fear response to an animal being hunted. I encouraged him to notice how his reactions seemed to kick in automatically, all at once, as if a part of him just took over. He replied that he had already noticed this happening a few days earlier, when Susan was ragging at him about the state of their finances. “I actually tried to respond to her, you know, say something sympathetic about the bad day I knew she’d had”. “But somewhere inside, I’d just gone cold.” I left James for the time being and walked two doors down the hall, to begin helping Susan to understand her rage response, with a particular throbbing sensation behind her temples, like as a desperate, love-hungry little kid who was frantically trying to get attention. The next step would be to help them with these inner experiences and consult about the possibility of letting down their respective guards.
At this point, those familiar with therapy may well be raising their collective eyebrows, thinking: This is couples work? My response is that while I do a lot of individual work with intimate partners, I am definitely doing couples therapy. In my experience, the hijacking of the emotional brain is so powered that for many couples, learning to regulate brain states is all but impossible in each other’s presence. Some are simply unable to calm down long enough to do the kind of quiet, deeply focused work that is necessary to allow an emotion to pass. Particularly early in therapy, each partner is far more likely to chronically trigger the other’s hyper aroused emotional brain than help to soothe it. This pattern may lead many couples to prematurely quit therapy, convinced that theirs is a “hopeless case.” Consequently, my customary modus operandi is to do a lot of individual work during the first several sessions, until each partner develops enough skill in managing their emotions to rejoin his or her partner. At that point, couples begin to practice making these shifts in “real time,” in the midst of authentic interactions.
Over the next several sessions, I continued helping Susan and James learn to become mindful of their unconscious automatic emotional reactions. The catch, of course, is that nobody wants to go first. By being more aware of the conditions that allow the brain to sufficiently relax its defenses, I hope to support my clients in making this leap out of defense and into understanding. To that end, I spent several sessions coaching James through conversations with his stonewalling “defender,” in an effort to help him feel safe enough to let down his guard. Progress was gradual and awkward. Then, toward the end of one particularly slow-moving session, I brought up how James’s typical response of sullen stonewalling to Susan had not managed to blunt her fury. He nodded, admitting that, in fact, his icy withdrawal seemed to aggravate his wife even more. I asked James: “what have you got to lose by trying something new, like reaching out to Susan?” This was a delicate moment, I was asking James to engage his thinking brain (neocortex) to entertain a new thought. With his hand on his stomach, James closed his eyes and focused his attention within. Perhaps 15 seconds passed before he opened his eyes and looked at me. “It’s okay,” he softly said. “You’re sure it’s okay?” I asked, pointing in the direction of his stomach. “Yeah, he’s okay,” nodded James. He looked relaxed and younger, somehow less defeated. He told me that in that moment he had acknowledged that shutting down had only gotten him a amplify dose of Susan’s rage, the terrifying experience of all out attack that had activated his defense system in the first place. If there were a better way to stave off these assaults, his guts told him, it would stand aside and open up to change. “I’m ready,” James said quietly.
Susan and I had been making steady progress in feeling safe enough to let her guard down and expose her intense yearning for love that hid behind her fury. Then one evening, Susan and James walked into my office in utter silence. They had had a vicious argument two days before and had barely spoken to each other since. The issue at hand was James’ relationship with his younger brother, Sam, and his sister-in-law, Claire, who lived only a few streets away from them. Susan had long felt resentful toward Sam, whom she felt took advantage of James’s helpful nature, but even more hostile toward Claire, a stunningly beautiful local fashion model. James denied feeling attracted to Claire. Susan did not believe him because one night she had seen James flipping through the pages of Claire’s modeling portfolio, which included some nude pictures. Susan was now furious because, on the first day of a recent, heavy snow-storm, James had called to say he was stopping to help Sam and Claire dig out their driveway before coming home to help Susan shovel so she could then go out to an evening yoga class. An hour later, when Susan walked the half-mile to her in-laws’ house to drag her husband home, she was infuriated to find James and Claire working in the driveway and laughing together, with Sam nowhere in sight. That evening Susan never made it to her yoga class, instead, she fumed hard and long at James, accusing him of caring more about his brother’s long legged, exotic-looking wife than about her.
As the session began, Susan warned that this was a horribly painful issue for her. As she began to recount the incident, she was breathing so hard and fast that I thought she might start hyperventilating. “James,” she managed between jagged breaths, “do you have any clue what you’re like when you get within sniffing distance of Claire?” I quickly looked at James, who had turned his gaze downward and was sitting frozen. I feared he was shifting into a full-scale shutdown. But after a long moment he looked up again at his wife. “Susan,” he began softly, “I don’t give a damn about Claire.” When Susan hooted bitterly at this, James shook his head in frustration. But he didn’t fold. “When Sam called me to help out, I just didn’t think,” he went on. “I should have.” When Susan turned away in disgust, James looked suddenly desperate. “Look, Susan,” he said pleadingly, “when you get mad at me like this, it’s awful.” She looked back at him, clearly surprised. “It makes me feel sick inside,” he admitted to her. “I feel kind of lost.” As Susan continued gazing at him, he touched her arm. “But whatever I did, I’m sorry I hurt you.”
At this, Susan’s face began to bend. “You did hurt me, James,” she cried out. Tears spilling down her cheeks, she jumped up and fled the room. For a moment, James looked stunned and disoriented, a tearful Susan was not what he had expected. Then he, too, abruptly rushed out into the hallway, where his wife was weeping. “God, Susan, I really didn’t know what a big deal this was to you,” I could hear him say. “Will you help me understand?” As she continued to sob, I stepped out into the hall in time to witness James enveloping his wife in a bear hug and whispering into her hair, “It’s you I want.”
It was a moment of great tenderness, an honest exchange of vulnerability and open-hearted understanding. Yet ultimately, the melting moment of bonding that I had just witnessed was not what made me feel optimistic about James’ and Susan’s future. For I knew that such jolting shots of connectedness, however real and deep, would inevitable fade and stinging misunderstandings would arise again. What encouraged me most was that in the midst of this highly charged interaction, James had demonstrated the ability to shift from a reaction of fearful withdrawal to a warmly empathetic state that, in turn, allowed Susan to shift from her own state of fury to one of sorrowful hurt. I knew that if they were to construct an intimate bond that could truly endure, they would need to continue the difficult and delicate work they had begun. Little by little, they were changing their brains and teaching themselves to trust.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
If you have been married for any length of time, it is likely that there have been times when passion and adventure waned. Routine and survival becomes the focus. It is also very likely that throughout the course of a marriage, the passion, adventure, and even the sex becomes routine and mechanical.
It is during these times that one or both spouses may begin to wonder what else they are missing. The eyes begin to wander. Conversation with a coworker or friend of the opposite sex may get too personal or slightly cross the line into the inappropriate. If this lingering around the line continues, an affair is likely to occur. While this affair may not be sexual or even physical, emotional affairs can still be devastating to a marriage.
Since an affair is often not really about the “other person” or even the sex but more about the adventure and the risk, what if you had an affair with your spouse? Add some risk and adventure to your relationship. Spice things up. Role play a bit. If there are two willing participants, go for it.
Feel free to take some liberty with this process in order to adapt it to your situation, and this should go without saying, but this is intended to be used with your spouse, not someone else.
The best way to start this affair is online. Send an email to your lover from a private email account. These can be created through yahoo or hotmail or many other services. Encourage your lover to create their own account as well, to be used exclusively for this relationship. Address the email to a pseudonym for your spouse. The initial email should be inviting and suggestive, but don’t move too quickly.
Part of the adventure and excitement is the wooing and enticing of your lover.
After the conversations have enticed and aroused the adventurous side of you and your spouse, an inconspicuous meeting for drinks or lunch would be arranged. This should occur during the day, either during lunch or when you can slip away from your job to meet your adventurer over coffee. The important thing is that you will meet with your lover and then return to your day. It is also important to keep a low profile with these meetings. Even though you are doing nothing wrong, in the spirit of the adventure, try to avoid being caught.
As the tryst continues to progress, be sure to keep the emails and the casual meetings coming. This will help in blending the affair into the marriage later.
As for the rest of the process, use your imagination and creativity. Here are a few ideas in order to keep adventure part of the process.
1.Never meet your lover for “affair sex” at your home. Part of the adventure is finding other places to hook up.
2.Agree to not discuss this part of the relationship at home.
3.Try to set up a regular schedule of “dates” with your lover.
4.Do what you can to meet your lover out of town once in a while.
5.Do not discuss your affair with anyone. At least until you and your spouse have incorporated the affair relationship into the marriage.
Enjoy the adventure. However, keep in mind that you will need to blend this part of your relationship back into your marriage.
First, when the affair has gone on for a while, have a discussion with your lover about their experience during this adventure and share yours. These feelings and thoughts can be incorporated into the marriage going forward. Have this discussion over dinner during a night out marking the end of the affair and the beginning of a newly designed marriage.
Second, this process most likely awakened some passion and adventure within yourself and your spouse. Find ways to keep this growing in you. Feel free to express these passions and adventurous thoughts in the marriage. This will allow for longer lasting passion.
And third, remember that you and your spouse are also lovers. Not just parents, employees/employers, housekeepers, landscapers, chauffeurs, roommates, cooks, and friends.
Marriage is the best place to be yourself, and also the riskiest. Go on, take the risk. You both may enjoy it!Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The simple fact is that for many while there are children in the home, the marriage relationship often seems to be thrown to the background. The schedule revolves around feedings, changing, bedtime, bath time, homework, and on it goes. It is inevitable that just when you think the kids are asleep, and you make a move with your spouse, the baby starts crying or your other child ends up standing at the foot of the bed. Passion wanes. Time for adventure disappears. It is, however, possible to capture time with your spouse before passion fades. Here are a few ideas:
1. Establish a schedule. This is not only great for the kids and their development; it also helps create time for each other. This could be done as simply as scheduling a weekly dinner or lunch date. A coffee break together. Or a regular sexual encounter together (scheduling this does not lessen the passion and heat despite the lack of spontaneity; you can be spontaneous during the encounter). By having something scheduled, you create room for anticipation.
2. Utilize babysitters or family members. There are many very capable teenagers out there interested in earning a little bit of money while you take your spouse out for the evening. The beauty of this option is the kids get someone new to play and interact with, while you get a break together. Be sure to plan out the evening away in order to ensure you don’t return home until after the kids are in bed asleep. That way, if the date has gone well, there will be the possibility of being invited in for an uninterrupted “nightcap.” To create a greater flow towards the end of the date, look for a babysitter that either drives or can get to and from your home easily. An even better option is to utilize family members that live nearby. It is amazing to me the number of couples I have met that have not had their kids stay over night with family members or friends. Not only do you and your spouse benefit from this time, your kids do as well. They experience an expanded range of people who love and care for them. This can set a foundation for greater self-confidence and growth as they develop. It also begins to create a village mindset in the raising of your children. The best thing about the family option is the likelihood that the kids would be out of the house the whole night.
3. Secret signals or code words. It is often difficult to have conversations that may lead to deeper more intimate connections when you are interrupted every five minutes by one kid tattling on the other or needing something from you for their homework or wardrobe. This can be overcome by creating another language or codes to use with each other. This language or code should be based on whatever you would be saying to each other if given the opportunity. If this type of language is not part of your normal dialogue, then it would need to be created all together. It could be as simple as lighting a candle that is centrally located in the home as a signal one of the parties is interested in an encounter. Whether the encounter is sexual or emotional is up to you. Or it could be as complex as learning a second language. How great of a motivation would it be if you were trying to woo your spouse in another language? And if your kids begin to understand the language, they would only discover more about the love and desire you have for your spouse. There are far worse things they probably already know about you.
4. Be a lover to your kid’s other parent. As your kids grow older, there is nothing wrong with informing them of your plans to be alone with your spouse. You don’t have to give all the details, but claim the time you want to spend with your spouse and let the kids know they are not invited to join or interrupt. When your spouse and the marriage are a priority, the kids benefit. In fact, research is now showing that when the marriage is the focus rather than the kids, it is better for the family. I have always believed that the best thing you can do for your kids is to love your spouse. Let them also appropriately see you love them as well. Hold hands, talk, hug, kiss, sit by each other, and cuddle in front of your kids. They may be jealous that they aren’t getting the attention, but in time, they’ll be glad you paved the way for their relationships.
Kids in the home present some obstacles to passion in marriage, but they aren’t the only reason passion wanes. By overcoming the hurdles of kids, you are faced with what else may be going on in the marriage. The kids can provide a buffer for a stale marriage. If that’s the case, more work will need to be done individually and relationally to address the other concerns. Marriage is work. But the things in life that require work are more valuable and more worth it.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
he other day I was approached by an acquaintance who was offering me a great opportunity to be a part of a great organization where a lot of money could be made with very little work. He got my name in passing and was good at following up leads. During his call to schedule a time to meet and discuss this opportunity further, I found myself in a dilemma. While this may indeed be a good option to explore further and the guy offering this was a new acquaintance, there was no way I was going to add anything more to my schedule, especially another job. So what to do?
A little into the call I simply told him “no”. I was not interested in adding anything more to my life. A few years ago I would have gone into even more of an explanation and justification of my answer in hopes to not hurt his feelings or our relationship. But I have discovered that the art of saying “no” is often enough in itself. No explanation is usually needed unless it is requested and the relationship is higher on the importance list.
Saying “no” is easy when it is a telephone solicitor or via email. As the degree of contact and the importance of the person rises, saying “no” is more difficult. However, it is important to be able to tell even the important people in life “no” if you hope to have more authority and power over your life. Being able to take charge of your life may mean that everything and everyone will not fit into your dreams and goals. It’s time to face the fact that some things and people are energy drainers. You dread the conversations with them when you meet in the hall at work. You see their name on the caller ID and your insides tighten, but you still answer the phone (even though your voicemail works fine).
Let’s begin to employ the art of saying “no” more frequently. For some of you that may mean this week you only tell two people “no”. Which would double your normal rate. Start small and work your way up. This week, when faced with something you really don’t want to do, say so. When given the wrong order at the restaurant, speak up. This is an easy way to learn how to say “no” which will increase the likelihood that you will be able to say it to more people, even those towards the top of the importance list.
Saying “no” allows you to stay on target with your values and goals. I do not recommend saying “no” just for the sake of saying “no”. Say it to take charge of your time. To take charge of your family. Your marriage. Your job. Your recreation. And say “no” without a long drawn out explanation, which often turns into excuses. Say “no” confidently. It will empower your spirit and your life!Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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 )
We hear what we expect to hear, we see what we expect to see. Our expectation changes our experience. If we walk into a meeting and expect it to be a long, drawn out process rivaled only by a root canal or preparing your taxes, more than likely it will not disappoint. At that same meeting, another member of the crowd may come with a more open mind and willingness to learn and think it is the most enlightening time they have ever spent. So what’s the difference? This same rule applies to our relationships. Our expectation changes our experience.
So where does our main model for relationships and communication come from? You probably guessed it, our parents; who received their patterns from their parents and so on. How they did and do relationships has an impact upon our own. Like it or not. If you had an affectionate relationship modeled by your parents, you will most likely carry the model forward or go to the other extreme so as to try and break the cycle, either way the influence is there. If your parents were good communicators when it came to the sticky topics; money, discipline/parenting styles, intimacy, then you most likely can handle the tension most people try to avoid when it comes to talking about some of the tough things in life. If this information gets you down, don’t worry. You can change the pattern if you choose. When you understand some of the forces at work in your relationships and life, you attain the possibility of being able to have your past no longer dictate your future.
When you shed some light on this process in your relationships it’s easy to see why our important relationships are so much work. There are two family systems fighting to gain control of this newly formed system. Coupled with the idea that we see what we expect to see and hear what we expect to hear, no wonder there are times of conflict in this relationship. Surprisingly, there are many people I have worked with that are shocked at this fact. Apparently they have held on to the fairy tale version of relationships for too long. Maybe you have too. Movies and TV portray relationships as an alluring time of romance, love, laughter and joy. You know what I mean, “and they all lived…”
If you can complete that sentence, you have had that illusion as well.
Now back to the initial question, what did you expect? The onus rests on our own shoulders to make the most out of this life. If you expect things to be tough today, most likely they will be. If you expect your marriage to be rocky, it will. I am not advocating that you don’t examine reality honestly, but more often than not, what we expect out of things becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. By changing your focus or outlook on things, other aspects of life will begin to change as well. Problems in life are inevitable, struggling is optional. Improve your ability to improvise, adapt and overcome will allow you to take charge of your life and harness more energy for your day. Rather than spending a lot of time trying to change the wind in your life, adjust your sails.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 )
Imagine you’re 42 and in pretty good shape.
You exercise several times a week, eat okay, and outside of the occasional cold, are healthy.
You’ve been married for over 15 years, have a couple of kids, nice house, and a good job.
One morning you wake up to find that you can no longer move your right arm. Everything else in your body feels fine, you even have feeling in your arm, you just can’t move it.
What would you do?
If you’re like most people, you’d schedule an appointment with your family doctor as soon as possible. You may even immediately head to the Emergency Room. You also would probably be fine going to several visits with various specialists in order to find out what’s going on with your arm.
You’d sit through tests, scans, waiting rooms, and be willing to take whatever prescribed medication the doctor’s recommend. You’d be willing to go to physical therapy several times per week until your arm was working properly.
The point is, you’d be willing to do almost whatever it took to have your body working well.
Now, answer me this: What makes it so many people don’t treat their marriage the same way?
If you wake up one morning and discover a problem (or finally admit to a problem’s existence), would you seek out help right away or hope the problem simply goes away on its own?
It seems many people hope for the latter.
Don’t believe me?
Research continues to show that couples wait an average of 6 years after a problem has become a problem before seeking out professional help. That’s 6 YEARS!
Imagine if we treated our bodies the same.
Imagine if we said to ourselves, “Oh well, I really don’t use my right arm all that much. Perhaps it will begin working again soon. I’ll just wait and see. In the meantime, honey, can you cut up my dinner for me?”
Marital problems and struggles are common to us all.
But they don’t have to be the end of the relationship, and you definitely don’t have to go through them on your own.
Seek out a marriage and family therapist. This is your best option.
If you don’t want to do that, open up to a close friend. Preferably as a couple to another couple, or if it’s just you, share your troubles with a good friend of the same gender.
Life is so much better when shared with others. Including our struggles.
Most of the time, when you share a struggle with a friend, you find out that they’ve experienced it as well. Plus, you get the burden lifted off your own shoulders a little.
Thanks to the technology of today’s world, you can find help regardless of where you live.
One last point: being brutally honest with you.
Seeking out professional help or opening up to friends around you is a whole lot cheaper than divorce.
10 sessions with a therapist = $200-$650ish (depending on insurance)
Talking to a good friend = Free, unless you pay for dinner or the coffee
Divorce= $???????, but a whole lot more than all the above options combined.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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