Relationships Moving in the Right Direction

So there I am standing in the hair products aisle at the store and I hear this tall rather stocky built African American man talking on his cell phone.  It turns out that he is looking at twenty different curling irons and his conversation goes something like this:  “Hi honey, I’m here looking at the curling irons and there are so many I’m not sure what I should be getting.”  (Other person talks)  “I just want to be sure I’m picking out the right one.”  (Other person talks)  “Uh Huh.  Ok. I got it.  I love you and will see you soon.”  I should add that all of this was said in the most loving and supportive tone. 

I looked to see if there was a ring on his finger and there was.  His respectful attitude very much reflected what I often observe of my daughter and her husband (together 15 years) on a regular basis.  Both children came from divorce families and I would say that sexism and stereotype expectations were an underlying factor in those divorces.  Something they do not indulge in.

If I were to predict the longevity of the couple in the hair product isle, it would be very favorable.  Listening to this man talk in such a loving tone to his partner was inspirational in believing, even though divorces have been going up since the 1970’s, divorces may just start going down with the younger generations.  For the most part previous generations tended to build their relationships out of need… the need to be financially supported… the need to be served.   Perhaps, this and future generations, will find more depth and authentic reasons to be together.  Just imagine the gifts that can come from such a union.

When I visit my daughter and her husband I am impressed with the reciprocity, the fair minded thinking, the respectful discussions, assertiveness, and apologies.  I have watched them over the years making sure that each is supported in living their career dream.  Their individuality is enhanced, which in turn enriches their relationship.

This hopeful direction that I am seeing young people go in would be a result of the push for women’s social, political, and economic equality.  Perhaps, Erich Fromm’s words on love will become the norm and we will see a new reason for two people to want to spend a lifetime together.

“Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says ‘I need you because I love you.’” —Erich Fromm

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Relationships: Soul Mates

I have seen several in my time. What I have observed about soul mates is that there is a palpable energy in the room when in the presence of that deeper committed connection between two people. This does not mean that the soul mate couple has an easy time of it. It does not mean that they do not have to face many of the same life struggles that others have. One couple, that left an indelible impression in my memory bank, was celebrating their thirtieth anniversary. These were two people who were teachers by trade and who also recovered from alcoholism together. Watching how they touched each other, looked at each other, seemed to communicate without saying a word, and the way they were clearly more conscious of each other than the rest of us left me in awe of what they managed to create in their lifetime.

From my observation it is an experience that only two people who choose over time to live in awareness of the wellness of their relationship… can grow into. Power struggling, that seems to be so prevalent in so many relationships, is minimal to absent and what is present is a respect and honoring of the other. Soul mates are not threatened by the influence of the other, so they are also more capable of making the best decisions for the partnership, the family, or for themselves as an individual.

Many couples mistake the feelings of infatuation, present in the beginning of all relationships, as being a sign that they are soul mates. While having those feelings is exciting; a true soul mate relationship takes time and is mindfully (consciously) cultivated by such choices as noticing and caring about your loved ones needs and desires as much as you pay attention to your own. It is bringing awareness, honesty, and responsibility to the partnership. When a partner makes a loving choice, even though they may not feel very loving, they are acting in the service of their relationship. They are acting towards a goal of eventually becoming soul mates. The truly successful couples, the ones that become soul mates, have a willingness to learn how to navigate through life’s ups and downs. When I have a couple come into my office and I hear them use the phrase; “I know a relationship takes work and I’m willing to do that work.” Then I know they have a very good start.

What acts of love have you given your partner today?

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Divorce, Dating, and PTSD

In following up with the last blog, I would like to add another factor that may well be involved with what is behind a lack of effort problem. What often goes unacknowledged is the trauma that can come with a divorce or a break-up. Trauma is an event or situation that causes great distress and disruption. This trauma can turn into what is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms typically start within three months of a traumatic event, and on occasion symptoms may not appear until years after the event. Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are generally grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal (hyper-arousal). While PTSD is usually associated with natural disasters, real physical danger, and war, it can be a side effect of a very stressful break-up.

Symptoms of intrusive memories may include: Flashbacks, reliving the traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time, upsetting dreams about the traumatic event.

Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing may include:
Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
Feeling emotionally numb
Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
Hopelessness about the future
Memory problems
Trouble concentrating
Difficulty maintaining close relationships

Symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal may include:
Irritability or anger
Overwhelming guilt or shame
Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much
Trouble sleeping
Being easily startled or frightened
Hearing or seeing things that aren’t there

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can come and go. You may have more post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms when things are stressful in general, or when you run into reminders of what you went through. In the case of divorce you may have what could have been a simple disagreement, or a request to be heard with a date, turn into a major fight due to PTSD symptoms of avoidance, shame, hyper-arousal, hearing things that weren’t said.

I, clearly, struggled with PTSD after my divorce. So much so that I could not even date a man with the same first name as his… avoidance. Time has helped to heal that wound, but now I find that I may date someone who has similarly been traumatized with his divorce and I may end up bumping up against his dysfunctional need to cope with hyper-arousal, avoidance, and/or anxiety. Unwittingly, recreating the very thing that he says he wants to avoid… a destructive fight. I have found when this happens that I can be thrown back into my earlier reactions from my divorce. This is not uncommon in the dating world.

So in summary, what may seem like lack of effort, in reality may be a disguise for the reactions associated with PTSD. The good news is that a problem like that can be successfully navigated through. If you believe yourself to be dating a very good person who would be very compatible with you then have a heart to heart about what you are struggling with and what you think he or she may be struggling with. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, you can recognize the discord for what it really is… a reaction to trauma. If you then can commit to the willingness to stay with the relationship then you will find yourself getting to the other side of trauma… communication can become what you hoped it would be, you can sustain a closeness, and eventually have that relationship you had longed for.

I cannot emphasize how helpful it can be to seek out a good counselor. Through their ability to listen, empathize, and give you an array of coping skills, you can become much less reactive to the symptoms of a traumatic break-up and get on sooner with the business of having a new and fulfilling relationship.

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Effort and Love

The other day I had a male friend talk with me about what he thought love may be, based on his observation of a certain couple we both know. He described this couple as reminding him of being like one would be with an old comfortable sweatshirt. They were relaxed, at ease, with each other. Mind you this couple is only two months old… hardly enough time for the relationship to have been tested. I tend to see love similar to what Ali Binazir wrote, “Love is the sustained ever deepening appreciation of another person over time.” And, yes, that appreciation could include the comfortableness of another. One quality that I absolutely know is an ingredient to the development of sustained appreciation of another person is… “effort”.

As I work with couples where at least one partner is ready to throw in the towel, I will remind them that they will not have the history with another that they have with the person sitting in front of them. They could also go years, maybe even decades, before they meet another person to whom they would want to partner with. If the environment is safe, but they have just found themselves quagmire in a lot of negativity with each other, then I have them rediscover what they appreciate about the other and go forward from there. It is a process that involves increasing that appreciation, improving communication, seeing each other with grace, feeling their bond, and practicing a new way of being with the other… and it often produces positive results.

Invariably, every successful couple will tell you that they work at it… they are willing to put in the effort. As I experience personally and see my single clients struggle with moving from one dating experience to the next I wonder how extensive this problem is where effort isn’t even on the radar. Invariably, even though conflict is a part of any healthy relationship, it seems, the dating experience ends because of a conflict that one or both people would rather run from than learn how to navigate through. Instead of opting for putting an effort into understanding each other and how to work through conflict, they appear instead to be satisfied with flitting from one relationship to the next. It makes me wonder if in this very short attention-span and throw-away society that we live, this same throw-away attitude with things has transferred to people. This problem may be exacerbated by the fact that with internet dating, there seems to be an endless supply of people to “date.”

So, if indeed, effort has become a rare commodity in a person how then does one know if one is dating someone with a desire to navigate as oppose to bail at the first sign of trouble. Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy answer for you. It seems it still comes down to waiting and seeing how a person responds when you have a disagreement or a bump in the road. Ask yourself if you and the other person have the capacity and willingness to talk out a problem, take ownership of your part, empathize, apologize, forgive, and respectfully assert yourself. I can tell you it is only through this “effort” that you will experience the gift of knowing love at a much deeper level that only time can give you.

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Blame No One

What a concept! Blame no one… but take responsibility for what has been created around you. This idea is very counter to what seems like a knee jerk reaction when things go wrong in our life. I recently have reaped great rewards from such a concept. Someone I was dating had abruptly broken up with me. There I sat… sad and confused, then I decided to apply this “blame no one” concept. I found myself in my most empathetic place. Seeing and feeling how he heard what I had said to him. I was in his shoes seeing me through his eyes. I was humbled and rightly apologized. That empathy must have come through. This in turn created a shift in him. Since I prefer talking about instead of jumping to breaking up, this was not a relationship that was to be. It does not, however, take away from this really powerful tool. You can practice this “blame no one” concept in all your relationships and see how they will improve. But for those of you that have found your life partner, I would encourage you to practice this idea on a regular basis. Until next time may you be ever so humbled.

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Being Whole

The other day I heard a minister state; Holiness is connected to Wholeness… the more whole one is the more holy they become. A fundamental teaching of the Bahá’í Faith is that men and women are equal. They teach that the achievement of the equality of the sexes is paramount to the unification of the planet and ultimate peace. I believe there is wisdom in this line of thinking. After all, do we not all start out in interaction and observance of a mother and father and are we not influenced by how they get along. In our culture we tend to exaggerate differences between the sexes which can wreak havoc on our growth towards wholeness and set the stage for competitiveness, within our most important relationships, instead of the desired cooperation which allows that relationship to last and thrive.

One problem with settling for being half a person is that often one partner starts to resent this stance. Especially, if in the ever evolving couple relationship, a change is brewing. Such as; the husband wants help with finances or the wife wanting more communication. Or, the wife is making more income, and a parent is required to be home so it makes sense for father to be home manager. Not being raised to value wholeness can leave resentment and jealousy creating undercurrents of obstacles in all these scenarios.

In our culture, with all the tough guy images, it can be particularly challenging for some men to acknowledge their vulnerabilities; thus, depriving them of their wholeness. Recently, a male friend shared that while driving his partner to the airport he realized how he has feelings of abandonment when she has to go away. He became aware that he has been handling it by starting a fight prior to getting her there. His awareness and insight was impressive to say the least. To admit to his vulnerable feelings now gives him power to do the self-talk, or whatever is needed, to not create unnecessary problems in his partnership. It makes him a better person, a more loving person, perhaps a more holy person.

As it stands today, too many males are taught aggressive solutions to their problems. With so many war toys, innumerable TV programs and movies with males toting guns, is it any wonder that boys will often turn to violent solutions to their problems? In the book Raising Cain, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson discuss the importance of raising our sons whole—with emotional awareness and a language to go with that awareness.

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Further Thoughts on Anger

The last time I wrote was a week before the Sandy Hook Connecticut massacre. That horrific tragedy got the best of me and I just found myself not able to blog. My feelings with the massacre were many… outraged, angry, horrified, grief stricken, helpless, deeply empathetic, numb. In my last blog I wrote about anger and this crime reflects what has been an ongoing frustration for me: Our male culture’s need to change. There seems to be little attention given to the fact that it is MALES that are going on shooting sprees in our schools. This detail should have us urgently addressing what is obviously a systemic problem in the cultural messages sent to our boys. Messages like “don’t feel, don’t express vulnerable feelings, be super human, disrespect anything female, value competition above cooperation, be tough, boys don’t nurture, don’t ask for help, etc. These messages that inundate the male culture act as an underlying influence that leads males to react so destructively in their desperate moment. Looking at gun control will not resolve this much deeper systemic issue.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (2001), boys between the ages of fifteen to nineteen are five times as likely to commit suicide as girls, and seven times as likely between the ages of twenty to twenty-four. Male violence against women does much more damage than female violence against men; women are much more likely to be injured than men. On average, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in this country every day. In 2000, 1,247 women were killed by an intimate partner. In 2000, intimate partner homicides accounted for 33.5 percent of the murders of women and less than four percent of the murders of men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief, Intimate Partner Violence, 1993-2001 (February 2003). According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States (2003), there were 490,000 violent crimes committed in 2001, and of those crimes, 84 percent were committed by males.

It is time to release our boys in this society from living in a narrowly defined box called “masculinity.” We need to treat the suppression of feelings that is promoted in the male culture as seriously as we treated the economic, social, and political oppression of women.

So in regards to the COW that I wrote about last time, you want to take a deep breath and notice where in your body the anger is felt. Do you start to clench your fist, does your heart beat faster, or do you get heated inside or something else? You want to recognize the sign that anger was being felt, then you want to slow down and take some deep breaths, own or acknowledge what you are feeling, then think about your choices. What else are you feeling? Is it a situation where you need to assert yourself? Is it something you can let go of? Is your anger reasonable? Unfortunately, for many men, most of their feelings get channeled through the emotion of anger and anger can be misused and abused. This kind of anger can be used to intimidate, control, feel morally superior to, retaliate, instead of the healthier and helpful expression of possibly feeling hurt, confused, insecure, offended, overwhelmed, etc. Vulnerable feelings that many men have learned to suppress often comes out in anger.

Men need to be empowered to the right to express a variety of feelings, including humility, hurt, sadness, nurturing, to name a few. It is through empathy that the two sexes can hold each other high. But it is only through the ability to be connected to our feelings that we can develop that empathy. We have much more in common in our humanity than we do differences due to our sex. So I have handled my frustration or anger about the male culture’s need to change by writing the book “Married to the Enemy” with Mark James. Mark gives an excellent account of what it was like for him to grow up male. I hope anyone who reads this blog will purchase one and pass it along.

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ANGER… The Misunderstood Emotion

Did you know that “anger” is considered one of nine adaptable emotions that help us survive? Anger, at its’ best is meant to assist in preserving our self. Without anger we would not stop the intruder who is about to hurt us or stop the relative that is verbally abusing our character. Anger is what tells our partner where we begin and they end or vice-a-versa. It is essential to the longevity and quality of a couple’s relationship.

Of course, how we express our “anger” is key to the health it can provide. I can call the relative names back, which will simply escalate more anger, or I can set a boundary with how I will be talked to. This is where an assertive “I” statement can be helpful; “John, I feel disrespected when you say my ideas are stupid, and if you continue to use words to put me down then this conversation will have to end. I would like you to have more of an open mind to my viewpoint… will you do that?” John may be using his “anger” to control the conversation and this would be one of many ways that we can misuse “anger.”

Some other examples of the misuse of anger are: when we try to pass shame from us onto someone else, enjoy the adrenaline rush, suppress or try to avoid anger, let it leak out on to unsuspecting victims, let it feed our hate or our self-righteousness, or react from a place of jealousy.

An acronym that I like to use, and suggest to clients, is the COW method of managing anger. First, we Capture the emotion, next we Own the emotion, then we decide What we would like to do with it. Next week, I’ll talk in more detail about this process. Meanwhile… take care of your “self.”

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Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving has left me full of gratitude… for my children, a new friend and his family, old friends, extended family, work colleagues, how abundantly my basic needs are met. With this appreciative feeling is a sincere desire to give something back. It’s a gratefulness that inspires a sense of obligation. Not a burdensome externally imposed obligation, but; a sense of indebtedness that is felt within to those who have supported, cared for, and provided gifts that have lent to making my life possible. This is the attitude that keeps my cup half full and then some. Did you feel something similar this Thanksgiving? Would you like to?

Think of a time that you hit a rough patch or survived what may have felt like a tsunami. Think back to the people that seemed to be sent your way only to re-ignite your faith and keep you from hopelessness. Who are those people in your life who deserve your gratitude for supporting you when you needed it most? The Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Albert Schweitzer, once said, “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”

Sometimes, in this consumer oriented culture we can get caught up in complaining about what we don’t have as oppose to what we do have. We may complain about the qualities not present in a person instead of appreciating all the gifts they do possess. People like to know they are appreciated, but did you know that expressing gratitude benefits not only the receiver but the one giving the thanks. Research demonstrates that authentic gratitude for what we have can increase our levels of well-being, happiness, energy, optimism, and empathy.

A helpful exercise to do to see your half empty cup become half full and then some is to keep a gratitude journal. Every day write down three to five things that you are grateful for on that particular day. Do this for a month and watch your spirits lift.

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What did you say?

Have you had times where you were in conversation with another only to realize you had only heard half of what they said… if that?  Often we are not hearing the other because we are busy thinking about what we are going to say next.  There is a tool that you can use to become a better listener.  It is called Active Listening; which simply means that you work to understand before being understood.  You listen actively by empathizing with a summary of what you heard them say.  Empathy includes repeating in your words what they said, looking for implied feelings and stating, “you seem to be feeling…, “  and you check in by asking, “did I hear you right?” Empathy means we are not thinking about our agenda, but taking a moment to step out of our egocentric space and into the life of the other.  It means we listen with a quiet and open mind.  Many an argument has been short circuited by this one simple but powerful tool.  When two people practice this in the couple relationship emotional intimacy will blossom.

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