Tag Archives: divorce

Relationship question – Is it better to be wanted or needed?

 Is it better to be wanted or neededDear Justice,

I’m 21 and I’ve never been married. Reading your article “Why women leave men they love” and reading the comments just makes me never want to get married at all. I mean what’s the point anymore? It seems to me that in a modern day relationship we’re really just sexual objects for each other because once the passion dies everyone divorces and leaves each other for someone else who gives them this so called “passion.”

So riddle me this – I’ve read comments on here about how women don’t need men for this or that. Isn’t a relationship supposed to be something you can rely on each other for things? A marriage is also a cohabitation where people do what they can to help each other. I don’t see it as sexist if a man wants to work hard and provide for his family and the wife wants to be a stay at home mother and take care of the children. I feel this whole movement to have interchangeable “gender roles” is a major contributing factor in failed marriages in today’s time.

What’s the point of a marriage when you can do it all on your own and don’t need anyone right? I mean I don’t need you and you don’t need me so why even bother getting married or being together? So when I see people post these comments saying things along those lines, I feel as though it’s extremely arrogant and selfish because I believe that’s what a relationship is all about -relying on each other! And how people do this really doesn’t matter, but if you go into a relationship telling yourself you don’t need this person then you’re always going to treat the relationship as disposable. But what do I know I’m just young and naive.

Matthew

 

Dear Matthew,

I’m not sure that this polarization of needing/relying on each other in a marriage versus not needing/relying on each other actually exists in real life. Real relationships almost always contain elements of both, even if they are weighted more to one side or the other. I sometimes pose a question to my readers and clients, “Is it better to be needed or wanted in a relationship?” There isn’t a right or wrong answer. The question is meant to stimulate inquiry.

I’ll share something I’ve observed –
Spouses who don’t rely on each other economically or to fulfill religious or social obligations or gender roles stay together for an altogether different reason: They choose each other. This is an infinitely more complex arrangement, and in many ways it asks more of us.

This assumption of yours is interesting, and I’ve heard it echoed in one way or another many times, mostly from men who seem to be afraid or angry at the changing landscape of relationships “…if you go into a relationship telling yourself you don’t need this person then you’re always going to treat the relationship as disposable.”

Are you certain this is true? Are couples who are not bound together by necessity doomed to failure? Does being free to choose one another guarantee disregard?

Treating a relationship as “disposable” is only one of many possible outcomes in relationships where spouses actively choose each other more than they rely on each other. Consider – I have never once in my counselling practice encountered a person who treated their marriage or their spouse as disposable.

My position on the matter is this –
If disposability is the only imaginable outcome of relationships that are based more on choosing each other rather than needing each other, this is a call for more imagination, not for narrower relationship options.

As for passion, it comes and goes. Sex is one type of passion, and there are others. If dependence on your spouse is your guard against the inevitable ebb and flow of passion, sexual or otherwise, then you are probably in for trouble. If we understand passion as aliveness and engagement with life, then it takes on a new meaning and new importance. If it doesn’t breathe with aliveness and engagement with life, how can a marriage or relationship be anything but dead? (Unless it is sleeping or in deep coma, also possibilities.) Of course different people have different needs for passion (and different expressions of passion) at different times. A “good” marriage or relationship is perhaps one where these differences can be talked about, explored openly, respected, and not automatically used as evidence against each other or against the relationship. (We might even call this com-passion.)

At 21 years old, you’re asking good questions. A certain amount of naivete is appropriate at this age and indicates an open mind. See if you can keep an open mind even as you experience the inevitable relationship trials and tribulations ahead, marriage or no marriage.

Best wishes.

All my best,
Justice

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The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 3)

Conflict in relationships 2

Over the past two weeks we’ve looked at how two couples, Chris and Stephanie, Leila and Franz, reflexively use “conflict loops” to cover up deeper issues and temporarily provide functionality to relationships that threaten to collapse.

Today we look at what is risked and what is asked of us as we grow through these patterns.

I take the position that we are brilliantly complex and resourceful creatures who grow and strategize with and without the benefit of conscious awareness. In other words, our conflict loops can be a kind of training ground where we build resourcefulness and capacity for facing the truth of our lives. The conflict loop in a relationship continues, below awareness, until we’re ready to see it and to face the task that it asks of us.

Imagine building a scaffold for years in your unconscious. This scaffold is made to support the weight of an as yet unknown truth about your life, about who you are or who you are meant to become. Eventually this scaffold reaches up and out of your unconscious and into the light of day. You look down with amazement at this incredible support you’ve “unknowingly” been building for yourself. Our relationships, including the challenges, are part of this.

Here’s the crucial part to understand –

Recognizing our role in the relationship system, and then changing it, is inherently risky. It is likely to break the relationship, at least temporarily, and there is no guarantee it will be put together again. We feel the risk of this at some level even if we don’t quite acknowledge it, and so we continue the cycle until until we’ve built enough depth of character, enough resilience, enough maturity to risk breakage.

Until we’re ready to confront our own dark fears (and desires) in relationship, we will continue to feel “stuck” in our own particular conflict loops.

People may come to counselling when they are ready to risk breaking the relationship… “I’m at the end of my rope. I’ve tried everything.” As Anais Nin puts it “…the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  What Anais Nin doesn’t say is that we can not know what blossoming will look like until we have risked breaking.

The breaking that we risk likely goes far deeper than the hot-button issue we face in our relationship. We end up facing patterns of avoidance, bullying tendencies, self-esteem issues or whichever life themes we’ve grown up with. Breaking our relationship system is one way to bring us to the heart of the most definitive themes in our lives. This is why the tension we feel as we simultaneously grow toward blossoming and feel the pain of breakage is so significant. Much is at stake.

In some cases entire life strategies may be crumbling. In this regard we face an initiation, a new beginning born from an impending ending. No wonder we remain stuck for so long – A huge amount of ripening and preparation is going on beneath the surface.

Even as you work to support your own awareness and insight through reading, self study, therapy etc, consider that this ripening has a life and intelligence of its own. Supporting our own ripening means being present to the tension without necessarily struggling to resolve it. Pushing for resolution too quickly can easily dig us more deeply into more conflict, more confusion. The insights we seek often reveal themselves to us only after we have exhausted ourselves. Part of our exhaustion comes from seeking answers, part comes from defending the position we’ve come to depend on. This is yet another face of that tension between blossoming and breaking.

This is difficult territory to navigate. In this short series we’ve looked through the lens of relationship systems, getting some insight into the functions that conflict provides. Let the stories of the couples in these articles sit with you. See if you can feel the tension these couples feel. Notice what the tension of your own blossoming and breaking feels like. Is there any sense of initiation in the feelings? What have you been protecting? What have you been unwilling to risk? Honesty? Feeling too much? Loss? Being wrong? Desire? Grief?

What wants to blossom –
Responsibility? Truth? Integrity? Surrender? Something else?

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The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 2)

Conflict in relationships 2

Last week we learned how Chris and Stephanie used their conflict loop to (temporarily) protect their relationship and avoid facing their deeper issues.

Franz and Leila have a different but similar loop.
Here’s what became apparent in our sessions –

Leila is plagued with anxiety. She constantly feels an inner struggle between her rational self and her emotional self. (This struggle is painful, but I believe critically important.)

As Leila struggles with her own internal dilemma, Franz steps in and gives voice to one side of Leila’s struggle. The rational side. Franz is in the habit of representing the rational side of every issue.

Watch what happens next –

The moment that Franz embodies the rational voice of Leila’s internal struggle, she gets some relief from her own dilemma. Suddenly Leila no longer has an internal struggle. She has an external struggle, and an enemy in Franz. Turning against Franz feels bad, but not as bad as endlessly turning against her self.

An example –
Leila works full time at a very stressful job and feels guilty about not spending enough time with their infant son. Their current childcare is not sustainable. Leila is thinking about preschool, but has mixed feelings. She struggles with her familiar internal dilemma. Franz sees her struggle and steps in with his own opinion, which is always the rational point of view.

“Think about it Leila, preschool is the only logical solution.”

Leila reflexively snaps at Franz and accuses him of being cold. The internal struggle that Leila was facing has now been externalized, and Leila no longer has to feel her dilemma. She can now project the criticism that she had for herself out onto Franz. This is their loop. It’s incredibly functional.

Franz, for his part, gets to be the logical one, which is important for his identity. He manages to continue avoiding feeling too much, a holdover from a strategy he learned early on in his family life. He also plays the unlikely role of rescuer for Leila, temporarily saving her from the endless conflict she faces in herself, and from the anxiety this inner conflict creates in her.

Franz is essentially fearful that Leila cannot handle her internal turmoil, that she might crack, and so he rescues her from herself. The resulting relationship conflict is painful, but apparently preferable to the fear of watching Leila implode.

At some level Leila is aware of the role Franz plays. If Franz waits too long to step in, her internal anxiety becomes unmanageable and she baits him with “What do you think?”. And the pattern plays out again. Functional.

As long as Franz takes on the voice of reason, Leila is spared the task of confronting her own dilemmas. Coming to terms with contradictory impulses, values, and desires is an important task we all face. But it’s hard work that we unconsciously protect ourselves from doing until we’re ready.

In session, I explain that Franz’s task in this case is to hold back on offering his opinion to create some space where Leila can wrestle with her own struggles. I assure them I am not asking Franz to withdraw. On the contrary, I want him to be exquisitely present, to slow down the process enough that he can pinpoint the moment where he gives in to his own anxiety and responds habitually. From that precise point, new possibilities emerge.

Leila and Franz were initially intimidated by the implications of these insights, which isn’t surprising, given the enormous function that their conflict loop has been fulfilling, but they’ve been willing to stretch themselves and experiment with what they’ve learned.

Next week we’ll tie the pieces together and look at what is risked, and what is required, to change these deeply embedded patterns and open a new chapter of relationship.

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The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 1)

It was deja-vu. Chris and Stephanie were arguing about dishes. Again. Her tolerance for a messy house was lower than ever since the baby came. His tolerance for being nagged or pushed was just as low. And so they bickered in circles. Tempers flared, ultimatums were declared and a familiar pattern played out until they both collapsed, each feeling isolated and exhausted. The whole thing would likely repeat tomorrow.

Repeating painful relationship patterns hurts. It makes us feel broken, hopeless. We wonder – Isn’t life hard enough with kids, dirty laundry, sexual frustration and work stress? What’s wrong with us? Why are we so dysfunctional?!

I’ve come to believe that our familiar patterns of conflict, far from being dysfunctional, actually have crucial functions to fulfill in the relationship, at least for a time.

After a few sessions with Stephanie and Chris, a pattern emerged –

Stephanie would launch into a complaint or grievance. Then before she could finish her thought, Chris would interrupt her and begin playing devil’s advocate, analyzing and reframing her experience. Specifically, he would emphasize their accomplishments or goals, putting a positive spin on the issue, or defending his actions –

“Yes, yes, yes, but you have to agree that we’ve gotten better.”

Every time? Really? Don’t you think that’s a bit of an exaggeration? Just the other day you said…”

Again and again Chris would hijack Stephanie’s thought mid-sentence. Even though we were working on the phone, I began to viscerally feel his anxiety and his need to manage (and effectively minimize) her experience. There was a sense of constant interruption, not just of the conversation, but of a deeper process that was trying to happen.

Stephanie and Chris were repeating their loop of criticism and defensiveness because it allowed each of them to avoid this deeper process for a little longer.

As we continued counselling it became clear that Stephanie was being confronted with the possibility that her husband would never meet her expectations. With a young child to raise, this was a terrifying prospect. Chris was being confronted with the flipside – The possibility that Stephanie would leave because he did not fulfill her expectations. “Not good enough” was the story of his childhood and the shadow that he avoided in his adult life.

These two underlying issues were creating enormous anxiety in each of them. Their conflict loop would allow them to discharge enough of this anxiety to remain relatively functional while continuing to avoid confronting their core issue.

Stephanie would focus on Chris’s minor daily infractions rather than addressing her own serious doubt about the relationship (facing the depth of her doubt might ultimately require her to make the difficult choice to either end the relationship or learn to accept Chris as he is – equally unappealing options). Chris would deflect and minimize Stephanie’s criticisms because he could intuit where they were potentially headed… ie – to his ultimate rejection and termination as partner. Chris had plenty of motivation to interrupt this process at every opportunity! Stephanie and Chris would unconsciously collude in seemingly pointless bickering so they could each avoid facing these most difficult aspects of their lives together.

Many couples find themselves stuck in conflict loops with similar functions – to avoid the deeper process that is lurking underneath. (By the way, I don’t pretend to always know what this deeper process is, or where it will lead. I only know that it wants attention.)

Next week we’ll look at the experience of Franz and Leila, another couple playing out relationship conflict with a surprising function.
Then in week three we’ll tie the pieces together and look more deeply at what is risked, and what is required to change these “functional” conflict patterns.

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“Mating in Captivity – Have you read it?”

A reader asks Have you read Esther Perel’s book Mating in Captivity?

Dear Justice,

I really like the articles you share on your facebook page and on your website. I’m wondering if you have read the book Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel and if so, what do you think of it?

Mating-In-CaptivityMy response –

Esther Perel’s book Mating in Captivity has been recommended to me often enough that I picked up a copy recently and gave it a speed read. Here are my initial thoughts –

Perel’s observations and experiences mostly match my own, professionally and personally. Early in the book Perel gives nods to both David Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage and Mark Epstein’s lesser known and wonderful book Open To Desire. Her influences are my influences, and so I quickly felt resonance.

I appreciate how she respects the tension between the two poles of desire that commonly define relationships – the desire for security/safety and the desire for excitement/freedom. Rather than offer some easy solution to this dilemma, she invites the reader to sit in the uncomfortable paradox of wanting two seemingly contradictory experiences. This feels like a wise and respectful approach, and one that I employ in my own practice.

Her legitimization of the underlying impulses that drive extra-marital affairs, namely the desire for “aliveness”, will certainly be mistaken for advocacy by those who can’t discern between descriptive and prescriptive voices. Likewise, her willingness to explore kink/bdsm without pathologizing it, and to explore eroticism outside the marriage unit, including consensual non-monogamy, will likely confuse or offend those with fundamentalist ideologies.

Perel gives voice to the elephants in the room. Her truths suddenly seem obvious upon reading, and one wonders how they escaped recognition until now. (The answer likely has to do with the power of taboo and with our unexamined assumptions about sex and love.)

Mating in Captivity acknowledges traditional gender roles and the ways they have shaped our beliefs about marriage and relationship, while offering thoroughly realistic current assessments of how these roles are becoming fluid matters of choice rather than matters of inherited social convention.

Perel’s cross-cultural (and sub-cultural) points of view challenge core American beliefs about the nature of romance, marriage, and intimacy; beliefs that couples therapy as an institution has, itself, largely internalized. For example, you’ll find nothing about “emotional cheating” in this book. In fact, acknowledging and working with the presence of “the third” (whether real, metaphorical or fantasy) is presented as a valuable erotic tool for couples.

In a cultural environment where marriage is expected to become an increasingly serious, responsible, secure and, frankly, non-erotic venture, intentionally nurturing eroticism in the home becomes, as Perel puts it, “an open act of defiance.” Accordingly, Mating in Captivity speaks to those who have a defiant streak.

I’m grateful for the author’s contribution, and the book has earned a place on my shelf alongside Sex at Dawn and the aforementioned Passionate Marriage. For readers struggling with affairs, the loss of eroticism, waning desire, sexual shame, disconnection or other common relationship issues, Mating In Captivity will be a beacon of illumination and hope, while also posing significant challenges to the ways we are accustomed to thinking about fidelity, love, sex and marriage.

All My Best,
Justice

PS – My partner liked the book a lot!

Have you read Mating in Captivity? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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“Why is it that men are always responsible for what women do or think? Do women have any responsibility to correct their own misbehavior?”

Why is it that men are always responsible for what women do or think? Do women have any responsibility to correct their own misbehavior?

A male reader asks about women’s responsibility in marriage –

I just finished reading your article on “Why women leave men they love”, and I have a major question. Why is it that men are always responsible for what women do or think? Do women have any responsibility to correct their own misbehavior?

I raise some ancillary questions. Why are most women incapable of recognizing their own failures? Whatever happened to women accepting their responsibilities? Whatever happened to “for better or worse,” or “forsaking all others,” or “in sickness and in health”? Women seem to have a very difficult time with loyalty or fidelity. It seems to me that a major element in their makeup is narcissism. Is there, anymore, any moral dimension or constraint that married women accept with regard to marriage?

It will be interesting to read what a post-modern marriage counselor has to say.

Thank you!

My response –

The content of your letter appears to be founded on certain beliefs. I hear these beliefs as something like this – “Lifelong marriage as an institution is intrinsically right and natural. Remaining married in spite of changes in circumstances and personal values is the goal and the moral imperative. People who can not or do not remain married despite their unhappiness in marriage are flawed. These people are mostly women.”

While I do not personally share these beliefs, as a counsellor I am accustomed to working effectively and compassionately within a variety of belief systems.

The term “post-modern” implies a deconstruction of meaning, and aptly describes the state of marriage and relationships for many men and women today. Not long ago we remained bound to social structures that dictated the terms of marriage and relationships. Today many people are re-assessing these institutions, along with the “moral dimension or constraint” that you ask about.

Women especially have been deconstructing their roles and exercising the new choices they have in post-modern relationships. I’m not at all convinced that women cheat more than men, although perhaps the double standard on fidelity is crumbling and so women are becoming more free to do what has previously been a male privilege.

As for recognizing one’s failures, this appears to be difficult for many of us, men and women alike; perhaps because the social, family, or internal consequence of failing has been so punitive. It requires a certain kind of maturity to confront our own failure. This maturity, for men and for women, is mostly discouraged in our culture. The very notion of failure (and success) is rooted in a system that rewards winners, punishes losers and fails to see the value of those experiences unconcerned with either.

In my practice I see many women and men struggling to preserve a marriage in challenging times because they value it, and each other, to the depths of their soul. I also see women and men make themselves literally sick or insane from the misery of staying in a marriage that they don’t want, that they have rejected but cling to for a variety of reasons. But mostly I see women and men trying to make sense of themselves and each other in a world where old rules no longer fully apply.

Many men are hurt and confused as women challenge conventional views of manhood, womanhood, family, marriage, sex and relationships. I get numerous messages from men that essentially say some version of this – “I work at a job I hate to provide for my family. I’m loyal. I make sacrifices. My wife has a duty to loyalty and sacrifice as well.” And so there is rage and bewilderment when a wife chooses loyalty to herself and leaves a marriage rather than continuing to sacrifice according to terms set by others.

If men are feeling comfortable and secure (or just sufficiently trapped) in their own dutiful sacrificial role, then they are probably going to forgo taking the life journey that may be calling. This causes additional stress, internal conflict and resentment. These men will see women who choose to take their own journey at the cost of their marriage as narcissistic and irresponsible.

It’s up to each of us to determine what sacrifice means, its role in our lives, and what an acceptable level of sacrifice might be. Sacrifice can be an important task that calls us to develop maturity, and it can be a tool of oppression that we use to crush ourselves and each other. My job is to help people discern these differences for themselves.

As a post-modern counsellor (thank you for that term) I help people uncover or assign suitable meaning to life experiences in a world that has been, with mixed results, largely stripped of it. If I took for granted the “naturalness” and moral superiority of conventional marriage, with its views on fidelity, loyalty and responsibility I would impart this bias into my client relationships, which is precisely what many marriage counsellors do.

Who am I to say that someone is bound to remain in relationship with someone else for their entire life because they made an extreme but socially encouraged pact when they were twenty years old? Come to think of it, where else do we find such contracts in our culture? Where else do we say “No matter what happens for the rest of your life, you are bound to this agreement that restricts who you love, who you have sex with and virtually every other aspect of your life.” Even the most extreme business arrangements typically have a renegotiation clause, or some mechanism to ensure ongoing mutual benefit.

Whatever the benefits of toughing it out through an agreement we made two or twenty or fifty years ago – and there are many – there can also be benefits of changing or ending the agreement. When a woman comes to counselling and says “My marriage is a misery. I want to change it but my husband refuses to even discuss our relationship with me. We haven’t had sex in six years and he won’t talk about it. I don’t want to die without being held again…” shall I remind her of the vows she made twenty-five years ago and give her a pep talk on loyalty and fidelity? Do I know better than she about her experience? Does marriage?

Perhaps we’re being called to rethink this institution of marriage that we’ve inherited. I recently met someone who agreed to a five year marriage with a renewal option. They’ve been going for twenty and are now adding some unconventional clauses.

Thanks for responding to my article and for asking the questions that are on your mind. We live in a world of vast choices and infinite paradox. I lay no claim to “the truth” in all this, but I’m committed to exploring these complex topics.

All My Best,
Justice

Suggested books –
King, Warrior, Magician, Lover – Robert Moore
The Hero Within – Carol Pearson
Sex at Dawn – Christopher Ryan

Also read –
The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 1)

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“Why would my wife have a one night stand, although she swears up and down she loves me and is crazy about me?”

Why would my wife have a one night stand 2A reader asks about cheating, love and betrayal –

Tell me this – why would my wife have a one night stand, although she swears up and down she loves me and is crazy about me? She was out of town on business, she said she had no control over it, she is deeply regretful and ashamed. God, what do I do now, just the thought of this breaks me everyday. If she truly loved me, where was I in her mind when this happened? Does she truly love me, can something like this really just happen on accident? Its been months since this happened but it still feels to me like it was yesterday. She tries everyday to make me feel better but I just don’t, she lays by me at night but I feel like she is so far away, this has changed everything between us. I love her and always have, I’m devastated over this and need help.

Cheating is a breach of trust and sexual betrayal hurts like hell. That said, there are plenty of voices ready to condemn a cheating spouse, so presumably that niche is well filled and I’ll take a different angle. I assume you’ve asked your wife the “why” question you’re asking me now, and that her answer was unsatisfying. She may not know the answer to your question, or she may be too confused and ashamed to admit it – to you and to herself.

Sex is powerful. It’s sometimes more powerful than we want to believe. Sex held power over your wife that night, and it’s held power over you ever since. Sex is paradoxically simple and complicated. Simple in its basic innocence and instinctual roots. Complicated in that we attach worlds of meaning and expectation to it. Have you examined the meaning you attach to sex? I suggest you do. Much of the meaning we attach FEELS like common sense – natural, inherent, universal. But upon inquiry we may discover that the meaning we attach to sex is largely socially conditioned, unconscious, unexamined, and, ultimately… optional.

In simple terms – Yes, a person can conceivably love you AND have sex with someone else. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive things. In fact, couples negotiate all sorts of sexual arrangements to accommodate their values and desires. However, there’s a big difference between consensual agreements and betrayal. I know you’re hurt, and I feel for you. There will likely be a strong impulse for your wife to now pledge undying fidelity and demonstrate deep regret, for you to withdraw into your woundedness for a time, and for both of you to try and get back to “normal” as soon as possible. These are understandable and valid impulses, but see if you can muster the courage to use this window of opportunity for you and your wife to honestly examine, and possibly update your assumptions, beliefs and  agreements around sex.

All My Best,
Justice

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On disillusionment , failure, and facing your relationship as it really is

On disillusionment , failure, and facing your relationship as it really is

 

Dropping our fantasies and facing what is

The fight to improve a marriage or relationship is a fight against reality. It’s exhausting work. If you’ve tried to change your partner or your marriage to no avail, it might be time to face your relationship exactly as it is.

Facing your relationship as it actually is, in its full reality, is simple, terrifying, and ultimately liberating work. Actually, it’s not work at all, but rather un-work… allowing. A dropping of facades. It takes great courage to drop our projections and be willing to see our partner clearly, as they are. Flawed. Human. Not good enough.

“But he’s lazy. I won’t tolerate it!”
“She’s controlling. I never get a moment’s peace!”

So you have a lazy husband. Or a controlling wife. (Yes, these gender roles are interchangeable.) Your disapproval certainly hasn’t bent your partner to your will yet, so relaxing around the issue for a few minutes or days or weeks won’t hurt your case.

Many people assume that it is their threats, compromises, pushing, tantrums, demands, punishing, withdrawing that keeps the relationship grinding along; that it would collapse without their constant efforts. And so they drive it, and drive it, and drive it until they drive it off the cliff of no return and then say “I tried.”

“Are you asking me to settle?” one client recently asked. “I can’t do that. It feels like failure.”

Relaxing into failure

On the issue of failure… Congratulations. You’ve failed to fulfill your relationship fantasy. It hurts. It’s disappointing. But it’s also a milestone, a rite of passage. Welcome, you’ve arrived. Deep disillusionment isn’t the end of the world, or even necessarily the end of your relationship; it’s how relationships, and lives, are truly transformed – walking through the fire, burning away illusion, and facing reality head on. It’s courageous work.

Your task is to see your partner for who they really are. Possibly for the first time. Notice how attached you’ve been to them being someone different. (Ouch, right?) Spend some time here. See if you can feel your disappointment, anger, sadness without feeding it, fixing it, or drawing conclusions from it. Nothing needs to be done about it today. This isn’t an endpoint or solution, it’s a respite. Now that you’ve failed, relax for a bit. Notice your capacity for disappointment expand. It doesn’t mean the relationship is over or doomed. It doesn’t mean you’ve done a bad job. For now, just notice who your spouse really is, who you really are, free from the fantasy that has mercifully crumbled.

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Marriage counselling made it worse – A tale of caution and hope

Marriage counselling made it worseLeslie called me in a state of panic. She was worried that her twelve year marriage was beyond repair. She loved her husband David, but their long-standing differences were threatening to tear them apart.

Leslie was a worrier (self-proclaimed), and David, although cool-headed, wasn’t much for talking. Leslie would get overwhelmed with mothering, work and household responsibilities. Her anxiety would build, and she would desperately turn to David, who was consistently unable to validate and soothe her in the manner she expected. (She wanted him to say the right things.)

This set off a pattern of conflict that had gone on for their entire relationship and had landed the two of them in counselling early on. Their counsellor quickly came to the conclusion that David needed to improve his communication skills. A common assessment, here it is broken down into its basic points –

  1. Leslie and David have issues.
  2. They need to be able to talk about the issues if they are going to get better.
  3. Leslie wants to talk about them, David less so.
  4. Therefore, let’s solve the problem by helping David learn to communicate more effectively.

This can be considered a fairly standard marriage counselling approach, based on a belief that more talking about the relationship issues, with an emphasis on validation, will ultimately foster understanding and bring a couple closer together. Sometimes it helps.

In this case, the frustration between Leslie and David only grew worse. Leslie became more certain than ever that David held the key to their core issue. If only he could get it right! David tried, but found that the more he attempted to match Leslie’s verbal speed and agility, the more nervous he got, and the more he failed. No matter what he said, she was always upping the ante and staying one step ahead of him. Their well-meaning counsellor had unwittingly given a professional stamp of approval to the couple’s dysfunctional pattern. They stopped going to counselling and the issue continued to be a source of pain and conflict.

Much later, as life and relationship stress was becoming unbearable, Leslie heard about my work. She requested an information package and set up a call with the three of us. She was clear about her expectation that David participate, and she assumed we would focus on helping him learn to be a better communicator.

In our session, I listened with curiosity, looking for clues… What was driving the relationship system? What were the unexamined assumptions? Since Leslie was much more comfortable talking, the two of us talked. David listened. This matched everything Leslie had told me about their relationship dynamic, but I didn’t assume their differences to be a problem, and I said so as I managed the session.

Leslie explained their issues in detail and I listened, reflecting on key points I was hearing –

“Sounds like you get really anxious.”
Yes, she agreed emphatically.

“And it sounds like you turn to David and want him to reduce your anxiety.”
Yes again. Full agreement.

“And when he doesn’t reduce your anxiety successfully you find it intolerable.”
Yes.

“And the only relief you can find in the moment is to pull the plug on the relationship, which you do again and again.”
Here Leslie paused for a moment, letting the pieces fall into place, testing the implications of this. “That’s exactly what I do,” she finally confirmed.

As our weekly sessions continued, Leslie was shocked to discover that there was actually nothing David could say that would satisfy her. For years she had believed that if only David would say the right thing, she could finally relax. This belief was echoed by friends, family, counsellors and expert authors everywhere. The belief was so ubiquitous that it was never challenged, even though it never led to a happier marriage. But in our sessions Leslie discovered that this belief simply did not match reality.

From this point onward, new possibilities emerged. Fortunately, there were still feelings of attraction, love and respect between Leslie and David. Leslie’s ability and willingness to observe her own experience, beliefs and behaviours were an asset. Also, neither Leslie nor David were invested in making the other wrong. In fact, both were relieved to finally see a way out of their long-standing deadlock.

Our sessions increasingly focused on helping Leslie learn to track the anxiety in her body and to moderate her nervous system directly. This was a brand new experience for her. With help and practice, Leslie learned to use mindful awareness to turn her attention inward rather than reflexively projecting her anxiety out onto David. This change created a refreshing spaciousness between them. When he didn’t have to struggle to keep up with Leslie’s panic and demands, David was able to finally help her. She became more open to the tactile soothing that David was good at providing. (As long as she was expecting David to “say the right thing,” she had been closed to the idea of being touched while anxious.) I began facilitating experiments between them about what kind of touch each of them enjoys moment-to-moment, and they continue to explore new ways of soothing themselves and each other.

Paradoxically, only after Leslie let go of her attachment to David understanding and validating her in a specific way could she enjoy the genuine gifts that David brings to the relationship. Only after looking inside and taking responsibility for her own anxiety could she find any satisfaction in the soothing he was capable of providing. Unstuck after a decade, the process continues, with new layers constantly being revealed.

Do you have a story that is similar, or different, with insights to add?
Comments are now open.

Also read –
Why women leave men they love – What every man needs to know
When the love of your life leaves – 5 steps to help you heal

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When the love of your life leaves – 5 steps to help you heal

Wife husband leaves marriage relationship counsellingThe end of a relationship or marriage can feel like death. Grief is an appropriate response. This means anger, sadness, denial might all arise.

It’s visceral. Breathing is hard. You can’t sleep. For the person being left it can feel like the end of the world. You wonder if you’ll even survive. To say you’re hurt and confused or angry is too little. It feels much bigger; like everything has been turned upside down and shaken, like the ground has disappeared under your feet.

Along with negotiating urgent practical matters like finances, housing and parenting, you might also come face to face with abandonment, rejection and self-esteem issues, some of which may have been dormant and are arising for the first time.

This is a very, very tender spot to find yourself. It’s immensely uncomfortable. In my work as a counsellor I notice patterns and common tendencies in my clients. I’ve also identified opportunities and choice-points for moving forward in a healthy way. Here are five principles that can help –

1. Feel what you feel
Feelings aren’t negotiable. They can’t be wrong. They simply are. It’s important to feel what you feel. When we deny uncomfortable emotions they come back to haunt us, or they drive our behaviour from underneath consciousness, without our active consent. Rule of thumb – there’s no need to either encourage or deny feelings. Notice them, name them (“I feel sad”) and watch them change over time. Note – Anger is a feeling. Fear is a feeling. Sadness is a feeling. “S/He’s a control freak” isn’t a feeling. (More on that in a future article.)

2. Take thoughtful action
We don’t necessarily choose our feelings, although we choose how we act on them. As much as noticing our feelings is important, it would be a mistake to act on them without consulting our rational, thinking self. The trouble is, when strong feelings are present we don’t have much access to the part of our brain that makes well-considered choices. Take some time. Let feelings settle before you make important decisions around child custody, financial agreements or emails to the inlaws. Breathe.

3. Get support, but not from your (ex)partner
The person who is leaving the relationship is almost certainly not the person to help you cope with the pain you feel. You might feel extremely needy or drawn to this person right now. Do not give in to the urge to seek comfort there, especially if it is not offered. If you are holding out hope for reconciliation, say so, but then get support elsewhere. Seeing you pick yourself up, brush yourself off and take support from others is the most attractive thing about you right now in your (ex)partner’s eyes. Turn to friends, family and community for support. Tell them what helps, and what doesn’t. Find a counsellor or therapist that you trust.

4. Stay open, even when it hurts
When we feel hurt and angry we look for an explanation. We want to understand. We assume we shouldn’t feel this way, that it’s a big problem. And so we search for a reason. The reason we find is almost always some version of I’m bad or They’re bad or The world is bad. What these three positions all offer is a way out of the confusion. Assigning cause (blame) does relieve some tension. The problem is that each of these three beliefs locks us into an adversarial relationship – with self, with other, or with reality (the world). I’m not saying that your relationship ending wasn’t caused by you or them or the unfairness of the world. But getting too fixated on any of those causes makes you rigid and closed to possibilities that might be just around the corner.

5. Help others
This piece of advice was given to me by a friend over a decade ago when a relationship was ending and I was in deep pain. His simple and wise words led me to the act of writing this for you now. Helping others gets us out of our own head and puts us in direct contact with the universal experience of suffering. Everybody hurts. Help someone. Share their pain, and feel your own soften.

Also read –
Dilemmas, confusion and the trouble with good advice
Is victim a dirty word? On victim blame, victim denial, victim mentality and what the victim archetype can teach us.

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Why women leave men they love PART 2 – Deepening the conversation

Marriage - why women leave, cheat 2On Friday I wrote a short piece called Why women leave men they love – What every man needs to know. Three days later 500,000 people had read it. Something struck a chord. People are reading the article and seeing themselves. Many, many women have shared their relief at knowing they are not alone in their desire for deeper connection.

Men are responding too. “Presence is so damned hot!” says one. Another laments “If only I’d read this two years ago.” A few have pointed out that the roles are reversible, that men want the same things and suffer in similar ways. I agree. Which begs the question – Why are women so much more likely to show up in my office BEFORE they drop the hammer, while men tend to wait until AFTER the hammer is dropped?

We’re ALL subject to social patterns and structures, and gender figures heavily. Assigning blame is a dead-end that always gets us less of what we truly want. Trying to understand what drives our behaviour – collectively, individually and in marriages is potentially enlightening. And so I take the approach of inquiry.

Let’s start with Why are women staying in marriages for years when their husband is emotionally absent? I’ve had numerous women confide that their relationship strategy is basically this: Somehow hold out until the kids are grown, then bye-bye. Which leads us to… Men – how did you not see this coming? Why did you do nothing? (Again, you can flip the gender assignments to suit you.)

Frustrating as the questions are, honest answers exist. I hear them all the time, but never through smiling lips.

I didn’t know any other way.
I hoped it would get better.
I was busy with work.
That’s just the way it is.
I didn’t want to screw up the kids.

These sorts of answers can make us want to confront our partner with “ARGHHH… but, but, but… you, you, you…”
But it’s confronting ourselves that will reap benefits:

I wanted to avoid conflict so I abdicated my responsibility to myself.
I always got away with it, so I kept doing it.
I feel lost and disconnected from my own life.
I didn’t know I even deserved attention.

Forgive me if I make self-awareness sound easy. The insights above can be extremely hard-won. Of course it takes time, and tears, to get to this place of acknowledging our own part in a painful relationship. We avoid it because it offends our ego. But truth wants to find you.

Therapist David Schnarch says something like “Only marriage can prepare you for marriage.” What he means is that the problems we encounter in relationship are the right ones, at the right time. They reflect our current level of maturity or development. No one expects someone in eighth grade to ace grade twelve exams. But that doesn’t mean exam time isn’t stressful for everyone.

Once we begin coming to terms with the reality of a relationship in crisis, we may turn our attention to how we respond in the face of change. Change happens. It’s not negotiable. Yesterday’s experiences changed us, and we are different today. Our choice lies in how we align ourselves with the change process.

Whether or not a couple chooses to stay together when they hit their crisis point, some kind of change will be required. Often one partner makes a decision that changes everything. That’s reality. Avoiding reality has big costs. As Byron Katie observes “When you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time.” So do we actively participate in the reality of change, accepting the discomfort and uncertainty along with the exhilaration of growth?  Or do we resist because change is scary and painful? (Hint – the first one gives us more and better options.)

Also read –
The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together
Marriage counselling made it worse – A tale of caution and hope
When the love of your life leaves – 5 steps to ease suffering and help you heal

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Why women leave men they love – What every man needs to know

Marriage - why women leave, cheatAs a marriage counsellor working with men and women in relationship crisis, I help clients navigate numerous marriage counselling issues. While many situations are complex, there’s one profoundly simple truth that men need to know. It’s this – Women leave men they love.

They feel terrible about it. It tears the heart out of them. But they do it. They rally their courage and their resources and they leave. Women leave men with whom they have children, homes and lives. Women leave for many reasons, but there’s one reason in particular that haunts me, one that I want men to understand:

Women leave because their man is not present. He’s working, golfing, gaming, watching TV, fishing… the list is long. These aren’t bad men. They’re good men. They’re good fathers. They support their family. They’re nice, likeable. But they take their wife for granted. They’re not present.

Women in my office tell me “Someone could come and sweep me off my feet, right out from under my husband.” Sometimes the realization scares them. Sometimes they cry.

Men – I’m not saying this is right or wrong. I’m telling you what I see. You can get as angry or hurt or indignant as you want. Your wife is not your property. She does not owe you her soul. You earn it. Day by day, moment to moment. You earn her first and foremost with your presence, your aliveness. She needs to feel it. She wants to talk to you about what matters to her and to feel you hearing her. Not nodding politely. Not placating. Definitely not playing devil’s advocate.

She wants you to feel her. She doesn’t want absent-minded groping or quick release sex. She wants to feel your passion. Can you feel your passion? Can you show her? Not just your passion for her or for sex; your passion for being alive. Do you have it? It’s the most attractive thing you possess. If you’ve lost it, why? Where did it go? Find out. Find it. If you never discovered it you are living on borrowed time.

If you think you’re present with your wife, try listening to her. Does your mind wander? Notice. When you look at her, how deeply do you see her? Look again, look deeper. Meet her gaze and keep it for longer than usual, longer than comfortable. If she asks what you’re doing, tell her. “I’m looking into you. I want to see you deeply. I’m curious about who you are. After all these years I still want to know who you are every day.” But only say it if you mean it, if you know it’s true.

Touch her with your full attention. Before you lay your hand on her, notice the sensation in your hand. Notice what happens the moment you make contact. What happens in your body? What do you feel? Notice the most subtle sensations and emotions. (This is sometimes called mindfulness.) Tell her about what you’re noticing, moment to moment.

But you’re busy. You don’t have time for this. How about five minutes? Five minutes each day. Will you commit to that? I’m not talking about extravagant dinners or nights out (although those are fine too). I’m talking about five minutes every day to be completely present to the woman you share your life with. To be completely open – hearing and seeing without judgement. Will you do that? I bet once you start, once you get a taste, you won’t want to stop.

<Note – The gender dynamic outlined above is reversible. It can go both ways.>

UPDATE – Read this response > Why men leave women they love (click here)

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