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Relationship triggers – How to take care of yourself without abandoning your partner when sh*t blows up

Relationship triggers

You’ve been invited to listen in on a marriage counselling session. They’re starting…

Susan: I get anxious and triggered then I want re-assurance about our relationship. All sorts of stories start up in my head about how he doesn’t love me enough, or if he really loved me he’d do this or that. It’s like torture, and I want help, so I ask him to tell me what I want to hear, but then he gets triggered and withdraws. For some reason he can’t say what I need to hear when I need it most. Then all my triggers are activated and I get even more desperate.

Marcus: It’s true. I feel her anxiety growing and I feel myself shutting down. Then she needs me to say the right thing, but it’s literally impossible for me. I don’t know how to explain it. I think it’s because old feelings of being controlled or manipulated come up for me. I withdraw, which is the opposite of what she needs, and it makes it worse for her, but I just can’t do the thing she wants. I can’t jump through the hoops. We crash and burn again and again. How do we fix this?

Take a moment and reflect on this story. How would you fix this problem? Where do you think the burden lies? Do you relate to Susan or to Marcus, or to both?

I have heard a hundred different versions of this same story from clients. It’s a perennial relationship quandary. Usually couples who present this issue come to me wanting a communication tool or technique that will let them finally get through to their partner, finally be understood, finally get their needs met.

But they’re in for a surprise. I have to tell them that I doubt there’s a communication technique that will help. I go on to explain that what they are dealing with is not a communication problem, at least not in the ordinary sense. They each feel misunderstood, but the misunderstanding isn’t about what is being said between them; the misunderstanding is about the very nature of their conflict.

Here’s how I explain it in my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples

Underneath all our words and our conscious intentions, our primary relationship follows the twists and turns of two highly attuned nervous systems. Your nervous system and your partner’s nervous system are in constant, silent communication. Beneath the radar of awareness, these two parts of self are setting the mood, raising the stakes, making peace, or waging war. This is happening under the surface of normal consciousness, despite whatever agreements you might be making and whatever “communication tools” you might be employing.

Nervous system arousal is like an invisible hand directing your relationship. The felt experience of nervous system arousal is called anxiety. This anxiety is, perhaps surprisingly, highly contagious.

Anxiety moves back and forth between spouses in predictable ways. We all try, mostly unconsciously, to offload our anxious feelings onto our partner. Think of a hot potato being tossed back and forth. No one wants to hold it, and so we quickly pass it along.

Many of our requests, agreements and interactions – and especially our conflicts – are unconscious attempts to find relief from our nervous system arousal.

As an experiment, let’s look back on Susan and Marcus’s revelations at the top of the page, but we’ll strip away the content, strip away the words, and instead simply imagine two nervous systems interacting.

Susan’s nervous system gets activated for some reason (any reason – for our purposes it doesn’t really matter). It sends a wordless message to Marcus’s nervous system, “Alert! Danger!” Now both nervous systems are activated.

These two nervous systems continue to activate each other, creating significant mental and emotional anguish. Both people want relief, and they want it desperately. They use the tools they know, they try to talk it through. But nervous systems that are on high alert do not respond well to words or reasoning, and so relief doesn’t come. With no relief, anxiety escalates, turning into panic, frustration, rage, or withdrawal (any history of trauma will exacerbate the situation, and should be addressed specifically).

Susan gets anxious, and she turns to Marcus for soothing. (Marcus’s anxiety may have come first, who knows. It’s a chicken and egg situation.) Marcus instinctively withdraws. Perhaps it’s his nervous system saying “Get me out of here! This shit’s contagious!” Susan feels his withdrawal, and she takes it as evidence of her worst fears, “He doesn’t really love me.” Her anxiety spikes, and Marcus’s nervous system responds in kind. He retreats even further.

Here we see the classic spiral… the stuck relationship and hopelessness… the repeating conflict loop. We usually assume that these loops are related to something we are saying, and so we search desperately for the right thing to say, some better way to say it, some escape from the tortuous deja-vu we’re stuck in.

We turn to the tool we use for virtually everything… reason, intellect. We try to think our way through, and we share our thoughts verbally. The trouble is, when our nervous system is all fired up, we have limited access to our thought and speech centres. But we don’t know what else to do, and we desperately want relief from the uncomfortable anxiety we’re experiencing, so we keep trying, and, like Susan and Marcus we dig ourselves deeper into the hole.

Relationship triggers and de-escalation.

It feels agonizingly counter-intuitive for most of us, but rather than trying to express ourselves more clearly, or even to understand or empathize with our partner, we need to first turn our attention inward and attend directly to our own poor, suffering, anxious nervous system.

This isn’t an intellectual or communication task, it’s physical and internal. Most of us assume that anxiety is mental, but our nervous system resides more in our body than in our mind, and so it’s our body that holds the key. Not thinking, not talking, but attending to the body, your body, directly.

As much as we are tempted to seek relief outwardly, from our partner, through attempted communication, negotiation, empathy, or understanding, this is usually a case of putting the cart before the horse. It can be much more effective to turn inwards first, moderating our own nervous system. You can read my simple 3-step system for soothing an activated nervous system by clicking here.

Here we’re faced with the paradoxical, delicate and oftentimes confusing dance between self-care and other-care, between being an autonomous individual and being connected through relationship. The fact is, neither of these states are absolute or entirely exclusive; we are simultaneously distinct AND connected.

We live in an age of utility, and my client couples often expect practical tools and solutions that they can apply immediately. The advice I give is this: Practice attending to your own nervous system arousal, turn inward, as you simultaneously remain present and connected with your partner. Easy in theory, but not in practice.

I will sometimes have them practice this in our sessions. In family systems theory this experience of feeling ourselves as distinct and autonomous, while simultaneously connected, is known as differentiation. Think of it this way – Your ability to defuse your own triggers in relationship while also caring for your partner is determined by your level of differentiation. This practice of becoming differentiated begins with a conceptual understanding (hopefully this article helps; for more support have a look at my book), and then becomes a life-long practice of moderating your own nervous system and soothing your own anxiety.

Only by developing this kind of deeply personal relationship with our own inner workings can we manage to stay grounded solidly in ourselves even in the face of our partner’s and our own anxiety and emotional triggers. As we become more skilled at this, we may uncover unresolved issues – resentment, hurt, trauma – that do want attention, and then a focus on communication, conversation, discussion can be fruitful, but without first attaining a sufficient level of self-management and differentiation we end up stuck in the same old mess of hair-trigger nervous system activation. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s required if we want to have mature, satisfying relationships.

 

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

 

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Counsellor confession… “I hate my partner.”

 

 

 

I hate my wife. I hate my husband.

Relationship articles, facebook memes, and lofty platitudes about what makes a “healthy” relationship float across my virtual desktop daily. They always emphasize high ideals of respect, non-violence, kindness, trust, empathy, validation, etc. They never include anyone saying –

“I hate my wife.”
“I hate my husband.”

It’s no wonder that my counselling clients feel like failures, and doubt the legitimacy of their marriage or relationship (or even of themselves) if they experience intense resentment, anger, grief, rage, frustration or jealousy.

What are we supposed to do with these unwanted feelings when we’re repeatedly told that they have no place in a “healthy” relationship (or life)?

For many, the answer is simple. Ignore the feelings. Reject them. Stuff them deeply into a sack and drag it along behind, pretending it does not exist, even as it grows into elephantine proportions and begins to crowd everything else out of the room.

I confessed in an interview recently that I was feeling grateful for being able to express my outright rage and seething hatred of my spouse… to my spouse. That’s right, I told my partner that I hated her. And guess what? The world didn’t end. And neither did my relationship.

As a marriage counsellor working with clients worldwide, it felt risky to publicly share that I sometimes hate my partner, and that I have told her so. But I believe that because I am able to express a full range of feelings toward her, and because she can hear them, disaster is averted. This works in both directions in our relationship; I hear about her anger as well. It has at least once been expressed as “I want so badly to punch you in the face.” (She contained the impulse, but the message was received.)

In our relationship, my partner and I allow each other to express these difficult, dark feelings, and so they are, in a way, over time, transformed. Left in the dark corners they fester and grow, and they sneak up on us, often in disguise. Faced head on, they tend to reconcile of their own accord. The result? A clean slate.

That’s worth stating again: To the degree that we are able to identify and express our darker feelings about each other, to each other, we’re able to avoid lingering resentments in our relationship.

As I state in my book, The Re-connection Handbook For Couples – 

If your ideas about love are too narrow to accommodate the relationship you actually have right now, you may want to try expanding your thinking. Love is certainly not just good feelings, kindness and caring. Romantic and erotic love is compatible with resentment, mistrust, selfishness and even cruelty. Perfectionism, lofty platitudes and willful naivete about love are common in our culture, but real love may demand dark expressions from time to time.”

Are negative emotions so bad?

Emotions in our culture have been neatly divided into two columns: negative and positive. But what if emotions were neither negative nor positive? Neither good nor bad? What if emotions were simply acknowledged on their own terms?

There’s a popular idea that we should be able to control our feelings through sheer force of will. I’ve never, ever seen this to be true. But I have seen the damage that this belief causes. It IS true that by practicing mindful awareness, we may be free of some of the more painful and destructive emotions, but they fade largely of their own accord, and usually only after being acknowledged, and even expressed.

So how can we safely express potentially destructive emotions like rage and hatred? Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps they are inherently unsafe. If so, it appears that we must risk something if we are to give our anger, cruelty, resentment any real voice. (Sometimes what we risk is intimacy; the intimacy aspects of engaging with the darker emotions often go unrecognized.)

Popular communication techniques would have us calmly and quietly stating our angry feelings – “It makes me feel angry when you leave your socks on the floor.” But anger, real anger, is rarely calm and quiet. It is fiery and fast. It burns. I’m suspicious of techniques that sugar-coat or rely too much on pretending.

Of course, raw, unchecked rage and hatred freely expressed in a relationship is clearly not going to be acceptable to most self-respecting people. If we want to work with darker emotions, to allow them an appropriate place in our awareness, our relationship and lives, the answer must lie somewhere in between; still potent and alive, but not full force. We can practice allowing an emotion like anger without becoming it entirely. The key is awareness; the ability to have an experience (really HAVE it), and also to notice it at the same time. This requires us to grow our capacity for seemingly contradictory experiences, what I sometimes call “holding opposites,” and it takes practice.

There’s no reliable formula for successfully navigating difficult emotions like anger in a relationship. Talk with your partner. Examine your own taboos. See if there might be room to experiment with allowing some expression, even a basic verbal acknowledgement of the feeling.

Every relationship has its own unique culture, a set of agreements and rituals, implicit or explicit, that guide it. Does your relationship make room for expressions of the full range of human emotions? Or are only “positive” emotions allowed?

 

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

Why men leave women they love - Justice Schanfarber CounsellingOver a year ago I shared a simple insight gleaned from my work as a marriage counsellor about why women leave men they love. (Click here to read the original article.)

The article struck a chord worldwide, and I quickly received hundreds of emails, comments, questions and requests of all sorts. Many readers, women and men both, wanted to hear a comparable counter-point, something about why men leave the women they love, the assumption being that there must be some innate symmetry to this phenomenon. I’m not sure there is.

I have wrestled with this counter-point, this question of men leaving women they love, in my mind and on paper, for well over a year now.

Why men leave women they love… Or do they?

The truth is, in my clinical experience, I rarely see men doing the leaving. Men compartmentalize. They withdraw into work, hobbies, fantasy, or addiction. They cheat or carry on secret lives and secret affairs. They might create situations that make it impossible for a marriage or relationship to continue. Men also suffer silently, shouldering massive burdens. The men I work with often have a high tolerance for disconnection. They might leave a dissatisfying relationship in spirit (sometimes they never fully arrive), but they are unlikely to leave in body. Certainly the description above does not fit all men, but the general patterns I see in my couples counselling practice recur too often to ignore.

I find it interesting that when women leave a dead or dissatisfying relationship they are celebrated for their courage. (You can see this in some of the comments on the original article.) Men though, seem to be held to a different standard; by society, by each other, by women, and perhaps most importantly, by their own selves.

It might be a sense of duty or sacrifice that keeps men from leaving. Or an ability to cleave off parts of themselves that don’t fit into the box they feel they must occupy. A man’s focus on performance and success might make the feelings of a failed marriage intolerable, and so the shame of leaving is not an option.

Or perhaps men expect less from a relationship, less from love. Perhaps the painful and revelatory truth is that men expect less from life. Beneath whatever bravado we may see from the outside, many men are disconnected from any real, living sense of purpose in their lives. Their chests may be puffed out, but their hearts are empty.

As many women are awakening to long repressed (and suppressed) desires – for freedom, for expression, sensuality, power, intimacy, eroticism, authenticity, aliveness – their male counterparts may be trudging on, heads down.

In his book Iron John – A book about men, poet and author Robert Bly suggests that –

“… the European novel, a lovely phenomenon of the last two centuries, has taught more than one contemporary woman what a rich reservoir of impulses and longings she has in her soul that can be satisfied or remain unsatisfied… A twentieth century woman feels complicated sensibilities in herself that no ordinary or mortal man can meet.”

These complicated sensibilities do not seem to be surfacing in men in the same way, and perhaps rightly so. Women’s paths and men’s paths, while intertwined, seem also to be necessarily different. Nonetheless, men too have their own “complicated sensibilities” and their own “rich reservoirs” to discover and attend to.

In archetypal terms, we could say that many women continue to take on the lover qualities in a relationship, while men embody the warrior.  The warrior is able to put feelings aside and work for a greater good based on principles and ideals. This ability is valuable, but when these principles and ideals are divorced from a man’s true calling, when they are in opposition to his heart, the warrior energy becomes twisted, and the man becomes mechanical, cold, withdrawn. (Of course these roles may also be reversed. Plenty of women are discovering their inner warrior, and men their inner lover. All configurations can be valuable, and all can be troublesome.)

There’s a saying, “Do not give a sword to a man who can not dance.” Warrior energy is powerful and noble in its healthy and lively expressions, but if it becomes too rigid it morphs into a sad and dangerous parody of itself. The man who can not dance is a man who can not feel. He can not feel the rhythms of life, of others, of relationship. Dancing requires an alertness, it requires grace. Dancing requires an erotic intelligence. A man singularly focused, without these qualities, ends up cut off from feeling, inaccessible to himself and others.

Many a man has expressed great bitterness at his wife’s leaving, even as he has sacrificed so much of himself to fulfill the bargain he believed was necessary for a relationship or marriage. He has worked at a job that is dangerous, for his body or his soul. He has turned off much of his feeling so that he can perform adequately to provide economically for his family. When women leave these men, bewilderment sets in. These men believe they did everything they could. If we are not careful, victim and villain archetypes settle into our bones, and men and women find themselves pitted against each other, and ultimately against important aspects of themselves.

In my original article that roused so much attention, I pose a question to male readers –

“Can you feel your passion? 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 men aren’t able to be fully present in their relationship, even for five minutes at a time, it might be that they are disconnected from their heart, from their passion; strangers to their own “complicated sensibilities” and “rich reservoirs.” Paradoxically, men’s connection to these parts of themselves allows them to be fully present in relationship, AND it simultaneously gives them the power to leave.

If we want men to show up more profoundly, we must also be prepared for their long bottled up rage at being used and abused – as cannon fodder, economic fodder, entertainment fodder, family fodder and so on. If we want men connected to their passion for life, we must be prepared to listen to what these passions have to say. Sometimes the words will be no. Or goodbye.

As it is for Bly’s twentieth century woman, an awakening man becomes capable of both strengthening and destroying a marriage. If we want to preserve marriage at all costs, then best to kill all passions, all heart’s desire, all “complicated sensibilities” and “rich reservoirs.” Indeed, this has sometimes been official policy, at the personal and the cultural levels. If, however, we want a relationship with an awake, passionate, present, and empowered partner, we had better be willing to face all the possible outcomes. Frightening perhaps, but I don’t know a better option.

 

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Gaslighting, shadow, and abuse – How protecting our unconscious can sabotage our relationships

GaslightingAs we noticed the topic of “gaslighting” coming up more and more in conversations, my partner and I decided to watch the 1944 film with Ingrid Bergman that spawned the term. In the film, and in common usage of the word, a “gaslighter,” for their own selfish gain, consciously manipulates someone into doubting themselves. The classic gaslighter is a sociopath, calculated and relentless in breaking down their victim’s self-confidence, self-esteem, self-trust, and even sense of sanity. This sort of gaslighting is extreme and, one hopes, relatively rare. But I see a much more common, subtle and insidious form of gaslighting all the time in my work and life. I’ll call it “shadow gaslighting.”

It’s generally understood that we each have an unconscious aspect of self that influences us and drives our behaviour, beneath conscious awareness. This unconscious self is sometimes called our shadow. Our shadow consists of the parts of our self that we have disowned or denied because they are frightening, disappointing, socially unacceptable, or because they threaten our positive self-image.

Unconscious gaslighting –

“Shadow gaslighting” is when these disowned parts of ourselves manipulate people in our lives in order to serve their own purpose. An unconscious part of self expresses itself, and pursues its own agenda, but goes unacknowledged in our awareness. Other people in our lives, especially our spouse, may sense our shadow at work, and because we deny the presence and influence of shadow unconsciousness in us and in our behaviour, these other people feel an incongruence in us; what we say does not match how they experience us. They may take us at face value, wanting to believe what we tell them about our intentions, feelings etc, but underneath, at some level, the incongruence undermines their trust in us and perhaps their trust in their experience, in their self. Here’s a story to help illustrate –

Louise was shocked to discover that her husband Francois was considering leaving her. She knew things had been bad since the baby was born, but she was blindsided by his revelation that they were actually on the brink of divorce. When they came to see me it was quickly obvious to me that Francois held strong resentments toward Louise; resentments that spanned years and ran deep. And yet, interestingly, he would not admit to having resentments. It became apparent through therapy that he was unwilling to admit to being resentful because it would contradict the image he had of himself. “Resentful” was a human quality that Francois would not allow himself, and so he had driven it underground where it persisted unconsciously as shadow material. While Francois desperately tried to hide his resentment with denial (“I’m not a resentful person! You’re imagining it!”), the resentful part of himself grew more insistent. It was demanding to be seen, to be acknowledged and confronted. His resentment, long buried, was now breaking through to the surface of consciousness.

Francois’s resentment broke through the shadow realm into the surface of consciousness while we worked in session. This is not uncommon. Often an individual or a couple comes to see me when a powerful aspect of their unconscious shadow is working its way up into consciousness. Subjectively, this feels like breaking down. Something feels drastically wrong, and so a person might decide they need help… Fixing… Therapy. If I am paying attention, and if the timing is right, I can potentially help this person as they retrieve the disowned parts of their self.

In this particular case, I could see Francois struggle to confront the long-held, unacknowledged resentments that were coming to the surface and threatening his self-identity (and his marriage). In Francois’s world, resenting his wife was incompatible with being a good person and a good father. Confronting his resentment was viscerally agonizing for him. He choked and sobbed and wrung his hands. But he saw it through. In no uncertain terms he managed to face his resentment and to own it, right there while his wife watched and listened. Francois was resentful, and he said so.

Of course this was painful for Louise, but also a relief. At least now she could feel congruence in Francois. His shadow would no longer need to gaslight her in order to get its (ambivalent) needs met  (“Notice me/Don’t notice me. The resentment is real/The resentment is not real”).

I see some version of gaslighting by the shadow in virtually every single person I work with or have any type of deep relationship with, including myself. I’ve come to believe that we ALL have disowned parts of ourselves that threaten to contradict or reveal the pseudo-person we present to others and identify with.

Here are some ways that we shadow gaslight a spouse or partner –

  • We might say “I feel hurt” when our shadow feels angry. (Anger has been disowned.)
  • We might say “I feel angry” when our shadow feels hurt. (Hurt has been disowned.)
  • We might say “I’m not attracted to that person” when we do not trust our attraction or eroticism. (Attraction and eroticism have been disowned.)
  • We might say “This is all your fault” when our shadow feels the burden of responsibility, but is unable to tolerate it. (Responsibility has been disowned.)
  • We might say “No, no, everything is OK” or “This is all my fault” when we are unwilling to risk conflict. (Conflict has been disowned.)

The list goes on and on. In every case, our words protect our shadow and belie the deeper truths of our desires and fears. Our positions are not outright lies or manipulations because we are not fully conscious of what they are based upon. When we are unable to confront the needs, and hence the influence, of our own shadow, our partner feels our dissonance and this creates anxiety, mistrust and distance or conflict.

Persistent gaslighting by the shadow is a significant (but little understood) cause of confusion, regret, bitterness and blame in a marriage or relationship. If we’re willing to acknowledge the existence of shadow within ourselves and within our relationship, we may be able to retrieve some of the disowned parts of ourselves that are creating unrest. If we understand the needs of these shadow aspects and attend to them, healing and greater integrity become possible .

Through mindfulness practice, therapy or other means we may gain the insight and courageous humility required to retrieve our shadowy parts and bring fuller congruence and awareness to our behaviour in our relationships and in our lives. This retrieving of shadow, of the parts of self we’ve disowned, is an act of integrity. When we say someone has “integrity”, what do we mean? Usually we mean that we experience them as congruent; their speech matches their actions. We deem them trustworthy.

One way of understanding personal integrity is this –
Integrity is strength obtained through wholeness.

Wholeness is attained through the reclaiming of our shadow. “Acting with integrity” doesn’t mean acting according to some high moral code as much as it means expressing oneself as a whole, integrated person; one who has done some work making themselves whole by integrating their unconscious shadow parts. This work is probably never complete, but rather a lifelong journey. There are milestones and significant accomplishments along the way but no definite destination. It’s unlikely that we ever become fully conscious beings with nothing to hide and no shadow to protect, although that is a worthy ideal, and is perhaps one way of understanding the quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Interestingly, if we deny the existence of shadow, of the disowned fears and desires in our self and others, we will always take literally the failures of integrity we see around and within us. We will judge harshly and assume we are being treated with hurtful intention. If, however, we acknowledge the existence of shadow, and recognize how shadow protects itself by acting out from beneath conscious awareness, we may respond appropriately without undue judgement and bitterness.

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Contradiction and paradox in relationships – The difficult work of holding opposites

Contradiction asks much of us. On the one hand, there might be an opportunity to create greater congruence in your life by confronting the contradictions embodied in your own speech and actions. On the other hand, it takes great capacity to hold opposing points of view and disparate experiences without rejecting one or the other or both. I call this “holding opposites.”

The possibility for re-connection in our marriage or relationship is related to how we handle the contradictions we inevitably encounter; how we hold opposites. Our ability to tolerate, and as we’ll see, transform, our experience of contradiction into something more powerful requires a certain kind of personal capacity.

“Capacity” is an important concept in couples work. When I talk about capacity, imagine a cup. When the cup gets full, it overflows. In relationships, our cup gets full from anxious feelings that come from, amongst other things, an inability to tolerate the contradiction all around us.

When the cup overflows, these anxious feelings are expressed as rage, withdrawal, criticism, blame, denial, exasperation etc. We can try to iron out the contradictions we see in ourself, in our partner, in our life, in the world… or we can work on making our cup bigger. The advantage to making our cup bigger is that it holds not just the anxious feelings of contradiction, but ALL the complicated feelings that give life its richness and depth.

We may wish for simpler times in our relationship, a time when things were more black and white, but re-connection doesn’t want that. Re-connection wants you to grow your cup, to expand your capacity for holding the complexity that comes with a deeper, maturing relationship.

Some people habitually sniff out the contradictions in others and feel obligated to point them out. They believe it is their job to iron out the wrinkles they see in their partner. This includes playing “devil’s advocate.” If this is your tendency, please consider that this kills eroticism, dampens desire and attraction, breeds resentment, and makes re-connection difficult. Your first task in re-connecting with your loved one is to catch yourself in the act of using contradiction against yourself or others. I’m not asking you to ignore the contradictions you observe. On the contrary, please continue noticing them. I’m asking you to orient around contradiction differently, to change your relationship to contradiction. Stop treating it exclusively as a problem to be solved. If you will practice accepting contradiction as a normal aspect of life, you will be preparing the ground for re-connection in your relationship.

Much conflict and disconnection between lovers and spouses is due to a misunderstanding about contradiction. Contradiction is normal and healthy. It’s inevitable. If we see our partner’s inherent contradictions as a flaw or weakness, we essentially take a stand against their basic human-ness, and that is the real disaster. We also very likely take the same stand against our own human-ness. We remain apart, separate, because we have rejected a real part of being human.

*****

Paul watched his wife Marilyn eating pie for dinner after they both came home late from a frantic day at work. Just yesterday she had confided to him that she wanted to eat more healthfully. Now as he watched her hungrily annihilate two pieces, he pointed out how her actions were in complete contradiction with what she had said yesterday. When the three of us talked about this in session, Paul maintained that he was trying to support her. Marilyn erupted in frustration. She felt anything but supported. This was an ongoing dynamic that was becoming a major obstacle and source of disconnection in their relationship.

*****

When we are feeling combative, it’s easy to point out contradictions in the other as evidence of their shortcomings, implicitly making them “wrong” or “bad.” This reveals a narrow view of contradiction and it misses the deeper gifts and insights that working with contradiction can provide. If we believe, even unconsciously, that we should do away with contradictions, we have become too perfectionistic and are likely to find ourselves frustrated and lonely; disconnected.

We can judge ourselves and others based on the contradictions we observe, or we can inquire into these same contradictions with a curious mind and open heart. We might ask ourselves “What are the various parts of this person that are trying to have a voice?” We might try assuming that both sides of any contradiction hold an important truth, and rather than pitting them against each other, we might experiment with “backing up” until our perspective is broad enough to include both sides. This type of inquiry asks us to soften our focus.

We’re accustomed in this culture to seek answers, facts, quantitative data, to narrow our focus until we’ve solved the problem. It’s a reductionist way of seeing each other and the world, and it keeps us from finding solace in the mystery; it keeps us from experiencing the sweet surrender and easy humility of simply not knowing. “Simply not knowing” is a wonderful state of being. Have you practiced it? When we allow ourselves to be washed over by waves of contradiction, and we stop insisting on sorting out each one, we might find ourselves on new unfamiliar ground, a place where fresh experiences and re-connection become possible.

With some practice allowing contradiction, it begins to transform. Contradiction that is allowed, that is honored, can begin to mature into its wise relative: paradox.

Contradiction is that annoying know-it-all brother in law who seems oblivious to the way he rubs everyone the wrong way. Paradox, on the other hand, is that enigmatic uncle, mysterious and calm, whom you feel good around, even if he’s strange and maybe a little bit crazy. Contradiction is two dimensional, black and white. Paradox is multi-dimensional, full of colour. Contradiction is blunt, a dead-end, right and wrong, end of story, a door closing. Paradox is a door opening. As much as contradiction is confusing and deadening, paradox is illuminating and enlivening. Contradiction cuts us off. Paradox connects us. Contradiction is an annoying problem of logic. Paradox, like love, is mysterious and awe inspiring, unsolvable. When we see only the contradictions in our partner, we are looking at them like problems to be solved, like broken machines. When we are able to look at our partner and see the deep paradox underneath the contradictions, we begin to see them in their fuller mystery. We view them with our heart’s intelligence, not just our reasoning mind.

You don’t need to figure this out entirely to work with it. It’s ultimately not any technique, but rather plumbing your own depth and growing your own capacity that turns contradiction into paradox and enriches your life and relationship. If you will simply allow contradiction in your life, in the world, in your partner, rather than fighting against it, you will have begun this practice.

(This is an excerpt from “The Re-Connection Handbook For Couples” by Justice Schanfarber. Read a sample chapter or buy your full digital copy at http://www.justiceschanfarber.com/the-re-connection-handbook-for-couples/)

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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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The trouble with desire – Why do we fear what we want?

The trouble with desire

Photo by Sudheendra Kadri | Dreamstime Photos

Desire is instinctual. It lives deep in our animal selves. Desire wants what it wants, without rationale, often without full awareness.

Freedom. Pleasure. Rest. Nourishment. These are just a few names for our desire. Desire lives at our core. It can appear abstract and complex through the filters of reason and language, but when followed to its source it is made of basic stuff.

Desire is old. Desire, presumably, was around before words. It is pre-verbal. Perhaps that is why we sometimes have difficulty explaining precisely what we want.

In a baby or young child we see desire in its raw form. Shameless wanting. Shameless demands. Shameless pursuit of desire fulfillment. Shameless satisfaction. As civilized adults we tolerate this shamelessness for a short time and then we begin the work of socialization, which includes organizing desires into boxes labelled “good” and “bad”. As children we internalize these judgements.

Religious, political, family, community and economic ideologies provide us with sanctioned avenues for pursuing approved desires. Other desires we are expected to deny ourselves altogether. Most of us wrestle throughout our lives with the desires we’ve denied ourselves in order to fit into the “good” box and to be accepted in our family and community.

One of the primary tools we use against desire, our own and others’, is reason. When our wanting makes us uncomfortable we try to convince ourselves to stop wanting what we want.

We live in an age of reason and we tend to think of reason as our saviour from the dark ages of superstition. This may be, but reason can also be the murderer of important aspects of ourselves. The opposite of reason is not just superstition or un-reason. On the flipside of reason is also feeling, and feeling is where desire lives.

Nestled beneath our cerebral cortex (the relatively new and exclusively human part of our brain) is an older part that we share with other mammals. This deeper part of the brain is sometimes called the mammalian or limbic brain. As the conduit for empathy and emotion it connects us to others. It is, by definition, unreasonable. Two fundamental parts of our human selves, rational and emotional, are represented by these two parts of our brain. These two parts, both intrinsic to the human experience, do not always communicate well with each other. Feeling is unreasonable. Reason is unfeeling.

Wanting what we believe we should not have, head and heart find themselves at war. The self is turned against the self. This is such a common occurrence that we consider it a normal part of being human. More accurately, this is such a common occurrence that we tend not to consider it at all. This war against the self may be expressed as drug and alcohol abuse, addictive behaviour, depression, anxiety, even violence and self-harm.

Client couples often arrive in my office with each vigorously representing one or the other of these twin aspects of self – head and heart. The internal split has been projected out onto the relationship with one person taking a stand for reason, the other embodying feeling. In heterosexual couples it is most often the man who takes the position of reason, and the woman who champions emotion (but not always – sometimes it is reversed) –

“She’s unreasonable.”
“He doesn’t care about my feelings.”

As each projects either cold reason or emotional chaos onto the other, neither gets the opportunity to confront (and integrate) the same in their self.

Desire frightens us because it contradicts the ideas we have about our lives, each other and the world. We like to believe that reason is king, and all else its subjects. The logic of reason demands dominion over feeling and so also over desire. In the age of reason, desire is expected to conform to the shape of the intellect. The reasoning part of our brain, of our humanity, wants to understand desire in reasonable terms before acknowledging its legitimacy. This precludes letting ourselves actually experience the desire that is present, however dormant and boxed in.

Paradoxically, we reject desire that we don’t understand, but we don’t let ourselves experience desire fully enough to understand it.

Understanding comes from observation, and observation requires proximity. When we dismiss our desire as bad or unacceptable, we never get close enough to observe it, to feel it and thus to receive its message.

Putting words to desire helps bridge the complex and frustrating gap between feeling and thinking. Language supports the understanding of feeling and, obviously, its communication between human beings. But we must risk getting close to desire if we are to know it well enough to name it. Even acknowledging our desire is, in many instances, deeply taboo. For this reason we keep it hidden, from ourselves even, until we have built enough resource and courage to face the truth of our wanting.

The counselling or therapy process often includes an unearthing of our own awareness around our own desire.

The client/therapist relationship creates a container where it is safe to allow the presence of desire, sexual or otherwise, without the risk of judgement or condemnation. In this space desire can be felt fully without an expectation or requirement to necessarily act upon it. By allowing ourselves to simply get close to our desire through fantasy, visualization, and feeling we can begin to develop a personal relationship with it. With practice, we may see it in its most basic form, free from distortion. Only then can we hope to measure our desire against our internal guiding principles and then choose actions that are truly discerning and wise. Only when we have a direct relationship with our desire can we represent ourselves accurately and negotiate effectively with others to get our needs and wants met.

Recommended books –
Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life – Insights from Buddhism and Psychotherapy – Mark Epstein
Intuition: Knowing Beyond Logic – Osho

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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!

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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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Anxiety relief without medication – A three step mindfulness based approach to managing an activated nervous system

Anxiety relief without medication - Mindfulness based managementPerspectives on anxiety – “Please rescue me from this feeling”

All of life, family, community and relationships can be understood, in a sense, as an unconscious exercise in releasing ourselves from the anxiety of being a human being.

The anxiety of not being good enough, of past hurts and traumas, of not being known and loved for who we are, and of knowing that we – along with everyone we love – will one day die is a powerful, often invisible force driving us as individuals, and also shaping our social structures and agreements, both explicit and implicit.

“Please rescue me from this feeling” we plead in a thousand ways to spouses, bosses, employees, cheeseburgers, pornography, facebook, yoga, and television. We may recognize the insanity of certain actions – repeating abusive relationship cycles, poisoning ourselves with cigarettes, checking facebook a hundred times each day – but the underlying anxiety driving our actions remains unseen, residing deep inside our own bodies – our nervous systems most specifically.

If only the kitchen was clean, if only I had another beer, if only they listened to me, if only my team would win, if only we had more sex, if only I had more money, if only people weren’t so stupid, if only we had a holiday. The source of our anxiety always appears to be “out there” somewhere. So that’s where we focus, out there. Then we come to realize – That cigarette didn’t satisfy. My new car is already feeling old. Yoga hasn’t made me a new person. Nothing my partner says makes me feel better.

Trying to change ourselves and other people and the world is valid and reasonable and perhaps intrinsically human, but it doesn’t address the core anxiety that tortures each of us from the inside out. Whatever actions we take in the world will be more effective, more direct, and more healthy when we are also addressing the anxiety that lives inside us. So how do we do that?

First, notice your anxiety

Once you consider that your anxiety might be rooted inside you, not in other people and circumstances (no matter how it got there originally or how legitimate your grievances might be), you might assume that it’s in your mind, a head thing, something that comes from thoughts and beliefs, and so you try to change your thinking. That’s fine, but anyone who’s tried to talk themselves out of a feeling knows the struggle that can bring. The experience of anxiety often includes thoughts, but its roots are deep in your nervous system, in your body, out of reach of intellect and reason.

If you want to know your anxiety first-hand (and you do – it’s how you get loose of its grip), notice what it feels like in your body. Anxiety is a body sensation that happens when your nervous system gets activated. Your spouse nags or yells and you feel your throat tighten. That’s anxiety. Your kid slams the door and your face gets hot. That’s anxiety. Notice it. Notice it simply as a sensation in your body. Name it, internally or out loud. “Throat tight.” “Face hot.”

Now stay with it

Throat tight? Stay with that sensation. Face hot? Stay with that sensation. Feel your anxiety wherever it shows up in your body. Do this slowly, with curiosity and awareness. Unless your safety is actually being threatened in this moment, nothing needs to be done. If judgement or internal dialogue appears, notice it, but come back to the body sensation. Stay with it. Stay with it because you want to fully know it. Uncomfortable? Part of what we’re doing here is building our capacity for that discomfort. It’s like exercising a muscle. It gets stronger with the right kind of use. In this case, the right kind of use is to stay with the body sensations triggered by an activated nervous system. Think of it as physiotherapy for the nervous system. Be curious about the pure sensations, without jumping to interpretation, meaning or conclusions. If you find yourself in your head, problem solving or assigning blame etc, gently come back to the body sensation.

The normal tendency is for an activated nervous system to immediately trigger a reaction (ie – fight or flight). We move so quickly to action that we miss the actual sensation, the in-body experience of nervous system arousal. Slow the process down and notice it directly. Stay with the sensations.

An activated nervous system can be extremely uncomfortable. We instinctively want to be rid of this discomfort. This is why we reflexively lash out, shut down or distract ourselves. I’m asking you to practice not doing these things. Instead, simply notice the feeling of an activated nervous system, of anxiety, and stay with it, without doing anything about it, without trying to get relief. It’s hard, but it won’t kill you. Don’t move to step three until you’re intimate with the feeling, with the direct sensation.

Next, attend to it

Once you get used to what anxiety feels like in your body, once you can name the sensations an activated nervous system triggers (“Throat tight.” “Face hot.”) you can start attending to it. But don’t rush to this step. It’s important to build some capacity for discomfort before doing anything about it. Slowing down is key.

When you feel ready, start relaxing your nervous system directly using conscious breathing. Throat tight? Breathe. Feel yourself sending relaxing, nourishing, healing breath to your throat. Face hot? Breathe. Send relaxing, nourishing, healing breath to your face. Breathe into the places that are tight, contracted, or fired up. Also, notice if you have an impulse toward movement. Perhaps your hands want to cradle your face or stroke your throat. Perhaps your hand floats to your chest. Go ahead and follow those impulses.

There’s nothing fancy about this. Don’t worry about doing it just right. What’s important is slowing down, breathing, and feeling the sensations directly – without flying into reaction, decision making or problem solving. If there are thoughts, just notice them. Then come back to the sensations and soothe yourself with breath and touch. This practice can be quite profound. Tears are not uncommon. Rage and other strong emotions can also show up.

If you stay with the sensations of anxiety directly, tension eventually tends to soften, and then the mental chatter and negative thoughts also calm down. You’re practicing having an experience and noticing it at the same time. This awareness practice, sometimes called mindfulness, gets us out of the “loops” in our head. From here, new possibilities can emerge.

Recap – Managing anxiety in three steps

    1. Notice what anxiety feels like in your body. Name it – “Throat tight” etc.
    2. Stay with the feeling in your body. Don’t jump to action or conclusions.
    3. Attend to the sensations directly. Breathe into the places that are affected.

Nervous system arousal and the resulting discomfort of anxiety are facts of life for all mammals, and are normal human experiences. Our goal isn’t to get rid of anxiety, repress it, or cut it off, but rather to expand our awareness and tolerance of it so that it holds less power over us. The three-step practice above is one that I use with clients in session and that I teach for home use. Feel free to experiment and adjust it to suit you. Like practicing any new skill or exercising any muscle, results come with time. Be patient and kind with yourself. Small steps can have a big impact.

[Note – While we all experience anxiety to some degree, it can be overwhelming for those who suffer from unresolved trauma. Those who suffer from trauma induced anxiety (PTSD) can try the steps above, but may find themselves too hyper-sensitive or prone to dissociation to manage their experience effectively. These people should consider working with a therapist skilled in somatic processing and body-centred trauma therapy.]

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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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

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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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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

 

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