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“Understanding the three stages of relationship so you don’t get stuck”

[Note – This is the transcript of the facebook live video shown above].

Three stages of relationship

Relationships move through three predictable stages. If you, like most people, are not aware of this, you are bound to end up confused and disheartened. Honestly, you will probably be confused and disheartened at some point regardless, but if you understand that relationships naturally move through these three stages, and if you understand the nature of each stage, and what it asks of you, you will be far better equipped to deal with what is coming.

Each stage of the relationship journey presents you with certain developmental tasks, and you can’t effectively move to the next stage until you’ve accomplished the tasks at the previous. People get “stuck” at a certain stage of relationship because they don’t recognize what the relationship is asking of them, and they resist moving forward into the unknown and intimidating territory ahead, pining instead for the easy love and good times that came previously. The bad news is that there’s no going back to easier and sweeter times. The good news is that if you successfully navigate the next stage, you will be poised to make a kind of “homecoming” or a return to what you enjoyed previously, but with more maturity, more depth, and more richness. You’re likely to have some emotional scars and war-wounds, but they will take on a special significance and will be worn proudly.

Backward or forward?

In the introduction to my book, The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples, I state – “The search for re-connection might have us gazing wistfully backward whence we came, looking for something familiar, something we believe we lost when we took a wrong turn somewhere. But true re-connection is not sentimental, nor is it necessarily repair or reclaiming (although it might include elements of both). We re-connect at a new point on the path, at a place we’ve not been before. Real re-connection is less about getting something back, and more about finding our way forward. Perhaps most accurately it has flavors of both; we arrive at a place that feels familiar and is yet unknown.”

As we look at the three stages of relationship this statement will become even more clear and meaningful.

The first stage: Falling in Love

The first stage of relationship is Falling in Love, also called the honeymoon stage, or the age of innocence. At the Falling in Love stage, differences between partners are ignored, invisible, glorified, or minimized. Compatibility is emphasized. Connection and bonding is the theme at this stage.

The voice of the Falling in Love stage says things like –
“I need you.”
“We’re perfect together.”
“We are one.”
“We’re meant for each other.”
“You complete me.”
“You’re my soul mate.”
“Our differences make us better.”
“We get along so well.”
“We have so much in common.”
“We’re so lucky.”

Each stage presents us with tasks. These tasks are crucial for our continued development and growth, and they’re a prerequisite for effectively moving to the next stage.

Developmental tasks at the first stage

Developmental tasks at the Falling in Love stage include –

  • Opening your heart to another
  • Joining
  • Loving
  • Caring
  • Feeling
  • Connecting
  • Trusting
  • Celebrating
  • Giving
  • Merging
  • Bonding
  • Vulnerability

…and generally yielding to love and attraction.

Many potent hormones and neuro-chemicals help us accomplish these tasks at this stage. It’s called “Falling in Love” for a reason: If we are able to let ourselves go, gravity takes care of the rest. This letting go, opening up, connecting, and loving comes easily for many, but not for everyone. Some people have to make an effort to “fall”!

Most adults, not all but most, have some experience with the Falling in Love stage because it happens more or less automatically. As attachment theory advocates rightly say, “We’re wired for connection”.

Some couples therapy and marriage counselling attempts to keep you at this first stage and tries to shepherd you back to blissful communion. But from my point of view, the Falling in Love stage never lasts forever, nor is it designed to. Difficulty must follow. Everyone who’s read a fairy tale knows this.

The second stage: Disillusionment and Trouble

I call the second stage of relationship Disillusionment and Trouble. This is where many relationships end, sometimes for good reasons, but very often simply because we are unable to successfully complete the tasks that are required, and we waste our energy trying to return to better days. This stage is when most couples call me for counselling.

The Disillusionment and Trouble stage is when the differences between us show up and become a problem. You’re a night owl and your partner is a morning person. You discover that you have different sexual styles or appetites. In-laws become unbearable. There’s an affair or infidelity. Differences in parenting philosophies, in money management, work ethic, communication styles, attachment styles, preferences, desires, and needs all become glaringly apparent.

Maybe you discover deceit or manipulation at this point. Maybe your partner pretended to be someone they aren’t (maybe you did).

Confronting your illusions in love

Disillusionment is a double edged sword. On the one hand, the illusions of the Falling in Love stage are very beautiful, and the bonds that are formed there are real and will be an important resource for you both as you navigate this next difficult chapter. On the other hand, illusions mask the truth, and when they crumble, the truth, not always pretty, floods in. I encourage you to treat your own illusions with tenderness. They have been necessary; not an error, not a mistake. But now, it’s time to reconcile your disillusionment and attend to the tasks at hand.

One of the primary tasks that the Disillusionment and Trouble stage requires of us is discernment. Will we carry on with this relationship or will we end it? This is when we confront our non-negotiables, and discover the real meaning of the popular word “boundaries”. Ending a relationship that was previously a delight is painful, but it is sometimes the only way we can keep our self-respect and our integrity. Sometimes ending the relationship is the right option at this stage. Some people gain clarity about this quickly; others struggle for a long time.

The voice of the Disillusionment and Trouble stage says things like –
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
“I feel so much doubt and hopelessness.”
“We used to be so good together.”
“My heart aches.”
“I’m angry. I’m hurt. I’m disappointed.”
“I’m broken.”
“The trust is gone.”
“I don’t know who my partner is anymore.”
“Is it me or is it them?”
Is this a healthy relationship?
“Are we good together?”
I’ve lost myself in this relationship.

Developmental tasks at the second stage

Tasks at this stage include –

  • Discernment
  • Confronting, tolerating, and managing differences
  • Negotiation
  • Constructive conflict
  • Facing hard truths
  • Standing up for yourself
  • Emotional differentiation (There’s a chapter on emotional differentiation in The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples. You can download a free sample on my website.)

This stage is necessarily marked by confrontation. To do what this stage asks, you will find yourself confronting your partner. This is difficult for many people; not so difficult for others. You’ll also need to confront yourself: your own blind spots, manipulations, and deceptions. Your own decision making, and responsibility, your own integrity.

Developing independence in relationship

The earlier Falling in Love stage is about strength in togetherness, in merging. It’s about dependence. The Disillusionment and Trouble stage reminds you that you are indeed two distinct individuals. It’s about claiming independence. This is a tricky stage, because claiming independence within a relationship usually threatens the relationship, at least in its former version where dependence was implicitly or explicitly celebrated.

If we decide to stay in the relationship, we must keep sight of the emotional commitment and the radical acceptance we practiced in the earlier Falling in Love days, but we must also now acknowledge the space between us, the unbridgeable gap, and the need to be a sovereign and integrous individual in the relationship, not just a “partner” or one half of a whole. This is where co-dependent tendencies really come to the forefront and will need to be addressed.

To make things even more difficult, partners don’t always enter this stage together. In fact it is very common for one partner to begin advocating for independence and autonomy while the other is still in the highly enmeshed, dependent stage. Moving from dependence to independence in a relationship feels disorienting and even painful for some people. For others, it can be a relief.

The key to getting through the Disillusionment and Trouble stage is to recognize it as a stage and to keep going. If you can accomplish the tasks associated with this – differentiating from your partner, navigating conflict, standing up for yourself, pursuing personal interests – while maintaining emotional commitment, you might then proceed to the “Homecoming” stage that follows. But if you continually resist the Disillusionment and Trouble stage, if you fail to recognize that it is a necessary stage of development for people and for relationships, and you dig your heals in and insist on the blind love of the Falling in Love stage, you might remain stuck here for a very long time. It’s not uncommon for people to be stuck here for years. If your relationship ends at this stage, and you never successfully recognize it and navigate through it, you will likely repeat it with new partners.

Recognizing and respecting differences in relationship

Moving through the Disillusionment and Trouble stage means either resolving or managing, and ideally coming to honour and respect differences between you and your partner. It means coming through disappointment and doubt, and sometimes mistakes or wrongdoing, with a much fuller understanding of who your partner really is, and maybe of who you really are. It may also mean a period of grieving what has been lost.

Once you’ve been through it successfully you look back on the process and you feel the pain of it, but you recognize that it was worth it, and maybe even that it was unavoidable and necessary. Many clients have described this experience to me after a few months or maybe a year of couples therapy.

Here’s an example of a couple entering the Disillusionment and Trouble stage –

Two ways of crossing the street

I was working with a new client couple by telephone. We’ll call them Joshua and Samantha. I had asked them for a specific example of a recurring conflict in their relationship. They rather sheepishly told me that they argue about how to cross the street. I assured them that even petty sounding conflicts hold the seed to greater understanding and even reconciliation, which is true; there is some wisdom in the saying “How we do something is how we do everything”.

Joshua wants to cross the street at the intersection, in accordance with the pedestrian signal. Samantha prefers to look both ways, then jaywalk mid-block rather than go to the intersection and wait for a light. Joshua felt that Samantha was putting his safety at risk by jaywalking, and this made him indignant and superior feeling. Samantha felt controlled by Joshua, and this made her angry and defiant. I could tell we’d hit a goldmine of personal and interpersonal issues and I wanted to help them find the value in it. I asked both of them to brainstorm as many possible solutions to this problem as they could, to really press their imagination. They came up with a few, but there was one, very obvious to me, that did not occur to either of them.

“How about Joshua goes to the crosswalk as per his preference, Samantha jaywalks as per her preference, and you meet up on the other side of the street in a minute or so?”

Neither Joshua nor Samantha, out of all the possible solutions, had imagined this possibility. Why not? Joshua was in the stage one relationship mode of believing that all decisions needed to be made together. Any autonomous move by either partner was seen as a threat to the partnership. Samantha too had not imagined that they could exercise their autonomy without terrible consequence. Even though she felt controlled by Joshua, she resorted to anger and defiance rather than imagining the two of them crossing the street (or presumably doing many other things) as individuals according to their own needs and preferences. This is the epitome of being stuck at the first stage of relationship, and it’s a great example of the sort of everyday circumstances that push us toward entering stage two.

As we continued to work together over a few months of weekly calls it was fascinating to see how this one example revealed so many core beliefs, so many unexamined dynamics, and, appropriately, so much disillusionment and trouble. I felt a lot of satisfaction helping this particular couple move from stage one into stage two. That’s what was happening here: a grinding progress from the falling in love stage where everything is about “togetherness”, into the Disillusionment and Trouble stage where things inevitably break down. Remember, Joshua and Samantha, when asked to brainstorm, couldn’t even imagine crossing the street on their own, in their own ways, and meeting on the other side. That illustrates just how all-encompassing that first stage of relationship can be, and how difficult, and in a way how counter-intuitive the move forward into stage two is.

What worked in stage one no longer works in stage two. That’s why my clients often describe a feeling of “banging their head against the wall”. You need the bond that you formed in stage one to help get you through stage two, but stage one skills won’t reconcile the troubles at stage two. This move nearly always includes serious self-confrontation and soul-searching, as well as new ideas, new understandings, new behaviours, and ultimately new breakthroughs.

And then you come home.

Stage three: Homecoming

The Homecoming stage is equal parts coming home to yourself and coming home to your partner. A love and respect for your partner co-exists with a love and respect for yourself. You’ve been through an initiation together, and now you are more mature. You bear wounds and scars from the journey, but they have mostly healed and you are simultaneously more strong and more tender than ever.

The Homecoming stage happens more or less spontaneously when you have sufficiently attended to the tasks of the Disillusionment and Trouble stage. Some people are pleasantly blind-sided by the Homecoming stage, even bewildered. It’s a hard thing to imagine when you’re up to your neck in disillusionment and trouble, but it is there somewhere around the corner.

The Homecoming stage marks a kind of “coming full circle”. Former versions of dependence and independence now reconcile to become interdependence. There’s a lot of talk in popular culture about interdependence in relationship and why it is a good thing, but you don’t just decide one day to become interdependent. You enter the stage of interdependence in relationship only after you have successfully fulfilled the tasks of both dependence and independence.

The Homecoming stage is loving, like the Falling in Love stage, but it is a more mature kind of love, based upon a fuller recognition and reconciliation of the reality of your relationship, including its limits. Illusions have been exposed and resolved, so this stage is more resilient and more sustainable than either of the former.

Homecoming is marked especially by a deep respect; for yourself, for your partner, and for the difficult process you have successfully navigated. From the Homecomimg perspective, the early stage of Falling in Love couldn’t embody much real respect because you hadn’t yet seen the worst of yourself and your partner show up in the relationship. If there was respect before, it was based more on surfaces or fantasies than on real lived experience.

Moving into the Homecoming stage is the reward for all your hard work and perseverance at recognizing, reconciling, tolerating, or managing differences. But not all differences are reconcilable, tolerable, or manageable… and that’s OK; it has to be. If you choose not to accept certain differences (and that’s absolutely the right choice sometimes) or if you are unable to do so, this stage will not be attainable in this particular relationship, and that’s a difficult but necessary fact to come to terms with. Not all relationships get a homecoming.

The story of Eros and Psyche

Here I want to briefly touch upon the classic Greek myth of Psyche and Eros. Psyche is a woman whom the Gods demand be sacrificed. She’s taken to a cliff where she falls. It turns out to be a fall into love. The wind carries her to Eros, the god of sexual/erotic love. Psyche becomes Eros’s lover, and she lives blissfully for a time. But the love affair has a catch: She mustn’t ever actually SEE Eros. He comes to her at night, in the dark. She can never know him fully. Eventually she becomes dissatisfied with this arrangement. She wants to know her lover. So she tricks him and lights a lamp. Here is where the Disillusionment and Trouble stage begins.

Psyche is banished from her lover, and she must accomplish a series of seemingly impossible tasks. Each time, just as all hope is lost, help comes from some unimaginable source. Eventually she beats all odds, accomplishes her tasks, and is whisked to Mount Olympus where she is rejoined with her lover Eros, but now in the form of a god herself. She has been transformed.

The symbolic relevance in this story to the three stages of relationship is uncanny. In fact, the relationship journey, in the stages I’ve laid out, bears clear resemblance to the Hero’s Journey as told in many forms: An innocent and naive protagonist leaves their familiar home, finds trouble, miraculously accomplishes seemingly impossible tasks, and then returns home initiated, transformed, matured, often scarred or wounded, and ultimately, now a gift to others in their community.

I’ve sketched out this three-stage model of relationships to give you a map for identifying where you are on this journey, where you are going, and some insights on what you might need to do to get there. But the map is not the terrain. If you want help navigating the real challenges of this terrain in your relationship, request a client information package and see if my services might be a good fit for you.

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Please feel free to add your comments and questions, and to share this video with your friends who might need it.

You can also join my private facebook discussion group to dig deeper into these topics.

All My Best,
Justice Schanfarber

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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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Opening the relationship box that changes everything

In a dark corner of the house that is your relationship there is a box. It’s always been there. You don’t talk about it. You know this box contains truths and revelations. You might not know the contents of the box specifically, but you suspect that whatever is in there will either destroy or transform your relationship, and that once you let it out it will not be put back in. You leave the box in the corner.

Over the years you do your best to manage your life and your relationship in the ways that are familiar to you, in the ways you know. Every now and then the box calls to you, sometimes in dreams, maybe if you’ve had a couple drinks, and while you might fantasize about the box briefly, you always do your best to put it out of your mind again.

But a time comes in most relationships when the pain of more-of-the-same begins to tip the scale against the fear of what is in the box, or as Anais Nin poetically states – “the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”. This is the crucible – your initiation – and there’s no going back.

Let’s face it, couples therapy is scary. It’s intimidating. It’s unknown. It is the box that you can not put a lid on once it is opened. The contents, once revealed, will demand something of you, a change, and this will not be reversed, not without consequences of its own. I have seen people try to slam the box closed with denial, dissociation, substances, and so on. But it doesn’t work, not fully, not without costs. When you stuff the contents of the box back in, it seems to bring a part of you with it, but you must contort yourself terribly to fit. Or if you close the box and escape it, it seeps out and haunts you.

So yes, couples therapy is scary. No one chooses it until they accumulate a certain combination of desperation and courage, which is what it takes to open this box that will not be closed. Fortunately, we tend not to open this box, or even to acknowledge its existence, until we have sufficient capacity to comprehend its contents. There’s a kind of grace, a perfect balance in this.

It irks me to see people – therapists, relationship experts – speak lightly of this box in the corner, as though they know its contents, as though it is a simple matter to say “Oh, that box. I know what’s in there. I have a theory that explains that box perfectly.” There is no unified theory of boxes, no guaranteed path or outcome, no box in which to put the box.

Your relationship asks tremendous things of you, and it delivers in turn, but first the contents of this box must be revealed. You will know when it is time.

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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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The masks we wear – Psychological unmasking and intimacy in the time of Covid

The masks we wear - Psychological unmasking and intimacy in the time of Covid

Hiding our unattractive parts

Each of us enters a marriage or relationship wearing masks. These masks have a necessary function: they hide the less agreeable aspects of ourselves, making us more acceptable and attractive.

The masks we wear hide our lust, our depression, our insecurity, our pathologies. Sometimes they hide our strongest abilities (if these abilities have for some reason been deemed unacceptable). They cover up our true intentions and motivations, our ambitions, our addictions and compulsions. Our masks hide our pain, our doubt, sometimes our hopes and desires. They might hide either our strength or our weakness. They hide our co-dependency, our abuse (or abusiveness), our desperation, our faith in whatever it is that we truly believe in.

Perhaps most importantly, our masks hide our fantastical imaginings, the depths of our inner world, the images that indelibly mark our heart and our psyche, that which we carry but have not actively chosen.

Deceiving our partner – Deceiving ourselves

The masks we wear allow (and require) us to deceive our partner and oftentimes ourselves. Arguably this is, for better and worse, a necessary part of courtship and of life, at least for a time. Masking is ubiquitous, and it is possible – likely in fact – that you are only dimly aware of some of the masks you wear.

While masking oneself may be a requirement of beginning a relationship, unmasking ourselves is certainly necessary for maturing it. In fact, the second stage of relationship (see my video on the three stages of relationship), sometimes called the “disillusionment stage“, could accurately be called the unmasking stage, but only if we’re willing to see it through that far.

It is perhaps our greatest accomplishment and potential in any relationship to unmask ourselves and reveal ourselves fully to our partner. In no small part this is because when we do, we are simultaneously revealed to ourselves. This homecoming is the shocking joy (and terror) of intimacy that some of us crave: knowing ourselves through our revelation to another, and vice versa.

Risking intimacy

The hunger for intimacy is the hunger for authenticity, for that which is most real and least unencumbered by the various deceptions, pretensions, obfuscations, and lies of the masked personae we encounter at every turn in life.

To be free of our masks and to discover that connection remains possible – that we can love and be loved for who we actually are in our entirety – is one of the greatest satisfactions of life and one of the greatest gifts that we can give ourselves and others, and yet it remains out of reach for most people. If we are unable or unwilling to witness, to confront, to “see”, and to reveal ourselves, with no guarantees, we can not experience unmasked intimacy.

Many people who do achieve this do so somewhat accidentally. They are cornered by life or their partner and the mask crumbles. Sometimes it makes a big mess. But we can also be pro-active in this regard; we can choose to confront our masked self rather than making our partner do it for us. You see, at some point your partner will feel your incongruence (and you theirs); they will become suspicious of you, sensing that what you present of yourself does not match their deeper intuitive experience of you. This creates rumblings and fractures. It can not be avoided forever, and it will kill or anaesthetize a relationship.

This unavoidable process begins once the “shine is off the apple”, it marks the end of the honeymoon stage, the end of innocence, and the beginning of your next initiation.

Want more authenticity and unmasked intimacy in your relationship? Check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter here).

Follow me on social media for sex and relationship tips, tools, and insights – Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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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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Soothing the Beast – A simple practice for de-escalating fight or flight reactivity in couples conflict

[I recently did a Facebook Live on this topic. The video is embedded on this page, or you can click here to watch it on my facebook page. This article is written to accompany the video.]

Good conflict and bad conflict in relationships

Conflict can be necessary and valuable in relationships when it helps a couple identify differences, develop appropriate boundaries, and facilitate constructive negotiation and agreements. But there’s a particular type of conflict that only leaves couples feeling frustrated and stuck. It’s agonizing because it repeats and repeats but it never leads anywhere, accomplishes anything, or satisfies the underlying hopes or needs of the individuals involved: To feel safe, to feel understood, to feel the possibility of moving forward.

Ten years of helping couples worldwide has taught me that if you experience this kind of “conflict loop” in your relationship you are in very good company! People don’t always talk about it, but most of us have experienced this at some point.

Because this type of conflict is a result of survival mechanisms getting activated in the nervous system, I call it “fight or flight” conflict.

Fight or flight conflict almost never delivers any positive results. Over time it erodes goodwill and turns potential allies into enemies. After we look at how to identify it, I’m going to walk you through a simple practice (I call it “soothing the beast”) for de-escalating the fight or flight responses that characterize this kind of conflict.

Identifying fight or flight conflict

Fight or flight conflict can be identified by a set of observable characteristics. Once you able to identify that this is what is happening, you can apply the practice I explain below.

Characteristics of fight or flight conflict –

  • Each of you feels “triggered”, and these triggers pass back and forth between you, escalating until you can’t think clearly.
  • Fights repeat in eerily familiar patterns, but the issue is never resolved because you can’t address it without getting triggered and reactive.
  • It feels like the worst in each of you comes out.
  • Your partner feels like an enemy, not an ally.
  • You have a visceral (body) response, during or after the conflict, ie – shaking, sobbing, numbing or freezing, feeling sick to your stomach, headaches etc.

Human beings have three distinct “operating systems”

To put this kind of conflict into context, we can think of human beings as having three distinct “operating systems.” Each of these three operating systems has their own strengths and weaknesses, and their own particular scope of concern. They are all three working in the background at any time, but usually one or another is operating in the foreground and defining your current experience.

Three human operating systems –

  1. Rational
  2. Emotional
  3. Survival

The rational OS is associated with the forebrain and is responsible for ideas and concepts, language, a sense of time, and everything we think of as “rational”.

The emotional OS is associated with the mid-brain (mammalian brain) and is responsible for forming and managing emotional bonds with others.

The survival OS is associated with the brain stem (reptilian brain) and is responsible for basic life functions and also for automatic survival reactions (fight, flight etc).

(I describe the differences in more detail with a classroom analogy in the video.)

When we can engage in conflict while still being able to retain some access to our rational and emotional operating systems we might successfully reconcile the differences or issues that are making trouble in the relationship. This is never easy to do, but the hard work can pay off. This is “good” conflict.

When the survival OS gets activated we lose access to the other two systems, and so we can not effectively consider other perspectives. We become highly reactive; a sideways glance or tone of voice can push us over the edge. We become hyper-vigilant and aggressive (or withdrawn), and our reactions are disproportionate for the situation (in hindsight). We don’t make progress in our relationship when we descend into survival mode, so we can probably agree that this is “bad” conflict.

Here’s my “soothing the beast” practice for calming the nervous system arousal that comes with the survival OS, and bringing your rational and emotional self back “online”.

Soothing the beast – A four-step practice for de-escalating fight or flight conflict

  1. One person calls “Code red” (or whatever other cue you two choose). When code red is called you both stop talking.
  2. Facing each other, take ten breaths together. This calms the nervous system and begins to build a bridge of coherence between you and your partner.
  3. Whoever called code red reports on one sensation in their body, ie: “My stomach feels tight”.
  4. The other person listens and acknowledges – “I hear your stomach feels tight” – then reports on a sensation in their own body, ie: “My face feels hot.” Repeat back and forth until your two nervous systems calm down and you can access your rational and emotional self.

Questions or comments? Leave them below.

Struggling to change conflict patterns in your relationship? Check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter here).

Follow me on social media for sex and relationship tips, tools, and insights – Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Like what you’re reading here?
You’ll love my book.
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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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Behaviour changes to improve your relationship – Three real-life examples from readers that totally hit the mark

Behaviour changes to improve your relationship

Self-awareness is great, but without changes in behaviour it doesn’t do much for a relationship. On my facebook page I recently asked “How have you changed your behaviour to improve your relationship?”

Here are three of the insightful real-life examples readers generously shared, with a few comments of my own:

“I let go of the notion that my partner must agree with me.”

“I have let go of the notion that my partner must agree with me on most issues. That has freed up a lot of energy that would otherwise have been wasted fighting over what are essentially meaningless points. I have found that my respect for her has grown, and I hope the reverse is also true.”

Finding ways to manage differences and “agree to disagree” in relationships really does free up a lot of energy, and the part about increased respect matches my observations: when couples are able to respect differences, the overall respect for each other grows.

“The sacred pause…”

“The biggest change I implemented in my behaviour is the ‘sacred pause’. This allowed me space to then look at his words/reactions with curiosity instead of reactivity.”

This is such a powerful change in behaviour, and I was curious about how it had affected interactions and outcomes in the relationship. Her answer below is a perfect example of growing out of emotional fusion and into emotional differentiation, a crucial developmental stage of relationships.

“It is still a new behaviour in a middle aged woman who spent her life in reactivity so I am not 100% with it yet, but when I am successful it means that I can either hear the actual words my husband says and/or notice that whatever energy or words that may have traditionally felt like an attack on my worthiness are either not about me at all or I can now respond thoughtfully to the interaction. My pattern was definitely to take any perceived slight or any negative energy and attack, even if the interaction had nothing to do with me. If there was negativity of any kind attached to my husband I did not feel safe and I attacked him verbally. It was very humbling for me the first few times I was successful at being able to separate myself from his energy.”

The third commenter had been working with the differences between self-regulation and co-regulation (such an important area of understanding and practice).

“I learned to shift into more self-regulation.”

“I found some awareness about myself in your article about self-regulation and co-regulation. I recognized that I used co-regulation as a tool to get out of my own discomfort and create enmeshment. I learned to shift into more self-regulation. I directly noticed a decline in the drama of our relationship.”

That got me wondering if they had experienced any loss in feelings of intimacy or closeness as a result of decreased drama (drama is often part of “the glue” in relationships, for better and for worse), so I asked.

“Some yes. When I became more solid in myself, the space between us became greater. The drama fed the tension, which fed the excitement. With less drama, the lack of a more solid connection showed. I did, and do, feel more intimate with my own self, a big win for me.”

Intimacy with one’s self is always a big win, and perhaps the best possible foundation for any relationship.

Changing behaviours in a relationship is always a matter of “catching yourself in the act” of unconscious, reflexive, habitual responses to stimuli and choosing something different in the moment. With practice and repetition new habits are formed.

How have you changed your behaviour to improve your relationship? Share your real-life examples in the comments or on my facebook page.

All My Best,
Justice

Struggling to change harmful behaviours in your relationship? Check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter here).

Follow me on social media for sex and relationship tips, tools, and insights – Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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You’ll love my book.
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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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A grief practice for healing resentment

A grief practice for healing resentment

In a recent article about resentment in relationships I suggested that the purpose of anger is to make something change or to protect a boundary. These can both be appropriate and necessary functions of anger. But there’s a third way that anger is very commonly used, and it has terrible results.

Anger as avoidance

Anger is often used to avoid sadness or grief. This habitual and unconscious use of anger wreaks havoc on personal lives and relationships.

As I’ve claimed previously, resentment is anger that got stuck. One of the main reasons that anger gets stuck is because it never properly gives way to grief.

Grief is a natural response to loss. This loss can be anything: loss of a life, a relationship, a hope, an ideal, a personal identity, a love, a fantasy, etc. Anything and everything that we hold dear can be lost.

When we use anger to avoid feeling grief, the anger tends to get stuck because the necessary grieving never happens.

If you don’t know how to grieve, you will likely be plagued with resentment. Probably you developed a life strategy early on that displaced grieving and put anger (or maybe numbness) in grief’s proper place.

A brief story to illustrate –

Candace and Matthew were in their third or fourth telephone session with me. Married for over thirty years, Matthew’s early behaviours as a young man in the marriage (drinking, going out constantly, ignoring and neglecting Candace) became a source of resentment for Candace. Even though Matthew had “grown up” and changed his behaviour significantly for the past decade, Candace’s resentment persisted, and had come to largely define the relationship.

Matthew was tired of being resented. He readily admitted that his behaviour used to be awful, but ten years after the fact he thought he deserved some warmth and forgiveness. He had apologized and tried to make amends in every way he knew how. Frankly, he had done a pretty good job.

About half way through our session, while I facilitated an exercise between them, something emerged spontaneously for Candace; an insight. “Every time I make a request to Matthew, or a complaint, there’s a meanness. It’s like a poisonous barb that I attach to every interaction.”

We talked for a while about vulnerability and emotional intimacy, and Candace broke down. “I’m never vulnerable with Matthew. Or anyone. My anger is stuck in me. It’s that poisonous barb. I got hurt so badly. But I am seeing that I have never really showed Matthew my hurt. I could blame him for this, say he isn’t trustworthy, but I don’t think it’s really true. The truth is I don’t know how to express hurt feelings without attaching that, that… barb.”

The “angry barb” that Candace described had driven Matthew away, to the point of near despondency. Witnessing Candace as she felt her pain and confronted her inability to grieve was like healing balm for Matthew. For the first time, the thing that had come to define their marriage was being named, was being addressed.

Candace was sobbing. She was sobbing for all that she had lost, not just because of Matthew’s earlier behaviour, but for all that was lost through a lifetime of her disconnection to her own grief. The floodgates opened and I knew things would never be quite the same for her, or for the marriage.

In this example Candace was “ripe” for the insight she received. Her grief had been ripening beneath her anger for who knows how long, presumably for her entire life.

The move from anger to grief can’t be forced, but it can be encouraged, supported.

In service to helping you move past the resentment in your life and relationship, try this embodied grief practice.

  1. Start with feeling sensations in your body. Where do you feel resentment or anger? In your belly? Your chest? Your fists? Your face? Usually anger shows up as tightness or constriction, so let yourself feel the tightness. Stay with that sensation of tightness for a few moments. Then slowly, intentionally, soften the place in your body that is tight.
  2. Watch for any small sign of sadness. Usually a trace of it will appear. Notice how you manage the sadness, how you resist it. Maybe you tense up around it. Maybe there are words in your mind that try to manage it. Just notice.
  3. Do whatever you need to do to allow the sadness to exist. If you felt anger or resentment in your body, the sadness exists somewhere in relation to it. The sadness is beneath the anger, or above it, or within the anger, or beside. If the anger felt hot, the sadness might feel cool. Or maybe the sadness shows up as words or an image in your mind. Let it be there, follow it, nourish and encourage it. This will feel strange if you’re used to avoiding it.
  4. The sadness wants to move your body in some way. Maybe you bend forward or curl into a ball. Maybe you squish your face up and cry, or cradle yourself in some way. Notice how the sadness wants to move your body. Let it.

Work with this practice. Notice how your resentment or anger interacts with your sadness. Keep making room for your sadness; rather than repressing it, give it room to express itself. Over time your sadness may connect you to grief, to what you have lost. Let it.

At the grief level, sadness is like a rollercoaster, or like riding the rapids in a river raft. You let it take you. You are not in control of it. This loss of control is the main reason we develop an anger strategy in the first place. Part of a grief practice is submitting to being moved by feeling; this is something many people have spent their lives avoiding.

If you do this repeatedly, over time, old resentments (stuck anger) can turn to grief and move through you. If you want help, consider working with a therapist who understands this process. I’m happy to email you a client package by request.

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

Struggling to reconcile resentment in your relationship? Check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter 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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“How can I be free of the resentment I feel for my partner?”

"How can I be free of the resentment I feel for my partner?"

Resentment is anger that got stuck.

The purpose of anger is to make something change, to protect a boundary, or to bring something into alignment quickly.

Long-term resentment in relationships happens when anger didn’t get expressed or, for one reason or another, did not bring the desired result.

Moving through resentment means revisiting the anger that got stuck. Is it current? Does it want or need something now? Is there a change that still needs to happen? Is there a boundary that still needs protecting?

If there is change that still needs to happen, attend to it. If there is a boundary being breached, protect it.

If your resentment is old news, if it has no current needs, then it might be time to grieve whatever was lost. That’s an important part of moving past resentment; grieving. This is the part that so often gets missed, and one of the reasons that resentment persists.

If your old anger was ineffective at protecting your boundaries or making a needed change, you probably ended up losing something. Maybe it was a feeling of safety that was lost. Maybe it was dignity. Or feeling understood. Or maybe you lost a relationship, or an aspect of a relationship. Maybe you lost a part of yourself. Maybe you don’t even know exactly what was lost.

To recap, resentment lingers for two main reasons –

  1. The change or protection functions of anger did not accomplish their desired result.
  2. Consciously or unconsciously, we would rather remain angry at what remains undone than grieve what was lost.

This presents us with two possible paths –

  1. Attend to whatever your anger asked and is continuing to ask of you. Deal with what is current.
  2. Grieve.

Grieving is hard for many people, for so many reasons. It can also be completely unknown, a mystery. You might need to learn how to grieve. Consider this possibility, and in the meantime I’ll work on putting together a basic grief “practice” that you can try.

[Update – You can read the follow-up here.]

All my best,
Justice

PS – Make sure you have signed up for my email updates if you want to get the next part of this.

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

Struggling to reconcile resentment in your relationship? Check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter 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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Is it true? “We can only change when we’re in an environment where we are accepted and loved as we are.”

Is it true? "We can only change when we’re in an environment where we are accepted and loved as we are."

I recently came across one of those relationship memes you see on facebook. It says –

“We can only change when we’re in an environment where we are accepted and loved as we are.”

I’m taking the time to comment on this claim and share my thoughts with you because this statement isn’t just a random social media musing… It comes from one of the most influential couples therapy authors and trainers in America today. It is emblematic of the times, and it reflects the assumptions and attitudes of the majority of couples therapists on the continent. I gave it some thought, and I find it deeply troubling for three reasons:

  1. It claims absolute truth. It leaves no room for exception, paradoxical complexity, or nuance.
  2. It’s hopelessly idealistic and perfectionistic. Couples who are struggling and desperate for change are incapable of accepting and loving each other “as they are”. While it might be a worthy goal, the reality is that getting there usually involves a LOT of friction.
  3. It’s demonstrably not true.

Change happens all the time in environments where we are NOT accepted and loved as we are. Think about it for thirty seconds and you will likely come up with examples from your own life. In fact, it is often the pressure that a partner puts on us that makes us examine our own integrity and values. It is within this conflict (even outright rejection or hostility) that we shape our ability to self-validate and discover our boundaries, and to respect our partner for theirs. In other words, an argument could be made for precisely the opposite of this statement!

Frankly, some things about our partner may not be acceptable. Some aspects of them (or us) might not be particularly lovable. And guess what? This is part of the dance of relationship. And it’s a dance where the possibility of change continues to remain ever present.

Yes, full love and acceptance in a relationship is obviously desirable. Of course it is. But this comes as a byproduct of going through the fires of disillusionment and struggle, not by bypassing them.

Internalizing this statement as truth is potentially worse than useless, it can be harmful. Why? Because, like so many other versions of spiritual bypassing (yes, I see this as a form of spiritual bypass), it implicitly encourages us to lie – to ourselves and others – about how we really feel. It justifies denial and avoidance rather than encouraging us to work with the struggle we actually find ourselves in, as it is. With almost religious, puritanical fervor it claims exclusive access to the one path, the one truth, the one “light”.

Please, test statements like these against your own experience before accepting them as fact, and take them with a big grain of salt.

And consider, we can (and do) continue to change in ALL SORTS of environments.

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

Interested in making positive changes no matter what your current relationship environment? Check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter here).

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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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“I lost myself in my marriage”

I lost myself in my marriage

My couples counselling clients often tell me “I lost myself in the relationship” or “I lost my identity in my marriage”. By the time they are able to clearly articulate this feeling they have often already detached from their partner (but not always).

One of the questions I ask them is “Can you imagine claiming your own identity within this marriage? What would that require of you?”

A life without a self is not an option

Most people will not tolerate a life without a self. A psychological survival instinct will kick in eventually and say “You’ve lost yourself. Get out”. With today’s increasing personal autonomy and options, and a growing sense of the importance of self-identity within the culture at large, few people are willing to sacrifice their sense of self for a marriage.

Interestingly, in my couples counselling practice it is the partner (in hetero relationships it’s usually the man) of the person who lost their self-identity (usually the woman, often tied to mothering) who is often the biggest champion and supporter for their partner re-claiming their identity. Perhaps surprisingly, this encouraging stance is not generally met with much receptivity, and is often met with hostility. Why? Because by this point the lost-identity partner is already fantasizing about a new life, a life free from the self-erasure of their marriage. They’ve already broken the bond and are out the door.

The film “Marriage Story” is an example

Early detection is crucial. In Noah Baumbach’s film Marriage Story the wife, Nicole, has clearly lost herself in the marriage. (For some interesting discussion on the themes in this film, see my facebook page here). By the time this begins to get explicitly addressed in the relationship it is too late. She is done.

The trouble is that losing yourself in a marriage or relationship happens slowly, little by little. We can tolerate the small compromises one-by-one. We don’t even notice them. But they build until a tipping point is reached.

Starring roles and supporting roles

An insightful colleague has suggested to me that in all relationships one person plays the “star” character or leading role and the other plays the supporting role. I’m not convinced that this is always the case, but it’s certainly true often enough to warrant attention.

Is there a starring role and a supporting role in your marriage? How do you feel about this? Discussing this with your partner is one way to help protect yourself against the lost-identity crisis. All relationships contain asymmetries of some type and it’s up to you to stay current (with yourself and your partner) about your comfort with these asymmetries, and to negotiate them before resentment builds.

If you occupy the starring role in the relationship, you will be wise to give your partner some of the limelight, a share of the power, to make compromises that allow them to feel solid in their own identity.

Protecting your relationship from a “lost-identity” crisis

There’s a particular complicity that takes over many relationships and is typically only visible in hindsight, after it’s too late. The lost-identity or “supporting role” partner will abdicate their own responsibility for advocating for themselves. This abdication is often correlated with low self-esteem, low self-confidence, passive/aggressive strategies for obtaining love, and other unconscious, unresolved issues. The dominant or “starring role” partner is complicit when they ignore or “don’t notice” that their partner is betraying themselves, is living small, is unhappy, and is growing resentful.

The lost-identity partner (unconsciously) believes that if they live small and let the dominant partner enjoy the spotlight eventually it will work out well. The starring-role partner interpretes this as “support” and active willingness (even though it is not), and is shocked when they find themselves blamed for their partner’s loss of self-identity. By this time the whole thing has gone on for so long that much damage has been done, and it can be difficult to recover.

Recovering from losing yourself in relationship

For couples trying to recover from this predicament –

The lost-identity partner must confront their own responsibility for giving their identity away, and recognize the limits of their partner’s responsibility.

The starring-role partner must confront their own self-centredness and complicit denial in the dynamic.

These are both critically important steps, and can be a long process to complete. The role of each partner in this case is never simply about their behaviour in this particular relationship, rather they come to examine deeper psychological patterns of superiority, inferiority, the handling of power, blame etc.

As difficult as this scenario is, when couples are able to work through it they come to the other side at a new level of personal maturity and integrity. If a couple is unable or unwilling to work through it, each individual is likely to repeat the pattern unless they do significant work on the issue individually before beginning a new relationship.

To learn more about recovering your self-hood in relationships check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter here).

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

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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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Radio interview – “Love is not enough: Why good boundaries make good relationships”

The recording of my radio interview with Sue Lundquist is now live (Click here or on the image below to listen now)

Love is Not Enough – Why good boundaries make good relationships

Emotional empathy is often touted as a relationship panacea, but there’s another piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked. In this episode Justice Schanfarber makes a case for the value of emotional boundaries in relationships. Join us as we explore –

  • The dark side of empathy
  • How boundaries can actually bring us closer in relationship
  • The personal development drive in relationships
  • Why good boundaries make for better intimacy
  • The one type of boundary that must be understood for relationships to grow

Sue and I ended up covering the outline above, and so much more, including –

Click on the image at the top of the page to listen to the recording, or click here to go to the soundcloud page and listen. Please let me know what you think of our conversation!

To learn more about boundaries in relationships check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter here).

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

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Read the first 10 pages free.

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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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How to have an interdependent relationship

How to have an interdependent relationship

Interdependence in relationships – How do we get there from here?

It’s easy to be an advocate for the virtue of interdependence in relationships. You give some, you take some, you can count on each other… what’s not to love.

The word itself has a distinctly modern ring (it peaked in popularity around 1980 and is still going strong), implying a kind of balance that many of us today crave, and reflecting the non-hierarchical ideal so popular in these times.

Interdependence is indeed an apt descriptor for relationships that are resilient, balanced, and mutually enjoyable and supportive for the people in them, and interdependence is a worthy vision and a worthy goal. But how to get there? Do you just decide “From now on I’m going to have an interdependent relationship!”?

Likely not. If interdependence is to thrive in a relationship, first the stages of both dependence and independence will probably have to be sufficiently navigated.

Interdependence comes after dependence and independence

Interdependence in relationships isn’t really a choice, it’s a developmental milestone, a marker of maturity. You don’t just one day choose to be interdependent in relationship (though your choices in general will factor), you grow into being interdependent in relationship.

To grow into a state of relationship interdependence there are, for most of us, prerequisites. One of these prerequisites is experiencing a sufficient amount of dependence in relationships. The other prerequisite is experiencing sufficient independence in a relationship. Now, if you’re a born relationship genius, a Mozart of the interpersonal realm, maybe you can skip these steps, but the rest of us are more or less bound to a certain developmental path.

Interdependence isn’t some mid-ground between being dependent and being independent; it’s a whole different level, one that is potentially reached after accomplishing the tasks at the prior (lower) levels of dependence and independence.

Dependence and independence are both negative and positive

All of us begin our life journey completely dependent on our mother (or a sufficient surrogate). In this sense dependence comes naturally. At some point we grow toward independence; we begin to recognize ourselves as separate from mother. Depending on how we come to understand our experiences, dependence and independence have negative, positive or ambivalent connotations in our life, and we bring these into our intimate adult relationships.

It is in our adult relationships that we work through our issues (most of us have them) around dependence and independence. Hopefully we learn healthy modes of both: how to lean on our partner, have them lean on us, and also how to stand on our own two feet, and allow our partner to do the same. There are healthy and necessary aspects to both modes of being in relationship.

Independence, dependence, or both?

It’s not uncommon to have strong negative associations with dependence or independence or both. Both have a dark side and a light side. Dependency can include generosity, support, and understanding. It can also include manipulation, smothering, and powerlessness. Independence can include self confidence, emotional differentiation, and freedom. It can also include isolation, disconnection, and arrogance.

Put another way, most of us have a complicated relationship with either (or both) dependence or independence. We have to reconcile ourselves with both before we can proceed to the next level.

Some of the positive qualities we can learn through dependence include –

Some of the positive qualities we can learn through independence include –

  • Personal responsibility
  • Boundaries
  • Accountability
  • Appreciation for solitude
  • Self-regulation

The level of interdependence we can achieve in our relationship hinges upon how well we have integrated the best of both dependence AND independence, and how we have reconciled ourselves with our negative experiences of both. If you want to move toward greater interdependence, take an inventory of your skills in the areas of dependence and independence. Identify the gaps, work on them, and you will be working toward interdependence.

To learn more about interdependence in relationships check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter here).

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

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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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How need kills desire in relationships

How neediness kills desire in relationships

You can want and you can need, but you can’t want and need at the same time

As long as you are focused on “getting your needs met” you will remain out of touch with the forces of desire (sexual and otherwise). You never really connect with what you WANT when you are preoccupied with what you NEED.

“I need you to be more considerate.”
“I need you to clean up.”
“I need you to touch me more.”

We default to the position of need in order to emphasize urgency and importance. The inner voice says “It’s not enough to have preferences and wants, you’ll have to express your NEED for something or it will remain out of reach.”

In fact, if we constantly default to the position of need, we never discover our desire. Many times this is no accident. Many people are frightened or mistrustful of desire, of wanting. They might advocate for their needs, but communicating their desires would be too much.

Wanting is harder than needing

Communicating desires rather than needs makes some people feel selfish or guilty. Additionally, a person who has oriented entirely around needs often has no idea what they actually desire, and they are afraid to face this fact: “I don’t know what I want.”

As I’ve suggested in a recent article, people in highly enmeshed relationships with co-dependent tendencies have difficulty connecting to their own desires because they are overly concerned with what is happening “over there” in their partner.

Facing the truth of what we want, of our desires, is fraught with obstacles. And then there is actually naming our desires, telling our partner what we want.

Making clear requests based on desire or want is quite different from making requests based on needs. Need-based requests sound like demands. They are necessary at times, but like antibiotics they lose their effectiveness when overused.

Need and want sound like they could be close neighbours, but they’re entirely different neighbourhoods. The two can not be at the fore simultaneously. We are connected to one at a time only, and if we’re used to locating ourselves in the place of need we will be strangers to the land of want.

To be clear, need and neediness are not avoidable in life and relationship, and they require their own kind of attention, but it’s important to also be able to discern between need and want, and to make room for wanting.

Today, try using desire-based language (“I want”) rather than need-based language, first in your own mind, and then with your partner. See what happens. Let me know how it goes.

All My Best,
Justice Schanfarber

To learn more about neediness and desire in relationships check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter here).

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

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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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Are “expectations” bad for relationships?

Are "expectations" bad for relationships?

Is it OK to have expectations in a relationship?

Show me a relationship without expectations and I’ll show you a relationship built upon denial, passive-aggressive behaviours, rageful outbursts, and/or quiet despair.

We all have expectations of our partner whether we admit it or not. Acknowledging our expectations to ourselves and our partner means risking difficult conversations and even conflict. It means identifying and communicating our boundaries. This isn’t everyone’s strong point, so many people will avoid confronting their own expectations until things become unbearable, at which point they may suddenly leave the relationship.

Other people haven’t yet discovered that expectations are a normal and necessary part of relationships, so they twist themselves in knots trying to not expect anything. It’s as though having expectations is some kind of failure of character.

Still other people have extraordinary and unrealistic expectations that are bound to eventually make trouble in the relationship. These kinds of expectations are often unconscious, unexamined, and unarticulated, though I’ve worked with some individuals who demonstrably believe themselves to be entitled to their unrealistic and unfair expectations of their partner. In these cases it can be useful to explore where these expectations came from and to re-assess their legitimacy.

It’s helpful to get clear on what your expectations of your partner are, and to name them explicitly. Then you can assess them and decide which ones to discard and which to stand by. Which of your expectations are reasonable? Which are unreasonable? Which are downright ridiculous? (It’s OK to have a laugh at yourself!). Which are negotiable? Which are non-negotiable? Again, having no expectations (like having no boundaries) isn’t really an option in a healthy, vital, reciprocally satisfying relationship.

Ultimately everyone has to determine for themselves which of their expectations (and their partner’s) are reasonable or unreasonable, but I do have some ideas on the topic to share –

What are reasonable expectations in a relationship?

Some examples of expectations that fall into the category of reasonable –

  • I expect my partner to tell me the truth about their feelings and intentions.
  • I expect my partner to do what they say they will do, or offer an explanation when they are unable to follow through on their commitments.
  • I expect my partner to apologize and genuinely feel sorry when they mis-step and hurt me.
  • I expect my partner to reveal enough of their inner world to me that I can feel emotionally intimate with them.
  • I expect my partner to be able to hear my perspectives even when they differ from their own.

What are unreasonable expectations?

Some examples of expectations that fall into the category of unreasonable –

  • I expect my partner to read my mind or know more about my inner world than I can articulate.
  • I expect my partner to reveal everything about their inner world all the time.
  • I expect my partner to get all their needs met by me and to meet all my needs.
  • I expect my partner to always match my level of either emotionality or rationality.
  • I expect my partner to see the world pretty much exactly as I do.

The question isn’t whether you have expectations of your partner (you do, even if you don’t recognize it), it’s whether you are conscious of these expectations and willing to articulate them clearly. Also, you don’t have to immediately affirm or discard your expectations. Start by recognizing them. Name them. Live with them for a while and continue to examine them in the context of your relationship, then decide which ones you need to hold on to and which ones you want to let go of; just be honest with yourself about the difference.

To learn more about managing expectations in relationships, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples.

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

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Approval seeking in relationships

Approval seeking in relationships

Approval seeking or authentic generosity?

There’s a difference between authentic generosity and approval seeking. There’s a difference between an act of sacrifice based on having much to give and an act of sacrifice that is based on your inner bereftness and desperate need for acceptance.

The trouble is that while the differences and the implications of the differences between these two sets of motivations are huge, it’s still easy to confuse one for the other. This confusion happens when we mistake our own intentions and motivations and it happens when we mistake the intentions and motivations of our partner.

Abundance vs scarcity

Authentic generosity is an act of abundance. A generous partner is in touch with their own self worth, so they are not seeking it from their partner.

Approval seeking is an act of scarcity. An approval seeking partner abdicates their own needs and desires repeatedly, in the hopes that by giving what they don’t actually have they will one day feel “good enough”.

Authentically generous partners are rich with positive self-regard, and so they can afford to make compromises and sacrifices in order to support their partner’s needs and desires.

Approval seeking partners are lacking in positive self-regard, and so have little to really give. They operate at an ongoing energy deficit, constantly giving more than they really have to give, hoping that one day their sacrifices will pay off.

Authentically generous partners are honest (with themselves and others) about their giving abilities, and they give with no strings attached. They can also choose not to give when giving would harm or deplete themselves, and they can be straightforward about their decision.

Default giving

Approval seeking partners are not honest with themselves or their partners about their giving abilities. They will bleed themselves dry, and there are always strings attached. Approval seeking partners operate in a giving default.

It’s worth noting, the kind of generosity or “giving” I refer to is broad and multiple: time, energy, attention, sex, money, etc.

Two different worlds

An authentically generous person will likely be confused and disbelieving when they discover that their approval seeking partner gives only in hopes of gaining something in return. An approval-seeking person will likely be confused and disbelieving when they discover that their authentically generous partner is able to give without reservation and without hopes of obtaining self-esteem in the exchange.

The approval seeking partner is likely also to feel bewildered at their authentically generous partner’s ability to say no when needed and to reserve their time, energy, sexuality, money or praise in times of deficit. Saying “no” for reasons of self-care is not in the approval-seeking partner’s lexicon; instead they blame their partner for their own exhaustion and lack.

Approval seekers wonder “Am I lovable?”

Approval seeking in relationships very often comes down to a worry that one is not fundamentally lovable. The approval seeking partner is constantly testing their lovability, constantly trying to prove or secure their lovability. For this individual the stakes are very high.

The authentically generous person knows they are fundamentally lovable. They do not doubt this.

When I work with couples where one partner reveals their doubt of their own lovability, the other person is often shocked. They can not imagine such a sad state. It takes some time for them to consider the ramifications, to come to terms with their partner’s view of themselves and of the world. There might also be a sense of relief; certain behaviours are finally understood.

The approval seeking partner in a relationship begins to make strides in their own development (and integrity) the moment they recognize their motives. From here they might change not only their behaviours in the relationship, but they might also confront their own inner world, their emptiness, their grief, their rage. This is important work.

Broadening the lens

For the sake of clarity I’ve sketched out one particular dynamic in its simplest form: The authentically generous partner who believes in their own goodness and lovability and is able to give (or not) from a place of abundance, integrity, and self-respect, and the approval seeking partner who constantly has to test or prove their own goodness and lovability and gives only from a place of scarcity and self-doubt.

I’ve used an extreme either/or polarized relationship dynamic here for showing contrast, and this dynamic shows up a lot in real relationships, but other variations also show up, ie – authentic generosity and approval-seeking are not necessarily hard-wired, mutually exclusive absolutes; a person may fluctuate between these two states at different times. Two people in relationship may fluctuate between these two states at different times, sometimes “tagging off” one for the other based on unconscious cues shared between one another.

Sometimes there is no authentically generous person in a relationship; both people are stuck in approval seeking mode. When the limits of this dynamic are reached the relationship implodes with a particular intensity.

The point here is to identify when you are giving from a place of true abundance and integrity, and when your giving is fused to approval seeking, with its correlated exhaustion and resentment. Consider this individually, and also have a conversation with your partner. What insights do they have for you? How do they experience your giving, and their own?

To learn more about approval seeking in relationships read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples.

Have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

All My Best,
Justice Schanfarber

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Differentiation and enmeshment in relationships

Differentiation and enmeshment in relationships

Differentiation is not distancing

Most couples therapy in North America today prioritizes attachment, partner soothing, other-validation, and empathizing techniques, and so people are sometimes surprised when I talk about the need for differentiation in relationships.

To the uninitiated, differentiation is often confused with distancing, but it actually makes the opposite possible: In order to remain in close proximity to others (especially our primary partner) when emotions are running high, we must have achieved a certain level of emotional differentiation. Differentiation is what allows us to remain close to others in emotionally turbulent times.

If we have not yet achieved a sufficient level of emotional differentiation one of two things will happen when we are faced with a partner’s emotional volatility –

We withdraw. Without sufficient differentiation our nervous system can not handle our partner’s strong emotional experience, and so our body sends us a visceral message: Retreat!

or

We become enmeshed. We lose hold of our own emotional equilibrium as an individual and we merge emotionally with our partner. We can no longer differentiate between their emotions and our own emotions. We become a single emotional unit.

Withdrawing, distancing, or avoidance is sometimes mistakenly associated with differentiation because these behaviours appear to be the opposite of enmeshment, but withdrawing (distancing, avoidance) is generally a symptom of too little emotional differentiation rather than too much.

Enmeshment and co-dependency: The dark side of empathy

Emotional enmeshment (commonly called co-dependency) is often conflated with empathy. Actually, co-dependency IS a form of empathy, it’s just not a very favourable form of empathy. Empathy, often touted as the cure-all in couples therapy, has a dark side too; without emotional boundaries (differentiation) empathy devolves into co-dependent feelings and behaviours.

Dependence, Independence, Interdependence

Another way to understand differentiation is in terms of dependence, independence, and interdependence in relationships.

Long term relationships move through a set of predictable stages: dependence gives way to independence, independence gives way to interdependence. These are developmental stages that we all must navigate in sequence. They mirror the developmental stages of infancy and adolescence. In early life we are enmeshed with the mother (dependency). Slowly we develop our independence, sometimes as a reflexive action or protest against our dependency (think teenage rebellion). Eventually, if we do our personal work, we arrive at interdependence.

Flexibility is the key to interdependence in relationships: The people involved are strongly rooted in their own emotional autonomy AND they are able to meet each other empathetically. They can show up for each other emotionally without being blown away or drawn into the other’s emotional storm.

Differentiation and desire

In relationships characterized by interdependence and high levels of emotional differentiation the need for either enmeshment or distance has been effectively resolved, and the way is now paved for desire to flourish. The issue of desire is an interesting sidebar to the idea of differentiation –

Low levels of emotional differentiation are associated with neediness in relationships.

High levels of emotional differentiation are associated with desire in relationships.

Neediness preempts desire. There is generally not room for both. We don’t get to experience much real desire until we have sufficiently attended to our neediness. I’m not talking exclusively about sexual desire here (though that is definitely a part of the picture); I’m talking about knowing what you want as distinct from what you need. The difference is profound, and profoundly confusing for those who have little direct experience with emotional differentiation.

Need Vs. Want

Something I see again and again with client couples is that people who lean heavily toward the enmeshed end of the spectrum think mostly in terms of getting needs met, and do not know how to respond when asked for specifics about what they want or desire.

I recently suggested on my facebook page that “Sometimes our most difficult relationship issues boil down to a personal ability to say yes and no and to feel solid in either. This simple-sounding thing causes lifetimes of distress.” What I am speaking to here is the presence or absence of emotional differentiation.

Without sufficient differentiation we are not connected to what we truly want, to our genuine desires. In our enmeshment with our partner, we are always playing a guessing game, trying to manipulate outcomes to get our needs met, and so we are never able to stand solidly in what we are a YES to and what we are a NO to. A solid yes and a solid no are rooted in knowing what we WANT, and that want gets obscured when we are scrambling to get what we believe we need.

About the image at the top of the page

The image at the top of the page in some ways exemplifies what we are talking about here. In order to strengthen the connection between the ideas in the image and the ideas in this article we might add a developmental lens, ie – in the first quadrant (upper left) we could say that yes, our boundary is breached, but it’s also quite likely that we haven’t yet developed the differentiation boundary. Differentiation is of course a boundary, a very important and particular kind of boundary.

The next image is captioned “Rediscover Boundaries”, but it’s quite possible that differentiation boundaries have not yet been developed, so for our purposes we could also say this is about developing or discovering boundaries for the first time.

In the final image (lower right quadrant) we see a visual example of differentiation in action.

[Note – I do not know who created this image and so unfortunately I can not provide attribution.]

To learn more about differentiation and enmeshment in relationships, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples.

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

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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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From rage to grief in a relationship

From rage to grief in relationships

His rage was that of an abandoned child. At 55 years old, he was no longer that abandoned child, but the child consciousness lived on within him. Rage had flared throughout his life and was now threatening to end his marriage. His wife of thirty years had had enough; she would no longer bear witness (or brunt) to the rage of the man she had shared a life with. From this time onward, something would change. Either he found his way beyond rage, or he would proceed upon life’s journey without her company.

She was finally very clear about the line she had drawn. It was a boundary thirty years in the making. (This is how our most important boundaries often form, slowly, over time). It broke her heart, but nourished her soul.

He quickly recognized her clarity, and he believed what she told him. It infuriated him initially, but he also came to respect her for taking this position and standing up for her own well-being. If only he had been able to stand up for himself with such surety and self-respect. How many times had he resorted to rage-ful defiance instead of a mature integrity over the course of his own life? Reflecting upon his inability flooded him with shame, the feeling his rage had protected him from.

Rage becomes grief

I witnessed this man break, facing his loss, and no longer able to fend off the feelings of shame. His breaking continued over the course of weeks. He broke and broke and broke. His breaking became grief.

He grieved at his weakness. He grieved for his misdeeds, his lost opportunities, his unfulfilled potential. He grieved for his children and their experiences of him as a father. Finally he grieved for his own inner hurt child, an act he never could have imagined before.

In his grief a strange thing happened. The man softened. Grief had taken the place of rage in his heart. Was it better? It was different. Time would tell.

Rage is arrogance. Grief is humility.

Rage is arrogance; grief is humility. Rage can feel like power; grief is often fraught with shame. The two experiences appear (and feel) oppositional, and yet they are also linked. What is the thread that connects them?

This kind of grief takes time to ripen. It comes from and connects us to the depths. Not everyone is ready for this, and so rage finds an easy way in.

Any three year old can rage, and a three year old’s rage doesn’t look much different from a 55 year old’s. Grief is different. I don’t mean to diminish a child’s grief, but a long life somehow adds its own weight, and the longer one lives without feeling their grief, the more weighty it becomes.

Rage displaces grief

Rage covers over grief like anger covers over sadness, and by the time rage is all used up grief will be fully ripened. It hits like waves, breaking over us and breaking us in ways that rage never did.

Rage propped us, propelled us.
Grief sinks us.

Rage is surface – the skin flushes, fists clench.
Grief is deep – the heart breaks, gut aches.

Rage fills us.
Grief hollows us out.

Rage may persist as the primary force in a life until grief matures and steps up to take its place. Or maybe rage burns itself out, falls away, and reveals the grief underlying. Either way, the story of rage finally giving way to grief is a common story, a shared path, a sacred journey.

Not everyone takes the same path, but if you find yourself on this one I hope this piece of writing gives you some kind of orientation, some understanding, some company. (This story is about a man, but it is commonly a woman’s story too.)

To learn more about navigating relationship difficulties, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples.

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

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It’s not a fact, it’s a feeling. (So it can’t be wrong)

It's not a fact, it's a feeling. (So it can't be wrong)

When your partner feels sad, angry, disappointed or otherwise “upset”, do you try to talk them out of the feeling? Do you give them lots of reasons why they shouldn’t feel this way? Are you afraid of them being upset at you? If this is you, you are fighting a losing battle. Here’s why –

Feelings aren’t facts

Feelings aren’t facts, which means they’re unarguable. Some feelings might be more desirable than others, but no feeling can be right or wrong. The source of a feeling might be debatable, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves (and upon close examination the source of feelings tends to shift elusively). First things first: we have to accept that our partner feels what they feel. Why do we have to accept this? Because feelings aren’t arguable. We can never win at that game, and there’s a very good reason that we shouldn’t bother trying –

Two operating systems: Feeling and thinking

When we argue against our partner’s feelings, which part of ourselves do we employ? Usually we employ our thinking; we use reason to argue why our partner should not feel how they feel. We pit our reason against our partner’s emotions, our thinking against their feeling. This is an important point because reason and emotion are like two different operating systems, and they are not very compatible. In fact, emotion and reason are each associated with different parts of the brain, and these parts of the brain have different functions and different architectures.

(Note – I am using the words feeling and emotion interchangeably here for convenience, but they are technically distinct from one another. It’s easy to find information on this online.)

Feelings aren’t rational

Feelings, by definition, are not rational. This does not mean they are not legitimate. We don’t actually choose our feelings, so trying to assess their legitimacy is a futile approach. If you find yourself de-legitimizing your partner’s feelings (or your own) you’re just avoiding some necessary work and prolonging your disconnection and suffering. Once you drop the hopeless exercise of deeming feelings legitimate or not, you might be able to take on the more relevant task of developing more tolerance for them.

Feelings aren’t behaviours

While feelings do not conform to judgements about legitimacy or right and wrong, behaviours do. A feeling is not a behaviour, but feelings often lead to behaviours. In fact, the association between certain feelings and behaviours can be very strong. This is another reason why it is important to meet feelings on their own terms first, and then assess the behaviours or impulses that go with the feeling.

For example, anger needs to be accepted as it is, but yelling may be judged as unacceptable.

Feeling craves feeling

Feeling does not respond well to the language of reason. Someone having strong feelings might say they wish to be understood, but as long as “understood” activates the operating system of reason you remain in a losing game. What feeling actually wants is more feeling. Feeling wishes to be met with feeling. When feeling is met only with reason, feeling tends to turn up the volume… “Can you hear me now?!”.

Do you feel something too?

A person who is having strong feelings does not want your analysis of their feelings. They want to see that their feelings make you feel something too. That’s what they really mean when they say they want to be understood; they want to be felt. They want their emotions to have a visible emotional impact on you. Why? Following the analogy, operating systems need to interact with similar operating systems or else incompatibility issues arise.

Departing from the OS analogy, physiologically it probably has something to do with nervous system regulation. What we know in our head, intellectually, consciously, does not necessarily translate into the body, where your nervous system and emotion resides. A person who is having a strong uncomfortable emotional experience and wants your understanding is seeking your help in co-regulating their nervous system. Things are getting overwhelming inside, and if they sense that you “get” them, it helps them calm down. It’s about soothing.

Psychologically speaking they perhaps seek a deeper connection, a desire to be seen and known, to be acknowledged in their multitudinous shades, moods, and incarnations. Chances are, even if they are upset with you, the feelings run deeper than that, and they want, even unconsciously, to touch into the source of their emotion, and they want you as a witness and ally, someone to hold the space for them to feel what they feel, so that they might perhaps reconcile something from their past, shine a light on the mystery of their feeling, or find meaning in their suffering. This is a form of intimacy.

Why would they need or want you for this? Because you are a meaningful figure in their life, perhaps the most meaningful. They have given their heart to you. They want to see if you are capable of holding it. They hope you are, but they’ll test you until you prove it. At some level this dynamic is present in many relationships, rarely named, but present and actively running the show.

Don’t pretend your feelings are rational

A person having a strong emotional experience doesn’t help their cause when they insist that they are coming from a rational place. We live in a culture that tends to value rational thought over feeling, so many people reflexively try to justify their feelings by presenting them as rational. Ultimately this is counterproductive and only adds confusion to the situation.

You don’t have to rationalize your feelings. Remember, feelings are unarguable and by definition non-rational. But they are fundamentally legitimate. Don’t start digging up a bunch of evidence to justify what you feel. And don’t automatically turn feelings into demands, criticisms, judgements or regrettable behaviours. It isn’t necessary, and it just creates more operating system incompatibility within yourself and between the two of you.

Instead, see if you can parse out the feeling part of yourself, feel it fully, communicate it effectively, and then move into whatever requests or complaints you might have for your partner rather than bundling the whole thing into one package and dumping it their feet. Hint – You can be sure you’ve tangled up emotion and reason when you find yourself saying things like “You always…” and “You never…”.

Communicating feelings

A benefit of certain communication methods and practices (ie – talking stick, active listening, non-violent communication) is that they legitimize feelings without having to rationalize them; also they can help you differentiate between feelings/emotions and thoughts/judgements/requests/criticisms etc.

It’s common for people to mistakenly conflate feelings with thoughts and to present a thought as though it was a feeling. If you’re not sure of the difference between feelings and thoughts, here are some examples –

I feel sad (feeling)
I feel like you’re being unfair (not actually a feeling)
I feel angry (feeling)
I feel like you’d rather be somewhere else right now (not actually a feeling)

Here’s a tip on recognizing the difference – Feelings are usually one single word, and though there are hundreds of different feelings, most can be traced back to a small set of primary emotions like joy, sadness, anger, fear. (Experts don’t always agree on the particular details of what constitutes the primary emotions, but there’s a general pattern of consensus overall.)

See the Junto Institute’s emotion wheel (click here) for an interesting visual showing the relationships between many common emotions or feelings, and their root in the primary emotions.

To learn more about differentiating between thoughts and feelings, and communicating feelings effectively, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples.

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Communication tools for your relationship – What you need to know

The truth about "communication tools" and your relationship

The truth about “communication tools” and your relationship

Many client couples come to therapy in the hopes of achieving better communication (and thus more understanding and ease) in their relationship. This is a great motivation, and with the right kind of work much success can be achieved. But there’s a very basic and poorly understood fact about communication in relationships and the communication tools that are often prescribed:

We communicate precisely at the level of our personal development.

In fact, our quality of communication in any given moment is a direct reflection of who we are in that moment. What does this mean for the many communication tools, methods, models, and techniques that are promoted for helping relationships? Consider –

Communication tools only make a lasting impact on our relationship if using them changes us.

Put another way, it isn’t the tool itself that is valuable. It isn’t even how we use it (at least not in the long run). It’s who we must become in order to properly use any particular communication technique or method that makes the difference.

Again, a communication model or method doesn’t magically change our relationship. It only changes our relationship if it changes us inside, if it changes how we see ourselves and each other, if it nudges us along to the next rung of our personal development.

The value of a good communication tool or technique is not so much in the immediate impact it has on our partner (though that can be welcome), the bigger benefit is that to use any of the leading communication methods well and consistently requires us to “level up” in our personal growth.

Every popular communication method or tool that you learn in books, online, or in the therapist’s office – non-violent communication (NVC), reflective listening, active listening, empathetic speaking, love languages, “I”-statements, 24-hour rule, radical honesty, talking stick etc – have certain things in common; they help us –

What do all these qualities point us toward? What is the common thread?

In a word… maturity.

Using communication tools skillfully and consistently shapes us into more capable and mature people

The communication techniques, skills, and tools that we seek have one real purpose: using them forces us to develop more maturity in ourselves and in our relationship. With this maturity comes increased capacity for dealing with the inevitable and necessary challenges that a relationship brings. When a communication tool or technique fails to make a significant lasting impact it’s not just because you’re not doing it right, it’s because you’re not ready to let it change you. We “forget” to use our tools in heated moments not because we are forgetful, but because we haven’t yet changed ourselves to reflect the purpose, philosophy, potential, or world-view embedded within the tool or method.

This isn’t to say that communication tools and techniques aren’t valuable. They are, but for different and deeper reasons than most people initially understand. After the tool or technique has been integrated and internalized, after it has changed and matured us, then in retrospect we can usually see how it has done its work upon us, but when we are initially searching for solutions to acute relationship difficulties this truth remains hidden.

I’m sharing this in the hope of setting you up for better success when you go looking for tricks or tips to solving communication problems in your relationship (which I think is a good and worthy pursuit). As you practice new communication techniques and methods, try to feel how they are changing your outlook, let them be something that changes you from the inside out.

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There is a “NO” deep inside you

Is it making enough noise to be heard?

Inside you there is a bottom line, a boundary, something you will not, can not accept, a solid NO. If you are like many people, you have ignored this bottom line many times. Perhaps you’ve never even known it existed. Maybe you are just now starting to discover its presence.

If you’re a determined or flexible type you might find yourself trying to negotiate with your inner “no” or over-ride it. (You can’t. It’s non-negotiable.)

If you identify as a spiritual person you might believe that it’s a case of mind-over-matter, that every thought and feeling is negotiable or optional. (It isn’t.)

But eventually you might discover that no matter how much you want it otherwise, an unyielding, non-negotiable “no” demands your attention.

“No” isn’t always a choice

Let me be clear about something: You do not choose this no. You do not create it. You can only acknowledge that it exists, that it is real. Sure, you can ignore it, but it will eventually exact its price. The price of ignoring your bottom-line no can be substantial. Over time, a deep dissonance is created inside you, a part of yourself rebels (or collapses) causing ripples in your psycho-emotional health, rifts in your relationships, and sometimes even physical illness.

Inconveniently, there is also a price that comes with honouring this no. By honouring our deepest no we are likely to lose something we want; this is why we sometimes ignore or betray the no for so long.

“No” comes with grief – Let it come

When we finally come around to honouring the deepest no in us, and the result is that we lose something, we are wise to allow ourselves to grieve for our loss. It’s the appropriate thing to do. Loss means grief. If we are going to get better at honouring our no, we will need to get better at honouring our grief. This is difficult for many people.

I’ll say it again: To honour your deepest boundaries, the unarguable NO that resides within you, you will be called to grieve. If you’ve avoided grief you’ve probably avoided your deepest no. These two avoidances tend to go hand in hand.

“No” paves the way for a better YES

Saying no also paves the way for a more meaningful, clean, powerful, satisfying “yes”. A client recently lamented that they had a hard time saying no, but also a hard time saying yes. They found themselves in a confusing kind of purgatory, an endlessly confusing and frustrating space of neither this nor that. As they describe the feeling, I recognized it immediately. I knew exactly what they meant and how they felt because it’s such a widespread phenomenon.

It’s been made abundantly clear to me through working with hundreds of individuals and couples – If we’re unable to honour the no inside us, to really “know the no”, we will conversely remain unable to trust ourselves to be a full and genuine yes to anything either.

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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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Emotional regulation in relationships – Whose job is it to make me feel OK?

From time to time you’re bound to experience fear, jealousy, anger, inadequacy, anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings. When you have these uncomfortable feelings do you try to manage them yourself, or do you bring them to your partner in the hopes of obtaining help and finding relief together?

At a certain point in the couple therapy process, I sometimes find it useful to introduce the concepts of self-regulation and co-regulation. These terms give us a reference point for discussing and working with the differences between managing our own emotional difficulties and managing emotional difficulties together.

Most people are “naturally” (ie – unconsciously) inclined to do one while mostly excluding the other. Either you’re accustomed to attempts at self-regulation or you’re accustomed to attempts at co-regulation. (I say “attempts” because at this unconscious stage emotional regulation of either sort doesn’t tend to be very effective – more on this later.)

Self-regulation VS Co-regulation

Many relationships are fraught with mismatched, misunderstood, or poorly developed self-regulation and co-regulation strategies. The good news is that with a little work it is relatively easy to understand and improve the situation. The first step is to recognize the strategies you employ:

Do you tend to deal with your emotional unrest by yourself?

Or do you bring your emotional troubles to your partner?

As my clients examine their own habits, the question often emerges: Which is better? Should I try to regulate my feelings on my own, or with the help of my partner? The answer, of course, is both.

I always take it as a good sign when a client asks this question because it indicates that they are considering a possibility that they may not have considered before. As I pointed out earlier, most people adopt a preference for doing either one or the other, self-regulating or co-regulating, while neglecting its opposite, and as long as these strategies remain unnamed and unconscious they tend to be relatively ineffective.

For self-regulating types there comes a time when it becomes necessary to share our struggles with our partner and let them soothe us (of course we’ll be called on to do the same for them). For co-regulating types there comes a time when it becomes necessary to work out our struggles internally with little or no active involvement from our partner (and to allow our partner to do the same).

(Note – If you are familiar with how attachment theory is commonly applied to adult relationships, you’re probably recognizing some overlap between attachment styles and the language of self-regulation/co-regulation.)

Both self-regulation and co-regulation are valuable, legitimate, and necessary. Each approach can be practiced with varying efficacy, ie – there are effective ways to self-regulate and ineffective ways to self-regulate just as there are effective ways to co-regulate and ineffective ways to co-regulate.

If we want a relationship (and the people in it) to become more mature it’s important to recognize the difference between self-regulating and co-regulating, and to become more effective at both.

Effective self-regulation

Effective approaches to self-regulation might include meditation or mindfulness, physical exercise, visualization, yoga, martial arts or other body-centred practices, breath-work, journalling, art, prayer, various forms of self-confrontation, self-inquiry, self-soothing, and self-validation.

Ineffective self-regulation can include denial, rejection, withdrawal and distancing, avoidance, isolating, dissociation, substance abuse, and self-harm.

Effective co-regulation

Effective approaches to co-regulation might include communication methods like non-violent communication (NVC) and active listening, doing massage or body work on each other, matched breathing exercises, partner yoga, dancing, hugging or cuddling, constructive arguing or fighting, negotiating in good faith, intentional sexual practices, and making clear requests for emotional support.

Ineffective co-regulation can include shaming, blaming, nagging, demanding, sulking, manipulation, threats, unreasonable expectations that your partner will “read your mind”, non-constructive arguments or fighting, passive- aggressive behaviours, and any behaviour that can be generally understood as codependant.

Integrating self-regulation and co-regulation in your relationship

After examining your own habits around self-regulation and co-regulation, and practicing effective approaches to both in your relationship, you might discover a valuable truth: it’s sometimes possible, and often necessary to do both simultaneously.

In my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (click here to read a free sample chapter), I state –

“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.”

To effectively help your partner regulate their emotions (co-regulation) it’s necessary to regulate your own emotions at the same time (self-regulation). Otherwise you will be constantly “triggered” or activated by their emotional unrest, and you will end up in a familiar cycle of emotional escalation. This ability to self-regulate in close proximity to your partner as they have a difficult emotional experience is what people sometimes call “holding space.”

With some education and practice, a couple can begin to explicitly name what is happening between them and within themselves, ie –

“It seems like you’re looking to me to help you co-regulate.”

“I’m trying to self-regulate more effectively, but I’m having a really hard time.”

It then becomes possible to make clear requests and boundaries, as well as skillful negotiations around emotional regulation within the relationship. What was previously unconscious and a source of frustration, disappointment, and hurt can potentially become a conscious tool for working with the inevitable difficult feelings that arise in relationship. Couples who make progress in this area start to say things to each other like –

“I’m not able to co-regulate with you right now. I’m going to write in my journal for ten minutes and then I’m willing to try again.”

“I’m feeling really anxious. Will you just hold me for a few minutes?”

“I know you’re wanting my help with co-regulating, but it’s really hard to co-regulate with you when you’re saying nasty things to me.”

“I’m sorry I withdrew from you. What I really want is some co-regulation. Would you tell me a few things you appreciate about me? I think that would help me relax.”

Yes, it takes work to learn to recognize and improve your co-regulation and self-regulation strategies, but it’s worth it. Depending on what stage your relationship is at, this kind of work can move the relationship forward by leaps and bounds.

Which do you gravitate toward: co-regulation or self-regulation? How effective are you at each? Which kind of ineffective and effective co-regulation and self-regulation behaviours do you see in yourself and in your relationship? What’s your growth edge? What do you need to practice?

Think about these questions for a few moments and leave your answers in the comments.

All My Best,
Justice Schanfarber

PS – Learn my simple “Soothing the Beast” co-regulation technique: Watch the video 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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Have you tried this kind of listening in your relationship?

Have you tried this kind of listening?

There’s a kind of listening that is completely unconcerned with formulating a rebuttal or response.

There’s a kind of listening that mercifully sidesteps the critical mind.

There’s a kind of listening done entirely from the heart.

There’s a kind of listening rooted in open-minded curiosity.

There’s a kind of listening that doesn’t require you to fix or solve a problem.

There’s a kind of listening that requires nothing more, or less, than your full presence.

There’s a kind of listening that frees you from taking what you hear personally.

There’s a kind of listening that is courageous enough to hear anything and everything.

There’s a kind of listening that encourages more and more depth.

There’s a kind of listening that rests easy in knowing that there is room for the entire experience of both people present.

There’s a kind of listening where you gain nothing from making someone wrong and you lose nothing by recognizing the legitimacy of their experience.

There’s a kind of listening that has very little to do with analyzing the content of what is being said and has much to do with connecting with the feeling underneath what is being said.

If the kind of listening you’re doing isn’t working for you, try another kind of listening.

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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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“How would you like me to be with you right now?” – A powerful question to ask your partner

"How would you like me to be with you right now?" - A powerful question to ask your partner

I wasn’t at my best…

I was feeling melancholy. Sad. I’d had a disappointment or two, and I was also disappointed in myself. I was exhausted. It showed. And there was something unnameable, a kind of causeless grief. I was just letting it wash over me.

My partner asked me what was wrong. I wasn’t sure how to answer. It didn’t feel like something was wrong exactly. She asked me how she could help. I replied simply that I didn’t need helping.

Then she paused for a moment and asked me something that caught me completely off-guard…

“How would you like me to be with you right now?”

I couldn’t help but smile, and she caught it, returned it.

“Just like this. Thank you.”

One question changed everything

In an instant she flipped the script – from judging me as somehow broken and needing fixing – to expressing a genuine desire to enter my world. It was like plunging into a cool, calm, refreshing pool. Her simple curiosity, her conscious choice to withdraw her judgement, her willingness and ability to just be with me… it meant a lot to me, and I told her so.

“You’ve taught me” she responded without missing a beat. It’s true. I’m reminded how if we can discern and articulate what we actually want (no small task), and if we have willing and capable people in our life, we can indeed teach them how to care for us.

The question “How would you like me to be with you right now?” has become part of our relationship vocabulary, and part of our relational awareness. It reminds us that our presence can be given (and received) as a gift, and that there are various ways we can be with each other, various ways to be there for each other.

The question also prompts a question we must then ask ourselves: “How do I want my partner to be with me right now?” Exploring the answer to that question opens up new doors of self-inquiry, and gently puts the responsibility for getting our needs met squarely where it belongs.

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What salsa dance taught me about intimate relationships

What salsa dance taught me about intimate relationships

My partner and I sometimes try out different activities for fun and to nurture our feeling of novelty, challenge, intimacy, and excitement. A while back we went to an acro yoga date night and then signed up for salsa dance classes.

The first salsa class was fun. We learned some basics, and although it felt awkward and stiff, it was also new and exciting. The second class was awful. We barely had a grasp on what we’d learned in the first class, and now we had a bunch of new stuff to learn too. There was a general feeling of frustration and failure in the room.

In the third class, something fascinating happened. For a few moments at a time I stopped counting my steps, I stopped thinking so hard about doing it right, and suddenly I said to my partner “This feels like… dancing!”

If you’ve ever wanted a better relationship, but had difficulty applying new tools and insights, please read on…

Learning to dance is like learning better ways of relating

Teaching salsa dance must be really hard. Dance is visceral, organic, poetic. It comes naturally from somewhere inside. And yet, if we want to learn a particular dance style there are formal structures to learn, and an initial lack of capability and skill to confront. Before we learn to dance salsa in a way that actually feels like dancing, we have to learn the steps in a non-dancing way, and this feels painfully clumsy.

As I considered the problems of teaching and learning dance I had a sudden insight into my own work as a couples counsellor: My experience of trying to learn salsa dance is similar to my clients’ experience of trying to apply new tools and insights.

“This isn’t what I came for”

I took salsa lessons because I wanted to learn how to dance salsa, but by the second lesson I felt the impulse to quit. Why? Because it didn’t feel like dancing. I came for dancing, but this wasn’t dancing (just like couples come for relief from relationship difficulty only to discover that they are tasked with doing something that feels like the opposite of relief)!

By the third class it started to feel like dancing, but I had to push through some very awkward steps to get there, steps I hadn’t anticipated and that tested my strength of perseverance. I had to use new muscles and new parts of my brain (just like the couples who call me for help).

I think my client couples often struggle for the same basic reason. They come to me to make their relationship better. I give them something to work with, but at first it’s frustrating. They’re quickly confronted with a disappointing realization: “This is hard. This isn’t what I had in mind. I’m frustrated. I don’t get it!”

For instance, if someone comes to couples therapy because they are desperate to get their partner’s validation or approval, they might have to first confront their own lack of self-respect.

A relationship is a lot like dancing, in fact the metaphor is so close that it almost dissolves into literal truth: it’s not too much of a stretch to say that a relationship IS dancing. When a relationship flows it feels organic, natural, sublime; we move together effortlessly with a tremendous sense of grace and presence. But to learn new ways of doing relationship is like learning salsa dancing; at first it feels like the opposite of what we came for. We want to dance, and instead we’re stuck in a sack-race in the dark.

Get ready to be challenged

After that third salsa class I thought that if I were teaching salsa I would try to prepare my students for the frustration, the awkwardness, the disappointment that they were sure to encounter. I would explain to them that before they had the experience that they came for, the experience of actually dancing salsa, they would have to struggle through a difficult stage of doing some awkward non-dancing. I would explain that it might feel embarrassing and stilted, that they might want to quit, but also that if they stick it out, they will eventually get some satisfaction. In simple terms – it takes work, it’s difficult, and it might get worse before it gets better. But if you can tolerate the discomfort there’s a reward.

Couples in therapy need the same kind of attitude. If you want to learn to relate more gracefully, more beautifully, more naturally, you will necessarily be confronted with a period of agonizing awkwardness. This is perfectly natural and unavoidable.

Many people erroneously assume that the trouble and pain they experience in their relationship is due to something being broken or “wrong.” Actually, the trouble is inevitable and the pain has a purpose. It motivates us to push ourselves into a new level of relationship maturity. It’s called growing up.

It would sound crazy to say that someone who’s never learned salsa dancing is a bad salsa dancer, and yet that’s exactly how we judge ourselves (or our partner) when it comes to our own relationships. But if we approach our relationship difficulties as motivating forces that task us with learning new steps, then our troubles gain purpose and we make progress.

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“We fought all day, then had surprisingly satisfying sex” – A couple says yes to spontaneous desire

"We fought all day, then had surprisingly satisfying sex" - A couple says yes to spontaneous desire

Many people want to make changes in their relationship, including their sex lives, but want to make the change privately, to get it “right” and THEN bring their polished new self to the other, or to the bedroom. This feels a lot safer than stumbling into uncharted territory with a partner, especially when conflict, mistrust, resentment or other difficulties have become the norm.

In the following story we’ll see how a couple struggling to achieve deeper sexual expression discovered that trying new things in the moment, though messy, provided opportunities for change that hadn’t been available through planning or negotiation. By courageously pushing through an awkward situation they both managed to get a taste of something they wanted, and even though it wasn’t perfect it became a valuable starting point, opening new doors for personal growth within the relationship.

Sexual surrender / Sexual power

Sex had become a major point of contention for Susan and Marcus, and I had been working with them on this and other related issues for about a year. In these sessions Susan had revealed her desire to experience deep sexual surrender. In his own fantasies, Marcus saw himself in a sexually powerful role, as an erotic healer embodying strength and wisdom.

These two self-images of sexual surrender and sexual power appeared to be quite compatible, and yet this couple had been unable to find their way together, unable to collaboratively manifest these potentially synergistic visions.

Today Susan was working with me alone. She was exploring the idea of sexual empowerment. She wanted to take fuller responsibility for her own sexuality and arousal, to retrieve the sexual power that she believed she had abdicated throughout her life.

Susan had always had an expectation that “the man” should initiate sex, and she was frustrated that Marcus was not fulfilling this function to her liking. She was, however, beginning to examine her part in this, and was becoming curious about how she might change the sexual dynamic between them by changing her own attitudes and behaviours.

Conflict, surrender, and arousal

In our session, Susan described a recent incident when she and Marcus had been fighting. She had ended up exhausted, fully spent in body, mind, and spirit. As she collapsed, figuratively and literally, Marcus told her that he was suddenly feeling very turned on. Susan could see him getting hard through his pants. She felt disturbed by his arousal. Why was it turning him on to see her so wrung out and emotionally spent?

I asked Susan to look back and describe to me in detail her state of being at the time. This was difficult for her. She struggled to make sense of the confusing feelings. She reported that it had been uncomfortable to reach that point of exhaustion through conflict, and yet there was a sense of relief at having no more fight left in her, of not having to try any more, of the struggle being over.

“Sounds like you’re describing a type of surrender,” I offered. There was a pause as Susan considered my words.

We went on to explore how her experience that day matched both her own and Marcus’s fantasies. In her fantasy, Susan certainly had not imagined her surrender being a product of a day-long fight, but nonetheless it was clear that the surrender was real, and that Marcus had responded true to his own fantasy; once Susan had reached a place of surrender, Marcus felt his own power surge.

I suggested that power and surrender might spontaneously arise in relationship to each other, unbidden, in certain situations.

Leading with surrender

Susan had long lamented that she wanted to feel Marcus’s sexual power. She wanted to feel his strength so that she could relax. What Susan hadn’t considered was that her surrender might come first, before Marcus demonstrated his own sexual leadership and authority. She also hadn’t considered that it would feel so raw, so real. Susan had already decided that it was time to take a new kind of responsibility for her part in the sexual dynamic, but she had imagined that this would feel only good, that it would feel clear, simple, and empowering; not at all like it had felt on that day.

I wasn’t surprised that the surrender she craved came in such a surprising and unwelcome way, not because I knew something about Susan that she did not, but because I have become accustomed to witnessing unforeseen, paradoxical, and challenging manifestations of desire. The road we take to meet our own sexuality is long and winding; we can not always see what is around the next bend.

Saying yes opened a door

Reflecting on the experience during therapy, Susan remarked that she had, in a noticeable moment, surprisingly, chosen to say yes to the opportunity for sex. Marcus had then confidently directed Susan to the bedroom. He had her undressed by the time they were through the door.

Despite the conflict between them, which would typically shut her down for days, Susan had noticed herself appreciating Marcus taking the lead. She had often complained of his passivity in the past, and even though these certainly weren’t the circumstances she preferred, she was able to say yes to sex in this moment, without feeling like she was betraying herself or doing something she didn’t want to do.

I suggested that even though the circumstances under which the power/surrender dynamic arose on that day of fighting were not ideal, they had perhaps been necessary.

“You had to become completely spent – physically and emotionally – before you could surrender. That’s just the plain truth of it. And Marcus had to behold you in this state before he could fully access his sexual power. This isn’t exactly how either of you had idealized the experience in your minds, and yet in some ways you were having a version of the thing you wanted. This could be an access point, a door opening. Work with it and it might not always feel so raw and uncomfortable.”

Refining, not rejecting raw experiences

New experiences, especially in the highly charged realm of sexuality, often first emerge clumsily in raw form. If we reject these raw forms, we may lose a valuable opportunity. If we’re willing to work with these raw forms, we might refine them.

Susan was struggling to accept the legitimacy of this type of surrender, and so I offered that she might give herself permission to accept, explore, and potentially enjoy surrender exactly as it presented itself, with the knowledge that she could bring increasingly more consciousness, intention, skillfulness, and choice to the experience.

Many of us want to get everything worked out internally, cleanly, and completely before we dare reveal ourselves, especially sexually. But this isn’t how it actually works. The sexual arena is a messy place. It isn’t just where we express the very best, fully formed perfected versions of ourselves; it’s also where we break down, try new things, fail, and continue to refine and redefine ourselves.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber

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Your partner is on their own journey.

Your partner is on their own journey.

You might want to believe you’re on a single, united journey together, but that would not be entirely true. You can be sure that they have their own journey to make; sometimes your partner’s journey will interlock seamlessly with your own, sometimes it will diverge, causing unrest and friction.

Their journey, one way or another, will eventually take them from you. There is no other way. If not by choice or circumstance, time will catch up and death will come between you. Contemplate this truth. Remind yourself often, even until it breaks you. Then maybe you grieve for the loss to come, and learn to hold on lightly to what you have, for it is not yours to keep.

Your partner’s journey includes their own discoveries and challenges, their own hard decisions, sacrifices, dilemmas, and predicaments. Your partner’s journey will have them facing their own heart-break, their own dark nights of the soul.

Parts of their journey will need to be faced alone

Some of your partner’s journey will inevitably need to be faced alone, no matter how much you love them, how much you need them, how much you want to protect, rescue, or soothe them. The same, of course, is true in reverse.

We are here to accompany each other. To witness each other. To support and challenge each other. We are here to know ourselves in the context of one another, in proximity to each other, but a part of ourselves remains always distinct, no matter how strong the urge to merge.

Much of the art of relationship is about how we honour our partner’s journey even as we honour our own, how we navigate the borders and boundaries that keep us as two even as we move as one. Your relationship asks this of you – Can you recognize the unbreakable sovereignty of both you and your partner even as you dance in the longing for some kind of permanent “we”?

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No, you don’t lack emotional empathy (You lack courage, tolerance, and boundaries)

No, you don't lack emotional empathy (You lack courage, tolerance, and boundaries)

How do you know if you lack empathy?

Every so often I’ll have a client tell me they lack empathy. “How do you know?” I’ll ask. Generally the answer is some version of “My partner tells me”.

Upon deeper inquiry, we might discover that this person is actually incredibly attuned to their partner’s feelings, that they can read or intuit their partner’s experience in the minutest detail. In fact, what we usually discover is not that they are out of touch with their partner’s emotional experience, but just the opposite: they are profoundly sensitive and deeply moved by how their partner feels. It isn’t that they lack emotional empathy; the problem is that they don’t know how to handle it. They get overwhelmed. And so they protect themselves.

If we feel too much, and we don’t know how to manage those feelings, we resort to predictable coping strategies: We distance ourselves, become defensive, shut down, lash out, criticize, avoid, go numb, even turn to substance abuse or compulsive behaviours.

Is it empathy that is lacking… or is it emotional maturity?

When a client complains to me that their partner lacks empathy, further investigation very often reveals a different picture. What is actually lacking is emotional maturity, ie – the courage, tolerance, and boundaries required to navigate feelings effectively.

It takes courage to let ourselves feel, and to let ourselves be seen feeling. It takes courage to remain present in the face of a loved one’s strong feelings. And it takes courage to reveal (and also manage) the impact they are having upon us – positive, negative, and otherwise. This courage includes a willingness to confront, to disappoint, or to anger our partner.

If we don’t want to succumb to semi-conscious strategies of distancing, numbing, defensiveness, avoidance etc, then we must learn to tolerate the discomfort of feeling our partner’s feelings, no matter how uncomfortable they might be. This necessarily implies boundaries; we must have ample sense of our own emotional agency, of where our experience is distinct from our partner’s. Without these boundaries we are likely to get swept up and overwhelmed by our partner’s emotions, and so trigger those protective mechanisms that look, from the outside, like a lack of empathy.

These qualities of courage, tolerance, and boundaries are markers of emotional maturity and sophistication. Without these qualities empathy may remain present, but stunted; emotional fusion, co-dependency, distancing, and angry acting out are some of the consequences.

Empathy asks us to develop emotional resiliency

When empathy is naively equated with kindness we miss big parts of the picture. Empathy is actually value-neutral in the sense that it isn’t necessarily good or bad. Empathy can cause a lot of suffering if it isn’t accompanied by emotional resiliency, ie – courage, tolerance, and boundaries. Additionally, empathy can be used intentionally or unconsciously to hurt, manipulate, and abuse people; knowing how others feel can be ammunition against them.

In my experience as a couples therapist, empathy doesn’t need so much to be learned or taught, it needs to be allowed, confronted, comprehended. Biological evolution has hard-wired us for empathy. The question is how much of it we can risk feeling, and what we do with those feelings. If we can’t handle our partner’s feelings we’ll minimize, resist, or otherwise disconnect from them.

Sure, some people do truly and pathologically lack the capacity for empathy, but that almost never turns out to be the case in my couples counselling practice. I have found that rarely do people have to learn how to let their partner’s emotional experience touch them, rather they have to practice tolerating the impact, and navigating the outcomes skillfully.

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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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How do you care for the needy “inner child” in your relationship?

How do you address the needy "inner child" in your relationship?
How do you address the needy “inner child” in your relationship?

Being an adult in relationship includes addressing the needy inner child.

There’s a lot of pressure to be adults in relationship, and behaving as an adult in your relationship is undoubtedly a good thing, but what about the needy “inner child” in each of us that is bound to show up from time to time? Is it necessary to indulge the needy inner child in you and your partner? Is there benefit, personally and as a couple? If we’re going to make space for our own and our partner’s inner child – an inner child who might be cranky, disagreeable and characteristically immature – how do we do it without upending our relationship and turning our lives over to the chaotic forces of a hurt or angry or demanding inner child?

These are some of the questions that The DailyEvolver‘s Jeff Salzman dives into with his guest, long-time couples therapist Tom Habib, in the attached video interview/podcast.

Their conversation caught and kept my attention because it addresses such a topical, even universal, theme that couples struggle with, often unconsciously: so-called regressive states, ie – when the inner child’s needs come to the fore of the individual and thus into the relationship arena. In simpler terms, what do you do when your partner acts irrationally and childishly?

Tom Habib offers a simple model for recognizing and working with regressive (childish, immature, irrational) states within a marriage or relationship. Rather than insisting that your partner “grow up”, Tom suggests that making room for the states in a relationship has real benefits for both parties, and he suggests a set of rules for doing so. Readers of my book “The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples” might recognize some similar themes in slightly different language.

Attachment therapy or differentiation therapy?

I’m struck by how Habib, without naming it as such, happens to somewhat integrate two apparently contradictory viewpoints within the marriage therapy community: Sue Johnson’s popular Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) which sees childhood attachment patterns as the foundation of marriage and relationships, and David Schnarch’s Differentiation-Based Therapy which de-emphasizes (though doesn’t deny) childhood attachment and instead emphasizes “growing up” and developing a solid but flexible adult self within adult relationships.

Effectively reconciling these two seemingly contradictory perspectives is no simple task, and Habib, in this relatively short interview, seems to approach some measure of success, without explicitly setting out to do so. He suggests that we can consciously trade off Adult/Child roles in relationship to each other in a way that facilitates both “inner child” and adult needs being met. In this way, regressive child-like states are held within adult consciousness, and given some room to roam. Of course, a certain amount of baseline personal development is required.

Habib offers an uncommon perspective in this interview, and it could be valuable to anyone stuck and struggling in relationship. Give it a listen and let me know what you think in the comments.

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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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“My husband’s affair traumatized me, and then weirdly brought us closer than ever.”

Husband's affair traumatized me

I received this fascinating letter from a reader recently, and she gave me permission to share it (with identifying features changed). She sent it after reading my articles and book, and feeling that what she read described her experience in profound ways. I hope you find her story as interesting and inspiring as I do.

Dear Justice,

Your post ‘Intimacy heretic’ absolutely resonates with me. It brought clarity to my confused mind. To think that I’m in the space I am in now is nothing short of incredible compared to where I was six months ago.

Six months ago I discovered (purely by accident) that Stan, my husband of nearly forty years, had been in a sexual relationship for three years and had fathered a daughter. Their daughter was an unplanned consequence. For the past eighteen years Stan has been regularly visiting and financially supporting the daughter that he loves.

I was traumatized by his revelations. After the initial numbness came the excruciating pain. My emotional roller-coaster began… I didn’t know this man. He was a stranger to me. His actions had crushed me.

Stan said it wasn’t me; it was him. He said that he’d always loved me but went his own way for a while… was purely self-indulgent. He begged me for another chance. He’s not the sort of guy that begs. He told me he was so very sorry for the hurt he’d caused; that he’d be a better man. It was heartfelt from him.

We got back together after some time apart. We are sixty-three years old, so should at least try again. But how on earth would I be able to ever trust him? How could I ever believe in him again, or even like him? I had to get my head around the fact that their affair began two decades ago. I had to try to accept that it was in the past (apart from his daughter who continues to be a small part of Stan’s life).

Justice, I find your term ‘tolerate’ is far more doable than acceptance. That changes my mindset – I can tolerate it now.

There were so many challenges to overcome. I had to get my power back. I had to live in the present moment. I needed to ground myself and calm my over-active mind because that was just causing me more anguish. I had to make myself important for myself.

During the challenging times, I had to remind myself of progress we were making. When I was in a dark place or overwhelmed with pain, Stan held me – no words – just held me as we went to sleep. Surprisingly, he recognized that’s exactly what was needed, or maybe he was at a loss to know what to do and it was instinctive. When he rubbed my back, my mind and body was eased.

He’d become present! A huge milestone. He soothed me; I could feel his love, his tenderness and also his pain. This was a new experience for us both. We’d never shared such deep heart-felt intimacy like that before. So simple, but the benefits are amazing. You talk about this in your book “The Re-connection Handbook for Couples”, which I read and found very valuable.

Again Justice, your insightful words “being soothed by our partner is one of life’s loveliest treasures… given as a gift” is spot on. I would not have made it if this hadn’t happened. I also realized that Stan also needs to be soothed – he’s been in pain too – that it’s not all about me and my needs.

What we have now is a much deeper level of intimacy. It’s extraordinary. I have felt quite confused by this, and yes, a bit embarrassed too. How did we get to this point when there was so much heart-breaking conflict and our future looked so bleak? It just seemed too weird to have reached a place where we now have a certain kind of wonderfulness. Couldn’t get much better so it’s actually pretty cool. We will surely have more obstacles, but at least know they can be handled.

Justice, your insightful writing has solved the mystery and has had a profound effect on me: the fact that not feeling full trust or emotional safety doesn’t mean the relationship has to end, that in fact it can have the exact opposite effect and bring richness… amazing.

Close friends gave us a card that read “It’s Amazing how much Right-side-up can Come from Up-side-down”. That’s certainly true.

Thank you.

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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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Intimacy heretic – “Relationships aren’t just for safety, trust, and validation.”

Confessions of an intimacy heretic - It's not all about safety and trust.I recently posted a short piece on instagram suggesting that certain kinds of intimacy can actually be limited by an insistence or over-emphasis on safety, trust, and validation in relationships. Someone asked a great question in the comments – “If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”

Rather than address this question on instagram, I thought I would take the time to unpack it more thoroughly here. First, here’s what I said about safety and intimacy in my original post

There’s nothing “wrong” with expecting your partner to provide safety and validation in order for you to reveal yourself to them, but making this a condition of your honest self-disclosure puts limits on the kinds of intimacy that will be available to you.

There’s another category of intimacy altogether, rooted in the personal integrity, emotional risk-taking, and self-validation required to confront and reveal yourself in front of your partner, regardless of their active participation. The idea that intimacy is always a two-way street, inherently dependent on partner reciprocity and validation actually keeps us cut off from some of the more profound experiences of intimacy that might otherwise be available.

This might be a difficult idea to accept. Don’t accept it, test it. Can you have your own experience of intimacy through courageous self-examination and self-disclosure in front of your partner, even if your partner does not validate you, make it “safe” for you, or share your feelings of intimacy?

Back to the question – “If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”

To answer this question we need to include other questions: What kind of safety are we talking about? What does it mean to be trustworthy in a relationship?

We should also probably ask: What is intimacy anyway?

And underneath these questions another more essential question is implied: What are relationships for?

Whew. That’s a lot. Now you can see why I didn’t want to get into this too deeply in the comments section on instagram! Let’s work from the bottom up and start with the essential question –

What are relationships for?

Relationships perhaps have as many purposes as there are hopes and fears in the world. They’re complex, evolving systems with multidimensional purposes and qualities. Books – long and dense – could, and have been written on the subject.

Nonetheless, we might simplify the complexity of relationships by acknowledging two primary psycho/emotional needs that relationships fulfill: the need for comfort and the need for growth.

Relationships are a place of refuge and soothing, and also a place where we are challenged, broken, and perhaps put back together in new ways.

Most people like the idea of being supported, validated, soothed, and generally loved unconditionally in a relationship. Few people actively seek the kind of heart-breaking conflict that inevitably comes with a relationship as it matures. And yet some people will eventually, perhaps begrudgingly, come to acknowledge and even embrace the role that relationship conflict has in their personal growth and development. It is these people who are most likely to come to appreciate and practice a kind of intimacy that is not dependent upon partner validation or reciprocity, or even upon safety and trust per se.

What is intimacy?

Intimacy is a deeply subjective feeling that is difficult to wholly define. In my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples, I offer this – ” Intimacy is the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another.”

Further into the chapter I go on to suggest –

Intimacy can feel extremely gratifying for some people, but can also be frightening or confusing. Revealing ourselves is always risky. There is no guarantee that our inner self will be embraced by the other.

If we are not embraced for what we reveal, we may feel rejected or misunderstood. This too can be valuable, opening doors to further inquiry and understanding, and also perhaps most importantly, helping us build capacity for disappointment, for tolerating the experience of not getting the validation we crave. Thus we learn to validate ourselves, represent ourselves, soothe ourselves, accept ourselves, no matter how we are received. From this perspective, risking intimacy becomes a win/win opportunity.

Two kinds of intimacy

David Schnarch, in his many books and decades of clinical practice as a sex and marriage therapist, has defined two kinds of intimacy: Other-validated and Self-validated.

Other-validated intimacy is the kind of intimacy that most people are familiar with, and defines most peoples’ experience and expectations of intimacy. As the name implies, it requires validation from the “other”. It also assumes reciprocity, safety, vulnerability, trust etc. The intimacy model understood and promoted by most therapists, coaches, and teachers is other-validated intimacy.

There is nothing wrong with other-validated intimacy. This kind of intimacy fits well with the idea that relationships are primarily places of refuge, support, safety, and comfort.

Self-validated intimacy, by contrast, rests on the principle that we can get “the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another” without our partner’s explicit reciprocity or validation, rather we are able to validate ourselves regardless of our partner. This is difficult, much more difficult than relying on guaranteed validation from our partner. It is precisely this difficulty that brings self-validated intimacy a unique intensity and meaning.

In other-validated intimacy, your experience must match your partner’s; all kinds of agreements – explicit and implicit – must be enforced in order for intimacy to be felt as real and legitimate.

In self-validated intimacy, your experience can remain distinct from your partner’s. The sense of intimacy comes not from merging, but from engaging in self-exploration, self-confrontation, and self-revelation, all in front of your partner. Your partner must be sufficiently willing to remain present, but little more is required of them.

In conventional thinking, conflict is the opposite of intimacy. In self-validated intimacy, even conflict and disagreement can potentially feel intimate, for one or both of you. Recalling the question “what are relationships for”, this kind of intimacy fits well with the idea that relationships are not just places of safety and refuge, but places where difficult and uncomfortable personal growth happens.

Intimacy and vulnerability

While we’re slaughtering the sacred cow, we might as well throw “vulnerability” into the mix. Vulnerability in relationships, due in no small part to the excellent work of Brené Brown, has been glorified in the extreme. I fully understand and appreciate the power of vulnerability in this context; to finally shed that armour and really let someone IN… that’s powerful stuff. But the flipside of vulnerability is not necessarily emotional armouring; it can also be confidence in one’s self, a sense of unshakeable truth and personal integrity.

How does this fit with intimacy?

In the conventional intimacy paradigm, we must make ourselves vulnerable in order to experience intimacy. We share something deep; we might get hurt (vulnerability means the possibility of being hurt).

But in the other kind of intimacy, we’re not so worried about being hurt. We recognize that we hurt ourselves when we betray our own truth and integrity much more than our partner can hurt us when they reject our truth and integrity. No matter how our partner responds, we know who we are, and we’re willing to face the consequences, come what may. Yes, these consequences might hurt us, but they’re not our central concern. We know we can handle pain, we find meaning in it, we accept the fact that it is necessary for our growth, and so we are not particularly “vulnerable” in the common sense of the word.

Confessions of an intimacy heretic

In today’s social-media-self-help culture, the idea that intimate experiences do not necessarily rest upon safety, trust, validation, and vulnerability is nothing less than heretical. It’s so far out of the recognizable intimacy paradigm that it actually makes some people angry.

Other people are skeptical, but curious. When I shared my original instagram piece on facebook, a few people offered their (welcome) input –

One person declared, “I’ve dabbled in this a handful of times. It doesn’t feel great.”

Another added, “Not sure I’d be able to do it again and again. If it does truly encourage positive experiences then how can I do more of it without it feeling wrong?”

A great point and a great question.

Intimacy of any sort doesn’t always feel good to everyone, though in the other-validated form of intimacy, the potential for good feelings is fairly obvious, ie – I’m going to reveal something that makes me feel vulnerable, and then you’re going to demonstrate your unconditional acceptance of me, and we’ll feel extremely close for a time.

Self-validated intimacy does not hinge upon feeling particularly close or “joined” with our partner. Instead, the good feeling comes from the sense of satisfaction at telling the truth about our experience in front of someone who means a great deal to us, full stop.

A brief story –

A couple in session were coming to terms with the different relationship paradigms that they each inhabited. It was personal work that they were doing in full view of each other. One of them was realizing (and revealing) that they believed relationships were primarily a place to soothe each other and make each feel safe. The other was realizing that they believed that relationships were primarily a place to challenge each other (and themselves) for the sake of personal development.

I watched this couple (listened, more precisely, as we were on the phone) confront this fundamental difference more directly than they ever had before. They were being unreservedly honest with each other, but more importantly they were being unreservedly (aka “brutally”) honest with themselves… in front of each other. The tension was palpable.

Both of these individuals were deeply invested in the relationship, and each cared deeply for the other. At the end of the session, no conclusion had been reached. Then one of them spontaneously remarked how good it felt to confront this difference with their partner, to “own” their own feelings, even though the future was as unknown, as unsafe, as ever. This person was getting a taste of self-validated intimacy. It was spontaneous and it felt surprising to the one experiencing it.

Fore-mentioned author and therapist David Schnarch calls intimacy “Awareness of the self in the context of another.” This was the experience my client was having. Notice the emphasis on the primacy of one’s own “awareness of the self” rather than on any experience of safety, trust, validation, or even connection provided by the other.

The good feelings potentially associated with self-validated intimacy take some getting used to. Other-validated intimacy is more familiar, easier to comprehend, and easier to enjoy. Self-validated intimacy tends to be more of an acquired taste, and many will never do the work it takes to acquire it.

People who are easily triggered, who identify strongly with their woundedness or trauma, or who insist on being handled very carefully will have a more difficult time appreciating the idea or enjoying the feeling of self-validated intimacy. This is not to say it can’t be achievable for anyone who wants it and works at it. I’ve seen people who have been in therapy for years previously and who consider themselves deeply traumatized individuals begin to develop a capacity and enjoyment of self-validated intimacy in just a few months of couples therapy.

Developing an understanding, tolerance, and appreciation of self-validated intimacy can potentially be healing and productive for people who suffer from trauma-related symptoms, especially when they have experienced relational trauma or abuse.

Other-validated intimacy is easy to comprehend because we’re born wired for it (it is the familiar intimacy between mother and child), while comprehending self-validated intimacy requires a level of personal development in the area of emotional differentiation and individuation of self.

In the hierarchy of emotional development in individuals, other-validated intimacy is more primary, it comes first; self-validated intimacy follows, but only if we do the personal work required.

The beauty of togetherness, of unity, the sense of merging is celebrated loudly and often. But there is an equally poignant beauty in recognizing separateness, in all its ache and desire, in lovers feeling the distance between them, their own autonomy and their partner’s, the unbridgeable gap… feeling all this right there in front of each other… This beauty is less often celebrated, probably because it is more confusing, more paradoxical, and frankly, more advanced; recognizing it requires a kind of psychological maturity or sophistication.

Intimacy after affairs and near-breakups

Conventional wisdom would assume that intimacy after the revelation of an affair would be at an all-time low. After all, the feeling of safety in a relationship at this time is pretty much nil, and the trust is gone too.

And yet, it isn’t uncommon that people who come to therapy after an affair report feeling a strange new kind of intimacy with their partner. They have a difficult time explaining it. They don’t understand it. They’re often disturbed by it. They’re pretty sure they shouldn’t be feeling intimate with their partner in this situation. Sometimes they even feel guilty or ashamed at admitting what they feel.

If safety and trust are not foundational to the intimacy that arises in these situations, what is? What can we attribute it to? How shall we make sense of it?

Upon extensive inquiry I’ve discovered that this intimacy that can arise after affairs matches very closely Schnarch’s definition: “Awareness of the self in the context of another.” In this case, the “other” has become symbolic of betrayal and pain – basically the opposite of safety and trust – and yet… intimacy. Apparently intimacy does not necessarily require safety and trust. In fact, sometimes it seems to require the opposite: couples have reported to me that they have not felt so intimate in their marriage EVER, as they have when confronting an affair.

What is the “awareness of the self” that happens in these cases? I think it has something to do with an awareness of one’s ultimate separateness; call it existential separateness if you like. In the face of betrayal, we remember our separateness profoundly. Some kinds of intimacy, it turns out, depend upon this awareness of our separateness – an awareness felt most strongly “in the context of another” – rather than depending upon feelings of closeness, trust, safety, reciprocity, and validation.

A similar phenomenon can also occur when a marriage or significant relationship ends, or hovers on the brink of demise. At these times too my clients sometimes report intense feelings of intimacy.

What is happening in these cases? How to make sense of this?

One of the things that is happening is truth-telling. Feelings that have been hidden, covered up, denied, sometimes for decades, are revealed.

Not everyone has to cheat on their spouse or leave the relationship before they experience the self-validated intimacy that comes with truth-telling and confronting one’s own existential separateness. In fact, I recommend otherwise if at all possible.

What’s wrong with safety and trust in relationships?

If you’ve gotten the idea that I am arguing against the value of safety and trust in relationships, please let me clarify. I think it’s obvious that a certain sense of safety and trust must be present for most people to thrive in a relationship. What I’m suggesting is that another category of intimacy exists that is available only when we relax our grip on the idea of the centrality of other-validated safety and trust in relationship. It’s not that safety and trust don’t matter or don’t exist, it’s that we come to see them differently.

The same goes for vulnerability. It’s wonderful, and necessary, to make space for vulnerability in a relationship, to feel our openness and willingness to be hurt, to offer our throat to our beloved from time to time. But contrary to common belief, an intimacy beyond the vulnerability of putting our heart in our partner’s hands also exists.

Similarly, being soothed by our partner is one of life’s loveliest treasures (a treasure I personally cherish), but it’s most valuable when asked for openly or given as a gift rather than being an implicit or explicit condition of self-disclosure. The intimacy experience that arises regardless of partner soothing is of a different calibre from the intimacy that demands it. Unlike other-validated intimacy, self-validated intimacy requires us to soothe ourselves. This self-soothing is an antidote to co-dependency (emotional fusion), and a prerequisite for inter-dependency (emotional differentiation).

Returning to that question from a reader on instagram –

“If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”

Such a great question, two questions actually. Let’s examine both.

Why would you bother trying for intimacy with a person who does not always make you feel safe? Why would you be open to the idea of intimacy when you are not feeling entirely safe?

Maybe because you value the challenges that are being presented; especially the challenge to represent yourself honestly despite the absence of any guarantee. Maybe because growth and safety are not always compatible, and you’re committed to growth. Maybe because you recognize that your demands for safety come from the ancient, reptilian part of your brain, and you want to practice engaging the cognitive, human fore-brain. Maybe because you’re beginning to suspect that your safety doesn’t actually depend on what your partner thinks or how they react. (Of course I am talking about perceived emotional safety here, not actual threats to physical safety.)

In the simplest terms, growth and the self-confrontation that growth requires rarely feel safe. If feeling “safe” with a partner means they protect you from the pain that their true feelings might cause, then your safety is very precarious indeed. Consider, the difference between the pain of woundedness and the pain of growth can be difficult to discern; sometimes the difference is all in the meaning we make of the experience.

Also, if feeling safe with a partner means they spare you the pain of facing existential separateness and existential loneliness, this safety becomes a hurdle, an Achilles heal in your own self-development. Being open to feelings of intimacy with a person who does not make you feel entirely safe is not necessarily an act of self-betrayal or foolishness; sometimes it is an act of maturity and courage.

Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?

It depends what one means by trust and trustworthiness. Are we talking about trusting our partner to tell us the lies we half-want and expect to hear? Trusting our partner to listen to anything we have to say without having a contradictory view or experience? Trusting our partner to keep the peace despite the war they might feel inside? Trust in our partner to prop up our self-esteem because we’re unable to do that for our self?

Or do we want to be able to trust our partner with tolerating difficult truths, both the telling and the receiving? Can we trust our partner to represent themselves honestly, even if it hurts us, or them? How about trusting our partner to allow us to face our own existential pain without trying to rescue us from it because it it makes them uncomfortable? Most importantly, do we possess the self-respect that allows us to trust our own response-ability in the ever changing landscape of our relationship? Can we trust our own judgement, our own perception? If so, our partner’s perceived trustworthiness becomes far less important.

Ideas of trust and safety are complex and multidimensional; neither should be assumed to be wholly virtuous, without shadowy aspects.

The most profound truths are difficult truths, and difficult truths rarely feel “safe.” They feel like the opposite of safe; they feel dangerous. If “trusting” our partner means that they must respond to our difficult truths with validation and make us feel “safe” in our self-disclosures, then cycles of inauthenticity (ie- lying and pretending) are established within the relationship and will certainly contaminate our experiences of intimacy.

I have observed that the safety and trust that is most profound in relationship tends to be hard-won, a product of difficulty and growth rather than of agreements, demands, compromise, or negotiations. There’s a trustworthiness and safety in knowing that your partner will stand their ground even in the face of your discomfort, but this is a truth that not everyone comes to recognize.

In closing, none of this is meant to be absolute or prescriptive. We all have to wrestle with the personal and subjective meanings of safety, trust, validation, and related themes in our relationships.

My intent here is to add some flesh to the bones of an idea I shared recently in brief; the idea that there is a kind of intimacy that is different from the conventional version. These ideas can never be expressed fully enough; an experience like intimacy is so deep, so unique, and so subjectively personal that it is, in a way, futile to try to define it or map it or even talk about it. And yet there’s some beauty even in the futility.

In some way, writing this has been an intimate experience for me. I reveal myself, presenting an idea that may be unpopular. It’s not entirely safe. I don’t trust that you will agree with me. I don’t need or expect you to validate what I have said. And I’m open to hearing your thoughts and feelings, whatever they are, because I’ve confronted my own, right here in front of you.

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Like what you’re reading here?
You’ll love my book.
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The Re-connection handbook for couples - by Justice Schanfarber - web box2

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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This simple communication tool terrifies most people

Communication tools for marriage and relationshipsCommunication tools for marriage and relationships

Many people are in love with the idea that there is a communication tool that will solve their marriage or relationship troubles with a minimum of discomfort or risk. The fantasy rarely comes true, for reasons I discuss elsewhere, but there is one tool that does change everything. Ready for it?

I call it… Telling the truth.

Telling the truth is one of the simplest, most difficult, and most terrifying “communication tools” available to us in relationship. It’s far more intimidating than trying to learn your partner’s love languages, remembering to use “I-statements”, or practicing active listening.

Interestingly, popular communication tools and techniques that promise to create more intimacy in relationships often succeed at doing precisely the opposite, while telling the truth remains one of the surest paths to authentic intimacy. So why do we avoid it?

Telling the truth is hard

When we tell the truth we put ourselves on the line. When we tell the truth we open ourselves to our partner’s questioning, judgement, criticism, rejection, even disgust.

Sometimes we try to bargain away the risk of truth-telling – “I’ll tell you but you have to promise not to get mad or to judge me.” An angry or judgemental partner is apparently more than many people can tolerate.

Obviously not all truth-telling is wise or constructive, though the most profound truth-telling does inevitably carry a risk of destruction. Our innocence may be at risk of being destroyed. Or our upper hand, our righteousness. We might risk destroying something in our partner: their image of us, their sense of safety; we may fear destroying their happiness, or their love and acceptance of us.

What does it take to tell the truth?

The truth might be painful, but real truth-telling is not cruel, it is courageous. It is not manipulative, it is genuine. Cruelty and manipulation is a misuse or distortion of telling the truth. Real truth-telling presents something unarguable, something deeply subjective, something from our experience for the other to consider. Real truth-telling draws a line between our experience and our partner’s experience. It is an act of respect, integrity, and differentiation.

Telling the truth might mean confessing an action or behaviour, but the most significant truth-telling more often involves revealing difficult or complicated feelings

“I don’t like being touched like that.”

“I’m not sure I love you anymore.”

“I don’t feel attracted to you.”

“I don’t think I want children.”

“I’m having doubts.”

“I disagree.”

“I’m attracted to someone else.”

“I want something different.”

“I’m having a hard time with something you’ve done.”

“I’m angry.”

“I’m sad.”

“I’m ashamed.”

“I’ve been deceiving myself, and you.”

“I hide myself from you.”

“I punish you.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t respect you.”

“I want more.”

“I want less.”

Notice that there is no technique. Nothing fancy. The truth is straight-forward and needs no special dressing up.

Each of these examples opens the door to what we imagine will be difficult conversations. Telling the truth opens doors, but it may also close them. Most relationships are normally built, at least partially, upon untruths, and these untruths provide an uneasy equilibrium. Truth-telling is destabilizing at first; it narrows the path and demands growth. No wonder we avoid it; we’d rather find a technique that allows us to keep our relationship more or less status quo, but also somehow “better.”

If we’re really honest, we want communication tools that will make our partner understand us, even as we hide the most difficult and salient truths from them. And if we’re even more honest, we might admit that when we say we want understanding, we actually mean we want agreement; we crave some tool that will make our partner validate us and hopefully see things our way, even when we don’t have the courage to tell them the truth in plain language.

I’ll leave you with this quote from psychologist and author James Hillman. I like how he connects truth-telling to shame and fantasy for another perspective –

When Freud’s patients lay down and began to reminisce, they found their fantasies embarrassing. Freud also found them embarrassing. Alone with each other and these fantasies, teller and listener did not look at each other. Their eyes did not meet. Why are our fantasies embarrassing to tell, and why are we embarrassed hearing the intimate tales of another’s imagination?

The shame about our fantasies gives testimony to their importance. This shame is now called professionally ‘resistance’. but what function does this resistance perform? I do indeed resist telling my daydreams, my scorching hatreds, my longings and fears and their uncontrollable imagery. My fantasies are like wounds, they reveal my pathology. Resistance protects me. Fantasies are incompatible with my usual ego , and because they are uncontrollable and ‘fantastic’ – that is away from my the relation to ego reality – we feel them alien. We are not embarrassed in the same way about our will and intelligence; indeed we proudly exhibit their accomplishments. But what breeds in the imagination we tend to keep apart and to ourselves. Imagination is an inner world – an inner aspect of consciousness. These affections and fantasies are the imaginal or unconscious aspect of everything we think and do. This part of the soul that we keep to ourselves is central to analysis, to confession, to prayer, central between lovers and friends, central in the work of art, central to what we mean by ‘telling the truth’.

Read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples to get help with telling the truth in your relationship.

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“Stop feeling that” – Can you tolerate your partner’s difficult feelings?

"Stop feeling that" - Can you tolerate your partner's difficult feelings?When faced with our partner’s difficult feelings, the reflexive response tends to be some version of this: “Stop feeling that.” We might dress up our response in language that sounds more caring or compassionate, but the essential meaning of our message – stop feeling that – rings loud and clear.

We want our partner to stop feeling what they are feeling because it makes us uncomfortable in a hundred ways. Until we examine the discomfort that their feelings activate in us, we will continue to respond with some version of “Stop feeling that.” The problem with this response is that it easily turns the partner’s feelings into a point of contention, defensiveness follows, and a familiar escalation of conflict is often not far behind.

The alternative?

Another possibility is to respond to our partner’s difficult feelings with some version of this: “Please tell me more.” The problem with this is that it conflicts with our true intentions and desires. “Please tell me more” is a nice idea, but the truth is that we don’t want our partner to tell us more; we want them to stop feeling that.

Who would we have to be in order to genuinely want our partner to tell us more about their difficult feelings?

First, we’d have to be someone who can tolerate our partner’s difficult feelings. This is no small task. When the people closest to us are feeling something difficult, it is virtually impossible to not feel anxious. How we manage this anxiety determines our ability to be curious about their experience rather than trying to avoid, control, or fix it. In other words, our ability to be present in relationship hinges our ability to tolerate or manage the anxiety we feel.

Many of the complaints I hear in my marriage counselling practice come down to this –

“My partner doesn’t listen to me; they try to fix me or control me. I just want to be heard.”

Of course, the person saying this isn’t always telling the whole truth. Often there is a secret desire to have our partner rescue us, or there’s a not-so-secret attempt to pin our feelings on our partner, which makes it even harder for them to just “be with us” when we are suffering. There can also be an expectation that our partner demonstrate sufficient understanding, acknowledgement, or agreement when we reveal our feelings.

These dynamics can best be seen in the context of a “relationship system.” Thinking of relationship in terms of a system means acknowledging that relationship dynamics can’t be reduced to a simple cause and effect, but rather that there are multiple inputs that shape the system in complex ways, and that each person in the system has a part in either maintaining or changing it, no matter if they see themselves as the protagonist or the antagonist.

Learn more about tolerating feelings and changing difficult relationship dynamics in my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples.

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Parenting challenges – Are there differences between fathering and mothering?

Parenting, fathers day

I noticed an interesting fathers day trend on my social media feeds this year.

One woman lamented “Fathers Day is the worst.” She wanted to share the pain of navigating fathers day as a single mom who’s ex (her child’s father) was abusive.

Another woman wanted to say “Thank you to the fathers who do not have inappropriate relationships with their children.”

And then there were various versions of “Let’s celebrate the fathers who know how to be nurturers and caregivers.”

Aside from the first example (I feel for you, but no, I’m not personally on board with the idea that fathers day is “the worst,” even though I can imagine why that would be the case for you and many others), it’s pretty easy to get generally on board with many of these messages. Yes, obviously it’s good for fathers to not have “inappropriate” relationships with their children, and yes, let’s celebrate nurturing fathering. Simple. No-brainers.

And yet I remain curious about the context, mostly because I’ve never seen these sorts of messages around mothers day, and contrast tends to catch my eye.

Can you imagine seeing mothers day memes that say “Thank you to the mothers who do not have inappropriate relationships with their children”? Or “Let’s celebrate the mothers who know how to set boundaries and hold their children accountable”? I think these messages would pretty much universally be seen to be in very bad taste on mothers day.

What to make of this? What is the meta-meaning of this phenomenon?

Is mothering harder to screw up? Does mothering just come more naturally? Are there that many more “bad” fathers than “bad” mothers?

Many of the mothers who see me in couples counselling have a difficult time understanding or tolerating their partner’s fathering style when it includes rough-housing, risk-taking, aggression, competition, brusqueness, and so on.

I’ve observed too that some mothers have a difficult time allowing the father to manage his own relationship with the children; there’s an impulse to step in and intervene, to criticize or control. I’m also aware that speaking about gender differences period, including mothering as potentially distinct from fathering, is not always welcome. When I posted a brief perspective about fathering on my facebook page, two commenters were quick to respond.

One suggested “Sexist much?”

The other declared “F*ck gender norms.”

Here’s the original post

Fathering is sometimes different from mothering. Yes, fathers can be nurturing, and this quality of fathering is valuable and needed, but good fathering also includes challenging, setting boundaries, and having expectations. Mothers can sometimes be uncomfortable with this, but a function of good mothering is making room for fathers to bring their own gifts to parenting, and allowing fathers to manage their own relationships with the kids. #fathersday

We live in a time when explicitly confronting or calling out the dark side of the archetypal father (masculine) is socially sanctioned, while confronting the dark side of the archetypal mother (feminine) is less acceptable. I chalk this up partly to the swing of the pendulum; one could say that the feminine has been on trial by the masculine for a couple thousand years and it’s time for fair turnabout.

A result of this pendulum swing is that so-called masculine traits have been made “bad” while so-called feminine traits are enjoying a time of broad and unquestioning glorification. For example, many mothers have terribly inappropriate and damaging relationships with their children, but if these inappropriate relationships resemble “nurturing” or “caring” in some ways, their inappropriateness can easily be missed or forgiven.

The dark side of nurturing (yes, nurturing has a dark side) includes smothering, poor boundaries, passive-aggressiveness, co-dependency, martyrdom, and even sexualization or inappropriate eroticization of the child… but it’s easy, almost encouraged in our cultural climate to de-emphasize or ignore this shadow.

On the other hand, a parent who “challenges” their child or holds them accountable, or assumes an appropriate developmental hierarchy in the relationship (ie – I’m the adult, you’re the child, I get the final say) will often be viewed with suspicion if not outright derision, when in fact all these qualities are an important foil to the “nurturing” that has been historically associated with mothering and which now seems to be held in absolute esteem.

In other words, certain qualities historically associated with masculinity and fathering have been reduced only to their shadow aspect; their appropriate, necessary, and positive aspects have become invisible, not because they don’t exist, but because our culture currently has a difficult time recognizing them, which perhaps comes as no surprise given the brutality that the dark masculine has inflicted.

Whether men or women are naturally more nurturing, and what should be done about it, is not a topic I’m interested in taking a position on. What I do take a stand for is the necessity for parents to allow each other their own, unique, and often differing parenting styles, and to allow each other to develop and manage their own relationships with the children, for better or for worse (obviously if there are genuine concerns about abuse, appropriate action is called for).

It’s also crucial for children to have boundaries set for them, to be challenged as well as supported, and to have expectations placed upon them. Traditionally this has often, though not always, been the role of the father. If an individual or couple – hetero, same sex, gender fluid, whatever – would prefer to “F*ck gender norms,” then please do. Switch up the roles. Mix ’em up however suits you. But please do not jettison altogether the value of boundaries, challenge, and expectations in parenting. Nurturing is wonderful and should be celebrated, but it does have its own dark side, and even at its very best nurturing is probably not entirely sufficient on its own.

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The Heroine’s Journey – Transformative story and myth for women

The Heroine's Journey
From “The Shape of Water”

When Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was first published in 1949 it introduced (or perhaps reminded) the modern world of the archetypal Hero’s Journey. The narrative of this mythical journey follows a particular arc, as described succinctly in the book’s introduction –

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

I first encountered the written myth of the Hero’s Journey in my adolescence in the 1980s, more than thirty years after Campbell’s book was published. As a politically charged (if not particularly astute) adolescent, I immediately noticed the gender asymmetry. Women and girls were side characters, there to provide incentive or reward or danger or intrigue to the Hero. The Hero was always a man or boy. George Lucas exemplified this in his Joseph Campbell inspired movie Star Wars (perhaps notably, the first movie I remember seeing as a child).

As I reached the cusp of manhood myself, I wondered how women felt about so rarely having a mythical journey of their own told in story or represented in myth.

Today we see gender roles increasingly challenged and deconstructed. Women are taking the Hero’s Journey (and men are often-times foregoing their own, but that’s a discussion for another time). And yet, in my counselling work I regularly encounter frustration and confusion from women around the Hero archetype and myth. They don’t usually use the words “Hero” or “Hero’s Journey,” but I discern the reference to myth in the words they do use.

In our sessions women will report feeling restricted, burdened, immobilized, especially women who have made significant sacrifices as a mother or wife. The women who have made a pronounced Hero’s Journey will sometimes lament their loss of a sense of home or family, of belonging, of “hearth.”

The Hero’s Journey is in essence a masculine journey, and although women will embark upon it, often successfully and with great reward, there remains a glaring gap.

The Heroine’s Journey

It stands to reason that if there is a Hero’s Journey, there must be a Heroine’s Journey. But what is the arc of the Heroine’s Journey? Is it enough for the Heroine to simply follow the Hero and call it a journey of her own? Certainly we see this in storytelling, for example in the character Lyra Silvertongue, a pre-adolescent girl who travels to other worlds on a typical Hero’s Journey in Philip Pullman’s astounding Golden Compass trilogy (a personal favourite in contemporary literature).

But might the Heroine’s Journey be substantially distinct in form from the Hero’s Journey, even as it mirrors it in value, significance, and depth? It’s worth considering.

I was considering just this question recently when I happened to watch Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 film The Shape of Water (Del Toro is also responsible for the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth).

The protagonist and Heroine is Eliza, a mute woman who works as a cleaner in a secretive military base where a special government agent has suddenly arrived at the base in possession of a military “asset.” This asset turns out to be an amphibious “aqua-man,” a prisoner, a creature that the agent, clearly the story’s antagonist/villain (perhaps the dragon or giant of the Hero myth) treats with open disdain and cruelty.

The agent is sadistic and efficient, identified as “a man of the future,” proponent of progress, enemy of the past, enemy of uncertainty, enemy of feeling (except perhaps anger and disgust), of vulnerability, and certainly enemy of the feminine.

The asset, the captured aqua-man, is revealed, through Eliza’s silent hand-signed interactions, to be highly intelligent, sensitive, and also powerful, all qualities that the evil agent is blind to (if not actually blind, unwilling to acknowledge, committed as he is to the cold ideology of the dominator-heirarchy and the particular brand of masculinity to which he has pledged his allegiance).

The asset/Aqua-man too is clearly male, but is completely unlike the agent. A Dionysian figure dragged from his ancient home in the murky wet depths up into the dry and shallow world of Apollonian modern man, he is in fact a river god, embodiment of the past, now scheduled to die at the hands of the future.

It is up to Eliza to save him, and of course she does, and of course in the process she too is saved.

But there are marked differences between her Heroine’s Journey and the archetypal Hero’s Journey. Her tasks of courage are the same as the Hero’s. Her transformation and initiation are no less profound. As in the Hero’s Journey help arrives from unexpected sources. But unlike virtually every Hero’s Journey, Eliza is not called away from home… her quest finds her right where she stands. This seems to be a rarely recognized distinction. I didn’t really think about it until a colleague pointed it out, and I think the implications are worth exploring.

The Shape of Water could be called a feminist film, but rather than minimizing, discarding, or demonizing the masculine element, a distinction is made between styles of masculinity, while a distinctly feminine Heroine musters all that is required to face the challenges that have come through her door.

The story offers a refreshing, imaginative, and symbolically rich take on the Hero/Heroine’s Journey. The Heroine is pitted not against men per se, and not against just a random “bad man” but, and this is worth repeating, against a particular and distinct style of masculinity. Along her Journey, the Heroine, in typical fashion, receives help, sometimes unexpected and often from men. The complexity of character in the men who help her is actually necessary in order to appreciate the complexity of what the Heroine’s Journey demands. This understanding seems to be lost on many popular film-makers and storytellers who settle instead for simplified stereotypes.

I hope for more stories of this caliber to help express the myths, new and old, of the lesser known and equally potent feminine side of the transformative human Journey.

Recommended books –
The Hero Within by Carol Pearson
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Goddesses in Everywoman by Jean Shinoda Bolen

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Is it possible to love without attachment?

Is it possible to love without attachment?Dear Justice,

I’ve been listening to some Buddhist teachings on love and attachment. This teacher says that to truly love someone is to want them to be happy, with or without you, but usually what we really want is for ourselves to be happy, and we believe we need someone else to make us happy. We call this love, but that is not love says the Buddhist teacher, that is attachment, and attachment is the cause of suffering.

I’ve struggled a lot with love. It’s true that the love I’m used to has caused me a lot of suffering, so maybe it hasn’t been real love at all! My question – Is it really possible to love someone without attachment?

Signed,
In Love and Suffering

Dear In Love and Suffering,

The kind of love that is incompatible with being attached to someone or loving them for your own pleasure is a spiritual love. Spiritual love is a high ideal, and one that some people are called to. In a way, attachment IS the cause of suffering just as the ascetic spiritual traditions teach, and so it makes sense from that point of view that if we want to be free of suffering we should attempt to eliminate our attachments. Since romantic love has caused you a lot of suffering personally, I can see why it would be appealing to trade it in for a love without attachment. But please understand, it won’t be the same love.

Buddhists tend to idealize the emotional equanimity that comes with “non-attachment”. For some this offers a satisfying and enriching path, despite its difficulties. For others the ideal becomes an exercise in self-deception, what is commonly called “spiritual bypass”: rather than face the suffering that comes with the attachments of life, one tries to trick oneself into enlightenment by avoiding life rather than engaging with it. Still others manage to work fruitfully with the tension and dilemmas that come with attachment, even while they continue to live an engaged life.

The classical Greeks offer a different perspective on love altogether. They did not see love as mutually exclusive from attachment (or suffering for that matter), but rather they recognized at least four distinct kinds of love; we’ll look at two: Agape and Eros.

For the Greeks, Agape is spiritual, selfless love. Genitals are not included in this kind of love because bodily desire is not included.

Eros provides a darker foil to Agape. Eros is romantic or erotic love. It is sexually charged and desirous (genitals included).

In some stories the Greek God Eros was said to be mothered by Aphrodite, Goddess of love, and fathered by Ares, God of war. This parentage should give us clues to the temperament of Eros. Erotic love is understood to be frictious and troublesome, obsessive and personal, full of projection and confusion, and yes, suffering. Erotic love is also passionate, invigorating, colourful, and joyous. It’s a mixed bag.

So, do you want a cool and non-attached love? Or do you want a hot love that includes attachment, as well as passion and the associated suffering? There’s no wrong answer, but it’s worth adding that one makes a place for desire, including fucking and other forms of passion, while the other treats desire as a problem, something to be liberated from.

Interestingly, erotic love also has a psychological association that non-attached spiritual love does not. In the old stories Eros himself falls in love with a mortal woman named Psyche. Their love relationship is rocky, there is attachment and suffering in spades, but the suffering is psychologically meaningful; it helps the couple grow.

The Buddhist perspective in your question assumes that liberation from the entanglements of both Eros and Psyche is preferable to the psychological deepening that suffering in love can provide. Another way to say this is that attachment and suffering (and fucking for that matter) might be the enemies of spirituality, but they can be necessary for the soul (to read more about spirit as distinct from soul and the spiritual journey as distinct from the soul journey click here).

We’ve been looking at this in polarized terms for the sake of clarity and understanding, but these may not be mutually exclusive realms. We can question our attachments in love even as we wrestle with and even indulge them (I sometimes hold my partner’s face in my hands and teasingly tell her “I’m so attached to you”).

Can you have it both ways – can you do away with suffering and still feel the kind of fiery love that many crave? Probably not. Is it worth trying? Maybe, but keep in mind that much hinges on the meaning that you make of your suffering. If you believe, as I understand Buddhists do, that suffering is essentially meaningless, then suffering and attachment merely become problems to solve, something to be liberated from. But if you find psychological or soul meaning in the suffering and attachment of erotic love, then suffering becomes perhaps not only tolerable, but even purposeful.

Thanks for asking hard questions.

All My Best,
Justice

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Fantasy: A different kind of understanding

Fantasy- A different kind of understandingIn my therapy work and writings I most often use the word fantasy to describe the patterns and images of the imagination that shape our preferences and inform our motivations, from subtle to strong. A fantasy is, in this way, related to what we might call a “belief,” but while a belief is mental and conceptual, the fantasy lives deeper and more vividly in the psyche.

The popular term “unconscious belief” acknowledges that we are not always entirely aware of the beliefs we act upon, or that act upon us. “Story” too is a word that gets used to flesh out the idea of these beliefs and the fuller inner narratives they spawn. I like to speak in terms of fantasy because it adds more depth to the ideas of belief and story, and fantasy includes the elements of image and imagination. Fantasies seize us through the imagination and so they contain an image (though this image may not be immediately available).

Examining our beliefs or stories is a valuable mental endeavour; examining fantasy through image and imagination brings us further, from intellect into psyche. Like the “unconscious belief” that reveals itself when we are ready (ie – “I don’t deserve love”), the fantasies that run our lives are often hidden or partly hidden even as they exert their force.

And so when I speak of fantasy in session or in my writing I will most often be referring to the root of these hidden beliefs/stories/narratives, and this root lives in images and imagination.

Fantasies, understood in this way, can be both welcome and unwelcome, pleasurable or tortuous. They can be hopes and desires or fears and repulsions. We all are subject to numerous fantasies of the psyche, some explicit and visible, others only hinted at or kept out of view except in dreams, daydreams, or other breakthrough moments.

Our fantasies fill the spectrum of life experience, tending to concentrate around the archetypally significant nodes. We’re subject to sexual fantasies, death fantasies, abandonment fantasies, career fantasies, success fantasies, failure fantasies, rescue fantasies, sadistic fantasies, masochistic fantasies, creative fantasies, destructive fantasies, hero fantasies, victim fantasies and oh so many more!

This description of fantasy is necessary because fantasy today has commonly come to mean merely the opposite of truth, anti-reality. The word has become pejorative, so diminished that its use reflects virtually nothing of its fuller potent meaning.

The word fantasy comes to us from original meanings implying “imagination, appearance, to make visible.” Also, “to show, to bring to light.” Fantasy is imagination, and imagination illuminates.

And so I will often speak of fantasy in a way that is different from how the word is commonly used, in a way that deepens it to the level of psyche, and elevates it to a place of illumination.

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7 Tips for Practicing Presence in Your Relationship

How to be present in your relationshipA few years ago I wrote an article titled “Why women leave men they love – What every man needs to know.” At the heart of this little article is one big idea… Presence matters. It matters a lot. Presence might even matter the most. You can be a great provider or parent and everything else, but if you are not able or willing to be present to your partner you are likely to find yourself in relationship trouble.

What is presence? Why does it matter?

What does presence mean in a relationship, and why does it matter so much? I will sometimes hear a client lament that their partner does not feel “present” in the relationship. This feeling of lack, so acutely felt by one person, can be a complete mystery to their partner. I’ll have someone tell me in session, “My partner says I’m not present in our relationship… I have no idea what they mean.”

Here’s the short answer, then we’ll dig deeper into the question:

When your partner complains that you are not present in your relationship they usually mean you are distracted – in your head, on your phone, checked out, too tired etc – but underneath it probably also means that you are unable to meet them emotionally. There might be good reasons for this. You might find their emotions confusing, overwhelming, or even boring. You might not be used to engaging with someone on an emotional level (many people are raised in non-emotional or overly-emotional households and do not learn emotional skills). You might even feel cut off from your own emotions. Or maybe you just don’t enjoy emotional closeness as much as your partner does, which is fair, and is probably a good thing to explicitly tell them.

The primary definition of presence in the dictionary is pretty straightforward – “the state or fact of existing, occurring” – but not very helpful. Clearly you exist, but existing or occurring is not always enough to be felt as present. The kind of presence we talk about in relationship is about the particular quality of your presence… how you show up… how you are experienced by your partner.

A second definition of presence sheds more light, “the bearing, carriage, or air of a person.” Here we begin to see how the mere fact of existing is necessarily coloured by particular qualities. But what are these qualities? What sort of bearing or carriage are we talking about?

A third definition of presence deepens the mystery, but also reveals a clue, “a person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen; something (such as a spirit) felt or believed to be present.” Ah! The kind of presence that many hunger for in a relationship (maybe you, maybe your partner) is actually invisible! In a sense this is true. The kind of presence desired in a relationship may be more felt than seen; it is the spirit in which you present yourself.

In what sort of spirit do you typically present yourself to your partner? It’s a good question. A spirit of curiosity? A spirit of problem-solving or solutions? A spirit of exhaustion? Limited attention? A spirit of acceptance? A spirit of denial? A spirit of confidence? Vulnerability? Receptivity? A spirit of skepticism? What is your typical bearing, carriage, or air? The possible answers are infinite, but probably you habitually show up in a narrow and predictable way just like most of us.

When a person complains that their partner is not “present” they usually mean that they do not feel seen, known, and engaged. They feel invisible, alone, and disconnected.

Presence in this sense is first about paying attention and not being distracted. Having your wits about you. Being solid, grounded, in the moment. Presence also implies a certain kind of non-judgemental attitude, a capacity to listen and to hear. When we are present with our partner we give them our attention and we allow them to be as they are. This kind of presence is simple, but also sophisticated. And these days it can be rare.

This kind of presence is also closely associated with the feeling of intimacy (I explain this more fully in my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples). This feeling runs deep for many, and it can become a deal-maker or deal-breaker in a relationship.

How to practice being present

If we want to learn to be more present in our relationship we must put aside our agenda for our partner. Most of us have an idea of how our partner could be improved – how they could be better, more happy, or more effective if only they would change this or that habit or way of being. This agenda for our partner is incompatible with being truly present. You can come back to your partner improvement plan another time, but if you want to practice being present you’ll need to put it aside for now.

Being present has zero to do with changing, fixing, or problem solving. To be present, we must develop a tolerance for the contradictions and dilemmas that our partner reveals. Our mind must remain receptive and clear, or these contradictions and dilemmas will get stuck in there and make noise, and soon we find ourselves offering advice or trying to fix our partner; in that moment our presence has disappeared, and our partner feels the pain of its absence.

Sometimes our partner has a criticism of us. If the criticism seems particularly unkind or unfair, our defences will likely kick in. As soon as we go into defence mode we have lost the spirit of presence. Addressing our partner’s criticism may be necessary, but first take a few moments to hear what your partner is really saying. Pause. Experiencing you as present, listening, attentive, might have a disarming effect. Sometimes this turns out to be all that is required.

Being present doesn’t mean being invincible; this isn’t about armouring yourself. You’re still allowed to feel the impact of your partner’s words and actions. In fact, being present makes you more sensitive, not less, but it also makes you more capable of tolerating emotional discomforts.

It also doesn’t mean being an emotional punching bag or doormat. We can potentially argue and defend ourselves and still remain present, but it’s hard to do both at once. And sometimes presence might not be called for, might not be the goal. It’s not like you have to be 100% present at all times. That would probably be exhausting. Nonetheless, for many people a move toward more presence in the relationship is called for and will have positive effects. Sometimes it turns a failing relationship around.

Being present first to your own inner experience helps you respond skillfully and accurately to your partner. When we are present to our own experience as well as simultaneously being present to our partner’s, we are better able to sort out our own emotionality. For example, being present allows us to discern between our hurt feelings and our anger, and thus gives us the opportunity to cut to the truth and then respond accordingly. Being present to yourself really just means that you know what you are feeling, that you’re familiar with yourself from the inside out.

Much non-presence stems from an unwillingness to see and feel without too much judgement. When we can not tolerate the truth of our self or our partner, and this is common, we will not allow ourselves to be truly present.

Presence, sex, and eroticism

It’s worth noting that the kind of presence we are talking about here can be a crucial factor for feelings of sexual connection. Without the feeling of presence in a partner, many people (especially women) do not become aroused, even if they wish it were otherwise. Presence in this sense is not the same as mere familiarity (nor opposite to it) but is instead related to the immediacy and the aliveness of the moment; presence indicates aliveness, and in a sexual context has a particular kind of feel.

This feeling of erotic presence and aliveness is difficult to define and to talk about. If we don’t have a clear understanding of it or a shared language for discussing it, the lack of erotic presence becomes all the more frustrating and damaging to the relationship.

Making your presence felt

Demonstrating presence sends our partner the message that we truly see them, that they are known. This tends to have a moderating effect on the nervous systems of both involved; it calms us down and reduces anxiety, and it just generally feels good. Regardless of the content of our verbal interactions, experiencing each other as present feels good and satisfying on a fundamental, non-verbal level.

Being present to our partner and sensing their presence with us is a way to build trust and goodwill. When this trust and goodwill is available we feel nourished from our interactions, and we are able to better weather the storms of life; we experience more enjoyment in the relationship, and more gratitude for each other. Presence also helps us navigate conflict when it arises. Presence is helpful and appropriate in times of relationship peace, love, conflict, and war.

Presence doesn’t come naturally to everybody, but it can be practiced and learned.

Practicing presence

The first prerequisite for being present is an ability to tolerate emotion, yours and your partners. Sometimes this means tolerating strong emotions. If you habitually avoid conflict (or instigate it) you’ll need to address this one way or another.

Other qualities of presence to practice include –

Curiosity
Can you be curious about your partner and their experience (maybe you think you know everything about them already)? Can you be curious about your own as well?

Awareness
Let all your senses be open to this person. Notice all that they are communicating, verbally and also subtly, through body language, tone etc. Let the raw data wash over you, do not get stuck in interpretation.

Self-awareness
Notice how your body and mind automatically reacts to your partner. Where does your body tense up? Where does it collapse? What are the words, stories, images that run through your mind as you are present to your partner?

Non-judgement
It isn’t the time to judge them wrong or right, good or bad. Let them be as they are. Practice moral neutrality. (Note – Discernment, aka judgement, is often necessary and appropriate, but it’s also worth putting it aside for a time in order to be present in a more simple and direct way.)

Courage
It takes courage to face someone exactly as they are!

Differentiation
Your partner’s experience isn’t yours. Feeling the boundary between you rather than taking what they say personally helps you be more present.

Listening
Even if you’re in conversation, practice listening deeply when it’s your time to listen.

Presence has a strong physiological aspect as well as mental, emotional, and psychological. Feeling “grounded” in your own body is necessary in order to be present to another. In fact, your partner’s body silently and automatically reads your body for cues (and vice versa) in every moment. These cues either agitate or calm their own physiological systems.

To optimize your own physiology so as to communicate the right kind of presence and send the right cues, use these tips –

1. Sit or stand tall and comfortably with your shoulders comfortably back.

2. Face your partner. Let the front of your body face the front of their body. Now let the front of your body soften and relax. This softened front body signals receptivity and willingness to engage.

3. Maintain eye contact, possibly more than usual.

4. Soften your facial features. This sends a signal to your nervous system (and your partner’s) that all is well.

5. Bring your awareness to your breath, to its natural pattern of rising and falling. If your breath is shallow, try deepening it. Keep your breath slow and deep, steady and strong, natural and relaxed. Let yourself feel nourished by your breath. If you notice yourself becoming agitated, falling into reaction or judgement, or otherwise losing your quality of presence, bring your attention back to the sensations of your breath rising and falling. Let the steady rhythm of your breath be the place that your quality of presence comes from.

Adopting a physical posture of presence along with the qualities of curiosity, awareness, self-awareness, non-judgement, courage, differentiation, and listening will make your presence feel even more powerful and satisfying for both of you.

Learning to improve your quality of presence in your marriage or relationship is a lifelong practice that pays big dividends. Use the instructions and outline above to hone your practice. A basic mindfulness meditation practice can also help. If you need more support, talk to a counsellor, coach, or therapist.

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“My counsellor says kinky sex and BDSM are unhealthy.”

My counsellor says kinky sex and BDSM are unhealthyDear Justice,

I recently found a local counsellor I like, but when I revealed that I enjoy BDSM and kinky sex (impact play, objectification, dominance and submission etc) she became visibly distressed. Her jaw literally dropped. She told me that what I do is unhealthy and that I should deal with my issues and trauma in other ways. I thought she was going to be a good counsellor for me, but her reaction made me really uncomfortable. What do you suggest? Any insight would be appreciated.

Sincerely,
Kinky and frustrated

Dear Kinky and frustrated,

Although the situation has improved since BDSM was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013, some counsellors and therapists remain ideologically opposed to BDSM and kink.

Counselling and therapy includes dozens of different modalities and approaches, each with their own theoretical and philosophical foundations. Sometimes these various modalities are contradictory to one another. One therapist might well support your kinky lifestyle, another will not. This can reflect the type of therapy or counselling they do, but it’s more likely based on their own personal biases and prejudices. The arena of human sexuality is especially fraught with shadow and difficulty, and counsellors are not immune. Our cultural puritanism runs deep, and often leaks into the counselling office, where concepts of normalcy get pitted against concepts of deviancy.

I’m curious – Are you indeed dealing with your “issues and trauma” through kink and BDSM? Or is this your counsellor’s assumption? Are your kinky proclivities troubling to you? Or are they just troubling to her? These are useful distinctions.

If you otherwise like this counsellor you could ask her about her possible prejudice and see if a way forward together is possible. If sex figures heavily in your counselling work, and if you want someone who can accept your enjoyment of BDSM and kink, you might have to cut your losses and look for a counsellor who is kink-friendly and BDSM-aware. Some counsellors and therapists will openly advertise this, or you can ask explicitly in your initial consultation.

My approach is to treat kink and BDSM as a rich and fascinating area of sexuality. Certainly there is important psychological material there, but it should be met on its own terms in a spirit of curiosity, not with reflexive disdain, criticism, or moralizing.

Kink and BDSM can be seen as a space for playing out particular sexual or erotic psychodramas. These psychodramas are not necessarily damaging, and can be the rare places where certain dark myths get a voice. Consensual BDSM is not literal abuse, it is symbolic and metaphorical. Unfortunately, not all counsellors and therapists understand this.

Beyond the psychological implications, kink and BDSM can also simply “feel good” for some people. There are plenty of physiological and biochemical explanations for this, ie – the dopamine release that comes from a sense of accomplishment or the endorphine cascade produced by certain kinds of strong sensations.

Plenty of research is available to support the health and legitimacy of kink and BDSM practices. All your counsellor or anyone else has to do is search “BDSM research” online and they’ll see about a million results. If you’re feeling generous and want to do your counsellor’s work for them, you can always send them a link to this Introduction to BDSM for Psychotherapists.

Is it possible for BDSM and kink to be unhealthy? Of course. If you have concerns about your sexual inclinations, taking these concerns to a therapist or counsellor is an option, but it’s the counsellor’s job to examine these possibilities with you, not to project their own shadow or assert their judgements onto your sexuality.

Bottom line? It sounds like your counsellor’s reaction to your sexuality is professionally outdated and inappropriate. You can agree to disagree with her on this one point, you can try to educate her, or you can look for a kink-friendly counsellor who understands or at least won’t judge this aspect of you.

All My Best,
Justice

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The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing

Conscious Kink for Couples - The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing - by Justice Schanfarber

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Click here now to download the 10-page sample (one-click pdf download).

Learn to use kinky sex and BDSM as an awareness practice for healing and growth (like you might use yoga, meditation, or martial arts).

~ Bring more awareness, creativity, and intention to your sex life.

~ Reconcile your “darker” sexual desires with the deep love and caring that is the foundation of your relationship.

~ Make a place for consensual Dominance and submission alongside equality and respect

~ Confront the shame, doubt, or self-consciousness that thwarts or confuses you.

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

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Valentine’s day – Hallmark’s Cupid gives way to Eros and real erotic love

Valentine's day - Eros and PycheValentine’s day takes as its icon the innocent, though mischievous smiling image of Cupid, plump and cute, shooting his heart-tipped arrows playfully, with love blossoming like a flower wherever the arrow lands. This image of Cupid is a far cry from the Cupid of Apuleius’s “Metamorphoses” (aka “The Golden Ass” – circa 158 AD).

In the old stories, the arrows of Eros (Eros being the pre-Romanized Cupid) are suspected to be poison. They pierce real flesh, and they hurt, inflicting the pain and torment of erotic love – not just the flush of delight – upon their target. The passionate love of Eros is understood to be a mixed blessing/curse; passion here including meanings of fury, overwhelming feeling, being acted on by external forces, and suffering. Does this not describe well the reality of erotic love?

The Cupid of Valentine’s day cards symbolizes our insistence upon maintaining an attitude of innocence toward erotic love. Erotic love, that unshakeable blessing/curse kind of love characterized by Eros, has proven too psychologically troublesome and so has been replaced by a watered down version: “romantic love,” with an angelic Cupid as its mascot.

If romantic love is bubbly and sweet, erotic love includes deception and ill intent. When one is shot with Cupid’s arrow, expect swooning. When one is shot with the arrows of Eros, expect to bleed. Watch your back. There will be suffering.

This is not to say that erotic love should be denied (as if we have a choice!), rather we should view it with appropriate humility, deep curiosity, and perhaps a healthy fear or apprehension. Cloud-bound romantic love has little to offer of the earthy depths, but erotic love is bound to psyche, to soul, and wants to take us down as much as up.

The classic tale of Eros is also the tale of Psyche; their destinies are entwined. Eros loves Psyche, and Psyche loves Eros, but their love is not exactly the “romantic” kind. Psyche is a young woman living under a curse who is whisked away to the God Eros. Their love affair begins in blindness, deception, and mistrust… and goes downhill from there. Numerous external forces exert their influence. Eros pricks himself with his own arrow and fixates on Psyche. It’s a hot mess.

Through the many trials and tribulations of their love, Eros and Psyche come to mean something extraordinary to each other. In our lives too, erotic love means something extraordinary for us psychologically, and psyche means something extraordinary for our erotic love. This is no simple equation, and no fleeting romance; the relationship between Psyche and Eros is long, profound, and rife with difficulty.

Erotic love (Eros) is attracted to psychological being (Psyche), infusing psyche with desire and beauty, but also difficulty. These difficulties are not problems to be solved as much as rites of passage to be suffered, observed, even celebrated. And psychological being too is attracted to erotic love, infusing it with greater depth, and also difficulty, and again these difficulties can be understood as necessary and ever-deepening initiations.

This is what we must remember: Erotic love hurts us, and it is necessary for psychological being. There is no point in the infantilization of erotic love (a la Valentine’s day sentimentality), other than to avoid the uncomfortable psychological deepening that erotic love demands.

Is this a pessimistic view of love? Not at all. Erotic love is a necessary and beautiful calling, but it also necessarily contains frictious elements and tragedy.

In the myth of Psyche and Eros the lovers persevere in the face of tremendous obstacles including family betrayals, attempted murders and botched suicides. The couple’s eventual triumphs are hard-won, but it isn’t their personal heroics that save them; on the contrary, they effort endlessly, as they must (as we must), but their best efforts often backfire; then when all appears to be lost, fortune smiles serendipitously upon them.

The potent relationship between Psyche and Eros is full of importance, but is difficult to understand, just as the relationship between psychological life and erotic life is important and difficult to understand. Our best option is not to attempt to explain away the impact of psyche on eros (or vice versa) from an objective distance, but rather to enter the fray personally, to experience the dark mystery itself, and to report on what we find. I wonder – What kind of Valentine’s Day cards might result?

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Losing your innocence in love – Relationship as initiation

Calvin and Rosa had been working with me for six months. We were in the integration/completion phase of therapy, and were reflecting on significant themes and milestones. Rosa was reflecting upon a particular fight in which Calvin had said terrible, hurtful things to her. In this moment of our session she was noticing how she had been changed by that event. “I don’t think I’ll ever be the same,” she quietly mused.

I concurred, “I don’t think you will either.” I went on to explain, “We might enter a love relationship or marriage with innocence, believing that real love is always kind. When we discover otherwise, it changes us. We lose that innocence. We might then turn our back on the relationship, believing the love must be gone, or we might harden ourselves and turn our back on love altogether, believing it must be a lie, an illusion. Another possibility exists, one that I believe is more aligned with the deeper truth of the matter. We can expand ourselves, we can grow our capacity for holding the true complexity and inherent contradictions of romantic love. This changes us. We lose our innocence, but gain something deeper. And we’re never quite the same.”

Losing innocence in love

The experience that Calvin and Rosa had – losing their innocence in love, having their faith in love shaken, and beginning the journey of integrating their new, darker experiences of love – this is a rite of passage, a fiery initiation. It’s allowed to hurt. As we pass through the flames, our innocence is burned away and we emerge raw, shaken. Culturally, we tend not to recognize this critical milestone; certainly there’s little encouragement to honor or celebrate it. Instead we feel like a failure. As a therapist, I’ve come to realize that the appropriate response to someone who comes stumbling through this fire and into my office is not, “Oh, that’s a terrible thing that’s happened to you.” The appropriate response is, “You’ve come far on this journey. Welcome.”

Too many couples fight (themselves and each other) for too long trying to preserve their innocence. They stay stuck. Stuck is a word that comes up often in couples counselling. Each partner wants to preserve their own innocence, and to make the other understand, acknowledge, or validate them; in other words, to be understood as inherently good, doing their best, loving.

When love descends (it makes a thud)

Acknowledging our own cruelty, our own selfishness, our own weakness and fallibility marks our fall from innocence and begins the next part of our journey, where love descends from heaven and meets the earth with a thud. It’s a crucial step, but it hurts like hell, and hardly anyone talks about it or understands it, so it gets avoided.

We lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves, “My love is always kind.” This creates incongruence inside us. On some level we believe we have to be different from who we are in order to be in relationship, in order to love, to be lovable. Much disconnection results, from ourselves, from the world, from our partner.

Re-Connecting through initiation

Re-connection is not a matter of reclaiming our lost innocence or rekindling a love that once was (although it might include retrieving parts of ourselves that have been hidden away or rejected).

Re-connection asks us to recognize the initiation we are going through, and to keep going. The old relationship with our partner is finished, and that’s hard to accept. But when innocence is lost, something else is born. Birthing that something is our work. Like all births there is a natural momentum, a natural direction, a natural force of emergence that we can either align ourselves with or resist.

[This is an excerpt from my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples. To buy it or download a free chapter 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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Events and Workshops

Healing misunderstanding in relationships (Workshop)

When: March 3, 1-4pm
Where: Flow Yoga – 58 Adams Rd. Campbell River
Cost: $69 + GST/person
To register: Email flowyogacr@gmail.com or call 250 204-3301

*** Register early to reserve your place. Space is limited. ***

Healing Misunderstanding in Relationships

The longing to feel understood runs deep in every marriage or relationship, and most of us know firsthand the frustration, pain, and conflict that feeling misunderstood can cause.

In this first instalment of the Relationship Skills Workshop Series, we’ll explore what it means to feel “understood.” We’ll learn tools for cultivating the kind of understanding that helps relationships thrive, and also tools for healing the misunderstandings that cause resentment. Join me and learn –

~ Why feeling understood is so important (and why misunderstandings hurt so badly)

~ How to untangle two distinct types of understanding (and work with both successfully)

~ Communication tools for creating understanding (and healing misunderstandings)

~ How to get to the real issue hiding within most misunderstandings (and make it better)

This workshop is for couples who want to actively nurture, deepen, and improve their marriage or relationship.

When: March 3, 1-4pm
Where: Flow Yoga – 58 Adams Rd. Campbell River
Cost: $69 + GST/person
To register: Email flowyogacr@gmail.com or call 250 204-3301

*** Register early to reserve your place. Space is limited. ***

Justice Schanfarber is an internationally renowned marriage counsellor and author of The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples. The Relationship Skills Workshop Series is an ongoing exploration of the most pressing relationship themes and issues of our time. The format combines lecture, discussion, live demonstrations, and practical skills building exercises.

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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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The “no-come quickie” – Sexual fuel for your relationship?

The no-come quickie... Fuel for a relationship?A woman colleague confided to me that three or four times a week she propositions her man with a casual, “Want to fuck me for a few minutes?” Apparently he’s very likely to drop what he’s doing and oblige.

I asked the woman (we’ll call her Linda) what she gets from these brief encounters with her partner. I was curious in a general way (because that’s my nature), but more specifically I was curious because of my belief, both personal and professional, that women tend not to be big fans of “quickie” sex.

Linda was happy to enlighten me –

“When I was younger I resented the quickie. The guy would get off, roll over and snore or whatever, and I was left there feeling like a chump. But these days it’s different. It’s changed.”

What is different? What has changed, I wanted to know.

It turns out quite a few things have changed. For starters, Linda’s partner rarely ejaculates during these impromptu sessions, and that makes a big difference for Linda.

“He has control over his ejaculation. Most of the times we have sex he doesn’t come, and he almost never comes during one of our quickies.”

Linda informed me that she usually doesn’t orgasm either during these short, spontaneous interludes, which had me curious again… If there are no orgasms, what does this couple get from this? Again Linda was quick to explain –

“I like sex. I like all kinds of sex. Our no-come quickies energize us both and make us feel connected. They’re a way to build up our sexual energy, and because there’s no release, that sexual energy is with us all day. Our quickies don’t replace the deeper, more intimate and creative sex that we also enjoy; they complement it. Our little fuck sessions are like foreplay for life.”

No-come quickies take about ten minutes out of the couple’s day. There are no orgasms, no loss of sexual energy, and so that energy gets carried forward, bringing an extra spark into the day.

Says Linda –

“It’s easy and energizing. There’s no cost, nothing lost… It makes us feel close and connected, it builds our sexual attraction and desire… Why doesn’t everyone do it?”

I considered Linda’s question. No-come quickies… why doesn’t everyone do it? I can actually think of many reasons why everyone doesn’t do it. It’s simply not going to be appealing to everyone, for many good reasons. But then again, it’s also a great reminder of what’s possible when we continue to embrace our sexuality within a long-term domestic relationship.

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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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“My husband’s anger is wrecking our marriage.”

My husband's anger is hurting our marriage

Brian and Glory had been working with me for just over a year. The complex impulses and patterns shaping their relationship were slowly being revealed. Brian had a war-like energy, and could escalate a conflict to massive proportions in a matter of moments. This frightened Glory, who disliked conflict and shied away from any expressions of anger, even just a raised voice. To Glory it was obvious that, faced with a partner’s anger, any reasonable person would naturally want to retreat.

Glory was a highly intelligent and sensitive woman, and she had been clear in our sessions that she was willing to investigate her role in perpetuating the conflict cycle that had developed. Nonetheless, despite her stated willingness in this regard, she always came up empty handed when searching for her own complicity. After all, it was HE who would raise his voice, it was HIS anger that would spark and catch fire.

Many counsellors, as well as family and friends, will naturally side with the more “peaceful” person in this dynamic, the assumption being that the onus is on the “war-like” personality to change. This bias has its problems, as we’ll see.

To really understand all that is going on beneath the surface of a relationship like Glory’s and Brian’s it’s useful to take problem-solving off the table for a time. I like to do this transparently with clients, and to get their explicit consent and participation. I assure them that we can and will come back to the matter of solutions, but for now, I ask, can we just investigate without any agenda… can we simply be curious? Interestingly, this is where change tends to actually begin. When we start to examine a relationship with simple, genuine curiosity we make new discoveries.

Putting problem solving aside allowed Glory and Brian to come to some new realizations about their relationship patterns. By doing “little experiments” (this is a Hakomi term for setting up small, carefully controlled interactions for the purposes of observing the experience and noticing habitual responses) Glory discovered that she had virtually no tolerance for anger or conflict. In the face of anger, even the subtlest anger, she would begin to retreat. The idea of meeting anger or conflict face-on had never even occurred to her as a possibility.

In Glory’s world, anger and conflict were intolerable. They were, in the simplest terms… bad. It made sense that she had been unable to identify any role that she might play in the relationship conflict cycles that plagued her marriage. After all, she always did everything in her power to avoid anger and conflict!

Once it dawned on her that her aversion to conflict and anger might actually be her role in the pattern, Glory had something to work with. She experimented with facing anger and conflict more directly. This let her see just how conflict-avoidant she was, and she got a glimpse of how this part of her personality had shaped her life.

Now remember, we’re still in simple curiosity mode. No problem solving, no prescribing, just noticing. And we’re not just talking about anger and conflict, we’re actually working with it as it comes up in session. We’re doing little experiments all the time. This requires a particular orientation from a therapist – they must recognize these opportunities as they naturally arise and use them for a client’s insight and learning.

This is not an orientation every therapist shares. I’ve been witness to many sessions where a counsellor does just the opposite; they try to calm down or smooth over strong emotions or outbursts in session so that they can get back to talking about the couple’s problems from a safe distance. Certainly there are times for de-escalation and peace-keeping, but if this is always the strategy, and if it is an automatic or unconscious strategy, opportunities will be missed, and old cycles will continue.

Back to Glory and Brian… Glory has now realized that she has always treated anger and conflict as inherently bad, something to be avoided, and she is beginning to see how this avoidance has both perpetuated their cycle, and has blinded her to role within it. She sees that her task may be to confront Brian’s anger and, it is revealed later in our sessions, perhaps her own anger as well; not surprisingly, it isn’t just other people’s anger that makes her uncomfortable.

Here’s what I presented to this couple and asked them to consider –

The moment that Brian feels Glory retreat in even the smallest way, he panics (it took some careful attention for him to recognize the degree of this panic response). Brian’s panic is expressed first as annoyance or criticism, but then moves quickly into rage. His rage is the rage of abandonment.

On her side of the equation, the moment Glory feels the smallest expression of Brian’s annoyance or criticism, she begins to retreat; she knows what is coming next. It’s crucial to note that we are talking about the tiniest expressions here. Barely discernible eye movements. Subtle changes in body language, posture, or verbal tone. Like most long-term couples, Brian and Glory are exquisitely attuned to each others state of being, and like most couples they are in denial of the power that their anxiety holds over each other and the relationship.

As I’ve often explained in my various writings, our nervous systems are in constant communication with each other, for better or for worse. Most of this communication is happening below conscious awareness, hence those conversations that everyone knows, beginning with –

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like THAT.”

“I’m not looking at you like anything!”

As we debriefed a particular incident that had threatened to escalate into a familiar multi-day meltdown, I was struck by the fact that both Brian and Glory experienced major incongruence between their two accounts of the event; they believed that their stories did not match. But I found their two stories remarkably consistent, the only notable discrepancy being this –

Each was acutely aware of each others subtle cues, but more or less oblivious of their own.

Glory could describe in detail Brian’s eye movements and the change of tone in his voice that led her to retreat, and yet she was blind to her equivalent cues to Brian, cues that essentially said “I’m disconnecting from you now.”

Conversely, Brian had a photographic memory of the moment Glory averted her gaze, and how that affected him, but he could not understand how his accusatory tone could possibly elicit such a strong response from her.

This was a good opportunity to draw some parallels. I explained that their two accounts of the same event sounded remarkably congruent to me, and I observed that each of them put disproportionate significance on each others cues, while downplaying the impact of their own responses on each other.

In other words, Brian couldn’t believe that a tiny little bit of criticism from him could make Glory retreat so dramatically, and Glory was baffled that the mere hint of disconnection or retreat from her could throw Brian into a rage. Each downplayed their own cues and reactions, while simultaneously inflating the other’s.

“I get a little angry. No big deal. But then she totally withdraws!”

“I take a little space for a few minutes, like any normal person, and then he totally blows up!”

The behaviour of each is deeply habitual, and feels completely “natural” from the subjective point of view. Neither Brian nor Glory could imagine how their minor little habits could trigger such a strong reaction in the other. A switch gets flipped, for both of them, a switch that runs right to their core.

As we continued experimenting and gaining insight through a collaborative curiosity and a willingness to suspend judgement, Glory and Brian each discovered how much impact their own triggers had on each other, and how this caused the escalation they experienced.

This was in important and ongoing discovery. Previously, they had dismissed each other’s reactions, while simultaneously holding their own to be natural and valid. Now they were each beginning to see how the other’s experience was as legitimate, in its own way, as their own. This, by the way, is an example of genuine empathy.

Empathy has its own nature and arises spontaneously when the conditions are right. Having an actual felt experience of each other’s vulnerability, coupled with a growing understanding of each other’s life experiences, outlooks, and character provided the right conditions for empathy to organically emerge. This allowed Glory and Brian to imagine themselves more as allies than adversaries, and it set the ground for co-operation as we began to address behavioural change.

As we began to address behavioural change and taking responsibility for one’s own actions, we started with some education on what I call “building capacity.” Both Glory and Brian needed to develop tolerance for each others anxious behaviours.

Brian needed to practice allowing Glory to make small retreats. Glory needed to practice allowing Brian to express anger or criticism. Neither Brian’s anxious anger nor Glory’s anxious withdrawal were inherently bad or wrong, and they only threatened the relationship to the degree that each could not tolerate the other. By growing their capacity, stretching their tolerance for each other, the burden of change falls on neither, and yet both are apt to find their own way of changing. Like most profound relationship work, it’s paradoxical. By allowing each other to be themselves, by practicing tolerating one another, a behaviour pattern is interrupted and the stage is set for change based on personal maturation; much more valuable than ultimatums or even negotiated compromise.

Change that comes out of growing our capacity feels satisfying and nourishing. It’s a source of pride and freedom. Change that comes from making demands, ultimatums, or even negotiated agreements about behaviour – “You promise to do this and I promise I won’t do that” – tends to be short-lived and can even be potentially destructive.

You might have noticed that there is virtually no story, no content, no “he said/she said” included in the account above. That’s because the issue that this couple faces isn’t, at core, about a particular disagreement or argument. Their conflict is rooted in something much deeper. We might call it habituated nervous system responses, or we could use another lens and call it attachment styles. The point is, we could spend forever dancing around the details of who said what and who did what, but underneath all that are two nervous systems doing their thing. Attending too much to “story and content” would just distract us from the work of capacity building.

So how to build capacity? How to develop tolerance for our partner’s small cues that set us off?

First we must begin to notice that which has always gone unnoticed. Brian and Glory, like all of us, developed strategies early in their lives for getting their needs met – needs for safety, for connection, for soothing, for autonomy, and so on. These strategies are unconscious, and are sometimes even pre-verbal. We make certain decisions about how to be in the world and with others before we even begin speaking as children. These strategies do not live in our conscious mind, they are held in the body, in the nervous system, in the emotional and instinctive parts of ourselves.

When these unconscious strategies get expressed in our adult relationships, they might create strong impulses and feelings (or perhaps numbness), but they tend to elude conscious awareness. Because they feel so naturally a part of us, it’s necessary to practice recognizing them. Until we do some work examining them, they really aren’t negotiable, they’re more or less hardwired. It’s also worth mentioning that the gender associations in Glory and Brian’s case can just as easily be reversed; a woman might tend toward anger and a man toward withdrawal, in fact I see this just as commonly.

Our task is to start noticing how we respond to particular stimuli, how we react to our partner’s cues. We practice in session, slowing down these interactions and noticing the subtleties contained within. From here, with a little experience under their belts, client couples will take this practice into their lives. If they will continue this difficult work, they will likely be rewarded. To learn more, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples – Insights and practices for cultivating love, sex, and intimacy (even in difficult times).

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New Year’s Resolutions – The ritual glorification of egoic heroism

New Year's Resolutions - The Glorification of Egoic HeroismThe word “resolution” once meant “to loosen or release”

The word resolution comes from the Latin re (again) and solvere (to loosen or release). Today the meaning has reversed; resolution is now understood  to mean a tightening or holding. This reversal of meaning is  perhaps most clearly exemplified in our New Year’s Resolution ritual  where we hold tight to the ego’s heroic efforts against the world’s workings upon us and pit our force of will against every and all other voice, intelligence, or influence that might challenge these efforts.

One consciousness or many?

Ego consciousness is connected to the Hero archetype, and the Hero archetype recognizes only its own ego consciousness. The multitude of other  archetypal modes of consciousness – for example the modes of Trickster, Crone, Lover, Martyr, Magician – are either unrecognizable to the Heroic/Egoic mode (they simply do not exist) or they are condemned, demonized. If heroic consciousness cracks or breaks open – usually due to loss, illness, failure, or other tragic events beyond our control – and other modes of consciousness slip in, they tend to be forced out as soon as The Hero’s strength returns.

Our modern New Year’s Resolution ritual can be seen as the blanket denial of any mode of consciousness other than Ego consciousness, and the redoubled fight against any archetypal voice that is not The Hero’s.

According to available statistics, around eight percent of new years resolutions stick, which should perhaps put the Heroic/Egoic approach into some perspective, and yet because ego-consciousness recognizes only itself, the only option available to it is to redouble its efforts at eliminating all else.

This is not to say there’s something “wrong” with the New Year’s Resolution ritual, but rather to point out its associations and limits, and suggest a possible return to origins of meaning. What if we revisited the original understanding of resolution? What if the New Year’s Resolution wasn’t merely a ritual glorification of the egoic heroism that is our cultural default, but rather a ritualized annual return to “loosening and releasing?”

What (or who) is asking to be let loose or released in your life?
What (or who) has the Heroic Ego been holding captive?

Looking beyond The Hero – A different kind of resolution

The Hero takes on more burden and responsibility than is actually theirs, and this blinds The Hero to the existence and workings of the endless number of other archetypal modes of consciousness. We do not often release The Hero of their duties until we have no choice, until The Hero has been killed or otherwise conquered by life (or death) and we find ourselves suddenly in unfamiliar territory, subject to other forces.

A yearly ritual “releasing” could give The Hero a much needed break, and if The Hero was released of their duties, if we were able to loosen our grip on the Heroic/Egoic consciousness that we rely on daily, who else might step in? Which other voices, characters, and personalities could we come to know in the absence of the familiar?

If the trickster made a New Year’s Resolution, what would it  be? How about the Crone? Or the Lover? The Martyr or Magician? Who are the other other personalities silently buried in you? What are the desires of these other characters? What do they offer and what do they demand? What would they say if The Hero loosened its grip at the turn of the year and allowed them a voice?

 

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Like great art, great sex disturbs.

Great sex great artThere’s a certain kind of sex that is like the best art. The best art expresses something hidden in the artist’s soul, something that calls, that may inspire and torture until it is revealed, borne through the artist’s medium.

Sex too can be the artistic medium, an expression of what is hidden in the soul, shadowy qualities and callings. But this kind of sex is maybe even more rare, more difficult, more demanding than the best art, for two human beings are required; two human beings collaborating blindly, blindly because they do not understand the contents of their soul any more than does the artist.

No matter how good you are at sex, how much “consciousness” you bring, how “sacredly” you view sex… Sex that speaks from the soul, sex that is like the best art, is always a blind or semi-blind invocation because it comes only partly from us and mostly from forces hidden, the soul’s contents being revealed in each moment – pleasure, then terror, then shame, hope, pleasure again – glimpses of understanding through the eyes of Psyche and Eros, glimpses fraught (as they must be, this is art!) with great danger and mysterious blessings.

And oftentimes no one to see. No witnesses. This art is hung in no galleries. It is mostly secret art.

Pornography attempts perhaps to reveal the soul in sex, to bring it out of hiding and into the cultural eye, but it captures only fragments of a particular frequency. Pornography fails to the degree that it does not only because it omits love; anyone who believes that sex is only (or even mostly) about love is missing the fuller soul message of sex. Love is but one face of soul’s desire.

Great art disturbs. And great sex too. Both pull at the threads of the veil that protects us from seeing too much, from going too deep; there’s a veil that protects us from seeing more than we can fathom. As the veil unravels we are confronted with hidden chambers of the psyche. Whether through great art or great sex, what we glimpse down there disturbs us… longing married to repulsion… tenderness mired in brutality. It’s difficult to know, moment to moment, if we are being created or destroyed, healed or wounded. We lose our innocence, so desperately clutched, and we become initiated.

Consider too the words of the 19th century German philosopher  Schopenhauer as he describes his ideas about the feeling of the “sublime” (from The World as Will and Representation) –

  • Feeling of Beauty – Light is reflected off a flower. (Pleasure from a mere perception of an object that cannot hurt observer).
  • Weakest Feeling of Sublime – Light reflected off stones. (Pleasure from beholding objects that pose no threat, objects devoid of life).
  • Weaker Feeling of Sublime – Endless desert with no movement. (Pleasure from seeing objects that could not sustain the life of the observer).
  • Sublime – Turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from perceiving objects that threaten to hurt or destroy observer).
  • Full Feeling of Sublime – Overpowering turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent, destructive objects).
  • Fullest Feeling of Sublime – Immensity of Universe’s extent or duration. (Pleasure from knowledge of observer’s nothingness and oneness with Nature).

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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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