Tag Archives: communication

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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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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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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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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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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Westcoast Bound – Relationship learning at a Kink and BDSM conference

Westcoast Bound Vancouver MVK BDSMLearning about relationships at Westcoast Bound kink and BDSM conference

I recently attended a conference on relationships where I got to learn from some of the most passionate, skilled, and experienced facilitators that I’ve ever encountered. This wasn’t a psychotherapy conference, or even a conference specifically on attachment theory, Imago, active listening, neuroscience, or empathy, although many of these topics were touched upon.

The classes at this conference were on topics like…

Passion, Joy, Fear and Healing at the end of a Whip.
BDSM, Sex & Shame.
Nonverbal Power & Surrender.
Control & Dominance Moves with Rope.
The Good, the Bad, and the Poly.

This is Westcoast Bound 2017, Metro Vancouver Kink’s (MVK) annual Kink and BDSM conference held at Burnaby Executive Suites Hotel & Convention Centre.

It might seem a strange place to learn about relationships, and a strange place for a marriage counsellor and couples therapist to continue their own learning, but here’s my profound discovery from my weekend at Westcoast Bound: The cutting edge of relationship work is being honed at the margins.

Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. Isn’t it always the pioneers pushing the edges who bring their discoveries to the rest of us, providing tales of adventure, and exotic spices to enrich our lives? Perhaps it makes sense that those pushing the edges of relationship would make discoveries that eventually touch us all.

BDSM, kink, polyamory… these are relational structures that exist outside of the mainstream, but as I point out in my book Conscious Kink for Couples: The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing, the ideas that have developed within these communities have potential benefit for everyone who participates in life as a sexual and relational being.

You may not enjoy being erotically flogged, or you might, but the communication, care, and visceral energy that goes into and comes out of such a scene is illuminating for anyone. The idea of whipping or being whipped by your beloved may create cognitive dissonance and be on your list of hard limits, but watching the dance of the whip in skilled and caring hands, its gentle kiss against trembling skin, and the intimacy between the people involved (despite the bright-light conference room setting) rivals the feeling of the most evocative dance performance you’ve ever witnessed.

Over the course of my career as a couples counsellor, and in my life as a human being hungry for connection, growth, and understanding, I’ve been to many workshops, retreats, and trainings. Many of these have been about communication, intimacy, and relationships. The part that is often missing is about what to do with the uncomfortable feelings that arise in relationship, how to work with the darker aspects, shadow, contradiction, paradox.

If you visit the Westcoast Bound website (click here), you will see a striking image of a woman wearing a gas mask, with electrical tape in an x shape across her nipples. You’ll probably see some irreverent quotes and potentially confusing language. What won’t be immediately obvious is the tenderness, courage, authenticity, presence, and playfulness – all crucial qualities for relationship – that is cultivated and celebrated at the event, to a degree I’ve rarely seen at other types of gatherings.

An interesting thing about empathy, compassion, and even intimacy and eroticism, is that they often arise more or less spontaneously out of duress, from experiences that feel raw and risky. Westcoast Bound is a place for screaming and begging, uncomfortable squirming, laughter along with tears. People here are creating experiences for each other that raise adrenaline and endorphins. It’s not for the faint of heart. Neither, for that matter, is an extraordinary marriage, a difficult conversation, or true intimacy.

If we want to create a sense of risk and courage to make a relationship feel more exciting and bonding, and we want to do this safely and well, we better develop skills – both physical and emotional. And so a conference like this is about developing these skills, both hard skills and soft skills.

A fingerbanging and g-spot orgasm workshop, it turns out, is as much about tuning into your partner’s experience as it is about perfecting a certain way of using one’s fingers. It becomes a class on intimacy and communication. Along the way there’s humour, and a few jaw-dropping spectacles (I’ll let you use your imagination).

With its x-rated language and startling imagery, a BDSM community – any BDSM community – creates a sort of boundary (“You must be THIS tall to enter”). An initiation is required. Can you handle the shock? Do you have a relationship with your darker side? Beyond this boundary of initiation lies a surprisingly rich landscape of relational, emotional, and conceptual riches, but only for those who can tolerate or are attracted to certain discomforts.

Speaking as someone who delves around the many edges of relationship, sex, and intimacy, and who also very happily works smack dab in the middle, with many conventionally minded “vanilla” couples, I urge those who dwell somewhere toward the centre to strike out and explore the margins. You needn’t embrace everything you find there, but you’re likely to discover something valuable. This is no prescription, rather a humble invitation.

By the way, tickets for the Westcoast Bound weekend cost around, wait for it… a hundred and fifty bucks. Hard to find that kind of value for a three day learning event. There are plenty of fetish nights in any city that will show you the shiny surface of this world of kink and BDSM, but if you want the depth, the grit, this is the type of conference to look for.

Some of the workshop presenters have been teaching for thirty plus years. They’ve written books and directed films. Many have lived through prejudice if not outright persecution. There’s an incredible collection of experience, wisdom, and diversity in this place. You will learn something from these people, although probably not what you anticipated.

You’ll be exposed to an intersection of trans, queer, kinky, poly, Top, bottom, Dom, sub, switch people and communities, and, if you are willing, you might emerge changed. Your world will get bigger. Your eyes may bulge, judgements flair. If you make it to the dungeon parties, you may be shocked by the unabashed sadism and masochism you witness. And you may be surprised by the… normalcy of it all. We all have a sadistic and a masochistic side. Some are willing to play with these aspects of self, wrestling them into consciousness. Others hide them away, setting the stage for being bit in the ass later, or doing the biting, neither consensually nor with awareness, let alone enjoyment.

Here are some words I overheard after the event –

I’m pretty proud. It was an incredibly cathartic experience. I let out tears and screams that I’ve been holding in for many years. I’ve been seeing therapists for 5 years and I was never able to release them. But in this environment I was able to let go. I felt so safe and accepted. This weekend was a life changing experience.

In my writing, I sometimes talk about the need for finding healthy expressions of sadism and masochism in relationships. I talk about acknowledging the power struggles and power dynamics that are always present in relationships. I talk about nurturing playfulness and erotic tension (WCB presenter Midori on BDSM – “It’s like cops and robbers… with fucking!”). I also point out the benefits of talking explicitly about sex and desire in relationships, and about the pain and shame that keeps us silent. All of these crucial relationship themes are woven throughout the Westcoast Bound experience.

In my work counselling couples, the root of the trouble turns out rarely to be the thing we began with, the core stuff is rarely the “presenting issue.” More often we discover that it is something about how a couple thinks about their relationship that needs addressing. Adding to the problem is that most of the people in our lives think about relationships more or less the same way we do. The messages we get about sex and relationship tend to reflect our own, and we find ourselves trapped in a cultural echo chamber. Without new ideas, new influences, we remain imaginatively and creatively stuck.

The purpose of therapy is, amongst other things, to broaden our perspectives, our thinking. Some of the most celebrated researchers and thought-leaders on sex and relationships come from the world of academia and psychotherapy – Murray Bowen, John Gottman, Harville Hendrix, John Bowlby, Harriet Lerner etc – but we need the wisdom from the margins too, people who have used their lives to dive into the darker depths, and then report on what they find.

A weekend immersed in a different way of seeing sex and relationships (kink and BDSM being just one possibility; certainly there are others) might not be therapeutic exactly… but it might just end up making us somehow more whole.

Below are links to some of the presenters I saw at Westcoast Bound 2017. Check out what they have to say. Sign up for their newsletters. You might find them challenging. You might disagree with them. But you might also find something that you’re ready, or even hungry, for.

Midori – Kink author and educator. Check out her books and workshops.

DaddyCrone (Leenie) – Whip specialist and energy worker.

Allena – Polyamory and kink educator.

Barkas and Addie – Rope bondage artists, performers, educators.

Like what you’re reading here? Get my new book –

Conscious Kink for Couples:
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

Want to read a sample?
Download the first 10 pages free –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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