Relationship advice

The Selfish Secret to My Relationship Success

We got an awesome view of the moon on our second trip home!
Locked out and (potentially) hangry…

The other night my partner Vanessa and I pulled up to her front door only to realize that neither of us had brought a housekey. (You had the pleasure of getting to know Vanessa if you’ve listened to my R3 Relationship Masterclass).

It was a sinking feeling. We searched my van, we searched pockets and purses, and we dug through the luggage that we had brought from my house.

But I knew it was in vain. I knew the key we needed was back at my house, a full hour’s drive one way.

We each knew how the mistake had happened, and we each had our own role to play in it. A good case could have been made for blaming either or both of us.

It was nearly 9pm and now we were faced with the reality of turning around and driving for two more hours, back and forth, hungry, without dinner, to get this key that we had forgotten.

A recipe for blame and fighting

It was a perfect recipe for feelings of disappointment, or worse. It was the sort of situation that often precipitates a fight between partners, and this had certainly been the case in my own relationship history.

But not anymore, not for me.

I don’t ever turn against my partner and I don’t ever turn against myself. It doesn’t take discipline or hard work. It’s not because I’m especially empathetic or caring, or because I’m such a good communicator, or because Vanessa and I have negotiated an agreement about how we will behave with one another or speak to one another.

It’s not a product of ultimatums or understanding attachment types or love languages. It’s not complicated in any way, and I know that the essence of this ability has always been there within me waiting for my discovery and my embrace.

Purely selfish, really simple

The reason that I never turn against her or against myself is purely selfish, and really simple –

I care about how I feel. I like to feel good, and blaming myself or anyone else feels less than good. So I don’t do it.

It really is that simple.

Feeling good is my primary life objective, and I let very little get in the way of that.

When I talk about this people sometimes view me skeptically or even suspiciously. It turns out that many people are not comfortable with prioritizing feeling good, and they can sure offer a lot of justification and explanation for this!

I’ve discovered that a desire to feel good is the very best medicine for strengthening a relationship, as long I understand where my good-feeling experience actually originates. That understanding is an ongoing and endlessly satisfying process.

We want to feel good

At core, I believe that everyone wants to feel good. But a lot of people are getting the whole thing backwards. If you believe that feeling good is a product of conditions or circumstances (including other people, like your partner), you’re going to be in for a lot of trouble and a lot of hard work.

I have come to know that feeling good is a natural outcome of befriending myself completely, of never being unkind or impatient with myself, of always holding myself in nothing but positive regard, and of treating myself only with affection, care, and unconditional love.

This is the easiest and most natural thing to do, and yet it’s actually pretty rare. The idea of befriending myself fully is easy to grasp, but it took me nearly fifty years to embody the idea in a real and stable way, and it’s the actual embodiment of the idea, the day to day living of it, that makes a difference.

I’ve been working with couples as a counsellor and therapist for over a decade, and I’ve been fascinated with relationship dynamics for even longer.

I’ve explored every type of relationship theory and intervention imaginable. And all of this has brought me to a rather astounding, somewhat humorous, incredibly satisfying, and perfectly practical discovery –

My relationship is primarily defined by how I feel about myself and how I treat myself on a day to day, moment to moment basis.

I know, it seems too basic, too simple, and maybe too self-centered to be very relevant to relationships. When people want complicated explanations and interventions and “we” solutions to what seems like “we” problems in relationships, this idea of unconditional positive self-regard as the key to relationship success might seem a little far fetched.

So don’t take my word for it. Put it to the test. Treat yourself with nothing but kindness. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt always. I’m talking about your behavior and your thinking. I’m talking about the words that come out of your mouth, the stories and monologues that fill your head, the memories you choose to focus upon, and how you feel about yourself in each moment. You, like everyone, have developed some habits in these regards, but these habits can be changed, and it’s not that hard.

Give yourself the ultimate gift that you deserve

Give it a try. If you’re struggling in relationship, take a break from focusing on your partner or on the dynamic between the two of you, and give yourself the gift of unconditional love. See how it goes. See what kind of difference it makes.

Try it for a day. A week. A year. Maybe you’re ready for this.

In the moment that I became ready, I felt a clarity like nothing I’d felt before, and I never went back to self-doubt, to shame, to blame, or to feeding frustrations of any sort ever again.

I want this for you. I want it for you unconditionally. I know it is your true nature and your heart’s deepest desire. I know you are on your way to unconditional self-love, and that all roads lead to this particular Homecoming.

If you want support and encouragement from someone who knows this territory from the inside-out, listen to a free sample of my R3 Relationship Masterclass or email me and request a client package.

[Update – Vanessa has generously and skillfully shared her own telling of this story. Read on below…]

The instant I realized that Justice and I had both somehow forgotten to bring keys to my house when we left his home earlier that evening, I felt a wave of surreal disbelief. My buoyant happiness for having arrived at my home, my sense of delicious anticipation to cook dinner together, crumbled into shocked regret. There was my front door, only steps away, but we’d have to spend another two hours driving back and forth to his house to retrieve the keys before we could get inside. 

The question welled up in my mind: How could I have been so dumb? And then, almost immediately, I felt acceptance. There was no changing the situation with negative emotion. So I decided to go easy on myself. I still wanted to have a good time that night, and I felt more committed to feeling joyful than plunging into aggravation or distress. Choosing to feel good, no matter what, has become a habit for me. 

And so this silly key-less scenario, which could have blown up into stronger emotions like blame, anger, self-recrimination, shame, accusation, impatience, just mellowed out as I exhaled stunned laughter, and then let myself feel genuine amusement at the predicament. 

How bizarre! For over a year now, we’ve divided our time between our two homes, and usually we both carry copies of each other’s key. We’re smart and attentive people. But by some ridiculous and actually unfathomable turn of events, we’d locked ourselves out without realizing it. 

We laughed at ourselves on the drive back. We made jokes, told stories we hadn’t shared before, listened to music, and appreciated how much better it was to feel good than getting upset with ourselves or each other. 

Before this turn of events, I had been looking forward to watching the full moonrise that night over the ocean from my beach house. We had spread my parents’ ashes there less than a year before, under a full moon rise, following my mother’s final wishes, and so watching the moonrise there is always special for me. Now, instead of beholding this May Flower Moon from the deck together, we were on the road again. But after we’d picked up the keys and turned the car back towards my house, we gasped with delight when we saw the glorious full moon rise above the treeline over the highway. For most of our return journey, the full moon hung magically in our field of vision, right above the road, like a beautiful peaceful beacon guiding us back to our destination. Everything is always working out.

I was reminded of a previous key-error episode in my life, with a former partner, which had gone so differently. In that experience, 12 years earlier, my ex-partner and I were visiting a small community on a remote island when he locked my car keys in my car, at the far end of a dirt road, in a wilderness park. It was Sunday. No cell service. I was furious. I stormed ahead of him, raging and complaining, as we had to walk for over an hour to the other side of the island to ask for help at the only place that was open, a First Nations museum and cultural centre. We’d been there earlier in the day to see sacred Potlatch regalia, which had been confiscated by the Canadian government in 1921, when our country still outlawed these dances and ceremonies. (In fact, my great grandfather was the Christian missionary involved in this notorious colonial raid, so my emotions that day were already very strong.) When we finally arrived, I swallowed my righteous anger at my ex, pushed down my humiliated sense of stupidity and guilt, and asked the kind woman at the front desk for help breaking into my locked car. It was closing time, so she phoned her friends, then drove us back to my car, where the three locals used a bent coat hanger to quickly jimmy open my driver’s side door. I thanked them profusely. They refused money but offered us salmon. The woman told me, “Now you will never forget the beauty and generosity of our island.”

That experience has always stayed with me as a reminder that there is never any point in getting angry at myself, or anyone else, because I’d regret it later, and I don’t ever want to blind myself to the beauty and generosity of life. 

And so, when Justice and I finally got back to my house that night after our drive under the full moon, we had a wonderful fun time preparing our long awaited meal, played cards, and ate dinner at midnight with moonlight bathing the beach out front in a gentle glow, appreciating the beauty and generosity of life.  

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber

I’m a teacher, mentor, and forward-focused therapist helping people understand and befriend themselves completely. Over ten years experience serving clients worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

What is a “Successful Relationship”? How Do You Make a Relationship Succeed?

Successful Relationship

What makes a relationship successful?

Fundamentally, a successful relationship is a relationship that feels mostly good, most of the time. That’s it. Simple right? So how do you make a relationship that feels mostly good, most of the time?

How do you make successful relationship?

1. Figure out how to feel mostly good, most of the time.

2. Bring that to the relationship.

Again, simple, yes? So what trips people up? Here’s where it gets interesting!

“I’m OK if you’re OK”

Many people look to their relationship (to their partner) as their source of feeling good. If this is you, then you have probably attracted a partner who also does the same, though perhaps in a different style from you.

This leaves you in a position of having to negotiate feeling good between you, i.e., “I’m OK if you’re OK”. If you’re accustomed to this style of relationship (many people are, it is modeled and promoted as “normal”) it can be hard to imagine an alternative, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that a wonderful alternative exists.

The key is to realize that your feelings can be generated from within you regardless of your circumstances or outer “reality”, including your partner.

Since I discovered the truth of this, I could no longer continue working with clients the way I had been.

A new kind of couples work

I’ve been a couples therapist and marriage counsellor for fifteen years. I love my work, and I love my clients.

I love my work and my clients so much that when I discover a better way to do relationships, I have to update my methods and professional approach. I won’t rest on my laurels and teach something that people want to hear but that is no longer resonant for me.

And so I have changed how I work. Not entirely; I had emphasized individual responsibility and emotional differentiation (what I now call “self-satisfaction”) rather than partner negotiation and emotional enmeshment for many years, but my discoveries of the past two years have taken this to a new level of clarity.

I no longer see relationships through the lens of meeting emotional needs, resolving issues, healing wounds, trauma, attachment styles or anything else that puts emotional power and responsibility into collective hands.

I increasingly view relationships through the lens of two individuals discovering themselves in front of each other, and exploring the ever-shifting resonance between them. This is so much more easeful, fun, and interesting!

The third factor: Source

Conventional couples therapy often includes a theoretical “third” element: The relationship itself. There are the two individuals, then there’s the relationship, and all three elements get equal consideration. I do not subscribe to this model, but I do include a special third factor –

Each of us, I now recognize, comes from eternal, non-physical, infinite source energy, and each of us maintains this connection to source energy throughout our lives. This connection to our source is, must be, our primary relationship if we are to reach our full emotional potential.

When the physical (“ego”) aspect of you is in harmony with the energy (“spiritual”) aspect of you, you experience this as positive emotion. When these two aspects are at odds, or misaligned, you experience this as negative emotion.

Our relationship with a partner or spouse is determined by our relationship to source energy, and our relationship with source energy feels only good.

Contemporary psychology replaces source energy with “mother” or caregiver, placing this at the centre of the human journey. I won’t offer any resistance to this point of view, but I will offer an alternative that I believe is infinitely more satisfying.

Setting off on a relationship journey that has you trying to heal a “mother wound” or an attachment need from childhood can provide much richness and some fascinating twists and turns, but unless it ultimately connects you to your true source, it’s actually quite limited. I’ve always been a seeker of the deeper truth, and it lies in the relationship between the temporal you and the eternal you. Get that lined up, and everything follows.

How’s that landing? Any resonance?

Now back to the original question…

Let’s circle back to the question I asked at the top of the page: What’s the secret to a successful relationship?

And the answer I offered: Figure out how to feel mostly good, most of the time.

Now let’s tie this all together –

The way you feel mostly good, most of the time, is to get yourself living in alignment with your source, to get the human “you” befriending and loving the infinite “you”, not as a concept but as a living truth; not once and for all, but now, and now, and now. When you connect with your deepest essence, you feel good, unconditionally, and your relationships become an easy reflection of this good-feeling connection.

So how do you do this? Hint: incrementally, through your understanding and skillful use of the three human operating systems: sensation (body), emotion (heart), and cognition (mind).

Yes, my friends, this is where fifty years of living and fifteen years of working with couples professionally has landed me. I know it’s going to be too far out for some of you, but I know it’s also going to be VERY resonant and timely for some of you too.

All My Best,

Justice Schanfarber

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

Relationship triggers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how I explain it in my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples (click here to download a free sample chapter)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationship triggers and de-escalation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like what you’re reading here?
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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 to request a client info package.

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