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

“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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Counselling Articles

Understanding relationships – Depth, darkness, and feeling your way from below

Understanding relationships - Depth, darkness, and feeling your way from below

Understanding relationships

People come to marriage counselling and couples therapy largely because they seek to understand (or to be understood). They want to understand their relationship, their partner, their selves, their situation. They want to understand why things have happened the way they have, why they feel the way they feel. They want to understand how to repair a rift, how to heal pain, how to make change, how to re-connect, how to move forward.

To understand is to comprehend, to gain insight. The word itself gives us a strong clue as to how we might orient ourselves in order to best gain the insight or comprehension we desire: Understanding requires that we stand under, that we view from below.

Standing under a thing gives us access to soft bellies, to hidden and vulnerable parts. From above we see the armoured shell, the prepared mask, the sunlit tip, the socially acceptable, the obvious. To under-stand we must get below. And yet this is so rarely the perspective we take. We prefer a bird’s eye view. The light of day. Brightly lit surfaces. We prefer the view from above.

The view from below

Viewing from below requires that we descend, that we drop down. Viewing from below – a thing, a person, an idea, a relationship – requires a certain quality in the viewer; it requires a deepening. To truly under-stand another, we must find our own depth, and we must perceive the depth of that which we seek to under-stand. Mere surfaces will not suffice.

Under-standing is essentially different from viewing from above. Standing below, gaining insight from a place of depth, requires us to develop senses in and of the dark. From the darker depths, the qualities of things are not revealed through the normal daylight processes of reflected light entering the retina and creating images in the brain. The images created and qualities revealed from standing below come in an entirely different manner. To gain insight from the dark, we hone our nighttime senses… Imagination, feeling, intuition, paradox, poetry. Rejected, exiled, and invisible parts may be revealed.

If I want to comprehend my partner and my self, to gain insight into my marriage or relationship, I might be tempted to use the senses I know best; daylight senses, senses of sight. I might climb the mountain of rationality in order to obtain a brightly lit view from above. This I do regularly, in my personal life and in my professional practice. This broad, well lit view gives valuable perspective and helps create the maps we use to navigate the terrain of relationships and life; the view from above gives us family systems theory, attachment theory, cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness practice, general discernment, a sense of morality, and so much more. But the map is not the terrain, and some of the most important parts of the terrain are actually sub-terrains. To penetrate these sub-terrains means going below, where it’s dark.

Synchronistically, this poem was shared with me by a Farsi-speaking friend as I was working on this article. Hafiz would have needed to venture below in order to understand that which he gleaned about loneliness; something hidden, elusive –

Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
so tender,

My need of God

From above, from normal daylight perspectives loneliness is something to be avoided. Hafiz’s insight comes not from viewing the sunlit surface of loneliness, but from descending below it, standing under, and feeling its soft underbelly.

In my own poem below I too needed to descend beneath the obvious daylight judgements and beliefs on the topic of failure in order to find hidden insight –

Oh failure –
take me in
your strong

your loving

work me like
clay, find
my shape, my

Breathe life into
me, real life,
the life that
opens me,
tender and
raw, to the
struggles of
brothers, to the
loneliness at the
end of my
street, to the
disappointment beyond
my disappointment

Oh failure –
cradle me and
then kick me
out, drop me
off, let me go

With your wounds
and your blessings
I can find
my way

To truly under-stand a thing like loneliness or failure or love or relationships we may need to delve deeply into the underside, where time runs errant, rivers run backwards, and daylight fails to penetrate. An underneath perspective that includes unknowing, dreaming, and nightmares may be required. This underneath perspective must be in some way temporarily (few want to take up permanent residence) entered; not merely viewed from a safe distance.

Disintegration and initiation

To enter the below places, initiation is in order. For the client couples in my counselling practice this initiation into the non-rational, imaginative, disorienting, contrary, and sometimes nightmarish underside of people and things takes the form of a disintegrating marriage or relationship. This initiation is painful and frightening, and like all initiations we go it alone, but we also join others who have come before. It’s lonely, but it softens too. It feels like failure, but it opens us up.

A disintegrating marriage or relationship can provide the disorientation necessary to give up daylight living for a time and descend to the deeper subterranean realms. From here we might stand under the marriage or relationship, under self or other, and in this standing under, in the dark, in the depth, we might discover a different sort of insight.

The insights we get from descending, from going below, from standing under do not necessarily tell us the “why” of a thing, but rather they reveal other hidden qualities: texture, flavour, depth, and meaning.

From below, we might not learn the cause and effect equation that explains why our spouse makes such a great friend, but a lousy lover. Perhaps their clingy neediness (or our own) still resists a rational explanation. But… we might glimpse the depth of their desire. Or their pain. Or their dilemma. Or our own. This might not solve a problem directly, but it deepens our experience, which can have an unexpected impact, and can change everything.


Years ago I went to a couples counselling session with my partner. It was through my partner’s health benefits plan; half hour sessions, brisk, with a problem-solving focus. At the time I was quite withdrawn in the relationship. Like many of my clients today, I felt hopeless. Frustrated. Resentful.

We found the office building; large, concrete and glass; we paid for parking, entered the building, took the elevator up in silence. The receptionist had us wait for a few minutes, then we entered the tiny office and met a smartly dressed woman who wanted to know the problem. My partner spoke in her soft prepared voice and I recall saying very little.

I never went back to meet with that counsellor, although my partner did. In their next session the counsellor encouraged my partner to leave me. She mistook my quietness to be disinterest, and she quickly drew the conclusion that if I was unwilling to speak up in our first counselling session and unwilling to return for a second then I must be finished with the relationship. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth.

It is true that I kept my deeper feelings hidden during that first counselling session. It’s also true that the counsellor was not interested in understanding my experience from the point of view of “standing under.”

She made no attempts and showed no interest in delving deeper into the experience that was hidden below my surface. She was apparently a counsellor of surfaces, of daylight comprehension only, of clinical reports and checkmarks. Getting under surfaces was not part of her practice. I don’t hold any of this against her. She works in a high volume, get-it-done-in-four-to-six-sessions, insurance provider paid, utilitarian, fix it paradigm.

Understanding a relationship from the point of view of standing under, of depth, of soft underbellies and hidden treasure; this takes time. It probably can’t be done in four or six half hour sessions. The real work of understanding has nothing to do with an intention toward solutions or fixing, it has to do with curiosity, capacity, courage, and a willingness to be profoundly mistaken.

The kind of understanding that we generally seek, daytime understanding, the brightly lit view from above, results in answers, equations, explanations that are testable and replicable. The kind of understanding that comes from descending into the dark spaces and standing under a thing or person or relationship, this never provides dependable data. It gives us nothing to count on. It stirs rather than calms. And yet stirring is often in order, and stirring always gives way to calm, eventually, though not on our timeline or according to our agenda.

While the counselling experience I’ve described was certainly not immediately satisfying or recognizably beneficial at the time, in retrospect it deepened certain things, and that deepening came to be illuminating. By having my depths and hidden parts essentially ignored and dismissed by a professional couples counsellor, by an expert, I was forced to confront my own depths and my own legitimacy directly. I increased my trust in myself. What choice did I really have? And I had a laugh too, mixed with the tears. I mean, who goes to couples counselling early in their own counselling career and has their counsellor tell your wife she should leave you?! That is some seriously funny shit! There seems often to be a kind of poignancy that comes with the bittersweet.

These days I will sometimes find myself in session with a couple where one person has very little or nothing to say. I remember my own experience, and I consider what it means to understand in the way I’ve described in this writing. I let the quiet one be quiet. I let myself stand under their reluctance and their silence. Sometimes I even prop it up from below – “It’s OK to have nothing to say right now. You can take your time. You’re welcome to just listen. I trust that you’ll contribute when you’re ready.” I know there are hidden worlds below the brightly lit uncomfortable silence. I know the silence has its reasons and its own hidden nature.

Daylight understanding, with its maps, formulas, cause and effect equations, and defensible rationalities has many benefits, but the darker kind of understanding, where you feel your way from below is also called for. Experiment with both. Practice moving between upper and lower worlds as you seek insight and satisfaction in relationships, love, and life.

(Note – The linking of understanding to “standing under” is borrowed from the late James Hillman as outlined in his provocative and difficult book The Dream and the Underworld.)

Like what you’re reading here?
You’ll love my new book.
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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