Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

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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Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

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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“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 to request a client info package.

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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 –

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?

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.

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?

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.)

It takes courage to face someone exactly as they are!

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

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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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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“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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