How To Make Your Relationship Feel Brand-New
No Matter How Long You’ve Been TogetherAlmost every animal species engages in some form of play. Animals splash or tumble or roll over one another; they scamper or squeal or squawk with delight. Puppies chase their tails. In Brazil, two juvenile black caimans were seen chasing each other in circles, and in Cuba, two crocs played in a courtship ritual, with the male inviting the female to take rides on his back in their pool.
Play is often suggested to couples as a way to restore their relationships. This, however, is not as easy as it may sound. As we grow older, we lose the ability to play spontaneously. Organized games and sports aside, play is an intuitive, natural pursuit for kids. As adults, we need to relearn the art. To be told to "go and play," however, is as useful as being told to "go and create." Play isn't as straightforward as that for adults. Then there is the question of time—the basic priorities of modern life may leave little room for fun. Acting on the suggestion to play more can cause stress because it is so difficult to do.
So rather than trying unsuccessfully to "go and play," we can provide ourselves with opportunities for play to occur and then see what happens. Here are some ways to do this:
1. Schedule unstructured time, and be open to something new happening.I once knew two scientists, Brad and Meg, who felt that their relationship had lost its spark. They decided to take a vacation in Costa Rica, and in an unplanned moment, signed up to watch giant leatherback turtles emerge from the sea and lay their eggs on the beach in the moonlight. The experience was so touching that it bonded them, and they came away eager to work together to save the turtles from predators. The unexpected renewal of their bond wouldn't have occurred if they had not cleared space on their calendars for something unscheduled to happen.
2. Make quality time a priority, like you did when you first met.In the first stage of love, time is plentiful. Somehow, we manage to carve out huge blocks of time from our overbooked appointment calendars and allocate them just to being together. Recently, I talked with Doug, a hardworking engineer and single parent of three, and he told me that he had recently fallen in love with Lexi, a full-time mom with a part-time job.
"I don't really know how we do it," Doug told me with a laugh. "The kids keep us hopping, and we do have to produce for our companies, but we still find time for each other all the same. One of us will drop by the other's house, and then, suddenly, we've spent an hour making love, laughing, or telling stories from our lives. Then it's back to work. Still, it's amazing how much time we can find, just because we want to."
Ask yourself when you and your partner last cleared your schedules for each other. Imagine that yours is a new relationship, like Doug and Lexi's and that you're madly in love, at the height of the first stage. What would you do to get the unstructured time you want and need to be together that might allow something unexpected to emerge?
3. Try something new.Flirtation and sex often come naturally in the beginning of a relationship and are major ways couples play. These sweet pleasures can continue if we remain open to possibility and opportunity. However, it's natural for many long-term couples to find the sizzle disappearing from their sex lives, and as a result, they may blame, criticize, or turn away from each other. To avoid this, talk about what's happening openly, and try some new "games" to heat things up. For example:
- Go to a bar, pretend you don't know each other, and pick each other up.
- Practice foreplay without intercourse; touch, kiss, nuzzle, and lick but without penetration.
- Have sneaky sex. The sense of exploring the forbidden is very exciting. Make love in the kitchen, do a quickie on a couch at work with the doors locked, or have sex behind closed doors while the kids are watching TV.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
Why There's No Such Thing As Closure
My friend Phyllis Pilgrim is a yoga and meditation teacher at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Students from around the world, young and old, men and women, find her work inspirational and life-changing.
But things haven't been so easy for Phyllis. As a child during WWII, she was held captive with her mother and brother in Japanese internment camps in Java. Much later in life, her mother told her that she had survived those years in the camp because she had made it a practice to say thank you every day when she could “see something beautiful, hear something beautiful, and say something beautiful to someone.” Phyllis has made her mother’s practice the foundation of how she leads her life.
I thought of Phyllis recently as I listened to my client Cathy lament about how lonely she was. No wonder. Long ago, Cathy had come to the conclusion that no one could be trusted enough to share true love and affection.
“Everyone betrays you in the end,” she murmured in my office one afternoon. She learned this early on: when she was 13, her father had left her mother. So at 38 years old, she continued to view this bitter experience as the essence of what could be expected of another human being, and as a reminder of why it was better not to trust others.
Neither Cathy nor Pilgrim will ever “get over” their painful experiences. Sure, one of them (Cathy) has made her experience a blueprint to keep recreating the loss, while the other Phyllis) has found a way forward to embrace the best of life. But neither have aimed to forget about or de-emphasize the profound impact of their past.
And odds are that all of us have experienced traumatizing experiences in the past, varying in degrees of intensity and impact. So for all of us, it helps to remember that there are some basic truths about human experience that are universal.
We can find ways to incorporate these truths into how we live our lives, rather than pretend things could’ve been different. With that, here are seven foundational truths about human suffering and resilience:
1. Closure doesn’t exist.
How often do we hear a friend say of an ex-lover, “I just need to see her one more time so we can have closure”? Or listen to the survivor of a tragic story interviewed say, “When find out why the accident happened, I will get closure.”
The answer is often. But one of the hard truths about this life is that there is really no such thing as closure. We hold onto the myth of it as a comfort mechanism, but that mechanism is ultimately a defense.
The pain we have experienced may be reduced and even fade. But the memory is in us forever. And the scar doesn’t just go away, but rather becomes a part of us in the present.
Many of the great teachers and philosophers believe our wounds are the openings to compassion, consciousness, and wisdom. We can honor our wounds if we can recognize their purpose rather than deny them, which gives them power over us.
2. What we do with “unfinished pieces” is up to us.
No ceremony, no “big talk,” or goodbye ritual will change what has happened. Experiences happen, and it is our choice to figure out how to respond. To be an adult is to accept our wounds as a part of our past and to know our choice lies in how we move forward, which includes acceptance that life gives us pain and loss. Of course, it also offers new beginnings and joy, if we’re open to them.
3. Time doesn’t heal the wound; it changes how we see it.
The happiness in our lives doesn’t erase the pain and the pain doesn’t eliminate the gifts and the new beginnings if we allow them to come into us.
4. Everything is transient.
One of my granddaughters lives in New York. We’ve had a special bond practically since she was born. It’s always a delight for me to visit her.
But the last time I went to see her, there was a shift. She had just turned seven, and I noticed a difference in our dynamic. When I went to pick her up at school, she, like always, ran up to me and gave me a big, heartfelt hug. But then she turned away to rejoin her friends. It was totally right and age appropriate that she was far more interested in her classmates than in me. Still, I felt sad, even as I accepted this sign of the natural passage of time, from the seasons to the cycles of love. The only real stability we have is within ourselves.
5. Life isn’t always fair.
Vicki was the first person I ever knew who was into health food and fitness. I met her when she was 20. She died before she was 22, of an illness no one saw coming nor knew how to treat. Meanwhile, her mother Sue weighed at least 300 pounds, and spent her days watching television and reading Harlequin romances. She’s still alive at 94, and all her organs function perfectly.
How can this be? Life is unfair. Finding a way to do all we can to make our life turn out as we want it to, and then letting the outcome be what it is going to be is the only path to inner well-being.
6. Our real power lies in how we react to what happens to us.
We can’t erase our past as though it didn’t exist, and I don’t believe we’re meant to get over our losses. As the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen has written, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” If we see our sorrows as a passage or a way station, they can inspire us to use the incredible gift of our life.
7. Finally, we don’t “get over” anything.
Each day we create our future by choice and with the gifts of the lessons we’ve learned.
Especially the hardest ones.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
Why It's Unhealthy To Obsess Over Your First Love
As a couples’ therapist, I often give talks about love. And I often start by asking audience members to describe the sensations and feelings they felt the first time they fell in love. I get similar answers every time, and most people respond instantly, without even having to think or remember. “Racing heart,” says one. “Insanity and obsession,” says another. “Sweaty palms,” says a third.
It's because of these chemical reactions that we remember our first love so vividly…even if it turned out poorly, even if we’re currently in a great relationship, even if we know it never would’ve worked.
Because we first felt that chemical rush when falling in love for the first time, it’s natural to associate that experience generally with your first love. But unfortunately, just because you fell in love with that person doesn't mean that he or she still would be the object of your desire in the present. With that, here are five hard truths about those times when you find yourself thinking of your first lover.
1. Looking for your first love can create havoc in your life.
Especially if you are married or in a committed relationship. It's OK to engage with the memories and the fantasy of your first love. It might even teach you about what you're looking for in love in the present. But thought and action are different. Try to sit with the discomfort.
2. The imprinting on our hearts and head may have little to do with the person we first fell in love with.
And it may have everything to do with the feeling we felt — the romance, the nostalgia.
3. Those pure-hearted, deep, and tender feelings of first love may never leave you.
The longing is most often the amazing awakening to love, rather than the actual human being you are thinking about.
4. An ongoing relationship with an imperfect person can't hold a candle to the fantasy of your first love.
Your current partner may be annoying and sometimes even impossible. But no matter who they are or what they're like, know that your first love will always be your first love, plain and simple. You will always have intense associations with that person, but those don't mean your current partner isn't worth it.
5. The Internet is filled with stories about people reuniting after 50 years apart.
That doesn't mean you should try this out for yourself. In fact, these stories most often do NOT turn out well.
I remember my first love. I was a thirteen-year old girl over at a friend’s house after school one day when a boy appeared from next door and offered to carry in the groceries for my friend’s mother. He glanced at the group of us, but his look lingered on me, and he smiled with his eyes, which seemed to drill into my very soul (this expression alone makes me feel thirteen again).
I was struck by a pining, a craving, and a craziness that are still with me almost sixty years later. The boy asked me my name, but I wasn’t able to answer, or even to say hello. I can conjure this experience on demand, along with the dry mouth, the racing heart, and the shock that left me mute and blank.
This first romance contained much more misery than joy. The boy was funny, smart, and incredibly charming, but he also was deceptive. Ten years ago, I went to his funeral, grieving, but also grateful that we’d parted ways. I’ve been deeply committed and happily married to another man for almost three decades, and yet still my ardent first feelings remain. I still harbor a desire for the boy I met that day, which defies logic, time, and reality.
These feelings for a long-ago lover aren't necessarily a matter of brain chemicals only. We protect the moment when we first felt the magic, because we awakened to the mystery of love, which, for all the pain and confusion it may bring, is also a gateway to life’s true wonders.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
How To Drastically Improve Your Relationship In 30 Days
Good relationships thrive when our ratio of positive to negative interactions is something like 5:1. And it’s not just your relationship that will flourish; you will feel the benefits on a personal level.
But when we cycle out of euphoria into ordinary daily life together that our elation is no longer there to fuel an active practice of mutual appreciation. More often than not, we start to find our partner irritating, annoying, even disappointing.
Is the solution to suck up grievances, shove any frustrations we feel under the rug, and slap on a happy face? Of course not. That kind of self-suppression and phoniness just creates another set of problems in a relationship. The approach to take is twofold:
1. Make sure that the lion’s share of your communication is positive.
If you’re a numbers person, you might think in terms of a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative exchanges. This might include sharing your day-to-day experiences, engaging in conversations about common hobbies or things you both enjoy, and taking an interest in what’s going on in your partner’s life. We can show appreciation not just in words, but also in a show of body language, touch and making love.
2. And when it's not, learn how to deliver a complaint skillfully and sensitively.
Because let me tell you: much of the time, the blame game underlies most common relationship challenges. The key is to communicate your needs in terms of you, not by finger pointing.
When our partner is quick to criticize (and does so frequently), we may experience a sense of destructive fallout. You may find yourself reacting in some of the following ways:
- You detach and pull away: If you assume you’re going to hear a litany of all the things wrong with you when you spend time with your partner, you’re likely to find ways to withdraw and shut down. This can have detrimental effects on your sex life: if you’re feeling constantly castigated by your partner, the last thing you want is to be more exposed to them, or to give them pleasure.
- You counterpunch: When you feel like you’re always wrong in your partner’s eyes, you build up a wall of resentment. You’re also likely to feel the need to defend yourself, so you start to take note of all the things they’re doing wrong. You develop your own list, and you have it at the ready to call out your partner’s own flaws and shortcomings.
The Rules Of The Game:
Given that it takes practice to form a new habit, consider the following "rules" ...
- Once a day, ask yourself this: What is it about my partner’s actions, words, or behavior that makes me feel grateful?
- Then once a day, ask yourself this second question: What can I do to show my appreciation?
Although we focus on our partner during this practice, we benefit too. In 2009, researchers at the National Institutes of Health looked at blood flow in different regions of the brain while the subjects of their study were expressing gratitude. The researchers noticed higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus, which controls body functions but also has a significant influence on metabolism and stress level. They also found that the neurotransmitter dopamine (the feel-good chemical) increased when the study participants expressed gratitude.
For some of us, criticism seems to come more naturally. We see what doesn’t work more readily than what does. But you can train yourself away from this seemingly automatic way of being. I did it: For years, my husband would spend an afternoon at work in our garden. At the end of the day, I didn’t see the planted veggies, the new flowerbeds, or the pruned trees. I saw the hose he hadn’t put away. Finally, I realized how skewed my vision was and was able to celebrate all the work he’d done, not the one thing he’d overlooked.
The good news is this: we can teach ourselves to notice what’s good and working well in our connection with other people. When we express our appreciation for those good qualities, we can even bring back some of those delicious feelings of amazement and luckiness that we felt when we first fell in love.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
4 Essential Truths About Keeping Love Alive
When we fall in love, we take a leap into thin air. That’s why it’s called falling. I did it at 12 years old; it didn’t take maturity, consent or intention. It was a feeling, which happened to me. All I had to do was be: I met a boy with grey-green eyes who make jokes and called me by a special name.
Because of the euphoria we feel during the initial stages of a relationship, we make certain assumptions about what love is or means that prove detrimental in the long run. Love is complex, and sometimes difficult. But through better understanding love, we can learn to love better.
Here are four essential truths about keeping love alive, through thick and thin:
1. Loving is a skill set, and it takes practice.
Falling in love is a passive process: it just happens. The actual day-to-day practice of loving, however, requires work, time, and effort. Lasting love necessitates a skill set, which anyone can learn. Without the skill set of loving mindfully, we have only our feelings to fall back on.
And let me tell you this about feelings: they can carry us along just fine as long as the sun is shining on our relationship. But when the rain and storms come, and lots of fog, we’re quickly swamped. Afterward, we’re left high and dry, with a hollowed out, empty relationship and no idea how to move it back into the light unless we know the whole road map and how to navigate our way through the harder times.
2. If you don’t fill your own tank, you can’t be there for someone else.
The ultimate nourishment we must provide is to the garden of our own well-being. To nurture the creativity, friendships, mind, body, and spirit in our own lives is equally important as caring for the relationship.
For years, my husband and I used to finish our long workweek in much the same way. The moment we arrived home, he’d change into his biking clothes to go for a long, hard ride. Meanwhile, I’d head for my favorite couch, to get back to the book I was in the middle of, with a cup of ginger tea and our dog by my side.
“Come for a ride with me,” he’d say.
“No, I’d rather sit here and catch my breath,” I’d say.
For decades, this sort of exchange took place. Then he’d take off in a huff, and I’d sit there feeling low-level guilt. Thankfully, we finally figured out that each of us was doing exactly what we needed to do to rest and recharge. It just so happened that we needed to do different things: I recharged by turning inward and being intellectually stimulated, while he recharged by turning outward and being physically active.
Each of us needs to find our own way to rest, play, and comfort ourselves. The more room I have to care for myself, the more I can bring to you. And when you’re not available and I’m thrown back on my own company, I will have learned how to be with myself, not simply by myself. That ability is the taproot of any sustainable relationship.
3. The relationship needs to be nourished even when neither person feels like it.
To commit to an exercise program is easy when we’re feeling energetic and inspired. What matters is what we do on those mornings when we don’t want to drag ourselves to the gym. It works the same way in relationships. When all is going well, most of us find it easy to be generous, kind, and affirmative. When we perceive our partner to be the cause of our trouble, however, we must learn to counter our natural urge to punish, withhold, and otherwise flip into self-protective mode.
To make it a practice to be kind and build goodwill doesn’t mean we never say no, accept mistreatment, or disregard our own needs. Instead we realize that feelings aren’t the only measure of love. The positive actions we take to override our reflexive ones matter even more.
If I can bring you a latte in the morning, fill your car with gas, and make your birthday special even when I’m annoyed with you, I’m funding the goodwill account of our relationship bank. If I can care for some of your needs, although they’re different from mine, I can mine some of the gold in the relationship — the gift of seeing the other.
4. Healthy relationships are a balance between solitude and connection.
In the first cycle of love, you and I merge into a glorious illusion of oneness. In the second cycle, I awaken to your differences just long enough to panic, deny them, and cling to the comfort of “we.” By the third cycle, I find your differences are real, infuriating, and enduring. Profoundly disenchanted, I turn my back on the “we” and run for cover to the perceived safety of “I.”
Yet two individuals must integrate the “me” with the “we,” if they ever want to move through the fifth and final cycle to become truly wholehearted in loving one another.
Love is, in many ways, a balancing act. It is achieved through a combination of time spent alone and time spent together. Fierce independence breeds warmth and connection, and deep connection permits stronger independence.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
15 Universal Truths About Love
With that, here are the 15 things I’ve observed over time to be the most essential and universal truths about love.
1. Love is a feeling.
And like any feeling, it can come and go — sometimes unexpectedly. Loving, however, is a skill set, and one you can develop.
2. At its beginning, romantic love is passionate and exciting — so enjoy the ride.
Keep in mind, though, that the depth of your passion early on is no indication that your lover is a good person for you to commit to. We need other (less exciting) information to select a partner wisely.
3. One of the main reasons relationships fail is that we don’t choose someone who is right for us to begin with.
This seems obvious, but accepting this truth will help you be more mindful and self-aware when it comes to determining the difference between love and lust.
4. We tend to commit to those we think are like us.
And we move into a power struggle dynamic soon thereafter because we find out they’re different. Then we try to change our lover into the person we thought they were — or should be. That is the cause of so, so many conflicts I see in relationships.
5. Nobody can change another person.
You may get compliance and agreement, but they won’t last. Learning to practice the art of acceptance is an effort far more worth your while.
6. We often look out and see what our partner is doing “wrong.”
But any change we seek has to come from within us. Relationships are an inside job.
7. Waiting for your partner to change isn't the same thing as patience.
To be actually patient (with yourself), learn to accept your partner. Rather than wait for him/her to decide to change, sometimes all it takes is to make a new move yourself.
8. To find the right person is to be the right person.
Feeling good in your own skin is the foundation of a healthy relationship, period.
9. All couples have some irresolvable issues.
The difference between couples that thrive and couples that dive is how successfully they manage their issues, because every couple has some.
10. Nourishing the relationship doesn't happen on its own.
In addition to developing the skills to manage conflict, you also need to commit to nourishing the relationship (even when you don't want to). As I said, loving is a skill set — so make sure to put in the work to have fun together, to try new activities and to allow miracles to happen!
11. To be able to nurture the other person and the relationship, we have to keep our own tank full.
Giving and giving without receiving is a recipe for burnout. Not only should there be mutual giving in the relationship, but make sure to give yourself love, too.
12. You can live a full life even if you don't commit to one person.
People used to need relationships to survive and to keep the species alive. Now, by contrast, we are with particular partners by choice. So honor the power of your choice.
13. The #1 complaint in couple’s therapy is “I’m not in love with my partner anymore.”
But once again: love is a feeling. It comes and it goes, and is never constant. Good relationships have bad seasons and also dull ones. Most often, the feeling returns — so don't be in despair if you feel the ebb and flow.
14. It’s normal for sex to slow down and sometimes seem to disappear in long-term relationships.
No matter how dull or dead our sex life feels, we can jump-start it into something passionate and hot all over again, if we’re willing.
15. To fall in love takes a moment.
To learn to love takes a long time and is the most valuable thing we can learn in our lifetime.
I’ve been with my husband for thirty years of a (mostly) terrific marriage. I attribute this to the commitment we each made to learn the skills (and practice them) which make love thrive and to almost create a series of mantras for ourselves out of these points. In some ways I feel my own life experience are my most important credentials.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
Why Falling In Love Makes People Crazy
Some lovers try to stay inside the love bubble as long as they can by creating their own private culture. They invent a language of their own that nobody else can understand. They share jokes with punch lines that are funny only to them. Within the perceived safety of the bubble, their merge feels at once total and eternal. It was in just such a bubble that film star Ingrid Bergman and her husband, Peter Lindstrom, named their daughter Pia, with the three letters standing for Peter, Ingrid, Always. Alas, the marriage fell apart, but Pia's name remained a reminder of love's possibilities and its fragility — always.
Of course, not everyone experiences the “urge to merge.” Some people never feel it at all. Or they enjoy an initial hit of ecstasy that quickly dissipates. Some people enter love slowly, with a friendship that gradually leads to an intimate partnership — one that may or may not be spiced with romance. Others choose a partner because they feel that “it's just time,” which may coincide with the accelerating ticking of the biological clock.
Still others focus on similarities based on ethnicity, race, religion, education, class and life goals. Indeed, in many cultures, selecting a mate has little or nothing to do with falling in love. Nonetheless, so much of our culture — songs, movies, fairy tales, novels — leads us to believe that idealized love is the norm. We await the hero or heroine who will kiss us awake.
A Kind of Madness
This first stage of love has been chronicled for as long as human beings have been on the planet. We hear most often of "lovesickness," a series of anxiety-related symptoms brought on by the intense changes associated with falling in love. Ibn Sina, tenth-century physician and father of modern medicine, viewed obsession as the principal cause of lovesickness.
We now know that he was right. The biochemical changes that take place in new lovers produce symptoms similar to in those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, including loss of appetite and sleeplessness. Ah, and how well we know the signs of obsession ... Fantasies of the beloved fill our days and crowd our nights; when we're apart, we feel incomplete. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it also leads to constant chatter about the missing object of affection. This fixation and preoccupation are what others find tiresome about the love-struck. People roll their eyes and think us temporarily insane. Which, of course, we are.
In 1979 psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the term limerence to describe this temporary state of madness and described the conditions associated with it:
- Overestimation of the good qualities of the beloved (and minimization of the negative)
- Acute longing for the object of one's affection
- Feelings of ecstasy in the presence of the loved one
- Deep mood swings from ecstasy to agony and back again
- Involuntary, obsessive thinking about the other
- Deep agony when the relationship ends
It startled me to hear how his words could have just as easily described what it feels like to fall in love with another person. “I just had to have it,” meaning alcohol and "I just had to have him or her" do not seem very far apart.
The reason for this is simple, if a bit surprising: new lovers do have much in common with addicts. Magnetic resonance imaging reveals that the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that is activated in lovers, is the same part that lights up in cocaine users and gamblers when they act out their addiction.
This recent discovery brings to mind the old adage: magic is science not yet understood. What we do know, however, is that the craving associated with romantic love is very real. Greek mythology provides us with imaginative and amusing ways to describe the felt intensity of romantic love. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, had a son named Cupid. His job, as an archer, was to dip arrows into his mother's secret love potion before he took aim. Once Cupid's arrow hit its target, the victim fell madly in love with the next person he or she saw.
This myth has given rise to some of the most extraordinary love legends of all time, including those of Apollo and Daphne, Helen of Troy, Antony and Cleopatra, and Romeo and Juliet. We now know that the “hit” of romance can be partially explained by biochemistry. Science tells us that the pounding heart that leaves us breathless, trembling, and longing to be with our beloved signifies an overabundance of particular chemicals and hormones in the brain and blood, including PEA (phenylethylamine), a natural amphetamine also found in chocolate and marijuana.
As they float on a sea of PEA, lovers report more sensational and adventurous sexual experiences than they've ever enjoyed before, such as “mile-high sex” and a heightened pleasure in sensory qualities that might normally be a turnoff. Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, once wrote to Josephine, “I’m coming home. Please don't wash.”
As if a generous shot of PEA weren't enough, the love cocktail is also spiked with endorphins, which boost pleasure and decrease pain, and oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding and cuddling. This cocktail infuses us with euphoria and extraordinary energy, which is why sleep and nourishment seem unimportant. Our perspective becomes so skewed that we see only what is good and beautiful in our lover; we're blind to all else.
To fall in love is arguably a passive process . For love to last is not. Long-lasting love results from the necessary work that two people do — the self-work, primarily — to create a strong, durable partnership over time.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
12 Truths About Defensive Behavior
Of course, we are all wired to protect ourselves — so most of us get defensive at least sometimes. But if you find that either you or your partner is always on guard, waiting on the front-lines to pounce into a defensive mode of communicating, it can be deeply harmful to the relationship.
Here are 12 truths about defensiveness — what it is and why it happens — that can help us better understand this self-protecting impulse (and especially when it gets precarious). In understanding defensiveness better, we can learn to dismantle it as a habit, and begin engaging more compassionately and openly in our relationships.
1. There are several ways to define the term defensive.
My favorite is by author Sharon Ellison: to be defensive is to react with “a war mentality to a non-war issue.” In other words, defensiveness is an impulsive and reactive mode of responding to a situation or conversation. Rather than listening with an open heart, we respond with our metaphorical shields up and weapons drawn.
2. All relationships experience hiccups now and again.
Be they with a lover, a child, your mother or a co-worker, all relationships will inevitably suffer at some points from a breakdown in communication. Your husband forgets to pass along a message, your wife forgets to pick up milk at the store, or your partner says something that inadvertently hurts your feelings.
Getting defensive in response to disruptions like these in your relationship is natural. But it's all about your recovery time: holding onto a defensive attitude is a decidedly different way of approaching your relationship than recognizing that you're being defensive and letting it go.
3. When issues come up, someone needs to protest.
If your partner forgets to call, you need to express how you feel. Saying, “I’m upset you didn't call when you said you would” is not defensive, but open and honest. It gives your partner the benefit of the doubt, allowing, in the best of circumstances, for he/she to repair the situation with a simple, “I’m sorry. How can I make this situation better?” or “What would you prefer I do next time?”
4. Conflict allows for reconnection (and more).
The two steps of an “ideal conflict” that I explain about — protest and repair — also build faith in the resiliency of the relationship. Working through conflicts explicitly and openly assure both partners that they can trust each other; they can be honest and acknowledge that any relationship is a work in progress, not fixed or defined on just one person's terms.
The “conflict cycle” goes like this: connect, rupture, protest, repair and reconnect. Remember, when it comes time to protest, be sure your complaint is stated considerately enough not to punish or shame your loved one.
5. Not speaking up is dangerous.
Bottom line: if we don't learn how to deal with our grievances head on, inevitably we deal with them indirectly, most often in more toxic forms: by teasing or making snide comments, holding grudges, or by growing more indifferent to our partner over time.
Of course, it's difficult to give and receive healthy criticism if we're clinging to a defensive attitude. If you feel yourself become defensive, try to see if you can simply acknowledge it, and work through the conflict as honestly and generously as possible. If your partner is giving you criticism that is making you feel defensive, can you express why?
6. Our brains are wired for connection.
In the first stage of love, when we're infatuated by the freshness and excitement of new romance, we anticipate the best in our new partner. And we're rewarded, because each thing they say and do activates the connection center of our brain. We view their actions, intentions and language through the lens of our positive vision. As the chemistry of the “honeymoon phase” shifts, a second kind of circuitry emerges, one that is about sustainable connection.
That said, it turns out that we're wired for self-protection as well. So in times of defensiveness, see if you can tap into our naturally coexistent desire to connect. Remember the enduring connection from that first stage of love, and try to access the feelings that first made you predisposed toward generosity and understanding at the outset of your relationship.
7. Withdrawal is not actually a great way to protect ourselves.
When we experience our partner as a threat, we withdraw to protect ourselves from further injury. Yet withdrawal and disconnection are what continue to create trouble. At the heart of our vulnerability lies the feeling that we've lost our best friend. Our heart and body ache for their return. Yet our behavior often is the last thing that would invite them back. So when you least feel like reaching out to connect, take a risk and try it; the results will pay off (much more than isolating yourself).
8. Books about communication don't do a great job at teaching us to receive criticism.
Sure, books on healthy relationships often emphasize the importance of expressing anger and complaints, but seldom do they tell us how to cope with being on the receiving end. How do you sit calmly and quietly while your partner laments that you're neither emotionally available nor trustworthy? How do you silence your inner-lawyer's constant stream of counterarguments? Ask yourself these questions, even if your self-help books aren't.
9, Your response to criticism depends on several factors.
Namely: temperament, history, and self-esteem. Keep this in mind. Some people have nervous systems that respond more frequently and intensely to sensory stimulation. They may have a more exaggerated startle response than other people do, even in the same family. Often their bodies remain on high alert, and they perpetually scan the environment for danger. They may often hear themselves described as “too sensitive” or “thin-skinned.”
People who are more prone to defensiveness may perceive an attack in certain situations in which people with resilient and calm temperaments would perceive none. Experiment with viewing the situation from different vantage points.
10. Your childhood history has a lot to do with how you respond to criticism.
If your parents shamed you often and punished you harshly, it's likely that, as an adult, you quickly feel self-protective whenever you see someone upset and angry about something. The reasons for defensiveness are myriad and important to understand, but they don't take away the need to learn how to rewire ourselves away from the impulse to immediately self-protect.
11. Resentment doesn't do us any good.
The cost to our intimate relationships when we aren't willing to protest (whether out of fear, self-doubt, an impulse to people-please and so on) is that we literally make it impossible for the issues in the relationship to heal. The relationship begins to smolder with resentments that undermine us in ways they wouldn't if expressed freely in the first place. Remember this when you're thinking of burying issues under the rug instead of dealing with them.
12. Our love connections are all spiritual practices.
Relationships give us opportunities to grow in ways that make us more loving, accepting, and whole. Learning to hear our partners complaints with curiosity and openness not only deepens the connection between us but helps us be more open in all of our relationships.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
What Most People Get Wrong About Happiness
We need to redefine happiness. We need to conceive of happiness more like well-being, a sense of stability that is not contingent on the external, and can exist regardless of whatever turbulent events happen in the world.
Happiness, like all emotions, comes and goes. Still, there are behaviors and attitudes we can adopt to help us remain calm and content, even in difficult times. Our success may even allow us to radiate enough well-being to spread the joy, so we all receive fewer updates on how much reality bites.
Here are five reminders that I like to think of as five facets of happiness. These reminders show us sensibilities we can foster to enhance our quality of life in a sustainable way.
1. Connection is a prerequisite to happiness.
The values of connection are exalted in health articles everywhere: they are emotional, physical, sexual, mental, social and spiritual. Connection strengthens our immune system, lowers our blood pressure and enables us to live longer. The introduction of pets as companions into nursing homes enriches the lives of residents and reduces their calls on doctors and their visits to the emergency room. Couples that make love boost their self-esteem and sleep better, while our friendships expand our sense of pleasure in ways too numerous to capture.
One of these benefits is chemical: our bodies produce more oxytocin, the happy little hormone produced in the brain, which is often called the “love drug.” Oxytocin reduces stress and improves circulation. In one recent study, people with heart disease or cancer reportedly had a higher survival rate if they were social than if they were isolated. The social people recognized their connection to everything on the planet, whereas isolation was identified as a symptom of distress.
Many things connect people to life besides other humans: animals, dance, nature, music, art and literature. Our senses connect us: the smell of jasmine, the sound of waves, the touch of warm sand. People with well-being feel that connection on a regular basis. They know they are a part of a world that is much greater than they are.
2. Solitude actually feeds our connections.
Paradoxically, solitude enhances connection. We must be happy in our own company to bring our best to others. Being with ourselves (and not just “by ourselves”) restores energy, enhances creativity and reminds us who we are from the inside out. If we take the time and space to silence our inner noise, we can listen to our truest perceptions, deepest dreams and wisdom.
Meditation, contemplation and walks in natural settings are just three ways to hear the sound of our deepest voices. When we remember we're already complete, we're not as vulnerable to the desire to look to other people to make us whole.
3. Appreciation of the here-and-now is what we are all looking for.
When I hear the expression “It's all good,” something in me rebels and wants to say it's NOT all good. And it's precisely this realization that helps me develop an “attitude of gratitude.” The benefits from an acknowledgment of what's right in our lives (without denying what's difficult), of noticing the simple pleasures, and experiencing consequent joy have been studied for decades, and the results are astonishing.
Research by Robert Emmons, Lisa Aspinwall and others shows that people that practice an attitude of gratitude reap benefits that include better immune systems, healthier diets, and mental alertness, to name a few. The more we appreciate what we have, the more we can actually retrain our brain and thinking process to notice what's right in our world. This appreciation makes us more hopeful, positive and caring to the world around us. Our performance at work increases, our sense of self-worth expands and so do our relationships with others.
4. Generosity is a power.
I was a newly divorced woman who was going to be without her kids at Thanksgiving. I couldn't imagine how to get through the holiday alone. A friend suggested I volunteer at a soup kitchen, which seemed like a perfect solution. I contacted one nearby in Portland, OR and anticipated that I'd be greeted with great appreciation for my service. Instead, I was stunned to find a two-year waiting list to be allowed the privilege of helping to serve the meal: there were that many other people that wanted to do it.
Generosity includes the first four qualities discussed here: it connects us to others, it stems from some deep recognition of what life means, and it's a thank you to the universe for the richness in our lives. A generous spirit can be used in many ways: to help someone combat depression, to show kindness to a stranger, to clean up the environment, to teach a child to read. By demonstrating generosity, we put ourselves in touch with a world bigger than we are and continue to open our eyes to life's deeper meanings.
The journal BMC Public Health reviewed 40 studies on the effect of volunteering and found that volunteers experienced a decrease in depression, a lower risk of dying early and an increase in their satisfaction with life. Generosity has been found to be the most important factor in a thriving marriage. Yet to be generous is not just a matter of giving time or giving things. To be generous is also a matter of giving of yourself: to give yourself a break when you make mistakes, or to listen to others with an open-heart and mind.
5. Acceptance is the only way to respond to uncertainty.
Each time a journey has ended, another one begins. Life surprises us with a delight and then a challenge. Something we expected doesn't happen. Something unexpected does. The path to well-being, so essential for real, sustainable happiness, is a trek that takes dedication, patience and resilience.
Like a caterpillar's metamorphosis into butterfly, cultivating our personal growth takes time — and lots of work. In our culture of instant gratification, marketing experts sprinkle their advertising campaigns with words like “quick,” “instant,” and “easy.” There is no instant shortcut to learning the art of acceptance. We're forever standing on new ground. Change is, ironically, the only certain thing there is.
We receive messages from our culture, which point to wealth, material possessions, and eternal youth as the keys to sustain happiness. Yet the research clearly points in a different direction. We have a better chance of sustaining real pleasure by engaging fully in all aspects of our lives, finding our purpose and staying connected to those experiences that feed our deepest needs.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
14 Quotes to Restore Your Faith in Love
Stage 1: The Merge
This first romantic stage is mediated by chemicals and hormones. Everything feels magical and certain: you unwaveringly believe that you've found “your other half.”
1. “It was the best first kiss in the history of first kisses. It was as sweet as sugar. And it was warm, as warm as pie. The whole world opened up and I fell inside. I don't know where I was, but I didn't care.” — Sarah Addison Allen, The Sugar Queen
This quote from Allen's book instantly transports me to one of my first kisses. I was 13 years old and Pat Dore kissed me in the basement of Nancy Zipf's party. For 57 years, I have remembered the moment but have been unable to find the words. When I found this passage, I knew I'd found the words. When we're taken over by oxytocin, who can remember words? We remember the feeling, evocative and magical: warm as pie, sweet as sugar.
2. “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.” — Billy, age four (aka my friend's grandson!)
Billy, my friend's grandson, may only be four years old, but his words resonated with me instantly. When we greet each other during the first stage of love, it can feel like one of the most affirming experiences you'll ever have. We are seen by someone else, really and truly.
Of course, later in relationships, there may be irritation, annoyance and even occasional anger in that same greeting. But we can remember that sense of safety and acceptance we felt upon hearing our names spoken early on, and make an effort to continue to appreciate something as simple as a morning "hello" from our partners.
3. “In real love you want the other person's good. In romantic love, you want the other person.” — Margaret Anderson
The chemical dopamine is a huge component in that feeling of falling in love. Dopamine is often talked about as the craving chemical, which causes us to feel high, like we need to be around the person who gives us this warm and fuzzy sensation. This feeling wears off with time, but it's important to remember at any stage of a relationship that loving someone, and possessing/controlling them are different. This quote helps me think about the complicated ways we try and make sense of love.
4. “There's all kinds of reasons that you fall in love with one person rather than another: Timing is important. Proximity is important. Mystery is important.” — Helen Fisher
I love this quote because it emphasizes the importance of allowing for uncertainty in love. We may want to time the act of meeting someone and settling down, or want to control where it happens and why. But sometimes mystery trumps all in love. It's essential to let go of that need for control.
Stage 2: Doubt & Denial
The things we initially fell in love with can begin to annoy us. We become more conditional, less vulnerable and normal troubles begin to show up. These next quotes help remind us that developing patience, communication tact and compassion are necessary skills to help us grow as individuals and succeed at love.
5. “Behind every complaint there is deep personal longing.” — John Gottman
The work of relationship is to understand the main idea of this quote with empathy. If Jake complains, "You NEVER hold my hand," he is aching for connection. One of the most important skills we can learn is not to criticize when we want connection. But above all, we can try to understand when the desire to connect is really what's underlying a complaint or blame.
6. “A good marriage is a contest of generosity.” — Diane Sawyer
Research shows this again and again: generosity is essential in all aspects of our relationships — hot sex, forgiveness, remembering our partners, like us, deserve what they want to get from us, rather than what we want them get.
7. “Love isn't something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn't a feeling, it is a practice.” — Eric Fromm
Falling in love is easy. That's why it's called falling. I did it at 11 for the first time — so how hard can it really be? That said, sustaining the act of loving is a skill set — involving communication skills, self-awareness, adaptiveness and other virtues that wisdom traditions have taught for centuries ... kindness, empathy, acceptance and humor. The list goes on. In effect, this quote sums it up: loving is not just a feeling we "fall" into, but a practice. It takes work, but it's all work that's worth it.
Stage 3: Disillusionment
We become entrenched in what's wrong with the relationship. Repetitive arguments abound, as do low or impossibly matched libidos. Just about everything seems to be a power struggle. Our work here is to find the self we have lost and also find ways to give the relationship a chance to come through this winter season.
8. “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” — Katharine Hepburn
Of course, Hepburn is limiting her idea to heterosexual relationships in the way she puts this quote. But her core belief is about the difference between love and codependency, not gender. For instance, I consider myself to be in a good and long-term marriage. There are times of wonderful togetherness, but other times I just want to go at my pace, with my music and my own company and thoughts. The heart of healthiness in relationship is differentiation, when we master the art of togetherness and solitude. Both are needed and both take time to learn.
9. “Apologizing doesn't always mean you are wrong. Sometimes it means you value your relationships more than your ego.” — Unknown
This is a tremendously difficult idea to accept. Most of us hate being wrong, and the idea of apologizing seems totally undesirable. But more often than not, letting go of the need to be right and apologizing with integrity is so much more productive than clinging onto our egos, which can ultimately become toxic.
10. “All my life I've thought I needed someone to complete me, now I know I need to belong to myself.” — Sue Monk Kidd, The Mermaid Chair
If you can understand this in your 20s and 30s, you are far ahead of the game. I have to have a “self” first who is whole to love wholeheartedly; otherwise, I would be waiting perpetually, desperately wanting someone else to make me whole. This has never worked, and never will.
Stage 5: Wholehearted Love
This is the final stage, once we've learned we can love from a place of wholeness. Wholehearted love is realizing that there is no other half, we are already whole and enough; it is learning to love from fullness, not emptiness; it is seeing love as a practice and as skill set more than a feeling. A relationship has humor, resiliency, separation and togetherness. We must accept where it doesn't work and where it does all the same.
11. “The strongest relationships are between two people who can live without each other but don't want to.” — Harriet Lerner
This sums up the essence of wholehearted love: we are most deeply and healthily connected when we can love from a place of wholeness and abundance, rather than codependency and lack. In other words, we can be alone, though we may not want to be.
12. “I felt amazed at the choosing one had to do, over and over a million times daily — choosing love, then choosing it again ... how loving and being in love could be so different.” — Sue Monk Kidd
We sometimes think of our lover as a photograph frozen in time, as though life, and love, aren't changing moment by moment. Being in love gives us a feeling of freedom. Loving is a decision which we sometimes make even when the feeling seems far away.
13. “To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow — this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert
We all know that thing that happens once we fall in love and enter into a committed relationship: we start out as the best versions of ourselves, and quickly let ourselves be fully seen. The first stage happens because, on some level, we worry about what might happen when our lovers discover the parts of us we judge or wish to change. Then, a funny thing happens. When we find that our partners ultimately accept the parts of us we may have more trouble accepting, they become more acceptable to us. From there, we continue to risk being ourselves more and more.
14. “Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. ‘Pooh?’ he whispered. ‘Yes, Piglet?’ ‘Nothing,’ said Piglet, taking Pooh's hand. ‘I just wanted to be sure of you’”― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
This is, perhaps surprisingly, my favorite quote about love above all. Our beloved Piglet of Winnie-the-Pooh reminds us of the vulnerability we all carry inside when we open ourselves up to caring for another person. It is this vulnerability, and our willingness to accept it, that enriches the quality of friendship. And it is this quality of deep friendship that is most essential to every love affair.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
5 Unexpected Health Benefits of Love & Friendship
Typically, individual well-being is assessed in terms of how well we're doing physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and socially. So let's take a look at how cultivating love and healthy relationships positively affects our health and well-being in these five areas:
1. Physical Health
Oxytocin, often called the “cuddle chemical,” is a hormone released when we touch someone we care about. (It's also a factor in our connection with animal companions.) Many of us know that this hormone increases with regular sexual intercourse, but we also have more of it in our systems when we are simply hanging out and having fun with friends.
So the more loving our connections, the more we amass this fabulous chemical, which is known to lower blood pressure, decrease stress and even boost immunity. Oxytocin reduces aches and pains, increases energy and enables us to experience life more often on the upbeat.
In fact, studies of psychology and aging show that loneliness increases blood pressure while the feeling of being “connected” lowers it. Studies also show how oxytocin overrides fear and reduces anxiety, which is why people do such great (and also "crazy") things in the name of love. Yet this chemical also improves our ability to recognize and respond appropriately to social cues and enhances all aspects of our well-being.
2. Intellectual Health
Intellectual health involves increased alertness, knowledge and common sense. Sure, we can cultivate our intellectual health with books, cultural events and other formal educational experiences. But we can also learn an incredible amount from the people we surround ourselves with.
A person who exhibits intellectual health is able to access their own gifts. From that awareness they can tap into their capacity for creativity. But it's also inarguable that our connections to others feed all of these self-discoveries. We learn through building our relationships and learning to improve our communication with others: opening up, listening to others open up, and simply having fun all sharpen our emotional intelligence.
Smart people make good decisions after some thoughtful consideration to decide how to move forward. Brainstorming often is an invaluable part of the process, whether on social media or through a tête-à-tête with a friend. Such connections increase our skill and capacity to think, respond, cultivate resilience and expand our minds.
3. Emotional Health
Studies have found that people who maintain close relationships with others are less likely to suffer from clinical depression. There's a reason, of course, which isn't often articulated: to maintain successful relationships, we will have already learned to manage our own emotions in healthy ways.
In fact, that kind of accountability to oneself is a prerequisite to successful connections. If we have already cultivated self-awareness, we most likely will also have developed social skills, including the ability to read social cues and show appreciation, care and concern for others. These skills establish the healthy ground on which relationships can thrive.
4. Spiritual Health
Let's face it: humans are imperfect and often annoying. We hurt one another's feelings. We fall into the traps of assumptions and unmet expectations. We let one another down.
But people who have successful long-term relationships practice generosity, forgiveness, patience and acceptance. Gratitude and appreciation are often said to be the most important qualities in a successful relationship, and there is much research to support this assertion. Studies suggest that communicating gratitude actually contributes to neuroplasticity — our brain's ability to make changes in response to our experiences. More generally, these are the benefits of practicing mindfulness. The more we practice being thankful, for ourselves, others and for life itself, the easier and more natural the feeling becomes.
5. Social Health
Successful relationships require us to develop particular skills: to be supportive without attempting to “fix” the problem, to communicate warmth without intruding on another's privacy and to manage conflict without damaging our connections.
To understand how to traverse the slippery slope of good boundary management is essential to healthy connection. The reach of such skills extends to our relationships with other loved ones, and carries over to enhance the power and meaning of our interactions in the workplace and in community life.
In the wellness space, we're swamped by information overload about what to do and what not to do in order to remain healthy and live longer. We hear the latest about the benefits of kale and the detriments of BPA in plastic. Sometimes the information is contradictory or the research confusing, and much of it changes on a regular basis. What does stay consistent, however, is that healthy connections with others means fewer visits to the doctor, shorter stays at the hospital and a longer life span. This is undeniable.
The Beatles were right when they sang, “I just need someone to love.” We all do. In fact, we need a community of people to love. It will reward us with health in all areas of our lives.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
Linda on Power Up Living
- What “love cycles” are
- The five distinct stages of love
- How to identify which stage you are currently experiencing in your relationship
- What to do when things shift
- The single most important ingredient to a long-time successful relationship
3 Essential Things to Keep In Mind for the Best Relationship of Your Life
So here are three reminders to help you cultivate the skills necessary to give care, love and attention to yourself, your partner and your relationship, all at the same time.
1. Bravery is a prerequisite to showing up fully in your relationship.
Intimacy is risky; trusting another person, exposing our vulnerabilities and knowing that the deeper we love, the greater the risk of sorrow when we part.
We also need the courage to confront our partner and ourselves with awareness, honesty, and love. Courage means squarely facing our fears and limitations. It involves challenging our expectations and assumptions about who our partner is, and about who they should and shouldn't be. It means making changes when they are called for, even when they are uncomfortable.
It is feeling empathy for the whole of our human condition — mine, yours, that of our families, and even of people we feel have wronged us. Bravery is finding a way to laugh at ourselves, too. It means becoming bigger than the stories, which we have let define us and finding our way into our unique possibilities.
2. Each of us struggles with limitations and losses.
That's why we can’t forget to extend compassion to ourselves and to our partner. Note: Compassion is not the same as indulgence. We can maintain clear boundaries and honor our needs for safety and accountability, even while understanding each other's struggles and vulnerabilities.
We can stretch to see conflicts from the other's perspective rather than remain mired in our own point of view. We can make the effort to cultivate interest in each other rather than pass judgment, and to respond with open-heartedness even when our instinct is to close up like a clam. We can forgive ourselves and forgive our partner, again and again. Our stumbles are as much a part of the journey as our successes.
3. “Sharing is caring” is not just a cliché.
One of the most powerful strengths a couple can develop is the shared creation of effective ways to manage conflict, communicate, share decisions, and support each other in difficult times.
Co-creation can also involve the pursuit of common interests that extend the relationship beyond its customary “you-me” borders. It's healthy for couples to broaden their lives together, be it through family or community connections, creative projects, intellectual pursuits, sports, cooking, music, travel, spiritual practice, or other endeavors that you both find rewarding.
We co-create when we discover satisfying activities to do together rather than just being together. These joint endeavors can create larger meaning in our relationship. They can also be a net which holds us in challenging times and brings us back together in resiliency and newness.
The people who come into our lives enrich and challenge us. Through these relationships, we're able to see ourselves more clearly. The health of our connections with one another depends a great deal on what goes on inside us — our inner resources, our lingering demons, and our motivation to grow and change.
One of the similar themes shared by the world's myths and legends is that the journey for each of us, as a hero or a heroine, is to search for the “magic elixir” inside — our true nature.
The hero's journey is a powerful metaphor for the couple's path. Two people walk the road together for a time, giving each other the strength and courage to discover that magic elixir within. They become a mirror, a support a catalyst to one another, and if they are lucky, a teacher in the learning of love. Not the feeling of loving, but the living meaning of the verb, “to love.”
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
Harvesting Happiness: Love is in the Air
In this episode, Linda explores:
- Looking at Love Cycles
- The Questions to Ask in a Committed Relationship
- The Effect of Love on the Brain
- What Cheating Means in a Relationship
- What Attracts Us to a Partner
Or click HERE to download the interview directly.
3 Dangerous Myths About Infidelity
Affairs can be very, very devastating. Yet so much of what we think of as “truths” about infidelity are anything but helpful. Some of what is held up to be true and wise can do us more harm than good when it comes to the experience of affairs, so that dealing with them is even more difficult for us, both as individuals and as couples.
As a writer, a marriage therapist, and a couple's coach, I'd like to dispel three particularly destructive and commonly held myths about infidelity.
1. An affair is a sign that something is wrong with the marriage.
This myth ignores the fact that every marriage has something wrong with it. There is no such thing as the perfect marriage, and every marriage has its own unique set of tensions and issues. Human beings don't lead flawless lives or have perfect relationships. Great marriages proceed over rough terrain, just as good people face recurring problems in their individual lives.
The most common excuses that people use to rationalize an affair are “You never want sex,” “You don't even notice me,” and “You're always critical.” These complaints may be genuine. Yet not one of them is likely to be the real reason your partner had sex outside your relationship.
In fact, many people rank their marriages as happy while they're in the midst of an affair, and most say they don't want out of the marriage after they've been discovered. Substantial research has been performed over many years to study the causal connection between marital problems and infidelity. The findings point to the following conclusion: there is NO consistent causal connection.
As revealed in a review by Dr. Jay Lebow, psychologist and clinical professor at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, multiple studies indicate that couples in marital therapy dealing with affairs were just as successful as couples dealing with other issues. (This review of couples-therapy research was published in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.)
Common reasons for infidelity are cravings for variety, something extra on the side, the intensity of new experiences. We seek out novelty elsewhere in our lives, too, of course.
Sometimes trying new things in life can enhance our daily experience. Sometimes they subtract and, as in the case of infidelity, make a mess. The intricacies of the human psyche remain complex and mysterious. The motivations that prompt a person to engage in an affair are myriad. Yet, at their core, affairs happen for only one reason: an individual has made the choice to have one.
2. An affair is sought out: one partner goes looking for it.
Serial cheaters may actively look for a partner outside the marriage. Most affairs, however, occur more passively. They happen because of proximity, availability, and as a consequence of self-deception.
Many seemingly innocent steps can lead us closer to crossing a line and, if we move gradually enough, we can convince ourselves that we're not straying until after the line has been crossed: you have lunch, say, with a colleague that you find very attractive. You Google your college girlfriend. You “friend” your first boyfriend on Facebook.
All these acts may seem innocent. And they may indeed be innocent. But watch for the danger signs. If you choose to keep these activities a secret from your partner, if you begin to think about how to go to the next “harmless” step (e.g., another meeting, a phone call), if you find yourself having fantasies about this person, be forewarned: you may be entering into dangerous territory.
We're all vulnerable to the desire or need for novelty, the excitement of the forbidden, and although illicit sex is condemned, it's also glamorized in our culture and in some cases even condoned. (There exist websites for married people in search of sexual partners that advise things like, “Life is short, have an affair.”).
We can each rationalize the seemingly harmless steps we're taking as we march steadily toward the edge of the cliff. One of the dangers, in fact, is to believe that we're impervious to such temptations. An affair may be the last thing on your mind, and then, there you are, on the brink, teetering between conning yourself into taking the plunge or catching yourself just in the nick of time.
3. An affair always spells the end of a marriage.
Many of us have said, “Well, the one thing I'd never accept is if my partner had an affair.” The truth is, we never known what we'd do in a given situation (particularly emotionally intense situations) until after they happen.
Over 50% of the couples I work with have gotten stronger as a couple after an affair, but of course they are the people who reach out for help and are motivated to change.
The reasons for staying together are many: deep attachment and love, mutual commitment to family and community, and the seriousness with which we value the promise we made. This half of marriages that endures isn't talked about very often, because most people don't publicize the marital trauma they've managed to survive. The terrible destruction, embittered breakups, and permanently damaged families we hear about instead can appear to be the norm, unfortunately.
In fact, some of the best marriages I know have arisen from the ashes of an affair, probably because it isn't possible to muddle along in a marriage that is just “sort of okay” after such a major event. Each person has to reach down into the depth of their psychological closets and find a way to understand, make amends, forgive and rebuild.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
3 Myths About Spirituality That May be Hurting You
I'll admit that in her presence I always felt inadequate, ashamed of my “lowly” struggles with righteousness, resentment and materialism. So it came as a surprise to learn how harshly Shakti judged people who were not vegetarians or who found meaning in traditional religions. I discovered, too, that her friendships seemed troubled, and all relatively new: she had kept none of the friends she had made in the past. She also had no contact with her family at all, and brushed off the fact, noting that her parents were both alcoholics and that she had left home at fourteen.
Shakti had never dealt directly with the pain and anguish of her early experiences. Instead, she had taken a spiritual “bypass”: she was using spirituality as a veil to hide her problems from herself.
It occurred to me, then, that not only did our culture mistake the idea of “love” for “romance,” we also misunderstood what it meant for a person to be “spiritual.” Our distorted view has led to myths that have created shadows on the spiritual path.
Here are three myths about spirituality (quite commonly held) that may be keeping you at arm's length from what's really going on inside.
1. Enlightenment is a destination.
The illusion of “enlightenment” as a light at the end of the tunnel is a common pitfall — with its promise of a permanent place of arrival. But in fact, enlightenment is not an ultimate state of being that can be perpetually sustained. Buddhist students are warned not to become attached to enlightenment as a goal.
Sometimes we may experience transcendence or deep inner peace, and that's great. But the trick is not to dwell on the moment so much that we become fixated on how to achieve the feeling again. Rather, it is deeply spiritual to appreciate the feeling as a glimpse of what's possible as we move on to the work of living this very human and (often) unenlightened life.
2. “Spiritual people” are superior to others.
Sometimes the idea of “being on a spiritual journey” can be misperceived as gaining membership into a secret society or an exclusive country club. People inside the clubhouse are on the true path. Those outside it are not; because their focus is elsewhere they are inferior, right? Wrong.
Our connection with spirituality is meant to shorten the distance between us and the rest of the world, not to set us apart from it. We're only one small part of a very large design. Everyone is on a “spiritual journey.” We only know what is the right one for us.
Through a true practice, we gain in compassion and humility, and this gain reduces our need to feel special. True spirituality permits us to see that we're a part of everything, that we're all a part of each other, rather than separated into those who know and those who don't.
3. Spirituality rids your life of all negativity.
Whether our spiritual evolution leads us to scale mystical peaks or to settle into the repose of quiet new thoughts, eventually we reach a point where parts of our old life (and some of the people in it) no longer fit in the same way. To try and describe our new beliefs can be awkward. In turn, those that hear us may respond with cynicism. They may be dismissive, critical, or feel threatened by what we say. Spiritual discovery is a subjective experience; it cannot be told to another without the sacrifice of some of its magic.
Inner change sometimes reveals itself in dramatic outward shifts in attitude and behavior. We may find that we can no longer maintain our old relationships in the same way because something inside us has deeply changed. The challenge then is to admit that the fit is not the same, to mourn the loss of some relationships, and even to grieve for the old self we've lost. It may be as painful to let go of who we've been as it is joyful to welcome the new self.
The real destination on any spiritual path is to reach a broad acceptance, which includes the beginnings and endings that take place along the way, without the need to denounce any part of our experience.
Whatever wonders we witness in our journey, we remember that we're still humans in the physical world. Cosmic moments of understanding come and go, and we plummet back into ordinary life. We cannot hold on, nor are we meant to. We may have been to the mountain and seen miracles, but we still need to do the laundry and remind our kids to brush their teeth. We have the potential to claim more wholeness and peace of mind than we imagine.
We also have egos, body-centered personal dramas, instincts, and a variety of hard-wired emotions. Spirituality isn't a goal; it's our essence. Depression, disillusionment, and doubt are part of life. So are sorrow, anger, and struggle for meaning, and difficulties with love. There is no escaping the human condition and, when we try to bypass it, we fall into the shadow-lands of the journey.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
The 3 Cs of Wholehearted Love
The health of our connections depends on our inner resources, how we deal with our lingering demons, as well as on our motivation to actually grow and change. But most of all, it depends on how brave we are.
As a therapist, I notice these ideas are some of the hardest principles for clients to believe. Though when they really get that it all — the good, the bad and the ugly — begins and ends within them, they feel a freedom and liberation which they had not known before.
Some of us are lucky enough to have the same partner for a long stretch. But as good as a relationship can be, our emotional and spiritual life journey begins and ends within us. In this sense, every single relationship is an inside job.
Here are three of the six essential skills from my book, Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love. These are the skills which lead to the promise of the relationship, the glimpses we see when we are in the first stage of merging and enchantment.
There's an irony here: only when we feel capable of living well on our own (physically, financially, sexually, spiritually and emotionally) can we choose intimate partnership freely. To be able to say “yes!” to a relationship with a whole heart, we need to know we can also say “no” and thrive on our own (not that we want to, but we can choose to if we need to walk away).
When I feel I cannot live without my partner, the handmaiden of that feeling is resentful dependency. It makes it difficult to be authentic, to show who I really am, it also makes me want to control my partners freedom to be who they are.
Commitment is not just a promise to stay in the relationship. Commitment is deeper and more complicated: it includes a pledge to do the inner work necessary to make the partnership flourish.
When we promise to look clearly and honestly at the defenses and fears in ourselves which make love and collaboration with our partner challenging, that is commitment.
Commitment is, in large part, a promise to find ways to learn to reconsider the way you use your walls of defensiveness and reactivity which harm love. It is, at the same time, a promise to develop the skills and courage which build bridges to one another, especially in the harder times.
First and foremost, let your partner know that he or she is fantastic! Right now, this very moment: text, call or look them in the eyes and say three (or more!) things you appreciate. Learn to pay attention to what works between the two of you. Discover small rituals of connection. Find times and ways to play, enjoy each other, and make love that you can integrate into your everyday lives.
At the same time, understand that your primary job is to find your own unique purpose and fulfill it. Both psychological wisdom and spiritual traditions emphasize that each person has his or her own calling, and that to discover and celebrate it is our life's work. Self-actualization and connection can be nurtured at the same time — one doesn't exclude the other.
Falling in love is easy, in a certain sense. That's why it is called falling: we don't have to do anything for it to happen.
But creating a long-term relationship that can thrive through the seasons of rain, ice and even thunder — and continue to find spring (and summer) again: this takes skills, determination and a lot of bravery.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
4 Eye-Opening Ways to Revive the Romance in Your Relationship
What does this mean? When we move from the phase of budding romance to being in a long-term relationship, we have a new set of (unromantic) chemicals — commonly thought of as stress and anxiety — that change the way we see our partner. This is a normal cycle in a relationship. It's important to remember that it doesn't mean something is wrong. But how we handle our relationship stress and anxiety in the long-term is what determines where our relationship goes next.
Here are four practices, which can help you “reboot” your relationship to the budding romance phase, even when you are feeling disenchanted…
1. Find a photograph of your partner as a child.
Carry it in your wallet or iPhone where you can see it often. Look at that special, brave and adorable little face when you are feeling closed off or critical and feel your heart touched whenever you see it. Think of that child's personality: how adventuresome they were, or how lonely and curious. What is it you love about their eyes looking out at you in the photo?
Then remember that same quality is still there. Ask your partner to tell you stories about what they did as a kid, a friend, a special place, an animal they loved. The vulnerability and the playful spirit of the child within each and every one of us are some of the key elements of what makes us fall in love with someone in the first place. Simply looking at a photograph can help you stay in touch with that!
2. Take the time to go over the “creation story” of your relationship.
How did you meet and fall in love? Savor the memories of those early days you shared, and linger over the details you love best. Tell yourself that what you saw in one another then, is just as real as what may be irritating you right now. Remember a hard time you struggled through together, when you came through with determination, forgiveness and support. Talk about how you did it, and remind yourselves you have the same qualities in you today that you did then.
When we are going through a hard time we tend to see a small amount of the truth and its often negative. Bring in the big picture and watch yourself open more to your partner and they to you. You are each the same person you fell in love with, those strength are still there.
3. Think of what might make you hard to live with.
Then list the ways your partner has shown patience, forgiveness, and acceptance of you over time.
This may be counterintuitive: when there is trouble in our relationship, we look outward to see negativity: our partner's face is unfriendly, their mouth, which looks disapproving, the unwelcoming body posture. If you could see a video of yourself when you are defensive, I promise you, none of you would want it on your social media page. We would be humbled at what our partner looks at when we are righteously indignant, stonewalling the other or blaming them.
When we are under stress, none of us are fun to live with and this is not intended to make you feel badly about yourself but to see the biggest picture and remember that your partner also has to manage loving and living with an imperfect person.
4. List the top three qualities of your partner…and then use them to play a game.
The name of the game is “catch your partner.” The rules? Identify moments when your partner is in the act of displaying their admirable qualities. Then be sure to tell them. List the top three most clever, courageous, or caring things your partner has ever said or done for someone else. Bear them in mind as you go through your daily life, even (and especially) when you are annoyed.
Remember how we were able to overlook our partner's more challenging qualities in the beginning? We even sometimes rationalized their difficult qualities into good ones to strengthen our position that the relationship was “perfect.” We'd say things like, “He didn't talk to my friends at the party because he is just such a great listener,” or “She didn't ask about my day because she just has so much on her mind.”
But as we become more disenchanted, we start to collect evidence of difficult qualities, and start cycles of blame, guilt, and other negative emotions. We then start to think this is the whole truth.
Wholehearted loving is about looking at the big picture, the whole relationship — honoring strength and weakness, accepting where its easy and where its not.
These four practices can help us rebalance and teach us the essential skills of loving wholeheartedly. Unlike “falling in love,” we are learning the practices of “staying in love.” These practices are what makes relationships thrive long term.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
3 Habits You Should Avoid in Your Relationship
You go into “defense mode.” You build an emotional fortress around yourself, and pace behind its walls, reinforcing the stories you've told yourself about why your upset. You rehash the reasons for your suffering and stew in them. You almost take pleasure in your active effort not to work toward resolving anything.
Plus, you feel ready to pounce should your partner dare to challenge, protest, or complain about anything you say or do. You might even try to “teach them a lesson” by punishing any response they give other than appreciation and approval. Instead, you offer up sarcasm, shaming, escalating or stonewalling.
Sure, it is hard to listen to another's complaints but most often it is your own "inner critic," which brings the real trouble. Odd as it may seem, it is a sign of strong self-esteem if you are willing to hear and consider another's protest, even if it seems unfair or painful to listen to.
Relationships need time and a clear set of steps to clear out resentments ; it is what builds the bridge of openness and vulnerability for wholehearted communication and joint growth. So try developing a practice around learning ways to silence your own self-judgment and to cultivate curiosity rather than reactivity when you are listening to someone else's protest to you.
The promises you made were dumb to begin with, right? You never really signed on to them in the first place. And besides, your partner didn't uphold their end of the bargain, either, even if they claim otherwise. What's “fair is fair!”
But trust is imperative to a good relationship. You could even say that trust is an essential foundation of any healthy relationship. And among other situations, trust will develop when our partner can count on us keeping our agreements, and vice versa.
Perhaps you say “yes” too quickly. And perhaps you should work on learning to say, “Let me think about it” before agreeing to do something. Remember we always have a “yes” and a “no,” and we need to be able to use both to respond to our partners requests.
Devoting all of your energy to pleasing someone else will not make you happy, but will lead to eventual frustration, resentment, anger and other negative feelings within. There is nothing inherently wrong with saying “no.”
You point out what your partner is doing wrong, any time and every time you feel that they are failing you, or themselves, or anyone else. You just go right ahead and nitpick, because it's for their own good to stop saying and doing things that annoy you, right? You complain when nothing changes. You make demands to be treated certain ways. You are never satisfied.
But more often than not, this kind of ongoing whining is a substitute for not speaking about what the real issues are. Complaints about petty things that might be annoying you often cover up deeper, more profound issues in the relationship, and perpetuate negative feeling rather than alleviating pain through communicating about it.
Yes, honest communication is difficult and can also produce pain, but prolonging issues through inviting other negativity into the relationship won't solve anyone's problems.
You and your partner can learn to communicate without complaining and criticizing. Give up whining: it's a convenient substitute for speaking your truth with clarity and an open heart.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
5 Relationship Problems That Are Totally Normal
There are common love troubles that tend to induce doubt in us about our relationships. But the truth is, many of these common woes are totally normal. It all comes down to being more aware of them, and knowing how to approach them. From there, we can start to recognize our own power in making ourselves happy — both in the context of our relationships, and even on our own ….
1. The Blahs
I live in Oregon, where the winters are gray with rain, which may pour or drizzle, but rarely stops. I keep framed photographs of spring flowers on my desktop to remind me that winter is temporary. Marital blahs can be temporary, too, if we learn how to recognize and manage them.
The physiological explanation for feeling less-than-enthusiastic is based on the human craving for pleasure. The feel-good chemical, dopamine, is released when our minds are excited and stimulated, and we feel off-balance when we experience a shortage.
The biggest challenge of the blahs is not to blame our partner for the way we feel. Instead, we must look for ways to accept the naturally evolving ordinariness of life and to consider some steps we might take to add some healthy pizazz to our daily grind. Maybe it's a movie, maybe it's cooking dinner, maybe it's talking about a new book. Experiment!
2. The Blues
If the blahs grip us for too long, we can sink into the blues. Many things can trigger depression — including genetic makeup, life crises, and ongoing relationship problems. Unlike medical conditions that can be diagnosed through measurable tests, depression is diagnosed through behavioral symptoms: exhaustion, low sex drive, disturbed sleep, anxiety, reduced self-esteem, irritability, negativity, and a quicker-than-usual temper.
Often, those suffering from depression believe that they can simply "will" themselves out of the darkness. Others numb their pain temporarily with various forms of self-medication, including drugs, alcohol, sex, food, constant exercise, or long hours at the office — some kind of distraction that keeps their attention away from the empty, sinking feeling inside.
In our search for logical reasons to explain why we feel so badly in our own lives, we often look to our relationships, and conveniently blame them as being imperfect. The truth is that all relationships and marriages are imperfect. We are human, and perfection is not possible — nor is it desirable.
If we are unhappy as individuals, we can't simply look to our relationships as "the problem." Your relationship in and of itself is not the cause of your suffering; the lens we look through when assessing our experiences, emotions, relationships and so on — that is the problem we must work on.
Countless studies point to depression as a major factor in unhappy marriages as well as life with a depressed partner, especially when we try to "fix" their problem. Compassion fatigue runs high, and our tolerance runs low. A depressed person needs to seek a health care professional for diagnosis and treatment, just as they would for any other illness.
Betrayal can take many forms, from garden-variety lapses in judgment that make your partner feel disregarded or discounted — to more serious heartbreakers like infidelity. Common forms of betrayal include broken promises, financial deception and the invasion of privacy — from snooping on a computer to reading a private journal.
Sexual betrayal is an especially difficult problem to resolve. Sometimes the only solution is for both partners to clean their respective psychological closets of all baggage, and to find the courage, honesty, and love to repair and forgive. It's extremely hard work. But perhaps the depth of this process explains why some of the strongest marriages I know have arisen from extremely serious betrayals.
4. Loss of Connection
We are wired in our brains and hearts to be connected; numerous studies show that touch, hugging, and being a part of loving relationships helps us to live longer, healthier, and happier. So how can we manage the anger and conflict that are part of all relationships, and avoid the loss of life-enhancing connection?
The secret is to manage our "love account" just as we manage our bank account — by keeping the deposits higher than the withdrawals. Listen, support, touch, apologize, appreciate, and surprise, no matter what. We need to practice these behaviors often enough to amass the goodwill to cover those times when the relationship is in the red.
5. Bad Moods
According to an old English saying, "One day you're a peacock; the next day you're a feather duster." On "Peacock Days," when everything is going our way, it's easy to behave lovingly. It's a snap to keep our promises to our partner. It's easy, even joyful, to allow disappointments and flashes of anger to subside and to move quickly to repair.
On "Feather Duster Days," none of this is easy. We simply find ourselves in a bad mood. This is perfectly normal. What matters is how we handle our bouts of grumpiness.
Ask yourself how a bad mood affects your work performance. How do you treat your colleagues and customers? Now, ask yourself: How do I treat my partner? My guess is that you stretch yourself so as not to indulge the bad mood at work, whereas at home, you may make less of an effort.
If you want to create trust and good health in your relationship, you need to keep your generosity your promises and your manners intact even when you're feeling low. Remember, you can make changes regardless what your partner is doing. Once you shift your focus from their behavior to yours, you gain enormous power to affect both your relationship and your own well-being.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.