The Single Most Destructive Factor In Your Relationship

And How To Face It Head On

"When we are not able to speak authentically, our relationships spiral downward, as does our sense of integrity and self-regard."

―Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Connection

Relationships: Linda Carroll

When we feel disenchanted with being in love (which most people experience), it’s easy to think that we’re the only ones struggling with such troubles. We tend to compare how we feel about our relationship (on the inside) with how other couples appear (on the outside). What’s ironic is that they too may be feeling unhappy about their marriage, though they act as if everything is fine. They may even be looking at us and secretly wishing that they had the relationship we have.

Given my work with hundreds of couples and my own marriage, which is my greatest teacher of all, I believe that a number of predictable troubles befall most long-term partnerships. As hopeless as they may feel in the moment, there are ways you can learn to overcome them and to move from surviving to thriving. Here are a few of those common struggles and strategies for getting past them.

Lumpy carpet syndrome:
Conflict is part of every relationship, yet many couples believe that strong differences of opinion means that their marriage is troubled, and because none of us wants a troubled marriage, we deny these differences by pretending that we agree, even when we don’t. What we get is something called "lumpy carpet syndrome," whereby we sweep the tensions that accompany our unspoken conflicts under the rug.

After a while, the carpet becomes so lumpy that we have to watch our step as we search for the few remaining smooth spots. It becomes increasingly difficult to cross the rug toward each other.

When we finally do face up to our differences, we may let loose with whatever we think and feel, and this is rarely an effective way to de-lump a carpet. Successful conflict management tends to seem counterintuitive, as it means listening to the uncomfortable things that our partner says about us.

It also means stretching to understand our part in the conflict and speaking in a manner that rationally communicates our feelings to our partner. It may even mean apologizing and finding ways to rebuild trust or to change our behavior. These skills take considerable courage, patience, self-awareness, and practice; yet all of us can — and must — learn how to restore openness and to reconnect.

How to deal:
It is essential to learn how to listen to and to talk about our partners’ grievances. We need to stop pushing matters under the rug and to deal with hurt or conflict right away or discard it as inconsequential. In healthy relationships, there are no lumps in the rug; instead, we need to stay in the moment. This means that instead of keeping a black book of resentments, we try to manage the situations that cause them when they happen.

According to Dr. Patricia Love — writer, speaker, and therapist — relationships run in a cycle, which it is essential to understand and to manage. Stuffing difficulties under the rug plays no part in this cycle. The cycle is as follows: Connection–Rupture–Protest–Repair–Reconnection.

We begin with a connection, and then, in all relationships, there is a rupture. This can be a big problem or something small, such as hurting your partner’s feelings unintentionally. The important thing is that it happens without intention; like falling in love, it is outside our control. It’s what we do next that determines the future of the relationship.

The person with the hurt feelings needs to find a way to 1) protest if it is significant or 2) truly let it go if it’s not. Sweeping it under the rug will not go well for either partner. Protesting skillfully doesn’t come naturally, nor does listening non-defensively. This is where our willingness to learn these skills comes into play. If we protest, and we understand the art of apologizing and forgiving, we can move forward to reconnection; if we don’t understand this art, we tend to sweep the issue under the rug, where it shows up as a grudge, a damaging blowup, or a quiet resentment that eats away at our love.

Rules to live (and love and fight) by:
One of life’s foremost myths is that the success of our relationship and our happiness is determined by what our partner says and does. The most valuable lesson you learn from releasing this myth is that all relationship change begins with you. Once you shift your focus from your partner to yourself, you gain enormous power to affect both your relationship and your own well-being.

The second point that I want to make is that many of the difficulties — both small and large — that we face when the rug has turned into a minefield will only be resolved when we apply courage and skill. Remember, long-term relationships have many seasons, some cold, others foggy or stormy, and this fact can help us to understand that, when difficulties arise, there is not always something wrong with our relationship; these seasons are normal, and now we have a map to help us traverse our lump-free rug.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

5 Factors to Evaluate Before Choosing a Life Partner

On my book tour for
Love Cycles, three of the most common questions I was asked were these: "How do I know this person is right for me?" "How can I tell if they will make a good life partner?" "What is the most important thing I can ask them?"

Linda Carroll's Blog
None of these questions has a simple answer. When we're under love's spell, most of us are willing to do anything, say anything, and be anything. Anyone who has watched Oprah can give the right answers; it's how we live that holds the key to really knowing us. The way we feel when we fall in love doesn't necessarily mean that we are with the right person. This is why we call it "falling" in love. It doesn't mean that we are compatible — only that we are human and have body chemistry.

It's better to look for clues using the logical part of our brain to determine whether the other person has the right "stuff" to make a suitable long-term partner than to feel our way to this decision. Our course, what we feel is essential, and someone may be a great fit with all the important qualities that we are looking for, but if our body doesn't react to them — no attraction, no chemistry, no "wow" — it's just as important information on which to base our decision. We need both heart and head to decide.

Here are five clues that will help you find out whether or not someone has the qualities to go the distance:

1. Family history
Here we're concerned with how connected a potential partner is to their family members and the quality of these relationships. I look for two red flags when I'm talking with a client about their family history. One is when they indicate that everything is or was terrible; the other is when they say that everything is or was perfect. Try to determine how much they are able to accept, forgive, and have family members' backs.

Look for how much they blame or make trouble for others. A good sign of balance is, for example, the following description of a family member: "Well, my dad's an interesting guy. He's so loving and generous. He had a hard struggle with depression. He's a glass-half-empty sort of guy, yet he tries hard to be more upbeat. The problem is he's very reluctant to seek help and kind of stuck in his ways. But, growing up, I remember how, most of all, he always loved and supported me. Although he didn't often show up for my activities, I always knew that it wasn't because he didn't care." This is balanced; he tells it like it is.

2. Past relationships
It is important to discover what kinds of friendships someone has had or currently have. The best sign is that they still keep a few of their oldest friends. See if they've been able to take some responsibility for their failed relationships. Do they speaking of past lovers in derogatory terms, such as "She's a total narcissist" or "What a borderline he is"? Occasionally, it might be true, but most of us look pretty unappealing to the other at the end of a relationship, and it's not usually the whole truth. Ask whether your potential partner tries to be fair-minded.

3. Handling anger
This involves your observing rather than asking. Watch how they behave when they don't get their own way, are disappointed, or feel angry. In life, we have to manage not getting our own way as well as hurt and disappointment. How people act with others under these circumstances says a lot about how they will one day act with you.

4. Generosity
Since this is considered the No. 1 key to a good relationship (according to a long-term study at the University of Virginia), watching how generous your potential partner is in their treatment and discussion of others is extremely important. When we are love-struck, we are all generous and loving, but you need to look for indications of how generous someone will be when the love potion wears off.

5. A full life
Determine whether they have meaning in their life that doesn't relate to you — interests, passions, a history of expanding themselves. Do they have big dreams or a history of making those dreams come true? Paradoxically, the key to intimacy is the ability to be separate. Until you know yourself and feel whole and clear in what you want for your life, you'll never be able to be the best partner you can be. It's counterintuitive, but we really only get the most intimacy out of a relationship when we have done the most work on ourselves.

The Interview
Imagine there are two parts to an "interview" with a potential partner (like with a job applicant). In part one, trust your heart, the chemistry, and your intuition.

If only things were so simple. This is clearly not enough. I bet 99 percent of you have felt that someone was "the one," only to be shocked and disappointed when, later in the relationship, you find out a whole lot of things that you totally missed. In part two of the interview, look at their abilities, their references, their experience, and all the other objective data that points to whether they are a good fit.

We have two parts to our brain, both of which are essential to use in the interview. The "feeling" part is an important indicator, but the part where rational and reasonable decisions are made must be an equal partner.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

The 7 Essential Stages Of Spiritual Growth

(And How To Know Where You're On The Path).

We hear so much about finding our "whole selves” and “coming from authenticity,” but so many of us don’t understand how we actually reach that point. We don’t suddenly become that new, better version of ourselves because we read the right book or heard the right speech.

linda carroll blog
Becoming whole is a lifelong process. It is finding and embracing the new self and forgetting what you learned to be. In my book, Remember Who You Are, I describe the seven stages of seeking and claiming your Spirit Self.

Since one of my favorite personal growth tools is the map (in my counseling/life and love coaching practice, I’ve discovered that the structure or model of a map helps many people describe their feelings), I want to help you build one.

In this article, I provide an overview of the stages of claiming your spirit self and questions to help you build a map that will reveal where you are on the journey of finding your true self — and discover where you want to go next.

1. Forgetting or losing the connection to essential spiritual self.
This happens when we enter the physical world at birth. We develop a personality that allows us to adapt to our circumstances — familial and cultural. This original self is rarely remembered, although at times we catch glimpses of it.

Moments of unexpected grace — falling in love, acting from instinctive certainty rather than fear — are reminders. We reconnect with our essence, too, when our senses are moved by the natural world around us.

2. Remembering is the key to most world religions and to spiritual experience.
It may be prompted by a thought, a poem, a luminous dream, a dramatic event such as a mystical experience, or any transition or change. In whatever way we are awakened, we are reminded for a moment of a different realm of existence with its own truth. Such revelations often signify the beginning of the journey back to our true essence.

3. Exploring spiritual ideas and religious practices moves us toward an awareness of remembering.
We participate in traditional and unfamiliar forms of prayer or attend retreats and seminars. We explore the revival of spirituality through books and even pilgrimages to sacred sites — whatever “sacred” means to you.

4. Practicing allows us to begin using rituals that keep us in alignment with our spiritual path each day.
Some traditions use ceremonies, liturgies, prayers, or meditation at a specific time and place; some embrace a lifestyle that is its own kind of practice.

Without practice, the treasures we find in exploring will lose their light and promise. With practice, the spiritual can intertwine with the everyday, changing our sense of the world and ourselves in fundamental ways.

5. Shadows on the path reflect obstacles that inevitably confront us, as our spiritual exploration veers into the world of emotions and innermost thoughts.
We may feel grief for all the time we have lost to ego-driven choices. These shadows can also take the form of difficulties in our relationships with others, as we try to communicate what we are discovering. Our friends and loved ones may not understand — or may even be threatened — by who we are becoming as we recognize our true nature.

6. Reclaiming is that stage in which we begin to recognize and trust those things that have meaning for us.
At this point, we take hold of the direction of our lives, both inside and out. We work harder to be honest with others and ourselves. We are more accountable for our actions. Sometimes we are even able to challenge others and ourselves with more ease and less judgment, feeling greater compassion for our common human condition.

At the end of most stories about a sacred journey, the voyager returns with hard-earned wisdom and many gifts for his or her community. We may find ourselves in the same external circumstances where work and relationships are concerned but standing on different soil, seeing everything through new eyes.

7. Acceptance is less of a stage and more of a condition woven throughout the stages.
It is the knowledge that we never completely “arrive.” We are always on the path. We are always forgetting, remembering, exploring, practicing, integrating, and then forgetting again.

Acknowledging this, we learn to accept the inevitability of lapsing into old responses and our previously limited perspective. We develop more patience and empathy, more humor about our human fragility, and greater tolerance for the journey of finding our way back. That, after all, is life.

How to Start Your Search

  1. Ask yourself if “soul” is different than “spirit.” It is important that you have your own unique definition for these essential words.
  2. Create your own definition of spirit. Pay attention to what makes sense to you.
  3. Ask yourself what it means to you to remember who you are. What qualities do you consider to be a part of your soul self?
  4. Look at pictures of yourself as a child that reflect what you interpret to be your essential qualities. Describe what you see in your activities, body, or eyes that recalls these fundamental spirit qualities.
  5. Familiar childhood stories teach that we must leave home to find home; the happy ending requires us to heal ourselves and find our own internal truth. Sleeping Beauty wakes up, Pinocchio becomes a real boy, and Dorothy returns to Kansas, discovering that what she sought was in the place she left.

Remember a journey you took in which you had to leave your outer life to discover a part of your inner self. Meditate on that journey.

The late
Angeles Arrien once told me about a Native American folk tale that claims each person is born into this world with a special song that is his or hers alone. My hope is that articles and books such as this; publications like mbg; and practices including yoga, meditation, and attempting to live and love in a complete, authentic way will guide us each to our unique song and will inspire us to bring its music into this world.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

The Addictive Pleasure of Being Right

The satisfaction of saying “I told you so” can damage your relationship.

Our brain chemicals reinforce our behavior. They reward us by zapping us with excitement and bubbly happiness produced by dopamine, our biochemical feel-good drug. Then, just as quickly, those chemicals punish us. The dopamine high recedes, the magic disappears, and we feel flat again.

Linda on Communication
So we try again. It’s natural to want what feels good.

Think about gambling. You bet, you lose, and you feel let down. You try again. You lose again. You feel worse than you did the first time around. Yet you can still dimly remember the jolt of happy juice that turned you on the last time you hit the jackpot. That was 20 bets ago, but so what? You’re ready to lose as many times as you need to, just to get that hit of feel-good drug again.

There’s another kind of addiction that works in a similar way–the need to be right. Merriam-Webster tells us that righteousness means having a sense of “acting in accord with divine or moral law, often with an outraged sense of justice.” Adrenaline and dopamine reinforce the certainty of our righteousness, so we do what it takes to regain that feeling of self-important virtue as often as possible. This craving of ours creates a lot of trouble in work and love relationships.

Have you ever noticed how good it feels to be sanctimonious, to “know” that you’re totally and completely right, and that everyone else is absolutely wrong? (To feel you’re wrong never feels good, that’s for sure.) Interestingly, it’s often the people whose inner critic is the harshest judge that have the strongest urge to feel morally superior and to always be on the winning team.

When we decide we’ve met our soulmate, we leap at whatever stray evidence supports our joy and ignore anything that might signal trouble ahead.

Here’s an example. When Donna and Jon moved into their new home, they were delighted with their spacious backyard and installed a pond. A landscape gardener by trade, Donna planted ferns, lilies, and grasses to surround the koi and goldfish. Their neighbors admired her work but warned the couple that raccoons had been seen in the area lately and were liable to do some damage. Jon was concerned, but Donna assured him that she would rework the landscape right away to create some deterrents. Then she got busy with clients and put off the anti-raccoon project.

As the weeks went by, Jon repeatedly urged Donna to do something to ward off the masked invaders. He even offered to hire someone else to do the work.

“You don’t have to control everything,” Donna snapped. “I’ll get to it.”

Jon said nothing more. A week later, he was the first to awake to backyard devastation. Lilies had been pulled up, dead fish flung about, holes eaten in the pond liner, and most of the water drained. Although he was saddened and horrified, he also was aware of a surge of righteous indignation as he marched into the house to awaken Donna with the news. Jon felt almost giddy with satisfaction, intoxicated by the proof that he’d been right.

“What did I tell you?” His voice dripped acid.

Jon’s reaction points to a trap that many of us fall into. He used Donna’s procrastination as an opportunity to vent his anger about all sorts of grievances that had piled up over time and had little to do with raccoons or backyard ponds. What unlocked Jon’s rage was the conviction that he was in the right. Donna really had screwed up, which gave him license to unload on her.

Jon turned to the woman he’d once admired more than anyone else in the world and spit out, “You’re an idiot.”

In the first throes of love, when we decide we’ve met our soulmate, we leap at whatever stray evidence supports our joy and ignore anything that might signal trouble ahead. As the relationship continues and we begin to notice the fact that our lover is a fallible human being, infatuation gives way to disappointment, and now just about everything our partner says can become a justification to find fault. This behavior doesn’t happen only in love relationships, but also with friends, co-workers, and family.

How do we break this addiction to being right?

Admit and Accept

Once we accept that we’re driven to be right and that we derive a dark pleasure from it, we can also admit that what we’re up to is only human. There’s no need to condemn ourselves, but we do need to acknowledge what’s going on.

Inner Critic

Not everyone suffers from this addiction, so why did Jon have such a need to be right? One clue is his own inner critic. He spends a lot of his time talking to himself with criticism, frustration and disapproval about his own actions. criticism, frustration or disapproval about our actions. Awareness of this might help him interrupt his knee-jerk reaction to use the same tactics on Donna.

Catch It As It Happens

If we can create a “compassionate witness” to observe this drive we have to be right we can gently catch ourselves in the act. We note that we’re on our high horse. And we even admit to ourselves how strangely good it can feel to have the power over another person because we’re right. Finally, we are careful NOT to criticize ourselves for this, just gently stop it from happening.

Try Something New

Find a way to pull out of the curve of habit that can become addictive. Distraction is one way. Some moms hold out their bunch of keys to jangle and attract a baby with an eye on a cup of hot coffee. We’re just as capable of finding ways to divert ourselves, too. For example, when my husband would spend six hours in our garden, I would notice one thing; that he hadn’t put the hose away in the right way. All his planting ,mowing, and weeding was lost on my fixation on what he had done wrong. I remembered the trouble I have in keeping up the checkbook and how patient he is with me about that, so before I went to look at his love labor in our yard I said a silent appreciation to myself of his tolerance and acceptance of my imperfection. With a gentle nudge, we can bounce ourselves out of our usual orbit of reflexive righteousness. Repeat the nudge as needed.

This post originally appeared in The Good Men Project.

Why Every Couple Eventually Falls Out Of Love

How to Re-create The Feeling

We've always been fascinated by the idea that "falling in love" is not necessarily the same thing as "staying in love." In her book, Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, Linda Carroll explores what makes us fall in love, what allows us to keep feeling love for a partner over time, and where the two diverge. This excerpt drills down to the fundamentals in a refreshingly straightforward way.

1. Human beings possess two distinct and opposing instincts: the desire to merge with another and the need to remain an individual.

Both are vital. Just as an infant and mother bond, so do newly joined lovers become immersed in each other. And, just as the infant must one day push against her mother to become herself, we, too, need to eventually move away from our lover and recover the edges of our own uniqueness.

2. 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.

3. 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.” Some focus on similarities of ethnicity, race, religion, education, class, and life goals, which have little to do with falling in love. Nonetheless, so much of our culture — songs, movies, fairy tales, and novels — leads us to await the prince who will kiss us awake or for the woman who will melt our heart and soul.

4. It’s a kind of madness.

The biochemical changes that take place in new lovers produce symptoms similar to those of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, including loss of appetite and sleeplessness. 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 is what others find tiresome about the love-struck. People roll their eyes and think us temporarily insane. Which, of course, we are.

5. New lovers have much in common with addicts.

Magnetic resonance imaging reveals that the nucleus acumens, 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.

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. It’s just an overabundance of particular chemicals.

As they float on a sea of
PEA (Phenethylamine), 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 released during physical touch that promotes bonding.

This cocktail infuses us with euphoria and extraordinary energy, which is why crucial parts of life, like 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.

6. To fall in love is natural.

It’s effortless — that’s why we call it falling. But to remain in that state of euphoria 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.

7. We need three types of skills to keep it alive.

We must foster self-knowledge, learn communication skills (like fair fighting and appropriate self-disclosure), understand our partner’s love language, and develop the kinds of attributes that spiritual traditions have emphasized forever: generosity, patience, and empathy.

With practice and courage we can often find ourselves back at the first place of magic again and again. This time we don’t get there by “falling” but through the actions and willingness that carry us back to the heart.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

7 Lies About Love That Are Keeping You From Finding The Real Thing

To fall in love is natural. For love to last is not. We’re more likely to succeed in building a lasting relationship if we’ve chosen our partner wisely in the first place. To do this, we have to overcome these seven cultural myths about love.

1. You’ll know immediately whether they’re “The One.”

Yes, you’ll know immediately when you’re attracted to someone. But you need more than sexual attraction (or even a strong instinct) to find someone that will be a good life partner. You need a lot of logical data, which have nothing to do with how you feel. (Data aren’t romantic.)

When people fall in love, they see only the best in each other. And while all of those fine qualities might be real, that does not necessarily mean that they possess the certain, specific strengths of character to go the distance in this relationship.

How well does your lover get along with their family? Do they talk a lot about their disappointments in past relationships, jobs, or other life experiences and blame other people?

Do they own their part in the problems they’ve had? If they tend to see themselves as victims, the day will come when it’s your turn to be the one to blame. If they hold onto grudges, eventually they will hold onto grudges against you.

2. You’ll know the right person because they’ll seem so familiar: like you’ve known them your whole life.
This illusion is tricky. People often think a sense of deep familiarity is a sign that they’re soul mates — fated to be together. What might be truer, actually, is that you recognize and gravitate toward certain personality traits in them that also belonged to your parents. Some of those attitudes and behaviors might have been very hard to live with.

imago relationships
Harville Hendrix, who developed Imago therapy, says we carry in our mind an image, perhaps unconscious, that directs us to seek out lovers that share not only the best but also the worst traits of our primary caretakers.

This tendency is nature’s way of creating a situation similar to the one in which we were wounded as children: Now we’ll go through the situation again, and this time we’ll heal ourselves.

For example, if we felt abandoned as a child, we might seek a partner who's remote and hard to stay connected with. We fall for their green eyes and beautiful hair and feel like we’ve known them forever. After a while, however, we begin to feel the same disconnected feeling we experienced as a child.

Only this time we decide we can learn how to be there for ourselves. Rather than get angry or become needy, we can practice the essential skill of self-soothing, of feeling sufficient inside ourselves. It’s possible to succeed at this effort. Some people do, and some people don’t. To try to heal old wounds this way, however, doesn’t mean we’ve met someone who’d make a truly compatible partner.

3. The more obsessed you are with a person, the more you should be together.
When you fall in love, it’s normal and healthy to think about your lover a lot. An obsession, however, means you think about nothing else, and this fixation isn’t a sign of great love. It’s a sign of great addiction.

4. If it’s “meant to be,” you’ll be able to resolve all problems.
The research shows that 68 percent of conflicts between couples never get resolved. Never. Apparently, the difference between a relationship that works and one that doesn’t depends on how well you learn to cope with your differences, how skilled you become in repair and collaboration, and how able you are to lose the expectation that you will ever always agree on everything.

5. Your mind and your heart will never wander.
It’s human and normal to think of your high school sweetheart, your college love, or the fellow fourth grader who gave you a Valentine’s Day card. It’s even normal to imagine what life might’ve been like with one of them. What’s important is what you do with these thoughts.
Allow them to pass, rather than act on them, and you’ll find your feelings for your partner usually return to the same place they were.

6. You’ll never feel bored, irritated, or wonder why you made this choice in a partner.
Boredom is part of life, and sometimes it’s natural to be bored and irritated by your partner’s same old stories, same old complaints, and same old way of responding to things.

If this reaction is a momentary thing, it’s normal. If you’re bored and turned off almost all the time, however, it’s a signal that you need to start to spice things up.

7. Sex will always be as spontaneous and easy as it is in the beginning.
Sexual cycles are like the cycles of love; they change, often, in a long-term relationship. For the first one to three years, our bodies retain all the chemicals in the so-called love potion, which keep us hot.

Once those chemicals wear off, however, we return to our regular state, along with our regular libido and any former sexual inhibitions. The magic isn’t the same, and the relationship has new stresses now. Instead of the chemicals that acted as an aphrodisiac, stress hormones, which often shut down desire, fill our bodies.

This is normal, and you can do something about it. Do the research, read some good books on how to get your sex life going again, and remember the things you did in the beginning to turn one another on and copy them. You might have to work at it a little harder later in the relationship, but your sex life can be as good as ever if you don’t just rely on spontaneity.

Long-lasting love results from the necessary work that two people do to create a strong, durable partnership over time. When we can combine the feelings in our heart with the wisdom and intelligence in our mind, chances are we will be able to choose someone who has the characteristics and ability to go the distance.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

How To Have A Great Relationship — No Matter What You're Going Through

When all is going well, most of us find it easy to be generous, appreciative, and kind with our partners. But what happens once things are less than perfect, and power struggles and differences in libido take over the relationship?

Our natural urge may be to punish (fight), evade (flee), or withhold (freeze). Yet our instinctual response is often the opposite of what our relationships really need. These five pointers will help you act in a positive, constructive way and power through relationship hardships.

1. Nourish your relationship in little ways, especially when you don’t feel like it.
Think of this practice in the same way you keep money in the bank, only this is a love bank account — even though that may sound corny!

Try and first understand your partner's love language. Some people like words and appreciate receiving cards, notes, flowers, and texts. Some enjoy being touched, whether with light tickles on the arm or big hugs and back massages.

Others like acts of service — my husband puts gas in the car and makes the bed because he knows I hate doing these things. These small displays of caring can really add up, and it's important that you do them even when you're having a bad day or exhausting week.

2. Remind yourself to always value your partner's needs.

If I mail a package for you, go with you to a ballgame, or make your birthday special even when I’m annoyed with you, I’m funding the goodwill account of our relationship. If I can care for some of your needs, even though they’re different from mine, I can strike some of the gold in our connection: true recognition of you, someone other than me.

Small displays of caring can really add up.

3. Unconditional giving may feel counter-instinctive. Do it anyway!
During the early stages of a relationship, unconditional giving is a pleasure and couples often believe that nothing will pop their love bubble. This isn't the case when we are annoyed, sad or mad.

Still, we need to
practice generosity throughout the relationship, not just on the good days. I am NOT saying that you should act like things are fine when they are not, or accept any abuse or damaging behaviors. Bad days are different than bad relationships.

4. Fill up your own self-care bank account.

When your self-care bank account is full, you can withstand, recover and repair a lot of inevitable relationship troubles. Don't try to tackle these problems when you're feeling exhausted, defensive or flooded with anger. People react to hurt and distress more constructively when they’re able to appraise each other with cooler hearts and leveler heads. So take care of yourself by spending quality time with friends, exercising and healthy eating, and maintaining those spiritual practices that keep you centered.

5. Practicing kindness does NOT mean accepting mistreatment.

Remember: Setting down boundaries gently in no way undermines their strength. There must be limits to our availability and generosity. It’s never okay for others to break their word, be inconsiderate, or repeatedly ignore our needs. If things are so hard that any caring gesture feels impossible, you should recruit someone — a therapist, a friend or a loved one — to help you talk about whats going on and look for resolution together.

How 11,000 lattes have helped keep my marriage together.
Here's a fun example of unwavering relationship kindness: Every morning for 30 years, my husband has brought me a latte. Some mornings, he hands me the steaming mug with a smile and a kiss. Other mornings he’s in a hurry, so he simply sets the latte down on my bedside table.

Then there are the mornings when he’s not happy with me, and he puts the mug down on his bedside table, so I have to lean over to reach it. Still, whether our feelings are running hot or cold, that latte is there for me every morning. Over time, those cups have added up. He and I have banked on them, as well as on many other sweet nothings, to carry us through hard times.

The greater our deposits of kind actions and generosity, the more our relationship can remain resilient and sustain the normal wear and tear of life.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

So Your Partner Betrayed You: Here's How NOT To Let It End Your Relationship

Linda on Betrayal
Betrayal can take many forms — from a garden-variety lapse in judgment to a genuine heartbreaker or marriage ender. Many of these moments could be avoided if we took the time to pay attention to what our partner’s world really feels like. What does your partner need to feel comfortable and safe? What he or she needs may be very different from what you need.

But, if not avoided, betrayal can be dealt with and resolved. It is possible. It just requires total honesty, vulnerability, and commitment from both partners. A betrayal doesn't have to be an end of your relationship. It can be a new beginning. Here are three of the most common types of betrayals and their sources:

1. Disregarding needs because they are different from your own.

George, who owns a restaurant, is a raconteur and an open book. He excels at sharing personal anecdotes and recounts whatever is going on in his life with everyone — friends, employees, gas station and parking lot attendants, the tellers at the local bank, even fellow riders in the elevator.

George’s wife, Sarah, is reserved and private. A poet, she is serious, contemplative, and needs of a great deal of solitude. These needs complement his own. After long, hard hours at the restaurant, George is glad to go home to Sarah’s tranquil oasis.

Sarah admires and relies on George’s zest and wit. George makes her laugh and allows her to take life less seriously. Still, Sarah wants him to respect her privacy. Countless times she’s told him, “Just leave me out of your stories.”

Recently, Sarah learned that she was a finalist for a prestigious national prize for poetry. Thrilled and excited, she called George at the restaurant as soon as she opened the envelope.

“That’s fantastic, Sarah. I’ll bring home Champagne.”

“Oh, don’t bother,” she demurred. “It’s not like I’ve won anything.”

“Sure it is. It’s a huge honor to be a finalist. We’ll celebrate!”

“All right,” Sarah relented. “You know I love Champagne.”

No sooner did George get off the phone than he shared the news with the staff in the kitchen and patrons out in the dining room. “Looks like my wife just won a big prize for poetry,” he crowed. “Well, she’s in the running, anyway.”

Late that night at home, George poured two flutes of Champagne. “Here’s to my clever wife, the poet.”

“Thank you, but I haven’t actually won anything,” Sarah reminded him again.

“Yes, you have! It’s the recognition you deserve. The kitchen staff is all excited. They’re going to bake you a congratulations cake.”

After a small silence, Sarah whispered, “You
told them?”

“Of course. Why not?”

“Because I asked you not to, that’s why.” Sarah was livid. “You’d think I’d know better by now! You’re the last person on earth I should tell anything. There’s no censor in your mind; you don’t think before you speak. You’re just thoughtless.”

George was bewildered. In his view, Sarah’s being a finalist for the prize was an honor. If she didn’t win, there was no shame in it. But that wasn’t how she saw it. She dreaded the thought that all these people would find out that she was an also-ran.

George just shook his head. How could his wife be angry with him about something he’d done out of love and pride? Clearly, he was the victim here.

In fact, George
was guilty of something. He saw the extent of his wife’s need for privacy as unreasonable, so he simply disregarded it. “Why aren’t you me?” That was the question at the heart of this conflict.

The simple yet incredibly difficult solution to this conflict is for each partner to recognize the other as equal and separate, and acknowledge their needs as such. Like anything, it takes practice. But the positive evolution of your relationship will inevitably be worth it.

2. Invasions of privacy or lies of omission that are "justified" by their intent.

Anything from financial deception to the invasion of privacy can fit into this category — whether it's snooping on a computer or reading a private journal. When the breach of faith is exposed, the betrayed person may come to question everything about his/her partner and the relationship itself. Beyond the inevitable shock, anger, and hurt, betrayal often leaves its victims with a grievous loss of self-worth.

Those who betray their partners tend to rely on “reasonable” explanations to justify themselves. The reason they were unfaithful? Not enough sex in their marriage. The reason they maxed out the credit cards? Simple generosity — they wanted to take their partner on a first-class vacation.

In truth, however, an act of betrayal is an act against the self, which harms a person’s sense of integrity and self-respect. After betrayers digest what they’ve done and the pain they’ve caused, their shame and guilt can be all-consuming.

Avoiding this kind of betrayal requires a deep faith in your partner's ability and willingness to forgive, and the strength to be truly vulnerable. Recovering from it requires the same commitment to truth, openness, and each other.

3. Sexual betrayal.

No matter the reason, without your partner's knowledge or consent, sexual betrayal is never justified. Because of its powerful reverberations for both partners, sexual betrayal is an especially difficult marital problem to cope with and resolve.

Most of the time, the only way to reconcile is for both partners to clean their respective psychological closets of all baggage and to reach down into the depths of those emotional storage vaults to find the courage, honesty, and love to repair and forgive. I recommend you do this only with the help of a SEASONED therapist. It’s extremely hard work and it does not happen quickly. I have seen it take 1 year for some; 2 to 3 years for others.

Most of the reasons for the betrayal must be understood, especially by the person who had an affair. Perhaps the length and depth of this process explains why some of the strongest marriages I know have arisen from extremely serious betrayals.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

What To Do When You Want to End Your Relationship

You’ve been struggling with disillusion in your relationship for some time. The thrill is long-gone. So is the joy. The stress is high, the pain is deep. You’re worn out, and you feel like things will never change. You’ve reached the point where you think, Things just can’t go on like this.

So you ask yourself,
Should I leave? Is that the answer? Is this the end of a love that once seemed so right?

My answer? Don’t decide, at least not yet.

Ironically, the times when you feel the most intense uncertainty and pain, when you’re at low ebb and in misery, are not the times to make a major decision.

Instead of reacting to the pain, respond with these three essential actions (or non-actions) from a longtime marital therapist:

1. Slow down, and don't let the knee-jerk reaction rule you.
When you feel the intense urge to react in a moment of pain, it’s important to just be still and rest for a while. If you take it easy and go slow, your needs and desires will have time to register within you, and you will be in a better place to recognize and understand them.

For example, sometimes we think we want to leave a person when what we really want is to escape from the pain in a stuck dynamic in the relationship. If we can comfort and soothe ourselves long enough to regain some sense of calm on our own terms, we can begin to assess if there’s something to salvage from the wreckage of what we’ve built together.

Sometimes we know that, above all, we want out of
the feeling of being stuck or uninspired. And from there, of course it's easy to attribute our misery to the relationship when it may be much more about ourselves. But taking the time to gain clarity and space from volatile emotions will help understand what is really making you unhappy.

2. Educate yourself.
Don’t seek advice (and definitely don’t take advice) from friends and family. Often, the people who love you the most will see only your side of things, which may make you feel good and righteous but won’t shed new light on where you are now in life and what you need to do next.

Find a trustworthy mentor figure — whether it be a therapist, or a coach, minister, priest, or rabbi, instead. Talk to them about the dilemma and decision you’re struggling with. If your partner is willing to join you in a counseling session, you must find a counselor that you BOTH trust. Sometimes
the most impossible relationships can transform into something wonderful, given support and insight from the right source.

Particularly if you are married, or you and your partner have made a serious commitment, seek out a financial adviser, a couples’ counselor, or another trusted third party that can inform you of the legal and financial ramifications of your options: separation, divorce, or even a sabbatical from marriage.

Sometimes we learn more from a knowledgeable person that offers no advice but reflects our words back to us. What we hear may surprise us, as if the words and thoughts were brand-new. For the first time in a long time, we may feel our more vulnerable selves emerge from beneath the defensive scar tissue. That’s when we will begin to see who we are, where we are, and what we need to do next.

3. Move your focus away from avoiding discomfort or being "nice.”
If you do decide that ending the relationship is the right decision acknowledge that you will need to confront discomfort directly. You will ultimately need to go through the breakup in the most courageous way, which is face-to-face, and it won't be comfortable.

Don’t use text or email (or worse, social media!) to give your lover the news, and stay away from Breakup Butler, who gives the message to your partner “nice” and “not so nice.”

Even though the conversation may be awkward and uncomfortable, you will feel a surge in self-respect once you finish what you came to say, because you had the courage and the consideration to meet in person. When you talk, acknowledge what you valued in your relationship, even as you say the connection between you doesn’t work anymore. Take time to be absolutely clear. Don’t give your partner false hope with expressions like, “for the moment I feel,” or “maybe in time it will change.”

give yourself time to grieve but don’t look back. Don’t torment each other with prolonged goodbyes and false, mixed messages. Don’t call, don’t write, and don’t toy with them on social media. Definitely don’t drive by your ex’s house to try and figure out if they’re with someone else. That kind of behavior feeds the drama but will only end in more misery, whatever you discover. If they’re with someone else, you feel bad. If they’re all alone, you feel guilty.

Put the past away and begin to rebuild your life around new people, places, and things. Give yourself a chance to feel like “you again,” as a single person. What you choose should make this breakup easier on you, not more difficult.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

Why You Always Have the Same Old Fight

mowing away

Do you notice that you and your partner always end up having “the same old argument”? It's as if it doesn’t matter at all where the conversation or conflict started ... it just always ends in the familiar sinkhole.

After a while you may understand that the issue isn’t really about the housework, the weekend plans or money. It's something else something you can’t put your finger on. You just know the sinking feeling when you see “the look,” hear the sound in their voice or feel your own feeling of sinking inside, that voice telling you, “Here we go again.” This ongoing familiar fight can feel like an endless loop with a dead-end and no way out. But why?

Well, the reason it feels like it's a loop, is because it IS a loop. Without learning how to notice the patterns as they arise, there's no way to stop a vicious cycle in its tracks. That's why I am telling you that there is a way through it. The only place to start is to recognize the barriers each person must overcome, and then developing strategies to manage these barriers productively.

To begin, let's look at what I like to think of as the four common causes of these cyclical, repetitive arguments:

1. History
Most repeated fights are not really about what they seem to be about. In fact, they tend to happen because something in our past is
being triggered by a present experience, even if it’s minor. Our partner might do something that evokes memories of feeling bullied, betrayed or falsely accused in the past and we are actually reacting to our history rather than to what is actually happening now.

The first step here is awareness of these triggers. But read on, as I will elaborate on "exit strategies" in the next section below!

2. Core Issues
The vulnerabilities and reactivity we bring to repeated fights may include core values and questions like “Who’s in charge of my life?” “Am I valued and accepted for who I am” and “How much can I trust you to have my back”?

Again, take stock of what emotional triggers make you feel particularly vulnerable, and experiment with being accountable to those things when you communicate with your partner.

3. “The Other Side Of Attraction”
Characteristics that attracted us to our partners in the beginning may become sources of annoyance later. I call this “the other side of attraction.” In other words, we may fall in love with someone because they seem predictable and reliable. When the
“love drug” wears off and the honeymoon phase is over, the same behavior may seem rigid and lacking imagination, and we’ll probably argue about that.

4. The Loop
Repetitive fights breed further iterations of the same argument, period. One person's idiosyncrasies create vulnerable patterns in another person's behavior, which may, in turn, aggravate first person further. And so on . . . this is the definition of a vicious cycle.

But let's take this one a little further.

For most women, the number one concern is disconnection, while for men it is feeling unjustly criticized or being seen as incompetent. So let's take a heterosexual couple, Jake and Meg. Say Jake makes weekend plans to go hiking with his friends and Meg feels abandoned. This can trigger a “fight” response from her in the form of anger or sarcasm. Jake sees this as criticism, triggering a “flight” instinct, so he withdraws which intensifies Meg’s fears of disconnection. The loop builds up steam, and continues.

So, now that we've looked at some of the main causes for these repetitive fights, let's consider some strategies to change the dynamic.

1. Build your “exit strategy” toolkit.
No matter how hard you try you cannot change your partners behavior, only your own. Find an exit strategy to the loop. This begins by recognizing when you are in it, and soothing yourself out of your normal reaction. Mantras, breathing slowly, images of your dog, garden or favorite hike can all act as agents to stop your own inner loop of reactivity. Often if one person can break out of it, the other will also become more centered and it can stop.

2. Look inward.
In the middle of the “same old-same old,” we are looking out and see our partner. Their uninviting body language, their mean looking mouth, their unfriendly eyes. The challenge here is to look within, ask yourself, “Would I want to take a selfie of my facial expression RIGHT NOW and post it on social media?” I have taught myself to think of one of the things I appreciate the most about my partner in the middle of the hardest loops, and more and more often it backs me off of my
defensive strategy. It doesn’t eliminate the problem but it often helps reframe the fight to be more productive.

3. Let go of your need to be right.
When you KNOW you are right and your partner is wrong, you know you are in trouble! (Of course there are certain things that ARE wrong, lying, hitting, breaking commitments. But most often we are feeling self-righteous about our point of view rather than an actual transgression.) It may feel justified, but it will usually fuel even greater conflict and distance.

4. Agree not to discuss the problem until the storm has passed.
When we are in the middle of the trouble we are bombarded by neurochemicals that are while arguing, most of us are “flooded” — bombarded by neurochemicals that make it hard for us to relate constructively. We are
reacting, not responding.

Taking time out, going for a walk, agreeing to come back to it within 24 hours may help you each become calm and reasonable enough to find a resolution. And of course, if there’s an ongoing
issue (and no, not just a habitual, unproductive communication dynamic), you may sometimes feel like you can’t make progress. In those cases, consider seeking the help of a skilled counselor or coach.

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.

Linda on Obsessions
Typically, I will respond to these answers by describing how certain chemicals flood our bodies when we fall in love. Dopamine triggers the reward center of the brain and causes us to feel that we don’t need to eat or sleep (which may be why someone once said that to fall in love is the best diet there is). I describe the adrenaline flow, which puts us on high alert the rush of endorphins, and the oxytocin, which causes a deep longing to connect through all five of our senses to this other person, who attracts us so intensely.

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.

In the very initial stage of a relationship (aka the "honeymoon phase,” or what I call the “merge” cycle), our hormones are flowing madly, and we see our partner as a source of wonder. We appreciate everything and can’t find enough ways to let them know it. We gaze, gift, surprise, touch and praise lavishly.

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.
Over the years that I’ve worked with couples, I’d say the most common "problem" I've diagnosed is that one or both members of the couple doesn't feel valued by their partner. And that's why I invite you to take what I'll call the 30-Day Relationship challenge, a simple practice to cultivate gratitude and appreciation for your partner.

The Rules Of The Game:

Given that it takes practice to form a new habit, consider the following "rules" ...
  1. Once a day, ask yourself this: What is it about my partner’s actions, words, or behavior that makes me feel grateful?
  2. Then once a day, ask yourself this second question: What can I do to show my appreciation?
Now do this every day, for 30 days. Try asking these questions as if through your partner's eyes. For example, if my partner were going to please me, he’d take me to dinner. If I wanted to do something for him, I’d cook something wonderful. What you give, in other words, should be something your partner would actually appreciate, because the gift is for them, not you.

The Benefits:

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.

Is Your Ex REALLY A Narcissist?

“My boyfriend is a narcissist. That’s why we broke up,” says Amy, case closed.

“My ex-wife has a borderline personality. That’s why we aren’t together,” says Jake, and no one asks if he had any part in the demise of the marriage.

“My brother is a sociopath,” says Todd. “That’s why our joint business venture was doomed.” End of discussion.

Linda on Narcissism

More and more, I hear people sum up failed relationships by using clinical terms like the ones above. I’ve noticed, too, a myriad articles in blogs and magazines that advise us to get out of relationships if our partner fits one of these tags.

It’s true that some people are deeply affected by what are called “personality disorders.” That being said, it remains highly unlikely that your ex can legitimately be labeled as a narcissist, a borderline personality, or a sociopath, even at his or her worst.

That’s because the way we act when we’re in the middle of a difficult time in a relationship is never the basis of such a diagnosis. Our emotional and psychological makeup consists of a continuum: at one end lies aspects of our personality which surface under stress. At the other end is our underlying
condition, that is, the organizing principle of our personality both in good times and bad, during periods of calm and under stress, whether we’re in a state of well-being or trauma.

It takes a long time to observe the complex series of symptoms that constitute a psychological condition and arrive at a legitimate diagnosis. So why has it become the vogue for so many unhappy partners to toss around these very serious and complicated labels?

When we’re hurt in a relationship, it’s tempting to make the other person the problem and to select evidence and events that diminish their credibility and value. This tactic may even have the temporary effect of making us feel better.
If we slap a label on our ex, what went wrong is a “slam dunk.” The certainty with which we come to this conclusion short-circuits any pain we might suffer, and shields us from our sense of loss. Most of all, we can duck out on seeing our part in the unraveling.

So let’s examine a few of these labels, and re-consider how we are using them:

"Narcissist" is probably a label we hear most frequently, and is one that is also frequently misused. Let's start with an example ...

Meg, who always thought of herself as somewhat sickly, mildly attractive and “reasonably intelligent” (but not startlingly so), blossomed at 32. Her career as an editor in a yoga magazine suddenly was flourishing, and her fitness achievements and radical health improvements made her a sought-after blogger and speaker. As someone whose self-estimation had always been “just OK,” she was deeply excited by her new achievements.

Her old friends, meanwhile, began to notice how she tended now to focus on her accomplishments and her long list of admirers. They saw her less in person and more on social media, where she constantly posted selfies of herself in amazing yoga posse. Was Meg a narcissist? Or was she just going through a transition period, which caused her to be especially self-centered?

True narcissists are the loneliest people on the planet. Unable to connect with and claim their actual strengths and positive qualities, they rely almost entirely on how others see them or her to achieve a sense of self. Their moods tend to swing between the ecstasy of grandiosity and the agony of deficiency.

Most of us can relate to
some of the characteristics that define a narcissist. We may even exhibit narcissistic traits or qualities for extended periods of time. A true narcissist, however, maintains this defining attitude always, because he or she knows no other way.

2. Sociopath

Here’s another example of how another label can get misused. Christine found out that her partner, Manny, had been dating her best friend for months behind her back. Enraged, she threw his clothes on the lawn, reported his cheating to his sister, and on impulse posted a photo on Facebook of the two traitors kissing on a running trail.

So is Megan a sociopath? Or was she temporarily blinded by anger and pain and did things she would later regret? A true sociopath lacks empathy
all the time, and often is often actively contemptuous of other people’s suffering.

To receive such a diagnosis, a person has to have:

  1. Exhibited a lifelong history of deceitfulness for personal profit and pleasure;
  2. Behaved aggressively toward others without regret; and
  3. Shown a lack of remorse for the harm they have caused.

3. Borderline Personality

Likewise, borderline personality disorder is not simply a synonym for your ex-wife, who you think is punishing you by changing her mind about when you can have the kids, or by sending you mixed messages about her residual feelings for you.

The main feature of BPD is an ongoing pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and emotions. A person with this disorder is impulsive, often self-injurious, and often has a history of self-cutting and suicide attempts. Such a person lives with a frantic need to avoid real or imagined abandonment and expresses chronic feelings of emptiness and emotional instability, even during periods of calm and well-being.

Recall those times when you’ve been at your angriest while interacting with your partner: would you like to have had a video camera record your responses in that state? Probably not. Would your behavior indicate that you’re a person with BPD? Again, probably not.

Typically, personality disorders are diagnosed by a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. Even family doctors are not trained to make a diagnosis, let alone upset friends and family.

So please: let’s stop flinging around labels that most of us are fortunate enough not to fit.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

15 Universal Truths About Love

love cycles linda carroll
I’ve done numerous interviews and talks about what makes for a successful relationship. I’ve been a marriage counselor for 35 years, and have also written extensively on the subject of love, most recently a book entitled Love Cycles, which looks at how the feeling of love comes in distinct cycles during romantic relationships. In other words, love is more complicated than we often believe.

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.

5 Unexpected Health Benefits of Love & Friendship

Most of us are aware of the fact that if we love someone and are loved in return, our overall mental health is enhanced. Happiness is healthy, plain and simple. But the benefits of loving others only get more impressive as we examine them more closely.

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.
Love Cycles

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

Linda’s recent interview on Power Up Living with Kelly Galea provided a free-form discussion on love and highlighted Linda’s new book, Love Cycles.

Topics included:
  • 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
Click HERE to visit the Power Up Living website and access this insightful interview.

3 Essential Things to Keep In Mind for the Best Relationship of Your Life

Believe it or not, we can deliberately choose to cultivate skills that will help us realize the full potential of our relationships. We can re-access the sense of wonder we felt at those early moments of love, when we felt something close to enchantment.

love cycles quotation
In the beginning stage of most relationships, we “receive” positive emotions from our partners like love, support, attention and so on “for free.” All of this is mediated by hormones, chemicals and the trance of new love. The experience of finding our “other half” can be fleeting, and dissipates with the first showing of power struggles and other differences. It can also point the way to a relationship of two whole people, who love one another as wholeheartedly as they live in the fullness of their individual lives.

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.

The Major Difference Between Happy & Unhappy Couples

Most of us know that conflict management skills often determine the health of a relationship. In other words, the major difference between happy and unhappy couples often comes down to how they deal with inevitable tensions that may arise, and the occasional (and very normal) fight.

But I believe there's another factor that is equally (if not even more) important, and which is counterintuitive: putting lots of work into the relationship when we least feel like it.

Especially in the wellness space, there is a lot written about the importance of following our intuition. If we tap into our intuition, we will express our authentic selves, our inner truth — right? Well, sometimes. The intuition is a tricky, and sometimes deceptive, part of us.

Linda on Communicating
Instincts, the intuition, can be an impostor; they can make us think something is true when it isn't. For example, when we first fall in love (which I call “The Merge” in my book Love Cycles), we may turn a blind eye to certain red flags in our partners, even though our friends may see them very clearly. Things which we want (even if they are not good for us) can mask as “that which I must have.” When our feelings are hurt by someone we care about, our intuition may tell us to lash out blindly when this will cause harm and do even more damage.

Here comes the issue of establishing good will. A wise banker would tell us we need to deposit money into our savings account regularly, and regardless of what we think we must spend money on first. A good will “savings account” should be treated similarly. When we are experiencing emotional exhaustion or tension in our relationship, putting in the effort to communicate, show affection or compassion may be the last things we want to do. Yet it is during these times, when the relationship dips down into the red zone, that we need that overdraft protection most of all.

To make a practice of being kind and building good will doesn't mean abolishing boundaries, and offering our partners limitless availability and generosity. It doesn't mean we never say no, nor does it mean that we should accept mistreatment. It is possible for kindness to coexist with healthy, necessary boundaries.

At the same time, neither partner should deploy the nuclear weapons of hostile communication (such as sarcasm, blame, and bullying) in response to feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment and so on. Even if our instincts tell us to be nasty during hard times, this kind of hostility will not do anything except escalate the conflict. Sometimes, what we need to do most urgently during relationship troubles is put the brakes on the strength of our intuition.

Remember, feelings are very important in relationships — but they are not the only thing that will guarantee a healthy relationship. The positive actions we can take (sometimes!) to override our instincts also matter. If I can bring you a cup of tea in the morning, fill your car with gas, and make your birthday special even when I'm annoyed or stressed out, I'm funding the goodwill account of our relationship bank. This doesn't mean you should sublimate your needs or desires if you need to communicate something to your partner, but it's important to open yourself up to these kinds of gestures, and realize that your intuition isn't ALWAYS leading you in the right direction.

In our most intimate relationships, however, our instinctual response is often the opposite of what our partner needs, and it's here that our willingness to make a new, counterintuitive move is needed.

Every morning for 26 years my husband has brought me a latte. Some mornings he hands it to me with a smile and a kiss; other mornings he is in a hurry and businesslike as he places it beside my bed silently; then there are mornings where is not happy (with me or generally), and so he puts it on his side of the bed so I have to lean over to get it. Still, that latte comes, and it has become like a love note over many decades of being together, through many seasons. In the tougher seasons of our love story, that latte has warmed me even in the iciest of storms.

Think about the importance of challenging our instincts in another context, like exercise. Committing to an exercise program is easy when we're feeling energetic and inspired. But what really matters is what we do on those mornings, many (or even most!) mornings, when we are not feeling energetic and inspired, when the last thing we want to do is drag ourselves to the gym.

Well, relationships, too, are a kind of practice. 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-protection mode. Once we've learned to be less defensive, we can begin to choose our responses to disappointment and fear rather than giving in to the instinctive fight, flee, or freeze response.

Particularly for those in the first throes of love, such conscious "bank deposits" may seem unnecessary. During the first stage, couples believe that nothing will pop their love bubble — ever. Yet to make such deposits continually, is vital. From the very beginning, we need to nourish the relationship and keep the “love account” out of the red so that it can withstand some of the trouble to come, when we begin to appraise each other with cooler eyes and hearts. When we've stored up goodwill, we can recover much more quickly from hurt and distress than when we're running on empty.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.