How To Make Your Relationship Feel Brand-New

No Matter How Long You’ve Been Together

Almost 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.

Researchers say that play is not just about fun—it's an element of the courting rituals of animals throughout the creature kingdom, teaches cooperation, and relieves stress.

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:
  1. Go to a bar, pretend you don't know each other, and pick each other up.
  2. Practice foreplay without intercourse; touch, kiss, nuzzle, and lick but without penetration.
  3. 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.
The adage "variety is the spice of life" is a truism. Studies show that novelty adds satisfaction to relationships and can reignite passion. You may find it unexpectedly invigorating—and just plain fun.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

The Difference Between Love and Limerence

A Therapist Explains

In 1979, before we knew about "the love drug," psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the term "limerence" to describe the chemical reactions that happen in the brain when we fall head over heels for someone — "crazy in love," so to speak. Regardless of whether the person is a good match for us, the overwhelming download of chemicals into the brain can overpower sanity.

We find ourselves justifying relationships that are unrequited, toxic, or just lacking in fulfillment of basic needs. Over the next four decades of research, Tennov joined poets, playwrights, and pop songs in the conversation about the madness of love.

Here's what being
love-crazy looks like:
  1. Obsessive thinking about the limerent (that's the object of affection/fixation), which can become intrusive to daily functioning.
  2. Irrationally positive evaluations of their attributes and denial of red flags (e.g., "She is a serial murderer, but that's OK. My love will overcome that.")
  3. Longing for reciprocation, and when it doesn't happen, fantasizing about it until it becomes reality in your mind.
  4. Feelings of ecstasy in the presence of the loved one, even if they are barely aware of you.
  5. Deep, wild mood swings, from delight to agony and back again.
  6. Total anguish when the relationship ends: not ordinary grief, which accompanies the termination of all relationships, but the feeling that you actually cannot go on living without the person.
  7. Unsettling shyness in the limerent object's presence.
  8. Extreme exaggeration of any response from the limerent to be interpreted as "a sign" your feelings are requited regardless of actual evidence.
Irrational love — love based on "just a feeling" — can wreak havoc in the lives of people who are otherwise sane and functional. Unfortunately, our culture often promotes these unhealthy behaviors, with songs that are so popular people sing along without really hearing the lyrics.

For example, when Percy Sledge recorded the popular "When a Man Loves a Woman," I wonder how many people actually considered the words he was singing. Here are just a few of the things he refers to:

Can't keep his mind on "nothing else," can't see it, if she's bad, would spend his last dime, would turn his back on his best friend, and would sleep out in the rain.

What about "Every Breath You Take" by The Police? The refrain actually says, "I'll be watching you" — every move, every word, every night because, after all, "you belong to me." That's not what healthy, reciprocal love sounds like to me.

Thus, we understand that limerence can refer to an obsessive relationship in which one will behave in ways that might be harmful to him or herself for love's sake (in Sledge's case) or observe and analyze the limerent relentlessly and unwelcomely (much like stalking) as with The Police's protagonist.

Here's some advice to consider if you think you might be under the influence of limerence:

Remember that the strength of your obsessive feelings does not relate to how deeply in love you are. It simply relates to the strength of your limerence.

If you have a pattern of falling in love with the fantasy of a person rather than the reality, you're probably suffering from this state of mind.
  1. Keep an honest journal of all of your relationship events — including the disappointing and painful ones, which will give you something with which to challenge your fantasies.
  2. If the majority of your friends and family see red flags in your partner that you don't, it could be a sign that what you think is love is actually limerence.
  3. Make an objective list of the qualities of a partner who would always be able to support you, even when you don't give him/her what he/she wants, and holds strength in living his/her own life. Do not include feelings. Do not try to make your list match the personality of someone you want to be in a relationship with. Make the list independently of other influences. Then, when you meet new potential partners, you can check your list to see if this person actually has the qualities you know you need in a partner.
  4. If your feelings of unrequited love are affecting your daily life and normal functioning, consider speaking with a counselor.
Dorothy Tennov once said, "Limerence is a distinct state that creates that 'feeling of being in love' — that state which Hollywood loves to portray as 'love' ... but limerence is really as far from the genuine article as a zircon is from a true diamond."

A zircon love affair is doomed to break your heart. You are worthy of a diamond.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

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 Signs You're An Emotionally Intelligent Person

Linda: Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence (also known as “EQ”) is the King of all intelligence, reflecting the strength of our connection to other people, in public or in private, at work or in love. This kind of intelligence helps us to deal with “difficult people” successfully, to use humor appropriately (even to laugh at ourselves), and to respond in a compassionate and skilled way to people when they’re upset.

The root of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, sometimes called mindfulness, which takes us deep beneath the surface of our identities as “doers” and the roles we play. When Socrates advised “know thyself,” he didn’t mean it in terms of what we do for a living, either, or how we want others to see us. To know thyself includes being aware of your core longings and values, as well as your wounds and the ways you protect yourself.

To know yourself also means to acknowledge that in some ways you don’t know yourself — there is always more to discover. True self-knowledge involves embracing everything about ourselves, even those parts we avoid or don’t understand.

Wonder how your EQ rates? Well, you can start by checking out the following five signs of great emotional intelligence skills, and do your own self-assessment as to how well you score. Keep in mind, of course, that you can build on your skills. As human beings, each of us has the innate ability to become savvy in our EQ.

1. You have the ability to self-regulate.
“I just had to say it.”
“I sent that e-mail before I thought about it.”

Each of these statements reveals someone whose emotions rule their behavior and actions, often with disastrous outcomes. By contrast, people with a high EQ register their feelings as information and make an informed decision about how to act in a way that’s productive.

Ultimately, all of our emotions are useful. Each feeling is like one of the strings of a musical instrument: each gives us a unique vibration and provides us valuable information about ourselves. It’s how we interpret the emotion, and then how we choose to act, that determines whether we’re going to create havoc or enhance our lives.

2. You respond rather than react.
Sometimes, we blame our rash reactions to people or situations by saying we just “needed” to express ourselves. But the truth is that we don’t need to react out of raw feeling. When we give ourselves time to explore the feeling, we realize that the feeling has a job to inform us about what’s up.

The skill that grows through the practice of any form of mindfulness is the ability to witness our internal process before we do anything about it. Then we can respond with a mixture of feeling and logic. To take the time simply to observe the emotion as it arises decreases the sense of urgency to act.

Strong positive and negative emotions may cause us to express ourselves inappropriately if we’re overwhelmed by them. When emotions run strong, it’s hard to know what’s really going on until the body has settled. That’s why meditation and deep breathing are helpful. They give us space and time to settle, and then to decide how to express what it is we feel.

3. You know your triggers.
Each of us has particular triggers that set off certain emotions. Some of these triggers ricochet back to an earlier stress or trauma. To know your triggers is a critically useful piece of awareness to have, just as it’s essential to know how you typically react once one of your triggers is pulled.

None of us likes to be told what to do, but my inner teenager really can’t stand it when I’m in the kitchen. Give me a suggestion when I’m cooking (which for most people usually is a 1 or 2 on the irritation scale of 10), and it can feel off the charts to me. My first instinct is to retort with an ungracious remark like “Why don’t you take over and make it yourself?”
But this kind of defensive, temperamental reaction is never helpful.

But because I’ve come to see that I tend to behave like a diva in the kitchen, I’m usually prepared to make a counter-instinctive move: I take a deep breath and observe myself with compassion and amusement. Nowadays, I may even be able to give a suggestion serious consideration. After all, it’s my trigger that’s the problem here, not the tip to add more mustard to the salad dressing.

4. You really listen.
To hear the spoken word with our auditory system is a passive, mechanical process. To listen, however, is an active process, one in which we engage with another person, which requires us to interpret and read the nonverbal cues that accompany what they say and what we hear.

There’s no room in this encounter for you, the listener, to dismiss, to argue, or to assume that you already know where things are headed as a person tells you their story.

5. You are a good communicator.
Although many books on communication skills emphasize the importance of directly expressing our emotions, there’s a lot more to being a smart communicator than simply saying what we feel as we are feeling it.

The ability to give and receive tenderness and to express and respond to upset feelings are skills that require time, patience, and the discernment to know what is and isn’t appropriate in terms of how much to share.Good communicators know that to talk about what’s going on inside us is a prerequisite, but this inner examination needs to be done with patience and practice.

The commitment is well worth the effort, though. The improvement in our relations with other people everywhere in our lives can be tremendous. An advance in your EQ can indeed change your life.

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.

4 Surprising Truths About Keeping Love Alive

All relationships go through hard seasons. Especially if you and your partner have been together a long time, you have probably felt the cyclical nature of these “seasons”: there have been some storms, hard chills and times of foggy uncertainty, along with times of sun and cool breezes.

Linda on Love
There's no doubt that it's easy to get caught up in worrying about how long the hard seasons will last, and when the more blissful times will return. But rather than panic, become defensive or start to think about leaving, it can help to remember there four truths about our connections with people we love:

1. Relationships are an inside job.
All change begins within you and is maintained by 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.

Too often, we
blame issues in our relationships on our partners. But the truth is that the change begins with you and you alone. You can always change the way you react to what the other person says and does, even if your partner doesn’t do anything differently. That is where the dynamic shift begins.

During tough conversations, I have said to myself
If I were a loving person, what would I do now? which helps me respond mindfully and intentionally, rather than react defensively.

2. Communication isn’t an issue when things are going well.
I've been a couples therapist for more than 30 years, so I've worked with
a lot of couples. One of the most common things I hear from couples during their first session is the following complaint: “We don’t communicate well.” You may have even said this yourself.

When I hear this complaint, I realize that I'm sitting with two people who are doing a great job of articulating how they’re not articulate. When things are going well in a relationship (or even going along as usual), communication is never the problem. Of course, things get a little more complicated when we’re under stress, or feel angry, sad or afraid.

When we are in the midst of a tough situation with our partner, we tend to react in one of three ways: we fight, freeze, or flee. In one of these reactive modes, we will of course look very different to our partner than when we’re breezing along, relaxed and open. That's why we need to be mindful of our triggers, and notice when they are being set off. From there, we can set an intention to slow down, and
respond to a conflict rather than react.

3. Most troubles in relationship happen because of fear — the fear of lost connection.
I sat in my office with Jeff and Cindy on the verge of a breakup. It wasn’t the complaints about each other that startled me. It was the moment that Cindy put her head in her hands and sobbed, “I’m losing my best friend.” Suddenly it became clear: the depth of her agony arose from the
threat she felt her grievances posed to their existence as a couple.

We’re wired in our brains and hearts to be connected with others.
Numerous studies show that touching, hugging, and being a part of loving relationships help us to live longer, healthier, and happier lives. 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 to keeping our relationship strong under duress 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. We need to practice these behaviors often enough to amass the goodwill to cover those times when the relationship is “overdrawn.”

We can be angry, hurt, outraged. It doesn’t mean we cut off connection. It doesn’t mean we fail to see the merit of our partner’s main strengths. Although it may feel like the last thing we want to do, if we keep the bridge open between us, we’ll find the way forward in the most difficult times.

4. Just about any two people can get along, if they really want to.
I’ve sat with people that were similar in most ways with very few complaints between them, and yet they didn’t have the willingness to reach out to one another in ways that would’ve deepened their love and connection and they parted.

I’ve sat with people who couldn’t be more different, who were recovering from the biggest messes you could imagine: multiple betrayals, misunderstandings, years of hurt and anger. Yet they felt a compelling connection and commitment to one another, which they didn’t want to lose. Diligently they adopted new rules and practices to regain connection. They managed to forgive each other and to do the inner work to stop whatever behavior had caused the trouble.

If two people are willing to do the work, make the changes, and learn the skills, they can have a relationship better than anything they ever imagined.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

5 Signs You're An Emotionally Intelligent Person

Linda Carroll EQ

Emotional intelligence (also known as “EQ”) is the Queen of all intelligence, reflecting the strength of our connection to other people, in public or in private, at work or in love. This kind of intelligence helps us to deal with “difficult people” successfully, to use humor appropriately (even to laugh at ourselves), and to respond in a compassionate and skilled way to people when they’re upset.

The root of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, sometimes called mindfulness, which takes us deep beneath the surface of our identities as “doers” and the roles we play. When Socrates advised “know thyself,” he didn’t mean it in terms of what we do for a living, either, or how we want others to see us. To know thyself includes being aware of your core longings and values, as well as your wounds and the ways you protect yourself.

To know yourself also means to acknowledge that in some ways you don’t know yourself — there is always more to discover. True self-knowledge involves embracing everything about ourselves, even those parts we avoid or don't understand.

Wonder how your EQ rates? Well, you can start by checking out the following five signs of great emotional intelligence skills, and do your own self-assessment as to how well you score. Keep in mind, of course, that you can build on your skills. As human beings, each of us has the innate ability to become savvy in our EQ.

1. You have the ability to self-regulate.
“I just had to say it.”
“I sent that e-mail before I thought about it.”

Each of these statements reveals someone whose emotions rule their behavior and actions, often with disastrous outcomes. By contrast, people with a high EQ register their feelings as information and make an informed decision about how to act in a way that’s productive.

Ultimately, all of our emotions are useful. Each feeling is like one of the strings of a musical instrument: each gives us a unique vibration, and provides us valuable information about ourselves. It’s how we interpret the emotion, and then how we choose to act, that determines whether we’re going to create havoc or enhance our lives.

2. You respond rather than react.
Sometimes, we blame our rash reactions to people or situations by saying we just “needed” to express ourselves. But the truth is that we don’t need to react out of raw feeling. When we give ourselves time to explore the feeling, we realize that the feeling has a job to inform us about what's up.

The skill that grows through the practice of any form of mindfulness is the ability to witness our internal process before we do anything about it. Then we can respond with a mixture of feeling and logic. To take the time simply to observe the emotion as it arises decreases the sense of urgency to act.

Strong positive and negative emotions may cause us to express ourselves inappropriately if we’re overwhelmed by them. When emotions run strong, it’s hard to know what’s really going on until the body has settled. That’s why meditation and deep breathing are helpful. They give us space and time to settle, and then to decide how to express what it is we feel.

3. You know your triggers.
Each of us has particular triggers that set off certain emotions. Some of these triggers ricochet back to an earlier stress or trauma. To know your triggers is a critically useful piece of awareness to have, just as it’s essential to know how you typically react once one of your triggers is pulled.

None of us likes to be told what to do, but my inner teenager really can’t stand it when I’m in the kitchen. Give me a suggestion when I’m cooking (which for most people usually is a 1 or 2 on the irritation scale of 10), and it can feel off the charts to me. My first instinct is to retort with an ungracious remark like “Why don’t you take over and make it yourself?” But this kind of defensive, temperamental reaction is never helpful.

But because I’ve come to see that I tend to behave like a diva in the kitchen, I’m usually prepared to make a counter-instinctive move: I take a deep breath and observe myself with compassion and amusement. Nowadays, I may even be able to give a suggestion serious consideration. After all, it’s my trigger that’s the problem here, not the tip to add more mustard to the salad dressing.

4. You really listen.
To hear the spoken word with our auditory system is a passive, mechanical process. To listen, however, is an active process, one in which we engage with another person, which requires us to interpret and read the nonverbal cues that accompany what they say and what we hear.
There’s no room in this encounter for you, the listener, to dismiss, to argue, or to assume that you already know where things are headed as a person tells you their story.

5. You are a good communicator.
Although many books on communication skills emphasize the importance of directly expressing our emotions, there’s a lot more to being a smart communicator than simply saying what we feel as we are feeling it.

The ability to give and receive tenderness and to express and respond to upset feelings are skills that require time, patience, and the discernment to know what is and isn’t appropriate in terms of how much to share.Good communicators know that to talk about what’s going on inside us is a prerequisite, but this inner examination needs to be done with patience and practice.

The commitment is well worth the effort, though. The improvement in our relations with other people everywhere in our lives can be tremendous. An advance in your EQ can indeed change your life.

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.
linda carroll phyllis pilgrim

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.

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.

Guest Blog:
Susan Grace Beekman

In this week’s blog, I am pleased to share the wonderful insights of Susan Grace Beekman. Susan is a Master Coach and Instructor for Dr. Martha Beck, a Certified Facilitator of The Work of Byron Katie, and a certified Spiritual Director skilled in contemplative listening and spiritual mentoring.

The Big Question: What if Mom was Right?

Around the time I got kicked out of Sunday School for asking too many questions, I decided I’d have to answer them for myself by trying out other brands than the Southern Baptist variety.

linda carroll susan grace beekman
During my early teen years of searching and angst, desperately trying to find even a partial answer to my mental confusion, I turned to my mother. Why are we here? What’s the point? I asked.

She looked at me with such sympathy and kindness. “Maybe you ask too many questions,” she said. “I just accept things, and I’m pretty happy.”

My friends said essentially the same thing as my turmoil turned to depression. I kept looking, convinced I’d find a more satisfying answer, that other people must know something that I didn’t. Seek and ye shall find. The words bubbled up from somewhere.

So I became a seeker. My senior year, desperate, I picked up The Religions of Man, by Huston Smith. I had found my manual.

Philosophy classes followed in college, featuring Existential Ennui 101. Then came a life-long fascination with the concepts and practices of world faiths, which offered snapshots of the truth and stories to back them up. Eventually these same questions led to more and more study of archetypes and mythology and contemplative practices. I learned to meditate and crossed paths with Vipassana, or mindfulness. I began to hear a few subtle answers at last, as I listened, and the Search was still on.

No matter what showed up on the mystical path, what I continued to notice is that the mind just kept cooking up new questions that could not be meditated away. Or medicated, for that matter. (I had already given that a good try in my twenties)

Thirty years of seeking later, I fell in love with inquiry when I discovered that some of the thoughts that present themselves simply want to be understood…not in the mind, but in the heart.

Now my business
required asking questions of my clients. So much for my mother’s advice! I became deeply committed to this process, sometimes called the Great Undoing. During the past decade, I’ve questioned the thoughts of hundreds of people, if not thousands. Almost without fail, I’ve witnessed the radical freedom that comes as the old personal religions are questioned one by one. I also continue to notice for myself how much suffering is relieved when I stop believing those stale old refrains.

And what I’ve noticed is that new refrains still come all day long, like piped Muzak in the brain. The idea of bringing each of them up for inquiry can be (just perhaps) a bit overwhelming.

Which led to a new question. The big question. The scary question.

What if my mother was right?

What if I DO ask too many questions? The more questions I’ve asked, the more I’ve come to see that there is a mind below the mind that is just fine. All the muzak of random thoughts firing away can drown it out, but at a deep level, there’s an internal Knowing that is deep and true and beyond questions because it is at the root of being. And it would be asking one too many questions to inquire into the reality of that voice.

This essay originally appeared on Susan’s website, Oasis Life Design.

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.

Guest Blog:
Building Relationship Skills

In this week’s blog, I am pleased to present the insights of Linda Bloom, LCSW, and Charlie Bloom, LCSW. Married since 1972, they have lectured and taught at learning institutes across the United States and have offered consultations and seminars throughout the world.
Myth: “Having had a happy childhood is a prerequisite to having a great relationship as an adult.”

The best predictor of the future is not necessarily the past.
Linda on Building Relationships
If this myth were true, most of us would be doomed to relationship hell. Fortunately, it’s not, and we’re not. It turns out that it is possible, even for people who have lived in difficult, abusive, even horrible circumstances to create loving and healthy relationships. Many of the couples we know who are living deeply fulfilling lives grew up in situations that were far from ideal and some were downright wretched. We also know people who grew up in families in which there was an abundance of happiness, love and security who have terrible track records regarding their relationships. This is not to say that it is not preferable and advantageous to have grown up in a happy family, but simply to underscore that it is not an essential factor in creating a successful relationship as an adult. So, you might ask, what then are the critical factors that determine the likelihood of relationship success? We’ll get to that in a minute.

While there is no way to accurately assess the percentage or number of people who came from unhealthy families, it’s reasonably safe to state that a lot of us didn’t get a great start in life and grew up under less than ideal circumstances that included various forms of addiction, abuse, and neglect. While there is no doubt that such circumstances pose significant obstacles that impede physical, emotional and intellectual development, they are by no means insurmountable, given the right kind of support, resources and motivation in adulthood. This is not to infer that overcoming such hardships is by any means a simple thing or can be easily corrected, but rather to challenge or at least question the widely held belief that anyone who has grown up in a “dysfunctional” family cannot hope to create a healthy adult relationship.

One of the things that does characterize the experience of many of those who have grown up in neglectful or abusive families is the likelihood that they have internalized a belief that they are not worthy of being treated with respect or love. Children tend to take things personally and assume that they are deserving of whatever treatment they receive, good or bad. This of course adds an extra burden to anyone who has had to deal with this phenomenon. While there is no doubt that such an added difficulty is no easy matter, there is a difference between something being difficult and being impossible.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to have positive esteem mirrored back to us from loving adults were likely to come into adulthood feeling secure in ourselves and safe in the world. We probably felt valued, wanted, cherished, honored, and loved. Still, high self-esteem is no guarantee of a successful relationship just as low self-esteem is no guarantee of an unsuccessful relationship.

building relationships
Most of us fall in between the extremes of abysmal and ideal, yet the factors that seem to be most relevant to the question of the creation of successful adult relationships appear to have more to do with our capacity to learn, become more emotionally mature, detach from unhealthy patterns, and our commitment to heal the places in our inner lives that are in need of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. This includes our “shadow” aspects that everyone possesses; those qualities that we deem to be unacceptable to ourselves or others that we hold as shameful and try to conceal. The degree to which we can accept, integrate and come to terms with our shadow, is one of the most significant things that we can do to enhance our chances of creating truly successful relationships.

On the other end of the spectrum are those of us who came from families where we may not have felt wanted or valued, where things seemed chaotic or unpredictable, and we felt insecure much of the time. We may have felt that we were in the way, ignored, overly controlled, or that we were trouble. As children, we couldn’t change these conditions, so we were left feeling powerless, unworthy, and unlovable.

Most of us fall in the middle of the spectrum, so we know both extremes from our early lives and feel a mix of worth and worthlessness, unlovability and lovability. While psychotherapy is the treatment of choice for many of those of us who are suffering from low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, or addictive patterns, there are other means available through which we can heal past wounds that have left us feeling broken or incomplete, one of them being that of a committed partnership.

Committed partnerships provide us with the means through which we can expose the unhealed or unloved parts of ourselves to someone who has the capacity and desire to accept that within us that we had deemed to be unacceptable and bless us with their embrace of those aspects of ourselves. Such a relationship is not necessarily a substitute for therapy, but it can provide us with the kind of experience that affects our sense of value as a person.

Being related to with acceptance and respect can heal the places in our self-image that have been wounded and help restore us to a sense of wholeness where we may have previously felt broken. As we come more fully into integrity with our true nature, our capacity to give and receive love increases and deepens. Loving partnerships tend to diminish fear and anxiety and promote a sense of peace and security. These relationships, due to their very nature, expose whatever within us has been intentionally or unconsciously concealed or denied, thus providing us with opportunities to bring acceptance and self-compassion to ourselves and by extension, to others.

Linda on Couples
Marriage itself isn’t inherently healing. We don’t automatically experience happiness when we engage in a committed partnership. The shared decision to use the relationship as a means of promoting mutual well-being for both partners is the primary variable that determines whether we create a great or a not-so-great partnership.

Not only is it possible to have a great relationship even after growing up in difficult circumstances, but the pain of our past experience can actually become the motivation that drives our commitment to do the work that is necessary to create the kind of fulfillment that we were denied as a child.
The past does not have to dictate what the future will be. It is only one factor, and not necessarily the most significant one that influences future possibilities. We can recover, heal and grow beyond the limitations of our past experiences but only if we trust that this is possible. The saying that the person who believes that something is possible and the person who believes that something is not possible are both correct. There is great power in our beliefs and they can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are not careful. If we are convinced that we are handicapped by our past then we will act in accordance with that belief and ultimately get to be right. If on the other hand we refuse to accept the notion that our future is determined by our past, and do the work necessary to heal and recover from our wounds and disappointments, we will not only free ourselves from the limits of old beliefs, but we will be well on our way to creating a life beyond what we previously could have even imagined. We can come from serious dysfunction, addiction, abuse, psychosis, etc. and still create a golden relationship. It’s all in the commitment.

This essay originally appeared in PsychCentral.

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.

4 Essential Truths About Keeping Love Alive

linda carroll

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

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.

4 Beliefs To Keep In Mind For A Happier, Healthier & More Authentic Life

The great anthropologist and spiritual teacher Angeles Arrien (1940—2014) was known for teaching people to “walk the mystical path with practical feet,” to lead “regular” daily lives while also navigating a spiritual journey.

love cycles linda carroll
As a foundation for this teaching, Arrien designed “The Four-Fold Way,” an educational program made up of four principles that integrate “ancient cultural wisdom into contemporary life.”

I find Arrien's simple formula a code
to live a happier, healthier and more authentic life in many ways. To me, the principles reflect most wisdom traditions in the world. Here is my own take on the four principles, and some tips on how we can integrate them into our lives.

1. Show up with presence.
Deep down, most of us understand what exactly we need to do in our lives to be the best humans we can be. Of course, this knowledge is useful only when we take theory into practice, and follow through with commitment and with action. To show up in our lives, in other words, is every person's spiritual practice.

Showing up is about action, whether we are inspired to or not. It can be about doing your best at getting your kids off to school happily, taking your morning walk, making a healthy meal, writing in your journal each morning, or performing any daily ritual even when you’re feeling bored, uninspired, even defeated.

Many religions set aside specific times for people to focus on a specific spiritual practice. Muslims bow in prayer five times a day. The Balinese Hindus offer baskets filled with flowers and rice to their deities every morning, afternoon and evening, and the Benedictine nuns sing daily Gregorian chants. So establish a schedule for your own practice. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to make you happy. But it must be one that you will meet, one that’s both realistic and compelling enough to get you to show up and stay grounded.

2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning.
To become spiritually literate, pay attention to what’s in front of your eyes at each moment. If you dwell on your past (yearning, regretting, and fantasizing about what could’ve been), you automatically diminish the potency of the right now.

love cycles
Here's an example to illustrate this belief, conveniently related to spiritual practice: When Lily's sons were four and seven years old, she went on a spiritual retreat in order to recommit to her meditation practice. When she returned home, she set up an altar in the corner of her bedroom and announced to the boys that she would be spending thirty minutes each day in her room meditating. During that time, they would need to be very quiet.

The day she began, they stood quietly outside her room. But soon after, she could hear the boys: pounding one another, yelling and then bursting into tears. In exasperation she jumped up, opened the door, and screamed at them, “You two better stop it right now. I mean stop it, damn it.”

Her sons’ faces fell at the sight of their enraged mother, and Lily was struck by the absurdity of this scene. Her practice was hurting all three of them. What her true practice should be, she realized, was
to use every event in the day as an opportunity for kindness and patience to emerge. Nowhere was this more important than with her children.

3. Tell the truth, but do so without blame or judgment.
Certainly there is truth in the cliché that “honesty is the best policy.” But truthfulness can also be a weapon. We must learn to tell the truth kindly and carefully, to give everyone involved the best chance of being heard.

The ninth step of the well-known 12-step Program advises us to “make direct amends to people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” If we view honesty in the same way, we can learn to speak without blame, and others will be more inclined to hear the truth in what we say.

To refrain from blame doesn’t mean that we deny the pain or difficulty caused by someone else’s actions. Here’s an example of nonjudgmental honesty: “I asked you not to share what I told you about my health condition with others. The fact that you did has upset me.” Now here’s a similar statement that judges and blames: “You’re a terrible friend with a big mouth who can’t be trusted with anything.”

4. Open yourself up to the outcome.
In other words,
don't attach yourself to particular expectations, especially in high-stakes experiences or situations. Take Jake, for example. Jake is dating a woman that he really likes and wants to impress. He’d like to have a relationship with her. Once he becomes attached to this outcome, however, he will do whatever he can to make it happen: he may monitor what he tells this woman about himself, and try to influence her view of him by not being authentic. His desire for her to like him is fine. His trying to force it into being by misrepresenting himself, however, could lead to disappointment, even disaster.

Sure, most of us do have preferences about what we’d like to see happen in our lives. And that's not only normal, but healthy. So when isn't it healthy? Well, if we let these desires determine how we act, we can become inauthentic and try to manipulate people and situations (even unconsciously) to get what we want.

Arrien reminds us that the outcome of practicing “the Four-Fold Way” is the same outcome of most forms of spiritual seeking. She says, “The heart and the essence of all spiritual seeking is the reclamation of the authentic self.” Who knew that cultivating the simple (but difficult) practice of being your true self is the most spiritual practice there is?

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

12 Truths About Defensive Behavior

“My partner is too defensive” is a common complaint I hear as a couples therapist.

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.

14 Quotes to Restore Your Faith in Love

In the process of writing my recent book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, I collected the most profound, compelling and even surprising quotes about love that I could find, and thought a lot about how they corresponded to different stages of relationships. For Valentine's Day, I'd like to share my current favorite 14 with you (along with brief explanations of the various relationship stages).

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.”

“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.

. “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

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.

Harvesting Happiness: Love is in the Air

We’re pleased to present Linda’s interview last week on “Harvesting Happiness” talk radio. The show is hosted by Lisa Cypers Kamen, a psychologist, coach, and motivational speaker specializing in the field of happiness.

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
Click below to listen now:

Or click
HERE to download the interview directly.

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.

How To Deal With The Chronic Whiners In Your Life

Linda Carroll Love Cycles relationships
There's a story about a Native American tribe whose women sit in a circle in the evening and tell each other what happened to them during the day. When one of these women is full of woe, the group gives her three circle times to unburden herself and express her misery and unhappiness. The other women listen, they commiserate, and then they respond with all the wisdom they can muster to offer sympathetic support. If the same unhappy woman tells the same tale a fourth night, however, she receives a very different reception. Without a word, the others get up from where they sit. They create a new circle, and they leave her alone.

Everyone knows what to expect: three shots at whining, and then it's over. Most of us don't have such a ritual in our culture, unfortunately, but we need to find one, or we may hear ourselves whining about the whiners.

Reasons To Whine
To complain is a way to express our feelings of powerlessness. It could even be seen as big anger emerging in the form of a small voice. This happens most of all when we don't know how to change a situation or how to comfort ourselves. For some people, to complain is self-soothing — they feel a sense of catharsis after ridding themselves of negative feelings.

To complain also has value as a means to connect with other people; we all know the idiom “misery loves company.” Some families nitpick and find fault with each other constantly. Their criticisms are the glue that binds as they unload their frustration or fury with the raging parent, the bullying brother, the self-centered sister. When there's no ability to change the situation, to moan and eye roll offers some relief.
Complaining and whining can develop into relationship habits.

Another motive for complaining is avoidance: to sidestep the actual feeling of grief over a loss, or to avoid making a scary decision, say, to leave a relationship or a job.

So it’s not without a purpose, but can easily become a habit long after the purpose has been fulfilled and make the moaner and everyone around them miserable.

How To Deal With Complainers
We're all familiar with the useless ways to respond to another person's complaints: offer solutions, suggest that things aren't as bad as they seem, or contest their point of view. In fact, the harder we try to fix an issue, the more the unhappy person will respond with reasons why our ideas won't work.

The following steps may not solve anyone's problems. But you will be able to duck out on the seemingly endless torrent of negativity from someone with the need to complain. Like the Native American women, you may offer to listen to the complaints three times, and then move on…

1. Validate.
Acknowledge the situation and
the person's feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. Say something like, “I can see why you feel so upset, and I get that you don't feel you can do anything to change it.”

It's important to reassure the person that they're not crazy to feel the way they do. Often people who are caught up in whining actually are trapped in isolation. However tiresome or annoying it is to hear their constant complaints, they do feel miserable. Letting them know simply that you hear what they're saying helps break their sense of isolation.

2. Question.
At this point you can ask them what they see as options, and what they want to happen. There's a small chance this kind of question may help them out.

In any event, you need to begin to distance yourself to avoid being victimized.

3. Set limits.
You've listened and you've affirmed the validity of their outlook.
Now it's time to set your own limits.

Remember, a person whines because they haven't found a way to change their situation. If you get caught in the same trap, you'll soon be doing the same thing. They whine about their situation, while you whine about them whining.

Stop the vicious cycle by telling the truth. Simply, without judgment — but with firmness — say something like, “I know you're hurting, and I'm sad to see you this way. I also know that I can no longer listen. It won't be good for me.”

Then you must firmly exit the conversation by saying something like, “I know you feel sad, and I can't help you, so I'm not going to talk with you about this problem any longer. I'm happy to help you find someone who may be able to help you more than I could: a counselor, perhaps, a minister, a therapist. Would you like me to help you find someone, or are you able to do it yourself?”

For your own health and sanity, stay with this exit strategy, and repeat the process as often as necessary to leave this conversation behind.

When we're around a chronic complainer, we can feel like the victims of an energy-vampire, which drains us so that we end up feeling as powerless as they do. Or we can feel like their negative energy is actually entering us. Remember, however: no one can make us feel this way unless we allow them to.

As you look for a way to protect yourself, you may even inadvertently ease the troubles of your complainer, so that they may find their way out of their obsessiveness. Whatever they decide to do next, however, you'll no longer be caught in their web.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.

3 Dangerous Myths About Infidelity

love cycles affairs

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

The first person I ever knew who had her own guru in India was a woman named Shakti. She wore brilliant-colored, filmy clothes, exotic bracelets and amulets of carved snakes and jaguars. She spoke frequently about harmony, manifestation and unconditional love. 

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. 

love cycles
By contrast, there were other people I admired, who had been practicing a spiritual way of life for a long time. They didn't act pious or superior, and they didn't romanticize how they lived either. They were modest about both their mystical experiences and their daily practice. They smiled easily, expressed sorrow, admitted to moments of anger and judgment, and were the first to laugh at their own human foibles. 

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

Linda Carroll Love Cycles
After years of thinking that both the best and worst aspects of my relationships had to do with the other person, I finally realized that love is an inside job. The trouble we experience in relationships emerges from conflicts we actively cause, and the issues we simply tolerate (which often backfire — with resentment, frustration and so on). 

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. 

1. Choice 

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. 

2. Commitment 

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 challengingthat 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. 

3. Celebration

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

reviving romance
Falling in love with someone is effortless: that's why it is called falling. It is based on feelings that seem to “just happen.” We are programed for the process of “falling.” Though the hormones, which are a part of the “love potion,” have a short shelf life.

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 know the feeling, we all do…You're angry, frustrated and/or upset with your partner. But rather than acknowledge it and communicate whatever the issue is to your partner, you rely on certain habits because you know them. But you also know the habits don't get you anywhere. And often times, you don't even know exactly how to identify when you're slipping back into bad-habit mode. Here are three common habits to avoid in your relationship:

1. Defensiveness
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.

2. Flip-Flopping
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.”

3. Blaming
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

Many of us believe that the success of the relationship is determined by what our partner says and does. This is not true: your happiness and fulfillment begins (and ends) all within you.

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.

3. Betrayal

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.

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