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Monthly Archives: March 2017

5 Tips for Feeling More Secure in Your Relationship

A common issue in couples’ therapy is one person assuming their partner needs too much while the other person feels insecure in the relationship. Let me introduce you to Breanna and Raymond, just such a couple.

Breanna and Raymond came in for therapybecause Breanna was depressed. She saw no hope for the future of the marriagebecause Raymond was always either working or playing golf. During the first session, she described what precipitated her calling for an appointment. She had accidentally locked herself out of the house and called Raymond at work, hoping he would come home and let her in.

Raymond told her that he had an important meeting to attend. In a rather irritable voice, he advised her to call a locksmith. Breanna felt betrayed by Raymond’s refusal to help her and stunned to learn how low she ranked on his list of priorities.

In discussing this incident in the therapy session, Breanna focused on how Raymond had expressed no understanding or empathy for how she felt that day.

She could understand it was impractical for him to rush to her rescue, but couldn’t he at least have offered some moralsupport? Raymond, on the other hand, saw this situation as an example of how she relied too much on him. As the session progressed, he listed other evidence of Breanna’s “overdependence”: every Saturday morning as he prepared to play golf, she would ask if they could do something together later in the day—perhaps go out to dinner.

Raymond then described how controlled he felt by his wife’s “dependency.” It seemed to him that she was trying to force him to give up his one day of relaxation. If only she had more friends or activities to keep her busy, he reasoned, he wouldn’t have to feel guilty about wanting some time on his own.

Raymond’s interpretation surprised Breanna. She said, “He’d drive me crazy if he was home all day on Saturday. There’s no way I’d ask him to give up golf.” I learned that Breanna had plenty of friends and activities to fill her time. She was involved in leading a charitable organization and was considering starting her own business. Breanna’s schedule was not the issue.

Although the situation presented by this couple was more complicated than I can condense in a blog post, this is the main point: Breanna’s desire to spend some time with Raymond was not a sign of neediness or dependency, even though Raymond had come to interpret it in this light; Breanna simply enjoyed her husband’s company. Rather than taking this as a compliment, Raymond told himself that if he didn’t keep up his guard, he’d be engulfed by his wife’s needs. In effect, he filtered and perhaps distorted many of Breanna’s requests through his belief that she was dependent and needy.

In the sessions that followed, I helped Raymond recognize the ways in which he contributed to the problem: The more he avoided making a commitment to spend time together, the more she pursued and pressured him. When he eventually made spending time with Breanna a priority, Raymond enjoyed his time alone more. He felt less guilty, and his life was more in balance. Similarly, he also enjoyed his time with Breanna more, because it felt like a choice, rather than an obligation.

So what can you learn from this?

1. Don’t make assumptions about your partner’s motivations or behaviors. You could be way off the mark.

2. Make time to talk about any issues as they arise, and don’t let them fester into a bigger problem.

3. Healthy couples enjoy time together, as well as individual activities and alone time.

4. Remember that a little communication and affection can go a long way. In the example above, Breanna wasn’t really asking for that much. She just wanted to know that Raymond cared about her.

5. If you find yourself in a pattern of miscommunication over many months, consider seekingcouples’ therapy. Here’s how it can work for you.

4 Ways Bad Marriages Are Worse for Kids Than Divorce

When I was a kid, divorced parents were given the evil eye. Heads shook, tongues clicked; divorcees were home wreckers, selfish and unloving, they destroyed children’s lives. Churches banned them from services (even God wasn’t a fan). The message to married couples: Keep your family intact by any means necessary.

Today, with nearly half of all marriages in the U.S. ending in divorce, times have changed. Whether divorce hurts or helps children depends on how it is handled by their parents. One thing is certain: staying in a toxic marriage is certain to cause more damage to children than good.

Living in a Combat Zone

Kids forced to endure loveless marriages and tolerate emotional tension day after day, bear the full brunt of their parent’s dysfunctional relationship. They intuitively feel their parents’ unhappiness, sense their coldness and lack of intimacy. In many cases, children blame themselves, feeling their parents’ combative relationship is somehow their fault. In such cases, staying together “for the kids” is a cruel joke.

Here are four ways kids suffer through gloomy and despondent marriages:

1. Chronic Tension

Parents’ relationship leaves an emotional imprint that never fades. A natural part of children’s development is internalizing both their parents. When parents are consistently at odds, their kids internalize their conflicts. Rather than feeling soothed or comforted when they are with both parents, they feel tense around them. Such ongoing tension can produce serious emotional, social, and physical ailments in children such as depression, hopelessness or chronic fatigue.

2. An Unstable Sense of Self

As James Dean cried out to his bickering parents in the movie Rebel Without a Cause,“Stop it! You’re tearing me apart!” the war between parents takes root inside children’s minds. The strain eats away at their security and leaves them with little internal peace, putting them at odds with their own impulses. For example, they long to be loved but reject closeness; they yearn for friends but choose isolation; they will have great intellectual or creative abilities yet sabotage their own efforts. The external conflict between their parents eventually becomes an internal battle with themselves that complicates their life and hinders their emotional development.

3. Fear of Intimacy

Children raised by battling parents have great difficulty getting close to others. Intimacy triggers the traumas they suffered when witnessing their parents’ dysfunction, so they avoid closeness to steer clear of getting hurt. If they manage to establish an intimate relationship, they remain cautious or guarded. When conflict arises, they’re most likely to flee or reenact their parents’ conflicts with their own partner.

4. Mood Problems

Warring parents produce children who struggle with serious mood problems, such as dysthymia. These problems, left untreated, may fuel personality disorders or substance abuse. At the root of their problems is a profound lack of hope. They learned at an early age to abandon optimism and expect the worst. Sadly, bad marriages cause kids to mature too quickly and lose out on their childhood.

Before You Consider Divorce

Ending a marriage is a brutal undertaking. Divorce should only be an option after all efforts to save a relationship have been exhausted. So before you call your lawyer, here are a few suggestions:

Couples Counseling

Couples counseling works best when it teaches parents how to work through their conflicts without resorting to emotional warfare (see “Hate Me in a More Loving Way: A Couples Guide to Better Arguing”). It also gives ill-tempered parents a place to work through their differences rather than expose their kids to them. The goal of couple’s therapy is to enrich communication and enhance intimacy. But be warned, couples therapy can be treacherous. The wrong therapist can spell doom for your marriage. Gather trustworthy recommendations, take your time, and interview several therapists. Make sure you both agree on the therapist you choose, otherwise the therapy will become just another bone of contention.

Individual therapy

Nothing stirs up unresolved childhood issues like marriage. Too often, couples have unrealistic expectations of marriage, and become disillusioned when they discover that good marriages take work. So before you blame all the problems in your marriage on your partner, get some help for yourself.  A skilled therapist can help you identify problems that stem from your past that are resurfacing in your relationship.

Support Groups

The best outcome of group work comes from sharing your feelings and discovering that you’re not alone.  Hearing about other couples’ struggles, the difficulties they face, and how they work through them, can bring much-needed inspiration and relief. It also provides you with a community of people who can inspire you with new choices in your marriage.

Zoe’s Story

Zoe, a shaggy-haired thirteen-year-old with sad eyes, glares at me, arms folded, and jaw set; a therapy hostage if I ever saw one. Parents exert their executive power when it comes to therapy, so I don’t expect Zoe to cooperate, especially during our first tumultuous session. To kids like Zoe, therapy is an insult.

Zoe, however, offers me a deal: “I’ll be in therapy with you only if you promise one thing. I want you to convince my parents to get divorced.”

I was flabbergasted by her request, but it opened my eyes to something I had never considered: the positive side of divorce

Zoe suffered on-going humiliation in public, in school, and in front of her friends due to her parent’s combative relationship. The verbal abuse she witnessed her mother suffer at the hands of her father never let up.  As a result, Zoe struggled with ongoing headaches, depression, and weight problems.

After meeting with Zoe’s parents and witnessing their sneering contempt for each other, I understood Zoe’s request.  If I could barely stand them for thirty minutes, what must it be like to live with them?

Within a year after her parent’s divorce, her depression lifted; she went from failing school to being on the honor role. She also had her first boyfriend and became socially outgoing. In fact, I was amazed at how much better life became for everyone.

Bad Marriage or Healthy Divorce?

Divorce, like marriage, is something that you should never enter into recklessly. Depending on how a divorce is handled, it can lead to positive or negative outcomes. While separating can reduce tension and conflict in children’s lives, a hostile divorce that drags on for years damages kids even more. Working on your relationship is key to a positive outcome for your kid, whether you stay together or not. You may no longer be husband and wife, but you are parents forever.

Has Your Intimate Relationship Become a Pit Stop?

When a couple comes in to see me for therapy, I often start our first session by asking each of them the following question: “Where are you currently the most alive, the most self-respecting, the most interesting, and the most involved in your life?”

If they are newly in love, the answer is most likely to be when they are together. Sadly, when they have been together for a longer period of time, they are more likely to innocently confess that they feel that way more often outside of their intimate relationship.

Somewhere between the honeymoon stage and the commitment to a long-term partnership, many couples stop being spontaneously intrigued by one another and begin to search outside their relationship for more excitement and discovery.

Some choose infidelity and risk the security of their primary partnership. Just as many others stay sexually faithful but still look outside the relationship to other interests. When one person does this at the expense of the other, that left-behind partner may end up becoming a pit stop for the other.

There are two definitions of a pit stop. The first, better known to most, is the place where racing cars pause for fuel and service in the midst of an auto racing competition. Those pit stops are essential in-and-out sanctuaries that every race-car driver knows can make the difference between winning or losing.

But the broader definition of a pit stop is any brief interruption in a person’s preferred journey where he or she can get basic needs refreshed in order to move on to what is more important. In an intimate relationship, one partner is living an existence outside of the relationship that is richer and more compelling, while the other has become a glorified refueling station.

How Do Pit Stops Develop?

Discovery is the core element that keeps people spontaneously interested in the early stages of a new relationship. New lovers can’t get enough of one another’s taste, smell, thoughts, behaviors, cultures, social connections, family issues, religious and social beliefs, time, energy, and attention. They often put many of their other priorities on the back burner just to keep feeling what they are. There are so many delicious experiences and so much to learn that the partners seem marvelously content just focusing primarily on one another.

As those same partners commit to a long-term relationship, they are more likely to opt for predictability and security over new risks and challenges. Those once-enamored lovers may have become good friends, but do they truly and urgently seek one another out again for new experiences? They can so easily lose the edge that once supported the mystery and curiosity that made their relationship so exciting.

What is likely to happen to an intimate relationship when intimate partners know each other so well that discovery is essentially over? What happens to a lover’s psyche when predictability overshadows the mystery and challenge of the unknown?

The absence of newness, whether intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, or physically, too easily becomes the same-old, same-old harbinger of boredom. No other feeling is as likely to entice a partner to search for those all-too-human desires elsewhere.

Too often, when people have been together for a while, they also stop sharing the experiences they’ve had outside the relationship. When they reconnect, they are more likely to share only limited expressions of logistical requirements or things that are more newsworthy.

What once was a mecca for interesting exchanges and mutual rehabilitation has slowly become a place to just minimally check in, regenerate, and prepare for the more demanding and intriguing challenges outside of the relationship. If one partner is doing that and the other is not, a pit stop has begun.

Those once-enamored lovers may have become good friends, but do they truly and urgently seek one another out again for new experiences?

Why Don’t Intimate Partners See This Coming?

This process can develop so slowly that many couples don’t realize that it is even happening. They have been led to believe that a stable, secure, predictable relationship is a healthy one. But situations are never static, even if they appear so on the surface. Every living system, relationship, or process is always either growing or decaying. Like continuing flowering plants that grow new blooms as the old fall away, they must be connected to deeper roots that can either nurture them into greater growth or diminish their nourishment over time.

That truth applies to politics, families, business, physical health, and love relationships as well. The partners in a stagnant relationship who do not challenge one another into continuing growth and discovery will eventually find themselves bored and apathetic to each other’s deeper needs. As their investment in the relationship lessens, so will their ultimate payoff decrease.

How Can You Tell If You’re Becoming a Pit Stop For Your Partner?

Use this guide to answer the following ten questions.

1 = Never

2 = Occasionally

3 = More often than not

4 = Most of the time

5 = Almost all of the time

  1. When your partner comes home, does he or she try to find you right away? ____
  2. Do you believe your partner looks forward to seeing you after you’ve been away from each other? ____
  3. When you come into the room, does your partner immediately acknowledge your presence? ____
  4. Does your partner tell you that you are important, valuable, and desirable to him or her? ____
  5. Do you feel appreciated for the things you do for your partner? ____
  6. Does your partner anticipate your needs and provide support for them? ____
  7. When you need something, does your partner make those needs a priority? ____
  8. Does your partner seem to enjoy his or her time with you? ____
  9. Does your partner tell you that he or she misses you when you’re not together? ____
  10. Does your partner look forward to doing things with you? ____

Now add up your scores:

41-50: You are still deeply appreciated for who you are and what you have to offer. Your partner looks forward to coming home and staying there.

31-40: You are recognized as an important contributor to your partner’s desires andhappiness. You are a high priority.

21-30: Your presence in the relationship is starting to be taken for granted. You too often feel unimportant and last on the list.

11-20: You are in danger of being used as a launching pad as your partner takes off.

1-10: You have clearly become a pit-stop, a place where your partner just refuels in order to live his or her greater aliveness elsewhere.

Once you understand how important or unimportant you feel in your relationship, it is crucial to let your partner know that you need to rebalance your relationship. Tell him or her that, though you may have contributed to the current situation, you now need to distribute your relationship resources in a more fair and equitable way.

A partner who hasn’t realized that he or she has begun taking advantage will want to re-commit to more exciting adventures together. Sadly, those who like the advantages of a home sanctuary combined with the freedom to seek greater interests outside, are less likely to be receptive to changing the status. In either case, you will at least know where you stand and where your relationship is heading.

Tips to Build a Rewarding Romantic Relationship

Reinforcement in Romantic Relationships

Experimental tests of both reward and punishment in romantic relationships have a fairly long history. For example, in 1975, research by Birchler, Weiss, and Vincent explored such interactions between married couples. The group compared the behaviors of couples who were having problems, to happily married individuals and strangers, in both lab experiments and at home. After observing how the couples related, the researchers found significantly less reward among distressed married couples. In other words, unhappy couples did not reward the appropriate and loving behaviors of their spouses. In contrast, happy couples responded and reinforced loving behaviors in a spouse by agreeing, approving, laughing, smiling, or providing some positive physical contact.

Furthermore, distressed couples also punished more. They were quick to criticize, complain, interrupt, disagree, and turn away from their spouse. Overall, by not rewarding loving behaviors and overly punishing their spouses, distressed couples actually created an unhappy marriage.

Similar results were found by Lochman and Allen (1979) in an experiment with datingcouples. The researchers asked 80 dating couples to take part in a role playing experiment. While being explained their various roles, one of the participants of each couple was randomly and secretly asked to be more approving or disapproving of their partner. Therefore, during the role plays, some participants acted in ways that showed their approval, while others were disapproving of their partner. Then, the partner who received the positive or negative treatment was interviewed.

Not surprisingly, partners who received more approval and less disapproval were more satisfied. They also acted more lovingly back to their partner too! Therefore, being rewarding appears to help in dating relationships as well.

Putting these points together, a more recent article by Dermer (2006) carefully articulated the use of reinforcement in motivating loving behavior. Throughout the analysis, Dermer illustrated that reinforcement serves two primarily important functions in building loving behaviors.

  • First, proper rewards conveys that a behavior is attended to, understood, and responded to in a satisfying way by a partner.
  • Second, selective use of rewards also increases the frequency of loving behaviors that are performed.

Taken together, these points indicate that rewarding a partner when they are positive, caring, and loving can motivate them to be more passionate and attracted to you. By this method, loving interactions and relationships are actually “built” one rewarding exchange at a time.

Four Tips for Building a Rewarding Relationship

Given the above research, it appears that rewarding a date or mate is indeed important for relationship satisfaction. In the long run, rewarding relationships thrive, while punishing or neglectful relationships wither and end. Fortunately, there are a few ways that you can keep your relationship rewarding…

Gratitude: One of the most important thing both partners can do for one another is to remember to be grateful for each other. Being grateful for a partner’s positive efforts motivates reciprocity and reward in return. In addition, such gestures can make the relationship feel more sacred and committed. Overall then, when your partner does something nice and loving, share your gratitude. When you do something nice and loving, look for gratitude in return as well.

Attention: Partners behave in all kinds of ways to get each other’s attention. When loving gestures are ignored, they may resort to less-positive methods of getting noticed. Therefore, when your partner is being nice and thoughtful, spend a few minutes at least talking to them.Build some rapport and connection. Share some positive conversation. Look for some attention and conversation in return too.

Touch: One of the most fundamental things that distinguishes romantic relationships is the level of affectionate and intimate touch. For many people, that relationship may be their only source of such affection. Therefore, touching your date or mate affectionately can increase attraction and be very rewarding. Touch is also quite persuasive too. Therefore, when your partner is already being loving—or you would like them to be more so—remember to reward them with some affectionate physical contact too.

Forgiveness: On the flip side, as the research above also notes, rewarding relationships are low on punishment (or non-existent). Holding a grudge derails all of the gratitude, conversation, and affection. Therefore, it is important to learn when and how to let your partner make amends for their mistakes—and, if they do, then reward them with forgiveness too. Finding positive ways to resolve arguments and constructive ways to address annoying habits are important as well.

Overall though, it is important to remember that ANY behavior that is rewarded will become more frequent—even bad ones. Therefore, do not be overly “nice” and reward all the time. Nevertheless, be sure to reward your partner in the ways above when their behaviors are positive, affectionate, and they have earned it. Also, in a rewarding relationship, look to be treated the same way yourself. With such reciprocal reward, gratitude, attention, affection, and forgiveness will continue to flourish too.