Showing your “True Colors”

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I’ve been blogging for around 3 years now, and in addition to writing I try to follow a number of blogs.

One of the blogs I follow regularly is another relationship blog, written by a guy who went through a divorce a number of years back.  His divorce broke him; so he started writing about all the things he did both consciously and unconsciously that ultimately led to the breakdown of his marriage and his divorce.

It’s refreshing, and self-aware.  Like myself, the guy who writes it seems to believe most relationships can be improved by looking inward at the things you are doing as a person, and BEING BETTER.  And a big part of being better is gaining an awareness of what often goes wrong and trying to better understand and accept the other person.

Anyhow, his blog seems pretty successful, and has a really active community in the comments section.  Great group of people by and large, but like any “family” it sure has its own dysfunctions.  And a few months back the comments section broke down.

A new reader came along with a very different set of beliefs compared to most readers.  Beliefs that were frequently offensive and hurtful to others.  These comments started to disturb what had been a pretty happy/healthy commenting community, and many (myself included actually) became upset that this one commenter was, for a lack of a better term, poisoning the comments.

Some asked for this commenter to be banned, or at least something to be done.  But nothing was, and things became worse for a while.

Eventually, when multiple requests to do something to improve the comments section were ignored, one readers suggested that by not doing anything the author of the blog was “showing his true colors.”

Communication can be difficult and frustrating at times; so I can’t say exactly what was meant by that.  But my interpretation of that assertion was, in writing his blog the author talked about things like equality and improving relationships between men and women.  However by allowing dysfunction in the comments section he was showing inconsistency with this.  So perhaps the reality was, he really didn’t care.

This post really has nothing to do with the issue with the comments section story.  Similar to how my last post opened up with a story about renewing a mortgage, and then went on to actually be about how people can place differing values on the same thing; that’s just a backdrop to a larger idea (or at least that’s my intent).  And that’s the idea that in life, there are always nuances.  And things are rarely as straightforward as they may seem.

 

Patterns of Behavior 

I like to think I am a good person.  I have a strong moral compass, and I try to live my life with integrity.  Truly, I try to do “the right thing”, whatever that is.  And I would *like* to think I’m a fairly empathetic person, who does his best to think through the consequences of his actions before he does them.

But you know what?  Sometimes I hurt people.  And sometimes it’s a lot.  In fact, even for the people I care about the most, I PROMISE I will hurt them.

I hurt people in different ways too.  Sometimes by something I do, and sometimes by something I don’t do.  Sometimes I do things that get interpreted in ways I never meant.

Does that make me a bad person?

 

If I do 50 “good” things and 5 “bad” ones, do those bad ones show “the truth” about me?  Do they show that I’m actually a bad person?  That my “good” actions were just a show?

Yeah, I’ll acknowledge there are differing degrees of what good and bad are.  So yes, I suppose it’s possible that one bad action (particularly in the case of extreme behaviors, which again is subjective) can completely undo the good.  But by and large, I say no.

 

In statistical analysis, there is the concept of outliers.  Outliers are values that “stand out from other values in a set of data”, because they are aberrations in some way.

We are all going to have good days and bad days.  We are all going to do things that hurt others sometimes.

What REALLY matters is not each discrete individual action.  A bad action is a bad action.  A bad choice is a bad choice.

What matters is the PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR, and it is these patterns that speak to a person’s true character.  How you consistently act is a much more accurate measure of who you are than any specific action.

 

All or Nothing Thinking 

Cognitive distortions are broken thinking patterns that are often found in mental illnesses and mood disorders.  They are commonly found in anxiety disorders and depression, and are also believed to be part of why it’s so hard to break the cycle of anxiety and depression – these thinking patterns reinforce negative thoughts and emotions, “feeding” the issue (as an aside, one of the most effective ways to deal with/manage depression and anxiety is cognitive behavior therapy, which is intended to rewire the brain to correct these thinking patterns).

There are a number of different cognitive disorders found in anxiety and depression, and perhaps the most damaging is Splitting, or All or Nothing Thinking.

 

All or Nothing Thinking is kind of self-explanatory.  It is a form of thinking where we look at things in extremes, or as black and white.  You are a success, or a failure.  Someone loves you, or they hate you.  Something is perfect, or it is broken.

To be clear, we ALL fall into this sort of thinking once in a while (so when I reference the “comments” situation at the top I am in NO way suggesting anyone there is mentally ill).  But although we all do this sometimes, this type of thinking becomes a HUGE problem when it becomes a common or default form of thinking, or a pattern of behavior.

 

A while back I talked about the primal brain, and how the primal brain overrides reason and logic.  Well one of the big issues with all or nothing thinking is that it’s rooted in emotions, and normally extreme emotions.  It’s part of the automatic fight or flight response that you generally see with depression and anxiety.

 

Impacts on Relationships

Hopefully it’s clear that an automatic form of thinking, which overrides rationality and is rooted in extreme emotions is unhealthy.  But just in case it’s not, here’s a common way it impacts relationships:

In the early days of relationships, we all have a tendency to idealize our partners.  We see them as we want to see them (not as they actually are), and are often blind to their flaws.

This is normal, and science has shown that in the early days of love, brain chemicals are actually altered, contributing to this.

Eventually though (generally between 6 months and 2 years), this altered chemical state goes back to normal and we are able to see the person more clearly.  Normally we see a few rough edges, but are still able to accept the other person for who they are.

With all or nothing thinking however, these “flaws” often become proof that “something is wrong with the relationship”.  And if something is wrong, then this person is not “the one”.

 

All or nothing thinking has a perfectionist view of relationships; where there is a belief that if you can just find the right person, everything will be perfect and you will be happy forever.

But no one is perfect, and not being perfect doesn’t mean someone is a failure.  A relationship isn’t good or bad, rather it will have good and bad elements.

 

Popular dating site eharmony even talks about this thinking pattern and what it can mean to relationships:

Rather than seeing people as having both positives and negatives, overly critical people hold their romantic partners to an unrealistic expectation of having no faults whatsoever. Sadly, this type of “all-or-nothing” behavior can repeat over and over in one relationship after another until a person realizes that they themselves are the problem.

 

Basically, all or nothing thinking does a lot of damage to relationship.

 

And in addition to doing damage, it also makes is so people fall into a sense of hopelessness and a belief that things can never get better.

I’ve talked about loss of hope before and how destructive it is to improving a relationship.  With all or nothing thinking, the mere existence of problems shows that the relationship is flawed.  And if it can’t be perfect, what’s the point?

It makes it hard to see or appreciate incremental improvements, as the relationship is all or nothing.

 

 Seeing Shades of Grey

All or nothing thinking puts tremendous strain on relationships.  And unfortunately, people who suffer from it usually don’t even realize that their way of thinking is unusual and damaging.  It’s a thinking pattern, so for them, that’s their reality – or just who they are.

A question to ask yourself is, do you often think in terms of extremes?  Do you get caught up in thinking that things have to be perfect, and if they aren’t they are ruined?  Do you give up on things easily because you “know” you can’t do them, or you feel they are impossible?  Do you think in terms of “always”, or “never”, “terrible” or “awful”?

If those sorts of thoughts are common, you may deal with all or nothing thinking.  And it may be doing a lot of harm to your relationships, and your personal life in general.

 

Life isn’t all or nothing.

You can love some parts of your life and not others, and still have an amazing life.

You can be terrible at something, but still be able to improve it.

Your partner can love you, but still be a bit of a jerk sometimes.

 

And nothing in life can ever get better, until you can accept that it doesn’t have to be perfect.

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Love and Connection

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In my last post I talked about connection, and how connection requires you to be able to be in the moment.

Increasingly I think connection is what we are all looking for.  In family, in friendships, and especially in romantic relationships, connection is the key that binds us together.  Brene Brown describes connection as:

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Connection is intangible; but at the same time you know when it’s there and you know when it’s missing.  We all want connection, and because humans are social animals I think it’s just as much of a need as food and shelter.

Intimacy (closeness) and love, these are all about connection.

 

Learning about Love

Growing up, we are taught the wrong things about love.  I realize I’m stereotyping here (so feel free to ignore this if you disagree), but little girls seem to be taught that love is all about passion and romance – flowers, kisses and hearts that pound at the sight of the other person.  And many women seem to internalize this, and come to believe that’s what love is.  Intensity.  Passion.

In fact, I recently saw a blog post talking about how the author wants her love to be like a hurricane.  Passionate, and furious.

And I get that in a way.

But hurricane’s tend to not last very long.  They burn out quickly, and leave a lot of damage in their wake.

 

Boys?  I’m not sure if we are really taught anything about love.  We see the same stories about love that the girls see, but we are never really taught that love should be a goal, or something to strive for the way girls are (it’s pretty common to see little girls dressing up as a bride for Halloween – but how often do you see a little boy dressing up as a groom).

For us love seems to start as more of a physical/hormonal response, as we’re often oblivious to girls until one day we realize “damn, she’s pretty hot”.  Maybe because of this, for many of us it seems we come to associate sex with love.

I think this is why you hear that women need to feel connection in order to have sex, while men need to be having sex in order to feel connected.  And this fundamental difference in how we think (due to how we have been taught) is the source of a ton of problems.

 

In any case, I think we both learn the wrong things.  We are learning about the early phases of love, and thinking that’s what love actually is.

At its core though, I think we’re all really looking for connection.

We all want to find someone we feel connected to.  We feel safe with, we feel we can be ourselves, and they will hear us, and respect us, and value us.  And we’ll want to do the same for them.  Connection is what is truly important.

 

The Problem with Connection

As much as we really strive for connection however, many people are afraid of it.

Because real connection requires vulnerability, it requires letting someone else in.

And that can be scary as hell.

 

Many of us, and perhaps most of us, struggle with letting other people in.

True connection requires allowing someone else to see all of you – the good sides and our darker sides, the parts of us that we hide from other.  And it requires allowing that other person to love us anyways.

Allowing.

My wording here is very deliberate.

As people, we often sabotage ourselves because we are afraid.

Afraid of rejection.  Afraid that we aren’t enough.  We don’t accept ourselves, and love ourselves enough.  And if we can’t even love ourselves, then how is someone else ever going to love us?

So we hold back, and we build walls.  We try to only ever let the other person see the parts of us that we want them to see.  We build these walls subconsciously with the intent of protecting ourselves from being hurt.

In doing so, we don’t allow that other person the opportunity to truly know us.  We don’t give them the chance to accept us for all of us, good and bad.

We’re scared they won’t, so we don’t give them the opportunity.

And in the process we ensure that we will never have the connection that we truly crave.

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Emotional Disconnection

We all limit how close we let people get to us.  We all have things that we hide from both ourselves and others.

In fact I’m not sure if it’s even possible to let the other person in 100%, as doing so would require a level of self-awareness that most of will never achieve.

But for emotionally healthy relationships, we have to be in a situation where both parties are able to let the other person in and feel safe doing so.

Emotional disconnection happens when people won’t let others in.  They will have healthy relationships on the surface, but will hide their feelings and not allow someone to get too close.

Sometimes this happens due to upbringing and a person’s attachment style, but it can also be brought about due to problems with depression or anxiety.

Both depression and anxiety can cause anhedonia, a state where a person feels as though they have no emotions, positive or negative.  For sufferers of anhedonia there is an absence of emotion and they often feel dead inside.  Sufferers do still feel some emotions, but they are primarily negative emotions or a pervasive sense of sadness.  Positive emotions are not felt very strongly, and they find it hard to feel happiness.

During these dead or flat periods, external relationships frequently suffer, as connection breaks down.

Calmclinic.com describes this as follows:

Emotional detachment is usually an issue caused by severe, intense anxiety – most notably panic attacks, although any form of severe anxiety can cause emotional detachment.

While it’s not entirely clear what causes this detachment, it most likely is a coping mechanism for the brain. Severe emotions are not only mentally stressful – they’re also physically stressful, and your brain actually experiences very real stress and pressure that can be somewhat overwhelming.

So your brain may shut off or turn down those emotions, because dealing with no strong emotions at all may be easier for your brain to handle than intense emotions.

Also, don’t forget that your emotions really do change your brain chemistry. Sometimes those changes stick around for a while. Your anxiety may have caused your brain to produce less “positive emotion” neurotransmitters, which in turn causes you to experience emotional distance.

 

Allowing Love and Connection

We all need connection.  Without it, couples aren’t a “we” and instead are just two people occupying the same space.  Without connection, you aren’t able to truly share life, and experiences.

Connection however requires you to accept your emotions (good and bad), share them, and be vulnerable.  It doesn’t happen unless you allow it, and allow the other person in.

Without that there is no intimacy, and only a hollow, dispassionate version of love.

vulnerability

People are scared to be vulnerable because they are scared to be hurt.  Scared to be rejected.  And so they hold back – both consciously and subconsciously.

But all holding back does is limit your ability to connect with another person.

It’s true, people can’t hurt you if you don’t let them.  And allowing yourself to be vulnerable means you will be hurt sometimes, by those you love.

That’s part of life though, and you need to be willing to accept it as part of the tradeoff.

 

Given a choice between being vulnerable and allowing myself to be hurt, or walling myself off from potential hurt and instead feeling nothing, I know what I pick.  And really, it’s an easy choice.

Because without connection, you can’t really have love.

What Does it Mean When “The Love is Gone”?

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Love.

Love is a powerful emotion/feeling, and it can drive us to do incredible (and at times terrible) things.

When people think of “love”, the first thing they think of is usually passion or romance.  Well, sex too – but that’s usually a byproduct of passion.  Either way, it’s often perceived as an intense emotional response.  Butterflies in the stomach, and an overwhelming desire to be with that other person.

Science has shown this “romance” stage of love is just that, a stage.  It has a neurochemical basis, and usually only lasts for more than six months to two years.

When we are younger we often mistake the loss of intense feeling for the loss of love, and use that as an excuse/reason to jump to another “new” relationship where everything is exciting and fresh again.  But eventually most people realize even after the intense feeling has dissipated, strong feelings can remain.  And these new feelings can be even stronger in some ways, because they are a choice and not just a hormonal response.

When we realize this, and still CHOOSE love?  Well, that’s when we have a love that can potentially last.

The thing is, even when we are choosing love and have accepted the feelings aren’t as intense, we still expect there to be feelings.

Love is still love, right?  So shouldn’t we feel something?

We can continue to choose love, but what do we do if the feeling is gone – and there is no sign that it will ever return?

Looking at this another way, if there is only choice but no feeling, do we still have love?

What do we do when we are not in love?

 

What if a Loss of Love is Not About Love?

Personally, I don’t understand “not in love”.  To me love has always been both an emotion and a choice, and this combination allows me to actively love.  To try to show love through my actions, maybe not everyday, but as often as I can.  By showing love, and practicing love I know I won’t allow love to die.

It’s not always that simple though.

In a fantastic article on depression in relationships, John Folk-Williams talks about the impacts depression can have on the ability to “feel” love.  He writes about psychiatrist Peter Kramer, who believes loss of feeling is often a sign of deeper issues:

Kramer often works with clients who are dissatisfied with their relationships. They want to know if leaving is the best thing to do.

When he encounters someone who is convinced that the marriage is dead, he says that he always suspects depression or another mood disorder.

 

Mental Illness and Relationships

Here are two statistics for you:

  • 50% of marriages fail.
  • 25% of people will directly suffer from a mental illness.

 

At first glance these two statistics appear unrelated.  But I wonder, what would the numbers be if you could look at the marriage statistics for people with a mental illness vs. those without?

I’m not sure, but I suspect the failure rates of marriage for those with a mental illness are considerably higher than the norm; simply because they introduce additional pressures and stresses on the relationship.

Mental illness already has a lot of stigma associated with it, and this is by no means an attempt to pile anything further on it.  Rather, this is an attempt to help share some understanding for people who may be having doubts and challenges in their relationships that maybe, just maybe its not the relationship that’s at fault here.

I realize saying “don’t worry, maybe it’s not your relationship – maybe you’re actually dealing with a mental illness” isn’t exactly going to make anyone feel better.  But it is a possibility; and for those who ARE dealing with a mental illness it may be beneficial to understand that your condition may affect your ability to feel love in ways you may not have considered.

 

Impacts of Anxiety and Depression on Love

The two most common mental illnesses are Depression and Anxiety disorders; and I’ve written in the past about how anxiety disorders can damage feelings of love (for a different account on anxiety’s impacts on love check the article Daniel Smith wrote for CNN, titled Can anxiety kill your ability to love?).

The Folk-Williams article above talks about a symptom of depression called Anhedonia (although anhedonia is thought of primarily as a symptom of depression it is also found in anxiety).

A common misconception about depression is that it’s characterized be people feeling down, sad, or hopeless (for extended periods of time).  This definitely happens, but anhedonia is another characteristic of depression where sufferers often lose interest in things that they used to enjoy – activities, hobbies, spending time with friends, and even sex.

Anhedonia is a state of emotional deadness, where instead of feeling down or sad someone feels nothing.  Anhedonia can cause someone to feel as though the love is dead, or they have fallen out of love.

To those who have never experienced it this seems bizarre, but If you do a simple web search for “anhedonia and love” it’s a bit frightening to see how common this seems to be.

 

An Account of Anhedonia

Folk-Williams describes his own experiences with Anhedonia, and how it can destroy relationships as follows:

there is another dimension of depression that can lead to the idea of escape as the answer.

It’s the one that causes depressed partners to say they’re no longer in love and have never loved their partners. It’s called anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure or interest in anything.

For me, it was a kind of deadness. Rather than an excess of painful emotion, it was the lack of pain, the lack of feeling, that was the undercurrent of all the surface turmoil. I felt no satisfaction in life.

I believed that the relationship was holding me back, that it had become hollow, empty of the intensity I longed for. I was sure that I could only find happiness and passion with someone else. It was the fantasy of the perfectly passionate mate that was a constant lure.

And later he writes:

Anhedonia is the cause of the desire to leave to find a new, more intense life. The depressed partner’s relationship feels loveless because he can hardly feel at all.

The problem is that the unaware depressive has such a high threshold of feeling that it takes extreme arousal to evoke excitement and passion. He can erupt with anger and rage because these are more violent emotions that stir him as little else does.

Kramer says that these clients often believe that they’re perfectly capable of feeling. After all, they can go out and have fun with friends. They can feel passionate with others who likely have no constraining relationships or might be seeking the same kind of escape.

But they feel good precisely because these experiences offer exceptionally high levels of stimulation. They may also turn to addictive habits like recreational drugs, drinking, gambling or pornography for the same reason.

Fantasies of escaping into a life full of new intensity seem like the perfect answer to their inner emptiness.

 

The Loss of Feeling

When someone needs intensely high levels of stimulation just to feel, it’s somewhat understandable that people will be willing to engage in risky and destructive behaviors.

One of the things Folk-Williams alludes to (but doesn’t address directly) is that this lack of feeling makes actual intimacy almost impossible.  So the type of attachment characteristic of close relationships breaks down, and sufferers often can find no arousal or attachment in their partners.  Everything becomes detached and clinical.  They know they “should” feel something, and they know they once did.  But they don’t, and they can’t change that.

However they can still feel the intense emotions of “new love”, so things like affairs are increasingly likely just as a way to feel.  As is sex in casual relationships or one night stands.  Those things can be felt physically, even though there is still usually little or no emotional connection.  As noted above, people may turn to substance abuse as a way of “coping” with this lack of feeling inside.

When anhedonia isn’t understood, it becomes easy to blame external things.  A sufferer is unhappy because of their job, or their weight, or their relationship.

Happiness and hope is replaced by the lure of fantasy.  A belief that things will be better IF they can only find the right thing.  If they can get the right job, get the right body, or find the right partner.

Spoiler alert here – it doesn’t work.  Finding the perfect partner is fantasy, not reality.  They don’t exist, and the people who try often end up destroying a lot of the things in their lives that are “good” in the pursuit of this fantasy.

 

Mourning Love

I write about relationships, and I write about love.  To me love is a powerful and beautiful thing, and the loss of it is always difficult.

Often love is lost and relationships fail because of little things.  We take each other for granted, we focus on the bad instead of the good, we are hurt and we refuse to let go.  All these little things often add up to growing resentment and the breakdown of love.

And when that happens, it’s tragic.

None of that however compares to the loss of love not because love is actually gone, but because someone has lost the capacity to feel it.

THAT seems incomprehensibly cruel.

Especially when the sufferer doesn’t realize what is happening, and instead of seeing it as the symptom of a problem they interpret the loss of love as the problem itself.

 

I don’t know what anhedonia feels like, and I hope I never do.  From descriptions of it and from reading others accounts of it, it seems like a terrible soul destroying thing.

But like many other aspects of mental illness, it’s something that’s not understood, and not discussed.  And I believe many, many relationships and families are needlessly lost as a result.

So if you have thought “I don’t love you anymore” or heard those words said to you, please stop to consider that maybe there’s something else going on.  Especially if you can’t understand or explain why the feeling is gone.

 

To gain a better understanding of  the struggles sufferers face daily check out the following video:

No one wants to talk about or acknowledge mental illness.  And people definitely don’t want to be labelled as having one.  But when it directly affects 25% of the population, it’s at least something to consider.

When you can’t understand something, you can’t address it.  And things can never improve.  So understanding why feelings of love may be gone can be the first step in the road to rebuilding it.