Why Counselling Fails

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Picture this scenario:

There’s a couple, who love each other; but one day they realize they are having problems.  Or maybe they aren’t even having problems, and instead they find themselves thinking that maybe there should be more to life.

Whatever is going on starts to put stress on their relationship, and they are starting to question if they really want this relationship any more.  Or maybe they know they still want the relationships, but not as it currently is.  They want to see some sort of changes that they believe will improve the relationship.

So, either because they think it may help or because other people are suggesting it is a good idea, they decide to see the help of a couples counselor.

 

The problem is, counselling often doesn’t work.

 

I don’t have any real hard numbers here, but from what I’ve seen only around 10% of couples show any sort of improvements in their relationship after seeing a counselor.  And for people who choose to see a counselor, around 50% of the relationships end up failing.

That 50% number is right in line with overall divorce rates, so really, what’s the point.  If seeing a counselor doesn’t really improve the success rate of relationships, it looks like it’s just a waste of time and money.

 

Why?

 

Is counselling nothing more than a waste of time and effort?  Or can it actually help relationships?

I happen to believe counselling CAN be very valuable – both individually and as a couple.  But you need to be doing it for the right reasons, and you need to go in with the right mindset.

 

 

Prevention or Cure?

The first big problem with counselling is, couples often go to a counselor WAY too late.  In fact, many counselors feel that a couple has gone to see them a year or two later than they probably should have.

In many ways this is understandable.  Our personal issues are, well, personal.  Communication is hard at the best of times, which probably the biggest reason that couples get into trouble in the first place.  Yet couples who are struggling with some sort of issues are supposed to now go to see some third party (with their partner) and talk to them about the exact issues they find it hard to talk to their partner about?

Ummm, yeah.  Not fun, or easy.  So it’s easy to see why people often opt to instead do nothing, and hope that this is something that will pass, or something they can just live with.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Ignoring things doesn’t work, and will never make things better

As the saying goes:

prevention

Yet most couples see counselling a last resort, so what may have been fairly manageable issues tend to grow and become magnified.  Resentment often sets in, and by the time people are willing to accept that it’s a big enough problem that they need to do something, there is a lot of damage that needs to be undone before any true improvements can be made.

 

Problem?  What Problem?

Another big problem with counseling is, in order for it to be effective BOTH people must want it, and see a need for it.  Unfortunately relationship issues often don’t work that way.

Commonly one person is actually pretty happy (or at least content) with the things that are a problem for the other person.  This can make it very difficult to see any real improvements, because the person who wants to see changes needs to get buy-in from someone who doesn’t see a need for any changes.

 

An important thing to remember is, a relationship involves two people and both peoples needs/wants have to matter.  If one person believes there is a problem (lets just call it an opportunity for improvement) – then guess what, there’s a problem.  The other person who doesn’t really see this as an issue can’t just convince their partner it’s not an issue, or wish it away.  Whether they like it or not, if their partner believes there is an issue then there’s a legitimate issue.

In fact, one of the WORST things they can do is try to convince their partner it’s not an issue.  By doing that, they are invalidating their partners’ feelings and beliefs (hopefully unintentionally).  And doing that will only serve to widen any gaps between a couple.

 

 

What is your Goal?

The last (and largest) problem I see with counselling is the reason people go.

See, we have this (broken) notion that unconditional love means you are being accepted “as you are”.  And being accepted for who you are means you shouldn’t have to change.

But if a couple is talking about going to counselling, generally there is a reason.  Something is not working, or could be working better.

And how is that supposed to happen without change?

I’m pretty sure a couple doesn’t expect to go to a counselor, describe their issues, and then have the counselor say something like “Sounds great, keep doing what you’ve been doing”.  That won’t address anything.  That won’t allow anything to improve.

No, couples go to counseling usually because one person is pushing them there, and on at least some level the person pushing for counseling is expecting the counselor to side with them.

They are expecting to go in and tell their story, and have the counselor “fix” their partner for them.  They want the counselor to tell their partner to change their behavior in ways that better accommodate them, and their needs.

 

And that is where I think counselling really starts to fall apart; because that’s not what it’s for.

 

To me, counseling is not about determining who’s right or wrong.  It’s not about having one person change their behavior to accommodate the other person.

It’s really about trying to understand the conflicts facing a couple, the gaps between their needs and wants, and trying to find a path forward works best for BOTH people.

And that will almost never involve change on only one side.

 

For counseling to be successful, I think both people need to be willing to face some potentially uncomfortable truths about themselves, and their roles in the problems their relationship faces.  Yeah, one person may be “more to blame” than the other, but that doesn’t really matter.  If you are looking for who’s to blame, you’re already in trouble.

What’s really more important – for things to be better, or for you to be right?  People often say they want things to be better (for both people), but really they usually want to be right.  Because accepting that they have contributed to the problems means they have to change too.

It’s easy to see how and why our partners should change to accommodate us, but looking at our own part in things?  That’s hard.  It means we may have to change some things too, and no one wants to change – because change is scary as hell.

 

 

Maintaining Relationships

If we buy a car, we understand we need to do periodic maintenance or it will break down (seriously, just try driving your car and never changing the oil.  I promise it won’t be fun).  If we buy a house we understand there is yard maintenance that needs to be done and general repair.

Hell, we understand that doing something like taking a bath or a shower on a regular basis is fairly important to personal hygiene.

Everything wears out, gets dirty or breaks down over time if you don’t maintain it.  But our relationships?  In theory they should be one of the most important things in our lives – yet most of us do a TERRIBLE job of even maintaining them (never mind growing them).

 

Counselling is often seen as a last resort for couples who are searching for how to “save” their relationship, or make it better.  And often even when we do go, it’s more about how we can make the relationship better for us than it is about how to make life better as a couple.

 

So what is your goal?  Do you truly want to grow old with your partner?  If so, wouldn’t it maybe be a good idea to try and make your relationship the best it can be – for both of you?

If so, putting in effort and working on your relationship a little be every day may go a long way towards keeping it strong.  Trying to truly listen to your partner, and acknowledge when problems exist (even when it doesn’t seem like a problem for you) and show willingness to work on them may also help.

Sometimes it’s hard to work through things together.  Sometimes we do need a bit of help – and that shouldn’t be something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of.

Divorce rates continue to hover around 50%.  And success rates for couples who seek counselling are also believed to be around 50%.

But if you could quantify the success rates for couples who are able to put ego aside and really focus on doing what’s best for “us” instead of what’s best for “me”, I’m confident the numbers would be considerably higher.

Happiness is Overrated

asian young Couple not talking after  fight  in living roomThere seems to be a huge focus on happiness these days, specifically in relationships.

I’m at an age now where a lot of long term relationships/marriages are failing, or people are starting new relationships (after their marriage has failed).  And in these failed relationships, unhappiness is almost always cited as the main reason.

I hear things like:

  • I just want to be happy
  • Everyone deserves to be happy
  • Lifes too short to not be happy
  • I’m happy now (in the new relationship)

This focus on happiness worries me a bit, and in fact I think happiness is kind of a dangerous and even subversive concept.  And although I understand what people are getting at, I think they’re often missing the point.

Of course people “want to be happy”.  Really, does anyone actually go around and claim the opposite?  Unless you’re Grumpy from the seven dwarves, I don’t think anyone really wants to be unhappy (though I will admit there are some people who almost seem to thrive off negativity).

Yes, there are different emotions and generally the positive emotions are seen as preferable experiences to negative emotions (which is probably why some are classified as positive and others as negative).

I totally get all that.

Here’s my problem – what exactly is happiness?

Do you know?  Because I sure don’t; and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about this stuff.  I do however know that happiness is more than just a feeling.  Further no one is always happy, and even when someone IS happy, they aren’t going to be happy in every aspect of their life.

Happiness is not like a light switch that is “on” or “off”.  You can be happy at home, but not in your job.  Or happy when you get a bit of down time, but feel overwhelmed when faced with all the things that need to be done as part of domestic life.

Happiness is complex, and the aspects and levels of it aren’t consistent over time.

 

“Unhappy” Relationships

So what does this really mean to relationships?

When people leave (or thinking about leaving) a relationship because “they aren’t happy”, I don’t think it’s really about happiness.

Instead, I think it’s about conflict that a couple has been unable to resolve.

Over time, unresolved conflict creates an environment of hurt, and likely resentment.  That in turn creates tension in the relationship, as one or both members feel their needs aren’t being met and they aren’t being heard.  A few posts ago I talked about connection, and a big component of connection is feeling valued, heard, and seen.  So if you feel you aren’t being heard, this will cause the connection to break down.

Over time this leads to a perpetual state of tension within the relationship, which is emotionally draining.

With broken connection and a state of tension, a couple will have a harder time finding joy even in the good parts of the relationship and instead will often focus more on the problems as they become magnified.

And THIS will result in…

(ready for it?)

…unhappiness.

 

I know what you’re thinking –“but ZombieDrew, isn’t that the same thing?  Doesn’t it still boil down to the couple being unhappy?

Nope, and the distinction here is really important.

 

First, it’s important to remember that having conflict doesn’t mean you have a bad relationship.  It means you’re normal.  Conflict is as unavoidable as death and taxes, and is a byproduct of two different people building a life together.  You won’t always agree and you won’t always get along, and that’s alright.

Another important thing is unhappiness isn’t the problem, it’s a SYMPTOM of a different (and truly, a larger) problem.

And understanding that?  THAT really matters.

Because you can’t solve a symptom, you can’t solve unhappy.  You need to understand the actual problem.  And if you can understand the actual problem, THEN you can do something about it!!!

 

The Search for Happiness

My issue with people leaving relationships because they are unhappy (or searching for happiness) is that often they don’t really know WHY they were unhappy.  They stopped at the symptom, the feeling.

They knew they were “having problems”, and found themselves in a situation where they were unhappy for so long they believed the only way out was to leave the relationship.

They want to be happy again (after all, everyone “deserves” to be happy, life is too short to not be happy, blah blah blah).  So they leave, in order to find that feeling again.

(Actually often they go in search of the feeling before leaving the relationships, having emotional and or physical affairs that provide the “feeling” of happiness, which only solidifies their belief that there was something wrong with the relationship they are/were in.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

In any case, pursuit of a feeling leaves them looking for something they will likely never find.

 

Building Relationships

One of the big fallacies of relationships is that you just need to find the right person.  I absolutely hate this thinking, because it absolves people of responsibility in relationships.

Oh, our relationship failed because he/she wasn’t the right person.  I just need to find someone more compatible.

Sorry, that’s a load of crap.  Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of compatibility involved in relationships (though I believe it’s a much smaller factor than most people would think).

But here’s the thing – relationships are a skill.  And like any other skill, we can always improve the skill side of a relationship.  No matter how bad (or good) your relationship is right now, it can get better.

And THAT should be good news.

The catch is, you need to be willing to work to develop that skill.  And both parties need to be willing to do this.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be equal (no relationships are), but both people need to be trying.  And if they are?  Then ANY issue can be improved upon.

Notice I didn’t say fixed, some things can’t be fixed.  But all problems can get better.

 

Believing Change Can Happen

Its really important to believe that all problems can get better, because sometimes a couple DOES look at why they are having issues, they start to understand the problems; and then they give up.  They feel overwhelmed by the issues and take the attitude that they are “too big to fix”, or they can’t be changed because “this is just the way I am”.  And as a result they don’t really try.

This approach of quitting without really trying is called Learned Helplessness, and unfortunately it is a common approach for people who struggle with conflict resolution, people with mental health issues, as well as people who just aren’t very happy.

It’s a belief that someone has no control over the situation they are in, so why bother trying.  But it’s a broken thinking pattern, because people ALWAYS have control over their own choices and their own actions.  As I said, ANY issue can be improved.  But you have to be willing to put in the work.

learnedHelplessness

 

Going back to the “unhappy relationship”, this is almost always a question of conflict resolution.  Problems can’t be ignored, avoidance never works.  And you are NEVER helpless to make change.

It’s may seem easier at first to ignore things and avoid them, because dealing with things has an emotional cost.  But avoidance is a short sighted approach, because nothing gets resolved and the long term emotional costs of trying to deal with things when they’ve hit a critical mass are always higher later.

Plus, even when you are “avoiding” issues, they are always there.  These issues find ways to come out, normally through passive aggressive behavior by one or both parties, and that will only deepen the environment of hurt and resentment (making things worse).

 

The way out of this mess is through communication.  REAL communication.

When people talk about communication being the key to successful relationships, they aren’t just referring to talking.  Communication is about actually listening, trying to understand each other, and dealing with conflict in ways that are beneficial to the team.

If you aren’t actively working on making things better, then you aren’t really communicating.

CommunicationIssue

 

 

Happiness is Mostly About You

One thing I don’t like about this focus on happiness is, it’s an individual act.  It’s a focus on what a relationship does (or doesn’t do) for YOU.  While that is obviously important, I personally don’t think any relationship can thrive if that’s the focus.

Relationships should never just be about what one person is getting out of it. Both people’s needs and wants have to be respected and valued, even when they don’t completely match up. There has to be compromise.

For relationships to be successful the focus needs to shift from what the relationship does for me to what it does for us.  It needs to be a partnership that is mutually beneficial; and where people are just as interested in what they can add to it as what they get out of it.

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Communicating and building your relationships skills is difficult, because it can’t just be about you.  It requires facing the mirror and accepting your own part in the relationship issues.  It also requires truly letting go of past hurts and resentment in order to move forward.

But although these skills are difficult to build, they are the most important skills you will ever build in your lifetime.  They are worth the effort, and worth the stumbles that will happen along the way.

In my mind, as long as both partners are showing consistent effort towards building them, and being conscious about sliding back into avoidance and passive aggressive behavior, ANY relationship can not only succeed, but thrive.

 

Built to Last?

Happiness is a feeling, and feelings come and go.

Healthy relationships on the other hand have a number of components to them; pleasure, joy, appreciation and contentment.

And importantly, an acceptance that negative emotions are normal, and that conflict is a natural and even needed part of trying to grow both individually and as a couple.

Sometimes happiness is missing, and that should be alright.  Because if you can communicate, and resolve conflicts together without holding on to anger and resentment you will always find it again.  In fact it’s working through these difficult times that ultimately brings a couple closer.

 

So when people leave a relationship because they aren’t happy, I think it’s a cop out.  An excuse.

I understand leaving the relationship because you had communication issues and unresolved conflicts that were creating a toxic environment, and you reached a point that you gave up hope that things would ever improve.

I even understand leaving a relationship because you realized that addressing the issues was scary, and you weren’t prepared to do the work to make things better.

At least those reasons are honest.

They involve a level of self-awareness, and a realization that there is no magic wand or perfect person out there.  That those issues will still come up again, and will need to be addressed in the future or they could happen again.

 

But simply saying it’s because you were unhappy without understanding why, and chasing that feeling?  That simply sets you up to repeat the same mistakes again, and all but guarantees more unhappiness in your future.

 

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Avoiding Life

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Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to grow and improve as a person.  I would like to think I understand certain things a bit better, but for the most part I haven’t really changed that much.  There have been some changes I suppose, but they are largely small tweaks and refinements.

Really, the “new” me isn’t that different from the “old” me.

There is however one area where my outlook has changed considerably, and that’s in how I look at and approach conflict.

 

Conflict has become an area of interest for me, and it’s something I’ve written about in the past.  A few years ago I viewed conflict as a bad thing.  It was a sign that something was wrong.  And that’s bad, right?  Well, if that’s right then the absence of conflict must be a good thing.

That was how I viewed the world.

And that’s a viewpoint I’ve come to believe was completely wrong (like, totally and completely wrong).

 

You Aren’t Me And I’m Not You

Each person is an individual, with their own wants, needs and interests.  And this uniqueness is a part of our beauty.  However, because we have differences there are times our differences will collide.

My new(ish) viewpoint on conflict is that it is a natural and unavoidable part of any relationship.  Conflict is simply the collision of our differences and can actually be a very positive thing; as the process of learning to accept each other and work together in spite of these differences (because let’s face it, they aren’t going away) is the key to a healthy relationship.

So although there can be issues in how we “deal” with conflict, conflict itself isn’t bad.

 

Problem?  What Problem?

Currently I’m back in school, taking courses that will in theory help advance my career; and if not at least keep me somewhat current.  And one of the courses I’m taking has a section on conflict.

Reading over the course materials, I came across the following:

Of all the issues that people tend to avoid, managing conflict ranks at the top of the list, along with public speaking and swimming with sharks.

Most people see conflict as indicative of a problem because disagreement feels uncomfortable and threatening.

When there’s no open conflict we can carry on as though things are all right even if, really, we know they aren’t.

 

It’s the last line that really stands out to me – open conflict is the key.  If there is no  open conflict we all can carry on as though things are alright even when we know they aren’t.

People can be kind of stupid at times.  For whatever reason, sometimes we don’t see things that are right in front of our faces.

Sometimes its ignorance, or we misjudge the severity of something.  Or maybe we simply lack the context to truly understand what we are seeing.  For example I have a buddy that almost died from a heart attack a few years back, when he thought he had the flu.  That stuff happens, and is largely understandable.

It’s a VERY different scenario though when there is a problem and we KNOW it.  But we pretend it isn’t there.  When we ACT as though things are fine as long as we aren’t talking about it, and it’s not out in the open.

That approach is very destructive, to everyone involved.

 

When to Deal with Issues?

Conflict isn’t fun, and I think it’s safe to say most people don’t want to deal with it.

Imagine you’re at home and you notice a drip in your bathroom faucet.  Let’s imagine the progression of this problem faucet looks something like this (with some sort of time lapse between steps):

  1. We see the faucet dripping for the first time.
  2. We realize the faucet is still dripping over a period of time.
  3. We notice the drip is getting worse.
  4. Instead of a drip, we see that there is now a steady stream of water coming out of the faucet
  5. We notice that the room underneath the bathroom has water stains in on the ceiling.
  6. We notice that there is water streaming down the walls of our house.
  7. Sections of the ceiling below start to crumble and collapse
  8. We can no longer open the bathroom door, because the flow of water has gotten so strong that the water pressure is holding the door closed

Let’s face it, problems suck.  However although we don’t want to, most of us recognize that there comes a point in time when we HAVE to deal with them.

WHERE we draw that line differs from person to person.  For example, some people will get on an issue as soon as they see the first sign of trouble.

Personally, I would find that exhausting.  I would rather wait a bit to determine if it was an actual (recurring) problem.  If something happens once and then not again?  Well, it might not be worth worrying about.

Thing is, when small problems aren’t addressed in time they have a tendency to grow into much larger issues.  I would like to think though that most people wouldn’t allow the leaky faucet to get to step 8.  Hopefully somewhere between step 2 and step 5, people will accept that there is an issue and be willing to put in whatever work is necessary to address it.

 

Avoidance

Unfortunately some don’t accept that issues need to be dealt with – ever.  In fact some people will walk around their house in rubber boots with a diving mask and snorkel insisting that there’s no problem and everything is alright; as the faucets are pouring water and their house is rotting and crumbling around them.

In psychology this is known as Avoidance.

Psychology Dictionary defines avoidance as:

the practice or an instance of keeping away from particular situations, activities, environments, individuals, things, or subjects of thought because of either (a) the anticipated negative consequences of such or (b) the anticipated anxious or painful feelings associated with those things or events. Psychology explains avoidance in several ways: as a means of coping- as a response to fear or shame- and as a principal component in anxiety disorders.

 

Avoidant people are masters at pretending that things are fine, because as long as they don’t acknowledge a problem openly they can tell themselves everything is alright.

Thing is, avoidance brings with it a slew of problems.  Stealing another section from my course materials:

There is one main reason to engage in conflict, and that’s to reach a resolution. Without resolution, conflict merely becomes an opportunity to recycle old arguments, disagreements and opinions: nothing moves forward, feelings get stirred up and reinforced.

 

By denying problems and refusing to deal with them avoidant people actually make things worse.

They allow small problems to grow, and ensure there is never a resolution.  Nothing ever moves forward, and they end up stuck.

 

Misdirected Effort

One of my sons hates cleaning his room.  And when I ask him to, it always turns into a big production.  He talks about how he doesn’t want to, and how he thinks “it’s not that bad anyhow”.  Then he complains about how much time and effort it would take to clean it.

Usually it turns into some sort of power struggle where he refuses, and I’m forced to come up with some sort of consequence for not doing it as a way of getting him to clean it.

When he finally gets to cleaning it, I’m always struck by the fact that he will have spent WAY more time arguing over and fighting against cleaning his room than it actually took him.  He expends all this energy “refusing” to clean his room.  And if he would just DO it, a lot less time and energy would be wasted.

He’s 9, and I’m optimistic/hopeful that this is just a stage he’ll grow out of.

 

In many ways, his behavior is similar to avoidance.

An avoidant person will expend a tremendous amount of effort ignoring a problem, pretending it’s not there, and refusing to deal with it.

And to a non-avoidant person faced with this, often it feels as though the issue at hand (whatever it is) is actually resolvable.  And likely could have been easily resolved with considerably LESS effort than there seems to be spent ignoring the problem and maintaining a (broken) status quo.

It’s like they are trying to talk to someone while the other person is walking around with their hands over their ears chanting “la la la la la, not listening”.

 

Relationships with avoidant people can be difficult, because couples often get stuck with issues that often seem normal, or manageable.  However because the avoidant partner won’t acknowledge the issue they are unable to move forward and improve.

So every leaky faucet has the potential to cause the whole relationship to crumble down around them.

And let’s face it, we all have leaky faucets.

 

Admitting to issues in your relationship is never easy, but if you don’t you can never, EVER resolve them.  And you can never improve.

For any avoidant people, I ask you this – what is your goal?  What is more important to you?

Is it more important to create the illusion of a perfect relationship and not have to deal with issues (even when you know that the issues are there)?

Or it is more important to have the best relationship you can?

 

A while back I read an article on couples counselors, and in it the counselors talked about how their ability to help a couple is often hampered because couples frequently come to them YEARS later than they should have.  I suspect this is often due to avoidance, where a couple is refusing to deal with their faucets until the relationship is crumbling around them.

People can talk about priorities, but actions are much more important than words.  So if someone “says” they want their relationship to be better but they refuse to work to improve it?  Well, they are showing that they find the pain of a broken relationship to be less than the pain of trying to work on things.  THAT shows true priority.

And if pretending things are good even when you know they are not is more important that improving, remember that if the rot sets in too deeply there will be no way to pretend any more.

 

 

Conflict comes from differences and differences are just part of who we are.  Having a relationship with another person means there WILL be conflict.  And accepting that conflict as normal allows you to deal with it proactively, and make your relationship the best it can be.

Strength in a relationship isn’t built through the absence of conflict, it’s built through encountering obstacles and getting through them together.  So although we should never want conflict, we should always see it as an opportunity to improve on where we are.

A perfect relationship will never exist, no matter how much you pretend it does.  But your relationship CAN always get stronger.

IF you accept that there are issues.

IF you accept that conflict is an opportunity for improvement.

And IF you are willing to face your issues and work on them.

If you can do those things?  Then your relationship will never be perfect, but it will be as strong as you make it.

The “Secret” to Happiness

top-secret
Have you ever received a raise?

Let’s say you get a $1200 raise. Not bad, right? Well if you’re paid twice a month that’s around $50 per cheque before deductions; so let’s say it’s an extra $30 per pay period.

It’s an increase, but it’s not really that much. It’s not like you’ll be buying a new car or taking that vacation you wanted with an additional $30 every few weeks.

Now let’s change this up a bit and imagine you received a 10k raise. That would probably turn into around a $250-$300 increase per pay period, which is fairly significant. When that happens, you definitely notice it.

At first.

Here’s the thing. After a few months (and at most a year) you won’t even notice the increase; no matter how big the increase is.

 

This happens in all aspects of life. We get that new car we’ve been wanting and there are all these new features we didn’t have before. We get that new house, and it has more space or more rooms.

The new stuff is pretty cool, and pretty great.

But over a fairly short period of time, it stops being new. We become used to it. And it becomes our new “normal”.

Once something has become our new norm, we start to notice flaws we didn’t see at first (or flaws that didn’t seem important).  And more importantly, we stop appreciating the positives these new things have provided.

This is part of the human condition. We are hard-wired to take the positive things in our life for granted.

 

Hedonic Adaptation

I’ve been writing about happiness being negatively impacted by taking things for granted for a long time now, but it’s only recently that I found out there is a name for it. This phenomenon is known as Hedonic Adaptation (thanks Matt for pointing me to this).

Here’s a brief description from Wikipedia:

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

Most of my writing is about relationships, and the implications of this for relationships are HUGE. I’ve often challenged the concept of soul mates, or “the one”. It’s a terrible concept that removes any personal accountability for building and maintaining healthy working relationships. After all, when things get tough why would you want to work on things? And why would you look at your own role in the breakdown of a relationship? It’s easier just to tell ourselves that this other person wasn’t the right one for us.

Hedonic adaptation tells us it doesn’t matter how amazing the person we find is. They can be “a perfect match” for us, and it STILL won’t matter. Because no matter how great they are, after a while that greatness will simply be the norm.

When you see it day after day, year after year is ceases to have any impacts on us. It will just be who they are, and we will stop seeing and appreciating the good.

Thing is, everyone has at least some flaws. And when we stop seeing and appreciating the good those flaws start to stand out.

CalvinComplain

Making Comparisons

This becomes an even bigger issue when it’s coupled this with another problem with human nature – comparison.

As people, we have an inability to judge something based on its own merits. Instead, we judge the value of something by comparing it to a similar item.

And when comparing, we almost always compare the flaws of the thing we are comparing to those characteristics in something else. But when we do this, due to hedonic adaptation we aren’t also comparing the positives, because we no longer see them.

 

I’ve got a pretty good career, and a pretty good job. It’s not what I initially wanted, but it provides a reasonably good life for my family without requiring long hours or high levels of stress.

Sometimes though I compare myself to others, to people I’ve known through school or through work. I see people I’ve known over the years that seem to have greater levels of career success then me, and in many cases they are people who aren’t any better than me.

In those moments I often feel like a failure, and question what I’ve done wrong.

In a vacuum, I have a lot to be grateful for. It’s only through comparison that I start to feel like things are lacking, or feel like a failure.

These moments usually pass quickly, because am aware that I am doing this, and I realize I am making selective comparisons.

First, there are different measurements of success. And looking selectively at someone’s title or salary doesn’t take into account all the other factors that I have no visibility on.

Secondly, in those moments I am picking and choosing WHO I compare myself to. There are a lot of people out there who I have known that haven’t had the same level of success I have had. During my personal self-pity parties I conveniently exclude those people from my comparisons, and only look at those people I perceive as doing better than me.

Falling Out of Love

I recently asked someone about the concept of falling out of love with your partner, and what was described to me was a perfect example of these concepts.

We meet someone, and there’s a pretty good chance there are good qualities that draw us to them. Over time though, things break down and we are left feeling tired, frustrated and not feeling valued. These items on their own cause the relationship to break down, and resentment to start to grow.

When the relationship has hit this stage, hedonic adaptation is one of the big culprits. Chances are, the good qualities of the other person haven’t really gone away. They are still there, but we no longer see them. Instead all we see is the flaws, and the problems. And when those flaws are no longer being offset by good (because we no longer see the good), it’s easy to question is it still worth it?

I don’t think that alone is usually the killer though. The REAL killer is once we add comparison.

In the description of falling out of love, a comment was made that when the relationship has hit a bad spot you start to think something like “maybe I should have married my college sweetheart instead”. Sometimes the comparison is to an old relationship. Sometimes you hear positive stories about things other people’s partners are doing (oh look, they just went on a trip, or had a romantic night out) and that creates a perception that other people’s partners are better than your own. Or sometimes you meet someone that “seems to have more in common with you” and start focusing your energy there (while reducing the effort in your relationship) because it makes you feel more alive.

None of these are positive, productive, or realistic (especially the last one). In all cases, you are comparing the issues and flaws of your current partner to strengths of someone else, while simultaneously ignoring the good parts of your partner that you have taken for granted and not seeing the flaws of the other person.

They are broken comparisons, rigged to make our partners look even worse than they really are.

What This Means for Happiness

So what does all this mean, and what does it have to do with happiness? Well, hopefully that’s fairly clear.

There’s no real surefire way to “be happy”, and we shouldn’t want that anyhow. I have always seen happiness as a journey, and not a destination. To me it’s not something we can achieve.  Rather, it’s a byproduct of the way we live and our outlook on life. And on any journey there will good and bad, happiness and sadness. Joy and pain.

But although we can’t make ourselves happy, human nature will cause us to do things that will minimize our potential happiness.
Hedonic adaptation tells us that over time the good in our life becomes our norm, and when that happens we stop seeing the good and we take it for granted.

Being aware of this phenomenon allows us to guard against it. And to guard against it we need to try to approach life with more of a sense of appreciation. We should regularly take stock of the good in our life, and the good qualities of our partner. When we do this, the flaws (which will always be there) often don’t seem as bad.

The second thing we can guard against is making comparisons. Stop comparing our partners to someone else (past relationships and potential partners) and stop comparing ourselves to other people.

The way we make comparisons is broken. We tend to only make comparisons when we see flaws in the thing we are comparing (ourselves or our partners), and we tend to compare those flaws (while overlooking the good) to an imaginary state that is usually only focused on the good in the other thing.

Hedonic adaptation and comparison can be fatal to us appreciating what we have in the here and now, and understanding them allows us to reduce their effects, maximizing our happiness. So the secret to happiness isn’t so much about searching for happiness. Instead it’s about not losing the happiness we already have.

I found this nicely stated on psychologytoday.com:

Human beings spend a lot of time trying to figure out what will make them happy, but not nearly enough time trying to hang on to the happiness they already have. In a way, this is like focusing all your energy on making more money, without giving any thought to what you’ll do with the money you’ve already earned. The key to wealth, like the key to happiness, is to not only look for new opportunities, but to make the most of the ones you’ve been given.

What Affects One Person Affects Both

frustrated-couple

I recently read an article on differing sex drives in a relationship, and while the article wasn’t anything new I thought the comment section was fascinating.  In the comments there were women talking about the changes their bodies go through after childbirth and the toll that being a mother takes on their sex drive and desire for any physical intimacy in their relationship – often extending to cuddling, hugging and basic touch.

There were a number of women commenting (at least I assume they were women, you never know online) and a few guys chiming in as well.  What struck me was a particular back and forth.

One lady mentioned that her husband wanted sex as part of the relationship, and that she just had no interest any more.

Another lady replied she had been through the same feelings, and she recommended the first lady “just do it”, as from her experience it was something her husband needed and cutting it out completely would put additional stress on the relationship.

The first lady was pretty incensed by this, saying that feeling like she needed to do something she didn’t want to felt like “emotional rape”, and that it wasn’t something her husband “needed”.

I have written in the past about the benefits of sex in a relationship. I have also written about the importance of sex to a relationship (from a guys perspective), and how sex isn’t really about sex. So yes, I’m definitely in the camp that feels sex is an important (and even necessary) component of a relationship – for both the physical and emotional benefits that it brings to the individual and the couple.

That said, I completely understand the first lady’s perspective. She’s right to say that she shouldn’t feel she has to do something that she doesn’t want to. Yeah, sometimes there are things in life you “have to do”, but doing so can breed resentment. Sex is supposed to be a form of connection and communication for a couple, and having it feel like a “duty” can destroy the connection that it is supposed to bring.

But although I believe I can understand her perspective, I think she’s overlooking one very important point.

Sex is not an individual act.

Making Choices

A marriage (or any relationship) is a partnership, and one member should never unilaterally make choices that affect both members of the relationship.

Imagine you are in a relationship and a great job opportunity comes up in another city or country. In a healthy relationship, you don’t just take the job. Instead you probably discuss it with your partner, and try to get their buy in. If you really want the job you try to sell your partner on it. Your partner needs to understand and agree with the move, and see how it benefits either them or the relationship in the long term. If, after discussion they don’t want to make the move you have a decision to make. You either don’t make the move (because although it may be what you want, it’s not right for the relationship); or you do it anyway. But if you do it anyway, there needs to be an understanding that it may cost you the relationship.

This applies to all sorts of things, and really is the primary “limitation” in a relationship.

When something affects both people, no one should expect to just do what they want. The wants and needs of the other person HAVE to matter. If they don’t, it’s not a relationship.

And I’m pretty sure sex affects both people.

So it’s not fair for one person to simply say that sex (or anything for that matter) is something that their partner doesn’t need. They can say that they don’t need it. And they can say that they don’t understand why their partner feels they need it. That’s all.

Differences in sex drive are normal, and are something most relationships find a way to navigate. Usually this results in one person having it a bit less than they would like, and the other person having to “just do it” sometimes when they might not really want to. As long as there is empathy and kindness for each others needs and some kind of compromise can be found, it isn’t a huge issue for most couples.

If a compromise that works for both people cannot be found however, then the relationship is very much at risk of failure.

 

Fidelity in Relationships

Most relationships have an expectation of monogamy. Personally I feel that’s a good thing; and when people step outside the relationship and have affairs or open relationships, I think they are kind of missing the point of sex. Sex isn’t just a physical act and it’s not just about your own pleasure. It is an act of intimacy, sharing, vulnerability and trust; and is symbolic of a special connection that a couple has.

Casual sex reduces it to a physical act, while in a committed relationship it is something more.

So monogamy is valuable component of a relationship (to me at least). But a sex drive is also a physical urge that differs from person to person. And for many, its presence in a relationship IS seen as a need.

When someone commits to monogamy they are committing to their partner, and from that point on their partner is the only person they will have sex with.

The unspoken part of that agreement is that sex will be part of the deal. It’s supposed to be a vow of monogamy – not a vow of celibacy.

 

Communicating and Caring

This brings me back to the lady who said that she doesn’t feel she should have to do something she doesn’t want to – especially something like sex.

She’s 100% right. Sex is something that should have connection and intimacy (at least most of the time). So if she’s not “feeling it”, she shouldn’t have to do anything to “appease her husband”.

At the same time, it’s perfectly reasonable for her husband to want and expect sex as part of the relationship.

Both people are right in this case.

This problem has a few layers to it. How big is the gap between what they want? What is the husband expecting? How often does he want/expect it? And how often does the wife want sex?

If one person wants it as a daily occurrence while the other person wants it weekly, that may be a problem they can figure out. If one person wants it daily and the other person want it…

…never. Well, that’s a bigger issue.

And truthfully, it’s probably not even an issue about sex.

It’s an issue of communicating, and listening to each other. And caring about and respecting each others needs. As a member or a relationship, you should care about your partners wants and needs – even when they don’t line up with your own.

That doesn’t mean you always have to meet them. But you do have to meet them sometimes, and you have to find a balance where each of you feel valued and respected.

MoreThanSex

If someone no longer wants to meet their partner’s needs, then that indicates something has broken down. Either they don’t feel valued and respected themselves so it’s a form of punishment (he/she doesn’t do things for me, so why should I do things for him/her). Or the connection in the relationship has broken down to the point that they simply don’t feel enough for their partner to care about their needs.

Either way, if the relationship has hit that point the question has to be asked – why is the couple still together? If someone either no longer cares about their partners needs, or they feel that withholding affection as a form a punishment is acceptable, then the partnership has broken down.

A relationship has to be about more than just two individuals looking out for themselves.

 

Meeting in the Middle

A while back I wrote about the three keys to a successful relationship. Love each other, don’t be selfish, and communicate.

If someone wants sex on a daily basis and they expect their partner to meet their needs in that way, I see that as being selfish and not very loving.

However, I also feel the same way about someone saying sex isn’t a need and they should never have to have it if they don’t want it. If there is a large gap in sex drives that stance not very loving and is just as selfish.

If you want to be loving and unselfish, you communicate and find something that works for both people. One person should never be dictating terms of anything that impacts both people.

That’s not what a partnership is about. The couple needs to communicate, show empathy and caring for each other’s needs, and try to find a compromise.

Everyone has their own beliefs and boundaries; and establishing your own boundaries and sticking to them is important. So I understand the idea of never having to do anything you don’t want to.

But when those boundaries put a couple in continuous conflict, something has to give. They either find a way to make their boundaries overlap, or they need to accept that their relationship will not work.

To the lady who said she should not have to do anything she doesn’t want to – she’s 100% right. But that doesn’t mean she can expect things to be her way and also expect to hold onto the relationship. That’s a fairly one sided approach to relationships.

To hold onto the relationship, both she and her husband need to find a way that they can both be satisfied. He could accept things only on her terms (which will likely cause resentment). She could accept things on his terms (which will also cause resentment).

Or they could both love each other, not be selfish, communicate, and try to find a path that works for both of them.

sacrificetorelationship

Relationship Doubt

 

Conflict between the man and the woman

Most single people hope they will one day find someone that they will be able to share their life and grow old with. And most people in relationships hope they have already found that person.

I think this is a natural desire for people. And it’s understandable, as relationships can be great. Ideally they are places of safety and trust; where you are partners who care for and support each other, while simultaneously growing individually and as a couple.

They are also full of challenges though, as you are two different people trying to build a life that works for both. And this will naturally give rise to highs and lows.

Beyond the normal challenges and conflicts though, there is one thing that can completely derail a relationship:

Doubt.

Doubt can come in many forms, such as doubt that the other person really loves you, doubt that you can trust the other person, doubt that you still love the other person, and doubt that they are “the right person” for you.

It doesn’t matter if the couple has been together 2 months or 10 years. No relationship is immune to these feelings.

If and when this happens, it’s important it is discussed and addressed. Because when it isn’t, doubt can often cause the relationship to fail.

In life, belief or “buy in” is very important.

When people buy into something they understand the value of it. They understand its place in their life and their place with it. This is always valuable, and especially so in relationships.

Doubt is corrosive to buy-in, and puts a relationship in limbo, preventing it from moving forward in a positive manner.

doubt

The One?

I believe one of the leading causes for doubt in a relationship is unrealistic expectations and understanding of what a relationship is; or an immature understanding of love.

We are frequently exposed to the idea of a soul mate, or “the one”, the idea that every person out there has a perfect match somewhere. This idea may seem romantic at first, but it is ultimately destructive.

An unspoken extension of the idea of “the one” is that if/when you find this person, the will complete you and everything will be happy and wonderful.

This becomes an issue when relationships invariably run into problems or conflict, or when they fall into a rut where the spark has faded. When this happens, it’s easy for the attitude to become:

Hmm, we have problems. Maybe he/she isn’t the one. Maybe this isn’t the right relationship for me. Maybe I would be happier with someone else.

This sort of thinking can create doubt about the existing relationship.

doubtsandspark.jpg

Newsflash for you – there are millions of people out there in the world, and you have varying degrees of compatibility with every single one of them. Even if you filter this list down to your gender or preference, age (plus or minus some sort of tolerance level), and some sort or radius from where you live; it’s a pretty safe bet that no matter who you are with, at any given point in time there is *someone* out there who is a better match.

To that I say, so what?

Who really cares if there is someone out there that is a better match?

The question I have is, are you largely happy in your current situation? If you are having doubts, then probably not. But if not, what are you doing about it? Is your partner aware of your concerns, and are they taking actions to improve things? Or are you just letting the doubt fester?

When you doubt, it impacts your buy in. And over time, this impacts your body language and the effort you put in. Sometimes the mere seed of doubt can actually be the catalyst that causes the relationship to fail.

Reasonable Doubt

If you have doubts, you need to be able to articulate what the source of the doubt is.

There are reasonable doubts. Things like your partner being controlling, cruel, aloof, coming home at odd hours or being inconsistent or not forthcoming in what they say. There are all sorts of “warning signs” for relationships, and it’s important to not turn a blind eye to them when they occur.

But doubts can also be of your own making.

We all have our insecurities, and it’s important to understand ourselves and our insecurities in order to get a handle on them and prevent them from poisoning our relationships. Especially when we carry the hurts of past relationships into new ones.

For example, someone who has been cheated on in the past may be hypersensitive to any actions that could suggest an affair, and they may see things that aren’t there.

It’s important to communicate these things to your partner. If they understand where you are coming from, they may be a bit more conscious of how their actions appear. But over time trust needs to build. If someone is constantly doubting a person who hasn’t given them cause to doubt, this will damage the relationship.

One of the big problems with doubt is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Someone has doubts, and as a result they start to hold back and build walls. Often this is done as a way of “protecting” themselves from potentially being hurt.

However building walls and holding back creates distance, and this distance will take a toll.

doubts.jpg

Making a Choice

It’s one thing to doubt if you are compatible, or doubt if you will make it. These are normal doubts that can crop up from time to time.

But if you are having doubts about whether or not you really want to be with the other person anymore, I believe you need to make a choice.

You need to choose to accept them for who they are, and commit to making the relationship the best that it can possibly be; or get out of the relationship and move on.

Some people stay in a relationship they “aren’t sure about” because they are scared to be alone. Or they feel they have invested a lot of time into the relationship, and they don’t want it to have been wasted.

But being in a relationship where you are not fully committed (and likely holding back) due to doubt is completely unfair to the other person.

If you have doubts about your relationship ask yourself this; what is the one thing you never get back?

Time.

Time wasted on doubt is just that.  Wasted time.  And it’s time you never get back.

Sometimes people have doubts, and they want space or they want time to figure things out. And to a degree that is reasonable request for someone to make.

But it needs to come with a limit.

If someone has doubts – they don’t know what they want. So for the person who is “waiting”, the person they are waiting for is trying to figure out if they want a life with them or not.

Taken another way, they are an option to this person, and not a priority.

So why? Why should someone wait?

Why would someone possibly want to waste of their life – time they will never get back, over someone who isn’t able to commit to them?

There’s a saying, Get busy living, or get busy dying. And in the case of relationship doubt I think it’s very relevant.

Doubt destroys relationships. So the person who has the doubt needs to make a choice. They need to get busy living, or get busy dying. They need to either accept their relationship and make it the best it can be, or they need to let it go and move on.

Either way, they need to make a decision and then take action.

Limbo helps no one. It just results in people wasting their lives. And life doesn’t magically get better on it’s own.

So although doubt can be normal, if you have doubts you really need to make a choice. You need to be able to commit in spite of the doubt, or you need to move on.

DoubtingLove.jpg

The Last Mistake

brokenRock

I’ve played a lot of basketball over the years, and during that time I’ve been part of many wins and loses.

Often the losses that hurt the most are the close ones. The ones where we gave up a lead in the last seconds, or the ones where we made a run that just felt short. For those games, I can still remember some of those closing moments. I can remember the mistakes made either by myself or other teammates, and I can remember the feelings of loss and disappointment that came with it.

When you lose like that, it’s easy to look for what “cost you” the game. And often the things you remember are the mistakes made in those final moments, when it all fell apart.

The thing is, those mistakes are really just the last mistakes. The final ones. They may hurt the most, but in a close game they were never the deciding factors.
Basketball is a game with many possessions. And with all these possessions one of the things that often gets lost is this – every moment you are on the court, whether you are looking to score or looking to defend, you are influencing the outcome of a game.

Every. Single. Moment.

The final score is really just the sum of all the decisions made in the whole game. Positive or negative, each one counts.

So in a close loss, was a missed shot at the end of the game really more important than a miss that happened at the beginning?

Not really.

The final mistake often takes on more meaning because you know time is running out. When you are down two points with thirteen seconds left, you can feel the weight of your decisions in those seconds. You know this is your last chance.

If you are down two with six minutes left, it doesn’t seem as real, or as immediate. You can tell yourself “there’s still time”. And one unfortunate side effect of feeling there’s still time is a tendency not to take those early mistakes seriously, and to treat them like they aren’t as important as the later ones.

But no game is ever won or lost in the last moments. And on a team, no one member is ever entirely at fault.

Breaking Down Over Time

Often when relationships either struggle or fail, there are strong feelings of loss and disappointment. So we search for answers.

What happened? How did it go wrong? When did it go wrong?

In those moments it’s easy to focus on the latest mistakes. With the immediacy of “the game running out”, they often take on greater meaning for us. But although the final mistakes can be big ones, with people checking out emotionally, and displaying selfish and destructive behaviors, no relationship fails due to the final mistakes.

stone-cutter-quote

Like the stone-cutter hammering away at a rock, the final mistake seems to be the one that causes a relationship to fail. But the failure was being built in slowly, with hundreds of little decisions and mistakes over time. All the little times someone was hurt, or didn’t feel valued or appreciated. Taken individually these instances may seems small, but when you add them all up, the relationship has really suffered death from a thousand cuts.

It’s important to understand that for good or for bad you are influencing your relationship every single moment.

When relationships fail, it’s usually due to years of little problems and neglect, combined with poor communication leading to resentment. When this happens, instead of being a place of safety and security relationships become sources of tension and struggles for control.

Sometimes I read other blogs, and I hear people talk about withholding things from their partner. Whether conscious or subconsciously, this is a passive aggressive form of punishment. Sex is a big one, but often kindness, caring and even basic signs of affection and respect are held back.

At some level I understand this. When you are upset with your partner, you probably aren’t feeling loving or affectionate. But at the same time, when this happens I mourn for the people involved. Withholding is a form of control, and love and control do not go together. When a relationship hits this point, it seems it’s just waiting for that final mistake. And that final mistake will not be the one that caused the failure.

Winning and Losing

Thankfully, while a series of mistakes over time will cause anything to break, the opposite is also true. The initial bond of a relationship may be forged in the years when you are first getting to know one another, but to keep that relationship strong you have to work at it and maintain it over time.

In one of my favorite posts I talk about using this idea that every single decision matters, and applying it in a more positive way. If you truly want your relationship to last forever, it doesn’t just happen. You need to work forever into your life with the actions you take each and every day.

Time-decides-your-life

Behaviour. Decisions. These are choices that we make.

Don’t wait until your relationship is in the brink before you start fighting for it. Fight for it by not letting the little things go unsaid. Fight for it be accepting that no matter where things are, they can always get better. Fight for it by trying to let go instead of holding onto hurts and withholding affection. Fight for it with consistent effort, each and every day.

Every moment counts.

And it’s up to you to decide what you want to do with them.