When Do You Actually “Know” Someone?

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I recently read an interesting post over at Lisa Arends excellent blog, lessonsfromtheendofamarriage.com, where she discusses a number of misconceptions about marriage (and relationships in general).

Her first “misconception” really got me thinking, and it’s about how long it takes to “get to know someone” before you know the relationship is solid enough to consider something like marriage.

I won’t rehash her post as you can give it a read on your own.  But I do want to explore this idea of getting to know another person, and how long it can and potentially should take; not just for marriage but also before relationships “go through milestones”.

 

First, what are some of the milestones that relationships go through?   Off the top of my head, here’s a quick list (that I’m sure is missing some important things) in an order that is probably fairly common:

  • Holding hands
  • Kissing
  • Sex
  • Spending the night together (which may or may not include sex, but let’s be honest, probably does)
  • Introductions to friends
  • First fight
  • Meeting the parents
  • Living together
  • Making major purchases together
  • Marriage

 

Notice that I didn’t include “getting to know someone” as a milestone?

I left it off because there is no event or milestone for getting to know someone.  Getting to know someone is a continuous process that will probably go on for your whole life (or at least the duration of the relationship); I don’t think it’s something you ever finish.

You can never fully know another person, because they are always growing and changing.  Hell, I don’t think you ever fully know yourself!  I’m 43 this year, and consider myself to be a pretty self-aware guy.  But even now events occur that change me, in ways both big and small.  Sometimes things happen and how I respond surprises me.  So if I can even surprise myself sometimes, it’s a pretty safe bet someone else will never be able to accurately predict everything I will do.

We are always growing, and changing.  And our partners are too.

 

If accepting that continuous growth and change means we will never fully know our partner, the question becomes when do we know them enough (for whatever the next step in our relationship is)?

Going back to my list of relationship milestones, when do we know them enough to hold hands?  For the first kiss?  To have sex?  To meet the parents?  To get married?

Does it depend on the number of days/weeks you’ve known each other?  The number of hours you’ve spent together?  The things you’ve shared?

 

Looking at these milestones I’m not convinced there’s a “right” way to do this, or a “right” timeframe.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still a fairly common flow here.  I would say in most cases, a couple will at least kiss and hold hands before having sex.  The time gap between those things could be counted in months, weeks, or it could be counted in minutes.

If you somehow are having sex before kissing or holding hands, then you’ve probably got some sort of Pretty Woman thing happening where you’ve fallen in love with a prostitute.  Probably not common, but hey – if it’s happened to you who am I to judge?

Meeting friends, parents, living together – these are all things you probably don’t do until you have a belief the relationship has a shot at lasting a while.

And marriage (for those who go down that road) is something you REALLY shouldn’t do until you feel you know the other person fairly well; and have a high degree of confidence the relationship will make it.

But looking at marriage – what’s the “right” time?  How long do you need to know someone before you can feel you know them enough to have that confidence and make that sort of decision?

A year?  Two years?  Twenty?

 

I’ve seen it recommended that you should wait one of two years before getting married, and I guess that makes sense.

But I know a couple who were engaged on their first date, and 50 years later they are still together.  I can’t say I would recommend that, and statistically the chances of success are pretty slim.  But for them it worked.

I also know a couple who dated for almost 20 years before getting married (and are still together).

I know couples who dated for the commonly recommended one to two years and are happy 20+ years later.  I know others who married after two years and divorced a few years later.

 

Here’s the thing …

Almost 50% of marriages end in divorce, and often the very characteristics that endeared people to each other as they “got to know each other” in the first place are ones that contribute significantly to the relationship falling apart.

So it’s not like there’s some magic way of measuring whether or not you know each other “enough” for things to work out.

Things sometimes go wrong.  Relationships don’t always work out.

 

So, what do you do?

It seems obvious that how well you know someone DOES matter.  But how do you best position your relationship to succeed?

 

Let’s start with you.

If you need to know someone, then it stands to reason that they also have to know you.  For this to happen I think you always need to be willing to be authentic; which means you need to be willing to be you – whoever that is.

Of course this means you actually have to have some idea of who you are (which isn’t always the case).  Are you self-aware?  Are you accepting of yourself and your faults, and are you willing to let someone else see them?

A common paradox in relationships is we want to be accepted for who we are, yet at the same time we are afraid of being rejected for who we are.  So we often try to be who we think the other person wants us to be.

Some people will play a role and try to become someone else.  Other will be themselves, but will be careful about which sides of themselves they show – hiding the parts that they don’t feel will be accepted.

 

In the short term, these strategies may work.  But if they do, what have you really accomplished?  You’ve succeeded in convincing someone to like…

…umm.

Not you (at least not the real you).

Help me understand, how exactly is this a good thing?

Because eventually the real you will surface.  And if your partner doesn’t like the real you once they see you, then all you’ve done is waste time.

 

So being always being true to you is the best approach.  And if someone doesn’t accept you for who you are?  Then they probably aren’t someone you want to be with anyhow.  That doesn’t mean you should never change – because change in the form of self-growth is a positive thing.  But any changes you make need to be because you want them, or see a need for them yourself.

 

Let’s say you do everything right.

You accept yourself for who you are and go into a relationship being honest and authentic.  That’s great, and is (in my opinion) the best and healthiest way to approach things.

But YOU are only half of the equation – and you have no control over how the other person is approaching things.  For the best relationship to occur, both people need to be honest, authentic, self-aware, and willing to be vulnerable.

When that does happen and two people are being authentic and are willing to let each other in, I think you can know each other well enough to know if things can work pretty quickly.  Within a few days you can get a pretty good sense of each other’s core character and value.  Within weeks, you should have a strong idea if the two of you are compatible.

And within a few months you should start to see if there are any “red flags”, showing that perhaps the other person isn’t being as authentic as you think they are – because it’s hard to keep a mask up over extended periods of time.

 

Looking at relationships, what are the things that actually matter?

  • Are your core values aligned?
  • Do your personalities complement each other?
  • Do you accept that a relationships is about more than just you?
  • Are your love languages in alignment with your partners, and if not are you willing love your partner in the way they need to be loved?
  • Do you know enough about each other’s hopes and dreams that you can see the two of you growing, building and sharing together?
  • Are you both willing to accept that periodic issues in relationships are normal, and are you willing to deal with them when they occur?
  • Are you both self-aware – willing to accept that you each have faults and willing to take responsibility for your own contributions to the relationship?

 

If you can answer yes to at least most of those, then I think you have a pretty solid foundation and everything else should be pretty easy.

 

Thinking back to the question of when do you know each other enough; it doesn’t matter what the milestone is – whether it’s holding hands, living together or getting married there will always be risk involved in taking that “next step”.

But there is no magic timeline.  What works for one couple may not work for another.  I believe that if both people are self-aware, authentic and open with each other, they will quickly know enough about each other to know with a high level of accuracy if the relationship can work or not.  When things feel natural and easy, you know that it’s a good fit no matter how long it’s been.

After that, it’s up to you.

Because the success of a relationships is less about how well you know each other than it is about how well you accept that you will need to grow together and choose to continue to choose each other each and every day.

FeelingofLoveAsChoice

What do you bring IN to your Relationship?

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When I hear people talk about relationships, there is a lot of talk about compatibility, and how important it is to find the right person.

Compatibility does matter (to a degree), but I think it’s much less important than most believe.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the quality of your relationship often has much less to do with your partner, and a lot more to do with you.

 

I see/read/hear men and women who are “unable to find the love they want”, and they complain, saying things like “all the men I meet are X” or “all the women I meet as Y” (insert stereotype of choice for X and Y).

Sometimes we run into so many similar problems that we start to lose faith in our gender of preference completely, and start to convince ourselves our experiences are representative of all members of that gender.

Here’s a potentially uncomfortable question for you:

If you have had a number of relationships, and they all turning out badly or you are struggling to even find a relationship, what’s the one common link?

You.

 

Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here.  I’m not saying that you are a terrible person, or you are unlovable or anything like that.

I simply think that anytime life isn’t working out quite the way we want it to, the WORST thing you can do is think of yourself as a victim.

How your life goes is not “just the way things are” and I don’t believe in “if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be”.  Those ideas, and the idea that you “just need to find the right person” paint yourself as a passive participant in your own life.

Rather, I believe that life presents us with different opportunities, and it’s up to us to decide what to do with them.  We can’t control how things will turn out, but we ALWAY control our own choices, and how we respond to the events that happen to us.

So if a relationship (or life in general) isn’t working out the way we want it to I think it’s important to take a look in the mirror, and try to understand the ways you might be contributing to things.

 

If people you meet aren’t treating you the way you want, ask yourself what are you attracted to?  How are you presenting yourself (as the energy you give off influences what you are attracting)?  If you are interested in a “certain type” and things work out the same way, maybe it’s time to expand your horizons and look at something different.

Are you respecting yourself and properly enforcing your boundaries?  Do you even know what your own boundaries are?  Unfortunately, many of us don’t really know what our boundaries are.  We know when they have been violated because of how it makes us feel, but even then, we often don’t know how to enforce them.

 

Another big question you I think people need to ask is, what are you bringing IN to the relationship?

Yourself obviously, but what does that actually mean?

As people, we are the sum of our experiences – both good and bad.  The experiences shape us, and shape our expectations of what we are looking for, and how people will treat us.

What are your expectations in a relationship?  Are they realistic?  I find that one of the biggest sources of unhappiness for people is that their life hasn’t turned out quite the way they thought it would.  Frequently by all objective measures those people have a lot to be happy about, but it is the comparison to the expectations they had for live that lead to their disappointment.

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One of the things we bring with us into relationships that can often be damaging is our coping skills.

What are your coping skills?  How do you deal with conflict, or respond when things get hard?  How do you fight?  Do you shut down and pretend things are alright?  Do you get angry?  Petty?  Passive aggressive?

Lastly, what baggage/insecurities do you bring into your relationship?  We all damaged in some way, and that’s okay.  We all have our own baggage, and although that baggage can seem like it’s part of who we are, it’s up to us to deal with it.

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Part of dealing with it involves allowing our partners understand our baggage, so we need to be willing to let them in enough to understand it.  We need to be willing to tell them how we have been hurt in the past, what are triggers are, and why we feel the way we do about things.  This can be difficult, because these are often some of our most personal and sensitive memories/experiences.  However by opening up and communicating these things to our partners we are allowing them to understand us.  When someone can understand why we feel the way we do about things, it allows them to approach those triggers with empathy and care.

 

If we are not careful, our personal issues and insecurities can easily start to poison our relationships, so an important question is what are you doing about them?

If you take the approach “this is just how I am”, you are expecting the other person to accommodate you, and that’s not fair.  And they should be understanding/empathic, and try to accommodate you to a degree.  At the same time though, you need to work on your own issues (own your own sh*t as some would say).

HealYourself

 

I believe taking a hard looking in the mirror, and trying to understand what you bring in to a relationship is very important to the health of any relationship; as it allows you to understand how you contribute in both positive and negative ways.

Understanding your own role in something gives you a degree of power.  Because you can’t change other people, at best you can influence them.  However you are always capable of recognizing parts of yourself you may not like, and working to improve them.

Saying “this is just the way I am” is just as much of a cop out as “I just need to find the right person”.

It’s more accurate to say “this is just the way I am – right now”.  But it doesn’t have to be the way you are tomorrow. 

 

I opened with the idea that the quality of your relationship often has much less to do with your partner, and a lot more to do with you.

What you are interested in, the energy you give off, how you enforce your boundaries, how you cope, and how you deal with your own baggage.  These are all things that influence the success of your relationships, and they all come from you.  And you are the only person who can change these things.

So instead of “I just need to find the right person” maybe a big part of thing is “I just need to BE the right person”.  I’m not suggesting you should ever change for someone else.  But you are never a victim, and you can always strive to be the best version of you.

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How The Primal Brain Damages Relationships

Before I became a parent, I had a vision of the type of parent I wanted to be.

I thought I would be someone who would talk “to” his kids –not down to them.

I would treat them like “people”, with kindness and respect.  They were small people, sure; but they were still people.

Because of this I figured I wouldn’t need to raise my voice or yell, and I definitely wouldn’t ever do anything like spank them.  Instead, I would be patient.  I would explain things to them, and use reason when dealing with them.

Ha.

Man was I ever naive.

Nice idea in theory, but in practice?  It doesn’t necessarily work.

 

See, kids are still learning how to interact with the world around them, and they are just learning about their own emotions.

Sometimes kids (mine included) will have tantrums.  And experience has shown me that during time of high emotion (such as during the heat of a tantrum) there is no reasoning.  There is no logic.

In those moments, they are simply REACTING, and are completely out of control.

After the moment has passed and they have calmed down, THEN I can talk to them.  That is when they will be able to actually hear me, and reason will kinda/sorta/maybe work.

In a heightened emotional state though, reason has no chance.

 

 

I see this a lot in life.

Times where people do things and make choices that leave me dumbfounded.  Often I’m left wondering “what the hell are they thinking?”

And that’s just it.

Sometimes people aren’t thinking.

Sometimes people WILL made decisions that are absolutely TERRIBLE, and have long term ramifications that seem so obvious I can’t understand HOW people could possibly make the decisions they do.

But maybe in those moments people aren’t actually thinking.  Maybe in those moments they are just reacting, and aren’t actually CAPABLE of understanding the implications of their choices.

 

The Primal Brain

Now, a bit of a disclaimer here.  Usually my posts have a fair bit of research to them, and I have facts to support what I’m saying.

For this one, I’m kinda flying by the seat of my pants and throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.  So hopefully this makes sense to someone other than me.  Maybe there is data to back it up, maybe not; but it still “feels” right to me.

I first started thinking about this stuff when reading up on anxiety, and the fight or flight response.

The fight or flight response is something we’ve all probably experienced at one point in time or another.  It occurs when you are in a situation that you feel threatened, or uneasy, and it’s largely a physiological response.  Biology takes over, and (as the name implies) a person gets ready to either stand and fight or run away.  It’s a survival mechanism that is built into our DNA.

I’ve seen this described as being part of the primal, lizard, or reptilian brain.  And it’s described as follows (from brainupfl.org):

Our most primitive piece of brain anatomy is responsible for basic functions (i.e. breathing, heatbeat) and primal instincts (i.e. survival, dominance, mating).

 

Think about this for a moment:

Survival, dominance, mating.

All of these things are kind of important, and they are also things that often get people in a TON of trouble!!!

In each of these areas, you hear stories where people sometimes do things that they never believed they were capable of – sometimes for good, but usually for bad.  And when these things happen, those who know them look at these people and struggle with reconciling the action with the person.

Abuse, affairs, murder even.  The term “crimes of passion” is used to describe actions someone took because of a strong sudden impulse, but was not premeditated.

In these cases, I think the primal brain is at work.

To be clear, I don’t think the idea of people reacting to the primal brain means they aren’t responsible for their choices.  They still are – ALWAYS.

But this does highlight the importance of people being more responsible for their own emotional state (more on this below…).

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I think this idea of the primal brain and certain instinctual behaviors being able to override logic and reason (and the ability to think through consequences) is supported by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy is an idea about human motivation and personal growth.  In it he breaks down different levels of needs, with the fundamental ones at the bottom and the “higher level” needs at the top.  One of the primary ideas is that we need to be in a position where our lower level needs are being met before we can move up the hierarchy to the higher level needs.

maslow-pyramid

 

Taking a look at the bottom level (or basic needs) you have things needed for survival, followed by a need for safety and security.  And although it’s not depicted on the chart I have here, often sexual instinct is seen as a need that sits at the level of basic needs.

Psychological needs such as love and intimacy are next, which means they can’t be met until our physiological and safety needs are met.

This makes a ton of sense.

Love and intimacy is based on trust, and when issues occur in relationships that break down trust usually the sense of intimacy soon breaks down as well.

 

Coping Mechanisms

Any regular readers will know that I talk a lot about coping mechanisms.

Over the past few years I’ve come to believe that the coping mechanisms each individual brings to the table are probably the most important things that contribute to the success and longevity of the relationship.

So what are coping mechanisms?

Well, here’s my take on it…

Our coping mechanisms are the default behaviors we exhibit when confronted with threat or conflict.  These behaviors are our automatic responses, and are probably a combination of nature and nurture.  Although there may be an inherent component to them, they are also learned behaviors.

Going back the Fight or Flight response, I think everyone’s coping mechanisms fall someone on a spectrum, where we have aggression and anger (fight) on one side of the scale, and we have withdrawing or shutting down (flight) on the other end of the spectrum.

BOTH of these approaches are TERRIBLE for both individual health and for relationships.

The way I see it, both extremes of fight and flight are responses of the primal brain.  In both scenarios, someone is simply reacting to a situation, and during those moments they are incapable of reason, logic, or thinking of consequences.

But these responses aren’t either/or, they sit on a spectrum.

So a goal we should ALL have is to work on our coping mechanisms.  We should work on regaining control, and not letting our primal brain take over.

If we are someone who reacts with anger when things go wrong, we need to learn to control that.  If we are someone who shuts down and withdraws when times are hard, we need to learn to work with other people and stop retreating into ourselves.

 

As kids, we are learning the world around us and learning to manage our feelings and emotions.  And sadly, some of us don’t really learn that very well.

But the key word here is learn.

Shutting down and withdrawing, or becoming aggressive and angry in the face of perceived threat or challenge is never the answer.  We should always strive to find a way to push back the primal brain and respond with reason.  Because caring, compassion and empathy are all higher level functions; and they require us to be able to stay in control

Our coping mechanisms, no matter how broken, can always be improved.

And in many cases our very relationships depend on it.

The Disease of Me

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I’ve been writing about relationships for a number of years now, and during that time I’ve read a lot of books and talked to a lot of people.

One thing I’ve found is, although each person and each relationship is a bit different; people’s problems are largely the same.  There are a lot of couples out there who are struggling with slightly different variations of the same things.  But when you really break down the problems, at their root one of the largest problems is that people frequently choose “me” over “we”.

Put another way, one of the largest problems in relationships is selfishness.

I see being in a relationship as being part of a team.  And the same team “skills” that apply in a work environment or on a sports team also apply in relationships.

 

For years, Pat Riley was widely regarded as one of the top coaches in professional basketball.  He coined the phrase “the disease of me” to describe selfishness, and how runs contrary to the ideas that are required in order for a team to succeed.

The most difficult thing for players to do when they become part of a team is to sacrifice. It is much easier, and much more natural, to be selfish. – Pat Riley

Pat Riley makes a great observation here – it is much more natural to be selfish.  I believe this is very true.

 

As children, our world is about our needs and our fears.  Parents are in our life to provide for us and to shelter us, and I think we see them for the utility that they bring us instead of seeing us as people.

We grow, and develop friendships.  And although we care about those people, it is still mainly about what they do for us.  How much we enjoy being around them, and how they make us feel.

We start romantic relationships, and in the beginning these are COMPLETELY about us.  We have things we want out of life, and things we are looking for in another person.  And we view this potential partner in terms of what WE get out of the relationship, and how WE feel around that person.

This sense of love being about us and our needs is captured well by someone who writes about having an affair:

I wish I’d known what love was. I craved feelings I labeled as love. Feelings that came from having someone I valued value me in return. It made me feel I was all that. In fact, the more I esteemed the other person, the stronger the effect. But, what I really loved was how they made me feel about myself. The reflection of my image in their eyes made me feel amazing. But love isn’t that feeling, rather it’s the grace my wife extended, not when I deserved it, but rather when I least deserved it.

 

This inherent selfishness makes sense.  As a person, I can’t see into someone else’s head – but I am acutely aware of what I feel.  My feelings, my emotions, and how events impact me.  I may be able to tell that I have hurt someone around me, but I’m experiencing that through observation and interpretation of their actions and responses to my own.  I can’t actually FEEL their pain.  So it makes sense that it is less important to me than my own.

So yeah, selfishness may be inherent.  But not being able to grow past it is a sign of emotional immaturity.

Truly caring for others (versus seeing them primarily as a tool for our own needs) is learned.  Empathy is learned.  But the capability to learn these things is a huge part of what makes us human.

We may start by only being able to see the world in terms of how it affects us.  But part of growing up involves understanding that everything isn’t about us.

We may go into relationships because of what we want, and what we get out of them.  But for that relationship to truly grow and succeed, it HAS to become something more.  We have to come to see the other persons wants and needs as just as important as our own.  And there are times that we have to be willing to sacrifice what WE want for the benefit of the relationship.

If we can’t?

Then what we have isn’t truly a relationship.

Or if it is, it’s a parasitic one instead of a symbiotic one.  If we are there primarily for what we get and we can’t see the value of what we put in, the relationship will never be able to last.

 

In discussing the “disease of me” in the context of a basketball team, Pat Riley came up with the following warning signs:

  1. Feelings of under appreciation (‘woe is me’)
  2. Focusing on personal playing time and stats
  3. Internal cliques within the team
  4. Excessive joy in a personal performance when the team loses
  5. Frustration from lack of playing time when the team wins
  6. Desire to have more recognition than a teammate

 

Although this list has a basketball focus, the basic idea still applies in relationships.  Not feeling appreciated, focusing on what YOU get out of the relationship, not taking pride in or appreciating your partner’s successes, and valuing yourself above your partner.  All of these indicate selfishness.

 

But wait a minute?  What about me?  Am I saying that relationships are all about “us”, and you need to lose the “me” in order to be successful in a relationship?

No, not at all.

You matter.  Your needs and wants in the relationship matter.  You need to be able to maintain the “individual” as part of the relationship.

But your partner matters too.

In a healthy relationship, you have found a balance between me and we.  You accept that you are building something larger than you, and that sometimes you need to sacrifice for the good of the relationship.

Healthy relationships have strong communication, and accept that there are both individual and couple goals.  And they work to find a balance where both can be worked towards.

I think the following quote sums this up well:

selfishness-quotes

 

Everyone has needs and wants, and it’s important to strive towards them.  That’s healthy.

But when you put your needs and wants above those of your partner, and expect them to conform to you; that’s selfish.  And that is VERY bad for relationships.

 

A while back I came up with my three keys to a successful relationship:

 

  1. love each other (actively)
  2. don’t be selfish
  3. communicate

 

Three simple rules that I think can make any relationship better.

Loving each other should be easy.  Communication may not be easy, but it’s a skill that can be improved over time.  The real key is not being selfish.

Selfish people CAN change.  But no one can change them.

They have to be willing to see how much damage their self-absorption has caused to those around them, and then they have to want to change on their own.

And when they can’t, or won’t?  Sometimes the only thing you can do is walk away.  Because often their pursuit of happiness will come at the expense of yours.

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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.

Doing What You Want

Oscillating

In life, we are individuals first and foremost.  And as individuals, we are able to do anything we want.

Other people can suggest things to us, and they may have a level of influence over us; but we ultimately control our own choices and actions.  No one can force us to do anything we don’t want to do.

So my question is should we ever have to do anything we don’t want to do?

 

At first glance, the answer seems obvious:

No, of course not.

If you don’t want to do something, why in the world would you do it?  Right?

Unfortunately things aren’t that simple.

 

Your Life is Not Your Own.

We are individuals.  And yes, we CAN do what we want.  But we do not live in a vacuum.

Our choices and decisions impact others.  If you are in a relationship, or have children; your actions often have a significant impact on those people (whether you like it or not).

There’s no escaping this.  Even if we are single, living on our own and fully independent – there are still going to be times that our actions impact others.  Maybe it’s co-workers, or neighbors, or even just friends.

So no, I don’t think it’s fair to say that someone can ever just do what they want.  Short of removing ourselves from civilization, moving to an isolated island and returning to a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, our actions ALWAYS impact others.

 

Most of us don’t want to live on an island by ourselves though.  We are social creatures, and we all crave social connection.

Actually, even if we WERE on an island by ourselves we would still desire/need connection.  In the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks was stranded for years, and the only thing that kept him sane was having his volleyball buddy Wilson to talk to (for those that haven’t seen it, Wilson actually was a volleyball).  Yeah it was a fictional movie, but it struck a chord because people are social animals – I suspect that’s why solitary confinement is considered a form of punishment.

So we seek out connection.  We look for people who we can talk to and listen to.  People who make us feel valued, seen, and heard.

And for many of us, this is what leads us to look for a partner in life.  Someone to build a life with, and someone we can envision one day “growing old” with.

 

Building a Relationship

Looking at romantic relationships (marriage/partner), one of the unwritten rules is that the other person has to matter to you.  Your choices affect them, and their choices affect you.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change anything about the way you live or the choices you make.  After all, for the relationship to work you still need to be you and your partner needs to be able to accept you as such.

Being in a relationship doesn’t mean you aren’t an individual anymore, but it does mean you are more than just an individual.

Because of this you need to keep in mind how your choices will impact your partner.  Relationships require caring, empathy, and accepting influence.  And taking your partner into account is part of that.

 

This brings me back to my initial question:

Should we ever have to do anything we don’t want to do?

If your partner wants you to do something and you don’t want to do it, should you be willing to do it for them?  Or do you just say I don’t want to, or that’s not my thing?

It’s a difficult question.

 

Clearly that depends on what it is, and on the perceived expectation from your partner.

If your partner wants you to be their getaway driver for a bank heist, then it’s pretty easy to just say no.  If they want you to have an orgy with the neighbor and a goat, again, pretty easy to say no.

But what if it’s a fairly reasonable request?

 

Let’s say your partner loves opera and wants you to join them, but you don’t like it.  Should you go with them?  How about if you are planning a vacation and struggling to find a place you both want to go, or even just trying to pick a movie to see?

Are relationships only about finding a person with similar interests, and then only doing things together that you both enjoy?  Or are there time that you should do things you may not really be interested in doing?

 

In my opinion, for a relationship to be successful there HAS to be give and take.  You need to be able to go outside your comfort zone and do things with your partner that isn’t necessarily your thing.  If I go to the opera with my partner (and I don’t enjoy opera), it has nothing to do with opera.  Instead, it’s about sharing moments and experiences with your partner that are important to them.  You aren’t showing interest in opera – you are showing interest in your partner.

It doesn’t mean you should have to go with them all the time.  But sharing moments that are important to them is about accepting influence from them.  In some ways you can think of it as investing in your relationship, and in your future.

 

 

Doing Your Own Thing

In relationships, the balance between individual and part of a couple can be hard, and there are often conflicting messages.

Sometimes you hear things like “happiness is found in doing things for others”.  Other times you hear things like “there’s nothing selfish about putting yourself first, taking care of yourself and making yourself a priority”.

So which is it?  Is it best to do things for others all the time or should you just look out for yourself?

The challenge is, both of these are true.  Looking out for yourself may SEEM selfish, but in some ways it’s not.  YOU MATTER!!!  Your needs, your wants and your desires are important.  They need to matter, whether you are in a relationship or not.

Once in a relationship however, the other person needs to matter too.  And when needs and wants conflict, it can’t just be about you.

Relationships aren’t just about getting your way, and doing what you want.  They don’t only apply when both people’s needs/wants happen to line up.

 

If you don’t want to do something and feel you shouldn’t have to do anything you don’t want, then that’s fine.  That’s an individual choice that you can make.

But if someone in a relationship feels they should be able to do whatever they want without taking into account how it will impact their partner, then that’s not a relationship.

They are looking for someone to be there on their terms only, and to care of their needs.  What they really want is to pick and choose the parts of the relationship that work for them.

In that situation there isn’t much accepting influence, caring or empathy.

And without that, there isn’t much love.

selfish

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

hopefails

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.