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.

Living in Fantasy Land

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Growing up I read a lot of books, and my genre of choice was fantasy.

Castles, knights, dragons, elves, dwarves, creatures like trolls/orcs/goblins etc; quests for mystical objects to save the world from some impending doom or evil.

I love that stuff.

For me, the fantasy genre was a way to escape into a world that was completely different from the one I knew.  There was nobility, intrigue, betrayal, redemption.  And there was usually the romantic notion of good triumphing over evil.

 

In the fantasy world, everything people did had a purpose.  You don’t see a lot of people doing things like eating, going to the bathroom, cleaning up the yard, or paying the bills.  They don’t even really talk about their day.  But when they do, it’s known as “character development”.

In the world of fantasy, things are always exciting!!!

(Alright, I know.  In Lord of the Rings the characters do a lot of walking.  And I mean A LOT.  But hey, they had to cross all of Middle Earth and it’s not like they had cars or anything.  So even all that walking was done with a noble purpose in mind).

 

The main draw of the fantasy world is, it’s just that.  Fantasy.  It’s not real.  It’s an escape.

When we read about knights and dragons, it’s pretty clear that this is just a make believe world.  Same as the world of superheroes, science fiction, and Disney princesses.

It’s less clear when the fantasy world more closely resembles that of real life.  TV shows, movies, books.  Often they are set in “the real world”, but they are just as separated from real life as the world of Fantasy.

And problems can occur when fantasy starts to interfere with real life.

 

 

Romantic Love

I write about relationships, and with that I truly believe in love, romance, and all the stuff that comes with that.

But I completely reject the way love is often portrayed.

True love.  The One.  Two people’s eyes meeting across a crowded room, and they know they will be together forever.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a romantic so I understand the appeal of that stuff.  But it’s a load of crap, and I think it does a lot of damage to people’s understandings of real, healthy relationships.

fantasyquote2

 

Let’s look at dating, and love.

Love is supposed to be altruistic.  It’s about genuinely caring about another person, and being able to (at times) put their needs and wants first.  It’s about being part of something that’s bigger than you.

In the dating world on the other hand, you see a selfish form of love.  When you first meet someone, do you REALLY care about them?  Umm, no.  Dating is primarily about what YOU want, and how you can find someone who will be able to satisfy YOUR needs and wants.  Sure, you give to the other person.  But that giving isn’t done freely, it’s done because of what we get out of it.  Either it makes us feel good to give, or we are expecting something in return.

In the dating world, you (usually) aren’t even YOU.  Instead, you are portraying a version of you.  And usually, you are putting forth what you believe to be the best version of you, or the version that you think the other person will be most interested in.

And the other person is doing the same.

You are exchanging carefully constructed facades, which have elements of the “real people” underneath.  But there is a lot that is left hidden, or unsaid.

Dating may have elements of a deeper relationship.  But like Fantasy it’s only a part of it, it’s not based on reality.

In a perfect world, as you get to know each other better you come to value the other person as more than just a vehicle for your needs.  You come to understand them, and genuinely care about them.  And eventually, you start to think of the relationship with them as something larger than use yourself.  You are contributing to something, and building something.  You are still “you”, but you are now also part of an “us”.

 

Romance stories and movies usually depict the early stages of relationships.  The excitement, the passion and the romance.  And often they end with the couple finally “making it” (usually after going their separate ways after a misunderstanding, and then at the last minute realizing they do belong together after all).

Romance stories usually end with the wedding.  Really though, that’s where “easy” stops and the real work begins.

 

When Life Gets in the Way

Life is mostly routine.  We work, pay bills, shop for groceries, prepare meals, do yard work, etc.  All of this is stuff we “have” to do, and there’s nothing particularly exciting or romantic about it.  But really, this is where most of our energy gets spent.  Add kids to the mix, and often it seems there’s little time left to focus on being lovers and being a couple.  So people settle into patterns, and what may have started as passionate love becomes a love based more on comfort and familiarity.

Love based on comfort and familiarity isn’t a bad thing.  At the same time though, romance doesn’t have to die.  In fact, it should NEVER die.  But it will change, and unless a couple works at it they will end up waking up one day and finding they are more roommates than a couple.

Romance doesn’t just happen.  Passion doesn’t just happen.

In the early days it’s there because it’s new, we are learning each other, and we are putting energy into it.  When we stop putting in, it fades.  And it’s not the responsibility of one person to keep things “alive”.  Both people in a relationship need to be willing to put the effort in, and prioritize being lovers.

 

Finding Passion again – the WRONG way!!!

A while back I interviewed a guy who cheated on his wife, and posted the story of his affair.  I’ve talked to a number of people and read a number of stories about affairs, and often the story is similar.

People get caught up in the “routine” side of life and find themselves longing for the “old days”.  They find themselves missing the early stages of love – the passionate side.  And they convince themselves that is “real” love, and they will never be able to find it again with their current partner.  They feel “dead inside”, so they start to look elsewhere in order to feel alive again.

In talking about his affair, he wrote:

I was lonely and dying for attention, which is what led me to look for it elsewhere. I did not do this looking for an affair, but just some attention that validated I was worth something. Then I met the other woman (OW), one thing led to another until I was in a full blown affair.

 

Affair are like a return to the world of dating, and it’s important to note that they are not real life. Rather, they are a way to escape from the pressures and stresses of real life.

Just like an alcoholic turning to drink, or an addict turning to a chemical high, affairs are a way to escape from reality.  Affair partners meet up in secret, and it’s all about need fulfillment.

There’s no real responsibility; no worrying about mortgages, bills or the kids.  Rather, the relationship with the affair partner is like being on a constant vacation.

Really, they are an “easy way out”.   Instead of actually facing and dealing with problems within a relationship, or accepting that the problems within a relationship are significant enough that the relationship should end; an affair is a way for someone to “have it both ways”.  They are able to pick and choose the parts of the relationship they want to deal with in their primary relationship, and then find the parts that are missing elsewhere.

Of course, they also destroy lives and do a tremendous amount of damage to everyone involved.

They are also not sustainable. 

Eventually, if the affair partners see each other enough the “vacation” will end.  Real life will start to intrude, with issues and responsibilities.  When this happens the carefully constructed facades crumble, and the real person beneath starts to show.  A real person, who has real problems just like anyone else.  And when this becomes apparent, the appeal of the affair is often broken.

It was euphoria when were together and agony when we were apart. This is what fed the illusion that it was such a great “relationship”. The reality was, it was just fantasy land and as I began to see her with everyday problems like us, the less and less I wanted to be with her.  I think I was finally really realizing what I had done. I was seeing that the OW was really just fantasy land and none of it was real.

 

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When the fantasy of the affair was broken and reality hit, he found himself trying to understand “why” he did it.  Why he felt such chemistry and passion with his affair partner but not with his wife.  And his answer was simple:

It is a funny question to me now. What did she see that my wife didn’t? I can answer it without a problem. She saw someone who had an interest in them. Who made them feel attractive and interesting. So she never saw me, she saw what I was giving her. So the real question I should have been asking myself was not “What did she see that my wife didn’t?” but “What I am giving her that I am not giving my wife?”

 

He had chemistry and passion not because of anything special about his affair partner.  No, it was there because of what he put into the relationship.  Time, energy, and effort.  He put that in to his time with his affair partner, and this led to the passion he had been missing.

 

Fantasy land is just that.  Fantasy.  It’s great as an escape, but it’s important to remember that it is not real life.  And it’s an escape that should only ever occur within the mind.

When the lines start to blur between fantasy and reality, often many lives are affected.

And no matter how great the fantasy world may seem, eventually reality always comes crashing down.

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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Empty Love

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Relationships are hard.

That’s a simple fact – borne out by divorce rates which continue to hover around the 50% mark.

And then there’s that additional question – for every relationship that “makes it”, how many are actually happy?

How many people get up each and every day, and actively CHOOSE their partner?  How many are grateful for what they have?

Instead of that, I really wonder how many are just going through the motions and living day by day.  Still married on paper, but no longer in mind or soul?

 

All couples are different, but I think the story of a failing marriage is all too familiar.

A couple meet, and fall in love.  Everything is great, or at least good enough that they decide to get married.  And those first few years they are pretty happy.

Then over time, life starts to get in the way.  Jobs, mortgages, bills, kids, extended families.  All the stresses of “everyday life” happen, and this person who started as your friend and lover morphs into something more like a business partner.  Instead of fun and exciting, things become safe, and mundane.  And instead of actively showing each other how much we care about them, we often start to take each other for granted.

Fact for you – MOST couples don’t do a very good job of keeping the romance and the fun alive.

And then one day they wake up, and realize the passion is gone.

 

What Makes a Couple a Couple?

Let’s rewind a bit, to the early days of a relationship; and think about what it actually is that makes a couple a couple.

Is a couple defined by two people who live together?  No, you can live together and just be roommates.  Conversely you can be in a relationship without living together.  So living together has nothing to do with it.

Is it because you are close friends?  Again, no.  Yeah, friendship is an important *part* of a relationship but being a couple implies something more than that.

The term “friend zone” is used to describe when one person is looking for a relationship with another person, but in return they are just viewed as a friend.

When you have feelings for someone and you are stuck in the friend zone, this is seen as a bad thing.

Having it happen with someone you are hoping to have a relationship with is one thing – if things don’t develop into anything more you can just move on.  But when it happens when you are already IN a relationship (or worse, married)?

Well, that sucks all around.  And realistically, I’m pretty sure it’s not what anyone thought they were signing up for when the relationship started.

No, when you are a couple it is implied that each person views the other as something more, something special.  There is a degree of connection that exists, and often this connection is tied to feelings of closeness, affection, and trust.

 

Triangle Theory of Love

A while back I came across the idea of the “Triangle Theory of Love”, and I think it’s brilliant.  Love is a really difficult concept, and if you ask people to describe love, you are liable to get a different answer from every person you ask.  That’s because there are different elements to it.

triangular_theory_of_love

 

This diagram breaks love down into three basic components:

  1. Passion
  2. Commitment
  3. Intimacy

 

When we look at “romance novel” or “movie” love, the focus is always on the passion.  THIS is the part of love that people are often led to believe IS love.

But it’s not.

It’s a starting point, and a component of love.  But passion on its own does not make a sustainable relationship.  If a relationship is based only on passion, eventually it will burn itself out.  So there has to be more.

 

Although passion is great, I think Intimacy is actually a MUCH more meaningful part of love.  Intimacy is vulnerability.  This is where you have let down all the walls, and truly let the other person in.

Passion is a physical connection, which often seems emotional as well.  Intimacy however is something deeper.  I think of intimacy as almost a spiritual connection.

 

Lastly you have commitment.  People talk about commitment as if it’s this great thing, but I’m not so sure if it is.  Commitment is simply saying “I will always be there for you, no matter what”.  It’s the “in good times and in bad times” part of a relationship.  And that part IS important, because there will always be bad times.  There will always be challenges.  So commitment is what keeps you together, even when it’s not easy.  Even when maybe you don’t even want to be.

 

Empty Love

Common complaint for couples in trouble is that they feel like nothing more than roommates.  They are still together, but they are more two individuals occupying the same space.

The passion is gone.  The intimacy is gone.  And the connection is gone.

All that’s left is commitment.  And when that’s all you have left, it’s a very hollow and lonely way to love.

 

Robert Smith (The Cure) sums it up beautifully in the song Bare

 

But holding onto used to be

Is not enough

Memory’s not life

And it’s not love

 

Think about that for a moment – memory is not life, and it’s not love.

When all you have left is commitment, you have empty love.  You have history, memory, and nothing more.

I think THIS is the biggest challenge in long term relationships.  THIS is the problem that happens to SO many couples.

And THIS is why so many relationships fail.

Empty love.

Commitment, when both the passion and the intimacy have gone.

 

Choosing Love

When you have Passion, Intimacy AND Commitment all together, you have a beautiful, incredible thing.

But it’s something that is SO easy to lose.

How does this happen?  WHY does this happen?  And what can we do about it?

 

A while back, one reader (apensiveheart) gave me this comment, and I think it sums things up beautifully:

Love isn’t a feeling. Love is a verb. It is action. It is work. Part of the reason it is so successful and feels so good in the early part of a relationship is because we are willing to put in the work and make the effort to do what our companion desires. Over time, we lose that need or that desire to put that same level of effort in, and things begin to deteriorate. I think we forget just how hard we tried in the beginning simply because the feelings made it feel so easy and natural. We go from asking what can I do for you, to instead asking what can you do for me. The whole dynamic changes because our perspective changes from caring about them to caring more about ourselves.

This is one of my core beliefs about love – it’s an action, a choice.  If we want to maintain intimacy and passion, we need to work on it.

And I guess this is the real value of commitment.

Commitment ISN’T about staying together no matter what.  Commitment does not mean accepting empty love.

Commitment means always choosing your partner, each and every day.  And not just choosing them, but also putting IN to the relationship.

Working on it – working on intimacy.  Working on passion.  Making ALL aspects of love a priority in your relationship, and doing your best to prevent it from failing.

 

When relationships fail, couples often say that they “fell out of love”.  Or they still love each other, but they were no longer “in love”.

I think they are talking about empty love.  Commitment, without passion or intimacy.

When that happens, I think the fault lies with the person who fell out of love.  Because love is not supposed to be passive.  It’s not just something you “feel” one day, and not another day.

Instead, I believe each person in the relationship is responsible for their feelings of love for their partner.  Part of that commitment involves nurturing that love.

Waking each day, and looking at the good side in the relationship.  Appreciating their partner for who they are, instead of who they aren’t.  And working together to improve the things that need to be improved.

When people “fall out of love” they often believe it’s some sort of incompatibility with their partner.  Or it’s a sign that something is wrong in the relationship.

But love isn’t just a feeling.  It’s not supposed to be passive.

So if they aren’t actively choosing love, each and every day; the person they should really be blaming – is themselves.

I Promise to Hurt You

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In my writing, I generally try to have a positive look at relationships and marriage.  I’m a big believer that marriage can be a great thing, while acknowledging that often it ends up not being all that it can and should be.

With that, todays headline may seem like an error at first.  But it’s not.

Yeah, I am intentionally saying “I promise TO hurt you” (instead of I promise NOT to hurt you).  And no, I’m not talking about hurting someone in the “50 Shades of Grey” sense.

I’m talking about actually hurting someone.  Not physically, but emotionally or mentally.  And I’m not saying I may hurt you.  I’m saying I will – and so will you.

So what am I talking about here?

 

Vulnerability

Who can hurt you?

If you’re talking physically anyone can hurt you.  Periodically people will bump into me with their carts when I’m out shopping, and it hurts.  I play basketball, and sometimes guys will hit me with an elbow or a knee, and yeah, that hurts too.  Hell, my kids will sometime hit me with random toys while playing.

Those kinds of hurts?  Those are just things that happen.  Generally people say sorry (hopefully), bruises heal, and you move on.

But who can REALLY hurt you – the kind of hurt that lingers long after the physical hurt has healed?

The people who can really hurt you the people who are closest to you; the people who love you.  The people you never expect it from; parents, siblings, friends, children and most importantly your partner.

Why?

Because we care about and trust these people.  We believe they value us and want what is best for us.  We allow ourselves to be vulnerable with them, and as a result we open ourselves up to potentially be hurt.

 

Being Human

I consider myself a fairly good guy.  Based on my belief set I try to do “the right thing”, and when I screw up I try to take accountability for my own actions.

I try, I really do.

But I still screw up sometimes.

I have days where I’m frustrated and I inadvertently take it out on those around me.  I have times that I think I’m being funny, but in reality I’m being hurtful.  I have days that I can be self-absorbed, and not pay enough attention to those around me.

I know these things happen, and I know that when they do they hurt those around me – those who I profess to love the most.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

In turn, I can guarantee that I’ve been hurt badly by those who I care about the most.  My parents, my siblings, my wife.

It happens with my friends too, but that happens less frequently.  Why?  Honestly, it’s because I see them a lot less.

When you are around people a lot, they have more opportunities to see you at your worst.

 

A Higher Standard

Interestingly, I’ve been hurt by my kids too; but it tends to sting less because they are just kids, and I figure they don’t know any better.  To me those “teaching moments”, on how you need to be conscious of how you treat other people.

Here’s the thing though, at some level I hold those closest to me to a higher standard.  Subconsciously I figure that because they care about me, they should know better and they should DO better.  So when they hurt me, it shows they don’t care.

 

I think we all do this in relationships to some degree.  We hold our partners to a higher standard, and when they hurt us it slowly erodes the trust we have in them.  And as the trust erodes, so is our willingness to be vulnerable.  After all, someone can’t hurt us if we don’t let them in.

I’ve heard it said that relationships rarely die because of some big event.  Instead, it’s usually the death of a thousand cuts – a thousand times that someone has hurts us, and we don’t want to let them do that anymore.

 

Accepting Hurt

The obvious solution to preserve our relationships is for us to stop hurting each other.  To always be conscious of what we say, and what we do.  To always be considerate and take our partner into account with everything we do.

But that’s a pipe dream.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a goal, and one we should all aspire to.  Thing is, we all have bad days.  We all have moments we wish we could take back.

That doesn’t excuse bad behavior, and it shouldn’t be a pattern.  But maybe we need to accept that sometimes our partners WILL hurt us.

And when it happens, we communicate it.  Maybe not right in the moment, but we tell them “hey, when you did this it hurt me”.  And then we let it go.

Because holding on to hurt allows it to grow.  That allows it to break down trust, break down vulnerability, and break down relationships.

 

I would never tell someone I promise not to hurt them, because I know that’s a promise I would not be able to keep.

Instead I would promise people that I would not intentionally hurt them.  And when I do hurt them, I want to know about it, and I want to be held accountable for it.

I can never change the past.  But I can always do my best to prevent the past from poisoning the future.

Sorting Things Out

self-doubt_header

In the past I’ve written about relationship doubt and some of the things that can cause it.  Broken trust, anxiety issues, a belief that there may be someone out there who is *better* for you; all of these things can cause doubts.

Doubt is understandable but it’s also very dangerous, as belief is tied to effort.  At both a conscious or an unconscious level, the more someone doubts the less they put INTO the relationship.  As a result, if doubt is not dealt with it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, destroying the relationships.

 

In this post I want to look not only at the person having doubts, but also how it impacts the other person in the relationship.

 

 

If someone is having doubts about whether or not they really want their relationship or if it is the right one for them, there are a few things to think about.

First is the nature of the relationship.  It’s one thing to have doubts if you are casually dating, as those doubts are part of determining if it’s a relationship you actually want to commit to.  Once you have committed, things change a bit; and if you are living together, married, and/or have kids together then the complexity of the situation increases significantly.

Even in complex situations it is important to remember that a relationship involves two people.

If you are having doubts, you owe it to your partner to be honest with them.  Any problem or doubts you have affect them too – they NEED to know about it and they need to have an opportunity to be part of any solution.

 

I can understand the idea that sometimes we want to keep our thoughts to ourselves, especially when periods of doubt can be times when we don’t even really know what’s going on in our own heads.

However it’s pretty common to hear stories where one person thought that things were going pretty well, until one day they find out their partner has decided they want a divorce and they have already made up their mind.

To me, that should never, EVER happen.  Relationships are based on communication.  No one should ever be blindsided by these types of things.  If there is a problem, they have a right to know about it, and to at least have an opportunity to try and work on things; instead of being faced with a position where by the time they know it’s too late.

When someone doesn’t share their doubts, those doubts tend to grow and deepen.  And when that happens a distance will form, as the person with the doubts will naturally tend to withdraw and detach themselves from the relationship.

Some people may claim that their partner knew there were issues.  They had to, because they obviously saw the changes in behavior.

Well yeah, maybe.  I’m sure they did know something was up.  But unless it was communicated to them they had no way of understanding the severity of the doubt.  Relationships go through ups and downs all the time, frequently someone thinks they are just going through a down time – and then one day they wake up to find they are facing a divorce they never saw coming.

doubtpoisons

 

Time to Figure Things Out

Relationships change, things happen, and sometimes people question whether the life they have is really the one they want.  When it happens it sucks for everyone involved, but it’s part of life.

And when this happens, the person with doubts often wants some time and space to “figure things out”.  I get that.  It’s understandable that they can’t be fully engaged in a relationship if they aren’t sure they want it anymore.  And depending on the source of those doubts, I think most people’s partners will try to be understanding and give them a bit of time.

Here’s the problem though – a (committed) relationship isn’t a part time gig.  It’s not the sort of thing where you can just take a sabbatical, and come back when/if you decide that yeah, you are actually committed to it.

There has to be some empathy and understanding on both sides, but people need to find a way to continue the relationship even during this time.

If they can’t?  If they really need to “take a break”?

In my mind, that is what separation is for.

It is completely unfair and selfish for someone to expect to be able to “stay” in the relationship that they aren’t committed to it anymore.  People can’t just pick and choose the parts they feel like dealing with (usually the security of home, and family) while checking out on the parts they don’t want to deal with (usually emotional and physical intimacy).

To the best of their ability they need to find a way to do both.

 

In these situations the person with the doubts often wants time to figure things out in their own way, at their own pace.  They want their partner to give them time and space with no pressure.  To wait for them.

In a way there is something romantic about the notion of waiting for someone.

It brings to mind stories of WWII, where soldiers would go off to war and their girlfriends would promise to wait for them.  And the joy they would have when they were finally reunited.

This is different though.

In those cases the relationship was separated by circumstance; and the person waiting believed they would be coming back.

In the case of someone having doubts, why should the other person wait?  They are essentially being told that the person they love is “no longer sure if they want to be with them”.

Think about that for a moment.

No longer sure.

So they love someone and have committed to them, but that person isn’t sure they want things anymore.  Instead of being committed to getting through anything together, the person they love sees them as simply an option – not a priority.

Yet they are expected to just put their life on hold and wait, in the hopes that maybe their partner will continue to choose them.

And if they don’t?

Then that time spent waiting was time wasted.  Time of their life they will never get back.

 

You Can Never Go Home Again

Doubts happen, and as noted there can be all sorts of reasons that aren’t even directly related to the relationship.  Identity issues, depression, anxiety – all of these can cause doubt.  And sometimes those doubts will never go away.

But you need to identify the real cause of the doubt and actively fight back against it.  Because when someone checks out of a relationship because of those doubts they fundamentally alter the relationship forever.

Once you have been made to feel like an option, things are never the same again.  They can still be good, or even great.  But that magic of knowing that you will always be there for each other no matter what life throws at you?

Once that has been broken it’s gone forever.

 

I recently read a blog written by someone who’s partner had checked out on the relationship, and he wasn’t sure what to do.  One of the commenters told him that he should use this time to show his wife how much he loves her, because (in her words) “women like to be chased”.

Sorry, I can’t disagree with this more.

Maybe he had been taking his partner for granted and that was contributing to her doubts.  If so, and those doubts made him realize he had been taking them her for granted (sadly something that is natural in relationships), that’s one thing.  Then he should use this as a wake up call, and adjust his behavior appropriately.

We all want to feel valued, and appreciated (that applies to women and men).  But “chasing” accomplishes nothing.  Someone has to be there because they want to be there – not because they like the thrill of being chased.

It’s like an addict chasing the next high.  If someone is only there when they are being chased, how long will it be until they check out and are gone again?

No, if someone needs that thrill and that rush, then I would say let them go.

 

 

All sorts of things can cause doubt, and at times they can be crushing.  But if you are in a relationship the worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself.

It may seem like a deeply personal thing but it doesn’t just affect one person, so both people have to be involved.  The doubts may originate with one person, but both people need to be part of the solution.

Doubt can destroy relationships but it doesn’t have to.  In fact love can be strongest when it can accept those doubts and continue to thrive in spite of them.

DoubtingLove

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.