Dealing with Emotions

Anger

Of the many roles I play in life, one of the most important is that I’m the father of two young boys. Being a parent is hard, harder than I ever imagined. And one of the hardest parts (in my opinion) is trying to teach my children to manage and regulate their emotions.

It’s easy to say that emotions are normal when we are dealing with positive emotions. Joy, laughter, curiosity, excitement, anticipation etc. But you can’t have positive emotions without also accepting the negative ones – things like anger, fear, guilt, despair, grief, shame and apathy.

We aren’t all one thing. We can’t always be happy, and we can’t always be positive. We need to accept all parts of ourselves, and be able to express them.

Recently I came across the following quote about anger:

AngerAristotle

I think this quote is perfect. Everyone gets angry sometimes. Anger is a normal and natural response to some sort of external stimuli. But having your level of anger be appropriate for the situation at hand? That’s a lot harder. And directing your anger at the right person, to the right degree, for the right reason? Much, much harder.

Emotions and Mental Health

A while back I came across this video, and it’s probably one of the most powerful 3 minutes you can spend (seriously, if you haven’t seen it check it out). It’s described as an exploration of masculinity, but to me it’s really about emotion, trying to learn and conform to what is considered “acceptable” emotion; and the problems people encounter when they try to suppress emotions and feeling that aren’t seen as acceptable.

Emotions are natural responses to external stimuli. When we try to suppress them, we are trying to deny part of what makes us who we are. And when we suppress them over an extended period of time, we do considerable harm to ourselves. The result of trying to suppress emotion is found in pain, misdirected anger, fear and loneliness. Over time this can even lead to depression.

So no, we should never try to repress emotions. Crying, anger, sadness – these are all normal, and acceptable. Going back to the Aristotle quote, the key is to be able to have an appropriate level of response.

The video above is focused on boys and men and notions of masculinity, so it applies to me as a father of two boys. But the suppression of emotions or treating emotions as “bad thing” is a wider problem. One that affects everyone – man or woman, young or old.

Emotions and Relationships

Which brings me back to my normal topic – relationships. Relationships are supposed to be a place of safety – both physically and emotionally, and emotions are also a big part of what brings us together initially. One of the key aspects of a relationship is how the other person makes us “feel”, and how we feel about ourselves around them.

I believe that when relationships struggle and/or fail often it is not due to a lack of love, but rather because of an inability to regulate emotions.

Our physical and emotional health are linked. Most people are more irritable when they are feeling stressed, or even if they are just tired or hungry. And I suspect we all know that when we are irritable we are prone to take out our emotions on others.

When this happens, our response is no longer in line with the event.

We are all human, so at least at some level we get it, and are normally willing to accept it from our partners. But it becomes an issue when it is a pattern of behavior. When the other person is frequently irritable, easily angered, and directs the anger at other people, or at inappropriate levels for the issue at hand.

We need to recognize when this is happening, recognize when it has become a problem, and take steps to prevent it.

Some people will claim “This is just how I am”, but that is absolutely the wrong approach. Yes people are different. Some are more sensitive than others, and yes we change over time.

But when your ability to regulate emotions is affecting your life and spilling out into your relationship, it’s a problem.

Often people have excuses. Yes, I lashed out – but I was having a bad day. But the baby was crying, but I was hungry, but…

There is always a reason, and taken individually they are usually valid. It’s not about specific incidents though, it’s about patterns of behavior.

Even the best of people have times when their tempers are short, and they take that out on someone they shouldn’t. The question is, how frequently does it happen (better not be often), and after it does what is the response. Does someone own the action and show remorse? Or do they just try and pretend it never happened?

Patterns of negative emotions or patterns of anger where we take out our frustrations at the wrong person or to the wrong degree over a period of time has a name.

Emotional Abuse.

Emotional Abuse

Everyone has moments where they say things they “didn’t mean to”. Guess what, when you lash out at someone, whether you meant to or not doesn’t change what has happened. It’s one thing when these are rare moments that are out of character for someone, and they are genuinely apologetic or embarrassed afterwards. Then perhaps you can chalk it up as a poor response to external stress. But when outbursts become more common, all the apologies in the world don’t matter. It is the behavior that matters, not the words.

brokenPlate

To put this in perspective, in physically abusive situations the abuser will often claim they “didn’t mean” to hit their partner. And maybe they didn’t. Commonly they will say (or think) it happened because “you made me do it”. They believe that they wouldn’t have hit the other person if their partner hadn’t done something to make them angry enough to do it. In truth, there probably was some incident – but the response was completely unacceptable and out of line with the actual issue.

Emotional abuse is based on the same premise. But the scars that it leaves aren’t as easily seen.

Letting Emotion In

I don’t profess any expertise here, but I suspect in cases of physical and emotional abuse, the abuser is like the boys from the video. They are people who have never learned to accept their emotions, and as a result they have never learned to regulate them.

Maybe they were told “not to cry” because crying is for sissies. Maybe they were punished for showing emotions, or they felt that emotions made them weak.

As father of two young children, I will admit to moments of frustration when my children are having tantrums, or crying over “silly things”. I try to teach them that all emotions are fine, and acceptable.

I don’t want them thinking that it’s wrong to cry, or that they have to “be strong” all the time. I want them to express life the way that is right for them. To love, laugh, and cry. To accept that anger is natural, but to not let it poison them and their relationships. And to not be ashamed of who they are.

I have no idea how I’m doing, and I probably won’t know for many years to come. But that’s my goal, and it’s something I will always strive towards.

Misdirected Anger

As I said above, we all have moments that we inadvertently (hopefully) take our anger and frustration out on those we love. If you are someone who struggles with anger, and find that this has become a pattern I have one question for you.

Why?

Why would someone stay with me if I was always irritable or angry? And more importantly, if I frequently direct anger towards them with inappropriate levels or at inappropriate times?

In relationships, conflict happens. It’s natural, and can actually be very healthy. After all, if there is no conflict how are you learning? How are you growing as a couple? Encountering and overcoming obstacles together is probably one of the greatest ways to bond as a couple.

So don’t try to suppress conflict. Accept it, and allow it in. And allow all the emotions that comes with it to come in as well. But try to do this in a healthy way.
Although anger is natural and should not be held in, it needs to be directed at the right person, and at the right level. In accepting our emotions we still need to be respectful of those around us. And learning to do this consistently is something that can take a lifetime.

Expectation vs. Entitlement

entitlement_header
Expectations seem to be getting a bad rap these days.

In recent posts I’ve discussed the idea of expectations in relationships (yes, they exist – and I would argue that’s a good thing). I’ve also discussed the idea that expectations are a part of setting goals, and having a vision for yourself and what you want in life.

Yet I continue to read things like “I just want people to love me without expecting anything from me”. There’s this idea that in unconditional love expectations are bad and people should just be satisfied with anything.

When exactly did “expectations” become demonized, and why? I suspect it’s due to a sense of confusion between expectation and entitlement.

Expectations are tied to our needs and wants. We need food and shelter to survive, so in the modern world some form of income is a need. Sex is a basic human instinct, and there is no clear consensus on whether it is truly a need or a want, but the fact that the argument even exists tells me that at least in some capacity sexual fulfillment is a need. The lines between needs and wants blur, and it’s pointless to try to differentiate the two; but expectation is a belief that our needs and wants are important and that we will attempt to fulfill them and that those around us will care about them.

However an expectation of something doesn’t mean it “will” happen, and periodically we find that our expectations are adjusted when reality doesn’t line up with them. But expectations are important, and there is nothing inherently wrong with them.

Life is an Exchange

When looking at expectations and needs in a relationship, I think you can draw many parallels to the world of work.

When looking at a prospective partner we are like a company doing interviews. We have a wish list of criteria and we are looking for someone that meets as many of those criteria as possible.

Depending on what you are looking for in a relationship these criteria will vary, but they usually include things like physical attraction, common interests, similar outlook or goals in life, sense of humor, reliability, sexual compatibility etc. If the relationship is serious things like outlooks on kids, responsibility and some degree of financial stability are also important. Criteria of a desirable partner is pretty subjective, but we all have *something* we are looking for which provides a perceived benefit to the relationship.

Finding someone who meets your criteria fairly well doesn’t mean you have a relationship though. Your partner has things they are looking for too. Their criteria may not be the same, but they also have to see value in what you bring to the relationship. It’s not a relationship unless both parties see some sort of benefit.

Even if the exchange is simply the enjoyment of each other’s company, both people must see some sort of value in maintaining and growing the relationship. If only one person sees value, the relationship won’t last – to suggest otherwise seems foolish to me.

Beyond criteria of what we are looking for in a partner, we also have some sort of vision of what we want our relationships to look like – with upper and lower boundaries of what is “enough”. Most people probably have not actually thought through what these boundaries are, they only know when expectations are not being sufficiently met.

I suspect most people understand that their partner could better match their “ideal” standard, but they could also be a lot worse. So this question of “what is enough” is central to determining the viability of the relationship. Relationships struggle when needs are no longer being sufficiently met on one or both sides. When this happens, each partner is really evaluating “is this still enough for me”? If not, some leave. Others believe it can it be better, and look for ways to improve things.

It is when relationships are struggling that resentment about “expectations” arise, but the expectations in question have likely always been there. It’s only now that they have become an issue.

My belief is, expectations are natural and we all have them. They are actually positive, because if we didn’t have them then how could we judge if our relationship was still working? Would we just have to put up with anything?

Entitlement

Instead of expectations being a problem, the REAL problem is entitlement.

Entitlement is all about a sense of ownership or a belief that you *deserve* something. I see entitlement as having two main forms:

  1. I should get this because I want it, “no matter what”
  2. because I have done this you now have to do that

It is fine to have expectations of someone else – but that doesn’t mean you are entitled to anything. The other person matters here, and what you want doesn’t matter if they don’t also want the same thing.

I don’t care how nice someone is, how pretty/handsome they are, how much money they have, how many people they know or how educated they are. Sure, some of those things influence the opportunities you have, but that doesn’t mean a damn thing.

entitlementowesnothing

Fulfilling Expectations

If expectations are fine and are the criteria for relationship satisfaction, but the fulfillment of those expectations is not guaranteed; how should people best position themselves to ensure their expectations are met?

The answer to that is, the only thing you truly have control over. You. Your choices, communication, and your behaviors.

This is where the golden rule comes in. People should try to live their lives in a way that their choices and behaviors are in line with their expectations.

If you want someone to treat you with love and kindness, *maybe* it would be a good idea if you were to treat them that way. If you are hoping to have your needs met in a relationship, you had better be working to understand your partners needs and trying to meet those. And it shouldn’t be a calculated “hmm, if I do this for him/her then they will do something for me” – this isn’t a financial transaction. You need to be doing it because you genuinely want to meet their needs – because you care about them and want to see them happy.

You also need to communicate your needs and wants. Many people hold resentment for unmet expectations, when they were never clearly understood by their partner in the first place. As I’ve said before, guys are dumb. Sometimes what one person thinks is clear is not clear to the other person.

So communicating expectations and reciprocating for your partner puts you in the best position for your expectations to be met. But that’s all it means. It doesn’t guarantee anything, and it doesn’t mean you will get what you want when you want it.

You may end up disappointed in some circumstances but over a period of time hopefully you will find that you and your partner are meeting each other’s expectations. In doing so, you should both find you have a high degree of satisfaction in the relationship.

When Expectations are not Met

Entitlement is believing your expectations will be met when and how you want them, or that others should conform to your needs. Yet expectations and needs are real.

If you find yourself unsatisfied in your relationship, then chances are your expectations also are not being met in some way. If this is happening in individual cases it’s not an issue. But when it becomes a pattern over extended periods it can become a significant problem. When this occurs, it’s important to understand what the problem actually is.

Are specific expectations that are not being met? If so, take a good look at them and ask yourself if they are fair expectations to have. Maybe they aren’t, and you would be best served by adjusting your expectations. If you look at your expectations and feel they are fair, then it’s important to discuss this with your partner.

Let’s look at one of the most common issues in a relationship – sex. I’ve written about sexual issues in the past, and the reality is that due to differing drives sex is always a potential source of conflict.

To be clear, no one is entitled to sex.

Entitlement is when someone expects sex “on demand”. Or believes that if they do something for their partner, they should get sex in return – regardless of what their partner wants. This is wrong.

However another version of entitlement is that if someone is not interested in sex they should not have to have it – regardless of what their partner wants. Due to the nature of a monogamous relationship I see this as equally wrong. This may not be a popular view, and I’m not saying someone should ever “have to” have sex when they don’t want to. But although a sense of entitlement around sex is wrong, an expectation of sex in a relationship is not wrong.

Entitlement says “I need sex, and it doesn’t matter what you want”. Or “I’m not interested in sex, and it doesn’t matter what you want”.

Expectation says “I need sex as part of this relationship, and I am not satisfied without it”.

These are different.

People need feel fulfilled sexually, and this requires communication. To have a successful relationship, both partners need to care about what the other one wants. Nothing should ever be entirely on one person’s terms. As discussed earlier, for all needs people have upper and lower boundaries of what is “enough”, and every couple needs to find a way to navigate these boundaries that works for them.

I use sex as an example because this is the one situation in a relationship where someone’s level of satisfaction is completely dependent on their partner (which is probably why it is a source of conflict). Most other needs can be satisfied individually or with other people. But these ideas of boundaries apply to all needs. In a relationship your partners needs should be important to you, and you should get satisfaction and enjoyment from seeing them met.

For some needs, one persons lower boundaries may be the upper boundaries the other, and this is natural. As long as their needs are still being met enough to meet the lower boundaries, there is no conflict. But when the upper boundary for one person doesn’t even approach the lower boundary for the other, over time conflict will arise.

With healthy communication, a couple will try to work on things and see if they can improve the situation. Maybe there are reasons, and if those reasons are understood there is often a willingness to adjust expectations and change these boundaries accordingly.

If the lower boundaries of needs aren’t met however, eventually this will start to poison the rest of the relationship. Expectations form our measures of success. It’s pretty simple – If expectations are being met we’re happy, and If they aren’t we aren’t

entitlementQuote

Changes Over Time

Learning to communicate and adjust expectations is important for the success of any long term relationship.

People change, and the things we are looking for may also change over time. People also go through different life events, so even if your criteria don’t change your partner may no longer meet them in the way they once did. Plus relationships start as “new and exciting”. Passion is based on this excitement, but it can be hard to maintain that when you know the other person so well that there isn’t really anything new left to say.

Due to these things all relationships will struggle at times. During those times, if you truly want to weather the storm you need to be able to deal with difficult issues. You need to communicate with each other honestly and openly, addressing problems and working through them together. This is the hardest part in any relationship, and it is something that can definitely feel like work.

When I compare relationships to work, what I am saying is that you NEED to actively work on them. And if you don’t, there is a very good chance that you will either be unhappy, or it will fail (or both).

So accept that both you and your partner have expectations of each other, and communicate those. Your expectations will differ, and this can cause conflict – but it’s important that you work to addressing these conflicts in a way that is satisfactory to both. No one is ever entitled to having their expectations met, but finding a middle ground that works for both people is needed in order for any relationship to succeed.

Does Love Have Expectations?

Couple-in-Love-Picture

Sometimes I hear people talk about unconditional love, and it seems there is a belief that unconditional love should not have any expectations. I’ll see comments like “I wish someone would just love me without expecting something in return”.

On one level, this makes sense. We don’t want to feel like we are being used. We want to feel like someone loves us for who we are, and if they have expectations then it can feel like they are placing conditions on love. Unconditional love shouldn’t HAVE conditions, right? Isn’t that what the term “unconditional” means?

I understand this line of thought, but I’ve got to go against the grain on this one. I think it’s misguided and somewhat naive to say love doesn’t come with conditions or expectations. I believe it does, and I will go even further and suggest this is actually a good thing.

What Do You Expect In Love?

In a loving relationship, what do you expect from your partner? Can you truly say you don’t expect anything from them? If you are going to be honest, we all have expectations of our partners.

I recently read a blog where someone listed a “charter of rights” in a relationship, and I think it was a great topic and idea (thanks Bugs!). I don’t want to steal her stuff, but I think at the very least in a relationship it’s fair to expect the following:

  • Your relationship should be a place of safety:
    • This includes physical safety. It is never acceptable for your partner to hit you or take out their frustrations on you in a physical manner.
    • This also includes emotional safety. People often think of abuse only in physical terms. In reality, MOST abuse is emotional, and it can be just as damaging as physical abuse (only the scars aren’t as easy to see). Physically abusive relationships are usually also emotionally abusive, but often people think as long as they don’t “cross the line” to hitting someone it’s not abuse. It still is, and should never be ok.
    • Lastly I’ll include sexual safety. I’ll talk more on sex later in this post, but sex should never be something that your partner expects when they want, on demand. If you don’t have two willing participants, even if you are in a relationship it is still rape.
  • Additionally, it’s fair to expect that your partner will be “true” to you. Adultery/affairs are never ok. Even when they are “mistakes”, something that “just happened”, or are things that occur when your partner is going through a “hard time”. There is never an excuse for infidelity.

To me these are the obvious expectations that anyone should have for their relationships, and if any of those are broken then the covenant of the relationship has also been jeopardized.

There are other expectations we all should have in our relationships that are perhaps a bit less obvious and harder to quantify. These are the “loving behaviors” that I discussed in my last post, which include things like kindness, trust, caring and empathy.

Loving behaviors may not happen ALL the time (hey, we all have bad days where we can kind of be jerks). But it IS fair to expect that these things are the regular modes of behavior in a relationship.

If you are in a relationship with no kindness, trust, caring and empathy is it really a relationship? Would you actually stay in that sort of situation?

None of these are bad things to “expect” in a relationship, and in fact are the fundamental building blocks of a relationship. So I think it’s safe to say that yes, relationships can (and should) have expectations.

Rights and Responsibilities

Most of my university days are a blur, but one of the things that has always stuck with me is a discussion we had on rights.

The idea presented was that rights are accompanied by responsibilities. If I have a “right” from you, then in exchange for that right I also have a responsibility TO you. It’s a two way process.

Furthermore, this process needs to be mutually agreed upon. I can’t just claim a “right” to something I want and then give you something. Both people need to agree to about the nature of the “exchange”, and there is no right unless this form of exchange exists.

No one is ever entitled to anything. Entitlement is the concept of having a right without believing you should have to do anything in return. Entitlement is selfish, and I would argue is wrong.

Entitlement has no place in relationships. Our relationships should be mutually beneficial. I’m not saying every interaction has to provide value to both members, or that things are necessarily going to be 50-50 (there is almost always someone who puts more into the relationship). But there must be some perceived value to the relationship for both people.

If you think of nature, a one sided relationship is referred to as a parasitic one. Mutually beneficial relationships are symbiotic, and that his what we should strive for.

Expectations vs. Entitlement

So what do rights and responsibilities have to do with relationships? Well, taking this concept we can say that if we expect something from our partner, they should also be able to expect it from us.

If we expect a relationship of safety, we need to also provide one. If we expect kindness and caring, we need to also provide that.

But let’s look at a more difficult topic (and a common area of conflict) – Sex. Is anyone ever entitled to sex in a relationship? No. Should anyone expect to get it whenever they want? Again, no. But is it fair for someone to expect that sex will be a part of their relationship? Yes, I think so. Sex is a difficult topic because relationships rightfully expect faithfulness. Most consider sex a need, and as part of the relationship their only outlet is with their partner; but different people have different levels of need.

Sex is one example of a conflict point. Other common ones are spending time together (balancing me and we time), outlooks towards money and approaches to parenting.
For any conflict of these conflict areas, there has likely been a mismatch of expectations. That doesn’t mean the expectation itself is wrong, it simply means that some form of compromise has to be found where both peoples expectations are met in way that is seen as satisfactory (or at least acceptable) to both.

Why are we in Relationships?

The truth about relationships is, we go into them with a belief that our needs and expectations will be understood, respected and at least largely fulfilled by our partner. In fact, that’s a big part of what love is. It’s a type of caring where you not only derive happiness from seeing your partner’s needs fulfilled, but you also want to be the one to fulfill them.

Think of marriage. Marriage isn’t just a legal document and a ceremony. It’s a symbol of your commitment to each other. It’s a symbol that you care about the other person, and that their needs and expectations are important to you. It’s a symbol that you are no longer just an individual, but you now view yourself as part of a “we”.

If expectations and needs aren’t being met in a relationship, eventually it will get to a point that the relationship is no longer viewed as beneficial by one or both members.

When this happens it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been together, if you are married or if kids are involved. The relationship has ceased to function.

At this point you need to make a decision. You need to either find that part of yourself that cares about the needs and expectations of your partner, and WANTS to fulfill them; or you need to accept that the relationship has failed and move on.

Expectations Revisited

Usually when I hear about expectations in love, there is a sense that we should NOT have expectations in love. There are many sayings like this:

LoveandExpectations

Perhaps “love” doesn’t have expectations, but I think a relationship definitely does. To suggest otherwise would be like saying that you should stay in a relationship with someone no matter how they treat you. Sorry, if someone treats you badly or doesn’t love you back you may still love them, but why would you stay with them?

Expectations should be agreed upon, and should be realistic. But the core of a relationship involves making your needs and expectations known to your partner and knowing that they will care about them. And them knowing that you will learn and care about their needs and expectations.

During this discovery process (which may last a lifetime) your partner may tell you that some of your expectations are out of line, and that’s all right. Hopefully you are able to adjust them. Other times those expectations may be important enough that the relationship is at risk.

Love should never have a sense of entitlement. But expectations and entitlement are different, and expectations are an important part of love. Some expectations may be unrealistic, but that doesn’t mean expectations are necessarily bad.

Learning to Love

Learning-to-love
Love. We all use the word, but there is no real consensus on what it is or what it means.

One of my first posts was my attempt at figuring out what love is, and looking back on it now I think I had a lot of things right, but at the same time it seems somewhat lacking.

Some say love is a feeling. Others say love is a choice. I think it’s probably a mix of both.

Maybe it’s best to say that love is a feeling that comes with certain choices, and the ability to maintain love (and feelings of love) over a long period is a result of continuing to make loving choices towards your partner.

I don’t think love just happens. Attraction may just happen, but you still have to choose to get to know the other person. To look at them, to listen to them, and to be with them. When you make those little choices, you are letting yourself allow love to develop.

And once love has developed, it needs to be maintained. I’ve talked before about whose responsibility love is. I truly believe that it’s not your partners responsibility to keep you feeling in love with them – it’s yours. You need to nurture your love every day, in countless little ways.

And if you choose not to express love? To turn away from love and not let it in? Or to not accept it when it’s given? They you only have yourself to blame if feelings of love fade away.

Deep Roots

I like to think of love like a tree. Trees need nurturing (sunlight, water, soil) to stay alive. When they are young they are fragile, and need more attention and care. As trees age their roots start to run deep, and they no longer need the same sort of care.

Even when their roots are established though, they still need nurturing. They still need sunlight, water and nutrients in the soil to stay alive. Established trees are strong, and can weather difficult periods. Trees can even be cut down. But as long as the roots are alive, the tree can survive, and come back. It may look a bit different, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

Other times the tree can start to die from the roots, and although the tree may still appear healthy at first it has started to rot from within.

The key is the roots, and keeping those roots alive and healthy.

sapling photo

Nurturing Love

So how do we nurture love?

How do we ensure our roots run deep, to allow us to weather the storms of life?

And how do we keep the roots of our love alive?

It seems obvious to me that love requires nurturing. And this nurturing comes in the form of action.

But what actions are needed, to not only maintain but also to grow our love?

A while back I came across a great article on the characteristics of love. Look at the following quote:

Loving involves being in a relationship with another. In a functional loving relationship there are mutual expectations. If I love you and you don’t accept my love then the relationship is dysfunctional because the primary purpose of love is not easily accomplished. If you don’t let me love you, then my love will be squandered on you.

As such, to be in love is to be engaged in an activity that can be done well or not so well. One can be good at loving or poor at it depending on how good (or bad) one is at accomplishing the purpose or goal of loving someone. The statement, “I love you very much” may sometimes be a deep expression of a feeling that comes with being in love; but it can also be uttered by people who do not know the first thing about how to love another. This is because this statement, if it is meaningful, is not simply a report about a subjective feeling going on at the time that it is uttered.

To be meaningful, you must put your actions where your mouth is. This means doing things that promote the other’s happiness, welfare, and safety

So how do we nurture our love? What actions do we need to take? This article talks about love as being shown with the following core actions:

  • Being there
  • Being beneficent
  • Being considerate/non-maleficent
  • Making a commitment
  • Being loyal
  • Being consistent
  • Being candid
  • Being trustworthy
  • Being empathetic
  • Being tolerant

Let’s look at each of these…

The Actions of Love

Being there. This means you are there for the person in times of need. They know they can count on you, and they can rely on you. Sometimes they may need you at times that aren’t convenient to you, but that’s fine. Some sacrifice may be required, and you may not always be able to be there. But you should always want to.

Being beneficent. This goes one step further than just being there. This means you want to do things FOR them. You want to see them happy (in fact, I think true happiness comes not just from the things that make you happy, but from deriving happiness from seeing your actions bring happiness to someone you love). You value their welfare, and want what’s best for them.

Being considerate/non-maleficent. This is about not wanting to do things that are harmful towards the other person. Trying not to hurt them, or embarrass them. It’s about taking them, and how your actions impact them into account. Over the long term, we all screw this up occasionally. Everyone has moments that they are selfish in their actions, and they end up hurting those they love. But those sort of things should be exceptions, and should be accompanied by remorse when we realize we have hurt the other person.

Making a commitment. This is pretty obvious – you are committed to the relationship.

Being loyal. This involves being loyal and faithful to the person you love. As the article says, “loyalty is not optional if one is to enjoy a happy relationship”.

Being consistent. Consistency is very important. Love and relationships aren’t something that you only engage in when it’s convenient to you. They aren’t a part time job, and you can’t just take time off when things get tough. This goes hand in hand with commitment – and means that acting in a loving way is the normal behavior.

Being candid. Love requires openness and honesty. Lying and deception damages relationships, while honesty (even about difficult things) tends to bring people closer together. It’s important to be careful how you word things though – there’s a difference between honesty and being rude.

Being trustworthy. In loving relationships, you need to be able to confide in the other person and know that they are able to confide in you.

Being empathetic. This is about trying to see things from your partners perspective. We are all different, and “my way” isn’t necessarily the best or the only way. You need to be able to value your partners perspective an opinion even when it doesn’t line up with your own. Relationships require meeting halfway sometimes, and that requires empathy.

Being tolerant. Relationships also require patience, and the ability to let things go, forgive, and move on. Insisting things need to be “your way”, or holding on to grudges and resentment is one of the quickest ways to poison a relationship.

All of these are important characteristics in a loving relationship. And more importantly, all of them are things that can be developed and improved.

Choosing Love

I think it is these actions that people talk about when they say love is a choice. Yes, there are feelings associated with love. But these feelings need to be shown, and we show them through the actions we take and the way we treat our partner.

If you say you love your partner but you strike them out of anger, are you showing love?

If you say you love your partner but you are having an affair, are you showing love?

If you have no interest in spending time with them and connecting with them on an emotional level, are you showing love?

How does your partner know you love them? Should they “just know”? Or do they know because of the way you treat them and interact with them?

Love may involve feelings, but it is more than that. Love is actions.

It may not always be declarations of undying love and passion, but love still needs to be present in all our interactions. We can learn to love, and we can get better at it each and every day.

still learning to love

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence

Relationships aren’t always easy. Like anything else in life, they have peaks and valleys. They have times where everything is going well, and couples are happy. At other times though conflict and problems arise, challenging and potentially threatening the relationship.

This is because we are first and foremost individuals. With our own needs, wants, and expectations for our life. And in a relationship we are trying to build a life with another individual who’s needs and wants will never perfectly match our own.

I recently read an article on dating that talked about this ideas that relationships start as looking for fulfillment of our own needs:

If you’re thinking that I’m telling you to use someone for your own benefit, you’re right: It is. But if you think dating is anything more than that, you’re confused. We date people to satisfy OUR wants and OUR needs. Once we find the right person, things get less selfish and egocentric.

This really sums up the dilemma people face with relationships. We start them because of what they do for us. We like how the person makes US feel, how well they meet OUR needs, and OUR wants.

When we are first getting to know them, we may think they are nice, or kind. But honestly, we don’t give a crap about them.

It’s all about us, and what they do for us.

But this sort of approach to a relationship is not sustainable in the long term. For a relationship to be successful, we need to become more than just two individuals spending time together. Instead of seeing the relationship as a vehicle for our own gratification, we have to start to see ourselves as part of a “we”.

And finding this balance between “me” and “we” is at the heart of all relationship problems.

This is less of an issue when you are dating, because dating is a facade. In dating, although we are *hopefully* being honest and being ourselves a part of us is also trying to be what we think they want in order to impress them.

In a long term setting this perfectly built facade breaks down, and the unedited version of the person comes out. Sometimes that person is VERY different from the one that was initially presented (in which case it’s probably a good time to get out – fast). Other times it’s largely the same person, but with a few more rough edges.

And when these rough edges start to show, it becomes apparent that this other person isn’t actually perfect (gasp!!!). They actually do have flaws, and to maintain a relationship with them our needs won’t always be met.

A Part of Something Bigger

When the flaws and problems start to surface, in order to sustainable the relationship, the focus on “me” has to change. You have to be willing to let your own ego take a back seat, and the only way to do that is if you see yourself as part of something bigger – a part of a couple, or a team.

If you look at the world of sports, there are many, many cautionary tales of people who has all the talent in the world. They were amazing athletes, and skilled from an “individual” standpoint. But their focus was them, and how the team was helping or hindering their career. This sort of focus is not conducive to a healthy team, and usually athletes who bring in this focus are eventually cut loose. To truly be successful, then need to embrace the concept of “team”.

nameonthefrontofthejersey

That may be sports, but the same rules apply in any team setting; including relationships.

What allows people to do this is sometimes referred to as Emotional Intelligence.
There are all sorts of definitions for emotional intelligence, and a high level of emotional intelligence is often correlated with high levels of success – both personally and in a career setting.

Wikipedia defines emotional intelligence as:

the ability to recognize one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.

One of the ways of identifying emotional intelligence is through self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy.

  • Self-awareness is being aware of your own emotional state, and knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Self-regulation is about being able to control your emotions, and not allowing emotions to control your decisions and actions (in an impulsive fashion).
  • Finally, empathy is being able to understand other people’s emotions, and taking them into account when making decisions.

What is a Relationship

Dating is about having fun. It’s about having your needs met. And when they aren’t, you move on.

Relationships on the other hand are a bit more complicated. They are about building a partnership, and sharing your life with someone else. They involve both good times and bad, so they require both commitment and a willingness to work through conflict.

In a relationship, a high level of emotional Intelligence is perhaps the most important characteristic you can have. You NEED to be able to take the needs and wants of your partner into account in almost everything you do.

Does this mean you “give up you”? Does it mean your needs don’t matter? No, not at all.

You still matter. It’s not about giving up on your needs. But you aren’t the only thing that matters. Your partner also needs to matter to you. And when these needs conflict (which WILL happen at times) you need to be able to reach a common ground. That common ground may not be ideal for you, but sometimes the “we” needs to be bigger than the “me”.

Not All about you

Relationship Breakdown

When relationships start to break down, a common complaint is that one or both parties start “acting like they are single”. This doesn’t mean they are going out messing around with other people (though it could). Usually what it means is that empathy has broken down.

Empathy in a relationship is about taking your partner into account, and understanding that your actions impact them. Understanding that even if something isn’t important to you, it still needs to be a priority if it’s important to your partner.

The offending partner often stops taking the other person into account. Or maybe they still do, but only when that persons needs happen to line up with their own (in which case it doesn’t really count, does it?).

JohnGrayNeedQuote

As it says above, focusing on yourself and doing what is best for you isn’t exactly the best recipe for a successful relationship.

A truly successful (and happy) relationship requires a reasonable degree of emotional intelligence by both parties. It requires empathy – considering your partner and taking them into account at all times.

In times of stress the world tends to turn inwards, and emotional intelligence breaks down. Thankfully, like anything else it is a skill that can be worked on and developed.

If your relationship is going through a hard time, always try to keep you partner in mind. Emotional intelligence, and empathy, is the key to long term success.

Behind the Masks

emotion-masks
Who are you?

By that, I’m referring to the “true” you.

I’ve written previously about the roles that we play, and how they impact us. We all play a number of different roles. Parent, child, sibling, friend, co-worker, lover.

Are all of these things simply roles? Are they acts that we put on, depending on our audience? Or are they components of who we “really are”?

Who are we? Is there actually a “true” you?

Who are You?

The idea of a “true you” has always interested me.

If it exists, when was it formed? Did you have the seeds of this true you when you were an infant? Did it start when you started attending school?

I guess it is the age old nature/nurture debate, but to me it seems clear that if it exists, it is something that formed over time. I suppose there may be some seeds to your personality in your genetic makeup, but your experiences definitely contribute to shaping who you are.

If we can accept that experience at least contributes to the “true you”, then the question becomes:

When (if ever) are you “complete”? When it your identity fully formed?

Did it stop when you became a teenager? When you reached the age of majority?

I definitely changed when I became a parent. And over the last few years I’ve watched my parents’ generation go from being the adults to the seniors, while I have gone from being one of the younger generation to being part of the adult generation.

During this time I have watched children grow into young adults. I have watched people fall in love, marriages fail. People get sick, loved ones die. I have watched great joy, love, anger and sadness.

These things impact you. The experiences change you.

So if I’m constantly changing, who am I? Was the “me” at 20 any more or less valid than the “me” I was at 30? Or 40?

Losing Yourself

We all have many roles we play in our lives, and each of these roles comes with a set of unwritten rules and expectations.

The behavior that is “acceptable” as a student is different from what is acceptable as a child, a friend, a parent, a co-worker, a lover. The list goes on.

Conforming to these acceptable behaviors can be like donning a mask, and sometimes we let the masks slip. For example, I don’t swear often, but have a tendency to in times of frustration or anger. Even still, there’s a part of me that knows that it’s different to swear with my buddies vs. in front of my children. I make that distinction at a subconscious level. Yet I have sworn in front of my children, and in those moments my “parent mask” has slipped.

When it does, is it the “true me” that is coming out?

I don’t think so. It’s a side of me, sure. I don’t believe the true me is someone who goes around swearing all the time. The true me also isn’t someone who never swears. I will occasionally, out of frustration or anger. But I would like to think the true me know which situations are appropriate, and which aren’t.

Sometimes juggling all the roles we play can seem overwhelming. And in doing so, at times it can seem like we have lost sight of ourselves, and we aren’t even sure who we are anymore under all those roles.

I think this sense of losing ourselves happens when we act the way we think people want us to act. People talk about “authenticity” as being true to yourself. And if we aren’t being authentic then the roles we play become just that – roles. We become like actors, trying to put on the appropriate mask for the appropriate setting.

When we do this, we lose sight of who we are.

masks-quote

Finding Yourself Again

But wait a minute? Didn’t I just say that we all have many roles to play, and there are certain expectations associated with these roles?

Shouldn’t we have to meet those expectations?

This is where the challenge comes in. We do all have roles we play in our lives, but at the same time we should never just be “playing” a role.

Instead, we need to find ways to make that role our own.

Let me explain…

I’m a father, and my dad was my biggest influence for what a father is. After all, he’s what I grew up with. But I’m not the father my dad was, or the father his dad was. I can never be him. I need to define what it being a father means to me, and that’s the father I need to be. But even this isn’t “fixed”.

The father I was to my children when they were babies is different from the father I am to my children now. I learn, adapt, and change.

I’m sure other people look at some of my parenting techniques and see things I’m doing “wrong”. Well, yeah. I’m probably doing a lot of things wrong. But hopefully I’m also doing a lot of things right. And most importantly, I’m finding an approach that works for me. It’s fluid.

A harder one is my role as a husband.

Similar to learning to be a parent, I’m probably doing a lot of things wrong. Hopefully I’m doing a lot of things right too. The thing is, I’m sure my wife has certain expectations of me. And I likewise have certain expectations of her.

This presents a challenge, because if I do something simply because it’s expected of me then I’m just playing a role or putting on a mask. But at the same time there ARE expectations, and I can’t just pick and choose the parts I want to deal with, or the ones I am comfortable with at a given moment.

As a couple, you need to be clear with each other what your expectations are. No one’s expectations will match completely, and this can be a significant source of conflict in relationships.

Bridging this gap is important to the success of a relationship.

You should never feel like you are playing a role, or doing things simply because they are expected of you. But at the same time, when you are in a relationship you do have responsibilities to the other person.

I think this is where empathy comes in.

For both members of a relationship to feel valued, there must be a belief that both members needs and expectations matter to the other person – even when they don’t match.

Accepting this allows you adjust your expectations somewhat, and fill a role without just playing the role. It allows you to make it your own, and find a way to fill the role that seems natural for you.

It is only when you do this that you are being true to yourself.

When you do this, it’s not just a role. It becomes part of you.

mask1

Embracing Change

Identity can be a difficult thing, and I don’t think there are any “easy” answers to the question of who we are.

But I don’t believe there is a “true you”. Or rather, the true you is always evolving and always changing.

We have countless roles we play in our lives, and each of them shapes us. But at the same time, we don’t have to let them define us.

So who am I?

The true me is both good and bad. It’s full of all sorts of flaws and contradictions. And all of these pieces are all still me.

I’m all sorts of things. I’m a father, a husband, a friend, a co-worker, a son, etc. All of these things are me, and all of them make up my identity. But I am not any single one of these.

And no matter which role I am playing at a given time, all of them are still “me”.

The Silent Killer

A few days ago I read a great article about a guy who used Ashley Madison to research why women cheat. It’s fascinating stuff, and well worth the read.

In the article he had the following observation:

When an adulterous man is found out, there are many, many women that can get past the sex act itself.

But the real problem is where his effort has been going. As his wife sits idle, being supportive, holding down her half of the relationship, house and kids, a cheating man will put boat loads of effort into seducing the other woman: four-star restaurants and hotels, gifts, laughter, spontaneity, passion, sex.

From there, it’s a sad realization for his wife that translates to “I’m not worth the effort.” This is a fatal blow to her self-esteem and self-worth and terminal to the relationship.

I’m not worth the effort.

I think this is how relationships truly die. Sure, the discovery of things like affairs can destroy a marriage, but it’s not usually a catastrophic event like that and the same idea will apply.

Rather, it’s like death from 1000 cuts. Most failed relationships are killed slowly, over time.

And it always comes back to effort.

IfItsImportant

Action Means More Than Words

It’s easy to say “I love you”, but what matters is what you do.

How does someone know you love them? How do you show them that love, and express it to them?

Life gets busy, and people understand that. Everyone has times where they get wrapped up in work, family and whatever else life throws at them.

These sorts of things can put a drain on a relationship, but on their own they aren’t a problem.

It becomes a problem when there is a disproportionate amount of time into “me” time vs. “we” time.

Every time your partner is able to make time to do something they want to do, yet they are unable to find time for something as a couple, it adds another cut.

And over time these add up.

This sort of thing tells your partner:

hey – I can drop things to get together with the guys, or go out with the girls. I can make time to play poker with my buddies, or bury myself in my phone. I can make time to…

But you? Sorry, I see you all the time anyhow. Why should I make any effort to see you, to do things with you, or to be with you. After all, you *know* I love you.

Alone Together

If you spend enough time looking and reading you’ll find there are a lot of people out there who are unhappy with the state of their relationships. And it’s common to see an overriding sense of sadness and loneliness.

These are people IN relationships. Their partners are right there, next to them, every day.

But they still feel alone.

Common expressions are things like:

I just wanted him/her to want to be with me,
or to want to do things with me.

People want to feel wanted. They want to feel valued, and loved. And when they don’t, troubles arise.

They see their partner putting time, energy and effort into pretty much everything BUT the relationship. Each time that happens a little piece of them dies, gradually eroding their self-esteem and self-worth.

And it destroys the relationship.

Finding Balance

When hearing their partner isn’t feeling valued or wanted, the person who is not investing time in the relationship (or perhaps investing less) will often get defensive. Their response may be some variation of:

  • But we do spend time together, we see each other all the time
  • My partner is just too needy, I don’t want/need to spend every minute with them
  • It’s important to me to be able to do my own thing
  • I don’t want to do the same things they do
  • What’s the big deal? It’s not like I go out/do my own thing all that often

Or even better, they may go into attack mode and turn things around on their partner with something like:

  • So what, you are saying I should never do my own thing then?

To be clear, this has nothing to do with not wanting your partner to go out and do their own thing. Space and time away from the couple is actually healthy for a relationship, and it’s important that each person has time to themselves as an individual.

If someone wants to go and do their own thing, great. As long as what they are doing is respectful to the relationship there shouldn’t be a problem. It’s not about being with each other all the time.

However there needs to be a commensurate amount of effort put into the relationship. There needs to be a balance between “me” time and “we” time.

And no, family time or time spent doing domestic chores does not count. Family time is just that – family time. And time spent on domestic tasks is just part of co-habitation.

There needs to be time focused on being a couple. On being friends, and lovers; and both building and maintaining the connection that keeps a relationship strong.

It’s about wanting to be with each other. Wanting to do things together. Wanting to share experiences. These are the lifeblood of a relationship.

If a couple doesn’t want to do things together, then what’s the point?

Why are they together?

History isn’t enough.

loving-someone-who-doesnt-feel-the-same-way-is-like

In a relationship, “Me” time is always important, and couples don’t have to have all the same interests.

The activities someone does during their me time, and even the frequency of those activities doesn’t truly matter.

It’s all about the amount of time and effort put into “me” stuff vs. the amount of time and effort put into the couple and into the relationship.

When someone can’t be bothered to make time for the relationship because they are “too busy” with life and kids, but they can make time to do the other stuff it tells the neglected partner that they aren’t worth it.

They aren’t worth the effort.

And without that effort and a sense of feeling valued the relationship will ultimately fail. Because no matter how much someone loves the other person, eventually it will be one cut too many, and even the strongest will break.

The point where we break gets closer everyday
But where do we go?
But where do we go?

I don’t want to be here anymore
I don’t want to be here anymore

I don’t want to be here anymore (be here anymore)
I know there’s nothing left worth staying for
Your paradise is something I’ve endured
See I don’t think I can fight this anymore (fight this anymore)
I’m listening with one foot out the door
But something has to die to be reborn
I don’t want to be here anymore

(We need a better way)
(We need to let go)
– Rise Against

Living with Anxiety Part 2 – Doubting Love

anxious Love

In part 1 I talked about the fight and flight arousal response of Anxiety, and how it can cause a sufferer to be in a state of chronic stress and cause the world to “turn inwards”.

Chronic stress is unhealthy, and is also damaging to relationships.

Stress makes people irritable, tense, causes a lack of sleep (increasing irritability), etc. None of these are positive conditions for relationships.

Relationships also require empathy, and a focus on your partner and the idea of “we”. So adding the tendency to focus inwardly and think primarily about yourself compounds the issue.

But that’s not even the worst part; the worst part is probably doubt.

Anxiety can make people question love.

This can happen in two ways – doubt about the feelings someone has for you, or doubt about the feelings you have for someone else.

Doubts about what someone feels for you tends to lead to a need for constant reassurance. When there are doubts about what YOU feel however, the normal response is to withdraw. Anxiety can lead to either of these types of doubt, and in some cases it can even lead to both.

Daniel Smith talks about this doubt in his book on living with anxiety, and there are also countless other stories of this same sense of doubt.

Here’s one I found particularly poignant:

My depression/anxiety has a particularly pernicious aspect in that my negative thoughts are almost entirely focused on my boyfriend: including thoughts I don’t love him, he isn’t attractive enough, I will never find him sexually attractive and that things will never work out.

This is particularly frustrating because I will have ‘moments of clarity’ either whilst with him or apart from him where I realize all of this thinking is ridiculous, I have an amazing relationship and we have so much in common, and I find him very attractive. Whenever I get to the point of asking myself: ‘do I want to leave the relationship?’ the answer is always a very clear ‘no’ in my head.

Yet my thoughts plague me every time I see him. Sometimes I can shut the thoughts to the back-burner, other times they overwhelm me and I feel incredibly sad. We have been together for a year and half now, and I’m kind of at the end of my tether.

Because this has continued to plague our relationship since its beginning, I’m often forced to ask myself “Is it all just the relationship?” and I don’t know how to get the perspective to figure that out.

I have certainty that I love my boyfriend because I miss him when we are away, I get rushes of pleasure and happiness when we kiss, I relate to him on a really strong intellectual and emotional level. We never have conflict or disagreements, because we hold the same views.

Yet when I’m down I get plagued by recurring thoughts: Is this how I am supposed to be feeling? Do other people feel differently about their partners? I should be feeling more, shouldn’t I? Do I find him attractive? If I don’t find him attractive now, does that mean it is all a lie? Have I tricked myself into feeling this way? If the sex was average, does that mean our sex life is terrible? Maybe we have no physical chemistry? etc etc

I then feel guilt and sadness for being unable to figure out my feelings and for having doubts. After all, it isn’t really fair to him is it? Then there is a cycle of questioning: Do I really love him? Am I wasting my time?

Then when I think of breaking up with him, I get another rush of sadness and guilt because part of me really doesn’t want to, even though another part of me is sick of the doubt and would rather leave to end it all.

The problem with doubt is that it can be very destructive. Like many things, relationships are all about effort. What you get out of them is very closely related to what you put in.

When you doubt, you are less likely to invest the time or effort in a relationship that it requires. After all, why put effort into something that isn’t going to work out anyhow? But by not putting the effort in, you all but ensure the relationships failure (or at the very least minimize the level of satisfaction you are able to have).

doubt

This sense of doubt that anxiety can create is perhaps the most damaging aspect of the condition. Incidentally, the person who wrote the story above found that after trying medication (SSRI’s) the doubts cleared up, resulting in a happier and healthier relationship.

The “Dance” of Doubt

The doubt comes from the combination of catastrophizing and rumination, and creates a pattern of doubt and withdrawal:

  1. Mounting Uncertainty. Anxiety leads someone to question the feelings they have for their partner. Maybe it’s not actually love. Maybe it was just infatuation, desperation or loneliness. Maybe this relationships is not what they really want
  2. Withdrawal. Due to doubts about the relationship, you withdraw from the relationship emotionally, and stop putting any effort in. Or worse, you may become outright neglectful or hostile in a passive aggressive way of expressing unhappiness in the relationship.
  3. Blowback. The behavior displayed while withdrawing causes the relationship to start to break down. Arguments start, and the environment starts to become toxic for both partners
  4. Retreat. Realizing the damage that is being done, the anxious partner starts trying to repair the damage.

This process continually repeats, as the anxiety leads the relationship to go through cycles that do increasing amounts of damage to the relationships each time. Left unchecked, it can destroy the relationship.

In his book Daniel Smith describes his own experience with this process:

Over and over again, I pushed Joanna away and pulled her back, drawing her into an abusive four-step dance.

First, I would grow increasingly uncertain. “Was I truly in love with Joanna?” I would ask myself. How could I be when we didn’t appreciate all the same books, the same music, the same movies? Was it possible that what I called love had been merely infatuation, lust, desire?

Second, torn by my doubts, I would grow withdrawn and sullen, even openly hostile. I would ignore Joanna, make nasty little remarks, put her down in front of her friends.

Third, Joanna would start to fight back. Neglected and mistreated, she would respond with anger and sadness. Why was I being so cruel? What had she done to deserve this?

Fourth, horrified by my behavior, I would try urgently and with great remorse to repair the damage. I’d buy her flowers, send her cute messages during the day, hang on her every word.

Then, after a short respite, the dance would begin again.

The Breakdown of Intimacy

What is intimacy? Though they are often used interchangeably, intimacy and sex are NOT the same thing.

Intimacy is about closeness, and connection. It requires vulnerability, and a willingness to open yourself up to the other person. Intimacy requires trust.

Well, what is anxiety?

Anxiety is a condition that causes chronic stress and tension, and causes people to overthink and imagine the worst in situations. It causes doubt, and fear. It leads people to put up emotional walls to “protect” themselves, pushing people away instead of letting them in.

A common complaint of anxiety sufferers is the sense of being “uncomfortable in my own skin”. The hypersensitivity to the outside environment also extends itself to a sense of self, and a feeling of self-consciousness around others about how they look.

With this discomfort in your own skin there is a tendency to pull away. Touch, seen as a sign of closeness and comfort for most people, is often a source of discomfort for people with anxiety.

Anxiety can create almost the polar opposite of the conditions required for intimacy.

Behaviors impacting Relationships

Anxiety can lead to a number of different actions and behaviors which sabotage and break down love (list copied from the site referenced):

  • Cling – When we feel anxious, our tendency may be to act desperate toward our partner. We may stop feeling like the independent, strong people we were when we entered the relationship. As a result, we may find ourselves falling apart easily, acting jealous or insecure or no longer engaging in independent activities.
  • Control – When we feel threatened, we may attempt to dominate or control our partner. We may set rules about what they can and can’t do just to alleviate our own feelings of insecurity or anxiousness. This behavior can alienate our partner and breed resentment.
  • Reject – If we feel worried about our relationship, one defense we may turn to is aloofness. We may become cold or rejecting to protect ourselves or to beat our partner to the punch. These actions can be subtle or overt, yet it is almost always a sure way to force distance or to stir up insecurity in our partner.
  • Withhold – Sometimes, as opposed to explicit rejection, we tend to withhold from our partner when we feel anxious or afraid. Perhaps things have gotten close, and we feel stirred up, so we retreat. We hold back little affections or give up on some aspect of our relationship altogether. Withholding may seem like a passive act, but it is one of the quietest killers of passion and attraction in a relationship.
  • Punish – Sometimes, our response to our anxiety is more aggressive, and we actually punish, taking our feelings out on our partner. We may yell and scream or give our partner the cold shoulder. It’s important to pay attention to how much our actions are a response to our partner and how much are they a response to our critical inner voice.
  • Retreat – When we feel scared in a relationship, we may give up real acts of love and intimacy and retreat into a “fantasy bond.” A fantasy bond is an illusion of connection that replaces real acts of love. In this state of fantasy, we focus on form over substance. We may stay in the relationship to feel secure but give up on the vital parts of relating. In a fantasy bond, we often engage in many of the destructive behaviors mentioned above as a means to create distance and defend ourselves against the anxiety that naturally comes with feeling free and in love.

Anxiety and Sex

Intimacy and sex are two different things, and in a relationship intimacy is much more important. But maintaining a sex life is actually pretty damned important too.

Not surprisingly, Anxiety can also get in the way of the sexual side of a relationship.

Anxiety is an overwhelming form of daily stress. Many find that living with anxiety daily causes them to experience significant sadness and discomfort in their daily life, often leading to less enjoyment of the things that previously caused them happiness.

That’s why when you have anxiety, it’s not uncommon to also have a low libido. Your sex drive is directly affected by the way you feel, and anxiety is the type of condition that can make it hard to find your partner or the idea of lovemaking to be arousing.
calmclinic.com

When anxiety impacts the sexual side of a relationship Calmclinic.com suggests the following:

Talk Openly to Your Partner

When anxiety affects your arousal, don’t try to hide it. Trying to hide it and overcome it causes further stress, because you’ll find that you try too hard to get aroused. Arousal is an automatic function, and not something you can force, so the more you try to force it the harder it gets. If you talk to your partner about it, you’ll find that the added pressure of knowing that you’re open about the problem takes some of the stress off of you.

Try to Make Love Anyway

Extended time away from an active sex life can put strain on your relationship and potentially lead to more stress. If possible, try to make love anyway for fun. Talk to your partner, and don’t make it a stressful event. Make it something you do to keep your sex life going and try to remember the enjoyment you experience when you do get aroused. If making love isn’t physically possible, at the very least you should spend time being romantic and having fun in an intimate way to at least keep that component a part of your life.

Avoidance

In dealing with sexual problems, calmclinic.com recommends “talking openly with your partner”.

Sound advice.

Unfortunately, for people with anxiety communication is often not a strong suit. Discussing “difficult” issues causes the anxiety response, and it’s hard to deal with issues when the body is in fight or flight mode. As a result, for many anxiety sufferers the “preferred” way of dealing with problems is to simply avoid them.

Avoidance becomes the go-to communication style (though lack of communication style may be more accurate).

Many people say that communication is the foundation of a healthy relationship. Well, if communication is a mark of a healthy relationship, then avoidance is definitely a sign of trouble.

Fighting Back

Anxiety affects many people around the world to varying degrees, and it can put considerable strain on relationships. This isn’t to say that people with anxiety disorders can’t have healthy relationships, as they can. But to do that they need to actively fight back against the anxiety, and recognize that if they are in a relationship then the anxiety is not only affecting them – it also affects their loved ones.

One of the worst things an anxiety sufferer can do is resign themselves to it and say “this is just the way I am”. There is some truth to that, as anxiety sufferers will never get rid of the anxiety. Rather, they have to learn how to manage it instead of allowing it to control their life.

Accepting it will always be there is the first step to a healthy way of managing it. As one sufferer put it:

I think the issue facing many who deal with anxiety is that we want to be cured. We want to go back to that time period we can remember when it didn’t seem to overwhelm our every thought and impact us physically. We want to go back to that time in our relationships when we had no doubts and live there – because it seems as though once doubt sets in, you can’t shake it.

And sure, pills and therapy are fantastic ways to work on anxiety, but I think what we have to realize is anxiety can be managed, not cured.

I’ve found as I’ve worked on accepting that, I’m more receptive to negative thoughts associated with anxiety because I know they will pass – that yes, I have these thoughts which can ravage me emotionally, but that’s all they are – thoughts that my anxiety-distorted brain has come up with. It doesn’t take away the frustration and pain of having them, but makes them much easier to bear.

The next thing to do is educate yourself. The danger of anxiety is in that it is an automatic response or irrational thought. Increasing your knowledge of anxiety allows you to differentiate between rational and anxious thought.

One of the leading treatments for anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT takes the approach that thoughts and feelings affect behavior. Anxiety is based off of irrational thought, or cognitive distortions. So identifying these negative thoughts allows you to “fight back” against them.

There are also medications that can be used to treat anxiety and depression, and they can be helpful and even necessary at times (as anxiety is often tied to imbalances is brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine). My personal opinion is that medication alone is never enough. It can help get anxiety down to a low enough level to start working on changing the underlying thought process. But without that work, you are simply masking the problem. And medication has a tendency to become less effective over time.

Anxiety is a very difficult condition, and not one that can be understood by non-sufferers. It’s not as simple as “don’t worry so much”, though it can often seem that way to outsiders.

But it is true that it’s “in someone’s head”, as it is a condition that originates in broken thinking patterns. Changing those thoughts and mindsets takes time and dedication. But the cost of not doing so is extremely high, as anxiety can infect all aspects of life.

Honesty

honesty
Honesty.

We all want it in our relationships.

But is dishonesty ever “alright”?

It seems like a simple question at first.

Of course dishonesty is not alright – we want honesty all the time. After all, if you can’t trust someone about the little things then you can’t trust them about the big things, right?

But when you really look at it, it’s not really that straightforward.

What is dishonesty? There are three main forms of dishonesty:

  1. Lies
  2. half truths
  3. lies by omission

Some people think of honesty only in terms of lies, but it seems very clear that it’s more than that. Honesty is not only about the words you say and the actions you take.

It’s also about the things you don’t say.

You can be 100% honest in everything “you say”, while still being very secretive and deceitful. Half-truths and lies by omission are as damaging (if not more) than the things that you say.

silently_lying_60

Intimacy vs. Autonomy

Intimacy is all about closeness, and the way to build intimacy is through the sharing of your thoughts and feelings.

No one shares everything however, and we shouldn’t want them to. It’s important to balance intimacy with autonomy. Even when we are part of a relationship, we are still an individual and it’s important not to lose sight of that.

When you see your partner at the end of the day, it’s common practice to ask about their day. When we do this we don’t actually want to know everything. We aren’t looking for an itemized list of what your partner did during the day, minute by minute (at least I hope not). What we are really looking for is a summary, with maybe some of the highlights and lowlights of that day. We want to know what was important to them, and by them sharing that with us they are both maintaining and building a sense of intimacy.

It’s up to each person to determine what the “relevant” details are, and this is one of the places we get ourselves in trouble. What it relevant to one person may be different from what is relevant to another.

Let’s say you had a cheeseburger for lunch.

Now let’s say you had sex with a co-worker at lunch.

Maybe it’s just me, but these seem like they are pretty different things. Having sex with your co-worker is kind of a big deal, and sharing that knowledge would probably have a different impact on your relationship then telling your partner you had a cheeseburger.

One seems a wee bit more important in terms of relevance to your relationship than the other, and although the fallout would be considerable, I think it’s a safe bet that your partner deserves to know about the lunch sex.

But what about the cheeseburger? Is there any need to tell them about that?

Normally the answer would be no. But it comes down to context.

What if you and your partner are on a diet together, and the cheeseburger was a way of “cheating” the diet?

What if you are saving up for something and you promised to brown bag a lunch in order to save up money?

Well then perhaps the cheeseburger IS actually relevant. Maybe your partner WOULD be hurt if they knew about the cheeseburger.

honestyisintimacy

Intent

When withholding information from your partner (either through half-truths or complete omission) it comes down to intent.

WHY are you withholding information?

Is it because you truly thought it wasn’t important and it didn’t even occur to you to tell them? Is it because you want to surprise them with something? Or is it because you were feeling guilty and you didn’t want them to find out?

Sometimes people have disconnects on what “is important”, and this is an area where communication comes into play. Over time these sorts of disconnects will be sources of conflict for a couple, and this is natural and even healthy conflict.

When there are disconnects on what is important you can use them as opportunities to understand your partner better, and be a better partner to them in the future.

But if you are ever withholding information or keeping secrets out of shame or guilt, then you KNOW you have done something wrong. If this happens, any withholding is intentionally being deceptive.

Drawing the Line

Is it ever alright to intentionally be deceptive?

Sure, if you want to surprise your partner with something. It’s kind of hard to surprise them with things if you can’t keep some secrets.

But what about secrets that would hurt them?

I think there probably is a bit of a grey area here as well.

We all run into problems and issues in life. And sometimes we don’t want to share those. Sometimes we need to be able to work through things on your own.

That’s understandable to a degree. We don’t want to be the person who is alarming our partner by crying wolf every time we have concern or a fear. Sometimes we realize our fears are nothing, and it’s best not to stir the waters by raising them.

It’s important to be very careful with this though.

If these fears persist for a long time, or if they start to spill over into and affect the relationship, then they are pretty damned relevant. At that point choosing to keep them to ourselves will only ever do harm. It will break down trust, and damage the integrity of the relationship. And the longer it goes on, the more damage will be done.

Being Honest

I think being honest in a relationship doesn’t mean you are always truthful. It doesn’t mean you have to share every little thing. There are cases where you will hold things back, or even outright lie in the short term (with surprises for example).

To me it comes down to three very important things:

  • Intent
  • Empathy
  • Respect

We all choose our own actions. If we are in a relationship, then we need to think about our partners in the things that we do.

If our intent is good in the sense that we are considering our partner and being respectful towards them, we may still get ourselves in trouble if there is a disconnect between what is important to one versus the other. But those sorts of conflicts are fine.

We should never hide behind lies and partial truths or omissions out of shame or guilt though. Those sorts of things will only do long term harm.

And we should never do things that are disrespectful to our partner, or we know would hurt them if they found out. If we are doing that, then our relationships are built on a rotten foundation. And eventually, they will crumble under the weight of our own deceit.

Acting with respect, empathy and good intent is always the best approach.

The truth isn’t always easy to face; but it’s always the right answer.

we-all-need-to-know-what-it-means-to-be-honest

Why and How Matters More Than Who

WhyHow2
Love.

That’s why we are all here.

It may sound cliche, but I think it’s true. Humans are social animals, and we are all looking for acceptance and belonging.

No one wants to be alone. We all want to find that “someone” we will be with for the rest of our life. And sometimes we think we’ve found the person we can imagine ourselves growing old with.

But even still, many relationships don’t work out.

When we sort through the aftermath of failed relationships, it’s always easy to find the reasons it didn’t work out.

Maybe we had different interests, or different values. Or different attitudes towards any number of things.

And looking at the differences that we had can provide validation for why it didn’t work out.

We just weren’t a good fit. They weren’t the right person for us.

Next time we just need to find a person who is a better fit for us. If we can do that, then we would have our forever.

The Right Person

The “right person”. The “one”.

These concepts are driven into us through romantic notions of love.

And there is some truth to them.

It seems obvious that “who” you are with has some bearing on the success or failure of a relationship. Some people ARE more compatible than others, and certain personality traits seem to mesh with our unique makeup better than others.

There will always be differences though. Those differences are actually one of the strength of a relationship, because although they can be sources of conflict they also allow us to complement each other and bring out different sides of ourselves.

Due to this I think the “who” is actually a smaller factor than most people think.

There are no magic wands in life. There is no one person who, once you meet will turn your life into rainbows and unicorns.

ALL relationships run into challenges over time.

Who you are with is only a piece of the puzzle. What’s more important than the who is the why, and the how.

Why are you with your Partner

I am a huge believer in intention, and the question of why you are with your partner is perhaps the most important one you can ever ask yourself.

There are two levels to this question.

The first one I touched on in my last post. What was it that drew you to them? What made you decide this was someone you wanted to be with?

Depending on where you are in life, “what” you want in a relationship may change. What matters to you at 20 or 30 may not hold the same importance at 40 or 50.

If we hope to find someone we can be with for the rest of our lives (in spite of thse changes) perhaps the more important question is:

Why did you want a relationship in the first place?

I believe an honest answer to this question goes a long way towards determining the success of any relationship.

Relationships start with our own needs.

We find someone who we enjoy being around. We hopefully find them attractive, or at least feel we have some sort of chemistry with them.

But why do we want to be with them?

Are we looking for someone who will take care of us and fulfill our needs? Someone to share bills with? To provide a safe environment (physically and emotionally)? To provide a periodic sexual outlet? To potentially raise children with?

Are we looking for someone who makes us happy?

Take a look at this quote on happiness in relationships:

bewithsomewhomakesyouhappy

I get the sentiment behind this. Obviously we want to be around people that make us feel happy. But I think the idea is actually quite messed up, and can become twisted into something it was never intended to be.

To be happy, you have to first be happy with yourself.

No matter how good your relationship is no one can make you happy all the time – and in fact, your partner shouldn’t have to. You will always have times that you aren’t happy. And if you associate your level of happiness with the quality of your relationship, then during those unhappy times it can feel like something is wrong in the relationship.

When you are looking for someone to “make you happy”, you are putting a stress on your relationship that it will never be able to meet.

So instead of looking for someone to take care of us and make us happy, we should be looking for someone to share our life with. We should be looking for someone to share experiences with, and looking to enrich each other’s lives.

When we take this approach, the concept of happiness is better represented by the following:

makesomeoneelsehappy

This is a much healthier state both for the individual and the relationship. In either mindset, the actions and interactions in a relationship often look the same. But there is a big difference between wanting someone to make us happy and looking to share our experiences and happiness with someone.

When we want to “be happy”, we are in a selfish state of mind. Our relationship is one where we take more than we give, because we are interested primarily in what we get out of it. Our focus becomes how the relationship is meeting our own needs, and what it provides for us.

That’s not to say that our needs aren’t important, because they are. But a relationship needs to become about more than that.

We need to truly care about our partner and their needs. Their needs should not be viewed as part of an exchange, where we are meeting their needs in order to have ours met.

We should *want* to meet our partners needs and take enjoyment from the act of doing so. We should finding happiness within ourselves from the enjoyment of sharing our life with our partner.

The “we” has to become as important as the “me”.

How do we treat our partner

The next important thing in a relationship is how we treat our partner.

I suspect this is actually related to the “why”. When our focus is ourself (and how well the relationship meets our needs) we have automatically set up an antagonistic approach to our relationship.

When this happens couples get into patterns of conflict and withholding. “Oh, you didn’t do this (for me)? Well fine, then I won’t do this (for you)”.

Everyone falls into this sort of behavior occasionally, but hopefully not often.

It’s petty, it’s destructive, and it’s about power. In fact, intentionally withholding as a form of “punishment” is generally considered abuse.

By focusing on the couple and looking at what is good for the relationship, we can see the relationship in a different light. We are definitely an important part of it, but it’s not all about us. It’s not all about our partner either. We need to be in a position where we are both able to thrive at the same time.

Think about how you interact. About how you treat each other, not just when times are good but also when times are hard.

When you are stressed, do you take that out on your partner? Or do you try to work with them to ease any burdens.

How well do you support each other?

People use “we just weren’t compatible”, or “it just didn’t work out” because it’s the easy answer. When we say this, we are absolving ourselves of any responsibility.

“Who” you are with IS very important. But why you are with them, and how you treat them is equally important.

So instead of focusing on “the one”, focus on what you can do to improve your approach to your relationship each and every day. Don’t look for someone to take care of you. Don’t look for someone to make you happy.

Instead look at the good you have, and find joy in what you are able to provide.

You may find that giving and putting in effort provides it’s own rewards, and as you build you may also receive more in return.