Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Your Tear Your Family in Half A recent report showed that since the recession, the divorce rate in America is the lowest it’s been in 30 years. Divorce is an expensive business and maintaining two households can get steep. So instead, couples are taking a closer look at their relationship flaws and asking themselves if their marriage is “good enough” to stay. If you are in that situation, here are five questions to ask yourself before you tear your family in half.
1. Am I leaving because of boredom or excitement about meeting someone new?
You should know your notions about marriage are up against a media that spins fantasies about youth, beauty, money and sex. If you believe in the family life created by TV and movies, all partners stay fit, youthful, happy and rich. Unfortunately in real life many partners grow chubby, bald, fall into depressions, and lose money in a recession. Sexual energy gets diverted to nesting energy and the excitement of your youthful love affair morphs into a the drudgery of married life. If you answered “yes” to this question, the answer isn’t a new partner, it’s a new system. And you have the power to charge your “good” relationship.
I like to say that relationships are more often about the elephant in the living room than the tiger in the bedroom. That elephant can be ignored all day long, but he’s still in the living room. And his name is emotional intimacy. But couples indirectly do talk about the elephant all day long in metaphors, gestures, touch and facial expressions — round about ways of asking for love.
Drs. John and Julie Schwartz Gottman, marriage researchers and therapists would probably agree with me. Their ground breaking work on couples communication styles and partner’s bids for connection shows that long term marital happiness can be connected to the husband’s ability to respond to his wife’s bids for closeness. In recording data from an “apartment” laboratory, psychologist Gottman discovered that mundane conversations contain many bids for emotional connection — sometimes as many as 100 bids in ten minutes. “These bids can be a question, a look, an affectionate touch on the arm or any single expression that says, “I want to feel connected to you,” says Gottman. “A response to a bid can be a turn toward, away or against someone’s request for emotional connection.”
For example, consider a man who comes home from work and his wife says, “How was your day?” There are many ways to pose the question that run the gamut from sarcastic “How was YOUR day (implying that hers was worse) to a sweet, earnest inquiry to know more about a lover. And there are many ways to respond. From a curt “Fine,” to a “Great, honey! How was yours?” Add to that simple exchange, body language, facial expression and physical touch, and you can see that couples, even when they are saying nothing, are often saying a lot.
And an ability to turn toward or away from a request can even predict divorce. Research from Gottman’s apartment lab showed that husbands who eventually were divorced ignored the bids from their wives 82 percent of the time compared to 19 percent for men in stable marriages. Women who later divorced ignored their husband’s bids 50 percent of the time while those who remained married only disregarded 14 percent of their husband’s bids.
In the lab and in the therapy room, Dr. Gottman has discovered that many people are emotionally aware, that they lack emotional literacy in being able to read the emotional message in facial expressions or voice tone. And this handicap leads the other partner to feel rejected. The good news is that Gottman believes these skills can be learned, and even couples on the brink can find ways back into love.
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There’s no way around it, when someone has wronged us, it hurts. It often hurts a lot for a very long time. The injury could be minor, though profound, like a betrayal by a friend, or it could be major, like a physical assault. The point of the saying is that, no matter the injury, we can’t truly move on until we learn to forgive. And that’s a very tough walk. Here are a few thoughts on the art of forgiveness and how we can all learn to cultivate it.
First of all, think of forgiveness as a gift to yourself, not a gift to your offender. When a deep injury is done to us, we’ll never recover until we forgive. It is a way to clear a blockage in our minds and move forward with new knowledge and new growth. We are a more evolved person after we forgive, and that’s our gift to ourselves.
Forgiveness requires empathy. It is essential that you begin the forgiveness process by putting yourself in the shoes of your offender. Imagine that pain and fear are behind his or her anger. Imagine a small child inside your enemy who is as confused as you are about the injury. Imagine what it must feel like to walk with the guilt of having hurt someone. It doesn’t matter if your offender will ever actually get to the conscious place of feeling guilt and remorse. He or she need not seek your forgiveness in order for you to have a transformation. This process is about you. But it is helpful to come up with some explanation for your offender’s heinous action that feels rational to you. This is your mental journey. So, whether you imagine their bad childhood, their feelings of racial or gender persecution, or their feelings of envy toward you, find a reason for their bad behavior.
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Now, from that place of understanding, make a conscious decision to forgive that person. Create a private action that supports your decision. Write an unsent letter to them, light a candle and say a prayer in their name, or simply stick a post-it on your bathroom mirror that says “I forgive (insert name) I have feelings of love for (insert name).” This is a secret act but it’s a powerful action for brain change. For a few weeks, return daily to these private actions of forgiveness. Reread that letter. Relight that candle. Say the words on the post-it out loud. This is a way to rewire your brain.
The biggest step toward forgiveness is to express it to your offender. Whether you do it in an email (easiest) on the phone or in person (best, if possible) it must be done so that you can move on. And the tricky part of forgiveness is this: to express forgiveness without expressing blame. Your words should focus on your own feelings of hurt rather than the act that caused the injury. So, instead of saying, “I forgive you for stealing from me, you jerk,” you might say something like, “I felt so betrayed when I lost that money. But now I am letting go of those feelings. I want the best for you.” This is your journey and this higher level communication will speak to the highest level of your offender’s personality.
And, be reminded that forgiveness in not a magic trick to change someone else. Even if you change, the other person may not. And that’s okay. And finally, know that forgiveness takes maintenance. During future life stresses, old feelings about this injury may bubble up again. Each time they do, quietly walk those feelings back to bed with the same techniques. Eventually enough time will pass that those memories will lose their emotional punch. Forgiveness is the most mentally freeing experience. I encourage you to try it.
Okay, so I stole the line from JFK, but I do think people have love backwards. They keep asking themselves what their relationship can do for them instead of what they can do for their relationship. Love is a verb, not an asset to procure. It’s something we do. From a psychological stand point, people seek out love for mutual caring. But too often I hear people evaluate their relationship based on what they are getting out of it, instead of what they are putting in. They worry if they are gaining social status, and even housekeeping skills. They worry if they give too much, too early, that they will become devalued. (This point is somewhat true. Both men and women like to bond with a mate that is a little bit hard-to-get)
But once partners make to each other, too often they evoke Janet Jackson’s hit song as a battle cry, “What Have You Done For Me Lately?!” Can you imagine what home life would feel like if the two partners vowed to only count the amount they give and not the amount they receive.
Here’s a suggestion for this week only. Oh, God, I sound like a Sunday preacher! Put a chart on the fridge. Give yourself a star or check mark for every supportive statement and kind act that you give your lover. If you reach 21 by the end of the week (that’s only three a day) give yourself a treat. Some time alone, a trip to a day spa, a long sleep in, giant hike or bike ride. Love yourself as a reward for loving another.
And, guess what? What you water will grow. But not if you hover over it and constantly measure the seedling.
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Kids can be challenging. But so can our adult love relationships. But are they the same relationship? In many ways they are, and what we learn from one kind of relationship, we can apply to the other. The common link is emotional intimacy and the big tug-o-war in every intimate relationship is the struggle between independence and union. While many people have heard of co-dependence, that pop psyche term that means no one can remember whose problem is whose, not many fully understand the feeling of a healthy inter-dependence.
Independence and union are the yin-yang of human connections. Being in union with another fills us up with feelings of security, confidence, and heals our loneliness. And sometimes being together can also feel more like suffocation and imprisonment. Independence can help us feel powerful, free, and proudly self-sufficient. But independence can also bring feelings of isolation, fear, and, with no cheer leader, insecurity.
Every intimate relationship is a live action game, it’s partners on the same team with (hopefully) a common goal. Like basketball, sometimes one partner runs with the ball and scores, and other times is happy to assist or play defense. You steer the parent/child team when you make a firm rule. Your child steers the team when his/her unadulterated insight blurted out at a family dinner, awes and amazes you, and you change your behavior based on it. In an adult relationship, you may choose to lead by instituting firm boundaries between work life, couple-hood, and family life. He leads when you all move to a new city for his job and know that the long-run win will be family harmony.
The biggest difference between parenting and adult love is the direction separation runs. When you meet a stranger and fall in love, your journey together is one where you continue to grow closer and closer to create deep intimacy. A mother/child relationship runs the opposite course. You begin, literally as one body. And your journey is a long, slow separation from womb to dorm room. Both kinds of relationships share this: on their journey together each partner’s needs for closeness and autonomy will wax and wane as emotional needs ride the waves of daily life stresses.
Some people might think that another huge difference is that kids can’t leave. They are wholly dependent on their parents. But I beg to differ. Although kids may be financially dependent on their parents, they can emotionally leave the relationship. They can check out if their well-timed calls for some autonomy are not heeded. They can check out if they are given too much independence, and feel unprotected by their parents. Lovers can do the same thing. They may leave physically or emotionally.
So, how can we honor the struggle between our desires to be an individual and our desires to be a partner? The answer is always to talk about it. To have empathy for another’s autonomy and not “take it personally.” To voice our own needs for autonomy or closeness in a non-threatening way. The road to intimacy is a prickly path. We will often make mistakes in judgement, or act from a place of fear. But the other wonderful thing about all relationships is that they are alive and growing and there is always room for repair. And in that very process of repair, where we may use empathy and humor, we will feel in union again, that is, until the next time we feel smothered.
For more watch my youtube video on: Why IN-dependence is OUT