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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Ever been in a passionate argument with your spouse and had the thought, “This is it. This will divorce us for sure!” Here’s a secret: Most people have those thoughts in the heat of an angry exchange, because in the regressed mental state called rage, “water under the bridge” doesn’t seem like an option. Know this: Conflict is a natural part of having an intimate relationship and even a vital part. As couples come back to each other after a fight, in a place of love with words of contrition and forgiveness, the relationship is often stronger for it. It is at least more intimate. The bumpy road of conflict followed by repair is the route to a deeper connection. After a fight, we know our partner’s hot buttons very well. And hopefully he is more understanding of our tender spots. But how can you tell if your fights are “good fights,” the kind that will eventually help you grow closer, or “bad fights”, the kind that chip away at your bond and erode your love? Certainly, some fights do function as a slow kill on your relationship.
There are some things to consider: First of all, think about the power of the words used during a fight. Yes, even though psychotherapists stress that we must use words that focus on our feelings rather than accusations, even the most educated of us resort to blaming sentences that begin with the word “YOU!” That alone doesn’t indicate a “bad fight” unless it is also followed by vicious name calling. Name calling is a bad sign. It indicates that one partner has temporarily forgotten the other’s identity and has substituted it by a skewed stereotype. It’s hard to drop those evil caricatures once our minds have created them. If you see him as a loser and tell him over and over, you are also rewiring your brain to believe this is true.
One other thing to consider is the amount of voice time alloted each arguer. If the yelling is terribly lop-sided and one partner gets more air time, then something else is going on. Either intimidation by the loud mouth, or an emotional retreat by the other. Both things are not fighting fair. As injurious as a fight can be, the biggest determinant of whether it is a “good fight” is the way repair is made afterward. There are many unique ways that couples come back into relationship after a fight. Notes left by the morning coffee pot, flowers at the office, and my favorite — off-the-charts make-up sex. But the important thing to remember is that love and respect can return.
Dangerous aftermaths include icy treatment for days on end. Little jabs thrown into unrelated conversations. Passive aggressive, retaliatory behavior. And worst of all, a fight that morphs into other fights that get flooded with material from old injuries. “Remember the time you…..”
The best way to learn to have “good fights” is to establish ground rules before any fighting begins. Men love rules of the game. It reminds them of sports and makes fighting a healthy challenge rather than a confusing battle with a scary, invisible opponent. Some ground rules might include, no name calling, no stonewalling, no fighting in front of the kids, no going to bed mad, and most importantly, scheduled make-up time the next day.
It is also important to understand that each person has their own fighting style that must be respected. A man who walks out the door for brisk walk during an argument may not be rejecting you, he may be protecting you from a shift from words to action. Some people need a time-out to regroup and think during a fight. The time to talk about fighting styles, of course, is when you are not fighting.
Arguments with someone we are deeply committed to can be very, very scary. And the outcome of a fight may not be what we bargained for, but two individual people sharing a life will have many opportunities to compromise. Remember, it’s not who wins the match that matters, it’s how the game is played. Reminding yourself that love can return is the best way to insure that you have good fights.
In this book, Becoming Attached, author Dr. Robert Karen sums up the work of the pioneers of attachment theory well. From the birth of attachment theory, with such thinkers as John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and Mary Main, came the notion that a trusted person — an attachment figure — offers an infant a secure base. A child whose needs are met with appropriate attention, affection, and empathic words will grow to trust the world and to trust relationships, and will translate that feeling of trust to a romantic partner in adult life. John Bowlby, an English psychotherapist from the first part of the last century, is often called the father of attachment theory. He believed that the ties to the parent gradually weaken as the child gets older, and that the secure base function is slowly shifted to other figures, eventually resting on one’s mate.
This tendency of the child to attach in the ways he or she was attached to his/her parents happens because the functions of attachment become an internal property of the child. In other words, we are often unaware of our own attachment style. Attachment theory involves a way of relating to others based on communications and behaviors of both parents in the first years of life. These “messages” about how to love are then combined with a child’s own interactions with each parent, and become an influential cognitive structure — a hard-wired piece of our personality.
Three Principal Patterns of Attachment
Attachment researchers have categorized people based on three principal patterns of attachment. The first is a pattern of secure attachment, in which the person is confident that a parent (usually Mom, and eventually a lover) will be available, responsive, and helpful.
The second is that of anxious resistant attachment, in which the individual is uncertain if a parent will be available and because of that uncertainty, is prone to separation anxiety and is anxious about exploring the world.
The third pattern is an anxious avoidant attachment, in which the individual has no confidence that when he or she seeks care, they will be responded to, and on the contrary, expects rejection.
People with anxious attachment disorder are vigilant clock-watchers. Since they are dependent on contact and affirmation from their partner, they have an uncanny ability to sense if contact is waning. They tend to be chronic voice mail and e-mail checkers, and have a need for constant texting. They can also be easily prone to feelings of jealousy. They love and respect their partner, but are also wary that that love may disappear. And, while people with anxious attachment disorder crave closeness, they can also be surprisingly terrified when they actually get what they crave. We’ve all met or dated someone who sent us contradictory messages and led us to believe they were interested, only to disappear or behave badly and send us running. People with anxious attachment disorder don’t trust that love is real or reliable, and so they often behave badly when things feel too good.
The good news is that attachment disorders can be healed. An empathetic, ethical therapist can foster a healthy therapist/patient relationship that rebuilds adult attachment style. Patients learn how to depend on relationships, to trust love, and to tolerate criticism and consistent contact. If you feel you are suffering from an attachment disorder, try to find a therapists who specializes in attachment theory.
Attachment theory holds so many keys to adult romantic pair bonding. The unique mating dance of couples is choreographed by the internal world of both partners, creating, in the end, a performance that runs the gamut from an embracing waltz to one in which the dancers continually step on each others’ feet. It is a reflection of the secret world of an infant and parent, played out again with a grown-up body and a new kind of mother — a lover.
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When couples enter couples counseling, they often wonder if the therapist will “take sides,” by taking up the cause of one partner over the other. If the truth be told, each partner hopes the therapist will take their own side. But family therapists are taught to consider neither partner as the client. Their patient is the relationship itself. With that said, here are three remedies often prescribed to an ailing relationship.
1. Schedule a daily “we” bubble. All couples report fighting over in laws, money, sex, parenting, and domestic responsibilities, but the couples who are able to work through that stuff best are those who act and think as one mind. To create an environment for that one mind to grow, couples need a “we” bubble, a daily cocoon, to simply be together in routine and ritual. Your cocoon, may be a morning coffee together, an after-dinner stroll, or a bed-time cuddle. The key to building strength in a relationship is to bond every day.
2. Problem solve with the relationship in mind. Make decisions based on what’s good for the relationship rather than what’s good for one. Just as a therapist looks at the relationship as the patient, couples can be transformed by the mental mindset of solving problems through the lens of what’s best for both instead of one. Sometimes, it can be as simple as training your mind to refocus and with every conflict, asking yourself what’s really important here, and understanding that compromise can sometimes get you more in the long run.
3. Join his or her cheer team. If a relationship is an exchange of care, there is probably no better kind of care than to be in your partner’s corner while he or she faces the stress of life. Think of yourself as the captain of your partner’s cheer squad. You might be surprised at how your entire relationship can be transformed by the addition of a few compliments, words of encouragement, and reminders of how loved they are.