Category Archives: Relationships

Dating, relating, cohabiting, marriage and divorce. Includes tips for creating and maintaining healthy intimate relationships.

Anatomy of a Broken Heart

heart with plaster on green

(Originally written for Darling Magazine)

The pain of loss. That sinking feeling of blackness. Lethargy. Tears triggered by engagement ring ads, a reminder of a future interrupted. The cell phone, once a source of a smile and a quiver over the ping of a lovers text, now lies lifeless in hand.

All these symptoms plus a body that responds to an invisible invader. Some people, when suffering from a broken heart, actually experience a temporary disruption of heart function, perhaps a reaction to stress hormones that produce abnormal pumping and pain that mimics a heart attack. But the center of heartbreak syndrome is often the stomach?a hornets nest of thoughts and feelings?it churns around chemical messengers that signal sadness and terror. Its no wonder that psychologists call the stomach a second brain. Its as if our lover has cut an emotional umbilical cord and we are sailing away from Mother, vulnerable, unmoored. Nauseous. We are dying a tiny death.

For most of us, heartbreak is a necessary loss.

Carly Simon once sang that theres more room in a broken heart, and she may well have been singing about the strange empathy that comes with vulnerability. Its not that one needs a serious abandonment episode to become a kinder person. Its just that a fall from the high horse of love drunkenness lands us down to earth, and from here we can have a much clearer view of what drew us to that racehorse in the first place. Simply put, if used correctly, a broken heart can help us know ourselves better. A broken heart can empower us. Heartbreak can shine a light on our unique attachment style. Parts biological and parts psychological?each person has a unique manner of bonding. Some cling. Some avoid. Some can give care but not receive it while others prefer to only take.

Heartbreak is an opportunity for a prickly reality check.

In our sea of tears, free from the fantasy of what was, we can look clearly at how we swam into the deep waters of a love relationship with a partner who was no longer swimming beside us. We can use the sadness to prevent future heartbreak.

Did we move too fast? When the words I love you gush out, between breaths under a duvet, they are not to be believed. This is not the declaration of loyal dedication, nor the workhorse of sacrifice that secure attachments require. This is a rush for definition?an anxious attachment style that clings fast to fantasy.

Perhaps we ignored some important signs. Maybe we moved at a sensible pace but wore carefully adjusted blinders to selectively ignore some signals that our paramour was less than en par. If we tend to become attracted to dodgy lovers who feel like they are always slipping through our fingers and then artfully reel them in for moments of bliss, we are addicted to something that is more challenge than comfort.

Maybe we pushed love away. And what of those of us who coiled away from too much closeness? The feeling of loss is as confusing as it is painful after we worked so hard to not let our lovers cut close to the bone, only to discover they have sliced us through the heart with their final disappearance.

We let our love die. Perhaps, a good solid love was planted and grew strong but we forgot to tend our garden. The years dragged on until one partner simply crumbled under the boredom.

Its time to stop repeating the past.

Our unique blueprint for love is shaped early in life. It is our individual schema or model in our mind. As adults, we seek out partners to play the familiar roles we need to feel again?to match a secure mothers love or to create a conflict that we aim to right this time around. Early attachment theorists believed that we all come into the world with an attachment style that can blossom or die, depending on how it is pricked or prodded by our environment. And our most influential environment is our primary caregiver.

Some babies are born simply needing more care, attention and contact. Indeed, some children stay drunk on separation anxiety, weaving against mother or daddys trousers long after others have bounded off in search of frogs or flowers. And how parents react to their needy baby is crucial. Patience and kindness can program even the most anxious to trust love and later seek out gentle lovers. But a too-early push or a failure to console when a bumpy playground fall sends a child running for arms can be a prescription for excruciating longing. For these people, love becomes a journey of rebounding between familiar losses.

But what about those other babies, the ones who are born happily sailing from womb to toddler bed with barely a whimper? All goes well if the rocking arms respect the need to wiggle free. But if Mommy or Daddy have unmet needs of their own?needs to over bundle, stroke intrusively, force a bottle on an already full tummy?then baby might learn that love is smothering and engulfing and must be avoided at all costs. These are the girls who hook up and run from beds, the boys who hide behind the safety of texts. For the avoidant, love demands that one must stand sentry against an invasion and defend or vanish when love gets too close.

Finally, what of the baby of any biological ilk who faces a damaged parent, one with wild emotions (chemically induced or not) who treats a child like a punching bag or a pet or a giant burden to ignore? What of that child? What of that version of love? Sadly, this too becomes a blueprint for attachment issues.

The bad news: We seek out our familiar childhood conflict in adult lovers, some hoping to right a wrong, others playing a painful game of repetition compulsion.

The good news: Attachment injuries can be healed!

As conscious, aware, thinking adults, we can do the emotional work of changing our patterns of love and loss. We can deliberately and thoughtfully date a different kind of lover, one who doesnt give us the familiar thrill of a rocky roller coaster ride. We can find an understanding therapist to walk with us through the uncharted territory of safety, gentleness, care.

But when you are in the depths of despair, when the future looks bleak, it is important to recognize this as a gift. It is an awakening. Heartbreaks are a special opportunity to meet your complicated inner world, to make peace with old paths, and forge a new journey. The most important relationship you will ever have is one with yourself. This may well be the year that you learn to be a tender mother to your own psyche, offering forgiveness, consoling and new awareness.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Your Tear Your Family in Half
Couple Back to back with problemsA 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.

Continue reading Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Is “Un-Divorced” The New Marriage?

I have a guy-friend who has been un-divorced for three years. What that means is that he pays all his wife’s expenses while she lives in another (much smaller) house in the same city. They are both dating other people and speak only about practical household matters. When I ask my friend why he doesn’t get divorced, he shrugs his shoulders and says, his wife hasn’t asked for a divorce. I have a few theories on why this couple doesn’t legally pull the plug on their marriage — divorces are expensive, emotionally gruesome, and staying married is a kind of relationship that fulfills an attachment need for those who are more intimacy avoidant.

Apparently my friend’s situation is not unique. While it is difficult to estimate the numbers, a recent article in the New York Times says that “society is full of whispered scenarios in which spouses live apart.” The article even sites famous gazillionaire, Warren Buffet, who separated from his wife in 1977 and remained married to her until her death on 2004, even though he was living with another woman.

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I would venture to say that there are three categories of people who live in this marital limbo. First, wealthy people who stand to suffer financially if a divorce breaks up assets, like companies and real estate holdings. Second, couples with children who are co-parenting, albeit from separate homes, while health and life insurance policies remain intact, and finally, that large group of wishy-washy, can’t-get-off-the-fence Americans who fear intimacy and deep emotional commitment. After all, staying married to an estranged spouse protects one from having to marry anyone else. For some, staying un-divorced is a perfect purgatory where they can maintain a social illusion of a legal pairing, while sowing their oats elsewhere, yet never having to bring the new crop to fruition. For some of these scenarios, according to The New York Times, pressure from a new paramour is the most common cause, finally, of a delayed divorce.

Continue reading Is “Un-Divorced” The New Marriage?

Real Men Hate the Word Love

Happy young couple playing in hotel room while laying on bed in

Have you ever noticed that I talk about relationships all day long and I only rarely mention love? And when I do, it is usually to caution that it is a delusion intertwined with sexual attraction. Or, I remind you that love is a verb, not a noun. An action word. Not a state of being. Long term love is an intellectual commitment, I say.

Could I sound any more unromantic?

Hey, and speaking of romance, I normally dismiss flowers, chocolate, fine wine, and high heels as  simple accoutrements to delusion. I should also tell you that my “brainy” ideas about love have garnered me a group of male readers who say, “finally a woman who gets it.” Men do love to make rational sense of things that are so irrational. And men love to hate the word love. It feels weak to think feelings for a woman might disempower them.

But do I really get it?

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I certainly have some textbook notions about how biology and psychology get all tangled up and sometimes make people do things they shouldn’t be doing. Running off with a paramour when a perfectly good spouse is right in front of you. Staying with an abusive spouse because of love. Jumping into bed with a Casanova because you will be the one to change him. Thinking that a loss of sexual energy is a loss of love. And, my favorite transgression of love’s delusion: Dragging children through our delusions.

Could love really be that dangerous? Must it always involve some form of heartbreak, dysfunction, boredom, loss, or even violence? And if that is the case, why do we march right back into the fire when we should know better?

I have some of the answers. But only some.

Psychologists would say that love is a seeking out of early womb experiences and infantile bliss. A baby’s play and cuddling becomes an adult sex life. Parts of our brain consider a lover a kind of mother, a nurturer, a protector, even an executor of boundaries. We feel safe and cared for in a love relationship.

We do it, that is, fall in love because it is the single best chemical high in our lifespan. At least, the best high that both genders can experience. We women, also get to do childbirth, which is pretty darn close to experiencing heaven and hell at the same time. But love is different. It is shared with an adult.

Both genders can experience love together. Love. An unconscious handshake between too souls who agree there is more to this world than work, play, and food.  It is an exchange of mutual projections that when executed well, is better than any Academy Award winning movie. Love may be a delusion but it is one of the best ones we have. And sometimes it’s all we have. With so many people losing faith in old religions, I wonder if love is becoming our new religion. And what is faith after all? Merely a belief in something that we have little scientific proof of. I would venture to say that we have far more proof of love’s power than many religions do in their folklore. The selfless acts of love that happen every day are real, observable, and can bring us to our knees in awe of the God-like powers within humans.

Now I will really go out on a limb and say that Love (look, I’m using a cap now!) can feel like a spiritual experience. All we can hope for, is that each new love relationship will bring us different challenges. We hope that as we grow we will not become trapped in familiar, unhealthy patterns that get us stuck. Delusion or not, love is something we should all sign up for. It’s an antidote to fear, horrific TV news, sickness, and other suffering. Love is the answer. And when life gets us down, when we feel, shame, loneliness, victimized, pressured, indecisive, or angry, love is the only choice that will work every single time. It won’t always have an instant result and it won’t always come back directly to us with the precision of a ping pong ball, but a loving act will change our biology and change the world. One selfless act at a time. Don’t fear love, nor waste it thoughtlessly. It is the biggest gift you will ever receive. Ya listening guys?

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How Do You Respond To Your Spouse?

Couple Fights in Bed

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.”

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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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Get the love life you deserve in my new online workshop, 10 Secrets of Mindful Relationships! I’m excited to share the steps you need to incorporate mindfulness in your current or future relationships. Sign up now on popexpert.com: http://bit.ly/1GOwq3v

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