One Key to a Healthy Relationship You May Have Overlooked

 

The answer? Empathetic disappointment versus critical disappointment.

 I worked with a couple who had recently returned from a family vacation up North.  This couple, along with their two children set off for an adventure to New York City.  The husband, who is mostly busy working, was looking forward to a week away.  The wife, who home schools the children was also looking for a nice change of pace and scenery.  There were some good times and some less good times on the trip, and one argument which culminated after the family was moving slowly to get to a sightseeing event that the wife had planned and no one else seemed enthusiastic about.  Upon their return, their different experiences of the same trip began to emerge.  The husband overheard the wife describing New York negatively to a friend, and the wife learned after the fact about the resentment her husband felt about having to come home early for a sporting event for one of the kids.  It is the reactions from one to the other about their different perceptions of the trip that is being focused on here, not the differences themselves.  

There are two types of disappointment. One that can come from fusion in a relationship which is more likely to create critical interactions between people, and one that can come from differentiation which may create more empathy in the relationship.  

What is empathy? I would define empathy as ones ability to separate self enough from another person to sit along side their experience without taking it on as their own but to recognize and understand the persons emotion.  I would not think of empathy as becoming ‘one’ with the person in their feelings which may be a typical definition of the word.

What is fusion? Fusion in a relationship is when two people become overly invested and intwined in the other person at the expense of themselves.  In a relationship, there is often the covert expectation that people must act the same, be the same and have the same feelings to any given experience, and when this doesn’t exist, the relationship must be “bad”.  In a highly fused relationship, if one person has an emotion, the other person feels the need to respond, react, and/or take accountability for that persons emotion, losing sight of their own individual experience and understanding of the situation.  This shared brain often causes tension and unrealistic expectations of the others role in ones life and more problems exist in these relationships.  A dependence is formed where loss of self ensues.

What is differentiation? Differentiation on the other hand, is when two people who love and are committed to each other can operate in their own sphere with respect for the differences between them.  It’s ones ability to remain thoughtful versus simply emotional during a heightened time of tension, which usually is a result of a difference of opinion.  Being and having a self in a relationship is differentiation.  The higher the level of differentiation, the fewer problems there tend to be between the two people, because instead of just reacting  emotionally to each other, they can have a thoughtful and communicative interaction.  They take accountability and responsibility for their own lives.

With that lesson out of the way, lets get back to the couple who traveled to New York for a lovely family vacation. The wife said that she didn’t need to go back to NYC and that the trip was a lot of work and not much of a vacation.  He said how disappointed he was to hear her say this because they had spent a lot of money and had planned the trip and he just couldn’t understand why in the world she would have that view.  He was angry about it.  This set off a defensive response in her to say, if he had helped her more with the planning maybe she could have enjoyed herself more.  This set off a defensive stance within him and said that she was the one who wanted to be busier than the rest of them and they were fine with just having the down time. He expressed a fair amount of disappointment that the trip was cut off early to get back to town and she was angry at him for feeling this way and couldn’t understand why he would have such a response to supporting their daughter and her team.  Add face contortions and furrowed brows and criticisms being lobbed back and forth across a net that felt more like a tall brick wall and you can imagine the tension in the room.

This whole interaction came from a place of, “fusion disappointment.”  Fusion can be like a wolf in sheeps clothing because one might jump to the conclusion that this conversation stemmed from a place of distance and growing a part.  It’s a common mistake.  Instead, this conversation stems from fusion, too much togetherness and too close in the expectation of experiences.  We didn’t have the same response to an experience, therefore we must fight and argue about it to prove whose experience was correct, right or accurate.  What??  When written this way, we can see how silly and unrealistic this is, but it happens all the time between couples.  Having different perceptions of the same experience infuriates people! This couple also went out to dinner and she loved the meal and he did not.  She was angry and irritated with him he didn’t like the meal because she took responsibility for that particular reservation.  That may be true but that does NOT mean she needs to take responsibility for his reaction to his experience of the meal.  That’s his and he’s entitled to own it!

Now lets take the above situation and translate it coming from a place of, “differentiation disappointment.  Imagine this, two people in the world walking side by side, living life doing the best they can each do.  Living, learning, experiencing life through their own individual lens that is completely unique to them.  Sharing their experiences in the world with a loved one coming from a place of interest and curiosity, sharing for the sake of letting the other person catch a glimpse of their path they are clearing.  There is an understanding of each persons separateness that allows for space and respect.  With this in mind, when the wife shares that she doesn’t need to go back or that the state was definitely not her favorite and it wasn’t the best trip, the husbands response would be more out of love and empathy.  A response may be: (exaggerated for the sake of the point), ‘Oh no, my wife whom I love and care for did not have a great experience.  I have empathy for her that her vacation was not as she had hoped.  I am so curious and interested to know how she could have enjoyed her experience more.’  He doesn’t take responsibility for her or get critical of her view, he accepts it as her own and has interest in what her thinking was around it.  If the husband expresses frustration that the trip was cut short, she responds with love and empathy that the person she loves felt disappointment at the objective experience. She might express how hard she knows he works and can understand how important that free time away from the city he works in is to him.  His feeling of frustration at the experience belongs to him, it’s how he chooses to view it and she does not need to take responsibility for his choice of reaction (they did make the choice together on the front end to come back).  She can listen and love and empathize but it isn’t hers, it’s his.   

On the other side of this is the importance of not blaming someone else for your reaction to the experiences.  The old, “If he did this, then I could do that” mentality sets oneself up for blame of the other which weakens you. If he could have worked harder with the planning and not left everything to me, then I could have had a better time.  It would be much harder for the husband to have ‘empathetic disappointment’ if she is outwardly blaming him for her experience.  Her non-blaming outlook might look like this: Next time I won’t work as hard to plan and then be resentful.  Instead I will include and engage in conversation each persons hope and expectation for their own vacation.  If I wan’t to see a show and no else does, I’ll go alone! 

Remember that separating the shared brains will actually allow you to feel more loving and close to your partner.

So go forth in your travels, and remember taking responsibility for your view of the world is mandatory for contentment and happiness and allowing someone to have a reaction to a life experience without judgment or criticism is key to a healthy and loving relationship. ❤️

  

The key to loving in a different way

I recently read an article entitled: “What does it mean to hold space for someone else” by Heather Plett.

I believe this is the key to good, open, honest communication. It’s an important article to read. You can read the article here: http://upliftconnect.com/hold-space/

So what does it mean to hold space for someone else?
“It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control”

It sounds glorious, but the reality is this is very hard to do in our most important and closest relationships. Why? What gets in the way of this perfectly harmonious union? Well believe it or not, what you need to achieve the above, love, is also the very thing that stands in the way of accomplishing it.

We become confused about what love actually is and what loving another human being looks like. Love can look like care but care can also look like control. Love can look like guiding, but guiding can be judgment. Love can look like concern, but concern can also look like criticism. Love can look like inseparable romance, but inseparable romance can be dependence. We are under the illusion that we are in a loving relationship, but are we in the best most sustainable one?

Love is an emotion and no emotion stands alone. It is paired with anger, sadness, happiness and underlying it all, fear. On a very basic level, it’s fear for our survival. If the one we love does not fit what or who we think they should be, we will feel abandoned and alone, left to fend for ourselves and our offspring. Love becomes a need. And any time we need something from someone else there is the risk of disappointment. Why? Because love/need becomes focus on the other person, and this is the single most detrimental dynamic for ourselves and the relationship. You find yourself saying: “If they would just, then I could.” You have just hit a brick wall, a dead end in the maze of life. So let’s review: love + need=fear. Fear+relationship=focus on other. Focus on other=loss of self and the sum of it all is anxiety and discontent in the relationship. Isn’t it kind of crazy that our partner can become the one that can best trigger our fight or flight response? It’s a different kind of heart pounding then the one we started off with when the relationship was new.

In order to hold space for someone, you need to learn to love the person in a different way. Turn love/need into just love (the love probably very similar to when you just met the person) But how? Here are 3 suggestions. Please note before you read these that the theme of these suggestions is shifting focus from them to you; a key handed to you to love in a different way.

We must love and trust ourselves. I hate to sound cliché but it is absolutely true. It is trust that we can survive happily and courageously on our own if we need too. If abandoned in the forest our ability to make solid decisions in the moment, tap in to our resources, and find inner and outer strength would come through and allow us to survive. Once we trust that we can survive and are not dependent on someone else, we can look at our significant other as a partner, two people walking side by side. Two separate brains are better than one. Two merged brains (loss of self) bounce off each other, and like a wall of mirrors, disorientation ensues. So, loving in a different way means knowing that we want to be with this person not that we need to be with this person. Suggestions: Do something that requires you to feel alone and vulnerable. Take a trip alone, think of ways in which you would normally be dependent on your partner and do them yourself. Use the grill, cook a meal, pay the bills, recognize ways in which you have become dependent and work on changing that. Prove to yourself you are capable. A good question might be, “In what way am I focused on my partner rather than what I am responsible for?”

Recognize and respect your separateness. You are two different people in the world perceiving everything you come across in a different way from each other. This is a very simple concept that most people do not understand at all. While our current president may be high on the continuum of narcissism, we are all somewhere on the scale and we believe the only way in which to see the world is the way we see it. But understand that everyone is feeling the same way. The clashing of perceptions and the desire to have them be the same causes tension, and our main mission becomes getting the other person to see it like we do. This will never happen. This creates a huge wedge of sensitivity that causes fights and/or silent treatments and the partner whom we are supposed to love becomes scary and unapproachable. Loving in a different way means truly understanding that you and your partner will never share the exact same view of the world and the way things should be done. Loving in a different way means understanding that each of you brings a unique perspective and understanding to the relationship that must be honored, not judged. If one of you loves the beach and the other loves the mountains this is ok! You can still be good together if you respect the others interests.  Suggestions: Be truly interested in learning to understand the way your partner sees the world. Ask questions, be open to what you hear, don’t judge it or try to change it. Just listen. Experiment. Take one issue in front of you and explain what you would do, or how you see it. See how similar or dissimilar they might be.

Communicate with kindness. One of the main things that interferes with good communication is the inability to tolerate our partners range of emotions. Whether directed at us or not, we don’t want the other person to feel uncomfortable. Yes, because we love and care for him or her, but also because if that person is uncomfortable, we are uncomfortable (there are those merged brains again) , and we humans will do almost anything to avoid discomfort. If you are friends, partners, teammates you will recognize naturally the desire to communicate with kindness, interest and respect. We lose this when we are in a fear based state but once you realize you can trust yourself, that you are a strong individual in the world having and needing life experiences that enrich you and make you healthy and happy, you will want that for your partner too. Suggestions: Tell your partner what you appreciate about them on a daily basis. Take time to be grateful for how they contribute to your life. Thank them. Offer to do something that would be helpful to them. When they are having an emotional response to something, listen to them. Ask questions, do not be threatened or scared by their emotions that belong to them. Just be present with those emotions, and sit with them.

So what is the key to loving in a different way? Focusing on what you can actually control. Yourself.  It is the recognition that fear in a relationship increases the desire to control.  The very effort to try and make our partner in to what we think we need propels them in the opposite direction and creates the very fear we were trying to avoid.  Get in touch with what you fear, recognize your strength as an individual human in the world, and love someone for who they are not who you wish they were.

 

 

 

Be the change you wish to see in the relationship.

This week I have been working with a lot of couples who are hell bent on attempting to change their spouse by complaining to them over and over and over.  I suppose this isn’t such a far-fetched idea.  If you pound a nail into a piece of hard wood over and over again, eventually it will sink in.

What really happens if we continually give our spouse the smack down in hopes that something will sink in? Lots of things.  But one thing that will NOT happen is the change in the other that you think you need to see to be happier.  Not only will they most likely not change in the direction you think they should go, they won’t even change in the direction they think they should go.  Instead  they freeze, or they rebel or they become passive aggressive, or they become resistant and defensive.  They might even temporarily look the way you want them to look  but it’s only temporary if they are doing it to get you off of their back. Then you have this false hope disappointment thing going on.  They are only reacting to your anxiety.  This is a mess, a real mess I tell you.

Here’s what’s happening.  We all only have so much energy.  If you are spending all of your energy on attempting to change the thinking and ways of another human being, you are wasting precious energy that could be spent on perfecting your own life goals.  And for the spouse that’s “not changing,” instead of spending their precious energy on their own life goals and figuring out what they want to do with their lives they’re busy defending themselves, fighting you, or convincing you why they’re not going to do what you want them to do.  The bottom line is that focusing your energy on what someone else should be doing that they are not doing is a big fat waste of time.

This is a tough situation.  What if you have begged your spouse to get a new job so he can be around more often on the weekends because your losing it?  Or what if you have begged your spouse to help you around the house more because you’re feeling overwhelmed and they just haven’t? What about if you have begged your spouse to actually finish a project versus starting it and then abandoning it with shrapnel left all around?  What if it feels like you are at your breaking point and if this thing doesn’t change YOU will be miserable?  What are you supposed to do?

It might feel hopeless and overwhelming but what I can say is whatever you have been currently doing, stop.  Just stop.  Let’s start there.  Stop waiting for the other person to change so that you can be happier because it’s more than likely doing the opposite. Your expectations that aren’t being met are making you more miserable.  Understanding some fundamentals about relationships and how they work is important and might lead to some resolution of the above questions.

So, take a deep breath and understand that all relationships can be challenging and that just because you want to kill your spouse right now does not mean you need to be calling lawyers.  You are in it for the long haul and relationships are really just a series of ups and downs that need to be managed until the kids go away (hopefully) to college.  After they leave, the turbulence decreases.  Unless of course you have been ignoring each other for the past 18 years in which case those quiet skies become deafening loud.

The other thing I believe is important to understand is that the dependence we have toward each other goes beyond just needing the other to bring home the other half of the mortgage money or to take care of the kids while the other works.  Without realizing it, we have become increasingly sensitive to what the other is doing or not doing, saying or not saying, that we begin to make decisions based on this information instead of the information that is within us (our own thinking and perceptions). When this sensitivity goes both ways, as it does in all relationships, this is called reciprocity.  He does one thing, she reacts.  Then he reacts to her reaction.  Well, then of course she has to react to his reaction which he can’t not react to.  What’s lost here? The entire original topic of discussion!  The issue has become the relationship and then the original issue never gets resolved.  How is this dependence? We get to the point where we can’t even think for ourselves anymore, we are only thinking in reaction to the other person. We are dependent on what they are thinking in order to form our own thoughts.  Yikes, lost self. Put out an APB.   Become an expert in how this reciprocity works in your relationship.  In what ways are you simply reacting to what your partner is doing or not doing?  If the original issue is that the house is a mess, the result shouldn’t be relationship murder.  Find the original issue and trace it back.  You’ll see.

Let’s say the problem has been clearly defined.  The house is a mess.  Notice how the reaction to the issue is quite different for both of you.  For some a messy house creates a visceral reaction which quite literally makes the skin crawl.  For the other, it might seemingly cause no reaction (although not caring about a messy environment can also be a sign that one is shutting down and distancing). So, there’s the difference in the thinking.  Believe me, this difference was there when you got married. Here is where change comes in.  If these two people weren’t married, it wouldn’t matter that there was a difference.  He could keep living like a frat boy and start cool projects that don’t get finished, and she could continue keeping herself busy and calm by cleaning all the time.  But you’re married, so you have to change…a little.

Heres how change has worked in my house on this issue.  My husband is cleaner than I am.  I can admit that.  Now before you get all jealous and think I’m lucky, let me tell you it’s not all sunshine and rainbows living with someone who needs tidiness.  For a long time, he begged me to be cleaner.  I couldn’t hear him because I was busy being defensive and irritated at his desire to have me be any different than my wonderful self already was. Plus, he was the crazy dude who needed everything clean, not me.  When, and ONLY WHEN, I realized that my disorganization was not serving me as an individual well AND it was causing problems in my relationship did I find the impetus for change.  But here’s the thing.  Change isn’t easy.  It’s not natural for me to do or clean things as soon as I notice them.  If I don’t feel like doing it, I won’t naturally do it.   I had to retrain my brain to become a more organized individual.  (I can hear my husband saying, “You did?” YES, I did.)  I had to come to understand that the thought, “I’ll do it later,” really meant,  “That’s not something I feel like dealing with now or probably for a long time, if ever.”  I have made it my own personal rule that I am not allowed to say, “I’ll do it later.”   Some people might be able to put things off and then actually do them later.  Not me.  Instead the task gets pushed deeper and deeper below the present until it’s lost and seemingly doesn’t exist anymore until it pops up and surprises me and I become a scurrying madwoman.    It’s just how my brain works.  You have to retrain your brain to lose weight, or to exercise more, or to become more motivated, or to stay calmer as a parent, or to be more patient with your mother, or to finish projects when you are used to doing them only half way, or to overcome the impulse to buy everything,  or…you name it.  You must retrain your brain to change.

We now know that the brain is maleable.  You can create new neural pathways.  But it takes three things to create these new neural pathways (or, in other words, change our patterns of behavior).

1) Motivation — A lot of it.  It has to come from an original spot in your being.

2) Increased awareness — This is a daily, hourly, and a by the minute thing.  You need to be more present and connected to your thinking and actions constantly.

3) Repetition — Do the new and desired behavior over and over and over again until it feels more effortless.  The “new” behavior eventually will become second nature.

While this seems like a simple process, let me assure you, this is the major leagues. This is the exact reason why attempting to force someone else to change in a way that will benefit you is absolutely absurd.  Without the above three things at play, patterns of behavior will remain what they are.  Actually, when someone is busy defending themselves or focusing on and being dissapointed in the other, there is no mental space left to change.  None.

You have the absolute right as an individual to say what is important to you and to express how you think and feel about any given situation. But there is a productive way to do it.  Here is an actual example of an exchange between two people who understood the need to both shift their automatic patterns a little to be able to coexist peacefully. (P.S., this did not take place after their first session.)

“It is important to me that my living space stays clean and organized.  When it isn’t, this weird thing happens in me where my brain feels like it’s going to explode and I can’t focus on anything other than the mess I see in front of me.  It makes me unpleasant and I hate feeling like the bitch who is on your back all the time.”

(Meanwhile, observe the reciprocity…the messier your spouse seems, the more you feel you need to clean, the more you clean and act nutty, the less your spouse cleans and the more he avoids you because you’re acting like a nut job.  It is never free from a reciprocal pattern.  You are always contributing to the dynamic.)

“Huh, that’s interesting. (I always, always encourage people to become interested in the differences not critical of them) That doesn’t happen in me.  I usually can’t even see the mess until it’s really obvious and then I do a mad sweep.  What’s challenging for me is that you walk around annoyed and pissy and even if I do clean up it’s never good enough for you. I find myself rolling my eyes or just ignoring you which I know isn’t OK.”

(It is important that each person NOT have the expectation that the other is capable of doing it just like they want it done.  NOT CAPABLE, I tell ya.  The purpose of the above conversation is NOT to have the other person agree with you and do it your way.  It is only to define what you think and your experience in your world.)

“Let’s each pick one thing this week that we will attempt to change. I will work really hard to not act pissy but instead give gentle reminders. (Get out of the thinking process that he SHOULD know how you feel and SHOULD clean up after himself, he’s a damn adult after all! Drop that should. It’s useless.)  I will also keep working on my expectations of how clean the house should be with three kids”.

“When I hear those gentle reminders I will understand that you are feeling uncomfortable and I will do my best to assist.  I will work hard at not just blowing you off when you are angry.”

(You are not allowed, by the way, to say, “I think you should work on this.” (insert loud buzzer sound indicating fail)).

One thing I do want to clarify is that her discomfort does not belong to him, it belongs to her.  His irritation at her pissy attitude belongs to him, not her.  Ultimately they are each responsible for managing their own discomfort.  If they can each assist in this, fine.  But really it’s the individual who must learn to take the deep breaths and control their own anxiety and irritation.

Two people who are willing to look at their own contribution to the reciprocity and make shifts that they each for themselves decide upon and decide is useful and contributes to their overall life goals, who are super motivated to keep on working on being their best selves are A-OK in my book.  It’s hard to get to this though.  Often it’s one person that’s willing and/or able.  That’s O.K.  if one person can work on self,  the whole system will be effected by that change.  Is it really worth divorcing your spouse over the spilled milk he or she didn’t clean up, again?  Or is it better to manage your reaction to the spilled milk, choose not to cry, and focus on what is working? It’s not about anybody but yourself.  You are the only thing in this whole entire world that you have any control over.  Why not invest your energy there?  It’s a high yield investment.

Don’t wait and badger and beg and be miserable because someone else isn’t operating the way you want them to.  That’s so unbecoming and it is not in the recipe for a happy life and marriage.  Be the change you wish to see in the relationship.  You’ll be amazed at what you see.

Glennon Gordon, LICSW

4545 42nd Street NW, Suite 201

Washington, DC 20016

glennontg@me.com

202-966-1145 x 3

Available for private consultation