The Inevitable Stages of Relationships

I just attended a teleclass given by Terry Real where he described the three stages of a relationship as :

  1. IN LOVE also known as Love without Knowledge – That ‘in love’ feeling that can only come without the knowledge of those aspects of the person that leaves sweetener packets on the counter, sometimes drinks too much or is frugal at the wrong times. This infatuation feeling that many seek can rise to the level of being described as a ‘love addiction’ as Pia Mellody termed. We want a ‘fix’! It feels so good when someone misses all our flaws.
  1. Disillusionment or Love with Knowledge – This is the stage where most come into therapy. Usually after 5 – 10 years it begins to settle in that this person we have committed to is not what we thought and we want him to either change or we want out. Bolstered by our feelings of entitlement – to a better matched partner – we struggle to reconcile the benefits of staying versus the pain of starting over. If a love interest beacons with Stage 1 hormones it’s difficult to resist and impulsive ones take a leap out and into something else – a relationship that will most likely end up in similar dissatisfaction enhanced by any complications of his and her kids.
  1. A Knowing Love – This is where long term relationships that do last, end up. One way to look at it is that age and inertia has beat us into submission or acceptance of our partner. A better way to frame it is that , with perspective and self responsibility, we know each other’s imperfection and love them regardless.   Terry talks about grieving the needs we have that won’t be met (as if they all ever could, anywhere). That enough of my needs are met to make remaining in the relationship worth my while. This has to come with responsibility for making the choice – no victims allowed!!

So what does this mean for those searching for that soul mate, that person who completes us? Recognizing the stages of relationship that are inevitable can help us turn within to ask – why am I not complete? Is completion anything that someone outside us can accomplish?

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Mindfulness in relationships

mind·ful·ness

ˈmīn(d)f(ə)lnəs/

noun

noun: mindfulness

  • 1. 
the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.”their mindfulness of the wider cinematic tradition”
  1. 2. 
a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

In couples counseling the process of becoming aware of relationship patterns and one’s own part in them is a key to insight and can be a helpful motivation for change.

In a study , published in the journal Mindfulness, researchers used subjective self-report and objective saliva sample—to find out how stressed 114 couples were after they discussed an unresolved issue in their relationship for 15 minutes. People who were higher in mindfulness were more likely to be securely attached to their romantic partner—and secure attachment, in turn, was associated with lower cortisol-levels after the conflict.

The researchers speculated that mindful traits can reduce the hyper-vigilance associated with attachment anxiety, helping people get a handle on negative thoughts, even if their bodies still show signs of stress. In other words, attention to present-moment experience helps control anxiety.

These results suggest that “mindfulness” is a concept that covers a number of specific tools. The tools that are most beneficial to you depend on which specific skills you need help with. People who often ruminate (which research shows tend to be women) may benefit most from practicing nonreactivity—letting thoughts and emotions enter and leave consciousness without getting caught up in them. People who have trouble describing emotion (which research shows tends to be men) may benefit most from practicing doing just that—labeling thoughts and emotions with words.

Overall, by seeing stressors and one’s own part in them more clearly, mindfulness allows us to respond more skillfully with what is needed—either higher or lower, faster or slower stress activation—and move forward with greater equanimity.

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Being right or being married

I’m not the first therapist who talks to couples about the dangers of having to be right in a relationship. In fact there is a book by that title on Amazon that I just ran across. The consensus is that ‘having to be right’ it is a surefire way to create discord and that “You can be right or you can be married”. (H. Harville)

People are not right or wrong but simply have different perspectives, or we might say different “realities”. Depending on how you were raised, what gender you are, where you have lived, and even what mood you are in, you will interpret events differently. Your perception determines your perspective, your beliefs, your values and thus, your “reality.” So when you find yourself disagreeing and arguing with your mate (or anyone else for that matter), you might take a moment to just consider that you may both be “right”, that each of your realities has validity. What a concept??!!!

You might then take that a step further be curious about your partner’s reality, wonder about their perspective, how they see this issue, why they view it so differently, and what leads them to their conclusion. If you can take this second step you are on your way to having a ‘conscious’ relationship and evidencing real growth.

So the next time you disagree with your significant other about who said what, see if you can stop yourself and instead allow that both opinions may be possible. When you learn to understand your partner’s experience you develop empathy, and most important, compassion.

 

 

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Simple co-dependency checklist

This term was first used to describe behaviors of care taking in a relationship where one partner has a substance use problem. It’s been broadened to describe a similar pattern in relationships without a substance issue. I like this simple list of characteristics from Mental Health America.

Characteristics of Co-dependent People Are:

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
  • A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
  • A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
  • A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment
  • An extreme need for approval and recognition
  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
  • A compelling need to control others
  • Lack of trust in self and/or others
  • Fear of being abandoned or alone
  • Difficulty identifying feelings
  • Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
  • Problems with intimacy/boundaries
  • Chronic anger
  • Lying/dishonesty
  • Poor communications
  • Difficulty making decisions

Do any of these apply to you or your partner? Are they causing relationship problems. It all starts with identifying a pattern and then taking responsibility for one’s own behavior.

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Making a Better Thanksgiving

There are 5 simple changes that could enhance your relationships around the holidays.

I didn’t say the changes would be easy!

 

  1. Stop Trying To Prove That You’re Right

How much energy have you wasted over the years insisting on proving to someone that you are right. Is it really that important to be right? And more to the point, isn’t “being right” just your interpretation? Challenge yourself to keep quiet – zip it up and breathe – when you’re tempted to go on a rampage of proving you’re right. Your restraint will create real peace in the situation, as well as gain you respect from the person that’s expecting you to argue with them.

  1. Don’t Criticize

Realize it is very important to validate what others think and do. There’s more than one way to do everything, and just because it’s not your way or is not the way that it’s “always been done”, it does not mean that it has to continue to be done that way. Allow for flexibility. Give yourself the opportunity to experience things differently — leave the criticism at home this year.

  1. No Blame Game

If you’re late, whose fault is it? Your partner was slow getting ready or the kids wouldn’t get off the computer? Do not blame. “It is what it is”. Blaming accomplishes nothing. Look within to see what could have happened differently. You don’t need to discuss it further or complain, which sets a negative tone for the gathering. Again RESTRAINT is the skill to be called on.

  1. Don’t Take What Others Say Personally

We all have our ‘triggers.’ Is there a once-a-year comment that always comes out of someone’s mouth and just sets you off? I have something for you to think about: when someone says something that triggers you, stop and think “I wonder what they’re feeling that prompts them to say that?” It’s always about the other person, not you.

  1. Be Grateful

Turn your thoughts to the things that are good and right in your life and focus on gratitude – not what may be less than perfect.

 

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Other directed sense of self

Lack of a Sense of Identity

If we can’t imagine who we would be without our relationship, chances are we come from a dysfunctional family of origin and have learned co-dependent behavior patterns.

When we lack a sense of our own identity and the boundaries of the self that protect and define us as individuals, we tend to draw our identities, our sense of self worth from our partner or significant other as we did in the earliest stage of our biological growth in our family of origin, drawing our sense of worth from their perceptions of us. The structure of the relationship in this case is not that of equals in a partnership but that of parent and child. Leading in some cases to that most unequal of relationships, master and slave. It is quite possible that children developing in a family where the important relationship of the parents is an unequal one will be forced to take on roles as either surrogate spouse and/or adopt roles that it is hoped will restore dignity to the family and balance to the system. If we can’t imagine who we would be without our relationship, chances are we come from a dysfunctional family of origin and have learned co-dependent behaviour patterns. Unable to find fulfilment within ourselves we look for such fulfilment in others and are willing to do anything it takes to make the relationship work, just as we may have done in our enmeshed family of origin, even if this means giving up our emotional security, friends, integrity, sense of self-respect or worth, independence, or employment. We may even endure objectification, (an attitude in which we are no longer perceived as feeling human-being but just an object, a part of the family system), in the form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse just to save the relationship.

 

The more rational alternative is to find out who we are and what makes us unique, and we will rejoice in the freedom of this discovery. We will come to realise that our value and worth as a person is not necessarily dependent on having a significant other in our life, that we can function well as an independent person in our own right. When we move into accepting ourselves for who we really are warts and all, we will be able to accept others for who they are; our relationships and ourselves will actually have a chance to grow into emotionally mature adults able to give freely out of choice and flourish in our new found freedom. This journey of self-discovery can be challenging and painful but highly rewarding. Working with a trained therapist or as part of a support group or a combination of both can provide the structure and support we need to take on this task. But whatever way we may choose the first step is to acknowledge to ourselves, God and possibly another person that our lives as we have tried to control and manage them have become unmanageable. The second is to give ourselves over to the cleansing and renewal processes.

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Unhealthy boundaries

So what are ‘unhealthy boundaries’ and how do they develop?

Sometimes the maturation and individuation process is not understood and the child is not recognized as an individual. In these types of families the unmet needs of parents are the driving force. When parents become physically, verbally or emotionally abusive often it is a self-centred way to deal with stored up anger/grief from their own childhood. The child can be perceived as the ‘enemy’ and dysfunction is passed on from one generation to the next. What the children learn is that they don’t matter except where they are useful for the emotional needs of others. As they grow up in their families of origin, they lack the support they need from parents or caregivers to form a healthy sense of their own identities and individuality and may learn that to get their needs met they must get their way with others. To do this they need to intrude on the emotional boundaries of other people just as their father or mother may have done. They would have a hazy sense of their own personal boundaries- not able to properly define where they end and the other begins. Conversely, they may learn that rigid and inflexible boundaries are the way to handle their relationships with other people. They wall themselves off in their relationships as a way of protecting their emotional selves, and find it difficult to form lasting close interpersonal bonds with others in adulthood.

 

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Healthy self and boundaries

One feature of a healthy sense of self is the way we understand and work with our emotional boundaries. Personal boundaries are the limits we set in relationships that allow us to protect our selves from being manipulated by, or enmeshed with, emotionally needy others and spring from having a good sense of our own self-worth. With a solid sense of self worth it is possible to distinguish our own thoughts and feelings from those of others. and to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do. Boundaries develop as we grow up and become adults. Healthy, intact boundaries are flexible and allow closeness when appropriate and maintain distance when harm may come from closeness. Good boundaries protect us from becoming engulfed in abusive relationships and pave the way to achieve intimacy and interdependence with another. They help us take care of ourselves and if we can receive it, to respect the selves of others.

More to come! 🙂

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Real’s Communication Feedback Wheel

The number one issue that couples come in with is help with their communication. Usually a fight will escalate when partners lose their focus on exactly what it is that they are fighting about! I really like what Terence Real calls The Feedback Wheel. It’s similar to a standard ‘active listening’ model and it’s not as easy to do as it seems.

Here are the 4 steps he writes about in The New Rules of Marriage and some of the typical mistakes couples make when using it as a model.

  1. Ask your partner if he is willing to listen.   This is a crucial step. It elicits the partner’s agreement to be involved in a discussion.
  2. Remember that your motivation is that you love him. Also a very important internal step to first be grounded in your care for him and your relationship before launching into your communication.
  3. Begin the Feedback Wheel by sticking to the following steps:
  4. What you saw/heard about one particular event.
  5. What you have ‘made up’ about it
  6. How you feel about it
  7. What you would like to have happen in the future.
  8. LET GO OF THE OUTCOME

Sticking to these guidelines is more difficult than it looks. Usually it takes some coaching and practice in therapy to do it correctly. Letting go of the outcome is crucial because it underscores the fact that it is not possible to control your partner. Your part is to limit your communication strictly to what you actually saw or heard and acknowledges that you have interpreted this a certain way – what you made up about it’ and then how it made you feel. Finally you can talk about how you would like it to be in the future. And then let it go – the outcome- and see what happens.

 

 

 

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Why therapy gets stuck

When couples therapy gets stuck there are some common reasons why. Here are the top four.

  1. “He/She needs to change!” When partners come in for couple therapy it is a given that they want change in the relationship- the status quo is not cutting it! And what this usually boils down to is that they want their partner’s behavior to be different….and they want to stay the same. For example, he wants his wife to have more sex with him, and is unwilling to do anything different to have more emotional intimacy. Or she wants him to be less irritable but does not want to consider having their child not sleep with them every night.
  1. Not acknowledging your contribution to the issues is a related obstacle. Often therapy feels like a courtroom with each side arguing their point of view and hoping to convince the other that they are right – and also hope that the therapist sees things their way. Until the finger pointed at the other can reverse and take responsibility for their part, no progress can be made. Communication skills such as listening to develop empathy for the other’s point of view are key.
  1. Keeping secrets. Some partners start couples therapy with secrets — such as an affair or addiction — and they protect these secrets, Clients who continue to keep secrets from their spouse while engaging in couple therapy are fooling themselves and their loved ones, and creating an unreal environment where no effective change can be made. Not only do secrets injure trust but they maintain a false image of self and reality. Therapy can assist with the process of ‘getting real’ and it can be a real opportunity for personal growth as well as relationship change to come clean.
  1. Giving up on therapy too soon. Couples therapy is challenging to keep up because it involves coordinating three people’s schedule. Making a commitment to a certain number of sessions and being accountable promotes a team mentality. It’s also important for me to check in and see how things are going and make adjustments if necessary. Be honest with your therapist about how you’re feeling about therapy and if it’s negative that’s ok. I don’t like to work harder than my clients do – and being upfront about expectations promotes a more collaborative and effective therapy experience.

 

 

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