Vive la difference!

I recently attended a two day workshop entitled Understanding Men, Celebrating Women. It was facilitated by Alison Armstrong the creator of an organization called Pax which offers a number of workshops with the goal of helping men and women understand each other. It’s based on her nearly 20 years of research and interviews with men! I found it fascinating and had many ‘aha’ moments. One of the insights she shared and that resonated with me was that the main cause of frustration and confusion between men and women is that we assume we are versions of each other instead of having quite different motivations and world views. When we women don’t get what we want from men we treat them as if they are misbehaving versions of women and punish them in a wide range of ways. A few are:  withholding affection, sex, communication, pretending we don’t need them, make fun of them, mother them, be a better man then he is, pretend to negotiate, generate jealousy to keep him off balance, criticize and then manipulate to get what we want.  By understanding each others different motivations and world views we can get both get what we want and need from each other and have more satisfying relationships. Alison says it much better than I so I refer you to the Pax website for the books and cds:   I purchased the book Making Sense of Men which is brief and I plan to share it with my daughters. I will blog more on some of the many insights I gained. I’ve already found it helpful in my sessions with couples. “Vive la difference!” makes more sense when we discover what the real difference is!

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Secrecy – the intimacy basher

Walls go up when secrets are kept. Have you ever known about a surprise party for a friend and reminded yourself mentally to watch what you say so you don’t blow it? You must internally restrict your natural impulses instead of being genuine. It’s difficult to be close to someone when you’re hiding something important from them. The most important question to ask yourself if a relationship outside your marriage is a threat is whether it or the level of your communication with that person is a secret.

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Turning toward vs. turning away

I listened to a teleconference recently with John Gottman, renowned author, researcher and therapist specializing in marriage. The topic was building trust. Lots of good stuff. One question I had for him at the end was to elaborate on his point about how conflict avoidance in the day to day lives of couples lays the groundwork for secret keeping. To illustrate he told a story about a young couple that had a new baby of about 4 months. The husband had been feeling a little neglected by his wife since the baby’s birth – less affection and sex and not much time to spend together as a couple. But he didn’t want to complain because of course he was happy about his new daughter. He attends a networking social function required by his work and strikes up a conversation with a new female coworker . They talk about work related topics and after a while they talk about their families.  She shares about struggles with her aging father’s health which she is managing from afar. He confides about his new daughter and how life has become so much more full and busy. It’s not a flirtatious conversation but he notes as he leaves that he really enjoyed having an adult conversation. It’s been a while since he and his wife have had the same and he misses it. He wonders if he should tell his wife about this conversation with his coworker and what it made him think and miss about them as a couple. Maybe see if she wants to get a babysitter and do something next weekend. But he knows she doesn’t like the idea of a babysitter and they’ve had a disagreement about that before. She will also probably be tired and a little irritated with him that he is ½ hour late. He decides that it’s better not to rock the boat right now. Keeping this to himself is what Gottman terms “turning away rather than toward”.  He is not confiding his inner emotional landscape to his life partner to avoid the potential for negative affect. A brick in a wall has been laid.

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When is it too late for counseling?

Sometimes a couple comes in with a 10+ year marriage and one partner is much more dissatisfied with the relationship than the other. Both describe a relationship where they have become working partners caring for the kids but with nothing in common. Sex has died out and they can’t talk without arguing.  The dissatisfied one reports she has changed and grown and her partner is the same. She recounts her past mistrust for his impulsive spending and inappropriate texts from female coworkers when she was pregnant 5 years earlier. They swept it under the rug, resolved to move past it. In separate session the wife admits she has a new male friend she met at the gym but nothing has happened sexually. The husband acknowledges his past mistakes but wants to stay married. His eyes show the hurt at the rejection he feels when his wife tells him that it’s too late and he’s said that before. She admits her new friendship has made her feel stronger in her belief she can handle a divorce. The husband asks me what can be done. I tell them that the only thing that can work is for her to cut off her emotional ties to her new male friend and turn back toward the marriage, making a decision to love and to allow for positive change. She shakes her head no. It’s too late. My magic wand is broken. A realistic depiction of what to expect with a divorce ( kids’ adjustment, new boyfriends/girlfriend plus their kids and exes, shuttling kids back and forth, forgetting shoes and homework, graduations and birthdays) is the most I can do to shine a light on that path down the fork in the road that one partner has already taken. A few years earlier counseling may have helped.

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NOT "Just Friends"

Shirley Glass in her book Not “Just Friends” makes the point that in our modern society with technology making it ever easier to cultivate communication via email and text, we are seeing affairs that are different from previous generations. Today an affair is more likely to begin as a peer relationship. People who start as colleagues or friends establish an emotional connection which is the first sign of impending betrayal and then slip into a sexual infidelity. She notes that today affairs are more frequent and more serious than they used to be because men are getting emotionally involved and women are more active sexually.  To protect a marriage it is important to set and maintain appropriate emotional boundaries to reduce the risk of an affair.

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Crazy Making

“Crazy making” isn’t a clinical term, however I use it to describe what happens when one partner in a relationship has an outside emotional interest in another and then magnifies flaws in their partner and the relationship to justify ending it. In doing so he/she avoids taking responsibility for being drawn to another as the primary reason the relationship suddenly is so bad, unhappiness so great and prospects for improvement so dim. The abandoned partner is left scratching his/her head thinking – “Huh? Why all of a sudden is she so unhappy with me? These issues are pretty routine in a long term relationship. Why doesn’t she want to work on this anymore. It must be me.” Fact is that a day to day relationship can not compete with a new infatuation.

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Decision to love

Phase one of a romantic relationship lasts between 2 to 3 years depending upon the amount of real contact between the individuals. This means that long distance relationships with intermittent contact outside the context of day to day living ——(((((((where those flaws come to light so much more quickly than in fun hotel rooms meet-ups and vacations)))))))), will take more time to get to the same point— the point of really knowing someone.  So when does a couple move to phase 2?  When each accepts the other person’s flaws in light of their attributes.. And makes a decision….to love him/her regardless. At some point love is a decision, not a feeling.

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Relationship Life Cycle – Stage One

Falling in love is ‘heady’ and a wonderful thing. Sex is hot, he/she is always on my mind, completes me, makes life full/real/worth living. Brain chemistry is altered in this phase. If we could only bottle it!  The trite adage that ‘all good things must end’ is true in this respect. As time goes on we become more familiar with the object of our affection. We come to know their faults, idiosyncracies, in short , what drives us f****ing crazy. And at that point, after the infatuation ends a decision is made. Do I accept this person with all their bad points, or do I not? Stay tuned for Stage 2.

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Strip Clubs and Marriage

Read one man’s opinion on why he thinks a trip now and then with business associates to a strip club keeps the eroticism in his marriage and sex with his wife alive.

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Is sex addiction real or an excuse?

The debate continues with no clear conclusion. Estimates are that 5% of the population are compulsive sexually and use multiple partners for quick ego boosts -like eating chips when you’re really hungry for a meal. It’s more frightening to be vulnerable to your spouse than to have sex with someone you really don’t care about and can’t hurt you. For a good article on the sex addiction debate check out this article in the Wall Street Journal….

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