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A Death Knell for Your Relationship

The research of John Gottman, PhD, has documented that there are a few specific behaviors that are highly correlated with failure in marriage. One of them is CONTEMPT. Contemptuousness is a set of mostly non-verbal behaviors that convey disgust to your partner. Chances are that you have acted this way in your relationship. It starts out subtly with sighs and shrugs as your partner is talking to you. Soon you start looking down and away while your partner is talking about something important to him/her. Later you learn to tune your partner out completely as if he/she was not even there. The message you are sending: “You are unimportant and not worth listening to.”

a death knell in a relationship - contemptAs the distance in the relationship increases, you move to more direct displays of disgust: You roll your eyes when your partner is speaking, or you sneer with your upper lip. Do not think these behaviors go unnoticed. They are like a knife in your spouse’s heart. You are demonstrating that you believe that you are better than your partner, and your behaviors feel condescending, even shaming, to them. Every episode of these behaviors moves the two of you closer to separation and divorce. These behaviors must be stopped dead in their tracks. If you are careening down this ugly path and you do not stop the condescension, you might move right into name-calling and bald-faced mockery. Clearly such moves do not invite your partner into a safe conversation with mutual respect at its core. You are picking a fight and trying to land a knock-out blow directly on your partner’s ego.

The path out of this quagmire lies in realizing that the goal is not winning the fight. No matter who “wins,” the relationship loses – every time! The goal is to create a contempt free zone where you listen carefully to each other and have collaborative conversations about the important topics. Reconciliation only occurs between equals.

It is important to stop in the middle of a fight and ask yourself, “How are we doing as a couple as we talk about this subject?” If it feels like a winner-takes-all fight, STOP whatever you are doing and do something softer, nicer, and with more overt respect for your spouse’s position. Consider that your spouse’s position makes just as much sense to him/her as your viewpoint does to you. Remember that respect is the minimum of love, and contempt is its polar opposite! Contempt cannot co-exist with a loving relationship. The person you verbally beat up this afternoon will not want to snuggle with you when you get into bed this evening. If you want your partner to roll over, put his/her arms around you and say, “I love you,” you have to help your partner feel loved – or at least respected – all day long.

By Dr. Howard Lambert,
Colorado Licensed Psychologist

Do You Like To Be Criticized?

Most of us don’t realize the negative power of criticism. Harville Hendrix, nationally known relationship expert says flatly; “CRITICISM KILLS LOVE!” Whenever you try to give “constructive criticism” to your partner you are stepping on their feelings and acting as if you know better than they do about the subject that is on the table.

depression-1250870_640“So who died and made you king?” is what your partner will think when you criticize them and act like you are right and their thinking is wrong. Your arrogant attitude tends to elicit one of two responses:

Most people take the bait like a trout hitting a fly. They pull on the line and have a fight with you. Then the conversation deteriorates into one-up battles, tit-for-tat replies and straight forward vengefulness and meanness for the insults you just hurled at your partner. The deeper truth is that condescension and put downs are behaviors that you use when part of you is feeling small, unimportant and hurt. But you do not feel hurt when you are acting loud, mean, critical and nasty. The grandiosity of the one-up posture is actually a defense against feeling the pain of the rejection and disconnection that you feel in your heart. So you settle for the fight instead; it actually helps you feel powerful and strong for a very short period of time. In the literature this is known as “offending from the victim position.” You gloss over your injured and hurt feelings and rush into attack, name calling and vicious put-downs. Most verbal and physical abuse flows from this dynamic: You feel unloved and overlooked. You cannot tolerate those feelings in your mind. Then you rocket into what you think is justifiable cruelty.

People just don’t like to be told that they are wrong. And that is exactly what you are doing … but you don’t even know it. You think you are being useful, helpful and constructive.

The other group of people picks up their marbles and goes home. They don’t like playing with a bully. They become silent, drop inside themselves and disappear behind a curtain. They do this because you have shown them that you are not a safe person with whom to play; and they want to be with someone who treats them as if they were an equal.

By Dr. Howard Lambert,
Colorado Licensed Psychologist

Relationship Tip: Do People Find You Arrogant?

It is not uncommon in your daily casual conversations to speak offensively to even your closest friends. For example, you tell other people they are wrong, tell them what they really meant by what they just said, or you invoke higher authorities to support your personal beliefs. You love to win arguments because it momentarily makes you feel powerful or important inside of yourself. You fail to see that you “win” at the expense of the other person (i.e. the loser).

Do other people find you arrogant?It may be true that, in any given area of discourse, you have more information than the person you are talking to. But do you really want to feel falsely inflated while making your partner feel stupid? Loving relationships flourish when you work to create a collaborative conversation in which everyone’s viewpoints are valued and folded into the final decision. You have been in conversations during which you learn new information, digest it and reach a new conclusion. When talking with someone who communicates respect and personal interest, you feel enriched by the new information and happy with your new conclusion. When the delivery of the new information seems to come from a position of that person stooping to give you what s/he knows, you grow annoyed and resentful even when you know they are correct. It is all in the delivery.

To avoid having this unintended effect, you must be aware to your tones, posture and mannerisms. Eighty percent of communication comes through the non-verbal cues you give off as you send your messages to the other person. The remaining twenty percent is in your choice of language. Let’s look at both of these areas.

The non-verbal check-in comes by attending to your attitude and your internal self-talk. If you are thinking, “You must be crazy to believe that nonsense,” or “You can be such an irrational bitch,” or “You really are a controlling SOB,” how do you think your tones will sound? On the other hand, if you are thinking, “We really see this in two very different ways,” or “You are my beloved, and I think you have bad information,” or “I will wait until you are done speaking and then share this new information I have learned,” you will inevitably sound more cooperative and collaborative.

The language you use often reveals your inner attitude. There are three common insulting forms of speech people use when arguing with one another.

1) When you are arrogant, pompous and filled with yourself, you say things such as “That’s totally wrong,” “You are so full of s—t,” “That is not what happened,” “You don’t know what you are talking about.” This is called “talking to be right” (i.e. “I know what the truth is.”)

2) A second form of obnoxious talking down to your spouse is the Emily Post Position. Here you say, “Everybody knows that it’s customary to …” This leaves your partner feeling like an uninformed idiot only because he/she has a thought that is different from your own.

3) Finally, there is “Quote The Expert.” This involves referencing some knowledgeable expert who has much more credibility than either of you and happens to agree with whatever position you are espousing.

You make these speaking errors because our culture sets you up to fight to be right, to win at all costs, and to feel personally gratified when you land a good blow (metaphorically) on your partner’s argument. To change your tones, your attitude and your spoken behavior, you need to practice living in a new relational paradigm. You must practice telling yourself that closeness and intimacy is far more important in the flow of your life than feeling a momentary burst of righteousness at your partner’s expense.

How can you talk to each other with respect, compassion and collaboration? You have heard it a hundred times: SPEAK FROM THE “I.” Your personal power is always greatest when you state your own thoughts, feelings, ideas and perceptions. Do not shoot down whatever your partner is saying. Listen to understand. Validate what makes sense in what your partner is saying. Live with the attitude, “There are many ways to handle every situation. Mine is not better than yours; it is just different. Let’s work together to figure out what we want to do in this situation.”

By Dr. Howard Lambert,
Colorado Licensed Psychologist

Relationship Tip: Who’s on Top?

The most destructive dynamic in a relationship is the “one-up/one-down” battle. In our competitive society, we are unconsciously programmed to see relationships as a competition. Especially when there is conflict, we automatically seek to determine who is more important, more valuable, better, or right. Of course, no one wants to be “a loser,” so each person battles to establish that they are in the more important/better position.

Relationship StruggleThis is a BIG problem because as soon as you assert that you are right, better, or more valuable, you put your partner in the position of being wrong, and less valuable. No matter who “wins” this competition, the relationship loses. This is unavoidable because when you take the one-up stance, you lose empathy for your partner. Your position of power becomes more important to you than respecting your partner’s feelings! On the other hand, if you try to keep the peace by accepting the one-down position, you cannot help but feel resentful. Human beings cannot experience humiliation without resenting it.

To put it another way, the one-up person assumes an entitled position. It looks and sounds like this: “Because I’m right/smarter/more important than you, I have the right to get my way/do what I want, AND you have no right to protest!” The last piece is the real “kicker!” That attitude is the part that fuels resentment in your partner. You act as if he/she should not protest your proclamation or behavior. It implies that your partner does not have the right to negotiate to get his/her wants and needs included in the outcome. Thus you end up with one person feeling entitled and not caring about the other’s feelings. Quite naturally the other person is fuming with resentment – a “dance of entitlement and resentment.” Not exactly a recipe for a loving, harmonious relationship!

As you delve deeper into your mind when you are in the “one-up” entitled position, you find that not only are you acting pompous and conceited, but that you actually BELIEVE that you are better than the other person. You are sure of your facts and your analysis of the situation, and you are convinced of your inherent rightness. That is why it is difficult to give up the perceived power that comes with the grandiosity of being one-up. The sense of power is addictive. This cycle must be broken for relational harmony to be re-achieved.

The antidote to this power struggle is to work to create a world of “same as.”

What is this, you ask?

Bill Russell (a former NBA star) quotes his mother’s succinct description of the “same as” position. After he had become famous, she told him: “You ain’t no better or no worse than anyone else out there!”

Another way to understand this idea is to recognize that the one-up position has lots of power for the self, but no empathy for the other; the one-down stance has lots of empathy for the other, but no power for the self. The “same as” position is one in which you have both power (to do what you need to do and say what you need to say) AND empathy (for how this is going to impact the other person.) Of course, empathy needs to lead you to a willingness to consider the other person’s needs and feelings to be just as important as your own.

In the world of “Same As,” each person’s needs, feelings, ideas and opinions are seen as worthy of respect and consideration, especially when they are different from yours. So, when you and your partner disagree, you assume that both your perspectives are valid. You make an effort to present your view calmly and confidently and to listen to and understand your partner’s view respectfully. Then you look for ways to proceed in the situation that take both of you into account;you look for a “win/win” solution. Ultimately, this is the only way your relationship can deepen and thrive.

Relationship Tip: How Do You Show Your Love?

We never outgrow our need to feel loved by the people with whom we are in relationship.  The best way to lubricate the central axis of a committed loving relationship is by working to help your partner feel loved by you.   Love is the grease that allows the wheel of life to rotate smoothly.

Holding Heart Shows LoveBeing a loving partner takes intention and skill. “Intention” involves the internal commitment to yourself to be kind, considerate and respectful in all of your communication.  “Skill” means that you have been willing to break old self-defeating habits and have learned some new ways to demonstrate the loving side of your nature.

Here are some skills you can practice:

  1. Give your partner a verbal appreciation every day!  Remind yourself of your partner’s best traits and behaviors and tell them how much you appreciate that aspect of their personhood.  Be explicit and be concrete.  “You are a good Mom” is a nice start.  “I really admire the way you took the time to calm Jimmy down before you put him in that time out” is more concrete, specific and personal.  If you want to learn how to make your appreciations even more powerful, practice telling your partner how you interpreted their excellent behaviors. For example,   “I really admire the way you took the time to calm Jimmy down before you put him in that time out.  When I saw you do that I realized how you are teaching him self-soothing skills even as you are giving him a consequence for his bad behavior. What a great move!”
  2. Give your gifts from your heart Gifts that have strings attached are likely to blow up in your face.  When your partner senses that you are being nice because you want something in return, an alarm goes off in their survival/ reptilian brain that says “Danger! Danger!”  Instead of closeness you get distance and wariness.  And you wonder “What did I do wrong?”  Gifts, (i.e. both verbal appreciations and material presents) must be given freely, with loving kindness and without expectations.
  3. Use the Platinum Rule. The Golden Rule says “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”  This is an excellent principal for treating others with consideration and respect. It is often referred to as the ethic of reciprocity.  However it can backfire in relationships.  If you use your behavior in the relationship to attempt to signal to your partner what you secretly want given back to you, miscommunication often results.  Take, for example, the anniversary where the husband (who wants more touching in the relationship) gives his wife a fancy electric massage machine. At the same time the wife (who privately wishes they would spend intimate time reading aloud to each other) give her husband a book of love poems.  They pretend to appreciate what they received from the partner, but secretly feel disappointed and misunderstood.

In place of the Golden Rule we suggest an updated version for love relationships.  Harville Hendrix has called this the Platinum Rule.  The Platinum Rule says “Do unto your partner as they would have you do unto them.”  Take the time to learn and to remember what your partner likes to receive.  Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages   can help you and your partner understand each other’s primary and secondary love receptors. To become the best lover you can be, you need to give your partner what they most long for, not what you think they ought to appreciate.

The Dynamics of the Journey of Self Recovery

When men set out on the journey of self recovery and really begin to connect with their needs and wants and feelings, they are embarking on a journey into the long unexplored and long neglected realm of their hidden selves. The relatively few men in our culture who are courageous enough to take this journey can get deeply immersed in their needs and wants and feelings, so long ignored and possibly screaming for attention. The danger now, if they are in an intimate relationship with another, is to make what they need and want and feel preemptive; that is, more important than their relationship with the other. This is a challenging and often relationship-threatening place for a couple to find themselves.

The work of recovery takes on another dimension. I really begin to get that my needs and wants and feelings matter and are important and yet not more important than the needs and wants and feelings of the significant others in my life. Now I am faced with, maybe for the first time in my life, really being able to negotiate on an equal footing about needs and wants and feelings with another person rather than take entitled positions with them! This is because I am finally getting in touch with more of the whole of me than ever before and more able to be in touch with the whole of you.

But being able to do this is not enough. Now that I am more able, I must choose to do so; indeed to exercise and practice this new ability if it is to be more than just potential. In other words, now that I am truly growing up, I must also show up and know that I won’t do so perfectly. But you, my love, probably knew that anyway, and you may have been waiting a long time for me.

By John Mariner,
Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Men and Women: Equal Opportunity Offenders

Men and women, when behaving badly with each other, are basically “equal opportunity offenders.”

That’s right!

They will each get their digs in and twist the knife a little bit when they get the opportunity.

However, there is a basic difference.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When behaving poorly, men usually scare women and women shame men. Take your choice? Both suck! The difference is that it takes much longer to recover from being scared than it does from being shamed.

Here’s how this seems to work: Men hate being shamed. It reminds many men of how they were controlled as children by parents, teachers or other adults in their lives. Usually when the shaming stops (“Oh no, John, it never stops,” I can hear some men saying), men recover relatively quickly. When women are scared by the men in their lives, the recovery time generally takes much longer. It just takes longer to recover from fear.

This helps to explain why, when both individuals are behaving better, the woman may hold on to her hesitation or reluctance to be close again a lot longer than the man does. It can be very difficult for the man to understand that even though he has ceased his scary behavior, she is still holding him off. She just may need more time to recover than he does.

Hang in there, guys. More often than not your patience will be rewarded, and your changed behavior will be much appreciated.

Chime in with your thoughts: When behaving poorly, do you agree men tend to scare women and women typically shame men?

By John Mariner,
Licensed Clinical Social Worker

The Spiritual/Life Journey as Surfing

Just yesterday, a client came up with the metaphor of surfing for what it is like to be on the journey of life.  Though I’ve never surfed, it makes a lot of sense to me.  We really aren’t in control of what waves life sends our way.  We do have the choice of whether to fight them, sink, or do the best we can to ride them with as much grace as possible! To ride them, we must be aware and attuned both to the wave and to ourselves, and have the courage to jump into the flow.

AND, we will not always catch it just right.  We may frequently get unceremoniously dumped and even beat up a bit – or a lot.  Still, we can choose how we react to the experience.  We can wallow in self-blame or self-pity, we can sink under the water and refuse to play again. Or, we can swim to shore, find our bearings and say, “Well, THAT didn’t work!  What can I do different next time? “  We might need to nurse our bruises for a while, but hopefully, eventually we’ll find the courage and confidence to try to catch the next wave a little more gracefully.

Mary Simon, Psy.D.

Moving Beyond the Power Struggle

 

Remember the song that said “For everything…, turn, turn turn, there is a season…, turn turn, turn.”  This is a phrase from Ecclesiastes that provides deep reflection on some automatic behaviors in relationships.   After the “Romantic Stage” of all relationships there comes a period in which the partners feel hurt and betrayed by each other.  This is often referred to as the “Power Struggle”.  At this time conflicts are not resolved and resentments begin to build up inside both partners. 

Many people handle this stage by turning away from the other person.  It just feels safer and less fraught with frustration and grief.  The endless repetitions of all too familiar fights are avoided by shutting down, stonewalling the conversation, and turning inward.  This can have devastating effects on a love relationship.

Unbeknownst to you, your partner feels lost and abandoned.  S/he feels unimportant and unloved by you as you stop talking and control your own reactivity through silence.  What you are doing to feel secure and to avoid the conflict feels provocative and offensive to your partner.  Obviously this is not going to move the relationship closer.

 What is required here feels counter-intuitive.  You must stop your retreat and turn toward your partner.  You must abandon the security of your fortress of silence and approach your partner with an open hand and a curious mind set.  What you say is not as important as making the approach with warmth and a desire to be closer to your friend.

~ Dr. Howard Lambert

 

 

 

Being Present: Avoiding the Reactivity Trap

Here’s a concept that I’ve been finding really helpful of late.  It’s called “The Shelf,” and it’s the place where I can rest my “baggage” when I find that my buttons are getting pushed by something.  The best example I can think of is when I’m trying –  REALLY trying – to listen to something that my partner is explaining, and I find myself getting triggered.  The idea is that I go, ‘Aha!  I’m about to fall into the “reactivity trap.” I need to take “my stuff” and put it on the shelf, so I can be truly present here.’  It’s an active decision to not pay any attention to my own internal triggering.  Maybe later I can take it down and explain my side of things.  Or maybe I can just leave it up there  . . . ?

 Mike Misgen, LPC

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